The modern port of Vizhinjam. Vizhinjam was the medieval headquarters of the Ay kingdom
Ay dynasty, also known as Kupaka, were a south Indian ruling clan with their origins in the hill-chiefs who controlled the south-western tip of the peninsula, from the early historic period up to the medieval period. The clan held sway over the harbour of Vizhinjam, the fertile region of Nanjanad, and southern parts of the spice-producing Western Ghat hills. The Ays formed one of the major lineages of ancient Kerala, along with the Cheras of central Kerala and the Musakas of Elimalai in the north.
Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy (2nd century CE) described the "Aioi" territory as extending from the Baris (Pamba) to Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari). The elephant was the emblem of the Ays. It is speculated that the name Ay is derived from the early Tamil word "Ay" meaning cowherd. Ay dynasty claimed that they belonged to the Yadava or Vrishni lineage and this claim was advanced by the rulers of Venad and Travancore. Sri Padmanabha in Trivandrum was the tutelary deity of the medieval Ay family.
The Ay kingdom functioned as a buffer state between the powerful Pandyas/Cholas and the Cheras (Kerala) in the medieval period. A number of kings such as Chadayan Karunanthan, Karunanthadakkkan "Srivallabha", and Vikramaditya "Varaguna" figure as the Ay chiefs of the harbour of Vizhinjam. The famous Brahmin salai at Kantalur, somewhere near present-day Trivandrum, was located in the Ay kingdom. The salai was sacked by Chola emperor Rajaraja I (985 - 1014 AD) in c. 988 CE. Historians assume that the Ays were the leading power in the region till c. 10th century CE.
The Ay clan was one of the major hill-chiefs of early historic south India. Members of the Ay family- of the Podiyil hills (the Aykudi) - were closely related to the early historic Cheras of central Kerala. Towards the close of the early historic period, Pandya supremacy might have extended to the Ay territory (through it is likely that the Ays gained their independence during the so-called Kalabhra period). The southern parts of the present Kanyakumari district were controlled by the Ay chiefs until the end of the 10th century CE.
Ay chiefs in early Tamil poems
A number of Ay chiefs such as Andiran, Titiyan and Atiyan are mentioned in the early Tamil poems.
- Ay Andiran is praised by early Tamil poets such as Mudamochiyar, Odakizhar, and Kiranar in Purananuru. He is mentioned in the Purananuru as the "Lord of Podiyil Mala" in southern Western Ghats. He is said to have defeated the Kongu chiefs and pursued them to the Arabian sea. He was an elder contemporary of the Chera chief Antuvan Cheral.
- Ay Titiyan (the Podiyil Chelvan) is praised by Paranar and Bhuta Pandya, the Pandya chief in Akananuru. It seems that Ay Titiyan was a vassal of the Pandya ruler Bhuta Pandya.
- Ay Atiyan, successor to Ay Titiyan, is mentioned by Paranar and Madurai Kanakkayanar in Akananuru. Paranar and Kanakkayanar also mention Podiyil Mala, the base of the Ays, as the property of Pachupun Pandya (Azhakiya Pandya), the successor to Bhuta Pandya.
- An Ay ruler took part in the famous battle of Talai-yalankanam, in which the Pandya chief Nedum Chezhiyan defeated several of his enemies.
Ay kingdom in medieval south India
In c. 765 CE, Pandya king Jatila Paranthaka (r. 765-815 CE) sacked the Ay port Vizhinjam, conquered the chief of Ays and took possession of the Ay kingdom. This foray brought the Cheras rulers of Kodungallur (the Kulasekharas) into the conflict and a prolonged Pandya-Chera struggle followed. The Pandyas are still found fighting the Ay chief Chadayan Karunanthan at Aruviyoorkotta (Aruvikkara near Thalakulam) in 788 CE. In 792 CE the Pandyas are seen fighting at Vizhinjam and Karaikkotta (Karaikkodu near Thalakulam) against the Chera warriors. The Madras Museum Inscription of Pandya ruler Maran Chadayan (latter half of the 8th century) mentions a certain regional chief called "Vel Mannan". This chief, might have been related to the Ay family which was controlling the port of Vizhinjam. It is a possibility that the Vel Mannan of the Madras Museum Inscription was or came under the over-lordship of Kodungallur by the early 8th century CE and the medieval ruling family of Venad arose from this chief.
By the middle of the 9th century, as a result of the encroachment of the Pandyas and Cheras, the old Ay kingdom was partitioned into two portions. Venad with its base at Kollam became one of the autonomous chiefdoms of the Chera kingdom while the Ay (Kupaka) kingdom, or what was left of it, with its base at Vizhinjam came under the influence of the Pandya ruler Srimara Srivallabha (815-862). Ay contemporary of the Pandya king Srivallabha was called Karunanthadakkkan "Srivallabha". Some of the inscriptions does say about the certain victory of king Srivallabha at Vizhinjam.
Srivallabha was succeeded on the Pandya throne by Varaguna II (862-885 CE). The Ay kings of Vizhinjam remained vassals of the Pandyas, as indicated by the surname of Vikramaditya "Varaguna". But in 898 AD, Vikramaditya is seen making huge land gifts to the Srimulavasa temple in the Chera kingdom (the Paliyam copper plates). The wife of a Chera king, Iravi Neeli alias Kizhan Adikal, is also seen at the Siva temple at Thirunandikkaram, deep into the Ay kingdom.
It is possible that after the Chola victory over the Pandyas in 910 CE, the chiefs of Venad were determined on extending their sway into the Ay kingdom. Their opportunity might have came in the disorder following the Chola defeat at the battle of Takkolam (949 CE). There is a possibility that after the defeat of the Cholas at Takkolam, the Ay kingdom revived their autonomy with Chera support, and organised resistance to the Cholas. An inscription of the Chola ruler Kulothunga refers to the Kantalur salai in the Ay kingdom as "salai of the Chera". The Vel chiefs, owing allegiance to the Cheras, might have captured the whole region down to Kottaru. In general, the control of the Chera ruler at Kodungallur might have spread into the Ay territory in the 10th century CE.
The famous Brahmin salai at Kantalur, somewhere near present-day Trivandrum, was located in the Ay kingdom. The salai was sacked by Chola emperor Rajaraja I (985 - 1014 CE) in c. 988 CE. The region to the south of Trivandrum (former Ay territory) came under the control of the Cholas during the 11th century. The Cholas raided cities such as Kodungallur in the early decades of the century, but never tried to annex the proper Chera kingdom. They seem to be satisfied with the submission of the king at Kodungallur. There is a possibility that the Venad chiefs tried to recapture the old Ay region after the raids by Raja Raja Chola. Chola ruler Rajadhiraja (1044-1054) claims to have "confined the undaunted king of Venadu [back] to the Chera kingdom".
A branch of the old Ay family, which had been controlling the temple of Sri Padmanabha from 12th century, later merged with the ruling house of Venad. This branch had its headquarters at Trippappur in Trivandrum.
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