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‘Pandyan Nindraseer Nedumaran’ review: A warrior-king and his legacy

Writing books on history is a demanding academic exercise and it becomes even more challenging when the subject matter is a Pandya king who ruled the southern part of Tamil Nadu more than 1,300 years ago. The handicaps become manifold when you are dealing with a single monarch and the resources available are limited to a few inscriptions, copper plate charters and literary references about him.

However, V. Vedachalam, veteran epigraphist, and A. Kalavathi, have been bold enough to choose the Pandya king Nedumaran as the sole subject of their book in Tamil, Pandyan Nindraseer Nedumaran.

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Temple murals

Nedumaran was a Pandya monarch who ruled the entire southern part of Tamil Nadu from Madurai to Kanyakumari for 50 years from CE 640 to CE 690. He was a key architect of the Early Pandya empire that lasted from CE 570 to CE 966. It is a scholarly book written in a racy manner. The book is the outcome of 40 years of legwork in Pandya country and the authors’ research into lithic inscriptions, copper plate charters, murals and the sculptures in temples that provide information on Nedumaran. The king is popularly known as Koon Pandyan in Tamil Nadu because he was reportedly a hunchback and there is a popular belief that he was a Jaina before the Saivite boy-saint poet Thirugnana Sambandar converted him to Saivism.

Nedumaran came to power at a crucial period in Tamil history. The Kalabrahas had been driven out of Pandya territory a few decades earlier, the Pallava power was rising in the northern part of Tamil Nadu, and the Bhakti movement led by the Saivite saints Nayanmars and the Vaishnavite Alwars was burgeoning to counter Jainism. Besides, kings were creating exclusive settlements for the Brahmins and the land-owning Vellalas, and agriculture and irrigation works were expanding. Most importantly, big changes were occurring in Tamil society after the Sangam age had ended. Society was divided not on the basis of the professions that people practised but on the basis of their birth.

Unsettling times

In these unsettling times, Nedumaran came to power in CE 640, proved to be a great warrior-king, a visionary and an excellent administrator, who excavated a series of big irrigation tanks and laid a network of canals connecting them to boost agriculture. He reportedly took a balanced approach towards Jainism and the Vedic religion, which were on a collision course.

Vedachalam and Kalavathi settle several controversies related to Nedumaran. If scholars such as Sundaram Pillai, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, M. Rajamanickanar, Mylai Seeni. Venkataswamy, Dr. R. Nagaswamy and Dr. K.V. Raman differed on the regnal years of Nedumaran, the authors use two important lithic inscriptions to assert that the king ruled for 50 years from CE 640 to CE 690. Both the inscriptions are in Tamil but in Vatelluttu script. They provide a lot of information about his victories in battles and acts of generosity.

There is information on the 25 battles Nedumaran fought against the Cheras, the Cholas, the Pallavas (against the Pallava king Narasimhavarman who ruled from CE 640 to CE 668) and how he put down internal rebellions too. The most gripping pages are on the rise of the Bhakti movement led by Thirugnana Sambandar, how Nedumaran’s queen Mangayarkarasi and his minister Kulachiraiyar sent word to Sambandar to come to Madurai to counter the growing influence of Jainism in the Pandya country, and the resultant dialectical duels between Sambandar and the Jaina monks etc.

Vedachalam and Kalavathi do not hesitate to take a stand on controversial subjects. The authors say it cannot be deduced from Sambandar’s poems whether Nedumaran was a hunchback, and that there are no grounds to believe that the king was a Jaina first and that hundreds of Jainas were driven up the palisades. Nedumaran was a Saivite but he was even-handed in his attitude towards both Jainism and Saivism, the authors conclude.

Pandyan Nindraseer Nedumaran; V. Vedachalam, A. Kalavathi, Dhanalakshmi Pathippagam, ₹200.

The reviewer is an independent journalist.


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