History of Karikala Chola and Ilam Thirayan and route to Kanchi from Sangam texts - II
by Jayasree Saranathan on 17 Nov 2023 5 Comments

Karikala’s connection with Kanchi


Karikala is remembered in Silappadhikaram for quite a few things of historical importance. He visited the ‘Kamakkottam’ – the original and olden name for Kanchi owing to Kamakshi, the presiding deity. There is a reference to Kanchi as Kamakosni in Srimad Bhagavatam, visited by Balarama, the brother of Krishna (kama-kosnim purim ka cim - 10-79-14). Kamakosni changed into Kamakoti. The seat of Goddess is referred to as ‘Kamakoshtha’ in Shilpa texts such as Manasara and in Saiva-agama-s. The Goddess is referred to as ‘Kamakotika’ in Lalita Sahasranama, as ‘Kameswari Kamakotinilaya’ in Lalita Trishati and ‘Kamakoti Mahapadma pitastha’ in Lalita Ashtotthara. What is Kamakoti in Sanskrit is known as Kamakkottam in Tamil.


Of the seven Moksha-Puri-s, Kanchi is one, the others being Ayodhya, Haridwar, Varanasi, Ujjain, Mathura and Dwaraka. This classification must have come up only after Krishna’s time going by the two places (Mathura and Dwaraka) identified with Krishna’s birth and life. Kanchi was already recognized as an important religious centre by appearing in the pilgrimage plan of Balarama. It is noteworthy that Kanchi was known as Kamakosni even at that time, which can be attributed to the presence of Kamakshi Devi only. Kosni or Kostha is Tamilised into Kottam – a word for temple often appearing in Silappadhikaram and Manimekalai.


Karikala went to Kamakkottam of the bangled Kamakshi to get a weapon called ‘Chendu’ from Sasta in that temple for the purpose of engraving (his symbol) on the golden Himalayas. This is written by Adiyarkku Nallar, the olden commentator of Silappadhikaram, by quoting an ancient Tamil verse whose authorship is not known.

Kachchi valik kachchi Kamakkottam kaval

Mechchi inithu irukkum meych chaththan – kaich chendu

Kambak kalrriuk Karikal peruvalaththan

sempon giri thiriththa chendu.


There is a shrine of Sasta even today in the first Prakara of the Kamakshi temple of Kanchipuram, thereby establishing the fact that the same temple of Kamakshi with Sasta existed in Karikala’s time.


The ‘Chendu’ is held by Sasta in His hand. It is noteworthy that Adi Shankara offers salutations to Sasta in his composition, Sivapadadikesanta stotra. This reinforces Adi Shankara’s association with Kamakshi temple of Kanchi, says V.A. Devasenapati in his book, ‘Kamakkottam and Nayanmars’.


A definite town planning is seen in the position of both Shiva and Vishnu temples in Kanchi. Kamakshi temple occupies the centre while the entrances and Gopuram-s of all the other temples including the Varadaraja temple are facing the Kamakshi temple. It is as though the entire city is centred around Kamakshi Devi. All the deities of the other temples go round the Kamakshi temple during Brahmotsava. This is followed in the case of Vishnu deities of Kanchi too, which cannot happen unless it was an ancient practice sanctioned right from the time of building those temples in alignment with the Kamakshi temple.


Another notable feature is the absence of separate shrine of Devi (Shakti or Ambal) in any of the Shiva temples of Kanchi, while the Shiva temples outside Kanchi have separate shrines for Shakti. Kamakshi is the overpowering deity of Kanchi who makes her presence in the Shiva temples of Kanchi without a separate shrine for her individually in those temples.


A special feature of Kamakshi Devi is her bangle. The bangles of Kamakshi as mentioned in ‘Kachchi valik kachchi’ are something special as they are found as impressions in the body of Shiva according to Kanchi Puranam and Mukapancashati. The description of Kamakshi Devi with bangles during the visit of Karikala to the Kamakshi temple to acquire Chendu could have happened after the temple was established from being a ‘bila’ (hole) into a full-fledged temple with the vigraha of Kamakshi consecrated. It must be recalled that as per Shankara Vijaya Vilasa, the golden image of Goddess Kamakshi was made by the Chola king Rajasena on the advice of Adi Shankara. The Golden vigraha was taken to Thanjavur during the Muslim invasion.


The city of Kanchi was renovated with gold by Karikala Chola according to Tiruvalangadu copper plates. The city had golden walls as per Manimekalai of the 1st century CE. This gives scope to link Karikala Chola with the making of Golden vigraha for Kamakshi Devi.


The arrangement of the temples in a specific fashion could not have been conceived by a king. Certainly, a religious leader of tall order must have been behind the planning of Kanchi into Vishnu and Shiva Kanchi with Kamakshi as the central deity. Adi Shankara is identified as one who got the remodelling of the town with the help of Rajasena, who appears to be Karikala.


At the same time, we do find another name “Ilam Thirayan” as the king of Kanchi in the Sangam Age text called “Perum Panarru Padai”. Both Karikala and Ilam Thirayan seem to be contemporaries because both had been praised by the same poet, Kadiyalur Urutthiram Kannanar. Since Ilam Thirayan was also known as “Tondaman” Ilam Thirayan, Kanchi was known as Tondai nadu or Tondai Mandalam. The poet praised Ilam Thirayan positioned at Kanchi whereas his poem (Pattina-p-Palai) on Karikala Chola was about Pumpukar. This raises a question on linking Karikala Chola with Kanchi as Rajasena. Couldn’t Ilam Thirayan be Rajasena?


Karikala’s history before Ilam Thirayan


In the history of Chola-s we find more than one king ruling the Chola country. The chief king was ruling from the main capital, which was Pumpukar in the pre-Common Era. Uraiyur was also a capital but occupied by the son or a sibling of the chief king. For example, Nalam Killi, also known as Set Senni was praised as ‘Uranthaiyon’ – the one who belonged to Uraiyur (verse 63, Purananuru). But he was praised for having a naval fleet in the 382nd verse of Purananuru, which would have been possible if he was in control of Pumpukar.


His son was ‘Kulamurratthu thunjiya Killi Valavan’. He also belonged to Uraiyur as per the 39th verse of Purananuru. He had more verses in praise of him than even Karikala Chola. Both he and his father Nalam Killi were praised by Kovur kizhar, giving the impression that both the father and the son were ruling simultaneously with their base in Pumpukar and Uraiyur respectively.


At the same time, two brothers of Nalam Killi were also given rulership of some part of the Chola country because there are verses in praise of them too. One of them was ‘Mavalatthan,’ praised in the 43rd verse of Purananuru. Another brother was Uruva pahrer Ilamset Senni, the father of Karikala Chola.


Uruva pahrer Ilamset Senni died when Karikala Chola was still in his mother’s womb. The history of young Karikala Chola picked up from the Sangam age texts show that the Chola country went into the hands of enemies for a brief time. Karikala Chola had grown in the custody of his maternal uncle, Irumbidar Thalaiyar. His enemies found him and imprisoned him. An attempt was made to kill him in the prison by setting fire to the prison, but Karikala managed to escape. However, his leg suffered burn injuries, due to which he came to be known as Karikala – the one with burned leg. However, Tiruvalangadu copper plates give a different justification for his name as Kali-kala – the one who was Yama to Kali.


Soon Karikala gained the country and scored a major victory in a place called ‘Venni Paranthalai,’ in which he defeated the Pandya king, the Chera king and eleven minor chieftains. In yet another war in a place called ‘Vagai Paranthalai,’ he defeated nine kings. With all these, his name appears associated with a place called ‘Idaiyaru’ and not Pumpukar! (verse 141, Agananuru)


At the same time, ‘Kulamurratthu thunjiya Killi Valavan,’ the son of his elder paternal uncle, Nalam Killi also was ruling from Pumpukar. This is made out from the fact that both (Karikala and Killi Valavan) were praised by the poet Nakkirar. Sometime later Karikala became the Chief king in Pumpukar. This could be possible if the direct heir of Killi Valavan no longer existed or Karikala was a preferred Chief than the son(s) of Killi Valavan. Around this time, another Chola King also existed whose son was Ilam Thirayan.


Ilam Thirayan’s life history


The story of Ilam Thirayan is found in two chapters of the text, ‘Manimekalai’. He was the hero of the Sangam poem, ‘Perum Panarru Padai,’ which identifies him as located in Kanchi. He caused a text in his name – ‘Ilam Thirayam’ to be inaugurated in the Sangam Assembly. This is told by Nakkirar in his commentary to ‘Irayanar Agapporul’ as an example for naming a book after the one who caused the poet to write it. One will be surprised to know about another book mentioned in these lines. It was ‘Satavahanam’ that was caused by a Satavahana king to be composed in Tamil and inaugurated in the Sangam Assembly. Both these books have not survived.


The birth of Ilam Thirayan is told in the 25th and 29th chapters of Manimekalai. A Chola king named ‘Nedumudi Killi’ was ruling from Pumpukar. Pilivalai was the daughter of Valaivanan, the Naga king. The Chola king met Pilivalai and fell in love with her. They spent time together for a few weeks after which she left. She was pregnant when she left and gave birth to a male child. Wishing to get back to her parents, she decided to send the child to its father, the Chola king. She met a merchant (Kambala Chetti) who was on his way back to Pumpukar in a ship. She entrusted the child to him, gave the details about the child’s identity as the son of the Chola king and asked him to hand over the child to the king.


Unfortunately, a sea storm struck the ship. The ship sank and the child was lost. The merchant who happened to be a distant ancestor of Kovalan (the husband of Kannagi) managed to swim towards Pumpukar and delivered the news about the child to the king. The shocked King immediately went about searching for the child. As a result, he ignored his kingly duties. In his anxiety to find out the whereabouts of the child, he did not conduct the Indra festival. This invited a curse from the deity that Pumpukar would suffer inundation.


Only this much of the story is found in Manimekalai. However, there is an oral tradition that the child was recovered by the Chola king, wrapped by a creeper called Atondai. The child was recovered on the shores of Kanchi, and this made the king give the Kanchi region to him to rule. Since he was protected by the waves of the sea, he was named Thirayan and the protection by Atondai lent the name Tondai Mandalam to the regions of Kanchi.


What relationship Nedumudi Killi had with Karikala is not known, but he must have been a paternal uncle of Karikala when Karikala was positioned in Idaiyaru. Upon the exit of Nedumudi Killi, Karikala must have taken position in Pumpukar. It was he who built the walls of Kanchi and invited people to reside there. At that time Kanchi was within the dominion of Trilochana Pallava – an early Pallava who had his base in Dharanikota (today’s Amaravathy) according to several sources. Subsequently Adi Shankara arrived at Kanchi and Karikala served him. This seemed to have happened sometime after Ilam Thirayan was made the chief of Kanchi, because the locations given in Perum Panarru Padai reveal that the division of Kanchi had not yet taken place when that text was composed.


Kanchi in Ilam Thirayan’s period


The text Perum Panarru Padai composed in praise of Ilam Thirayan narrates the route taken by the poet to reach the palace of Ilam Thirayan. Some of them are identifiable as they continue to exist today. After passing through habitats of various kinds of people the poet reached the seashore where he saw a Lighthouse. In six lines, the Lighthouse is described as a building on top (of something not mentioned) which was difficult to access. A ladder was kept leaning on it. Only trained people could climb to the top. A huge lamp was burning all through the night to guide the ships.


After reaching the Lighthouse, the groves on the seashore were mentioned. Upon crossing the groves, the poet reached a Highway that passed through many small habitats and villages and a Vishnu temple in a place called ‘Tiruvehka’. The route from the Lighthouse and Tiruvehka is a crucial hint on the topography because even today there is a Highway passing through Tiruvehka from the Lighthouse.


Today two Lighthouses exist – an old one and a new one. The old Lighthouse exists on a huge rock and is regarded as the oldest in India. There is a temple on top of it. The Light was burning on top of the temple.


The structure of the old Lighthouse as it exists today was re-modelled by the Pallava-s in 640 CE, but we are talking about the Lighthouse of the pre-Common Era. In the Pallava-made structure, the top portion was built on the Mandapa of a Durga temple. Presently it is known as Olakkanneshvara temple. In the Sangam age a ladder was used to reach the top, but the Pallava-s replaced it by cutting steps on the rock to reach the top.


Today this old Lighthouse is a UNESCO heritage site. An article by UNESCO states that this structure is one of the oldest models that inspired the Pallava-s to construct Shore temples (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/249/). A new Lighthouse is built close to it.


After crossing the backwaters, the Highway starts. It goes to Tiruvehka (also known as ‘Sonna vannam seitha Perumal’ temple) but only after crossing Varadaraja Swamy temple! While passing through this route, no one can miss the Varadaraja temple which is on the way. After crossing the Varadaraja temple, Tiruvehka can be reached in one and a half kilometres.


(To be continued…) 

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