Cholas were descendants of Rama
by Jayasree Saranathan on 21 Dec 2023 1 Comment

The link between Tamil Nadu and Rama starts from the Chola dynasty itself. The Chola Kings have written on copper plates and inscriptions that they were the descendants of Manu and his son Ikshvaku. Rajaraja Chola’s father, Sundara Chola has stated in the Anbil copper plates, issued to his minister Aniruddha Brahmaraya, that the royal Chola family emerged from Vishnu’s eyes. This cannot be ignored as an attempt by the king to project himself as equal to God because there are other inscriptions claiming that the Chola-s descended from Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu. The hereditary link with Rama was not[l1]  disclosed by the other two Tamil dynasties, namely, the Chera-s and the Pandya-s, though they too claimed some divine connection of their own.


Ancient texts and dictionaries mention a titular name ‘Vaanavar’ to the Chera-s which refers to Indra. The Pandya-s claimed that they were the descendants of Meenakshi Devi, the consort of Shiva, and therefore called themselves as ‘Gowriya’ (the sons of Gowri). Compared to these two dynasties, the Chola-s were more specific about their origins by claiming that they descended from the Ikshwaku dynasty. Four inscriptions of the Chola-s make a notable list of the lineage of the Chola-s with all of them - though slightly divergent from each other - ultimately pointing towards Rama, the scion of the Ikshvaku-s. They were the Anbil copper plates by Sundara Chola, the Leyden Copper plates issued by Rajendra Chola I, the Tiruvalangadu copper plates by the same king and the Kanyakumari inscription by his son, Virarajendra Chola.


Bharata, Sibi and Rama in the Chola lineage


The early kings of the descent given by them is the same as the names mentioned by Vasishta at Rama’s marriage in Valmiki Ramayana. Till Mandhata, the names are similar in both the Chola and Ikshvaku genealogy. After Mandhata, Muchukunda appears in the Leyden inscriptions of Rajendra Chola. Further on, the lineage goes up to Sibi and then Chola Varman who founded the Chola dynasty. This is found in Sundara Chola-s Anbil plates too. In Tiruvalangadu plates of Rajendra Chola, the list continues after Sibi, with Marutta, Dushyanta and his son Bharata born to Shakunthala, after whom Chola Varman is given as the son of Bharata.


In the inscriptions carved on the pillars of the Kanyakumari Amman Temple by Virarajendra, the list begins with Brahma, Marichi, Kashyapa, Vaivasvata, Manu, Ikshvaku, then continues with Harishchandra, Sagara, Bhagiratha and goes on till Rama. Rama is praised in four hymns, and thereafter it is mentioned that a king named Chola was born in Rama’s family. Sibi’s name which appears in the other three inscriptions is not found in this inscription. Only this inscription speaks about a direct link with Rama for the Chola dynasty.


Conflicting claims on ancestry


All the four inscriptions were created by the decree of the Chola kings spanning across four generations in the 10th and the 11th centuries of the Common Era. There is no need for them to include Rama and Sibi in their ancestry unless there is an element of truth in them. Moreover, clubbing together Sibi, Rama and Bharata as common ancestors for the Chola-s makes a strange reading because they were not supposed to be related with each other as per our current knowledge of the olden inputs about them. The lurking question of how they could be the ancestors for Chola Varman, the first king of the Chola dynasty is probed in this write-up.


A common feature about all these four engravings is that they are found in Sanskrit. It has been a practice among the Tamil dynasties to inscribe their edicts bilingually whenever they wanted to include their genealogy in detail. In such instances, the lineage is given in Sanskrit, as to make it readable by anyone from anywhere in Bharat, and the donation part is written in Tamil which covers the dimensions of the land, or the articles gifted.


Only Sanskrit scholars were found to have written the ancestral lineage in well-composed verses with colophon attached in most cases, but they couldn’t have written them on their own, without the concurrence of the king. The kings must have approved of the dynastic lineage they wanted to be etched in stone or on copper plates. Otherwise, how is it possible to find the first Chola as the descendant of Sibi in the edict issued by the grandfather (Sundara Chola) and as the son of Bharata in the grandson’s (Rajendra Chola) inscription? The great-grandson (Virarajendra) surpassed them all by claiming the birth of the first Chola in Rama’s family. There should have been some connection among all the three ancestors – Sibi, Bharata and Rama, undetected so far.  


Bharata, father of first Chola


Examining Bharata’s connection given in the Tiruvalangadu copper plates, Dushyanta’s son Bharata had three wives and nine sons through them as per Vishnu Purana. Bharata admonished his wives that none of the nine sons were like him, which caused the wives to kill all the nine sons, says Vishnu Purana (4-19). From the version of Tiruvalangadu plates, it is learnt that the sons were not actually killed but abandoned by Bharata.  Cholavarman was one among them. According to Kanyakumari inscription of Virarajendra, he left his parents, travelled southwards, and reached Poompuhar where he set up his rule.


Chola Varman’s connection with Sibi


Granted that Chola Varman was the son of Bharata, in what way was he linked with Sibi? In fact, the Chola Kings enjoyed a title “Chembiyan” attributed to descent from Sibi. Many Sangam texts extol them as Chembiyan-s by citing the rare event in the life of Sibi of offering his own flesh to save a pigeon.


A search for the antecedents of Sibi leads us to a vital information that he was related to Bharata’s paternal grandfather. This begins from the five sons of Yayati. Among the five sons, named, Yadu, Turvasu, Druhyu, Anu and Puru, Dushyanta came in the dynasty of Puru. Marutta was a descendant of Puru’s sibling Turvasu. Since he had no children, he adopted Dushyanta of Puru’s family (Vishnu Purana 4-16). Sibi was the son of Usinara, born in the dynasty of another sibling Anu. In this way, they all are agnates born to the sons of the same father, i.e., Yayati.


By this, Sibi born in the lineage of Anu was a patrilineal cousin of Bharata born in the direct lineage of Puru. This makes Sibi the paternal uncle of Chola Varman who was Bharata’s biological son. Since the Tamil Sangam texts often state that Chola was born of Sibi’s lineage, it is highly likely that he was taken in adoption by Sibi’s family on being rebuked by Bharata.


The Chola-s for a long time must have nursed a grudge against Bharata for abandoning Chola Varman, the first Chola who set up the Chola dynasty. They remembered only Sibi and not Bharata or his father Dushyanta. This continued to be expressed in ancient Tamil literature too, but not until the 10th century when Rajendra Chola wanted to put on record the beginnings of his lineage from Bharata.


Chola’s relationship with Rama


How does the genealogical connection of Chola Varman with Bharata and Sibi, continue with Rama too? This puzzle can be unlocked from the way Rama was related to Yayati, the father of those five siblings. Yayati’s name appears as Rama’s ancestor in the Valmiki Ramayana (1-70-42). He was the son of Nahusha mentioned by Vasishtha who listed out all the ancestors at the time of Rama’s Marriage. The direct genetic connection between Rama and Yayati becomes apparent from this list.


In the same Valmiki Ramayana, Vasistha narrates the names of Rama’s ancestors once again when he along with Bharata went to the forest to persuade Rama to return to Ayodhya. In a bid to convince Rama that only the eldest son was crowned in Rama’s dynasty, Vasishtha started telling the names of the eldest in each generation who took up the mantle of ruling the country. In that list, Nahusha appears and not Yayati! Vasishtha says that after Nahusha, his son Nabhaga was crowned (2-110-32) whereas Nabhaga appears as the son of Yayati in the list given by him during Rama’s marriage.  This shows that Yayati did not get the rulership of Ayodhya but his son got. Nabhaga’s great-grandson was Rama!


Looking for further clues, Vishnu Purana (4-6) says that Yayati was from Chandra clan (Soma-Vamsa). This clan traces their ancestry from Ikshvaku’s eldest sister Ila. It looks strange to find the names of Nahusha and Yayati as father and son in Chandra Vamsa. In other words, Nahusha and Yayati appear in Surya Vamsa as well as in Chandra Vamsa. Of the two only Nahusha came to the Ikshvaku throne followed by Yayati’s son Nabhaga. For some reason, Yayati did not become the king of Ayodhya. The reason can be understood only from the Chola ancestry given in the inscriptions.


Of the common ancestors of the Chola-s, Bharata and Sibi were the descendants of Yayati through Puru and Anu. Rama was the descendant of Yayati who was the father of Nabhaga of Surya Vamsa. Yayati’s name appearing in both Surya Vamsa and Chandra Vamsa shows that he as one born in Surya Vamsa was adopted by a Chandra Vamsa king. Irrespective of the clan-name, all his descendants carried the same genetic markers which made them all share the same patrilineal pool.


This made the Chola-s recognise all the three – Bharata, Sibi and Rama as their ancestors. This information clearly stated in their edicts turn a new page in the history of Bharat that there is no North-South divide. The Ikshvaku’s had spread to South India as far as Pumpukar in a distant past even before the river Kaviri was born, for, there is a reference in the Tiruvalangadu plates to a later day descendant of Chola Varman, by name Chitradhanvan who brought Kaviri from the Western Ghats like how Bhagiratha brought the Ganga.


Bhagawan Ranganatha: Rama’s gift to Cholas


The Vigraha of Bhagawan Ranganatha housed in the temple at Srirangam in Tamilnadu has a legend around it that it was the deity worshipped by Rama and given to Vibheeshana during his coronation. Valmiki Ramayana refers to a ‘Kula Dhanam’ handed over by Rama to Vibheeshana (6-128-90). There was a reference to this deity once again when Rama was getting ready to leave the earthy plane. He advised Vibheeshana to worship the Ikshvaku deity ‘Jagannatha” (7-121).


Prior to this, Valmiki describes Rama worshipping Vishnu on the first occasion of the coronation organised by Dasaratha. It was stated that Rama and Sita worshipped Vishnu at that time, did Yajna for Vishnu, and spent the night in the abode (temple) of Vishnu (Va. Ra. 2-6). All these indicate that Rama possessed the vigraha of Vishnu for himself. A question arises, if a vigraha was family property, how would anyone give it to people outside the family? If it was given to Vibheeshana, why did he leave it on the island on River Kaviri? If it was given to him by Rama, it is only natural to expect him to take it to his own abode (Lanka) and not leave it on the way. But he left it on a mound amid Kaviri, which became known as Srirangam. Was it because that region was under the control of the Chola-s?


Parallelly, we come across an information in the form of an inscription that Bhagawan Ranganatha of Srirangam was the ‘Kula Dhanam’ of the Chola-s!  In an inscription of the period of Kulottunga-III, found on the inner wall of the White Tower of the Srirangam Temple, it is stated that the Srirangam deity has come to the Chola King as the ‘Kula Dhanam’ (SII Vol 24, NO. 133, A.R. No. 89 of 1936 – 37).


The same expression – Kula Dhanam – found in the Valmiki Ramayana for the vigraha given to Vibheeshna is found in the inscription as a possession of the Chola-s. It conveys just one meaning – that Rama sent his Kula Dhanam as his gift to his descendant Chola who could not have attended the coronation ceremony which was called for on short notice upon Rama’s return from Lanka. Yayati was just a few generations older than Rama and the first Chola (Chola Varman) could have been much closer to Rama’s time, that Rama remembered his cousin in the distant South by sending his own deity through Vibheeshana who had to cross the Chola region to reach his hometown.


Vibheeshana merely served as a carrier to hand over the deity to the Chola-s. It is also mentioned in the Srirangam temple chronicle called ‘Koyil Olugu’ that the deity is in the possession of the Chola-s right from the time it was brought by Vibheeshana. If Rama had meant it for Vibheeshana, Vibheeshana would not have left it in Srirangam.


This inscription also stands in support of the ancestry from Rama mentioned in the Kanyakumari inscription. There are literary references too from the Sangam Age to middle Chola-s in the 10th century on Rama as the ancestor of the Chola-s. It is a pity that this precious connection of the Chola-s with Rama remains forgotten by Tamils themselves. At least now the connection among all three – Bharata, Sibi and Rama – with the Chola-s (Tamils) down South must be publicized throughout Bharat in the spirit of Ek Bharat, Sreshtha Bharat.


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