Musical Memories from the Sangam Era

– Prathik Sudha Murali (This article was originally published in Vaak (

sāhitya saṃgīta kalā vihīna: sākṣāt paśu: puccha viṣāṇa hīna: reads a Sanskrit proverb - “A man without taste for verse, music and art is truly an animal without a horn or a tail”. From the Divje Babe Flute of the palaeolithic age to online concerts during the pandemic times, expression through music has been an integral part of human existence and civilisation.

Early literary evidences of a civilised society in the southern part of the Indian sub-continent is found in the poetry of the Sangam era.

Pre-Sangam Conventions: tolkāppiyam, a work generally dated prior to the Sangam age (circa 3rd century BCE) categorises the landscape of Tamil country into 5 segments. Each of these regions are characterised by a guardian deity, food, occupation, music, harps and drums. The word ‘paṇ’ is attached to the name of the landscape to denote the tune that corresponds to it. For ex., the paṇ of kurinji land was called kurinjippaṇ. Some researchers have identified these to be scales of today’s raga system, albeit amidst a lot assumptions and academic disagreements. (1) tolkāppiyam lists four kinds of professional bards:

a) pāṇar – Musicians

b) kūttar – Dancers or Dramatists

c) porunar – Another class of musicians

d) virali – female musicians, dancers and instrumentalists.

The categorisation of landscape and the classifications of performers in the society continue well into the Sangam period, both as geographical segments of the state and as poetic conventions.

Sangam Poetry:

Sangam literature, variedly dated between 100 BCE and 300 CE, is not only a work of literary excellence but are also records that contain historical information about life in the ancient Tamil society. They are dotted with various facets of Tamil life including social customs, politics, wildlife, food habits, clothing, culture, dance and music. K.N.Subramanyam (2) writes “these anthologies speak of a primitive, but by no means an unsophisticated society even if we allow wide variation between literary conventions and practical life as lived from day to day.” The poems written during the Sangam period were compiled into two broad categories – The eight works (ettuttogai) and the ten songs (pattuppāttu) respectively. We examine some of these works to explore the social setting of music, patronage and the level of sophistication reached in the field of music.

In paripāṭal , we find a good example of how people of the Sangam era relished their music. paripāṭal is a Sangam work whose 24 poems are available to us today. The verses of paripāṭal, penned by 12 different poets were composed by 11 composers to various tunes. Though the practice of singing these poems have completely vanished today, it must be recognised that the Sangam poems were meticulously set to music. There is, however, among some contemporary musicians and scholars a tendency to claim continuity with this earlier tradition even if evidence to this effect is lacking

The colophon of the work details the theme of the poem, poet’s name followed by the composer’s name and the tune in which it was composed. For example; “Invocation to God Verses of kaduvanilaveyinanār Music of pettanāganār paṇpālaiyāzh” (3) The identity of the bards who sang music are often confused with that of the poets by some researchers. All poets were not people of music as is evident from the paripāṭal manuscripts. (some researches even identify auvaiyār as a bard) (4)

Temples served as concert platforms for the pāṇars and their female counterparts. A variety of instruments were in vogue including various types of the stringed instrument harp (yāzh), wind instruments such as flue (kuzhal), various percussion instruments like muzhavu, murasu, ākuli etc.

Poet nallazhisiyār visits the shrine of lord muruga at tirupparankundram near Madurai and sings the following verse describing the following scene at the temple.

ஒரு திறம் பாணர் யாழின் தீங் குரல் எழ, ஒரு திறம் யாணர் வண்டின் இமிர் இசை எழ,

ஒரு திறம் கண் ஆர் குழலின் கரைபு எழ, ஒரு திறம் பண் ஆர் தும்பி பரந்து இசை ஊத, ஒரு திறம் மண் ஆர் முழவின் இசை எழ, ஒரு திறம் அண்ணல் நெடுவரை அருவி நீர் ததும்ப, ஒரு திறம் பாடல் நல் விறலியர் ஒல்குபு நுடங்க,

ஒரு திறம் வாடை உளர்வயின் பூங்கொடி நுடங்க, ஒரு திறம் பாடினி முரலும் பாலை அம் குரலின் நீடு கிளர் கிழமை நிறை குறை தோன்ற, ஒரு திறம் ஆடு சீர் மஞ்ஞை அரி குரல் தோன்ற, மாறு மாறு உற்றன போல் மாறு எதிர் கோடல் (5)

On one side, the sweet-sounding harp was played by the pāṇars, On the other side, the humming bees lend their tone to it. On one side, the flute is played, On the other side, the tumbi bee buzzes On one side the roaring drum made of clay is played, On the other side, the waterfalls cascade with a thunderous noise. On one side the viralis dance, On the other side, flowering plants sway in air, as if to imitate them. On one side the female musician sings a tune, On the other side the dancing peacock squawks. These spaces witnessed not only the professional bard’s talent, but also that of the commoners. maduraikkānji narrates the activities of pregnant ladies who offer oblations to gods on the day of ōṇam. “Pregnant women whose gait is like that of a peacock, pray and offer oblation to gods accompanied by women who are possessed, as ākuli and mulavu drums are being played in a fine manner, and songs set to the aesthetic ‘sevvali’ tune (6) are sung to the accompaniment of harps!” – (verses 604-610) (7) Music was not only meant to be a recreational arrangement, but was also an integral part of ritual and religious practice.

Women in private chambers:

Women from the Sangam had a methodical approach to singing and playing of instruments. A poem detailing the music of ‘housewives’ (kulamagalir) appears in the maduraikkānji

ஏழ் புணர் சிறப்பின் இன் தொடைச் சீறியாழ் தாழ்பு அயல் கனை குரல் கடுப்ப பண்ணுப் பெயர்த்து வீழ்துணை தழீஇ (Lines 559-561)

they play different melodies on their lutes with seven modes of music and sweet strings, and sing softly along with it, after embracing their beloved partners. (8)

The phrase ‘ezh puṇar sirappu’ is interpreted by some scholars like Po.Ve.Somasundaranar as the seven notes (svarās) of music. In porunarātruppadai, a bard is addressed as ēzhin kizhavā – ‘The man of seven’. The reference to seven in conjuction to music may lead us to a conclusion that the concept of seven basic notes existed during the Sangam times.

It is difficult to say if the early Tamils believed that music had healing powers or not, but it certain that music was part of the nursing process for the sick Poet arisil kizhār in puranānūru (Poem 281) writes about the conversation of ladies preparing a nursing home to house the wounded. Apart from preparations of medications and ointments, they tune their harps and other instruments to comfort sick men. They intend to play mellifluous āmpal tunes on flutes while spreading fragrant smoke, ringing musical bells and singing kānji songs. (9)

Interestingly, certain Sanskrit texts like caraka Samhita which speak of indigenous medicine also recommend appointing musicians as hospital staff to render services to those being nursed. It is held that such relaxation aids healing. (tathā gītavāditrollāpakaślokagāthākhyāyiketihāsapurāṇa kuśalānabhiprāyajñānanumatāṃśca) (10)

Music at the Royal courts:

Patronage towards music and dance might have changed hands, from the local chiefs and kings in the erstwhile monarchies to culture ministries, sabhas and private individuals today, but strong patronage is what makes art thrive.

The many courts of imperial kings along with those of local chieftains supported the livelihood of musicians and dancers during the Sangam era. maduraikkānji speaks of the king waking up in the hours of dawn to the sweet melodies of musicians. (11)

porunarātruppadai gives a detailed description of the manner in which the lute was played in the court: வாரியும், வடித்தும், உந்தியும், உறழ்ந்தும், சீருடை நன் மொழி நீரொடு சிதறி; (Verses 23-24) (12)

Stroking with the index finger, strumming with the thumb and index fingers together, plucking gently and strongly the different strings, it creates vibrating music, sung with lovely lyrics. (trans. Vaidehi Herbert)

After a detailed description of the structure of the lute, sirupānātruppadai mentions that this the lute was played as per the grammar rulebook of the Sangam times (நூல் நெறி மரபின் பண்ணி ஆனாது). Although no such texts survive today, these verses make it clear that the early Tamils had a well-developed system of music.

Apart from employing full time court musicians, occasional performances were paid for by the royals too. The bards and their musical party, who were nomads halted in the royal houses for a few days and praised them to earn honours and rewards. Those who pleased the royalty utmost with their talent had a chance to share some wine with the king. This was considered an honour.

There is a striking conversation between a bard and his wife recorded by poet nedumpalliyathanār in puranānūru (Poem 64). The bard calls his wife, the virali as a lady who wears sparse bangles, denoting the poor conditions in which they lead their lives. He expresses his hope that if they visit the king pāndiyan palyākasalai muthukudumi peruvazhuthi and perform with their harp, pathalai and ākuli drums, their lifelong curse of eating watery gruel would be rendered invalid and they too can lead a happy life. (13)

From the innumerable instances in literature about patrons supporting artists and alleviating their sorrows, perhaps the most striking is that of a poem by mārōkkathu nappasalaiyār in puranānūru (Poem 280). It describes the melancholy surrounding the passing away of a patron. The wife of the patron laments that she was witness to bad omens from the morning and that the wounds on her beloved’s body are deep. She turns to the musicians who were patronised by the man and says: “துடிய! பாண! பாடுவல் விறலி! என் ஆகுவிர் கொல்? அளியிர்! நுமக்கும் இவண் உறை வாழ்க்கையோ அரிதே!”

“Oh, drummer of the tudi drum! Oh bard! oh virali, who has mastered the art of music! What will happen to you? You are full of pity! It will be difficult for you to continue living here!” (14)

Time conventions in Music:

puranānūru (Poem 149) gives us information that could help us conclude that time conventions were followed with regard to specific tunes, much like today’s bhowli commonly thought of as a morning raga. Specific tunes were considered fit for specific hours of the day. Poet vanparanar praises the chief Kandeera Kōperu Nalli’s generosity displayed towards the musicians of his court. His gifts were so generous that the performers had forgotten the conventions of music and played melodies considered unfit for the time of the day.

நள்ளி வாழியோ நள்ளி! நள்ளென் மாலை மருதம் பண்ணிக், காலைக் கைவழி மருங்கில் செவ்வழி பண்ணி, வரவு எமர் மறந்தனர், அது நீ புரவுக் கடன் பூண்ட வண்மையானே.

Nalli! May your life be long, Nalli! The great wealth that you gave out of of your duty to be generous, has caused bards to lose music rules and play on their lutes marutham tunes in the darkness of evenings, and sevvali tunes in the mornings. (Trans. Vaidehi Herbert)


a) Mentions of different kinds of musical tunes and the types of professional singers / bards stand testament to the sophistication of music.

b) Festivities and royal courts majorly patronised musicians. Public and private life of both royalty and commoners were intimately involved with music. c) Music was sung in hospitals and nursing wards to aid healing. This practice is in agreement with carakā’s medical treatise. d) Various musical instruments – stringed, wind and drum were in use with evolved variations and sophisticated methods of playing. Canonical texts on music were perhaps written, which are unavailable to us today. e) Musical tunes were conventionally attached to specific times of the day.

The treatises give us a picture into the social setting of music, but not much information into the music itself. More research into the socio-cultural aspects may broaden our understanding of Tamil cultural life and the place of music in it.

1) Salem S Jeyalakshmi (2003). The History of Tamil Music. Chennai, Tamil Nadu: University of Madras.

2) Ka Naa Subramanyam (1974). A Look at Some Tamil Classics. Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi, 17(January-June), 204-216.

3) Swaminatha iyer, U. V. (Ed.). (1918). Paripadal (p. 22). Chennai, Tamil Nadu: Dr.U.Ve.Swaminatha iyer library.

4) Vijaya Ramaswami. (2006). Voices on Untouchability [Review of Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon]. Economic and Political Weekly, (Vol. 41, No. 26), 2708-2710.

5) Swaminatha iyer, U. V. (Ed.). (1918). Paripadal (p. 127-128). Chennai, Tamil Nadu: Dr.U.Ve.Swaminatha iyer library.

6) Sevvali is considered to be tune fit to be played in the evenings as per the commentary of nachinarkkiniyaar

7) Swaminatha iyer, U. V. (Ed.). (1931). பத்துப்பாட்டு மூலமும் மதுரையாசிரியர் பாரத்துவாசி நச்சினார்க்கினியருரையும். Chennai, Tamil Nadu: Dr.U.Ve.Swaminatha iyer library.

8) எட்டுத்தொகை – புறநானூறு 1-200 (1113114957 841166457 Vaidehi Herbert, Trans.). (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2020, from

9) Duraisami Pillai (Ed.). (1960). Purananuru. Chennai, Tamilnadu: The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society, Tinnevely

10) Upakalpaniya Adhyaya (1113113573 841165468 Shrivastav V.K., Srivastava A., Deole Y. S., Trans.). (2020). Retrieved December 08, 2020, from

11) Tamil Virtual Academy (Ed.). (n.d.). Pathupattu (Verse 714). Retrieved December 08, 2020, from

12) கி. வா. ஐகந்நாதன் (Ed.). (1985). பொருநராற்றுப்படை விளக்கம். Chennai, Tamilnadu: Amudha Nilayam. doi:

13) Duraisami Pillai (Ed.). (1960). Purananuru. Chennai, Tamilnadu: The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society, Tinnevely. Retrieved December 08, 2020, from

14) Duraisami Pillai (Ed.). (1960). Purananuru. Chennai, Tamilnadu: The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society, Tinnevely. Retrieved December 08, 2020, from

Other References:

1) Wilden, E. (2002). Towards an Internal Chronology of Old Tamil Caṅkam Literature Or How to Trace the Laws of a Poetic Universe. Wiener Zeitschrift Für Die Kunde Südasiens / Vienna Journal of South Asian Studies, 46, 105-133. Retrieved December 8, 2020

2) Ries, R. (1969). The Cultural Setting of South Indian Music. Asian Music, 1(2), 22-31. doi:10.2307/833909

3) Sivakumar, R. (2000). Sangam Poetry. Indian Literature, 44(2 (196)), 182-192. Retrieved December 8, 2020.

4) Ries, R. (1969). The Cultural Setting of South Indian Music. Asian Music, 1(2), 22-31. doi:10.2307/833909

5) Salem S Jeyalakshmi (2003). The History of Tamil Music. Chennai, Tamil Nadu: University of Madras

6) Dr.Subramaniyan, C. (Ed.). (2006). Sanga Ilakkiya Porutkalanjiyam. Tanjore, Tamil Nadu: Tanjore Tamil University.

7) உலகத்தொல்காப்பிய மன்றம் (Ed.). (n.d.). tholkappiyam. Retrieved December 08, 2020, from

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