A confederacy of Tamil kings

It was necessary to keep the Mauryas at bay

July 25, 2019 04:02 pm | Updated 04:02 pm IST

The ancient Udayagiri caves in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.

The ancient Udayagiri caves in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.

The Hathigumpha inscription, found in the Udayagiri caves near Bhubaneshwar, was noticed in 1825 by A. Stirling. The first reliable version of the record came from Dr. Bhagwanlal Indraji in 1885. The language in the inscription (2nd century BCE) is Prakrit, and the script is Brahmi. The inscription reads like an abridged biography of a Kalinga king called Kharavela, son of Mahameghavahana, of the Chedi dynasty. Chedis find mention in the Mahabharata, and Sisupala belonged to this dynasty. The inscription talks of Kharavela’s carefree youth, his attaining fatherhood and of his military conquests.

The inscription says that Kharavela broke the 113 year old Tamira confederacy, which was a source of danger to his country. Tamira is Damira, which means Dramida or Dravida, indicating Tamil Nadu.

So, what was this confederacy? To answer this question, we must go back a little in history. The Mauryas, ruled Kalinga before Kharavela, and they find mention in Sangam literature. Verse 175 in Purananuru talks of the parasols, banners and chariots of the Mauryas. Agananuru, verse 69 says that the Mauryas had cut paths in mountains for their chariots to pass. Verse 251 refers to the Mauryas as strangers (vamba moriyar). Verse 281 says ‘moriyar then thisai mathiram munniya varavirkku’ – the Mauryas who came with a desire to conquer the South. So, these are proofs of Mauryan military ambitions in Tamil Nadu.

But there are no records of a Mauryan conquest of the Tamil region. Maybe, because of the Mauryan threat, the Tamil kings banded together, and their unity acted as a deterrent. This is the confederacy that Kharavela perhaps broke, roughly around 173 or 172 BCE. If the confederacy was 113 years old at that time, then it must have come into existence around 285 or 286 BCE, which would be the time of the Mauryan ruler Bindusara, the father of Emperor Asoka.

The legend about the Chellandiamman temple in Mayanur, near Karur, lends credence to the suggestion of a confederacy among the Tamil kings.

The story goes that the Chera, Chola and Pandya kings sought Goddess Parvati’s help to put an end to the constant warring amongst themselves. She settled their disputes in Mayanur and marked the boundaries of their respective kingdoms. Mayanur is also called Madukkarai, which is a corruption of madilkarai (madil - wall; karai - boundary). This is to indicate that a wall was built there, to mark the boundaries of the three Tamil kingdoms. Because of a request from the three kings, the Goddess stayed on in Madukkarai, as Chellandiamman.

In the ‘Trichinopoly Gazetteer’ (1907), Hemingway writes that the Karaipottanar river, which rises in the Kolli hills and empties itself into the Cauvery, was so named for a reason. The name Karaipottanar means ‘river that marked the boundary.’ This stream was once the boundary between the three Tamil kingdoms. “Beyond the Cauvery, an embankment runs Southward, across Kulittalai taluk, and this is supposed to be the continuation of the boundary,” writes Hemingway. He further refers to a verse of Avvaiyar, which gives the Western boundary of the Chola Kingdom as Kottaikarai, which literally means ‘fort bank.’ According to local tradition this ‘fort bank’ referred to the embankment seen in Kulittalai. Hemingway writes that the Chellandiamman temple marked the “ spot where the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms met,” and that a “bank that runs South from the river at this point was erected to mark the boundaries of the Chera and Chola kingdoms.”

A phrase in Line 13 of the Hathigumpha inscription was read as ‘hathi naavana paripuram’ by earlier scholars, but K.P Jayaswal and R.D. Banerji read it as ‘hathi nivaasa parisaaram’ - stockades for elephants. Kharavela got horses, elephants, rubies, and pearls from the Pandya King, says this line.

Tamil scholar Mu. Raghava Iyengar preferred the reading hathi naava. Naava means boat in Tamil, and Raghava Iyengar’s explanation was that hathi naava meant boats with an elephant figure on the bow. Raghava Iyengar pointed to Silappadikaram , which talks of Pandya ships as karimukha ampi and parimukha ampi. Ampi also means boat or ship, and karimukha ampi is a ship with an elephant figure carved on the bow, and pari mukha ampi is a ship with a horse figure carved on the bow. Interestingly, Dr. Sudhakar Chattopadhyay also gave a similar explanation. He said that Kharavela took away ships from the Pandyan kingdom. He wrote: “Perhaps in these ships were carved elephants and horses, which were studded with pearls and stones.”

But who was the Pandya king mentioned in the Hathigumpha inscription? “It was probably Nedunchezhian, who is referred to in Purananuru as Ariya padai kadanda Nedunchezhian. Kharavela’s army must have marched up to Madurai.

Nedunchezhian managed the crisis, gave many gifts to Kharavela, and averted the threat to his throne. The Brahmi inscription in Mangulam, mentions a Pandya King called Nedunchezhian. The inscription is dated to 2nd century BCE. This Nedunchezhian was probably the one who ruled in Madurai in Kharavela’s time,” says epigraphist S. Ramachandran.

However, epigraphist Dr. V. Vedachalam, gives a broader time span for the Mangulam inscription, placing it between 3rd and 2nd century BCE. If the Mangulam inscription is older than 2nd century BCE, we are left with the question — who was the Pandya king who was confronted by Kharavela?

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