Karikala built Kallanai - IV
by Jayasree Saranathan on 19 Nov 2023 1 Comment

None of the Sangam Age texts on Karikala speak about this dam as the work of Karikala. The reason could be that it was probably the last deed done by him, much later in his life. There is also a likelihood that the dam project was not completed in his lifetime. The personal tragedy and the havoc created by the flood across the land leading to the loss of Pumpukar was so huge that it was not the time for composing verses.


Generally, most of the Sangam verses were about the victories in wars with not much reference to the losses suffered. However, crediting Karikala for the Kallanai appears in the latter-day texts and inscriptions including those of the Telugu Chola-s. Even the Tiruvalangadu copper plate inscriptions state that Karikala built a dam across Kaviri to establish his fame. This was told after mentioning his work of re-modelling Kanchi. 


Karikala “established his glorious fame by constructing embankments of the Kaveri” (verse 42)


It is stated in the Laden Plates, “King Karikala, (the god of) Death to his enemies, was born in that family. This (king) constructed embankments to the Kaveri (river)” (Verse 11)


The Malepadu plates of Punyakumara (Renati Chola-s of Cudappah region) are quoted by K.A. Nilakanta Sastri to say that Karikala Chola “was the worker of many wonders like that of controlling the daughter of Kavera, overflowing her banks.” (“Studies in Cola history and Administration”, p. 27)


Virarajendra in his Kanyakumari inscriptions has devoted two verses on Karikala Chola of which the second was on the dam built by him across the river Kaviri. The verses show the important place he enjoyed among the Chola king for extraordinary deeds.


There was a Chola king in this race, named Karikala who was equal (in firmness) to the Kulaparvatas; whose excessive fame which greatly spread (in all directions), resembled the (flowers) of the reed (kasha); who was (as it were) the forehead mark of kings; and who was death to rival monarchs preparing for expeditions (against him). (Verse 48)


He (i.e., Karikala) who was as bright as the sun and who curbed the pride of the insubordinates, prevented the Kaveri – which by its excessive floods, caused the earth to be deprived of its produce – by means of a bund formed of earth thrown in baskets, carried in hand by (enemy) kings.” (Verse 49)


This verse implies that he built the dam after conquering many kings who were made to work on the dam project. The building of the dam is mentioned in Shankara Cholan Ula, written in praise of the younger brother of Kulottu?ga-III and Kali?gatthu Bharani. (Verse 13, Shankara Cholan Ula)


Shankara Cholan Ula also makes a mention of the gift of sixteen hundred thousand gold for singing Pattinap Palai in Karikala’s name. Kali?gatthu Bharani (composed in praise of Kulottu?ga-I) makes a specific reference to Trilochana Pallava by his name Mukhari that he refused to oblige the orders of Karikala to work for the dam and hence was punished. Several accounts on Trilochana Pallava existing in Andhra also talk about the refusal of Trilochana to work for building the dam across Kaviri and how he was punished for that. Karikala Chola sent word to all the kings he defeated asking them to take part in the making of the embankment across the river Kaviri. He made the kings carry baskets of mud for the work. But Trilochana Pallava refused to oblige and sent back the emissaries of Karikala.


This angered Karikala who asked his men to draw the image of Trilochana with his third eye on the sands of Kaviri. Being an ardent Shiva devotee, Karikala went to the Shiva temple to take permission of the God to do what he intended. He then destroyed the third eye in the image by rubbing it off. On hearing about this, Trilochana’s pride was hurt and he sought pardon from Karikala Chola following which he took part in creating the dam. Kali?gatthu Bharani describes this incident in verse 197.


Kulottu?ga Cholan Ula repeats the same by stating that the eye of the one who refused to carry sand for building the dam across Ponni River (Kaviri) was plucked by Senni Karikala (lines – 34-36)


The surrender of Trilochana Pallava at the feet of Karikala, offering to work for making the dam is reiterated by almost all the Telugu Chola inscriptions. These inscriptions invariably begin with the introduction of Karikala and the dam he built.

“Charana siroruha vihita Vilochana Trilochana pramukhakhila pridhvishvara karita kaveritirta Karikala kula ratna Pradipa”

[“The jeweled lamp (that illumines) the family of Karikala meditating on whose lotus feet Trilochana and other kings constructed the embankments of the Kaveri” (p. 24, “Trilochana Pallava and Karikala Chola)]


Tikkana, the poet who was also the prime minister of the Andhra Chola king, Manuma Siddhi of Nellore, has written in his work Nirvachana Uttara Ramayana,

Is the king Karikala who bathed in the waters of the Ganges passed on to him in pails from the hands of the subordinate kings; who with ease deprived the Pallava king of his eye in the forehead; who built the embankments of the Kaveri; and who conquered all the kings of the earth, is he an ordinary king?”


The location of Kallanai in a place called Arasan Kudi today should have been Kazhar of his time where his son-in-law Attanatthi was washed away while dancing. Arasan Kudi means the place or residence of the king. For ages, the Chola kings must have visited that place to watch the early flow of Kaviri when freshwater surged in the river. There must have been a residential palace in Kazhar which in course of time had gained the name, Arasan Kudi.


Kallanai was remodelled by the British in the 19th century as they felt that water that went into the Kollidam River went waste as it flowed into the sea. This was arrested by modifying the Kallanai. This gives a vital input on what Karikala originally built. At present, the dam stops the water in both Kollidam and Kaviri which can be understood by looking at the dam.


The dam cuts across both rivers now. Karikala must have built the dam only across Kaviri and allowed the water to take a different path. The excess water that drained through another channel got the name Kollidam (that which takes up) and joined the sea north of Pumpukar! Even today, during monsoon flows, Kollidam carries a heavy load of water.


Imagine no Kallanai in its current location. Kaviri would have been uncontrollable at this point and would have caused havoc throughout her course towards Pumpukar. The British must have extended the dam across Kollidam to divert water for the benefit of more regions. The probable absence of that part of the dam in Karikala’s time indicates that Thanjavur to the southeast of Kaviri was the major agricultural or habitational area in Karikala-s time while most of the regions north of Kollidam was forested.


The inundation of Pumpukar


Sometime after Nedumudi Killi, Pumpukar was lost to the sea. The next flooding was in Manimekalai-s time in the 1st century CE. The earlier flood must have occurred in Karikala’s time necessitating him to build a dam across the flow of Kaviri. Land can be flooded but the loss of a city like Pumpukar could not have happened by a flood in the Kaviri. Normally coastal land is lost to the sea in the event of an earthquake as in the case of Pavlopetri (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavlopetri) which submerged 5000 years ago. Today the submerged parts of Pumpukar are seen in the water.


Recently, researchers of Bharatidasan University’s Department of Remote Sensing carried out studies that found a sunken town at a depth of 50-100 metres, about 30-40 km off the coast of the present-day Pumpukar. A report in The Hindu dated 20 January 2023 stated,


“The studies carried out using GEBCO data showed a series of three deltas of the Cauvery, which run up to 40 km in the sea. The MBES data led to the discovery of a major coastal land system with sand banks, backwaters, beach ridges, rivers, estuaries and ancient shorelines.


“We also inferred a scientifically designed harbour, about 11 km long and 2.5 km wide, running from north to south, with a number of canals meant for movement of big vessels and turning them. In between, there are broad plateaus which could have been used for loading, unloading and storing of merchandise.”


To the east of the harbour were 70-80 docks in north-south direction for a distance of 30 km for berthing ships. To the north were settlements with clusters of houses covering an area of about four square kilometres. Further up north were rowed settlements with compound walls. About 10 km away from the harbour on the north was a lighthouse, with a spiral staircase as evident from the pillar relics.


Several geological features such as deep river cut valleys of the Cauvery river system and submarine canyons were interpreted on the sea floor. They indicate that the Poompuhar region was prone to floods, tsunamis and accelerated impact of sea level rise and cyclone-induced surges. The port city had probably been relocated and rebuilt repeatedly owing to such natural occurrences. The seventh redevelopment was probably about 2,500 years ago and it might have submerged due to a rise in sea level about 1,020 years ago.”

(https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/ancient-port-city-of-poompuhar-traced-undersea-claim-researchers/article66413969.ece )


The vital hints for us are the presence of three delta-s of Kaviri under the water. Two of them have been accounted for in the Tamil texts, one in Karikala-s time and another in Manimekalai’s time. The first one must have been more than 10,000 years ago as suggested by Graham Hancock. Pumpukar was a safe city for a very long time. It is even mentioned in the very beginning of Silappadhikaram that people didn’t move out of the city. (Ch 1 - line 15)


The ancient people of this city were never known to have moved out of the city. The commentator attributes this to the prosperity of the city and the absence of threats from enemies. The seventh redevelopment mentioned by the researchers captures our interest because that could probably be the development done after the loss of Pumpukar during Karikala’s time. It was dated 2500 years ago, which we will take up for analysis after finishing this section.


There are two strong evidences for the loss of Pumpukar and some other coastal regions. One of them can be quoted from Pattinap Palai sung in praise of Karikala Chola.


Temple mentioned in Pattinap Palai exists


Pattinap Palai talks about a temple where the Magha festival was observed on the day Full moon joined Magha star. Next to this temple (Kottam), two ponds were present – one for gratification of wishes of this birth and another for gratification of wishes for the next birth. (lines 34 – 39)


In Silappadhikaram, a temple near the estuary of Kaviri is mentioned along with two ponds whose names appear as ‘Soma Kund’ and ‘Surya Kund’. Devotees, after taking a dip in these ponds, used to worship Kama Deva in his temple to lead a happy life with their husbands, says Silappadhikaram (Ch 9- lines 57-61)


This was told by a woman by name of Devanthi to Kannagi on hearing about her travails with her husband who left her and then returned empty-handed. Kannagi replied that she was not used to doing such austerities. This verse indicates that there was a temple for Kama Deva in that location. This resembles the verse of Andal (Tiruppavai - verse 22),


The estuary of Kaviri is also known as Sangam. The verse talks about kings who used to wait under the bed of Vishnu. It also talks about the rising of the moon and the sun as a metaphor. The same temple mentioned in Pattinap Palai on the coast near Pumpukar where the river Kaviri joins the sea, and where Maasi Magha festival was observed (Mahamaham), seemed to be that of Vishnu in reclining posture on the snake bed. This is known from the 10th chapter of Silappadhikaram, which states that Kovalan and Kannagi went round a Vishnu temple after coming out of the entrance of Pumpukar (lines 8-10).


It is not known whether the Kama temple was present at that time, but if a Kama temple existed, there is a greater possibility of another temple dedicated to his brother, Saman! Saman is the other name for Budh, i.e., Mercury. Both Kaman and Saman were the sons of Vishnu. A Sangam verse mentioning them exits in Paripadal (1-28)


Today the temple of Mercury exists, but the temple for Kama Deva is not found. In fact, going by a kind of literature called ‘Pillai Thamizh’ on the stages of growth of a girl child till adolescence, worship of Kama Deva was the final stage for girls before they got married. This indicates the prevalence of many temples for Kama Deva in olden days. Andal worshiped Kama Deva.


Today a temple of Budh exists near Pumpukar, but instead of Vishnu, the main deity is Shiva. The place is known as Tiruvenkadu – which can be interpreted to mean Vella-k-kadu (flooded area) or Ven kadu (white forest). The main deity is Shiva known as Swetaranyesvara (lord of the white forest). There was an image of Vishnu in reclining posture known as Sweta Narayana on top of a Mantapa when I visited this temple 20 years ago. It is not known if it still exists. The towers of some of the shrines within the temple have images of Vishnu indicating that this temple was the “Manivannan Kottam” (Krishna temple) of Silappadhikaram times.


Looking at its location, we can say that this was the Magha Kottam of Pattinap Palai of Karikala times, which seemed to have been devastated by a flood that killed Karikala’s son-in-law. After the construction of the Kallanai and due to unexplored reasons of the shift in Kaviri’s course, there is no evidence of a waterway near this temple. A shrine for Mercury is inside this temple which had existed right from Sangam age and even before Karikala’s time, but the shrine for Kama Deva which must have existed inside the temple or near the temple must have been destroyed. The fact that not even a single temple or shrine of Kama Deva exists in Tamilnadu, which glorified the worship of Kama Deva by pre-adolescent girls, proves wanton destruction of these temples after the 1st century CE.


The two ponds are nowhere to be seen today. Either they were closed by those opposed to Vedic religion because these ponds signified wish fulfilment for this birth and next birth. The ponds existed in Silappadhikaram times too. Therefore, there is no way to believe that they were lost naturally.


Another evidence for the geographical changes in the region where Kaviri had flown comes from a surprising observation in Kulasekara Alwar’s Tirukkannapuram verse. He says in Perumal Tirumozhi 8-10 that the river Kaviri was flowing in Tirukkannapuram. Today it is not so.


The river flows to the south of it, not across it, though a waterway is seen at a distance on the east. During Varahamihira’s time (around 1500 years ago), Kaviri had several branches entering the sea. In one of the verses in Brihat Samhita, he refers to Kaviri in plural form as ‘Kaveryah’ (14-13). This justifies the presence of Kaviri running closer to Tiruvenkadu and Tirukkannapuram in the past, but lost in the course of time. A major topographical change could have happened in Karikala’s time when Pumpukar sank. The transformation of the temple of Vishnu into that of Shiva seemed to have happened after Silappadhikaram time.


(To be concluded…)

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