The Cheras were an ancient Dravidian royal dynasty of Tamil origin. The first to establish an historical ruling dynasty in the area, they ruled wide-ranging areas of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in south-eastern and south-western India respectively, areas that had been settled since at least 5000 BC.
Chera territory included regions such as Venad, Kuttanad, Kudanad, Pazhinad, and others, encompassing the area between Kanya Kumari in the south to Kasargod in the north (now in the far north of Kerala). Also included in this list are Palghat, Coimbatore, Salem and Kollimalai, although they quite probably did not rule all of these areas at all times as ancient borders could be quite fluid at times. Their core territory was in Kerala, while the later rise of the Pallavas pushed them out of Tamil Nadu.
Vedic influence seemed to have been minimal before the advent of Brahmanism. The Cheras had no particular religion – even the caste system was absent from their society – but ancestral worship was popular. The war goddess was known as Kottavai, but there existed no structural temples. Instead, images of gods were kept in the open air, probably under a tree (which echoes Indo-European practice in Europe, notably amongst the Celts and Germanics, so it has to be wondered whether the Dravidians copied the practice from similar Indo-European arrivals in northern India or if the practice predated the rise of either group). Unlike the later La Tène Celts, an established priesthood was conspicuously absent from Chera society. Structural temples only came into existence after the arrival of the Brahmins.
Agriculture was the main occupation for the great majority of the populace.
As mentioned in the Roman connection, foreign trade also flourished. Tools and tackles were made of iron, and fishing, hunting, spinning, weaving, carpentry, and salt manufacture were all important. Precious stones, pearls, and spices were exported from Kerala.
Ports included Muzris, Tyndes, Barace, and Nelaynda. The ruler’s income depended on the war booty he collected, plus land revenue and taxes. This individual was called ‘ko’, or ‘kon’, or ‘kadumko’ (meaning ‘great king’), and these kings were generally known by their titles, which were based on personal peculiarity, a singular habit, or an important achievement.
Contemporary Chera Rulers
Early Chera Empire
The Chera kings have been rather vaguely described in the Sangam literature (the Sangam age encompasses the first four centuries of the Christian era). Their historical dating is conspicuously absent and genealogy is lacking.
All of the Chera kings stemmed from one of two clans, the Vanavaraman and the Irumporai, but there also seems to have been a level of intermarriage between the clans, making any attempt to construct a genealogy a complex affair. According to historians, the first Chera king on record was one Karuvur-Eriya-ol-val-ko-Perunceral Irumporai, who ruled at the end of the first century BC. Several sources give a list of nine rulers that extends backwards into the fifth century BC, but these are merely rehashes of existing names.
An early king that does precede these, however, probably did exist – Vanavaramban of circa 430 BC. This is assumed because the early Chera leaders called themselves the Vanavar, or ‘celestials’ and it was common among Hindu dynasties to be called after the name of their founders. Vanavaramban is shown here as ‘possibly an early Chera leader’ because the Cheras claimed to have had a presence in their region of southern India for many centuries before the known history of them begins.
What is usually not understood – is that there were two lines of kings that ruled simultaneously, the aforementioned Vanavaraman and the Irumporai. It seems that the kingdom existed with two rulers – the senior one who oversaw the main territories, and the junior one who oversaw the newly-conquered north.
Second Chera Empire
There is little information available on the early Cheras between the third century AD to the start of the ninth.
An obscure dynasty, the Kalabhras, invaded the Tamil country towards the end of the second century, seemingly causing a destabilising effect across a large area of southern India. They displaced the existing kingdoms and ruled for around three centuries.
In turn they were displaced by the Pallavasand the Pandyas in the sixth century AD and a Chera presence can often be glimpsed during this period, but perhaps not as a single kingdom.
The Kalabhras were eclipsed in the sixth century and no single kingdom was able to assume dominance in the south. The Cheras seemingly remained a collection of tribes that may have banded together when an outside threat presented itself but which never achieved true unity as they had done in the first century or so.
The Second Chera empire made its appearance in the annals of Kerala history at the very start of the ninth century, but this was very definitely formed as a confederation of the Chera tribes, and not a kingdom with an all-powerful king. A new city, or at least a newly expanded and improved city, Mahodyapuram (modern Kodangallur), was the capital of the revived Chera state, founded by Kulasekhara Alvar, one of the twelve Alvars.
The Alvars were Tamil saints who composed and sang hymns in praise of Vishnu (the ‘Preserver’ in the Hindu Holy Trinity of ‘Creator-Preserver-Destroyer’). They were exponents of the Bhakti (devotional) cult in southern India, and gave great impetus to the Bhakti cult in southern India between the seventh and tenth centuries.
By now, however, the Indo-European Aryans of the north had also filtered into the deep south, with the result that the new empire is classed as an Aryo-Brahmin state.
The first Chera ruler was Perumchottu Utiyan Cheralatan, a contemporary of the great Chola, King Karikalan. After suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chola ruler at the battle of Venni, he committed suicide.
His son, Imayavaramban Nedum Cheralatan, another important Chera ruler, succeeded him. During his long rule of 58 years, Imayavaramban Nedun Cheralatan consolidated the Chera Dynasty and extended its frontiers. He inflicted a crushing defeat on his sworn enemies, the Kadambas of Banavasi (see Uttar Kannad for details). Imayavaramban’s reign is of special significance to the development of art and literature. Kannanar was his poet laureate.
However, the greatest Chera King was Kadalpirakottiya Vel Kelu Kuttuvan, who is also identified with the mythical hero of the Silappadigaram (The Jewelled Anklet). Silappadigaram is one of the three great Tamil epics of the Sangam Age. The great Tamil poet, Paranar, refers to his military exploits including his famous victory at Mogur Mannan and Kongar.
The last known Chera ruler, Cheraman Perumal converted to Islam and built the first mosque in India. The Cheras faded out of history by the 8th century AD.