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> The Kerala Story - Dr. Zacharias Thundy
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The Kerala Story
Dr. Zacharias Thundy,
A Historical Perspective on Kerala's Ancient History
The true history of a nation is not just its political history, religious history, or economia history; it is also the story of the structural evolution of that society. Every society, like every living individual, changes constant-ly. It is extremely difficult to trace all the changes that take place every year in an individual and in a society made up of hundreds of thousands individ-uals and hundreds of ethnic groups. However, it is possible to attend to some significant structural changes that have affected all these individuals and groups at certain periods. This chapter will deal with the political and social history of Kerala: the Sangam Age, the Aryan Period, the Chera Times of the Kulasekharas, the Medieval Period (of Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar), Foreign Powers in Kerala (Portuguese, Dutch, and British), and Modern Kerala (political history and social developments).
The Sangam Age (1-500 A.D.)
The Tamil Sangam works like Patittupattu, Purananooru, Akananooru, and Shilappadikaram are our major source, apart from tribal folklore, for informa-tion on the Cheras who eventually became Keralltes. During this time the Cheras lived primarily in Tamilakam or In the plains of Tamil Nadu. In the north on the coastal tract between Badagara and Mangalore, there was a kingdom with its capital at Ezhimala or Mount Eli; it was also known as Konkanam, south of Tulu Nadu. The Ezhimala people were Dravidians, but not Cheras. The powerful King Nannan of Ezhimala was able to defeat the Cheras in many battles and ex-tend his kingdom as far as Coimbatore. The Ays had a kingdom in the South extending from Kanyakumari to Nagercoil to Trivandrum. They had their capital at Aykudi on the Podiyil Mountain. They too were not, strictly speaking, Keralites because they were also not Cheras.
The Cheras established themselves as an important political power in the South alongside of the Pandyas and the Cholas. They are sometimes identified with the Kongus and had their capital at Karur or Vanchi or Tondi. Sangam works use Karur and Vanchi as synonyms. All these places can be and should be identified in Tamil Nadu and not necessarily in Kerala. The simple reason is that there is no archeological or literary evidence for the presence of a major civilization west of the Western Gnats, south of Ezhimala and north of the Ays before the eighth century. Indeed, the Sangam works refer to the Cheras, but the Cheras lived east of the Western Ghats on the plains between the Pandyas in the south and the Cholas in the north. It is important to bear in mind that Vanchi is the name of the land of the Cheras. Travancore is called Vanchi Nadu or Vanchj Bhumi as in Vanchi Bhum pathee chiiram; there are several places in Kerala that bear the name Vanchi. what does Vanchi mean? "Boat"? No. It is the name of the ancestral home of the Cheras.
Earlier I have pointed out that the Cheras lived for a long time in the Vindhya Mountains. Vanchi is Vindhya; the aborigines of the Chotanagpur area still call Vindhya, vanchi. So, naturally the Cheras who travelled south gave the name Vanchi to their new capital of Karur and later to their capital near Cranganore and later to Travancore itself. It is significant to note that Quilon came to be called Ten Vanchi (the Vanchi of the South)--in Tenkasi we have a parallel--in the twelfth century by Rama Varma Kulasekhara (1090-1102).
From the Sangam works we can make the following observations about the Chera society during the first five hundred years of the Christian Era.
1. Monarchy was the political institution of the people with the patrilineal (Makkathayam) system of succession and inheritance. Nothing is heard of the Nairs and their matrilinear system at this time though Chera kings used the names of the father and the mother with their own names. The king was usually called ko or kon as in Ilango Aidgal.
2. The queen had a privileged position, and she took her seat by the side of the king during religious ceremonies. The widowed queens sometimes committed Sati (self-immolation). There was no purdah-system for women; they enjoyed freedom of movement and right to full education. There were many women-poets during the Sangam Age, like Auvvaiyar (c. 500 A.D.)
3. There was no child marriage; widow-marriage was permitted. Clandestine (gandharva) marriages in which men and women took each other as hus-band and wife were popular. Elopement was tolerated- Sometimes the jilted lover committed suicide by fasting unto death after proclaiming his love publicly in the streets. Monogamy was the norm- The custom of bride-price was prevalent, as it still is among many hill tribes of Kerala. Ta1ikettu (tying the Pepal-leaf-shaped marriage band) was unknown in the Sangam Age. Polygamy among common people was frowned upon.
4. The division of society into high and low castes as well as untouch-ability and unapproachability was unknown at that time. Communities like the Panas, Kuravas, Parayas, and Vetas were held in honor by kings and were equals or even superior to the Brahmins. The great poets Kapilar and Paranar belonged to the Pana community. Poets and scholars enjoyed great prestige and patronage at royal courts.
5. The warlike Cheras had naval forces besides the land-based armies; they used to build forts and dig moats for defense; they worshipped Kottavai as their war-goddess. They commemorated the heroes fallen on the battlefield by erecting hero-stones (vira kal) on which the heroes' names and accomplishments were inscribed--a continuation of the custom of the megalithic Mundas.
6. Rice was the standard food of the people along with meat and fish. There was no taboo against eating beef. Alcoholic beverages--domestic liquors and foregin wines--were drunk both by the kings and their subjects including women who used to drink munnir, a sweet drink made from palmyra nut, tender coconut, and sugarcane. Rice-wine also was a popular drink. In their eating and drinking habits, the Munda-Dravidian Cheras followed their ancient traditions, which Keralites still continue to follow in spite of Brahmin bans on beef and alcohol.
7. The majority of the Cheras were not Vedic or Brahminical Hindus though there were Aryan Brahmins at the royal courts. Buddhism which originated among the Mundas in the North naturally continued its hold on the Munda-Dravidian Cheras. Jainism also had many followers among the people.
8. Agriculture was the main occupation of the people who were relatively prosperous except when the nations were at war. Much of this pros-perity was due to trade with foreign nations like Rome.