The Tamil epic literature is largely responsible for our understanding of the chiefdoms of Tamilakam. That is entirely warranted, as the beginning of the Tamil epic literary heritage coincides with the creation of chiefdoms in Tamilakam. Apart from satiyaputa, the Ashokan edicts of the third century B.C. allude to the Tamil chiefdoms as the Ceras, Colas, and Pandyas (Keralaputa, Coda, and Pandya) (Atiyaman) According to references in Tamil epic literary productions, Tamil brahmi label-inscriptions, and Graeco-Roman geographers’ (Ptolemy and Pliny) descriptions, Tamil chiefdoms flourished from the second century B.C. until the end of the third century A.D. The spread of iron-using societies, frequently defined by megalithic structures, may be traced back to the mid-first millennium B.C., according to archaeology of chiefdom level socio-economic processes. Scholars have found that the civilizations represented by megalithic burials and habitat remains overlap with the cultures represented by heroic poetry. It doesn’t make sense to label cultures based on their raw materials, such as megalithic culture, black and red pottery culture, Sangam culture, and so on. Rather, one ought to be able to imagine a scenario in which individuals with various means of sustenance and common cultural traditions coexist and interact.
The poems depict several degrees of primarily power, which provide some insight into the pattern of power allocation among small and large descending groups, from basic to sophisticated. The epic poems present us with a dynamic outline of co-existence and interplay between these disparately evolved main systems, they are: The Velir, Kilar, and Ventar systems. Kilar chiefs were hunting leaders from the vetar and kuravar ancestry groups. Kilar chiefs, like Velir leaders, were hunting chiefs of either vetar or kuravar. Certain kilar are also said to have ruled over rural areas with a higher level of resourcefulness. In agricultural villages, Kilar were also the dominant people.
The Velir seem to symbolise the most primitive and lineage conscious degree of authority. One of the ancient five vels, Irunko-vel (found in the semi-arid zone in between Kaveri and Vaigai Valleys), is described in a poem as vetarkoman, the chief of vetar, and is said to have come from a long line of 49 ancestors of chiefs. The Velir chieftains ruled over the Kurinji and mullai regions, or pastoral woodland highlands, according to the poetry (malai). They were largely hill chieftains in charge of the descending groups known as vetar, itaiyar, and kuravar. The prominent millet-rich hill chiefdoms praised in the poems are Venkatamalai, Parampumalai, Kollimalai, Mutiramalai, Kutiramalai, Potiyilmalai, Payarmalai, Kantiramalai, Elilmalai, and Najilmalai. Elilmalai has been Kerala’s most powerful hill chiefdom, and Nannan, the vetar (vetarkoman) hunting chief, was descended from the Kantiramalai chiefs. Potiyilmalai was another chiefdom associated with Kerala’s southernmost region. The poems glorify Potiyilmalai hill kuravar chief the Ay, Potiyilmalai was then very abundant in , jack fruit, honey, monkeys, and elephants . The chief of Ay is acknowledged as mavel, which means the mighty vel, and stated that they belong to the Aykuti of the Ay descendant. The word “Ay” is associated with ayar (pastoralists), and later Ay leaders claim to have belonged to the vrishnikula, although there is no concrete evidence to demonstrate that they have been pastoral chiefs. The most famous hunting chiefs of Vetar or Kuravar are Pari, the chief of Parampumalai; Ori, the head of Kollimalai; Kari, who murdered Ori and became the leader of his hill; Pekan, the chief of Vanmalai; Elini, the chief of Kutirmalai; Kumanan, and the chief of Mutiramalai. Hill chiefs are sometimes referred to as vettuvar. However, not all Velir were hill leaders; Elini, the head of Vettaru, for example, was a “vel” in charge of agricultural level land.
The Ventar, which includes the three great chiefly dynasties of Cera, Pandya, and Cola, is the next tier of political authority. These three are known as muventar or muvar in the poetry. According to the poetry, they held primary areas in Karur, Madurai, and Uraiyur, with periphery important sites in Muciri, Puhar and Korkai. The Ceras ruled over the Western Ghats’ kurinji-dominated regions, the Pandyas over the mullai, palai, and neital-dominated regions in Tamilakam’s south central area, and the Colas from over marutam-dominated Kaveri zone. There was no concept of clearly defined territory, and aside from references to key sections of each, the poems provide little indication of the real spheres of authority of each. Control was passed down through subordinate leaders to the periphery, where it faded and varied continuously.
In the poetry, the Ceras are described to as ‘kanaka-natan’ (chief of the wooded natu) or malaiyan (chief of the malai or hill), implying their ecological zone. A poet admiring Ceraman Kotai Marpan is perplexed as to how the chief should be addressed properly. The poet wonders if the chief may be referred to as uran, natan, or cerpan. This would indicate that the Cera region was made up of a variety of biological zones, with hills and woods dominating. As a result, the Cera’s resource base was broad, albeit forest riches was the primary resource. A poem mentions Ceran Cenkuttuvan’s hill products (malaittaram) and marine items (kat-arrraram), as well as the gold that washed up on the beach by boats. The Pandya had a diversified ecological zone, with pastoral and coastal regions dominating. ‘yanar maiyar koman,’ says a Pandya chieftain, referring to himself as the leader of a region rich in fresh riches. The Cola, who is referred to in the poems as ‘kaviri kilavon,’ owned a farm in the Kaveri delta that was abundant in sugarcane and paddy.
The resources were also taken by the Ventar chieftains through prestations and gifts. It’s assumed that the emerging appropriation system was predatory. Subordination with tribute responsibilities, expulsion, and marriage alliances appear to have been used in the process of subjugation. All of these means of expanding the Ventar’s territory are mentioned several times throughout the poems. Valluvan, the head of Nanjilmalai, is described as a Cera subordinate with military responsibilities in a poem. The poems demonstrate that the subdued chiefs could only stay courageous by giving the Ventar a portion of their riches in the shape of tirai or kol (tributes in kind). Ceraman Celvakatunko received tirai from several mannar. Nevertheless, it appears that the Ventar were frequently forced to invade communities in order to extract tirai from a variety of chieftains. The Ventar extracted puravu (paddy) from the kutimakkal in the instance of the Cola. The phrase iraivan, which means “one who exacts,” is used throughout the poems to refer to all three Ventar. This would imply that they demanded from the people what was capable of the region’s resource availability. Furthermore, there is no evidence that any of these chieftains imposed a levy on a regular basis in a definite amount or quantity.
The Ventar must have been able to acquire gold and other prestige things thanks to the profits through trading ties. As previously stated, it is unclear how they were participating in the exchange procedure. The poems reveal that the Ventar, like the Velir, were primarily concerned with the acquisition of riches and their allocation in accordance with a predetermined framework of social ties. Plunder was also necessary for them because their redistributive system was far more complex and complicated than they could have managed with their available resources. The poetic floral symbolism of karantai (cattle recovery), vetci (cattle raid), kanji (chieftain’s raid resistance), vanji (chieftain’s raid), and tumpai (raid preparation) demonstrate how entrenched and widespread the pillage. There is no indication that the Ventar have a ready force of soldiers, such as a standing military or a methodically formed militia. They did, however, have enough members of the warrior clan who could be instantly mobilised by the sound of a combat drum. The term enati can only be a consequence of the bards’ poetic approximation. The Ceras are the only line of chieftains who have their own collection of eulogising songs, Patirruppattu. The importance of the Cera lineage may be seen in the songs that make up a distinct compilation.
The only political entity described in the poems is the avaiyam (sabha), which appears to have served as Ventar’s helping body. The warrior chiefs and pulavars appear to have been the majority of the participants of this organisation (the scholarly bards). But, the concepts of a formalised polity were well-known, notwithstanding their lack of relevance to actuality. The poets imagined the muventar as the three crowned monarchs of ancient Tamilakam, for example. The Ceras are described as donning seven-crown garlands by poets. The Ventar are known for performing velvi (Vedic sacrifices), yet they are also classified as worshippers of korravai, the battle goddess, and Murugan. Surya, Agni, Marut, the Pancabhutas, the stars, and the navagrahas are all mentioned in the poetry. The equation reminds us of the itihasa-purana tradition’s lokapala theory. All of the Ceras’ characteristics point to a significant level of Vedic brahmanism influence. However, the impact of Buddhist ideals may be observed in their affiliation with the Ventar on an almost equal basis.
There appears to be a significant gap between the image that the poetry attempt to create for the Ventar and reality. We know that they did not own all of Tamilakam, and that there were other tribute-paying rulers, such as Atiyaman, who were about as powerful as Ventar. In a song praising Netuman Anji, all agricultural settlement heads are warned to hurry to him with tirai if they want to maintain their “ur” with them. Most of those hill leaders were adamantly against the Ventar. One such example is Pari of Parampumalai. He put up a valiant fight against the Ventar, but he was beaten and died in the end. Ventar were, in fact, chiefs, but of a higher rank. In summary, the period’s political status was not the same as a state system.