Chronicles of the past in copper

Heritage: For Dr. Nagaswamy, former director of TNAD, the copper plates are a treasure trove of history.

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:37 am IST

Published - December 25, 2009 07:45 pm IST

The Tiruvalangadu copper plates of Rajendra Chola, which records his gift of the Palaiyanur village to the Tiruvalangadu Siva temple. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

The Tiruvalangadu copper plates of Rajendra Chola, which records his gift of the Palaiyanur village to the Tiruvalangadu Siva temple. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

It was a memorable and emotional moment for the 79-year old R. Nagaswamy, former Director, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department (TNAD), as he looked at the big bunch of Tiruvalangadu copper plates issued by emperor Rajendra Chola (1012-1044 A.D., regnal years) on October 28, 2009, after a gap of 50 years. They were a set of 31 copper plates, the ends of which were secured by a big, circular copper seal with the royal emblem of the Chola dynasty. The legend around the emblem proclaimed in Sanskrit, “Hail, Prosperity! This is Parakesarivarman Rajendra Chola's edict to be borne on the glittering jewels of the row of royal diadems.”

The seal itself is a work of art. It has a tiger, the emblem of the Cholas; an umbrella and two fly-whisks, representing royalty; a swastika and two lamps, auspicious symbols. Besides, it has two vertical fishes (the royal emblem of the Pandyas), a bow (the Cheras' emblem), and the boar (eastern Chalukyas' emblem), signifying that Rajendra Chola had conquered the Pandyas, the Cheras and the eastern Chalukyas These copper plates record Rajendra Chola gifting the Palaiyanur village to the Siva temple at Tiruvalangadu in the present-day Trivellore district.

Of the 31 plates, the first ten provide information in Sanskrit about the Chola genealogy. The remaining 21 plates inform in Tamil about Rajendra Chola's order of donating Palaiyanur to the Tiruvalangadu Siva temple, and the extent of the Palaiyanur's boundaries, when it was donated around 1017 A.D. “Making these impressions on the seal is exacting but a great work of art,” said Dr. Nagaswamy, when he delivered a lecture on October 29, 2009, entitled, ‘Copper plates grants' to coincide with an exhibition on copper plates, organised by the Government Museum, Chennai.

The copper plate inscribed in Sanskrit, gave details of the queen's donation of a village to a Brahmin. From sixth century A.D., the copper plates' charter became bilingual, that is, they were written in both Sanskrit and Tamil. While the Sanskrit portion was written in the Pallava grantha script, the Tamil language was written in Tamil script.

Bilingual plates

The earliest such bilingual plate called Pallankovil (near Karaikkal) belonged to the Pallava king Simhavishnuvarman (circa 550-circa 580 A.D., regnal years).

This copper plate recorded his grant of land to the Jaina temple at Tiruparitikunram, about three km from Kanchipuram “The Tamil portion of the plate provides elaborate details of administration, taxation, educational systems and the economy. They are all expressed in Tamil. So if you want to know the classical nature of the Tamil language, you have to go to this particular copper plate,” said Dr. Nagaswamy.

According to Dr. Nagaswamy, man chose to write on metal for two reasons. One was his belief that if he inscribed mystical diagrams (‘yantrams') on metal, it would bestow on him spiritual powers. The other was to prepare documents. “This is the reason why importance has been given to these inscriptions including those on the copper plates,” he explained. According to a pamphlet compiled by R. Balasubramanian, Curator, Archaeology Section, Government Museum, Chennai, and published by T.S. Sridhar, Commissioner of Museums, Tamil Nadu, the lithic inscriptions (inscriptions on stone, mostly found on temple walls) are numerous, but the copper plate records are not as plentiful. “However, this paucity is more than made up by the fact that these copper plate records are replete with historical facts and together with stone records, have benefited historians and archaeologists,” the pamphlet says.

These copper plate inscriptions, issued by almost all the major dynasties in Tamil Nadu and some of the vassal chieftains, have been accidentally discovered at various times and places. Farmers found them below the earth while ploughing or they were found in locked rooms or in abandoned houses. “Fascinating, as they seem, these copper plate inscriptions are broad sheets of copper, held together by a thick ring and crowned by the seal of the dynasty which issued it…,” adds the pamphlet.

“The copper plate inscriptions are written according to a prescribed format. Starting with one or more verses in Sanskrit in praise of deities, they go on to give the lineage of the king who issued the record and then describe the grant in detail with the name of the village or the land in the village which was donated, the name of the donee and some details about the donee's family,” says the pamphlet.

Prakrit, Sanskrit and Tamil

According to Dr. Nagaswamy, no copper plates belonging to the Tamil Sangam Age (first century B.C. to third century A.D.) have been found. Most of the early Pallava (third century to fifth century A.D.) period copper plates were written in Prakrit language. Some were written in Sanskrit. From sixth century A.D. of the Pallava rule, copper plate grants were bilingual (Sanskrit and Tamil).

The oldest of the Pandya copper plates were the ones issued by the early Pandya king, Maravarman Arikesari (alias Nedumaran), in the seventh century A.D. They were found in 2007 in Madurai by numismatist M. Vijayakumar. Excepting for some sentences in Sanskrit, the inscription is mostly in Tamil Vattezhuthu.

These plates record king Maravarman Arikesari donating a village called “Ilayaanputhur” in “Asinadu” division (near the present-day Kovilpatti and Sankarankovil) to a Brahmin named Narayanabhatta Somayaji. Nedumaran did so after defeating “Kambalai,” a leader of the Maravar (a martial) community, who opposed the king for giving his community's land to Brahmins. The plates call this rebellion “marakkedu.” Regarding the Cholas, the most important plate of Uttama Chola (970-985 A.D.) refers to gifts made to a temple at “Uraham” in Kanchipuram and the merchant guilds in the town. Dr. Nagaswamy said, “Uraham is in the central part of Kanchipuram. Merchants lived there. This copper plate gives evidence about how Kanchipuram evolved into a town with the merchants' guilds playing a key role in it. From the early period till 13th century A.D., the weavers made a contribution to Kanchipuram's development. Even now, it is a weaving centre.”

One of the most important copper plates of Raja Raja Chola (985-1014 A.D) is from Anaimangalam near Nagapattinam. They are called Leiden plates because they are housed in the Leiden Museum, Holland. They record the gift of the Anaimangalam village to a Buddha vihara built by the king, Sri Mara Vijayatunga Varman, of Java in the name of his father, Sri Chudamani Varman. The plates are an interesting example of how a Saivite king helped in building a Buddha vihara. Sundara Chola, Raja Raja Chola's father, issued the Anbil plates.

The largest number of copper plates were issued by Rajendra Chola, son of Raja Raja Chola. The most important among them are the Tiruvalangadu Karanthai (in Thanjavur town) and Esalam (near Tindivanam) plates. They provide elaborate details about village layouts, taxation methods, irrigation, Government administration and so on. Copper plates of the Vijayanagara period are also available. “These copper plates, therefore, are a treasure-house of history of the period,” said Dr. Nagaswamy.

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