Prehistory and Legends of Kerala
There is a reference to the Kerala regions in the Kishkindha Kanda of the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana of Valmiki. This is in the context of King Sugriva briefing his messengers about regions lying south of their kingdom where they can look for Sita. In an earlier blog, I have speculated that the Ramayana story taken along with Gauda-Saraswatiya and Nambudiri traditional lore probably indicated that the Konkana-Kerala coastal region west of the Sahya mountains could have been reclaimed from the sea at a time within the interval between the Bala Kanda and Kishkindha Kanda periods in Dasarathi Rama’s life in India’s very ancient history.
In the 29th chapter of Silappadikaaram, an ancient Tamil epic, composed nearly 1800 years ago, the Chera king Chenguttuvam is shown as having brought stone from the Himalayas to sculpt an image of the chaste heroine of the tale, Kannagi. The spirit of Kannagi appears before the king and offers benediction for the proposed building of a temple in her honour. In celebration of the happy atmosphere prevailing, the girls of Vanji city play different musical games. A song accompanying a ride on a swing goes like this:
In the war between the five Paandavas and their hundred cousins,
A Chera of old gave unceasing food rations to both sides;
Singing the praise of that Cheran, that Poraiyan, that Malaiyan,
Will we not swing while our black tresses swing also along with us?
The reference is to the fine gesture of a Chera king, in offering food rations continuously to combatants on both sides of the Mahabharata war at Kurukshetra, which was obviously thankfully accepted by both sides.
Gurupavanapura Mahatmya, a part of Narada Purana, alludes to the catastrophic submerging of Krishna’s Dwaraka in the sea after Krishna’s advent was over. Before departing this world, Krishna is said to have confided to his disciple and minister Uddhava that his chaitanya would be left in a Narayana idol which had been wordhipped by him and earlier by his parents. The sthalapurana of Guruvayur temple avers that the image was recovered from the sea close to Guruvayur coast in Kerala to which it had been guided by Vayu and Brihaspati under directions from Iswara.
All the above stories are in line with the possibility of Kerala having been reclaimed during the lives of Parasurama and Dasarathi Rama and therefore having had a cultural identity and presence also during the Mahabharata period, which is generally agreed to have been well after the Ramayana era. There is yet another legend, which is celebrated exclusively by all modern Keralites, year after year, with great joy. I am referring to the puranic story of the subjugation by Narayana of the powerful asura king Bali. The hero of the story is Bhagavan Narayana himself all over India. In Kerala, the vanquished King Bali is extolled as a second hero. The belief is that the king, known for his great generosity and love of his subjects, actually ruled in the west coast land, which may have gone down with him to the netherworlds, when he submitted his bowed head to the foot of Narayana in his cosmic Trivikrama form. The memory of his golden rule was left with the survivors and their progeny and conveyed also to others who occupied the reclaimed additions that subsequently constituted Kerala. Thus the King is honoured annually by all Keralites, without reference to caste, religion or any other dividing characteristic, on Onam day, the full moon day of the Shravana month. They believe their king visits them on that day.
The Mauryan connection
Chanakya (c. 350-283 BC) was an adviser and a prime minister to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (c. 340-293 BC), and the architect of his rise to power. The two names, by which the ancient Indian political treatise Arthasastra identifies its author, Kautilya and Vishnugupta, are traditionally identified with Chanakya. Some scholars consider Chanakya to be the pioneer economist of the world. He is known as The Indian Machiavelli in the Western world. Chanakya was a professor at the Takshashila University and is generally identified with the person known to have been responsible for the creation of the Mauryan Empire, the first of its kind in the Indian subcontinent.
A group of Brahmins in Tamil Nadu called Sholiyar or Chozhiyar, claim that Chanakya was one of them. Though this may sound very improbable, considering the vast distance between present day Tamil Nadu in the south and Magadha in Bihar, it finds curious echoes in the Abhidhānchintāmani, where Hemachandra claims that Chanakya was a Dramila (‘Dramila’ is believed to be the root of the words Dravida and Tamil, by some scholars).
Of interest to the subject of our blog is the claim that Chanakya belonged to the Brahmin group from the present day Kerala who are considered to have been brought there by Parashurama. Considering the fact that Adi Sankara who revived sanatanic Hinduism by setting up four monasteries in the four corners of India also belonged to that group, now known as Nambudiri Brahmins, this claim too merits attention. When both he and Chandraupta Maurya had become old, he is said to have persuaded the king to forsake his throne and to join him in moving to the last phase of one’s life viz sanyasa. Accordingly, he took the King along with him to South India where both of them performed prolonged meditation and finally achieved Moksha. This is contrary to popularly held beliefs about how the two met their respective ends.
The first non-controversially recorded historic information about Kerala should most probably be the inscriptions of another Mauryan Emperor, Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka (269-232 BC). In these, Ashoka refers to four independent kingdoms that lay to the south of his empire, namely the Chozhas, the Pandyas, the Keralaputras and the Satiyaputras. Among them, the Keralaputras or the Cheras, as they were called later, reigned over Malayadesa (Malabar), Kochi (Cochin) and North Tiruvaankoor (Travancore) – all part of present-day Kerala. They managed to maintain their independence because of excellent relations with Samrat Ashoka. The southern kingdoms had already experienced a Mauryan onslaught during the reign of Ashoka’s predecessor, Bindusara (297-272 BC) and had decided wisely to stay on friendly terms with Bindusara’s son.
The Sangam Age
It is only in the Sangam Age that the history of Kerala truly emerges from myths and legends. The Sangam Age refers to the period during which Tamil Sangam literature was composed. Sangam literally means academy and these great works in Tamil could have been composed in the first four centuries of the Christian era and a few centuries before. While there are traditional stories doing the rounds about the first three academies, which met at Madurai and were attended by Tamil kings and poets, the literature composed at the first Sangam is no longer available except in titles. The earliest work available on Tamil grammar, Tolkappiyam was composed during the second Sangam. Among others, Ettutogai is a remarkable collection of Tamil literature (“Eight Anthologies”) of the third sangam. It consists of anthologies that give us a detailed description of the political, social and economic conditions of that period. Of the Tamil epics of the third sangam period, two, namely Silappadikaaram and Manimekalai have soulful descriptions of the Chera regions and their people.
(to be continued…)
More posts by this author:
- Parashurama Kshetra Part 4
- Parashurama Kshetra Part 5
- Parashurama Kshetra – A possible Prehistory of Kerala-Konkana on India’s West Coast
- Parashurama Kshetra Part 3
- Parashurama Kshetra – A Miscellany and the Epilogue.
After R & D and technical management experience of over three decades in petroleum and organic chemical industry, have been devoting the past fifteen years to the study of Tamil and Sanskrit classics, including dharmic works and doing some serious translation work. Have been a significant contributor to the medha journal almost since its inception upto 2013 and expect to continue my association with it.