Indian History: Part 37 Kingdoms of The Deep South Section I The Pandya Dynasty

Bangaluru, 29 January 2015


The area of the subcontinent, south of the Vindhya Mountains, which can be termed Peninsular India, can be further divided into South India and the Deccan Plateau. [In the previous volumes of this series, the terms Peninsula, Deccan, and South India have been used in a more generic and interchangeable manner to indicate the region south of the Vindhya Ranges. Here a further geographic distinction is being made to the region to facilitate better understanding of the kingdoms that flourished there.] The Deep South, as the area south of the Deccan plateau can be referred, has an independent character and its own distinctive historical narrative. It is the land of the Tamil race and language known from ancient times as Tamilakam or the Tamil country. In 140 A.D. the Greek geographer Ptolemy mentioned the region as Damirike, a transliteration of Tamilakam, since the letters r and l were use in an interchangeable manner at that time.

The region was initially populated by the Villavar—bowmen or Bhils; and Minavar—fishermen or Minas; before the Tamil people overwhelmed them, moving in as immigrants from the north. Initially Tamil was the only language of the region, with Malayalam being developed as an independent language only a few centuries later. The poems of the region written up to the 4th century provide vivid descriptions and clear narratives of the prevalent society and show an advanced civilisation that had developed completely segregated from the rest of the sub-continent. During this period, the advances of Hinduism was spurned and the caste system was inchoate in the region. Hinduism made inroads into the area only at a much later stage and even then the process was one of integration through assimilation and acceptance rather than the imposition of a ‘superior’ religious belief. For example, the most powerful female demon worshipped in South India, Kottavai the victorious, was altered gradually to become a goddess within the Hindu pantheon as Uma or Durga, depicted as the consort of Shiva.

At the turn of the 4th century, there were 120 independent chieftains in the region who governed small territorial holdings. The result was unceasing internecine wars of exceptional ferocity between these minor fiefdoms. The three principle kingdoms of the Deep South were ruled by the Pandya, Chera, and Chola dynasties who were together called the ‘Three Crowned Kings’ of Tamilakam. Although the kingdoms continually battled each other to gain supremacy, there was also a tacit understanding between them regarding the core boundaries of each State.

The Core Boundaries

Unlike the Pallavas who were inveterate invaders, the three major kingdoms of the Deep South had fairly well recognised and mutually accepted borders with each other, which had been set over the years. However, this did not mean that predatory invasions did not take place; they surely did, but were infrequent and temporary in nature, not involving long term occupation other than is some exceptional cases. Further, these boundaries also varied enormously and continually with time and the changing fortunes of the three dynasties.

Traditionally the Pandyas ruled the area bound in the north by the Southern Vellaru River at Pudukottai all the way south to Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari). Their kingdom stretched from the Coromandal (Chola-mandala) coast in the east to the Achankoil Pass in South Kerala. The Achankoil Pass has also been referred to by historians as the ‘Great Highway’ because of the trade that passed through it. The Pandya kingdom encompassed the districts of Madurai, Tirunelveli and some parts of what later became the kingdom of Travancore.

The Cheras ruled the rugged region bounded by the Western Ghats in the east and the Chandragiri River that falls into the Arabian Sea near Mangalore in the north, clearly separated from the Tulu speaking people residing further to the north of the river. In Tamil this region was called Cherala and the kingdom Cheralam or Chera-nadu. Cheralam means a mountain range and in Kannadiga it was transliterated to Kerala, a name that the region still bears today.

The Cholas ruled a kingdom along the Coromandal Coast from Pudukottai to Nellore in the north, the southern part abutting into Pandyan territory. In the west the kingdom shared a border with Coorg. Madras and several adjoining districts and a large part of the later Mysore kingdom formed part of the extended kingdom. At one stage during a Pallava invasion in 7th century, the Chola kingdom was reduced to only the Cuddapah district. The waxing and waning of influence and strength of the dynasties are there for everyone to see.

Section I


A great port called Korkai on the banks of the Tamprapanai River, near the southern tip of the Peninsula, was the centre of commerce in prehistoric times and is also thought of as the cradle of South Indian civilisation. This almost legendary port is also considered to have been the home of the three mythical brothers who is supposed to have formed the three dynasties of the Deep South. After Korkai port became silted over and decayed, a new port was established about five kilometres down river at a place called Kayal. The Pandyas were known to the grammarian Katyayana who lived around 4th century B.C., thus confirming their antiquity. It is reported that the Pandya kingdom was initially divided into five separate principalities whose chiefs were collectively known and the ‘Five Pandyas’.  From 1st century onwards the capital of the kingdom was shifted to Madurai, also called in some texts as Kudal.

The Megasthenes Story

Megasthenes was the ambassador of Seleukos Nikator to the court of Chandragupta Maurya and had knowledge of the Pandyan kingdom to the south. He has left behind a story, prevalent in Magadha, the seat of Maurya power, regarding the origin of the Pandya dynasty.

It goes: Heracles, (equated to the Hindu god Shiva in the then prevalent Indian version) the mythical Greek god, had a daughter in India named Pandaia to whom was granted the land to the south of the sub-continent extending all the way to the sea. The kingdom was in fact a ‘queendom’. The people were distributed across 365 villages and each day one village paid tribute to the Queen, providing for all the needs of the palace. The Pandya Queen was very wealthy in terms of pearls and other precious stones and maintained a large and powerful army. From these origins emerged the Pandya dynasty.

The famed geographer Ptolemy was well informed regarding the Pandya country, also called Pandi Mandala, describing it as Pandyan Mediterranea in the Periplus. Strabo, the Greek philosopher, states that an Indian king called Pandian sent an embassy to the court of Augustus Caesar in 20 B.C.


The Sangam Tamil lexicon equates the word Pandya to mean ‘old country’. The legendary Pandyan king Malayadwaja Pandya is supposed to have taken part in the Kurukshetra War of the epic Mahabharata.

“Although knowing that the shafts [arrows] of the high souled son of Drona employed in shooting were really inexhaustible, yet Pandya, that bull among men, cut them all into pieces.”

Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Karna Parva (verse 20.25)

Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa

(published 1883-96)

The story further goes on to provide details of the daughter of Malayadwaja Pandya and his queen Kanchanamala, called Meenkashi (a combination of two Tamil words Meen (fish) and Akshi (eye) that together means ‘Fisheyed’), who succeeded her father ruled the kingdom with great efficiency. The Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple is supposed to have been built after her. These are stories, based on folklore and may or may not have some strain of truth in them.

Sources of Information

There are three main sources of information regarding the Pandya dynasty—the Sangam literature, epigraphy, and foreign sources. Even after combining the available information it is seen that there are noticeable gaps in the narrative regarding this ancient dynasty. There are no doubts regarding their antiquity and some historians even claim that the Pandyas were the longest ruling dynasty in Indian history.

Sangam Literature. The Pandya kings are mentioned in the Sangam Literature, although the exact dates of individual king’s reign cannot be ascertained from the poems. (The details of the poems and the kings’ names are available in the previous volume of this series, From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History, Volume II, pp. 81-82). The casual nature of the poems and the process by which the poet appended the name of the king or chieftain who was the patron for that particular poem makes it extremely difficult to create any order or chronology. However, generic information regarding the Pandya kingdom and its kings is available from the Sangam collection.

Epigraphy. Nedunjeliyan is the earliest Pandya discernible from the Minakshipuram record dated from 2nd to 1st century B.C. The Pandyas also get mentioned in the Pillars of Ashoka, inscribed 273-232 B.C., and also in the Hathigumpha inscription of the Kalinga king Kharavela done in 2nd century B.C.

Foreign Sources. The Mahavamsa, a historical poem regarding the kings of Ceylon written in Pali language mentions that King Vijaya (543-505 B.C.) married a Pandya princess. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (60-100 A.D.) also describes the kingdom of Pandya being far away from Muziris (port of Cranganore); the Chinese historian Yu Huan mentions the kingdom of Panyue in his 3rd century text Weilue; and the Roman Emperor Julian received an embassy from a Pandya king around 361. The Roman records also show a trading centre having been located on the Pandyan coast at the mouth of the River Vaigai southeast of Madurai. According to most of these reports, the Pandya country was a depot for pearls.

Even with these varied sources of information, there is still no way in which a cogent genealogy of the ruling dynasty can be established for a clearer understanding of the ancient Pandya history.

Early History

The first Pandya king that can be listed with certainty is Nedum Cheliyan who ruled as a contemporary of Gajabahu I of Ceylon (ruled 173-191) in the 2nd century. [The name Ceylon is used in reference to the modern day Sri Lanka in this narrative. The dating of the rule of a particular king or dynasty gets authenticated when the dates can be corroborated and confirmed with the documents and records of other contemporary dynasties. There is some difficulty in establishing the dates of South Indian kings because of the elaborate titles that they assumed, and the duplication of these titles by different kings. Further these titles were cumbersome for later day historians, especially not fluent in the local language, to understand.] The famous Kural of Thiruvalluvar, which lives even today in the hearts of the Tamil people, was written in the Pandya kingdom around 100 A.D.

There is no verifiable information available regarding the Pandyas for the next 500 years or so. They come up next in the records of Hieun Tsang who visited the Pallava capital Kanchi in 640. Although he did not proceed further south, Hieun Tsang mentions the existence of the Pandya kingdom with Madurai as the capital. Although recorded off hear-say evidence, his writings give a brief glimpse of a kingdom with numerous Buddhist and Jain temples with no mention of religious persecution of minority sects. However, contrary to this third person report, religious persecution was practiced by some of the Pandya kings. It is recorded that Nedumaran Pandya, the king during this period had been brought up as a Jain but was converted to the Shaiva faith by his queen, who was a Chola princess. [The Cholas were traditionally Shiva worshippers.] The king was a zealous convert who embarked on a cruel prosecution process of the Jains as recorded in the sculptures in the Tiruvattur temple. The foundation of the Jain religion in South India was visibly shaken by this persecution and never fully recovered, thereafter being practised only in pockets within the broader sweep of Hinduism.

The Medieval Pandya Dynasty

The first great ruler in the second part of Pandya history was Kadungon (reigned 590-620) following whom there is again a small gap in information till the records mention the ascension of Arikesari Parankusa around 700, which marks the beginning of the imperial period of the Pandyas. He ruled for 30 years and was also called Ranadhira, which could be loosely translated to mean ‘courageous in battle’, probably acknowledging his military prowess and valour in the battlefield. He suppressed a revolt by a local chieftain Ay, ruling the hilly terrain between Tirunelvelly and Travancore and then went on to defeat the Chera (Kerala) ruler. Records show that the Cheras were repeatedly defeated by this king, giving credence to the speculation that the Cheras were a rebellious dynasty prone to continual internecine fighting. He is also reported to have defeated the Pallavas in battle, although there is no conclusive evidence to establish this event in the records of either dynasty.

Arikesari was followed by his son Maravarman Rajasimha I (ruled 735-65) who formed an alliance with Vikramaditya II, the ruling Chalukya king. He intervened in the succession struggle of the Pallavas, defeating Nandivarman Pallavamalla in favour of Chitramaya a claimant to the throne. However, this victory was short-lived since a Pallava General, Udayacandra, raised the Pandya siege of Nandigrama near Kumbakonam, restored Nandivarman to the throne and killed the usurper Chitramaya. Obviously Maravarman, although defeated was not deposed and was permitted to continue ruling his kingdom. Jatila Parantaka (ruled 765-815), also called Nedunjadaiyan and Varagunamaharaja I, assumed the throne after Maravarman and was an ambitious king. He expanded the territorial holding of the kingdom to a certain extent and was also victorious against the Pallavas in a battle fought at Pennagadma on the southern bank of the River Kaveri. He further established control over Tricihinapoly and beyond, moving into Salem, Tanjore and Coimbatore districts. Jatila Parantaka, invaded Venad, the southern part of Travancore of the Cheras and captured the fort at Villinum.

Srimara Srivallabha (ruled 815-62) who followed on the throne from Jatila was an even more ambitious king. In the beginning of his rule he added Ceylon to the kingdom. However, the Sinhala king Sena II (851-85) later invaded the Pandya kingdom and sacked Madura. Sena II was subsequently defeated by the Pallavas. It is obvious that Srimara’s ambition and capability were mismatched, although his rule lasted for more than 40 years. The last Pandya king whose details are available is Maravarman Rajasimha II who ruled for 20 years (900-20) during which the once mighty kingdom entered its death throes. He invaded the Chera kingdom without much success and was in turn defeated by the rising power of the Cholas under their king Parantaka I. Exiled, he took refuge in Ceylon and subsequently was forced to move to Kerala where he died in obscurity. From then on, the illustrious Pandya kingdom lapsed into functioning under the yoke of the Cholas till the early 13 century. However, even during this period the local administration of the reduced kingdom was still handled by the Pandya kings. The relationship between the Chola overlords and the Pandya ‘feudatory’ was constantly in flux, changing with the characteristics of the different kings of both the dynasties.

The Southern Kingdoms fought a number of wars with Ceylon, making it a frequent occurrence.  In 1166-77 Ceylon entered into an extended succession struggle, but Pandya power was paralysed at that time and therefore could not take a direct part in it. However, their overlords the Cholas were actively involved in supporting the claims of a rival faction in the Sinhala kingdom. During the preoccupation of the Cholas with the Sinhala Civil War, the Pandya ruler, Jatavarman Kulasekhara managed to achieve greater autonomy and ruled independently (1190-1216). However, the Chola supported faction was successful in the Civil War in Ceylon and the Cholas once agian brought the Pandya kingdom under their sway. Jatavarma’s successor, Maravarman Sundaram Pandya (ruled 1216-38) battled the Cholas and overran the Chola kingdom. The Cholas were saved by the intervention of the Hoyasalas who were initially feudatories of the Cholas, but has become powerful on their own accord. [This is difficult to believe in its entirety, since the power of the Cholas had not reduced that drastically and nor had the power of the Pandyas increased substantially to effect a complete defeat of the Cholas. That the Hoyasalas would have assisted their erstwhile overlords is believable. It is possible that Sundaram Pandya was victorious in few battles that were of no larger consequence.]

The height of the Later Pandyan power could be considered to have occurred under the rule of Jatavarman Sundara Pandya (1251-68), who defeated the Cheras, Hoyasalas, the Telugu Chodas, Kakatiyas, and subjugated Ceylon. He ruled an extensive kingdom, albeit for a limited period, extending from Ceylon to Nellore and Cudappah in the north. Greater details of his rule are sadly insufficient to piece together a broader narrative. His successor Maravarman Kulasekhara (ruled 1268-1310) continued the expansionist policy and is considered a great ruler of the Later Pandya dynasty. He conquered Kerala, Kongu, Cholamandalam and Tondaimandalam—effectively becoming the overlord of the Cholas and the Cheras. In 1293, the famous explorer Marco Polo visited the Pandya kingdom and left a very vivid description of the state of affairs, which is very complimentary. Although Marco Polo is widely known for his exaggerations, the account of the Pandya kingdom is corroborated by the contemporary Muslim historian, Wassaf and therefore can be considered accurate to a point.

Kulasekhra’s demise brought on a war of succession that prompted Muslim intervention and an inexorable onset of the decline of Pandya power. The kingdom was partially taken over by Malik Kafur, a Muslim general in Allaudin Khilji’s army, around the same time. The dynasty was however not destroyed, but there was a marked change in their political fortunes, all for the worse. The once powerful Pandya dynasty lapsed into being an insignificant and much reduced royal household, ruling a fraction of the extensive Empire that formed the Pandya kingdom at the height of its glory.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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