Tracing the ancestry of Cheras and Keralas - VII
by Jayasree Saranathan on 27 Jul 2021 2 Comments

We are in the middle of a discussion on the six verses of Pandikkovai that say that the Pandyan king Kon Nedumaran engraved the emblems of all the three Tamil dynasties on a peak in the Himalayas. After a discussion on “Panjavan” and “Pazhi” in the previous article in this series, we are now taking up the next verse which gives a clue on Cheran kings.


This verse (numbered 200) says: “Vanavan Maran who affixed ‘Ke?dai’ (fish) on top of the northern mountain”


Vanavan Maran is a title for the Pandyan king for having conquered Vanavan. (Pandyans are known as Marans). Vanavan refers to Cheran kings, but this name is very rare and found at two poems in Purananuru (39 & 126) and at one place in Silappadhikaram (27-247). But there is no clue in these verses to derive the origin of this name for the Cheran king. This name is not found in the all-Cheran text of Sangam literature namely, Padi??uppattu. An old Tamil Grammar book called “Pu?apporu? Ve?bamalai” mentions this name for Cheran.


The name Vanavan is unique because it means ‘celestial’ or ‘Deva’ or ‘Indra’! Vanavan implies that Cheran was equated with Indra or there was something unique about the Cherans.


Thinking about this uniqueness, one finds that the Cherans were always mentioned first among the three dynasties, as ‘Chera, Chola and Pandya”. No reason for this is given in any text or commentary.


That this order was followed by poets is known from the commentary to Silappadhikaram by the olden commentator Adiyarkkunallar. In Silappadhikaram a chapter is dedicated to the song and dance sequences done by Ayar women (Tamil equivalent of Yadavas) called “Aycchiyar Kuravai”. A part of it is in praise of all the three kings of the Tamil lands. In that, the Pandyans were praised first, followed by the praises on Cholan and Cheran kings. Writing on it, Adiyarkkunallar says that the poet Ilangovadigal chose to mention Pandyans first and not Cherans, because the land where the Ayars were singing this song belonged to the Pandyans (Silappadhikaram, Chapter 17, Commentary to “munneerinul....”).


One might think that this order (of names of the three dynasties) is alphabetical. But the sequence found in Tholkappiyam, while mentioning the official flowers of the three dynasties has, Cheran in the lead followed by Pandyan and Cholan. The verse “Bondai vembe arena varum” (Tholkappiyam, Porul Adhikaram: 63) mentions the flowers of Cherans, Pandyans and then Cholans. It is not known whether any rationale was there in having kept this order and having Cherans in the beginning.


The same order (Cherans, Pandyans and Cholans) is repeated in the first 15 verses of Purananuru. The very first verse in Purananuru (after the Prayer-verse) is on the Cheran king only. It is a matter of research whether this prime position is related to their name as Vanavan (Indra) as this name seems to be olden and is indicative of some unique connection with Indra or Deva. This name was not in vogue even in Sangam texts.


Kon Nedumaran seems to have had some pride in having conquered the Cheran king of his times or else he would not have got the title as ‘Vanavan Maran’ which implies Pandyan superiority over the Cheran king. In the same way, Kon Nedumaran had another title, “Sembian Maran”. The Cholas were known by the title Sembian after Sibi’s name, Sibi who offered his flesh to the hawk to save the pigeon. Kon Nedumaran came to be called as Sembian Maran, after he subjugated Cholans of his times.


The name Sembian is often found in Sangam literature. A few Sangam verses mention Pandyans as “Panjavan”, the olden name explained previously. In contrast the Cheran name “Vanavan” is conspicuously absent in Sangam literature. Only Pandikkovai mentions it nine times. Kon Nedumaran is mentioned as “Vanavan Maran” at ten places in Pandikkovai. This shows the widespread use of the name Vanavan at an olden time.


While looking for justification of the name Vanavan, meaning “celestial”, there is a surprising hint from the flower connected with the Cherans. The official flower of the Cherans is also known as ‘celestial’ flower by Tamils.


Celestial flower of the Cherans


The official flower was Bondai, flower of the Palmyra tree, known in Tamil as Panai maram. This tree is regarded as “Karpaga-th-tharu”, the celestial tree as every part of it is useful. It is the official tree of Tamil Nadu now. Palmyra trees are native to Asia and tropics and had a greater presence in the submerged Tamil lands of yore. These were identified as seven in number, each having seven habitats within themselves; one was known as Palmyra!


This group having seven habitats was known as “Kurum Panai Nadu”, meaning land of a Palm variety known as Kurum Panai. The Palm tree before it reaches flowering stage is known as Kurum Panai. Kurum perhaps derives from “kurutthu” meaning tender or young. In a surprising correlation, there is a place called “Kurum Panai” near Colachal on the west coast of Kanyakumari district.


The same name appearing in sunken lands shows that this place could have been one of the seven habitats of Kurum Panai Nadu. This hypothesis cannot be easily overruled as the land was extended beyond the current shoreline in the past. The presence of this name, Kurumpanai of early Sangam age in a location close to the submerged coast reiterates that Sangam age habitats were not myth but real. This region was under Cheran domination for a long time.


Quite a few places in southern most part of Kanyakumari have names with Panai (Palmyra) such as “Panai Vi?ai” (Vi?ai means grow; ‘where palmyras grow’), “Vadali Vi?ai” (meaning Kurum Panai, Palmyra tree when young), “Panaccha moodu”, “Karukku Panai Vi?ai” etc., justifying the presence of Palmyra trees in those places at some time in the past.


Of these, one place is crucial for our analysis: Vadali Vi?ai, meaning Kurum Panai, is found near the famous place “Kottar”. A place called “Kottaru” finds mention very often in Pandikkovai. Pandyan king Kon Nedumaran defeated the Cheran king in Kottaru and took control of the same. Kottaru was one among the seven places of the Cheran king that were won by Kon Nedumaran in different battles. The other six places were Sevur, Kadayal, Poolanthai, Naraiyaru, Vizhinjam and A??ukkudi. The names of Palmyra (eg: Vadali Vi?ai) appearing in the location close to Kottar makes us think that the Cherans, associated with Palmyra, have held control over these regions.


There is a hitch in accepting Kottar as Kottaru of Pandikkovai as there is a verse in Pandikkovai that says Kon Nedumaran destroyed the naval forces of the Cheran king at Kottaru: “Cheralar tham koman kadal padai Kottaarru azhiya” (Pandikkovai, verse 247). This implies that Kottaru was a coastal town and not an inland; Kottar does not fit with the description of Pandikkovai!


By its name Kottaru, a river is indicated and it is probable that Kottaru was established in an estuary of a river by that name. Kottaru must have existed in one of the Kurum Panai Nadu (Palmyra habitats). When all of them were lost to the seas, the survivors must have established places with same names in the new locations. That is how the Palmyra lands and Kottar have come up in today’s topography. In the absence of any memory of this shift, it goes without saying that the submergence had happened in a very remote past – at a time when Cheran was better identified as Vanavan!


The association of Cherans with Kottaru once again reiterates his connection with Palmyra lands in the past. It is possible to assume that the importance attached to Palmyra as celestial tree lent the name Vanavan to the Cherans in those days. 


Udhiyan Cherans


Coming from such remote past, we come across other names of Cheran dynasty: Udhiyan and Irumpo?ai. Of them Udhiyan lineage seems to be olden as the very first verse of Purananuru on the Cheran king refers to a Udhiyan king who supplied food to the armies of Pandavas and Kauravas during the Mahabharata war!


It is difficult to deduce the etymology of Udhiyan, while Irumpo?ai is a title for a particular lineage of Cherans of the later period that lasted till the start of the Common Era. Irumpo?ai was perhaps the derivation from Irumbu + porai, meaning “strong as iron”. But no such derivation is possible for Udhiyan in Tamil. The name makes sense when related to Sanskrit word “Udeechi” meaning ‘north’. North signifies Devas which is what Vanavan also means!


If the Cherans had originated in the North, this name fits with Udhiyan and related with Vanavan. Their northern origin can be traced to the times of a war between Vasishtha and Viswamitra when Vasishtha created Mleccha tribes to fight with the army of Viswamitra. According to Mahabharata, Keralas were formed at that time along with Yavanas, Kiratas, Pahallavas, Dravidas, Sakas, Savaras, Paundras, Sinhalas, Khasas, Chivukas, Pulindas, Chinas, Hunas and numerous other Mlecchas (Mahabharata: 1-177). Almost all of them were located in the Northwest part of the Indian sub-continent where Pakistan-Afghanistan are located now.


A cross reference to this location comes from another chapter in Mahabharata wherein Karna tells about the behaviour of a Mleccha group living in the region of the five rivers of Sindhu (Indus river) (Mahabharata: 8-45). Due to the curse of a woman, this group started making the sister’s son as the heir and not their own son. This trait was found in later kings who ruled Cheran lands and not in the olden kings of the Sangam age. But this gives rise to an opinion that there existed a former group of Keralas in the North West of Himalayas which migrated to Tamil lands at different times.


Keralas in Vishnu Purana and Valmiki Ramayana


Vishnu Purana locates Keralas in the north of Magadhas and near Malla rashtra where Mahavira and Gautam Buddha exited their mortal coils (Vishnu Puarana: 2-3) This is in present day Bihar. This region also qualifies as “North” for Tamil lands.  But Keralas were more ancient to the times of these regions.


This can be stated on the basis of the mention of all three Tamil kingdoms in Ramayana of Valmiki! In his description of the countries of the South, Sugreeva tells Vanaras that they must search in the regions of Cholas, Pandyas and Keralas (Valmiki Ramayana 4-41-12). Soon after mentioning this Sugreeva asks the Vanaras to search “Pandyan’s Kavatam” (Valmiki Ramayana 4-41-19).


This shows that Keralas lived in the south during the Second Sangam Age when Kavatam was the capital city of the Pandyans. [Kera-Chera are interchangeable and the word Chera refers to the name of a mountain by that name, as per Tamil Thesaurus. Any mention of Keralas can be taken to refer to Cherans]. In any of these references, there is no way to know the exact lineage from the North that established Cheran dynasty. However the names Vanavan and Udhiyan that look interchangeable or closely related do point to a Northern origin.


Genetic source


There is however, a genetic study that puts the Keralas unique among others in India, perhaps relating them to a location beyond the Himalayas in Northern regions that was connected with Uttar Kuru. Haplogroup U is an mtDNA traced to a woman who lived 55,000 years ago. All human beings (men and women) inherit mtDNA from their mother. It is found that 23% of the Indian population and 11% of native Europeans have mtDNA U. U1 is the subclade of U and is found in Europe in Georgia.


Further subclade of U1 is U1a. It is found in Tuscany in Italy and only in Kerala in India. Earlier I had written several articles on connection with Etruscans of pre-Greek society with Tirayan Pandyans. The Etruscans lived in the region that presently corresponds to Tuscany.



The presence of U1a in Kerala and Tuscany justifies my views on migration of people of Tamil origin (Kerala included in those days) to Etruscan and founding the basis for pre-Greek culture. But this happened in recent history, say in 1500 BCE, when the Kavatam of Pandyans was submerged. Even before that submergence, Cherans and Pandyans held sway over the habitats in the Indian Ocean, particularly the extension of west coast and the submerged parts of Western Ghats that extended up to Madagascar.


Cheras and Kon Nedumaran lived prior to that time. So that brings our search to the parent Haplogroup U. The study of the genome of a boy buried in a place called Malta neat Lake Baikal in Siberia some 24,000 years ago was found to belong to Haplogroup U, the parent mtDNA of Haplogroup U1a found in Kerala.



This location near Lake Baikal falls within the area of Uttar Kuru that was frequented by Arjuna who had his paternal connection with that place. The presence of U1a in Kerala with a definitive presence of U Haplogroup in Baikal justifies a clear northern origin of the Vanavan - Udhiyan Cheran. A place called Indra loka was located there. The name Indra was used in three ways in ancient texts: (1) as a divine and therefore out-of human reach realm, (2) as a force in Nature namely thunder bolt and the electricity created out of it and (3) as human beings like us who had emotions and vulnerabilities like us but were clever in keeping themselves hidden from others and unreachable for others.


I would be detailing them in the course of this article though for the present let me say that the first one is reachable by spiritual route, the second can be understood by logical and scientific explanation and the third one was within reach of the people of the past who even had contact, though secretly, with them.


A group from that gene pool was also present in India since 55,000 years ago and also in Baikal region. No one knows who came from which region, but the name Vanavan shows that parent group emerged in Baikal region that was regarded as Uttar Kuru in Mahabharata times and as Indra Loka in times prior to that. The Haplogroup U underwent two mutations and the second one settled as Vanavans of Chera dynasty.


The more recent connection of Cherans with that location in North can be seen in Silappadhikaram wherein it is mentioned that Cheran king Senguttuvan procured “Chadukka Bhootham” from Amaravathy (capital city of Devas) and held Soma yaga (Silappadhikaram: Chapter 28, lines 147 & 148). Similar kind of Chadukka Bhootham was given by Indra to Muchukuntha in much earlier times, which was established at Pumpukar (to be discussed later).


Now coming to the issue of order of names in the list of three dynasties:

It is always auspicious to address the North as signifying Devas and that is how Tolkappiyam begins its first line. If a dynasty is related to the region of North and even Deva land, tradition was to begin the list with the name of that dynasty. That is how Cherans came to occupy prime place in the order of the three dynasties. The middle one was reserved for Cholas as they came from Sibi who occupied North, but south of Northern Cheras. The Pandyas came last as they had their abode in South always.


The title Vanavan Maran stirring up so much thought contains clue for another part of hidden history, this time of the South. The famous Vaishnavite temple at Thirumalirum Cholai, locally known as Azhagar Malai in Madurai, had a previous existence in the sunken lands of the Pandyans. Another facet of Vanavan Maran who defeated Vanavan at A??ukkudi finds resonance in the verse of Periyazhwar. That would be discussed next in this series.


(To be continued)


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