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  • CK Ramachandran

Has Malabar History Reached a Dead End?

By CK Ramachandran

How does one perceive that the history of a region has hit a dead end? When orthodoxy remains unchallenged for a long period? Or when nothing new is discovered or interpreted?

A cursory look at the research papers produced by students of Calicut University reveals that most of them are content to repeat the findings derived from existing sources like Keralolpathi, Granthavaris, Tuhfat ul Mujahideen and Logan. Then there are the limited foreign sources such as the travel records of European, Chinese and a few Arab visitors. Of course, there are also the accounts of colonial administrators, most of them acting out a dual role as creators and chroniclers of history. We are content to quote them, without regard for the fact that their narrative often springs from the need to justify their actions of pillage and plunder.

It may be good to remember what Miriam Makeba, the South African singer and human rights activist, said:

The conqueror writes history. They came, they conquered and they wrote. Now you don’t expect people who came to invade us to write the truth about us. They will always write negative things about us. And they have to do that because they have to justify their invasion. We don’t write our history; it has always been handed down to us orally by our elders. Of course, the white man came and he writes history. In fact, you don’t know anything about any place until the white man gets there. Until the white man comes to any place nothing lives. It’s only when he comes and says, ‘Boom, I discovered you. Now you exist”. Which is ridiculous.

It is true that local sources of history are limited and have more or less been exhausted. But the situation was more or less the same when Prof. M G S Narayanan embarked on his monumental research project on the history of Kerala during the second Chera kingdom (c. 800-1124 AD). Most of the inscriptions and scrolls had been read and interpreted. This did not deter Prof. MGS. Working more or less on the same sources diligently, he coaxed meaning out of portions of inscriptions left as unintelligible. At certain places, he respectfully differed from the interpretations given by earlier historians, including his mentor, Professor Elamkulam who had initiated him into the Vattezhuthu script. His dissertation which was later enlarged and revised into the classic, Perumals of Kerala (2003) is an authority on the social and political conditions of Kerala under the Chera Perumals of Makotai (c. 800-1124).

It is not as if the last word has been said about Malabar’s history. There are still huge gaps in our understanding about the conditions of Malabar after the eclipse of the Chera dynasty. We know that the Venad dynasty had asserted its autonomy albeit formally under the Chera vassalage. During a short period when all the three powers had declined after the savage attack by the Delhi Sultanates, one of the Venad kings, Ravi Varma Kulasekhara (r.1299-1313) had managed to conquer not only the Pandya kingdom but even marched up to Kancheepuram and crowned himself Samgramadheera Ravi Varma ‘Thribhuvanachakravarty’ (ruler of Chera, Chola and Pandya) in 1312. His glory was short-lived when he was defeated and killed the next year. Nevertheless, there was an orderly succession to the Venad throne.

But, what happened to Cochin and Malabar after the disappearance of the Chera supremacy is not clear.

Prof. MGS writes that the territory was divided into several parts known as ‘natu’ (district). But how this fragmented polity later came together to form the Perumpadappu and Nediyiruppu swaroopams and still later to the Cochin and Calicut powers is still shrouded in mystery. It is true that whatever inscriptional evidence exists has been decoded. We now need to go beyond and study the architectural and sculptural evidence in greater depth. Prof. MGS has studied temple architecture and sculpture in some detail in his seminal work on the Perumals. More importantly, he has left some clues for the future researcher.

For instance, the following observation of his, while discussing the Vishnu images in Malabar, gives interesting leads for further research:

‘The standing Vishnu in Varadaraja pose holds discus and conch in the upper hands, the bottom left hands being kept in katyavalambita mode while the bottom right hand is poised in varada mode’. (page 376, Perumals of Kerala). He finds a curious mixture of Pallava and later Chalukya influence in these idols. ‘This mixture of the two regional traits may be considered typical of Kerala, especially north Kerala’. (ibid.)

Regarding temple architecture, he speculates: ’The Aryan Brahmin immigrants from Karnataka must have brought the Chalukya patterns of temple construction with them and this appears to have been modified by contact with the Pallava-Chola style’(371-2). However, he admits: ‘It is a pity that no detailed account of early temple architecture in Kerala exists today. A hasty survey by Stella Kramrisch, confined to old Travancore, and some isolated accounts of individual temples are the only sources of information other than direct personal observation’. (372-3).

How did this curious mixture of Pallava and Chalukya influence combine in North Kerala? MGS has probably left this question for future researchers. This is one of the many grey areas in Malabar’s rich history, waiting to be picked up by history students and researchers.

They may possibly find a clue to this if they study the influence of the Hoysala kingdom on Malabar, particularly after the 11th century. Sadly, very little research has gone into this area. Kerala history has been heavily influenced by the Tamil legacy of the three great Tamil powers. We have deciphered almost all of the stone inscriptions and other primary documents relating to the Cheras. These inscriptions are spread over the entire Kerala from Pullur in Kasaragod to Thirunandikkara in Kanyakumari. This gives a superficial impression that the entire area was under the influence of the Chera dynasty.

But, recent research on Hoysala history has brought up interesting facts which contradict this impression.

According to the paper ‘Hoysalas in the Medieval History of Kerala’ (by Dhiraj M S, 2016), the decline of the Cheras coincided with the rise of the Hoysalas who had conquered large territories of northern Kerala. The Hoysalas were originally Jains, but King Bitti Deva, who is considered the most powerful of the Hoysalas, was converted to Vaishnavism by Ramanujacharya. He took the name ‘Vishnuvardhana’ and reigned from 1108 to 1152. Although his exploits according to the Chamarajnagar inscription (1117 CE) could be exaggerated (‘… pursuing the Maleyalas, captured their forces and made himself master of Kerala before showing himself again in Bayalnadu’), there are several inscriptions which testify to his conquest of large territories in north Kerala.

What is significant is the proselytization which went hand in hand with the conquest. As a newly converted Vaishnavite, he was keen to spread his new faith in the conquered territories. Although there are no records to show that Vishnuvardhana encouraged the destruction of Jain temples, one of his generals, Sankara is recorded as having erected a number of Vishnu temples in several places including Tamarecharu ( modern Thamarachery).

A publication by the Directorate of Census, Kerala (‘Temples of Kozhikode District’ by S Jayashanker, 2002) notes that several Vishnu temples had come up in the 11th and 12th centuries in and around Vatakara. Significantly, one such temple is the Maha Vishnu Temple in Vishnumangalam (Kallachi, Nadapuram). The Mayyazhi river flowing nearby is also known locally as Vishnumangalam river, as if to celebrate Vishnuvardhana’s name.

How did the second Chera empire collapse? This question has still not been definitively addressed. The lazy answer is to repeat the Keralolpathi myth that the last Perumal decided to abdicate and convert to Islam as an act of expiation for some imaginary sin. But, a historian has to establish more cogent explanations based on facts. MGS has described the stalemate well: ‘Meanwhile, something strange appears to have happened to the Chera kingdom though the wars against the Pandyas and Cholas apparently did not produce anything more than a stalemate with slight occasional gains and losses. How far this new phenomenon was internal and how far it was related to external invasions and the impact of wars cannot be assessed in the present state of our knowledge.’ ( p.129)

Could the missing link have been the Hoysalas? One hopes further research will bring back Kerala history from the dead end back on to the highway.

The author, Mr CK Ramachandran is the convenor of the Calicut Heritage Forum (CHF). The article was first published on June 30, 2021



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