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A Historical Perspective on Kerala's Ancient History

The true history of a nation is not just its political history, religious history, or economia history; it is also the story of the structural evolution of that society.  Every society, like every living individual, changes constant-ly.  It is extremely difficult to trace all the changes that take place every year in an individual and in a society made up of hundreds of thousands individ-uals and hundreds of ethnic groups.  However, it is possible to attend to some significant structural changes that have affected all these individuals and groups at certain periods.  This chapter will deal with the political and social history of Kerala:  the Sangam Age, the Aryan Period, the Chera Times of the Kulasekharas, the Medieval Period (of Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar), Foreign Powers in Kerala (Portuguese, Dutch, and British), and Modern Kerala (political history and social developments).

The Sangam Age  (1-500 A.D.)

The Tamil Sangam works like Patittupattu, Purananooru, Akananooru, and Shilappadikaram are our major source, apart from tribal folklore, for informa-tion on the Cheras who eventually became Keralltes.  During this time the Cheras lived primarily in Tamilakam or In the plains of Tamil Nadu.  In the north on the coastal tract between Badagara and Mangalore, there was a kingdom with its capital at Ezhimala or Mount Eli; it was also known as Konkanam, south of Tulu Nadu.  The Ezhimala people were Dravidians, but not Cheras.  The powerful King Nannan of Ezhimala was able to defeat the Cheras in many battles and ex-tend his kingdom as far as Coimbatore. The Ays had a kingdom in the South extending from Kanyakumari to Nagercoil to Trivandrum. They had their capital at Aykudi on the Podiyil Mountain. They too were not, strictly speaking, Keralites because they were also not Cheras.

The Cheras established themselves as an important political power in the South alongside of the Pandyas and the Cholas.  They are sometimes identified with the Kongus and had their capital at Karur or Vanchi or Tondi.  Sangam works use Karur and Vanchi as synonyms.  All these places can be and should be identified in Tamil Nadu and not necessarily in Kerala.  The simple reason is that there is no archeological or literary evidence for the presence of a major civilization west of the Western Gnats, south of Ezhimala and north of the Ays before the eighth century.  Indeed, the Sangam works refer to the Cheras, but the Cheras lived east of the Western Ghats on the plains between the Pandyas in the south and the Cholas in the north.  It is important to bear in mind that Vanchi is the name of the land of the Cheras.  Travancore is called Vanchi Nadu or Vanchj Bhumi as in Vanchi Bhum pathee chiiram; there are several places in Kerala that bear the name Vanchi.  what does Vanchi mean?  "Boat"? No.  It is the name of the ancestral home of the Cheras. 

Earlier I have pointed out that the Cheras lived for a long time in the Vindhya Mountains. Vanchi is Vindhya; the aborigines of the Chotanagpur area still call Vindhya, vanchi.  So, naturally the Cheras who travelled south gave the name Vanchi to their new capital of Karur and later to their capital near Cranganore and later to Travancore itself.  It is significant to note that Quilon came to be called Ten Vanchi (the Vanchi of the South)--in Tenkasi we have a parallel--in the twelfth century by Rama Varma Kulasekhara (1090-1102).

From the Sangam works we can make the following observations about the Chera society during the first five hundred years of the Christian Era.

 

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