Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Pandyan Kingdom According to Marco Polo

The Pandyan kingdom went into decline after the Cholas of the Vijayalaya bloodline defeated them in the beginning of the 10th century AD. We can say that the Pandyans lived under the shadow of the Chola empire for about 300 years.

Around 1220 AD or earlier, the Pandyans start regaining their strength. They finally destroyed the Cholas and as of 1279 AD, they reigned supreme in the Tamil region. 

During the zenith of the Pandyan empire in the late 13th century AD, they were said to be the richest empire in the world. The Pandyan empire was visited by the famed traveler Marco Polo in 1293 AD.

Let's take a look at what Marco Polo has said about the Pandyan empire in his journal. I have referred to The Travels of Marco Polo, as translated by Henry Yule and The Travels of Marco Polo The Venetian by William Marsden & John Masefield. 

Whatever I have given here is very brief. You will need to read the full chapter of the journals if you want more information.


  • Marco Polo starts by mentioning that the Pandyan kingdom which was also called as Maabar is 60 miles west of Sri Lanka. The kingdom was ruled by 5 brothers. The name of the king is Sonder Bandi Davar (Sundarapandi Thevar).

Based on the existing studies on Pandyan polity, we do know that there will always be 5 Pandyas ruling as the ancient kingdom was often divided into 5 provinces. The chief of Madurai will usually become the king of the empire. They are usually brothers or parallel cousins or even uncles and nephews of the same bloodline.

Together they will be called as PanchaPandya. After the Pandyas suffered defeat at the hands of the Muslim invaders, they retreated south to Tinnevely region. They continued ruling and fighting from there even during the Nayak period.

According to some sources, the last of the PanchaPandyas were based in these 5 places; Korkai, Kayathar, Tenkasi, Vallioor and Ukkirankottai. I am not very certain of the location of each PanchaPandya in 1293 AD.

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Location of PanchaPandyas after the fall of the last Pandyan empire; Tenkasi, Kayathar, Ukkirankottai, Vallioor and Korkai. 

  • It is the finest and noblest province in the world. They have fine pearls. The king is worth more than a city's wealth. People wore minimal clothes.

The Pandyan king and his subjects are said to wear only a loincloth covering the body from the waist down. Being a European who wore many layers of clothes, Marco Polo could have over exaggerated what he saw.

The king is also said to wear many ornaments of gold and precious stones from his neck down to his waist. He also wore gold arm bracelets. The worth of these ornaments is more than a city.


  • The king says 104 prayers everyday and repeats the word Pacauta! Pacauta! Pacauta!

Perhaps what is meant by Pacauta is Pasupata? We do know that the Pandyans were ardent Saivites. In fact, the tutelary deity of the Pandyan royal family is Siva in the form of Chandrasekhara with Agastya as their kulaguru.

  • The king had 500 wives and has his own Trusted Lieges who will burn themselves if the king dies.

Well, what can we expect from an extremely wealthy king? He would definitely spend on harem and also to spread his genes. The king's bodyguard will commit suicide if the king dies. This was a common practice in ancient Tamilakam. It is called senchoru kadan (blood rice debt). 

Usually goats will be slaughtered in ritual practices and the blood of the animal will be mixed with boiled rice. This will then be distributed by the king to his selected group of bodyguards. Should the king die in battle, the bodyguards will commit navakandam (Tamil version of seppuku/harakiri) and join their master in the afterlife. 
  • The empire spends a lot on horse purchase. More than 2000 horses each year.
The Pandyans imported the horses from the Arabs. For some reason, they were not good in breeding horses. So they ended up spending money in importing these animals especially for the use of their cavalries. 

  • Criminals were allowed to commit navakandam. Sati was common. Pandyans including their king obeyed the law.
Pandyans place a very high importance on law and justice. Criminals were given the option to sacrifice themselves by offering the death to the deity of choice. Such criminals will be paraded and there will be announcement that the criminal has offered himself to a particular deity. He will then be given 12 knives/daggers to use for the ritual suicide.

Those who lent money were allowed to draw a circle around those who borrowed and demand for assurance of repayment. It is said that the king himself went through this when a merchant who lent him money suddenly drew a circle around him and his horse!

  • People pray to Ox and don't eat beef. However, there is a community that eats beef from dead cows/ox. They are known as Govis.
This is not surprising at all. The Pandyan land is the land of Jallikattu. Cows and bulls are venerated. Southern Pandyan territories like Tirunelveli is popular for the worship of the guardian deity, Madan (bull man) who is also known as Madasamy or Sudalai Madan. While some may mistake him for Siva, Madan is actually Nandi.

The Govis mentioned by Marco Polo may refer to the Paraiyars. They don't usually slaughter the cow/bull. However, if the animal dies a natural or accidental death, they may consume its flesh.

Related image

  • The apply cow dung on houses. They grow only rice and no other wheat.

Image result for cow dung tamil houses


  • The soldiers battled naked
Marco Polo did mention that the soldiers use lance and shield during battle and that they are mostly naked. Perhaps the ancient Pandyan warriors preferred to fight naked like the Spartans or they could have worn minimal clothing with almost no armor and Marco Polo probably just exaggerated it.

  • The Saracens were butchers. Pandyan citizens bathe twice a day. They eat with their right hand. Everyone have their own drinking vessel and they don't touch the vessel with their mouth when they drink.

Looks like the Pandyans were very hygienic! Saracen is the term used for Arab Muslims.

  • Does not allow drunkards and seafarers to become guarantors
Well it makes sense because those who are drunkards cannot be trusted with their words and seafarers will not be around at all times.

  • Rain during June, July and August. People can tell a person's character by looking at the face and body. People knew how to interpret omens. People believe in Astrology.
There was little rain in the Pandyan country. The Pandyans had a good water management system. They built water tanks to store and channel water. The art of predicting a person's character by looking at the facial features of physical feature is known as Samudrika Lakshana. 

The people also believed in omens. For example, if someone starts a journey and suddenly hears a sneeze, he may pause for a moment or cancel the journey. As per Polo's journal, we also know that astrology played an important role in the lives of the people. Natal chart will be drawn when a child is born.
  • Boys leave house when they are 13
Young boys are considered as adults when they reach 13. They are expected to fend for themselves. They will be given some goats or money equivalent and will be expected to earn money via trade. They are no longer the responsibility of the parents when they are 13.
  • Shark charmers help the pearl divers
One of the things which caught my interest was the mention of shark charmers. I have heard about this before. They are called Kadal Katti (Sea Binders) in Tamil. They will charm the sharks so that it does not attack the divers whenever they dive into the sea to look for pearls. Apparently they use some mantras to do this. The fishermen and pearl divers of the Pandyan nation depended on the service of these charmers!

I can go on writing more about what Marco Polo has mentioned  but I will stop here for now.

Following a series of attacks from Muslim invaders, the Pandyan empire finally ended in around 1333. The Madurai Sultanate was then established. 

It lasted for about 43 years. During this time, the Pandyans shifted to Tirunelveli and ruled from there as shown in the image at the start of this article.

In my next article, I will write about a particular dark period in Pandyan history. One that shattered them beyond revival.