Around 15 km from Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirappalli and 45 km from the historic city of Thanjavur, you will find a dam on the Kaveri River that has the most fascinating story. The Kallanai or the Grand Anicut, as it was called, is one of the oldest irrigation works in the world. Said to be built by one of the early Chola kings, Karikala in the 1st-2nd CE, it has been in continuous use for almost 2,000 years.
But the dam (which started as an embankment) is famous not only for its antiquity; the Kallanai is quite an engineering marvel. It not only controlled the annual floods in the region, the irrigation works set in place to divert the flood waters through canals during the time of King Karikala transformed the once semi-arid region south of it into one of the most fertile stretches in the subcontinent. Ancient Sangam poetry celebrates Karikala’s success in transforming a wilderness (kattu) into a cultivable land (Nadu).
Geographically, this stretch went on to become so rich that it catapulted the small local chiefdom that controlled it to fame. It is from here that the early Cholas rose. It is from this region that the later Cholas carried forward the baton of Chola glory. And it is to this event – the building of the embankment – that the later Cholas referred, time and again, to forge a link to the legacy of the heroes of yore.
The period between the 3rd BCE and 3rd CE – the so-called Sangam Age – was a period of economic growth and cultural renaissance in the deep south. And it is the trade, art, culture and literature which thrived during this period that dominates any discussion on the subject. But even as the busy ports overflowing with gold helped give wings to thoughts and verse, this period also saw the emergence of a political system that represented a transformation of its own kind.
Chieftains or velirs mentioned in early Sangam texts gave way to a few who spread out – the vendars. They were the first among equals – who went on to create ‘kingdoms’. Over the next few hundred years, the southern part of India, i.e. Tamilakam, was carved out between the Cholas, Keralaputras/Cheras and Pandyas, who dominated the landscape and inspired generations (of fellow dynasts) to come.
Centuries later, starting in the 6th century CE, new kingdoms by the same names and covering the same regions would rise in Tamilakam – the Medieval Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas.
In fact, you can still get a sense of that period today.
While the geographical boundaries of the state of Tamil Nadu are well defined, local Tamilians will tell you that there are still nuanced cultural differences between different regions of their state, which is roughly the size of England. Thanjavur is different from Chennai. Madurai is different from Coimbatore, and Kanchipuram also marches to its own unique beat. All these cities link up to long-gone times.
The modern-day cultural divisions of Tamilakam into Tondainadu (centered around Chennai and Kanchipuram), Cholanadu (around Thanjavur and Tiruchirappalli), Pandyanadu (Madurai to Kanyakumari) and Kongunadu (around Coimbatore and Karur), hark back to the ancient world and cover the areas once occupied by the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras, respectively.
Old political boundaries seem to have been etched into the heart of the region’s cultural identity.
The first ‘official’ reference to the early kingdoms of the South comes from Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s Major Rock Edict 2 at Girnar, in Gujarat. Here, he refers to the Cholas, Pandyas, Satiyaputra, Keralaputra and Tamrapani (Sri Lanka) as kingdoms on the southern borders of his dominion.
Even earlier, the Greek ambassador in Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta Maurya's court, Megasthenes (350 – 290 BCE) mentions a queen who ruled the area deep in the South, extending to the sea in the Pandya country. According to this account in the Indica, the kingdom had 365 villages, each of which was expected to meet the needs of the royal household for one day in the year. Megasthenes described the Pandyan queen of the time as ‘Pandaia’, a daughter of Heracles (a Greek demi-god said to have come east. Heracles was later also identified as Shiva by some historians).
Sangam literature, which was written over a period of six centuries (3rd BCE – 3rd CE) is, of course replete, with references to various Chola, Chera and Pandya kings and numerous chieftains in between, all mostly at war with each other. In fact, skirmishes, raids and the heroic exploits of kings and princes dominate a large part of the early puram poetry of the Sangam Era.
In Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, the Udayagiri inscription of Kalinga’s King Kharavela, dated to around 2nd BCE - 1st BCE, refers to an expedition he led into the south towards the Krishna River. He is said to have attacked the town of Pithunda, which was ploughed with a plough yoked to asses, in an attempt to desecrate the land. Kharavela claims to have broken up the confederacy of the Tramira (Tamil countries), which had been a threat to Kalinga. The reference to a Tamil confederacy, earlier, even during the time of Chandragupta Maurya (r. c. 321–c. 297 BCE), indicates that the southern chiefdoms and vendars often joined forces to take on attackers from the North.
The Graeco-Roman texts, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Pliny's classical work The Natural History, also have vivid descriptions of port cities and political capitals in the south, whether Muziris in present-day Kerala, Nelcynda in the Kingdom of the Pandyas, or the twin centres of Orthura Regia Sornati identified as Uraiyur and Khaberis identified as Kaveripattinam.
We also know that the Roman Emperor Julian received an embassy from a Pandya ruler as late as 361 CE and a Roman trading centre was located on the Pandya coast at the mouth of the Vaigai River, south-east of Madurai.
While all these sources help us paint a picture of early political formations in the South, there are numerous archaeological, epigraphic and numismatic clues that are filling the many gaps in early Southern history. Thankfully, the early history of the South coincides with the emergence of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions that have been found strewn on cave walls and pottery shards from Karur to Korkai.
Also, hundreds of coins from the Sangam Era give a sense of the political and economic authority that the Sangam Cheras, Chola and Pandyas wielded. Over a period of time, you see the coins evolving as well – from crude quadrangle copper coins in the early period (i.e. probably before the Common Era), to circular coins, sometimes in silver, in the later period.
The Rise of the South
One of the most tantalising questions relating to the Early Historic Period of the South remains the one pertaining to the origins of the three ‘kingdoms’ that dominated the region for centuries – the triad of the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras.
Who were they? And how did they manage to leave such a lasting legacy that even centuries later, dynasts continued using their name?
Archaeologist Dr V Selvakumar, who teaches at the Tamil University in Thanjavur, believes that the story starts on the anvil of the transition between the Iron Age marked by Megalithic burial sites in the deep south, and the Early Historic Period around the 7th – 5th BCE. By this time, agro-pastoral communities had started occupying different areas in the region, as had various hunter gatherers who became part of the increasingly storied social fabric.
At first, the political structure of these communities was nebulous and varied. There were numerous chiefdoms and tribal bands that coexisted and it is from the midst of this maze that we see the emergence of more defined political formations – the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas. Early Sangam texts refer to them as vendars as opposed to the generic term velirs used for smaller local chiefs.
But it is important to note that the political demarcations in early historic Tamilakam were not rigid or well-defined. In fact, Selvakumar believes that it is not until the Pallavas, much later in the 6th CE, that we see the first actual state formation in the South, in the traditional sense.
But what is it that helped some chiefs dominate others, and muster more regional clout?
Based on his work in some of the region’s most famous archaeological sites, from Arikamedu to Pattanam, Selvakumar believes that by the end of the Megalithic period, there were numerous chiefdoms that occupied land in the deltaic region of Tamilakam. Those who had control over nodal trading towns emerged stronger than the others and gradually expanded their territory. They became local powers and were respected by traders, and over time they adopted symbols of power such as titles, royal emblems, issuance of coins and the performance of sacrifices.
Smaller chiefdoms, however, continued to occupy the areas in between, often aligning with one vendar or the other during the frequent battles mentioned in the early Sangam texts. As Selvakumar explains, “The velirs covered the gaps between the vendars. For example, the chiefdom of Puddukotai lay between the Pandyas and the Cheras, and even in the north near Hosur (Karnataka). Vendars often formed alliances with these smaller chiefdoms.”
So by the time of Ashoka in the 3rd BCE, the Tamilakam area was already carved out, with each vendar having clear regional control, centred on a capital city, and a powerful port that gave them wealth.
The Cholas had their capital in Uraiyur and their port in Kaveripattinam. The Cheras were centred first near Kodungallur in Western Kerala and later Karur (around the 1st CE) in Western Tamil Nadu, with their port in Muziris. The Pandyas started out at Korkai and gradually moved up to Madurai.
Apart from this triad of powers, another chiefdom that stood out was that of the Malayamans, who seem to have enjoyed control over the important port site of Arikamedu near present-day Puducherry. They also issued coins in copper.
Interestingly, these regional powers managed to always hold on to their core territories. Despite the numerous battles and skirmishes listed in great detail in the Sangam puram poems, most of these battles were actually raids for wealth, not power trips for territory.
The Pandyas and the deep south they come from have a special significance in the region's history. It is under them that the great Sangams are said to have taken place (‘Sangams’ were great meet-ups of poets, steeped in legend, and resulted in a huge body of literature, much of which is lost). Another story connects the Pandyas with the origin of political kingdoms in the South. The story goes that, in ancient times, there were three brothers who lived in Korkai, close to the tip of Tamil Nadu and then a coastal port city. They were called Cheran, Cholan and Pandyan and they ruled the region together. While Pandyan is said to have remained at home, the other two moved out and founded their own kingdoms.
This may be just folklore but the Pandyas seem to have started as a coastal chiefdom that rose on the back of the growth of Korkai as a trading centre. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea makes glowing references to the famed pearls from Korkai or ‘Colchic’, as it was referred to in Graeco-Roman accounts, and points out that “pearls inferior to the Indian sort are exported in great quantity from the marts of Apologas and Omana”. The glory of Korkai and its precious pearls was such that the entire Gulf of Mannar, between South-Eastern India and Western Sri Lanka, was referred to as the ‘Colchic Gulf’.
Interestingly, the famous Megalithic site of Adichanallur dating back at least 3,800 years and which has yielded as many as 169 clay urns containing human skeletons, is just 15 km from Korkai, reiterating the close connection between Iron Age and Early Historic sites in the South.
Over time, the capital of the Pandyas shifted to Madurai, and the Sangam-period work Maduraikkanci by Mankudi Maruthanaar (100 BCE – 100 CE) gives us a rich account of the city with its fortified gates, broad streets, mansions, festivals and vibrant morning markets. In fact, through the Sangam poems, you have references to numerous Pandyan rulers.
The Silapadikaram refers to Nedunjeliyan as the ruler in Madurai, who famously orders the death of the heroine Kannaki’s husband Kovalam. Nedunjeliyan is said to have died of remorse. Meanwhile, his son and heir, who was the Viceroy of Korkai at the time, according to another poem, is said to have wreaked havoc and terrible vengeance on the goldsmiths of Korkai. We are told he ‘sacrificed’ 1,000 of them in a single day, to appease Kannaki!
Since there is a mention of a Sri Lankan king Gajabahu, who is said to have ruled the island state in the 2nd CE, in the story of Kannaki, the story and hence Nedunjeliyan is dated to around this time.
Even though the Pandyas moved to Madurai, making it their grand capital, they continued to be closely associated with their roots. The official emblem of the Pandyas was the fish and they are also referred to as ‘Meenavars’ in Sangam literature – ‘meen’ translating to ‘fish’.
There are ample coins from the period of the Sangam Pandyas. They almost always have the symbol of an elephant (commonly found in most coins of the Sangam Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas) and the royal emblem of the fish on the other side. Over a period of time, the fish became more stylised and this emblem continued to be used even by the medieval Pandyas on their coins.
While the Pandyas were driven by trade, like the Cheras, because of their powerful ports in Korkai and Muziris, respectively, the Cholas seem to have had a more agrarian core.
Scholars believe that the Cholas were originally known as ‘Kozhiyar’. Kozhiyur (‘kozhi’ means ‘hen’ or ‘chicken’) was the name of the settlement of Uraiyur, near present-day Tiruchirappalli on the banks of the Kaveri River in Tamil Nadu. The term ‘kozhi’ or ‘chozhi’, over time, might have transformed into ‘Chola’. Prof Selvakumar believes that the first Cholas must have started out in the Iron Age as village chiefs who gradually expanded their dominion. Through battles and alliances with various other chiefs, they gained control over the entire region of the Kaveri delta country, which came to be named after them as the ‘Chola region’ – then and now. Today, a whole stretch of India’s east coast is called the ‘Coromandel’ (a British corruption of the word ‘Cholamandala’) Coast.
The core area of the Cholas was the Kaveri Delta, with Uraiyur as their capital and Kaveripumpattinam or Kaveripattinam as their port. Over time, they extended their dominion to Kanchipuram.
King Karikala was the most significant of the early Chola kings and there are scores of myths and legends around him. They start with a heroic tale of how he got his name. Apparently, he was imprisoned and in the battle that followed, or while trying to escape, his leg was burnt. Hence the name ‘Karikala’ – ‘the one with a charred leg’.
We know he is credited with the conversion of forest lands into cultivable lands by controlling the waters of the Kaveri through the Kallanai embankment (later dam) at the head of the delta, and redistributing them to the south. This was noteworthy as it not only helped control the annual floods that devastated the region, but also formed the bulwark of the irrigation system that transformed the land.
Karikala was also known for his military prowess. He is said to have defeated a confederacy of kings at the decisive Battle of Venni that took place around 15 km from present-day Thanjavur. He defeated the Chera king, Peruncheralathan, a Pandyan king, and 11 chieftains or velirs. A poem in the Sangam text Purananuru tells the tale of how the Chera king, who was hurt on his back, is said to have starved himself to death, in humiliation.
There are references to Karikala also taking the battle to Sri Lanka and bringing back 12,000 slaves from there to work as labourers during a fortification of Kaveripattinam.
But the frequent battles, driven by one-upmanship and greed (raids) could swing either way. There is a reference to another battle, for instance, where another ruler, Talaiyananganattu Cheruvenra Pandiyan, defeated the Cholas and several chiefs including Titiyan, Erumaiyuran and Ezhini, in the Battle of Talayalaganam and seized their ‘umbrellas’, which were symbols of their authority.
The legend of Karikala also finds frequent mention later. In his book on the Cholas, historian Dr Nilakanta Sastri points out that the first reference to the raising of the flood banks of the Kaveri by Karikala seems to have been mentioned by the Malepadu Plates of Punyakumara, a Telugu-Chola king of the 7th CE – 8th CE. Meanwhile, there are other legends that link Karikala to Kanchi (Kanchipuram), which he is said to have conquered.
He is also said to have encouraged agrarian settlements around the city, in the region that was then referred to as ‘Tondainadu’. There are varying and confusing connections drawn here, however. While some Sangam poems refer to the fact that Tondaiman Ilandiraiyan, another legendary figure from the period, was a contemporary of Karikala, other accounts claim he was in fact the grandson of Karikala and appointed as Viceroy of Kanchi.
Ilandiraiyan is also referred to in the literature of the Sangam period and is the hero of some of the poems of the Patthupattu, in his own right. Interestingly, he is sometimes associated with the rise of another dynasty from the region, that of the Pallavas (4th to 9th CE). It has been suggested that the word ‘Tondai’, which refers to a ‘creeper’, is connected to the word ‘Pallava’, which essentially means ‘sprout’. Kanchi and Tondainadu remained the core of the later Pallava Empire, which traced its roots further north.
However, historians like S Krishnaswami Aiyangar have pointed out that this connection between Tondaiman Ilandiraiyan and the later Pallavas is quite uncertain.
The Cholas had the tiger as their emblem and this is visible across their coins. Interestingly, although we know that Uraiyur was an important trading centre – excavations here have dug up evidence of a thriving textile industry, and historians believe some of the finest muslin of the period came from here –no coins have been found here. Most Chola coins, in fact most Sangam Era coins, have been found in and around Karur, the Chera capital.
The term ‘Kerala’ and ‘Chera’ are closely intertwined through history and we don’t know which came first – the Ashokan Rock Edict 2 at Girnar of the 3rd CE, for instance, mentions ‘Keralaputas’ though they are always referred to as ‘Cheras’ later.
Be that as it may, like the Pandyas, the Cheras too had strong links with the coast and trade. Scholars believe that the original capital of the Cheras was close to their major port of Muchiri or Muziris, near modern-day Kodungallur near coastal Kerala. The original capital, they say, could have been Karur Pattanam near the present-day village of Thiruvanjikulam close to Kodungallur. Interestingly, as trade grew, there is evidence of the Cheras shifting their base north to another city they called Karur i.e. modern-day Karur in Western Tamil Nadu. This was probably the area occupied by the Satyaputas mentioned in Ashoka’s Edict.
The shift of the Chera capital north is interesting because it was done to control an important nodal point for trade connecting the ports of the south to the northern hinterland, through the Palakkad Gap.
The Palakkad Gap is a break in the Western Ghats, that was caused 88 million years ago, when the island of Madagascar broke away from the Indian subcontinent, as the latter made its way north-east to collide with the European landmass. From prehistoric times, this gap in the Western Ghats connected the coast of Kerala to the hinterland through the hills. Even today, you have the vibrant industrial city of Coimbatore on the other end of this gap, one that has thrived since the early Cheras crossed over.
The sheer volume of Roman-era coins found along the stretch between Palakkad, Coimbatore and Karur points to how lucrative trade along this route had been then.
The choice of Karur as their capital was clearly driven by commerce. Look at the map of South India and you will see how this city, on the banks of the Amaravathi River, a tributary of the Kaveri, links the west coast and the east coast. It was also at the junction of the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms. No wonder then that most of the coins – whether those issued by this triad of kingdoms, or those from Rome, that flooded in during this period (especially 1st BCE - 2nd CE) thanks to trade – have been found around Karur.
The Amaravathi riverbed has yielded hundreds of coins from the Sangam period. The Chera coins are marked by the royal emblem of the Cheras – the bow and arrow. Like elsewhere, the coins also show an evolution – from crude square coins of copper to circular coins that sport some portraits, inspired undoubtedly by the Roman coins of the era. There were also silver coins issued by the Cheras and the Pandyas.
While there are no dates on the coins – giving us absolutely no clues to the chronology or time frame – a coin with a portrait and the Tamil-Brahmi legend ‘Mak-kotai’ above it, and another one with a portrait and the legend ‘Kuttuvan Kotai’ above it, have been found around Karur, giving us details of the Chera kings who issued them.
There is also ample epigraphic evidence here of the early Cheras. Inscriptions discovered from Pugalur, (also near Karur) dated to 1st CE - 2nd CE, describe three generations of Chera rulers of the Irumporai lineage. They record the construction of a rock shelter for Jains on the occasion of the investiture of Ilam Kadungo, son of Perum Kadungo, and the grandson of Ko Athan Cheral Irumporai.
A short Tamil-Brahmi inscription, containing the word ‘Chera’ (‘Kadummi Pudha Chera’) has also been found in Edakkal in Kerala.
In the Sangam work Patthupattu, there is reference to Chera King Nedum Cheralathan, who is said to have ruled for 58 years. He is also said to have defeated his neighbouring rulers. There is a reference to him having won over "seven crowned kings'', thus obtaining the status of "adhiraja". He is said to have taken his battle to the sea, defeated an enemy on the Malabar Coast and captured several Yavana traders. There is even mention of him punishing the Yavanas by “tying their hands behind them”, and pouring nai (ghee) on their heads”.
The author of the great Tamil epic Silapadikaram is said to have been Ilango Adigal, the younger brother of the Chera king, Senguttuvan. This story, set in the latter part of the Sangam Era, ties together the great capitals and the Chola, Pandya and Chera kings, and is dated to the 2nd - 3rd CE.
The Trouble with our Past
Piecing together the story of the early kingdoms of the South is tough even though they are so vividly celebrated in early Sangam poems. The problem is with the authenticity of these accounts – especially commissioned bardic traditions and the actual chronology through the so-called Sangam period that stretched for almost 600 years. Not only are the references and cross-references to the various kings and battles confusing (made more so by poetic exaggerations), there is a lot more research that needs to be done, on the ground.
Very few actual excavations have been conducted in the sites mentioned through this account and in others, where there have been, there are some with no reports! For instance despite excavations carried out at the sites of Karur in the 1960s and ’70s, there is still no report published on the findings. This story is repeated in many of the sites in the South, like elsewhere across India.
Given the paucity of information, historians have also pointed out another anomaly in this period’s history in Tamilakam – the wide gap between literature and the reality on the ground. While the Sangam puram poetry is replete with battles, heroes, marches and raids, they seem to have had little impact on daily life and trade.
Anthropologist Shinu A Abraham puts it well in her paper titled Chera, Chola, Pandya: Using Archaeological Evidence To Identify The Tamil Kingdoms of Early Historic South India. She writes, “The archaeological data represents complemental (and perhaps competing) perspectives of identity compared to those of South Indian texts. The activities and concerns represented by Tamil artefacts are less apparently political than they are economic and social aspects of lifestyle in which ethnic symbolism was not recorded in the conspicuous manner found in the texts.” Most archaeological artefacts found seem to relate to trade, hunting, agriculture and the crafts industries. There is little reference to the constantly warring vendars and vellirs.
However, the legacy of the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas is truly outstanding. Even though the veil fell on all three early kingdoms of the Sangam Era around the 3rd – 4th CE, during what is referred to as the ‘Dark Age’ of Tamil history – when the Kalabhras swept into the South from modern-day Karnataka – the linkages with these Sangam-age heroes was picked up when new dynasts rose. They were quick to take the name of the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas, and expand their dominions, centuries later, in the medieval period.
The Pallavas and the second wave of the Pandyas rose to prominence from about the 6th century CE. The medieval Cholas under their founder Vijayalaya (c. 848 CE) rose in the 9th CE as did the medieval Chera Perumals, who ruled over large parts of modern-day Kerala between the 9th and 10th CE.
Cover photo: Pandya Kingdom coin (1st - 3rd century BCE), Courtesy: www.coinindia.com
This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
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