Integrated Bharat through the window of Tamil – 1
by Jayasree Saranathan on 21 Jul 2021 4 Comments

Recently Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi made an observation that Tamil language shows the ‘richness’ of our country. While acknowledging that Tamil is a very old language, he went on to emphasise the importance of acquainting oneself with other languages of our country for greater integration among countrymen to make “Ek Bharat, Shresht Bharat” a reality.


While his observation on Tamil was received with scepticism among Tamils as a political gimmick, I find this an opportunity to bring to the notice of others in India and outside too, that Tamil as a language contains so much information that serves as a window to not only the Indian past but to the world at large. While the beauty of ancient Tamil that we see in Sangam literature is proof of the ‘richness’ of our country from times when many languages of the world had not even developed, the content of those texts reveal a past that is not known to any in India and even many within the Tamil speaking community. They show how the people of our country mingled with each other and integrated in such a way that who we think is a Tamil today might have had his origins elsewhere in India, while someone living in a remote corner of India today might have had his remote ancestor speak Tamil!


The common thread that had united them all is undeniably Sanatan Dharma propagated by rishis of yore. Rishis have played a big role in shaping the culture, philosophy and reigns of kings. Vasishtha’s role is found in important events in the north, Agasthya’s name appears in important periods of time in the South in the region of Tamils.


The inputs available in Tamil integrate well with inputs from the other major sources of our culture namely, Itihasas and Puranas and together help us to plug the missing links, erase mis-conceptions and derive the inner meanings hidden behind the myths. With this as the aim of this series, let me look through the window of Tamil, the amazing past of India and even of the world where it matters.


The Origin of Tamils


Where did Tamils originate? A Google search would give all fanciful theories linking the origins of Tamils to anywhere in Elam or Indus or Sri Lanka. Nowadays Sri Lanka is giving a stiff competition to Indus (propounded by AIT protagonists) in claiming original space for olden Tamils, whereas none of the old Tamil texts, collectively known as “Sangam literature” have given any inkling of hope to relate the olden Tamil to these regions. On the other hand, Sangam literature itself has become the target of neo-writers on Tamil to create their own impression about the culture of Tamils as something exclusive and disconnected with the rest of India.


There are numerous instances in Sangam literature to debunk this idea (to be discussed in this series). A more recent one linked to recorded history of the Common Era pertains to Chera King Senguttuvan, whose expedition to the Himalayas is written in the post-Sangam text, Silappadhikaram. This king made a trip to North India as a pilgrimage to the river Ganges to enable his widowed mother take a dip in the Ganges. This implies that he himself could have done shraddha ceremony for his departed father during that trip. [He was on the throne for 55 years and lived for nearly 75 years]. The reference to his pilgrimage shows the culture and religion followed in Tamil lands 2000 years ago.


On his way to the Ganges, he faced resistance from the kingdoms that he crossed and successfully subdued them all. So when he decided to go the Himalayas for which he had to cross the countries of the north, he sent a communication to all of them of his impending visit so that they were warned against any misadventure with him. In that communication, he affixed his own seal and also got the kings of other major Tamil lands, namely Pandyas and Cholas, to affix their seals. He did this to give the message that the impending visit was that of Tamils as a whole. By this it is known that Tamils were those who came under kingdoms of Chera, Chola and Pandya. None of them had their presence in Indus or Elam or Sri Lanka.


This declaration by King Senguttuvan, in the first century CE, is known from the fact that the king was a friend of Gautamiputra Satakarni whose time period has been documented. The name Satakarni is “Nootruvar kannar” in Tamil. He provided boats to enable Cheran’s army to cross the Ganges. From there onwards, till their destination in the Himalayas, they met with some resistance. Silappadhikaram mentions that this Cheran king won over the “ill-mouthed Yavanas” before reaching the Himalayas (from where he procured the stone for making the image of Kannagi).


A cross reference comes from the Nashik inscription of the mother of Gautamiputra Satakarni that her son (Satakarni) subdued Yavanas too, besides Shakas and Pahlavas. There is no other reference to when and how he made this happen. But just two lines from Silappadhikaram on the Cheran king’s victory over Yavanas give a complete picture of what happened.


In Mahabharata, the Yavanas, Shakas and Pahlavas are grouped together as having kinship among themselves. Their location was in North West India at the base of the Himalayas (in today’s Pakistan or Afghanistan). Obviously the stone for making the deity was collected from that part of the Himalayas for which the Cheran army and Satakarni army had gone together. They faced resistance from the Yavanas and others but successfully overpowered them.


The exact cause for the war can be guessed from the Tamil text. It refers to Yavanas as “ill-mouthed” (van sol). The Yavanas must have hurled abuses at the Cheran king and Satakarni which was promptly paid back by them. This victory is mentioned in the Nashik inscription while it finds a fleeting mention in Silappadhikaram. The absence of reference to Pahlavas and Shakas is due to the fact all Mlecchas were referred to as Yavanas in Tamil texts.


Such a major victory over Yavanas by the Cheran king has been ignored by Tamils themselves. Important to our context is that fact that Tamils were centred on South Indian lands of Tamil Nadu and Kerala of today and not in other places. A search into the roots of the three dynasties that claimed themselves as Tamils could provide an answer to their origins.


These dynasties were Pandya, Chola and Chera. A fourth, Velir, is mentioned in several poems in the Sangam Literature. A search into their roots throws amazing and unexpected information on the past and lost history of India. The Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras find mention in the Mahabharata. The Pandyas find mention in Valmiki Ramayana too, thereby indicating that Pandyas were the earliest and oldest dynasty that ruled over Tamils.




Pandyas were known as Thennavan or Thennan (southerners). The land ruled by them was mentioned in many places of Sangam literature as Thennan Desa? (southern country). The repeated reference to their location in the South negates any theory of Tamils as having lived in the Indus or Elam region and migrated later to present day Tamil Nadu, as AIT proponents want us to believe. It was the Pandyas (not Cholas or Cheras) who developed Tamil as a refined language and made attempts to encourage use of grammatical Tamil, with the aid and guidance of sage Agastya who taught worship of Sun (Aditya Hridhayam) to Rama in the war against Ravana.


A reference to an earlier Pandyan comes in Kalidasa’s Raghu Vamsam (6th chapter), wherein it is stated that a Pandyan king attended the swayamvar (self-choice) of Princess Indumati. Indumati chose Aja as her suitor. Aja was the father of King Dasaratha and grandfather of Rama.


A cross reference to the existence of Pandyas during the time of Rama and Ravana is available in the inscriptions unearthed in Sinnamanur in Theni district in South Tamil Nadu. It says that an earlier Pandyan king made the Ten-headed one (Ravana) buy peace with him. In the Sanskrit part of the inscriptions, it is written “Dasaanan sandheepa rakshakaara”; in Tamil the same is written as “dasavathanan saarbaaka sandhu seithum”.


The reference to Ravana in Pandyan inscriptions goes to show that Ramayana was not a myth but happened in a decipherable past. There is another reference to a Pandyan king in the same inscription that says that he conquered Arjuna!


Pandyas in Mahabharata


As a cross reference from Mahabharata, we come across two names of Pandyans who fought on the side of Pandavas and the Kauravas. One Sarangadwaja Pandya nursed a grouse against Krishna of Dwarka as Krishna had once annexed Pandyan country and killed the father of Sarangadwaja. He wanted to take revenge on Krishna by destroying Dwarka, but his friends discouraged him (Mahabharata 7-23). It is not known from Mahabharata whether he took part in the war or not. But the reference to a Pandyan king in the above mentioned inscription shows that he or some other Pandyan king at some time during the Mahabharata war or at some other war stood against the Pandavas and scored a victory too.


There is, however, a full chapter in Mahabharata dedicated to the valorous fight by a Pandyan king, Malayadwaja Pandya, against the Kauravas (Mahabharata 8-20). He was killed by Ashwatthama in the war. Yet another Pandyan king fought for the Kauravas and was killed by the Pandavas (Mahabharata 9-2). Though Pandyans were of the same dynasty, siblings or cousins of the clan could have ruled over different parts of the kingdom with exclusive control over those regions. This was common practice in those days. That is how we come across three kings of Pandyan stock taking part in Mahabharata war with different intentions.


The reference to Pandya-Ravana treaty of peace in Sinnamanur inscriptions shows they had geographical proximity with each other. Only if Pandyas were in the South could geographical proximity with Ravana have happened and any trouble from him was successfully thwarted by the Pandyas which made Ravana buy peace with them.


Location of Pandyas in Valmiki Ramayana


The location of the Pandyan kingdom is mentioned in Valmiki Ramayana in Sugreeva’s description of the countries in the southern direction to the vanaras who were searching for Sita. This was not in today’s Tamil Nadu. It was mentioned in Sangam age poems. Sugreeva refers to the Pandyan kingdom at Kavaatam (Valmiki Ramayana, chapter 41-19).


Kavaatam was the capital city of Pandyas during a time known as Second Sangam Age. Today this place no longer exists; it was submerged in the sea after which the Pandyan king along with survivors of his kingdom entered the Indian mainland through Kollam (Quilon) in today’s Kerala.


From the commentary of Adiyarku Nallar (13th or 14th century), it is known that another Kollam existed in the past which was a peak in a range of mountains. This in all probability was an extension of the Western Ghats that ran into the Indian Ocean up to Madagascar. It was submerged and from there the Pandyan entered present day land in South India. Perhaps where he entered came to be called as Kollam (of today).


A chain of mountains can be seen in the Indian Ocean; an extension of the Western Ghats. On the southern of tip of present day India, to the south of Cape Comorin (Kumari) some raised mountain structures are visible under water. As per Tamil sources (Adiyarku Nallar’s commentary) Kumari mountains having several peaks once existed where a river by name Kumari was flowing.


Kumari was different from Kavaatam. There was a separate river by name Pahruli flowing somewhere near Kavaatam. All these are now lost to the seas, but were very much in existence during Ramayana times. These ranges contain a hidden history – not in a distant past – that needs to be explored by marine archaeologists. Perhaps subsidence on the ocean floor or of the ranges themselves caused the submergence.


Agastya Myths on Subsidence


The region at the southern end of India must have had some instability in the past, as Sugreeva said in his description that one part of Mahendra mountains went under water while another part remained visible. Sugreeva does not say this as a matter of fact but adds that the sage Agastya made this happen by pressing down a part of the mountain. This is where and how an element of mythical or secret idea is inserted by the writers who happen to be sages (Valmiki, writer of this Epic). In contrast, the Tamil poets of yore have been more open and described a single feature in many ways so that we understand what they originally wanted to say as a secret (hidden idea)!


Wherever subsidence of land is referred to or reported, there Agastya’s name is involved! One such instance was the sudden push-down of a part of the Himalayas (near Mt Kailash) which was linked to the wedding of Shiva and Parvati by the sages. According to them, huge attendance to witness that marriage caused the land to be pushed down. As a result, the southern part rose up in a kind of see-saw movement. Shiva sent Agastya to the south to make the land even with the north.


Though this narration deserves to be dismissed as a myth, it reveals a geological event of a lowering of a part of Himalayas near Kailash, followed by a successive movement of rise and fall of some part of land to the south of the Himalayas. If the sages had just recorded the geological event in the Puranas, no one would have remembered the event or even the location. But when a story is woven around it, people tend to remember.


When we try to locate these regions, we find them within the Himalayan region near Kedarnath. There is a legend around Triyugi Narayan temple in Rudraprayag district that Shiva-Parvati marriage took place there. To the south is a place by name Agastyamuni which houses the temple of Agastya. Their location in different altitudes give an impression that the myth addresses some anomaly found or experienced in these two places. Triyugi Narayan temple is higher at 1980 metres while Agastyamuni is located at a height of 1000 metres. A kind of tilting of these two locations could have happened in the past, which finally came to rest at present day levels with Agastyamuni found in a lower place. This had been recorded by the rishis as a myth around Agastya.


It is really amazing how these remote and colder regions in the Himalayas were visited by the rishis and even inhabited by them in the remote past. They had identified divine spots there and even observed the geology around them and encapsulated them in unforgettable stories for humanity to remember forever.


What is conveyed is that Agastya is a symbol of land subsidence wherever it had happened. (Agastya is also connected with water myths which will be discussed later). Subduing the Vindhya ranges is another instance involving Agastya; Sugreeva mentioned the Mahendra mountain, thus making it clear that this mountain is different from Mahendragiri where Parashurama spent his time. It is from the visible portion of Mahendra mountain mentioned by Sugreeva that Hanuman made his leap to Lanka.


Agastya was the family priest of Pandyas as Vasishtha was for the lineage of Rama. Agastya was always connected with the southern quarters and this also puts the Pandyan location in the southern realms. But looking at the south of India, only vast stretches of Hind Mahasagar stare at us. The loss of Kavaatam, Kollam and Kumari ranges in the Indian Ocean throws up a possibility of scattering of people who once lived there, to other parts of the ocean. Traces of Tamil language and some olden practices of Tamils are some clues to identify those populations which could further substantiate the claims of existence of olden Tamils under Pandyas in the southern ocean.


One practice identifiable with Tamils is found in some south Asian islands in the eastern part of Indian Ocean and as far as Pacific Ocean. It is the tradition of ‘fire-walking’.


Fire-Walking in South Asia


Fire-walking is very wide-spread in Tamil lands even today. In the contemporary world no other people conduct fire-walking events as Tamils do. This has been a continuing practice from an undated past. Though there is no written / literary record for it, the fact remains that it exists till today with a religious fervour of devotion in the form of an allegiance to a deity and as a ritual of propitiation.


But this purpose is diluted or non-existent in fire-walking ceremonies in other south Asian countries where it exists as a remnant of an olden practice or as a recently introduced practice. Among those places, Vanuatu, a south Pacific nation, requires special attention because this place (a group of 82 islands with 83 spoken languages) has an archaeological history of occupation that started around 3300 years before present. That is roughly the time Pandyan land of Kavaatam was lost to the seas and Pandyas entered the Indian mainland to set up their capital in present day Madurai.


Though the languages have a mix of English and French from later day colonists, what interests us is the names of places that sound Tamil! The names of places must have continued from the very beginning of occupation with little modification in course of time. 


Some of the names that sound very much Tamil are

Ø  Malakula (people of hill)

Ø  Ambae (mother)

Ø  Tanna (thennai – coconut),

Ø  Arawe (aravu – snake),

Ø  Tangoa (thengu – Coconut),

Ø  Uri (strip, hanging pot holder)

Ø  Toga (thogai - plumage )

Ø  Araki (arakki – female demon)

Names such as Tutuba, Iririki, etc., having the same word repeated twice are common in Tamil.


Another feature of this place is that the natives make and consume a drink called Kava or Kavakava (again a repetitive word) from a kind of pepper plant Piper methysticum. This is supposed to reduce short time anxiety (‘kavalai’ In Tamil). The drink having the name ‘kava’ gives an interesting connection to the Tamil word ‘kavalai’.


Now, the major similarity: the natives of Vanuatu are known for fire-walking, which they call fire-dance. This is a major tourist attraction. This cannot have started as a past time. Though there are other regions in the Indian and Pacific Ocean having some resemblance to the practices of Tamil people and even phonetic connection to Tamil, what stands out differently is the practice of fire-walking.


Sita’s ordeal by fire, a case of fire-walking?


One will be surprised to know that the practice of fire-walking is traced to Sita’s Agni Pariksha in Sri Lanka. The cultural events arranged for tourists in Sri Lanka contain the event of fire walking too, which is explained as something done by Sita to prove her loyalty to Rama!


In India, the popular belief is that Sita entered a huge pyre of fire. It is impossible for a mortal to come out of such fire unhurt. Both a divine element and a mythical element are added to this episode of Sita. This makes the Ramayana story a non-reality. But if it happened that Sita walked on smouldering fire, it is absolutely possible that she escaped death by fire.


Sri Lanka does have traces of Ramayana and there are two places that retain the names of Ravana times. One is Mathale in the central part of Sri Lanka and another is Negombo in the west course. Mathale is phonetically similar to Matali, the charioteer of Rama in the war with Ravana. Negombo sounds like Nikumbi, guardian deity of Lanka, whom Hanuman over-powered and who was worshiped by Indrajit to win over Rama. The location of Negombo on the seashore in the west raises the chances of this connection to be true. Hanuman met with Nikumbila soon after arriving at the west coast of Lanka in the description of Valmiki Ramayana.


Sita Eliya was an olden name for “Sita’s light” among the locals. Today it is changed to Nuwara Eliya. A location supposed to be Ashoka vana has been identified in Sita Eliya in Sri Lanka. Though a lot more needs to be done by way of research, local traditions cannot be ignored. A number of local traditions exist in Sri Lanka connected with Ramayana. The surprising name connections also cannot be ignored.


Fire-Walking in Tamil lands


Fire-walking is a regular annual feature in temple festivals in Tamil Nadu even today. This is mostly done in Amman (equivalent of Devi/ Kali/ Mariamma) temples and Draupadi temples. Unknown to many, temples for Draupadi exist in remote regions in Tamil Nadu. Fire- walking is an important festival in those temples.


There is no record of Draupadi having done fire-walking. But devotees of this deity in Tamil lands believe that she did do this walk after the Mahabharata war to wipe out the insult done to her by disrobing her in the court of Dhritarashtra.


With scores of people doing fire walking for all these ages with this belief in Draupadi, it could not have come up in the first place without some such incident connected with her. Moreover the original purpose of this act purportedly done by Draupadi was to wipe out the dishonour and demonstrate her complete allegiance to the Lord - in her case the Pandavas. One can attribute the same spirit of allegiance to the deity in the case of fire-walking by common people.


An examination of the dialogues by Rama and Sita that ended with Sita entering fire would shed more light on this issue.


After winning Ravana, Rama says that he killed Ravana to wipe out the insult meted out to him by way of having abducted his wife, Sita. Now that insult had been paid back, Rama was not in a position to take back Sita in the interests of keeping up the honour of his dynasty. Sita’s response to this was to undergo test by fire. She did not enter fire to perish in it. Instead she wanted to show that fire would not harm her if she was genuinely loyal and faithful to Rama.


She made three statements as a kind of command to the Fire god, all of which convey only one meaning: that she was absolutely loyal to Rama in thought, word and action and that Fire would not harm her if this was true.


It is in the same spirit that thousands of devotees have walked on fire in front of the temple of their Gods (Goddesses mostly) in Tamil speaking lands for all these years. This practice might sound primitive and unless this was in existence in the lands of Tamils adjoining Lanka of those times, could Sita have offered to do it? Or is it the other way round, that it was Sita who started the practice and people around the region started following her - to show loyalty to whomever matters - or to Sita herself, as fire-walking is always done to the female deity only?

(To be continued)


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