From the 5th century BCE onwards, urbanisation and mercantile activity along the western and eastern coasts of what is today Kerala and Tamil Nadu led to the development of four large Tamil political states, Chera dynasty, Chola dynasty, Pandyan Dynasty and Pallava dynasty and a number of smaller states warring amongst themselves for dominance. The Jaffna Kingdom, once one of the strongest kingdoms of Sri Lanka, led to the development of a distinct political state of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Between the 4th century BCE and the 3rd century CE, Tamil people produced native literature that came to be called Sangam literature. Among languages spoken today, the Tamil language is one of the oldest written languages.
Tamils were noted for their martial, religious and mercantile activities beyond their native borders. Pandyas and Cholas were historically active in Sri Lanka. The Chola dynasty successfully invaded parts of Southeast Asia like Malaysia, Southern Thailand and Indonesia. Medieval Tamil guilds and trading organizations like the "Ayyavole and Manigramam" played an important role in the Southeast Asia trade. Pallava traders and religious leaders travelled to Southeast Asia and played an important role in the cultural Indianisation of the region. Locally developed scripts such as Grantha and Pallava script induced the development of many native scripts such as Khmer, Javanese Kawi script, Baybayin and Thai.
Tamil visual art is dominated by stylised Temple architecture in major centres and the productions of images of deities in stone and bronze. Chola bronzes, especially the Nataraja sculpture of the Chola period, have become notable as a symbol of Hinduism. Tamil performing arts are divided into popular and classical. Classical form is Bharatanatyam, whereas the popular forms are known as Koothu and performed in village temples and on street corners. Tamil cinema, known as Kollywood, is an important part of the Indian cinema industry. Music too is divided into classical Carnatic form and many popular genres.
Although most Tamils are Hindus, many especially those in the rural areas practice what is considered to be folk Hinduism, venerating a plethora of village deities. A sizeable number are Muslims and Christians. A small Jain community survives from the classical period as well. Tamil cuisine is informed by varied vegetarian and non-vegetarian items usually spiced with locally available spices. The music, the temple architecture and the stylised sculptures favoured by the Tamil people as in their ancient nation are still being learnt and practised. English historian and broadcaster Michael Wood called the Tamils the last surviving classical civilisation on Earth, because the Tamil mainstream preserved substantial elements of their past regarding belief, culture, music and literature despite the modern globalised world.