Indian History Part 37: The Kingdoms of the Deep South Section II: THE CHERA DYNASTY

Canberra, 6 February 2015

The earliest reference to the Cheras is found in the chronicles of Asoka the Great, which mentions the Keralaputras, another name for the Cheras. It is obvious that they were not conquered by Asoka, but paid some sort of a tribute to the Maurya emperor to be left alone. The term Keralaputra was used in a slightly corrupted form by Pliny and the author of the Periplus in the 1st century. The Tamil literature of the time divides the Chera kingdom into five ‘nadus’ or districts/provinces: Pooly, the sandy district that spread from Agalappula to the mouth of the River Ponnani; Kudam the western province encompassing the area between the River Ponnani to the mouth of the River Periyar near Ernakulum; Kuddam, the lakes districts of Kottayam and Kollam (Quilon), which Pliny referred to as Kottanara and described as the pepper coast; Ven Nadu, the jungle below Kollam all the way south to Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari); and Karaka, the rocky district that also included the hilly region lying to the east of Kudam.

There were two main ports that were active during the early centuries—Muziris, modern day Cranganore (now Koduganllur) at the mouth of the River Periyar, which also attracted Roman merchants who went on to build a temple to Augustus there, now lost to antiquity; and Vaikkarai, the landing place for Kottayam. The Greeks provide detailed account of the trade that was carried out although they do not mention any contemporary political developments, which is unfortunate, since such a narrative would have given a great deal of insight into the functioning of the kingdom. The South-East Monsoons during July-August provided the winds necessary to carry out a journey from Arabia to Muziris in 40 days and the North-West Monsoons provide the tide for the return journey.

The word Chera is most probably derived from the ancient Tamil word Cheral meaning ‘declivity of a mountain’. The Asokan edicts of 3rd century B.C. refer to them as Kedalaputho (Keralaputra) and the Greco-Roman trade map Periplus Maris Erythraei refers to the Cheras as Celobotra.

Early Cheras of the Sangam Literature

The Tamil poetic collection of the Sangam Literature describes a long line of Chera rulers that date to the first few centuries A.D. The first known king was Udiyanjeral (or Uthiyan Cheralathan), who ruled around 130 from the capital Vanju (Vanchi in some accounts) which was situated up the River Periyar, about 45 kilometers from present day Kochi. Senguttavan Chera is the most celebrated in the poems and is famous for the legends surrounding Kannagi, the heroine of the Tamil epic Silapathikaram. The core Chera territory was the current Malabar, Kochi, and Travancore, which continue to be the territory of Kerala today. However, Kongu country, consisting of Coimbatore and South Salem districts, have been periodically attached and separated from the Chera kingdom. It seems that whenever Chera power was in ascendancy this part was conclusively included in their kingdom.

The early history of the Chera dynasty is difficult to narrate cohesively, it is obscure and scanty despite concerted efforts by a number of scholars to piece it together in a coherent manner. The earliest king of whom there is some reliable information is Chenkuttavan who is considered to have been a contemporary of Nedumcheliyan Pandya, Nedumudikilli Chola and Gajabahu I of Ceylon.

Dating Early Tamil History

Historians use a process called ‘Gajabahu synchronisation’ to date early Tamil history. Although the process is based on a number of conjunctures, it has wide acceptance among most historians. The process is reliant on one event described in the epic poem Silapathikaram that describes the visit of Kayavaku, the king of Ilankai (Sri Lanka/Ceylon) to the Chera kingdom during the rule of Chenkuttavan. This Kayavaku is considered to be Gajabahu I, who according the Pali historical poem Mahavamsa lived in the second half of 2 century; making it possible to fix Chenkuttavan’s rule of 55 years also in the same period.

The Early Rulers

Although exact or even approximate dates for the reigning periods are not available, the early Chera rulers can be listed in an uncertain chronology and snippets that are discernible from the Sangam poems can be extrapolated as given below.

Uthiyan Cheralathan. Uthiyan Cheralathan ruled from his capital Kuzhumur and was wounded in the back by Karikala Chola in the Battle of Venni. Unable to bear the disgrace of having been wounded in the back, he starved himself to death.

Nedum Cheralathan. The next king in sequence according to the Sangam Literature is Nedum Cheralathan who consolidated the kingdom, as praised by his court poet Kannanar. His relationship to Uthiyan is unclear. He is reported to have defeated the Kadambas of Banavasi and also the Yavanas (Westerners) on the coast. Nedum Cheralathan was killed in battle by a Chola king, who was also killed by a spear thrown by the Chera. [This coincidence of both kings being killed simultaneously in battle at each other’s hands is hard to believe and could perhaps be considered poetic licence taken by the writer of the eulogy, to safeguard the stature of the Chera king. This claim is similar to one expressed in another poem which claims that Nedum Cheralathan conquered the entire Bharatvarsha and inscribed the Chera emblem on the Himalayas.]

Palyani Sel Kelu Kuttavan. On Nedum Cheralathan’s death his brother Palyani Sel Kelu Kuttavan came to the throne. He had been a successful military commander during his brother’s rule and helped conquer some parts of Malabar, bringing it under Chera rule. However, in the later years of his life, Palyani retired from active military life and has been described as a patron of arts and letters.

Narmudi Cheral. The next set of Sangam poetry praises Narmudi Cheral, the son of Nedum Cheralathan for his generosity towards the defeated, and extols his military virtues. He is reported to have been the victor of the Battle of Vakai-perumthurai where the chieftain Nannan of Ezhimalia was defeated and killed with the Chera king annexing the territory of Puzhinadu.

Selva Kadumko Valiathan. The hero of the seventh set of Sangam poems composed by Kapilar, Valiathan lived in Tondi and was married to the sister-in-law of Nedum Cheralathan. He defeated the combined armies of the Pandyas and Cholas and is considered to be the same person who is mentioned as Athan Cheral Perumal in the Arnattarmalai inscriptions of Pugalur.

Senguttavan. Also called Vel Kelu Kuttavan, he was another son of Nedum Cheralathan and is considered the most illustrious of the Sangam Cheras. He is often referred to as ‘Kadal Pirakottia Senguttava Chera’, meaning Senguttava Chera who ‘pushed the sea back’, an indication of the great power that he wielded. [This tale has a distinctive resemblance to the story of King Canute in England ordering the waves back!] Early in his rule Senguttavan intervened in a succession struggle of the Cholas and after winning two decisive battles managed to have his preferred candidate installed on the Chola throne. The Chola dynasty became established and stable after this. Senguttavan then waged war against the Kadambas, who were being supported by the Yavanas, most probably Greek mercenaries. The Kadambas were defeated in the Battles of Idumbil and Valyur and their principle establishment at Fort Kodukur was stormed by a Chera maritime expedition. Senguttavan also built a temple in Vanchi, which features as a place that King Gajabahu visited during his royal trip to the Chera kingdom. According to the Gajabahu synchronisation process Senguttavan must have ruled in the early 2nd century. The Chera kingdom at this stage extended from Kollimalai in the east to Tondi on the west coast.

Perum Cheral Irumporai. Also titled ‘Tagadur Erinta’, meaning the victor of Tagadur, Perum Cheral Irumporai was a warring king. He defeated the combined Pandya-Chola army and from the title ‘the lord of Puhar’ that was bestowed on him, it appears that he annexed and stayed in Puhar the capital of Cholas, at least for some time. He also annexed the territories of some minor chieftains and was also referred to as the ‘lord of Puzhinad and Kollimala’ confirming his conquests and/or continued rule of these places.

Yanaikatchi Mantaran Cheral Irumporai. Mantaran Cheral is reported to have maintained or preserved the integrity of the early Chera kingdom, although clear signs of decline was already visible during his rule. He did fight and win some insignificant battles but was captured by the Pandya king Nedum Chezian, managing to escape and then regain the lost kingdom. There is mention of two more insignificant Chera kings in the Sangam list.

The Centuries of Uncertainty

The post-Sangam period, 4th and 5th centuries, were tumultuous for the Cheras. The Kadambas gained superiority, as indicated by the inscriptions in the Edakkal cave in Wayanad, which had always been part of the Chera kingdom. The Kalabhra ruler, Achuta Vikkanta, destroyed the power of all three traditional Southern dynasties, Pandya, Chera, and Chola, and a contemporary Buddhist work even claims that all three kings were held captive by the Kalabhra king. While this may be an exaggeration, the implication of the absolute power of the Kalabhras cannot be ruled out. The irrefutable fact is that for nearly five centuries, the Cheras remained insignificant rulers, unable to stand up to foreign invasion and barely clinging to power in a much reduced state and holding limited territory. They survived at the whim and fancy of the more powerful northern dynasties that ranged through their kingdom at will.

The Chalukyas of Badami, under Pulakesin I, claim to have annexed Malabar and their inscriptions state that they defeated the Chera ruler and also the Ezhil Malai rulers, which could be a reference to the Pandya dynasty. In order to avoid repeated conquests, the three Deep South kingdoms—Chola, Pandya, and Chera—joined hands and marched against the Chalukyas as an alliance. The remarkable power of the Chalukyas and the ineffectiveness of the southern military forces were amply demonstrated when the alliance or confederacy was soundly beaten. The Chera king came out the worst, being forced to pay a very high tribute to the Chalukyas, making it fairly obvious that he was the mastermind behind the formation of the Confederacy.

It was also during this period of uncertainty that the Pallavas also defeated the Cheras and subsequently allied with them against the Pandya kingdom. Once again, the constant changes in allegiance of the Cheras is indicative of weak rulers without the power to enforce their own policies at will. The Ay kingdom to the south of the Chera territories had for long been a buffer between the Cheras and the Pandyas. However, in the latter half of 8th century, the Pandya king Jatilavarman Parantaka invaded the Ay kingdom and captured the port of Vizhinjam. This led to almost a century of warfare between the Ay rulers and the Pandyas, to the detriment of both as well as for the Cheras who could not permanently remain by-standers and were forced to intervene periodically. This led to the bleeding of resources for all parties involved without either dynasty accruing any tangible benefit.

There are many claims of Pallava and Pandya conquest of the Chera kingdom or its parts, but none are verifiable with reasonable accuracy as there is no tangible evidence to support any of the assertions. There is relatively more information regarding the cultural exchanges between the three kingdoms of the Deep South and the Chera participation in them, although even these are inconclusive and sparse. A book Avantisundari Kathasara, written by Dandin provides a somewhat detailed and more intimate information regarding the culture of the Cheras although even this proves inadequate to create a believable picture of the prevailing socio-political landscape. Sometime during the medieval Pallava renaissance several learned Brahmins from Kerala is reported to have visited Kanchi.

Legend has it that the emergence of the mysterious Kalabhras was a dark period in Chera history. [The term Kerala and Chera could well be used interchangeably in this narrative, as it has been over the long history of the region, starting from the time of Asoka Maurya the Great who mentions Keralaputras as resident in the rugged hilly regions across the Western Ghats.] The Kalbhras brought political upheaval of such enormity that the people of the Chera kingdom were forced to import a Royal family to rule them. This family was called the Perumals, who ruled the kingdom thereafter for a long period of time.

The Legend of Cheraman Perumal

It is believed that the Chera kingdom (Kerala) was divided into four sections by the ruling Brahmins who were notorious for their misrule. The people asked the Chera king for a viceroy to be send to administer the kingdom properly. Accordingly a ‘Perumal’ was send from Ceyapuram (modern day Coimbatore). He was Cheraman Perumal, considered to have been installed as the king of Kerala around 216, after whom 25 more Perumals ruled, the last one finishing in 428. The information available regarding Cheraman Perumal’s rule is a complex mix of story and fact, which cannot be clearly delineated. There are also stories told of his conversion to Muslim, Saivite, Christian and Jain faiths. These can be assumed to indicate that Cheraman was a religiously devout person who also was a tolerant ruler, considering all faiths to be of equal importance.

The Kollam Era

In 731, Veera Marthanda Vurma whose real name is difficult to establish, is supposed to have come to the throne and then ruled the kingdom for 71 long and peaceful years. He was succeeded by Udaya Marthanda Vurma who created the Kollam era, starting on 15 August 825 which coincided with the first day of the Malayalam month of Chingam. This era is still followed in the religious calendar of the Malayalis (the name given to the people resident in Kerala who speak Malayalam as their mother tongue). The use of the Kollam era gradually spread to other South Indian kingdoms and some of the inscriptions in the Peninsula bear the Kollam dates, creating confusion for later-day historians in understanding the chronology of events and years of rule of kings.

Since the Kollam era is intimately connected to religious festivals and other activities of the Kerala region, it is more probable that 825 was the year in which Sankaracharya’s (who was born in an obscure village in Kerala) religious prescriptions were imposed on the people. It is also mentioned in some material that this was the year in which the Jewish settlement in Kollam was established. However, it is unlikely that a new era would be commenced to commemorate the arrival of few foreign refugees.

The Later Cheras

By the beginning of the 9th century, the Chera kingdom was a loose federation or chiefdoms ruled by regional chiefs of varying stature. The core of the Chera kingdom, ruled by the Perumals, was the only large enough territory under cohesive rule to merit the title kingdom. Even this was actually a confederacy of chieftains, primarily of Aryan-Brahmin origin, who were called ‘Naduvazhi(s)’ a term that can be very loosely translated as ‘ruler(s) of the country’, where the term country (nadu) itself is used in a nuanced manner to indicate the territorial holdings of an independent family. They came together to support the Chera Perumal king to mount a combined defence against any, normally Pandya, intrusion.

There were some distinct disadvantages that emanated from this unusual arrangement. Since the actual power was resident in the Naduvazhis, the kings were normally titular rulers and tended to be saintly scholars comfortable in the pursuit of learning, rather than warrior kings adept at conquest and defence. State formation was by itself obviously weak and the Chera ‘kingdom’did not possess any large scale military enterprise capable of withstanding an invasion or taking the fight to the enemy for conquest. In effect the existence of the Chera State was precarious to say the least and the Perumals were subordinate to the Cholas for nearly the whole of the 11th century. Only with the decline of Chola power at the beginning of the 12th century did the ruling Perumal consider it possible to declare complete independence.

The Venadu Cheras

The weakness of the central governance facilitated the break-up of the kingdom into semi-independent principalities ruled by small-time chieftains. The original Chera dynasty migrated to Kollam (also called Quilon in later days) and merged with the Ay kingdom, with the Chera king becoming the joint ruler under the name of Ramar Thiruvadi. These kings, who became known as the kings of Venadu, trace their origins to the Chera Perumals who ruled from Makkotai (Modern day Kodungalloor). The Venadu rulers were cautiously ambitious and over a period of the reign of several of them, conquered Kottar and parts of Nanjanadu from the Pandyas while also managing to maintain reasonable peace with them. This dichotomy indicates the growing power of the Cheras and a temporary decline of Pandya influence.

It is possible that Kollam was captured by the Pandya king Jatavarman Sundara Pandya around 1250 and the Venadu Cheras were under Pandya subjugation for over 50 years thereafter. The establishment of Pandya rule over Venadu is also mentioned in the annals of Maravarman Kulasekhara Pandya. The Chera-Ay dynasty remained Pandya vassals till the Pandya dynasty suffered irreversible defeat at the hands of Malik Kafur, the Muslim general in 1311. At the same time the Chera-Ay ruler was also forced to abdicate the kingship in favour of two princesses of the Tulu Kolathiri kingdom.


There is uncertainty regarding the fate of the Cheras following the defeat and decline of Pandya power in the early 14th century.  This is compounded by confusion regarding the end of the Chera line itself. From around 1225 the control of the land, by then commonly called Kerala came to rest with the maternal descendants of the original Cheras who crafted the kingdom of Perumpadappu. The Cheras played only an insignificant role in the overall history of the sub-continent, since their territorial holdings were relatively small and also being geographically distant from the almost constant turbulence across the northern part, brought about by continual invasions into the Gangetic plains. However, their contribution to the broader sweep of Indian history can be measured through the substantial contribution they made in facilitating trade and commerce with the outside world that brought with it enormous cultural influences from different parts of the then-known world. The sub-continent became richer for this unique input.

Kerala Ulpathy

This is a treatise composed in the 17th century by Thunchathu Ramanujan that gives detailed information regarding Kerala. It is based on an earlier tome of unknown antiquity, the Kerala Mahatmyam. Over a period of time, Ramanujan’s original has been subject to several interpolations and has also given rise to a number of other Ulpathys. These later versions give conflicting accounts of the events that took place in Kerala. These discrepancies have led to the veracity of even the original to be questioned and the currently available version of Kerala Ulpathy can only be considered an embellished and unverifiable story of the land.


© [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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