Indian History Part 64 South India Section I: A Tale of Three Kingdoms

Canberra, 21 February 2018


The once-great Chalukya Empire vanished at the end of 12th century, disintegrating into unrecognisable sub-states; and by early 13th century, the other great dynasty, the Cholas, were in terminal decline in a free fall. For the next century, the Deccan was dominated by the Yadavas in Devagiri and the Kakatiyas in Warrangal. Around the same time, in South India, the Pandyas were supreme in the Deep South and the Hoysalas to their north. The Yadavas were overwhelmed by repeated invasions by the Delhi Muslim army, and finally succumbed to the ferocity and viciousness of the attacks—initially becoming a vassal state and then being swallowed through annexation. That left only the three other kingdoms to control the remaining parts of the Deccan and the South.

Through most of the 13th century, there were no significant political developments in the region. An eerie peace prevailed—the calm before the storm. Since peace prevailed, however uncomfortable it may have been, there were conspicuous developments in trade and the arts in the Peninsula. The famous traveller-trader Marco Polo visited the region in 1292-93 and left a vivid description of the three kingdoms, their social and political structure, and the day-to-day life of the common people.

The Pandya king, Jatavarman Kulasekhara had suffered an ignoble defeat at the hands of Kulottunga III, the Chola king, in 1205. Kulasekhara was succeeded 10 years later by his younger brother Maravarman Sundara Pandya. Sundara was still smarting under the defeat his brother had suffered and almost immediately invaded Chola territory. Kulottunga, now wearied by age and caught unawares by the attack, found the might of the Pandya king unstoppable. Sundara Pandya sacked Uraiyur and Tanjore after which he drove Kulottunga and the crown prince Rajaraja III into exile. Sundara performed the Virabhishkha, a prayer-offering to celebrate the valour of the king in battle, in the Chola coronation hall and then proceeded to Chidambaram where he worshipped at the famous Nataraja temple. Then the Pandya army established camp at Pudukkottai.

The fleeing Kulottunga appealed to the Hoysala king Ballala II for assistance. A Hoysala army under prince Narasimha was send to help and started to intervene in the Pandya-Chola conflict. In the meanwhile Kulottunga met Sundara Pandya at his Pudukkottai camp and made a formal submission acknowledging the Pandya king as the suzerain, and agreeing to pay an annual tribute. The peace offer was accepted and the Chola kingdom was restored to Kulottunga. This point in history is considered the beginning of the second Pandya kingdom.

Decades of Confusion

Kulottunga III died soon after regaining his throne and was succeeded by Rajaraja III. Rajaraja proved to be an inept and incompetent ruler, a fact that accelerated the downward trajectory of the Chola kingdom. Internal revolts and rebellions increased in number and intensity across the Chola territories. A group of renegade Oriya soldiers raided the Chola kingdom from the north-east and reached Srirangam where they created grave disturbances. Only through the intervention of Sundara Pandya could they be dislodged and made to go back to their country. From the north-west, the Hoysalas had already reached Kanchi and were in conflict with the Telugu-chodas of Nellore, vassals to the Kakatiya dynasty.

The most debilitating blow to the integrity of the kingdom was dealt by the Kadava chief Kopperunjinga who had been a long-time vassal-tributary of the Cholas. With the decline of the Cholas, he had grown increasingly powerful and now allied with the Pandya king against Rajaraja Chola III. Rajaraja, already an ineffectual ruler, compounded his troubles by refusing to pay the annual tribute due to the Pandya king and even had the temerity to invade Pandya territory. Rajaraja magnified his character flaws by not being far-sighted and lacking the aptitude to have a clear appreciation of the developing situation.

Sundara Pandya easily repelled the Chola invasion, took the offensive and defeated Rajaraja, taking his chief queen captive. He once again conducted a Vijayabhishekha, a prayer-offering to celebrate victory, in Chola territory. Rajaraja who had fled on being defeated, attempted to join the Hoysala army but was intercepted on the way. In the ensuing battle at Tellaru, he was again defeated. This time he was captured by Kadava Kopperunjinga who imprisoned him in the fort at Sendamangalam.

Narasimha II, now the Hoysala king, assembled his army and came to the rescue of Rajaraja. He attacked the vassals of the Kadava chief and defeated the king of Magara, consisting of Salem and South Arcot, and marched towards Srirangam. He then despatched an army under two of his powerful and trusted generals with clear instructions to free and restore the Chola king to his throne and to destroy the Kadava power that had now reached its zenith. The generals were true to the orders of their king. They invaded Kadava territory, captured many places and won a decisive battle against the Kadava army at Perambalur. During this campaign they also defeated and punished a number of rebel Chola officers who had joined the Pandya-Kadava combine, as well as a prince of Ceylon who had joined the Pandya army. The Hoysala army reached Sendamangalam, where a besieged Kopperunjinga handed over the Chola king to the generals. Rajaraja was taken back to the Chola capital honourably and reinstated as king.

While his generals were reinstalling the Chola king to his throne, Narasimha himself had met Sundara Pandya in battle. At the Battle of Mahendramangalam on the banks of the River Kaveri, Sundara Pandya was defeated and forced to accept the restoration of the Chola kingdom to Rajaraja. Although greatly diminished in strength, the Kadava rebellion continued for some more years before it was completely subdued. By mid-1200s all three dynasties agreed on a peace that was sealed by inter-marriages between the three royal houses.

The Uneasy Peace

Rajaraja continued to rule for another 20 years after being restored to the throne by the Hoysala king and the territorial boundaries of the kingdom remained the same ad before even though he had suffered such reverses. However, he was only a nominal king. His power was greatly diminished and the kingdom was rife with treason, disorder and defiance to the orders of the king. Also, the Hoysala king influenced all internal matters, further diluting the status of the Chola. The Hoysala influence was also felt in the Pandya kingdom, although not as strongly as in Chola territory. For about three decades following 1220 or so, South India remained under Hoysala hegemony. This was the result of Somesvara, son and successor of Narasimha II, leveraging his father’s battlefield successes and spending all his time expanding Hoysala influence into Tamil country. His own kingdom in the meantime was being administered efficiently by loyal ministers.

Rajendra III who came to the Chola throne after Rajaraja III was a more efficient and capable king. On assuming the throne he commenced a strenuous campaign to revive Chola power. He invaded the Pandya kingdom and defeated two princes of the realm in battle. Observing the rise of Chola power, Somesvara the Hoysala king and erstwhile Chola ally, joined the Pandya king to ensure that Chola power was contained before it was restored to the fullest extent. Rajendra was defeated in battle, after which an amicable peace was made.

Choda Tikka of Nellore

Choda Tikka, also called Gandagopala, was a minor king ruling territories to the north of the Chola kingdom and in an uneasy alliance with Rajendra Chola. In earlier times, Choda Tikka had been attacked, but not fully subdued by Somesvara. The Choda king was in continuous conflict with the Sambuvarayas and Kadavarayas, keeping them under check and thereby indirectly strengthening the Chola king, who would have otherwise had to expend energy to contain these rebellious clans.

Choda Tikka was powerful enough to hold his own against the might of the Hoysala king, Somesvara, during the three-cornered contest and may have influenced the peace process on the Chola side of the deliberations. He was also bold enough to keep Kanchi for himself as a sort of compensation for his support to the Cholas. Choda Tikka was also allied with the Kakatiya Ganapti of Warrangal who was also an adversary of the Hoysalas. One can clearly see the employment of the Mandala Theory in the actions initiated by Choda Tikka Gandagopala in ensuring the security of his own kingdom.

Rising Pandya Power

Jatavarman Sundara Pandya

In 1251, Jatavarman Sundara Pandya, one of the most famous and celebrated warrior-kings of South India, came to the throne. He was a famed conqueror under whom the Pandya kingdom flourished and became the most powerful in the region. Through a mixture of coercion and persuasion he united the Pandya royal family, which was under normal circumstances prone to internecine conflict for all kinds of reasons, primarily regarding the power wielded by an individual prince/royal family member within the kingdom. The royal family remained completely loyal to him. Even at his ascension to power, he was viewed with such awe that instinctively the Hoysala and Chola kings—Somesvara and Rajendra—hastened to strengthen their mutual alliance.

The reaction of the Hoysala and Chola dynasties was not without reason. In the initial part of his reign, Sundara Pandya fought many wars and rapidly expanded the Pandya territory. He enveloped Nellore and further north and also captured some territory in Ceylon. The Ceylon king was forced to pay an enormous tribute. Kanchipuram was made the secondary capital of the Pandya kingdom and he effectively confined the Hoysala rule to the Mysore Plateau. He attacked and ravaged Malainadu, in Chera territory, and defeated the Chera king Viraravi Udaya Marthandavarman. After this defeat, Kerala and a large part of Ceylon were directly administered by the Pandya king. After few minor skirmishes, Rajendra Chola was forced to accept Pandya suzerainty and thereafter continued to pay annual tribute to Sundara Pandya.

After consolidating his conquests, bringing under his control the more prominent minor kings and chieftains of the region, and subjugating the Chola king, Sundara went to war with the Hoysalas, for decades the predominant power in South India. The initial conflict was conducted in the region around the River Kaveri. There he captured the Kannanur Fort and forced Somesvara to retreat to the Mysore Plateau, which was the core of the Hoysala kingdom. Shortly thereafter Somesvara resumed hostilities with the Pandya king and was killed in battle by Sundara Pandya. After the defeat of the Hoysalas, the Pandya king moved against the Kadava chief Kopperunjinga and attacked Sendamangalam, his stronghold. The Kadava chief was forced to retreat and accept Pandya suzerainty. He was subsequently reinstalled to the throne as a vassal of the Pandyas. Sundara annexed the countries of Bana and Kongu from the Hoysalas and Kadvas. He proceeded to Chidambaram, where he paved the roof of the famous temple with gold and worshipped there in great splendour.

Sundara Pandya now ventured further north, killed Choda Tikka in battle and occupied Kanchi, which had been ruled by the Choda king for some years. He then defeated the Telugu army of Kakatiya Ganapati at Mudugur in Nellore district. Sundara conducted a Virabhishekham in Nellore to celebrate his victory. Carrying out the ceremonial rituals in different places and temples indicate that Sundara Pandya’s victories were not transitory military triumphs, but that he won the battle and thereafter controlled the region in question, administering it back to stability where he could then comfortably carryout these traditional rites at his leisure without any hindrance.

Sundara Pandya carried out a second invasion of Ceylon on the invitation of a disgruntled minister. Parakramabahu II, who was the king during the first Pandya invasion, was still ruling Ceylon. On the Pandya invasion, he wisely left the northern part of his kingdom to be conquered without a contest. After a tumultuous and extremely successful 17-year rule, Sundara Pandya died in 1268. He was succeeded by Maravarman Kulasekhara Pandya I.

Maravarman Kulasekhara Pandya I

Kulasekhara was a worthy successor to Sundara and proved to be an accomplished king and great ruler. For long the Pandya kingdom had followed a unique system of a combined rule by a group of princes of whom one enjoyed primacy. The full details of this system is difficult to obtain. However, it is certain that such a system would have created some amount of internecine struggle within the dynasty, especially since a ‘chief among equals’ situation would have normally prevailed. This is confirmed by the fact that historians mention the dynastic loyalty that was given to Sundara Pandya as one of the remarkable achievements during his rule.

A little before his death in battle, Somesvara had divided the Hoysala kingdom into northern and southern parts between his two sons. The southern part encompassing the Tamil countries that the Hoysalas had overrun fell to the younger son Ramanatha, who then recovered the Kannanur fort and managed to fight off Sundara Pandya. Kulasekhara now decided to subdue Ramanatha who was also a close ally of Rajendra Chola III. In 1279, a fairly large battle took place with the Pandya king on one side and Ramanatha and the Cholas arraigned opposite. Kulasekhara Pandya emerged victorious and established Pandya rule over the entire Chola territory and the Tamil territories that the Hoysalas had been ruling over. Historically, this is the last time that there is a mention of Rajendra III, and more importantly, the Chola dynasty. This is one of those unfortunate instances in history when a celebrated and great dynasty that flowed majestically as a perennial river dries into a trickle that vanishes in an instant of weakness into nothingness. The Cholas were left as a footnote to history that indicate its glorious past, but a footnote nonetheless.

Kerala was still indirectly administered by the Pandya kingdom and rose up in revolt during the changeover of rulers. However, Kulsekhara easily putdown the rebellion. At this stage Ceylon came under the grip of a severe famine. Taking advantage of the situation, Kulasekhara Pandya attacked Ceylon and laid waste the countryside. He captured the fortress of Subhagiri and carried away the ‘Tooth Relic’ (believed to be the tooth of Buddha) and considerable wealth. For the next 20 years or so, the entire kingdom of Ceylon was ruled by Pandya kings and could be considered yet another province of their kingdom. The next king, Parakramabahu III, went on a personal embassy to the court of Kulasekhara and persuaded the Pandya king to return the Tooth Relic.

Arrival of the Delhi Army

On Kulasekhara’s death there emerged a war of succession between Sundara Pandya the heir apparent and Vira Pandya, the younger son of Kulasekhara through a favourite mistress. The civil war also coincided with the arrival of the first Islamic invasion of the Deep South by the Delhi Sultanate army, which was led by Malik Kafur. In the civil war, Sundara Pandya was defeated and immediately appealed to the Muslim general for help. Hereafter, the sequence as well as the exact happenings that took place during the events that unfolded are not clear. Some historians cite this appeal for help as the reason for Malik Kafur’s foray into Tamil country. However, it is more probable that the Khilji dynasty’s most famous general was already planning an expedition to South India as ordered by Ala ud-Din the Sultan in Delhi. Therefore, the request for help was only one more reason for Malik Kafur to go south and in any case the assistance he provided to Sundara remains uncertain. It is also certain that Sundara Pandya did not go to Delhi, as has been mentioned in some later-day writings, but approached Kafur when he was already in close proximity to South India.

Some later histories also state that Sundara was placed on the throne by Malik Kafur and that he left a Muslim garrison in Madurai to protect him. There is no shred of evidence to prove this turn of events. There is also no trace of Muslim power in South India after the departure of Malik Kafur. Epigraphic evidence conclusively prove that the Pandya brothers and their successors continued to rule the now-divided kingdom. What must be acknowledged is that the fratricidal succession war that left the country divided combined with the Muslim invasion undermined the strength of the Pandya dynasty, built by the great Sundara Pandya and his successor, the equally glorious Kulasekhara Pandya. The unusual system of ‘group-ruling’ that seemed to have been the norm of the Pandya kingdom played a critical role in diluting the greatness of the empire. The Pandya dynasty was now left with no solidarity within the royal house, which in turn provided the impetus for other powers to rise and contest the supremacy of the Pandyas. Once again, this development is not an unusual occurrence in history. When a once-great dynasty is beset with internal divisions, the smaller and ambitious tributaries will invariably start to pick at the body-politic of the kingdom.

The Travancore Interlude

The 13th century kings of Venadu, a component of later-day Travancore, claimed to belong to Yadukula that traced its descent from the Ay kings of the 8th century, who were in turn considered the descendants of Ay Andiran of the Tamil Sangam literature fame. Ravivarman Kulasekhara, ruling Travancore had styled himself the Chera ‘emperor’ when he came to power. He was an accomplished ruler with his capital at Kollam. The Cheras were the only dynasty in Peninsular India to have avoided being invaded by the Muslim army under Malik Kafur. This may have been because of the geographical barrier of the Western Ghats, which could have created great logistical challenges to the march of an army. In the last quarter of the 13th century, when the Pandya civil war was continuing without any tangible result, Ravivarman initially raided and then invaded Pandya territory. This was an opportunistic move by an extraordinarily ambitious king.

Ravivarman conquered Pandya lands up to Kanchipuram and Poonmallee and established authority over parts of both Pandya and Chola kingdoms. There is a mention in some records of his defeating a Vira Pandya, although further details are vague. Considering the time frame of the invasion, this Vira Pandya could have been the prince involved in the Pandya civil war. Around 1312-13, Ravivarman crowned himself on the banks of the River Vegavati in Madurai district.

Vira Pandya raised a force to regain lost territories from the Chera ruler. He managed to create an alliance with the Hoysala king Ballala III and also with Vira Udaya Marthandavarman, who was arrival to Ravivarman in Travancore. Marthandavarman now created a rebellion in Travancore that forced Ravivarman to retreat from the northern Pandya kingdom where he had established Chera control. The Pandya king regained this part of his territory, although Ravivarman continued to hold on to his conquests in the south of Pandya territories for some more years. After this brief intervention into mainstream politics of South India, the history of Travancore retreats to being fragmentary and obscure from the perspective of the broader narrative of the Deep South.

Decline of Pandya Power

At the time of the return of the Chera ing to his own country, the Pandya were involved in a five-cornered feud amongst the princes Vira, Sundara, Vikrama, Kulasekhara and Parakrama. At this stage Kakatiya forces under Muppidi Nayaka invaded Pandya territory. Facing almost certain annihilation, the feuding princes joined forces to defend their kingdom. By this time the Kakatiya king, Pratapa Rudra, had arrived to personally lead his army. The combined Pandya army of the five princes was comprehensively defeated, Kanchi captured and a Kakatiya governor installed there. This was a severe setback to the Pandya dynasty.

Even after this defeat, the Pandya kingdom continued to be debilitated by the system of co-regency that supported the joint rule by a number of princes, which almost always led to divisiveness and internecine conflicts of interest. At a time when the kingdom could only be saved by unified and concerted defensive action, these quarrels and in-fights diluted and limited the effort, which led to disastrous consequences. There was no prince of stature to bring order to the cacophony of dissent and the Pandya kingdom continued its downward slide. Taking advantage of the prevailing disunity and the complete lack of central authority, the more ambitious and powerful feudal chiefs and tributaries of the Pandya dynasty started to rebel and attempt to break away. Accordingly the Sambuvaraya scion Kulasekhara, declared independence. This was followed by Semapillai, son of Rajendra II and now in extremely reduced circumstances, declaring independence in the old Pudukottai state.

The Hoysalas, themselves in the throes of dynastic succession struggles, added to the confusion in the Pandya kingdom. The internal fight between the two Hoysala brothers, Ramanatha and Narasimha III continued unabated. Ballala III succeeded Narasimha to the rule of the majority Hoysala kingdom, while Ramanatha continued to rule a minor territory around Bangalore and the Kolar-Tumkur region. On his death, Ramanatha was succeeded to the throne of this minor principality by his son Viswanatha. This was the end of this faction of the Hoysalas, which vanish from history. Ballala III was now once again the sole ruler of the Hoysala kingdom. He attempted to take advantage of the Pandya civil war and invaded their territory. At almost the same time, Malik Kafur was arriving at the northern borders of the Hoysala kingdom and Ballala was forced to abandon his attempts to capture lost territory from the Pandyas.

By about 1315, the Pandya Empire was completely broken up, insignificant territories being ruled by different princes. There is evidence of Sundara Pandya ruling to around 1320 and an inscription of Vira Pandya issuing an edict from Ramnad in 1341. During this period, Ulugh Khan the future Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, established Muslim rule in Madurai. Even so, this did not mean the end of Pandya rule in South India. Inscriptions in various places in the erstwhile Pandya kingdom attest to their scattered rule till about 1380.

The Scattered Rule of the Pandya Dynasty

Madurai was a Muslim enclave established by Ulugh Khan, but continued to be surrounded by the Pandya territories of Ramnad and Tanjore. There is epigraphic proof of these territories being ruled up to 1346 by Sundara Pandya’s younger brother Maravarman Kulasekhara. The inscriptions also prove that his rule encompassed all the districts from Tirunelveli to Tanjore. Further, inscriptions of Jatavarman Parakrama Pandya indicate that there was an overlap of control of some Pandya territories since they state his rule till 1347 of Ramnad and surroundings as well as the Pudukottai state. Pudukottai had earlier been claimed by Semapillai, the Chola scion, but it is obvious that his control of the region was short-lived.

Vira Pandya, not the brother who was involved in the initial civil war that started the downward trajectory of the Pandya dynasty, has inscriptions that indicate his rule of some districts till 1380. Another Pandya, Parakrama, ruled in the far south at Nagercoil, in the extremity of the Peninsula till 1380.

During the latter-half of the 14th century, members of the Pandya dynasty continued to rule in small pockets all over South India but not as an identifiable single distinct entity. Essentially, the once-great Pandya Empire was bisected and then divided by different Pandya factions at odds with each other and incapable of defending themselves independently. The kingdom lost coherence and it did not take much effort for the emerging Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar to sweep it aside in their march to glory.


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2018]
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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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