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The Early Cholas of the pre and post Sangam period (300 BCE – 200 CE) were one of the three main kingdoms of the ancient Tamil country. Their early capitals were Urayur and Kaveripattinam. Along with Pandyas and Cheras, Chola history goes back to the period where the history is covered with the mists of time.
On the history of Cholas, as in many other subjects of Indian history, we have very little authentic written evidence. Historians during past 150 years have gleaned a great treasury of knowledge on the subject from a variety of sources such as ancient Tamil Sangam literature, oral traditions, religious texts, temple and copperplate inscriptions of the imperial cholas from the 10th century.
The main source for the available information of the early Cholas is the early Tamil literature of the Sangam Period. There are also brief notices on the Chola country and its towns, ports and commerce furnished by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Periplus Maris Erythraei). Periplus is a work by an anonymous Alexandrian merchant, written in the time of Domitian (81 – 96 CE) and contains precious little information of the Chola country. Writing half a century later, the geographer Ptolemy has more to tell us about the Chola country, its port and its inland cities.
Cholas also are mentioned in the Pillars of Ashoka (inscribed 273 - 232 BCE) inscriptions, where they are mentioned among the kingdoms, which, though not subject to Ashoka, were on friendly terms with him.
Kharavela, the Kalinga king who ruled during the 2nd century BCE, in his Hathigumpha inscription, claims to have destroyed a confederacy of Tamil states (‘’Tamiradesasanghatam’’) which had lasted 132 years.
Chronicles such as the Yalpana Vaipava Malai and stone inscriptions like Konesar Kalvettu recount that Kulakkottan, an early Chola king and descendant of Manu Needhi Cholan, was the restorer of the ruined Koneswaram temple and tank at Trincomalee in 438 CE, the Munneswaram temple of the west coast, and as the royal who settled ancient Vanniar in the east of the island Eelam.
The inscriptions of the Medieval Cholas are replete with legends about the mythical Early Chola kings. The Cholas were looked upon as descended from the sun. These myths speak of the Chola king Kantaman, supposed contemporary of the sage Agastya, whose devotion brought the river Kavery into existence. There is also the story of the king Manu who sentenced his son to death for having accidentally killed a calf. Mahavamasa portrays King Elara who was defeated by Duttha Gamini (c. 2nd century BCE) as the just king who '..had a bell with a rope attached at the head of his bed, so that all who sought redress might ring it..'. King Sibi who rescued a dove from a hawk by giving his own flesh to the hungry hawk was also part of the early Chola legends. King Sibi was also called Sembiyan, a popular title assumed by a number of Chola kings.
These legends received enormous emphasis in the later Chola period in the long mythical genealogies incorporated into the copper-plate charters of the 10th and 11th centuries. The earliest version of this is found in the Anbil Plates which gives fifteen names before Vijayalaya Cholan including the genuinely historical ones of Karikala, Perunarkilli and Kocengannan. The Thiruvalangadu Plate swells this list to forty-four, and the Kanyakumari Plate runs up to fifty-two. There are other lists gathered from literary works such as Kalingathuparani. No two of these lists agree, although some names and details are common to all.
Cholas in Sangam literature
The earliest Chola kings of whom we have tangible evidence are those mentioned in the Sangam literature, written in the period 200 BCE–300 CE. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to piece together an internal chronology of the Sangam works. Due to this, we know of several rulers, but not their chronology. The early Cholas were anxious to connect themselves with the Mahabharata to prove their antiquity, as is evident from the Sangam works. All three kings have been portrayed as fighting the war or involved in feeding both the armies at that legendary war.
Karikala Chola (c. 120 CE) stands pre-eminent amongst all those mentioned in Pattinappaalai. Karikala’s father was Ilamcetcenni, a brave king and a hard fighter. 'Karikala' means 'elephant feller' or 'charred leg', which is assumed to be a reference to an accident by fire which befell the prince early in his life. Pattinappaalai describes this accident and the enterprising way in which the prince escaped and established himself in the Chola throne. Pattinappalai is a long poem on the then Chola capital Kaveripattinam. This work also describes the numerous battles Karikala fought against the other two Tamil kings in one of which the Chera king was disgraced (received a wound on his back) and committed suicide. Karikala thus broke the confederacy that was formed against him and established hegemony over Pandyas and Cheras.
In later times Karikala was the subject of many legends found in the Cilappatikaram and in inscriptions and literary works of the 11th and 12th centuries. They attribute to him the conquest of the whole of India up to the Himalayas and the construction of the flood banks, Grand Anicut, of the Kaveri River with the aid of his feudatories. These legends however are conspicuous by their absence in the works of Sangam.
Nalankilli and Nedunkilli
The poet Kovur Kilar mentions a protracted civil war between two Chola chieftains Nalankilli and Nedunkilli. Nedunkilli shut himself in a fort in Avur, which was being besieged by Mavalattan, Nalankilli’s younger brother. The poet chided Nedunkilli to come out and fight like a man instead of causing untold misery to the people of the city.
In another poem, the poet begs both the princes to give up the civil war as whoever wins, the loser will be a Chola.
Kalavali by Poygayar mentions the Chola king Kocengannan and his battle with the Chera king Kanaikkal Irumporai. The Chera was taken prisoner and Poygayar, who was a friend of the Chera, sang Kocenganna’s prince in 40 stanzas. The Chola king, pleased with the work, released the Chera. Kalavali describes the battle fought at Kalumalam, near the Chera capital.
Sangam literature gives an unusually complete and true picture of the social and economic conditions during the early chola period. The culture is best described as an amalgam of the Dravidian and Aryan. The stories of Mahabharata and Ramayana were well known to the Tamil people, shown by the claims of some kings to have fed both the opposing army in the Mahabharata War. The claim that Shibi, who gave his own flesh to save a dove, as a Chola is obviously influenced by northern legends.
The land of the Cholas was fertile and there was ample food. Sangam poems say that in the Chola country watered by the river Kaveri, in a space in which an elephant could lie, one can produce enough grain to feed seven.
Hereditary monarchy was the prevailing form of government. Disputed succession and civil war was not uncommon. The sphere of the state activity was limited. In a society steeped in respect for custom, even the most perverse dictator could not have done much harm.
The Chola monarchs were approachable by subjects and justice was meted out directly by the king in most occasions. This is in marked contrast to the magnificent empires of the later Cholas where the Emperor was kept much away from contact with the lay people. The kings often took the field in person in battles and if the kings was killed or wounded in battle, his army immediately gave up the fight and surrendered.
The trade that flourished between the Chola country and the ancient Roman Empire is given in much detail by Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c. 75 CE).
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