Parashurama Kshetra Part 4

Cheras, on a Roll till the Rise of the Chozhas

For most of the hoary past recorded in available and lost Tamil Sangam literature and corroborated in Sanskrit lore as well, the Tamil country was ruled by three royal clans, the Chozhas, the Cheras and the Pandyas.

The three fought occasional battles among themselves and there were periods during which any one of the three wielded supremacy and held portions of the other’s territory, which were usually reversed when the situation became normal. At all other times, there was great cordiality and all Tamil festivals and rituals were observed all over the Tamil speaking regions.

Thus the entire southern region rejoiced, when the sun stopped in its transit at the tropic of Capricorn and reversed gear on or about January 14 each year and days would no longer have misty mornings and evenings and spring blossoms and fruits would be a happy anticipation. There was harvesting of fresh paddy (rice grain) and sugarcane and people offered sugared rice pudding known as pongal to the Gods of Nature and happily ate it with friends and family. If this was makara sankramana, three months from it, around the middle of April, the solar march from Aries (Mesha) a little after the vernal equinox was a cause for celebration as mesha sankramana and chaitra vishu in all of Tamil country, when the New Year began. The immediate Andhra and Karnataka neighbours observed the New Year also at the advent of the Spring, but their observation of the lunar rather than the solar calendar advanced the event by about three weeks, every three years out of four, an extra month filling up the gap and bringing the celebrations to the same time approximately once every four years. A strange decision to step out of the ages-old practice and start observing the Tamil New Year on Pongal Day itself starting from this year seems to have been taken by the present political dispensation/government in Tamil Nadu, which is unlikely to disturb the respective ritual practices observed during the two days all over the Tamil land. Tamils will take it all in their strides, maintaining a clear awareness of political opportunism on election eve and its irrelevance to age old practices.

In the ninth and the tenth centuries, the Chera country was ruled by three principal royal dynasties known as the Ayes, Venads and Kulasekaras from three distinctive regions of Kerala (the Sanskritised version of Chera), and the kings of these three dynasties and the other Chieftains ruling small regions of rest of Kerala, were together referred to as the Cheras or Keralas by the people of Chozha & Pandya countries of this period.

The Aye dynasty were ruling a region reaching from the present Nagarkoil of Tamil Nadu, the southern end of the Aye kingdom, upwards into Kerala to the present Anjuthengu in the north of the present Tiruvananthapuram, and was known as Aye Nadu. Their capital was at Vilinjam a seaport city south of Tiruvananthapuram. The Aye Nadu also included the Kanthalursalai – a military and Vedic studies academy and an armoury centre of the Aye kings, and was located deep south beyond the Vilinjam along the sea coast closer to Nagarkoil the southern end of the Aye kingdom.

The Venad dynasty were ruling an immediately northern region beyond Anjuthengu and upto Kottayam, known formally as Venadu and also as Kollam Desam with their capital at Kollam (proper), also a seaport city on the west Kerala.

The early Cheras, namely the Kulasekara dynasty were ruling a region of Kerala beyond Kottayam further north upto and around the present region of Kozhikkodu (Calicut) and known as Kudamalai Nadu, with their capital at Mahodayapuram (Kodungollur) a seaport city also known as Makothai, and a second interior capital known as Uthakai in the Kongu country of that period (the present Udhagamandalam region of the Tamil Nadu, bordering the Kerala also known as Uthakai), which was under their rule during this period. Unlike the Aye and the Venad dynasty, the vast territory ruled by Kulasekara dynasty covered many small regions called “Nadus” under different names, which were ruled by the local Chieftains who accepted the authority of the Kulasekara dynasty, and ruled their respective regions as subordinates to them.

The first Chera ruler was Perumchotru Udiyan Cheralatan – a contemporary of the great Chola, King Karikalan. After suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chola ruler at the battle of Venni, he committed suicide. His son, Imayavaramban Nedum Cheralatan succeeded him. During his long rule of 58 years, Imayavaramban Nedun Cheralatan consolidated the Chera Dynasty and extended its frontiers. He inflicted a crushing defeat on his sworn enemies, the Kadambas of Banavasi in Uttara Kannada region. During Imayavaramban’s reign art and literature flourished. Kannanar was his poet laureate.

However, the greatest Chera King was Kadalpirakottiya Vel Kelu Kuttuvan, who is identified with the mythical hero Chenkuttuvan of the Silappadikaaram epic. The pativrata cult in the epic emphasised the utter devotion of a wife towards her husband. The Chera king dedicated a temple at Vanchi to Kannagi (the hroine of Silappadikaaram), and the present Kurumba Bhagavati Temple at Kodungallur (Cranganore) is modelled on it. Kannagi’s devotion towards her husband was legendary.

After the Sangam Age, Kerala passed through a dark period that lasted four centuries AD, when the land fell into the hands of Kalabhras. At the end of the eighth century AD, other South Indian kings such as the Pallavas, the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Pandyas succeeded in overthrowing the Kalabhras.

Just after the eclipse of the Kalabhras, the Second Chera Empire of Cheran Perumals made its appearance in the annals of Kerala history. Mahodayapuram (modern Kodungallur) was its capital. It was founded by Kulasekhara Azhvar (800-820 AD), one of the 12 poet-saints of South-Indian Srivaishnavism. The Azhvars were exponents of the Bhakti (devotional) cult in South India. They gave a great impetus to Vishnu Bhakti in South India up to the 10th century, especially between the 7th and the 10th centuries. Kulasekaran was ruling in Kudamalainadu of the Kerala country covering the length of the Kolli-Malai (hills) regions in central and north Kerala, from his capital at Mahodayapuram. He claimed for himself the titles “Kozhik-kon”, “Koodal- nayagan”, “Kongar Kon” confirming his authority over Kozhiyur (the Uraiyur of the Chozha country), and Koodal (the Madurai of the Pandya country), and also over the Kongu country. It was probably during this period the Uthakai became the second capital of the Kulasekara dynasty with a member of the Kulasekara family appointed to rule over this region.

Kulasekaran was an ardent devotee of – Sri Rama (regarded as an incarnation of God Vishnu), and hence the Vaishnavites of this period referred to him as Kulasekara Perumal and Kulasekhara Azhvar in reverence. He made pilgrimages to Thiruvarangam (Sri Rangam) in Chozhanadu, and Thiruvenkatam in Thondainadu – among others, and has composed a set of hymns – in Tamil in praise of God Vishnu named
as “Perumal Thirumozhi”, and one in Sanskrit named as “Mukunda Mala”. Kulasekhara Azhvar was indeed both a scholar and a great patron of the arts. He composed apart from the Perumal Tirumozhi and Mukundamala, three other works, Tapatisamvarna, Subhadradhamala and Vichchinnabhiseka – all in Sanskrit, which testify to his scholarship. He abdicated the Chera throne to lead a holy life and was venerated as one of the twelve great Tamil Vaishnava Saints, with the title Kulasekara Azhvar.

Rajasekhara Varman Perumal (a.d. 820-44) succeeded Kulasekhara Azhvar. Rajasekaran while ruling the Chera country from Mahodayapuram spent most of his time in religious activities and in meditation at the Siva Temple in Thiruvanjaikkalam at Kodungollur (Mahodayapuram) in the Kerala country. It was during this time that one of the great Tamil Saiva Saints of Tamil Nadu – Sundaramurthi Nayanar made a pilgrimage to the Thiruvarur Temple in the Chozha country. The Chera king went to Thiruvarur at the same time with a matching desire to meet this great Tamil Saiva Saint.

With the blessings of the ruling deity of Thiruvarur the Chera king composed hymns in Tamil in his praise known as “Mummanikkovai”. From there he went along with the Tamil Saint Sundarmurthi Nayanar to the Siva shrine at Vedaranyam in the Chozha country and other Siva Shrines all over the Pandya country. He composed further hymns in Tamil in praise of God Siva known as “Ponvannan Anthathi” and “Thirukkalyana Gnana Ula” and came to be known and venerated as Cheraman Perumal Nayanar. All the above hymns composed by him have been included in the eleventh “Thirumurai”. (Thirumurais are a collection of the sacred hymns in Tamil, sung on God Siva by various Tamil Saiva Saints of TamilNadu which then included most of modern Kerala. Finally at the eager request of the Cheraman Perumal Nayanar Sundaramurthi Nayanar opted to visit the palace of this Chera king at his capital city of Mahodaiyapuram in the Chera country travelling through Kongunadu the present Udagamandalam (Uthakai) region of TamilNadu. While there in A.D.844 the Saint Sundaramurthi Nayanar passed away. Unable to bear the grief caused by the death of this great Saint, Cheraman Perumal Nayanar too died in the same year.

It also appears the Tamil Saiva Saint known as Venattu Adigal hailed from Venad in the Chera country. Though he was not classified as one of the sixty-three Tamil Saiva Saints of Tamil Nadu, the hymns composed by him named `Thiruvisaippa” on God Siva of Chidambaram in Chozha country, have been included in the ninth Thirumurai.

It was during the period of the Chera king Kulasekaran and partly during the period of the Chera king Rajasekaran, that the great philosopher, who was to revive interest in Vedanta throughout the country and the founder of the modern Advaita doctrine, Sri Sankaracharya lived in Kerala.

Rajasekharavarman is credited to have founded the ‘Kollam Era’ of Kerala, which began in AD 825. It must have been much later and several years after the birth of Malayalam as the unique language of the Chera region that a decision must have been taken to make the Simha month the beginning month of the Malayalam version of the kollam year, rather than the Mesha month.This must have been to honour the legendary King Bali of Onam repute, whom all Malayalis would honour alike. Malayalis get along merrily with this situation, much as Tamils will have to after tomorrow. Rajasekharan also issued the Vazhappali Inscription, the first epigraphical record of the Chera Kingdom. He was followed by Sthanu Ravi Varman alias Ravi Varma Kulasekaran (alias Ko-Kandan) (AD. 844-55), a contemporary of the Chozha King, Aditya I (AD 870-906). Sthanu Ravi too was a Saivite like his father. He had a daughter by name Kizhaanadigal who married king Vijayaragadeva from another Chera royal family ruling a part of Kerala. The Tillaisthanam Inscription indicates that he was on friendly terms with the Chozha monarch. His reign also witnessed a flourishing trade between Kerala and China. This is borne out by the writings of the Arab merchant Sulaiman who visited India in a.d. 851. This king’s first love was astronomy. Sankaranarayana, who composed the astronomical work Sankaranarayaniyam, adorned his court.

After Rajasekhara’s death, hostilities broke out between the Cheras and the Chozhas, which continued until the disintegration of the Chera Kingdom. The Pandyas of the Madurai also involved themselves in the conflict. Rama Varma Kulasekhara (a.d. 1090-1102) was the last of the Chera Kings. He shifted his capital to Kollam (Quilon) when the Chozhas attacked Mahodayapuram during his reign. His death signalled the liquidation of the Chera Empire, from the ruins of which arose the independent kingdom of Venaad.

It was only towards the mid ninth century A.D, that the Chozha dynasty emerged in a determined manner into limelight, after a long spell in partial or total obscurity in the political scene of Tamil Nadu for nearly six centuries. We will try to see in Part 5, how the sound intelligence of the Cheras made them opt for peaceful coexistence rather than eminence through a lengthy spell of Chozha dominance of the Tamil horizon.

[Parashurama Kshetra Part 4]

Partha Desikan

to be continued

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