Part 11: The Legend of Cheran Senguttuvan
by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, November 15, 1992, pp.15-16; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]
"The lines of a song in today’s ceremony touched my heart. The lines refer to the Tamil flag which fluttered on the Himalayas. Although this may be a thing of the past, history can be re-established. Today this country is at war because the youth of this area were denied opportunities in education and culture…Our youth have not only done well in education but have shown that they have the self respect to achieve their aims through armed struggle. If nothing is done towards finding a settlement to the crisis in the north-east, the history related in the lines of that song will be reasserted."
- Joseph Pararajasingham, MP for Batticaloa, speaking at a school function on 26.9[Sept]’92 (reported in the Virakesari of 1.10[Oct].’92
The song referred to by the member of parliament is from an MGR film. The lines of the song about which the MP speaks, are "I see that era when Cheran’s flag fluttered on the Himalayas."*[see below the foot-note by Sachi Sri Kantha]. Joseph’s speech and MGR’s song invoke one of the most powerful narratives of modern Tamil nationalism – the conquest of north India by the kings of the three Tamil dynasties, the Cheras, Cholas and the Pandyas, which was accomplished by imprinting the Bow (Chera) or Tiger (Chola) or Pandya Fish (Pandya) emblems on the Himalayas.
The legend of Cheran Senguttuvan is the dominant episode of this narrative. Its political life in the Tamil nationalist project in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka has been more tenacious than the Dutugemunu – Elara episode in the narrative of Sinhala Buddhism’s struggle against the ‘South Indian Tamil threat’.
The legend of Cheran Senguttuvan, as we shall see later, was used by the Dravidian movement for drawing a compelling characterization of its anti-Hindi agitation. The legend forms the third part of the epic Silappathikaram, which was written by Ilango Atikal, Seran Senguttuvan’s brother – a Jain ascetic. It relates the story of Kannaki who became the goddess Pattini. The epic is divided into three parts (kaandam), named after the capitals of the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms; Vanji, Puhar and Madurai. Unlike the heroic Sangam poetry which preceded it, the Silappathikaram speaks for the first time about a Tamil Nadu as such, constituted by the three kingdoms, distinguished by a martial tradition superior to that of north India. It portrays the three dynasties conquering the north and imprinting their emblems on the Himalayas, together and separately. The Pandyan king who mistakenly causes the beheading of Kannaki’s husband, Kovalan, bears the title ‘He who overran the Aryan army’ (Aryappadai kadantha).
M.Raghava Aiyangar wrote a book based on the third part of the epic – the Vanji kaandam – called, ‘Seran Senguttuvan’. It was dedicated to Pandithurai Thevar. A recent work on Aiyangar’s contribution says, "This was the first book to give the Vanji kaandam in prose. It was after this that many scholars studied the Vanji kaandam and wrote books…the book made everyone realise and appreciate the golden era of the Tamils." (Annals of Tamil Research: M.Raghava Aiyangar Commemoration Volume, University of Madras, 1978, pp.18-19) The book went through four editions in the first two decades of its publication. "It can be said that after the appearance of this book, research on the Sangam period expanded. Many times it was made a text in the universities of Andhra, Mysore and Madras and in Ceylon, and is widely read." (Araichi Thohuthi, 1938, p.20).
We examined the life and politics of M.Raghava Aiyangar in the last issue. As we pointed out there, Aiyangar’s idea of Tamilian renaissance differed from contemporaneous Indian nationalists in one important respect. Whereas the Indian nationalists who upheld the cause of Tamil culture and history, especially saw them from a pan-Indian perspective, Aiyangar’s writings emphasised a south Indian, Tamilian uniqueness and martial superiority. His most famous work ‘Seran Senguttuvan’ and the essay he wrote later to supplement and support it are clear attempts to establish and popularise that idea. Three reasons can be identified for his attitude.
The first, as we noted earlier, was his close relationship with the Marava rulers of Ramnad – the Sethupathys. The second is that he was a Vaishnavite Brahmin – the Indian National Congress was dominated in the Presidency of Madras by Saivite Brahmins. Many Vaishnavites have, as a result tended to sympathise with the Dravidian movement (Sivathamby, 1989). In a lecture delivered to the 23rd annual conference of the Madurai Tamil Sangam, Aiyangar said,
"The three Tamil kings, the Cheras, Cholas and the Pandyas established their martial glory beyond Thamilaham (Tamil homeland) which lay between the Vengadam hills to the north and Comorin to the south; but their love for the Tamil speaking land was so great that they were not desirous of attaching lands where foreign languages are spoken, to Thamilaham…It will be appropriate to name the Madras Presidency as the Dravidian Province." (Araichi Thohuthi; 1938, pp.318, 338)
The third reason is related to his stay in Kerala, as head of the Tamil department in the University of Trivandrum. Kerala was the ancient Chera kingdom. Aiyangar’s writings during his residence at Trivandrum attempt to place Kerala history and culture within the tradition of Thamilaham. The Maharaj of the Travancore state at that time, Sithirai Thirunal had told Aiyangar, "Malayalam is the Tamil language that bathed in the sea of Sanskrit" (R.Veerapathiran; 1978, p.38).
Some aspects of Kerala and Tamil literature and ‘Chera Venthar Seiyutt Kovai’
Aiyangar’s ‘gothra’(section) name was Aiyanarithan, a poet of the Chera dynasty, who wrote the Purapporul Venba Malai – a treatise on Tamil martial culture. One of his most controversial essays which resulted from his work at Trivandrum was on the kinship system of the Chera dynasty. All this stems from his work on Seran Senguttuvan. This book which has to be read in conjunction with his essay, ‘The conquest of the Himalayas by the Tamil Kings’ (Thamil Ventharin Imaya Padai-eduppu) attempted to ground the story of Senguttuvan in epigraphical literary evidence. The work seeks to establish a story of Senguttuvan, related in the Silappathikaram’s Vanji kaandam, as a historical truth. The book as a school and university textbook has left a deep imprint on Tamilian cultural-political vocabulary.
Annadurai, Karunanidhi, MGR and the speakers of the Federal Party have invoked the example of Seran Senguttuvan to bestir Tamil youth. The Silappathikaram portrays his expedition into north India as the assertion of Tamil military might over Aryan kings who had in their ignorance disparaged the martial prowess of southern Tamils.
Senguttuvan vows to defeat two Aryan kings, Kanakan and Vijayan ("They who could not hold their tongue", says the epic) who had cast aspersions on what is called "Then Thamil Aatral" – south Tamil might. [Would] make them carry a stone hewn from the Himalayan mountain, back to Tamil Nadu for the deification of Kannaki as goddess Pattini. Senguttuvan is told, "You faced the thousand Aryan kings in combat on the day you bathed the goddess in the great flood of the Ganges…if you have decided on the expedition (to bring the stone), let the kings of the north fly the Bow, Tiger and Fish flags in their lands."
Senguttuvan, says the epic, was born to Nedun-cheralathan, who bears the title, Imaya Varamban (He who has the Himalayas as his boundary) and the daughter of a Chola king; and as such, he is seen as representing a Tamilian unity. (The Silappathikaram says that Gajabahu of Lanka invoked the goddess Pattini at Senkuttuvan’s capital to come to his country and give her blessings on the day Senkuttuvan’s father Imaya Varamban’s birth was commemorated there.)
The conquest of the north and the Himalayas is a leitmotif in the Sangam anthologies which precede the Silappathikaram. ("The Aryans screamed out loud in pain when you attacked them.", says a poem in the Sangam anthologies) The three parts of the epic emphasise the theme to glorify each dynasty. The first part refers to an expedition undertaken to the Himalayas by Thirumavalavan, who was known as Karikalan (Prabhakaran’s nom de guerre) – the founder of the Chola empire. He is shown as defeating the Maghadha, Avanti, and Vajjra kingdoms. The second part speaks of the Pandyan who conquered the ‘newly arisen Himalayas’ when his ancient land of the Kumari mountains and the Pahruli river were taken by the sea.
It is a theme in the inscriptions of the Chola empire at a later date. One Chola emperor takes on the title, the Conqueror of the Ganges. Minor poetry which arose after the decline of the Cholas praising military commanders and chieftains of the Tamil country also utilise the theme (Karumanikkan Kovai, Kalingathu Parani, etc.).
The leitmotif of the Tamil emblem on the Himalayas finds the most vivid expression in the story of Senguttuvan. Aiyangar takes it out of its epic context to emphasise a perception – that the Tamils were historically indomitable martial race. The story of Senguttuvan’s expedition repeatedly lays stress on the what is referred to as South Tamil martial might. Aiyangar’s later essay on the theme of Tamil expeditions into the north tried to prove again that these events were true on the basis of evidence, culled from the Imperial Gazeteer of India and the Hand Gazeteer of India.
In this essay, he [Aiyangar] argues that Asoka did not think of invading Tamil Nadu because he and other northern Aryan kings were aware and scared of the martial prowess of the ancient Tamils who before their times had invaded and defeated the north and imprinted their emblems on the Himalaya mountains.
The first Tamil king to imprint his emblem on the mountain was Karikalan; the names borne by parts of the Himalayas such as the Chola Pass and the Chola Range prove the Chola king’s expedition is a historical fact, argued Aiyankar (Araichi Thohuti; 1938, p.184).
He did the ‘academic’ groundwork for the propagation of the narrative of Tamil military expeditions into the north as an expression of a unique and superior martial prowess and its symbol – the Tamil flag on the Himalayas. Dravidian propagandists and the politicians of the Federal Party transformed it into a nostalgic and powerful story of a golden era woven into the rhetoric and national liberation and youth mobilization.
*Foot-Note by Sachi Sri Kantha
There is some confusion here about which MGR song was played in the said school function. The quote of Joseph Pararajasingham, cited by Sivaram, states "The lines refer to the Tamil flag which fluttered on the Himalayas," but the exact Tamil words of the song were not quoted. Sivaram has cited the lines as "I see that era when Cheran’s flag fluttered on the Himalayas." I am not sure whether Sivaram was a witness to that particular school event of September 26, 1992. If Sivaram’s translated quote of the song is taken literally, then these lines appear in an MGR song: "Puthiya Vaanam – Puthiya Bhoomi enrum Puhal Mazhai Pozhikirathu" (Anbe Vaa movie). An earlier MGR song by poet Kannadasan "Achcham Enpathu Madamaiyada" (Mannathi Mannan movie) provides a fuller version of the Tamil militarism spirit, including the flag fluttering on the Himalayas. In my recent eulogy to Sivaram, I had presumed that the Kannadasan song in the Mannathi Mannan movie was the one which was referred to by Joseph Pararajasingham. Despite this confusion, there is no doubt that MGR made use of the powerful historical scenario of a ‘Cheran Tamil flag fluttering on the Himalayas’ more than once in the lyrics of his movies.
Postscript (to the 11-part series) by Sachi Sri Kantha
The Significance of Sivaram’s study on the Maravar Caste and Tamil Militarism
It is unfortunate that D.P. Sivaram’s notable study [at least the published version in the Lanka Guardian journal] on the Maravar Caste and Tamil Militarism did not have a proper closure in 1992. One is also not sure why Sivaram did not respond to two of his critics, namely Charles Hoole and T. Vanniasingham. Maybe he felt that the expressed views of these two correspondents were half-baked and not worth a response.
From my readings of the academic contributions of the late Charles R.A. Hoole (Principal, Baldaeus Theological College, Trincomalee; died on Sept. 28, 2003), I have inferred that he subscribed to the tradition of the 19th century Chrisitian evangelists, who came to Tamil Nadu and Eelam to retrieve the ‘savage natives from their sins and show the path to the Saviour.’ Evangelists belonging to this clan [which clan included Charles Hoole’s namesake Rajan Hoole and Rajani Thiranagama, among others] adhere to an obscurantist view that hardly any respectable culture and civilization among the Tamils existed before the Christian missionary campaigns in the Indian subcontinent which began in earnest in the early 1500s.
Correspondent T.Vanniasingham’s thoughts [Lanka Guardian, Oct.15, 1992] also partially reflected this Christian evangelist position. His observation that "Poets and bards were hired-hands in the service of chiefs and could be paid to praise and exaggerate their struggles and victories" is somewhat naïve. The quatrain of 12th century epic poet Kambar cursing the Chola king with disdain, "Mannavanum Neeyo – Vala Naadum Unatho – Unnai Arintho Thamizhai Othinen" [Are you still a King? Is this wealthy land only yours? Did I study Tamil only to serve you?] disproves the fallacy of correspondent Vanniasingham. Maybe there indeed were poets and bards of mediocre quality who praised and exaggerated the ‘glories’ of their Chiefs. However, ranking poets and bards who had pride in their skills never stooped low for mundane benefits.
Even in the 20th century, the ranking Tamil poets [Subramaniya Bharati, Bharathidasan, Kannadasan and Kasi Anandan come to my mind] have shown us in their lives that they would suffer poverty, indignity, humiliation, harassment and even prison terms; but they would never lick the feet of power-holders for mundane comforts. Of the four Tamil poets I have noted as examples, the last three were our contemporaries, and Kasi Anandan is still living.
Unlike the two [or three, if one includes R.B. Diulweva] critics of Sivaram, a few non-Tamil academics from the USA who have made in-depth research on the Tamil literature and culture have provided corroborating reports to that of Sivaram. These have been compiled as ‘Essays on South India’ (Asian Studies at Hawaii, No.15, University Press of Hawaii, 1975), edited by Burton Stein. Thus, I provide excerpts below from the thoughts of Clarence Maloney, George L.Hart III and Burton Stein, to supplement the research of Sivaram on the Maravar caste. This is vital since I believe that Sivaram may not have had access to these reports, which preceded his 1992 study. The research ventures of George Hart and Burton Stein (1926-1996) in the 1960s and 1970s have questioned the credibility of the pro-Brahmanical views expressed by Nilakanta Sastri, the doyen of medieval Tamil studies in the first half of 20th century, and the author of The Cholas (Madras; University of Madras, 1935-1937) and A History of South India from Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar (Oxford University Press, 1966, 3rd edition).
George L. Hart III [‘Ancient Tamil Literature: Its Scholarly Past and Future’, pp.41-63]
"…A reading of any of Nilakanta Sastri’s books discloses many facts concerning the daily life and culture of the Brahmans of South India, who were never more than a tiny (though important) minority, but it reveals an almost total lack of information concerning other segments of the South Indian population, even those high non-Brahman castes in whose hands power has almost always been held. Ancient Tamil literature, on the other hand, was written by high-class poets who followed the model of the oral poetry of the Paanans and Paraiyans, men of the lowest castes, and is devoid of both high-class and Brahmanical bias. For this reason, it gives a more accurate picture of the social life and customs of the area to which it belongs than does any other classical literature of India." (pp.41-42)
"…It does not seem too much to hope that some day anthropologists will actually be able to trace the history of many Tamil castes. Unfortunately, most work done by anthropologists on modern Tamilnad has been devoted to the descendants of the uyarntor, or ‘high ones.’ Much more study needs to be devoted to the low castes, who are, after all, just as important for a proper understanding of the customs of the area as their higher counterparts." (p.58)
Burton Stein [‘The State and the Agrarian Order in Medieval South India: A Historiographical Critique’, pp.64-91]
I quote below two relevant paragraphs from Burton Stein’s essay, but refrain from citing the complete references he had noted, only for reasons of convenience. Stein also makes a passing mention of a Polonnaruva inscription of Sri Lanka during the period of King Vijayabahu.
"The maintenance of Chola armies and the requirements of warfare as central state functions requiring a bureaucratic structure constitute the ultimate defensive redoubt of the conventional view of the state and the economy. Substantial chapters are devoted to territorial security and the organization of royal armies. Where a military unit is identified, it is assumed to be part of a central military organization. Thus the many velaikkarar military units of the period of Rajaraja are considered not only as the ‘king’s own’ but as soldiers who have vowed to sacrifice their lives, by suicide, if necessary. The evidence upon which these conclusions about Chola armies are based is highly doubtful, and it is interesting to note that the early epigraphists Hultzsch, Krishna Sastri, and Venkayya held the view that the warriors called velaikkarar were probably made up of men from various occupational groups temporarily engaged in military activities. Gopinatha Rao, Nilakanta Sastri, and Mahalingam have, in recent years, transformed these soldiers into a centrally recruited and controlled force completely devoted to the ruler. The implication of the revised view is that the Chola state had a monopoly of coercive power which at once required an effective mobilization and centralization of resources through a bureaucracy and, simultaneously, provided the ‘central’ government with a powerful instrument of coercion for that purpose – a large, royal, standing army. This proposition is indefensible and contrary to a considerable body of evidence that military power was distributed among many groups quite independent of the ‘centralized monarchy.’ We have substantial evidence that mercantile groups maintained a formidable military capability which was required by the extensive, itinerant trade network of the age. Ayyavole inscriptions bear this out, as does the famous Polonnaruva inscription of Sri Lanka in the time of Vijayabahu (ca.1120) in which the Tamil idangai velaikkarar are referred to in association with the trade organization of the valanjiyar. References to kaikkolar velaikkarar have suggested that artisans too were capable of maintaining armed units, though Nilakanta Sastri has questioned this.
|Poet Kasi Anandan|
However, the major loci of military power were from those prosperous and populous tracts of agriculture throughout the Coromandel plain and parts of the interior uplands. The logic of resources – human and non-human – would make the dominant peasant population the major source of armed power. Local military authorities, local ‘chiefs,’ were conspicuous in the early Chola period, before Rajaraja I, and once again attained high visibility in the thirteenth century when the Chola overlordship weakened. During he period of the great Cholas, from Rajaraja I through the time of Kulottunga I, these local chiefs almost disappear from view as that view is provided by inscriptions. This may, of course, mean that as a class of local leaders these warriors were eliminated much as the ‘poligars’ were reduced later by Tipu Sultan and the British. In a few cases there is evidence of this. However, it is much more likely that this level of leadership continued intact, but submerged beneath the surface of a society only partially revealed to us in the inscriptions of the age." (pp.75-76)
Clarence Maloney [‘Archeology in South India: Accomplishments and Prospects’, pp.1-40]
"…The various Sangam literary works mention diverse occupations: kings, chieftains, scholars, sacrificial priests, purohita, poets, warriors, customs agents, shippers, foreign merchants, horse importers, blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, salt makers, pearl divers, caravan drivers, guards, tailors, fishers, dancers, drummers, plow farmers, shepherds, hunters, weavers, leather workers, and robbers. So far archeology has not produced evidence of well-developed handicrafts such as this list suggests. But for such a variety of occupations to be patronized there must have been an elite element leading an essentially urban way of life.
|Flutist T.P. Jesudas, Dec. 1971|
Named peoples may be considered as tribes, geographical or occupational castes, or ruling lineages: Kadambar, Velir, Oliyar, Aruvaalar, Maravar, Aayar, Kocar, Oviyar, Paratavar, Palaiyar, Velalar, Naagar and others. These functioned essentially as castes; both Palaiyar and Paratavar were living in Korkai under the Pandiyas. But caste as a structural system was not as rigidly hierarchical as it was to become in later medieval centuries." (p.17)
By means of his 1992 study on the Marava caste, D.P. Sivaram has joined the elite circle of North American academics who preceded him in focusing their attention on non-Brahmin Tamil castes. These academics include Robert Hardgrave (Nadar caste), Brenda Beck (Kongu region’s Kavundar caste), Clarence Maloney (Paratavar caste), Bryan Pfaffenberger (Jaffna Vellalar caste) and Stephen Barnett (Thondai-mandala Kontaikatti Velalar Mudaliyar caste).
Sivaram’s study describing the paalayam and paalaya kaarar (‘Poligars’ of British) of Tinnevely district in Tamil Nadu aroused my interest when it appeared in the Lanka Guardian, since one formative influence in my life - for a whole decade of the 1960s - was from this region. The native address of my music teacher and flute guru, T.P. Jesudas [the Radio Ceylon flute artiste of the 1950s and 1960s], which I remember very well is: Paalayam Kottai, Samathanapuram, Tirunelvely district. Last but not the least, though Sivaram did not have a Bachelor’s degree from a university, it is my view that for his published academic contribution on the Marava caste, Sivaram truly deserves a posthumous honorary post-graduate degree [Master’s Degree at least] from a Sri Lankan university. And I am sure that quite a number of Sri Lankans as well as non-Sri Lankans would concur with my suggestion.