The Chera dynasty was one of the ancient Tamil dynasties that ruled a region in South India, primarily in the present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu states. The history of the Chera dynasty is not as well-documented as some other Indian dynasties, and there are variations in historical accounts. Nevertheless, their influence on the culture and history of South India is widely acknowledged. Read here to learn more.
The Cheras are believed to have had a significant presence from as early as the 4th century BCE to around the 12th century CE.
The Chera dynasty is known for its contributions to trade, culture, and literature, and it played a crucial role in the history of southern India.
The Chera dynasty’s territory included the western coast of South India, covering the modern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The capital of the Cheras was at various times in places like Vanji, Karur, and Urayur.
The Cheras are referred to as Kedalaputo (Sanskrit: “Kerala Putra”) in Emperor Ashoka‘s Pali edicts (3rd century BCE, Rock Edicts II and XII).
The earliest Graeco-Roman accounts referring to the Cheras are by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century CE, in the Periplus of the 1st century CE, and by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE.
The Cheras often engaged in conflicts with neighboring dynasties such as the Cholas and Pandyas. These rivalries were driven by territorial and political ambitions.
Historians often distinguish between three principal branches of the Chera dynasty: the Early Cheras, the Kulasekhara dynasty, or the Later Cheras.
The early Chera rulers are often referred to in Tamil Sangam poetry and ancient inscriptions.
- Uthiyan Cheralathan (1st century CE): Uthiyan Cheralathan, also known as Uthiyan Neduncheralathan, is one of the most prominent early Chera rulers mentioned in Sangam literature. He is often celebrated in poetry for his patronage of the arts and his military exploits. He was associated with the city of Karur.
- Imayavaramban Neduncheralathan (1st century CE): Imayavaramban Neduncheralathan is another early Chera king mentioned in Sangam poetry. He is celebrated for his generosity and is often depicted in poems that describe his lavish feasts.
- Perumcheral Irumporai (2nd century CE): Perumcheral Irumporai was an early Chera ruler who is also mentioned in Sangam poetry. He is known for his patronage of literature and poetry.
- Cheran Chenkuttuvan (2nd century CE): Cheran Chenkuttuvan, also known as Chenguttuvan, was a Chera king who is celebrated in Sangam poetry for his naval expeditions. He is often associated with the legendary Chera capital, Vanji, and his maritime adventures.
- Narmudi Cheral (3rd century CE): Narmudi Cheral is another early Chera ruler from the Sangam period. He is mentioned in poetry for his conquests and contributions to the Sangam literary assembly.
- Kadal Pirakottiya (3rd century CE): Kadal Pirakottiya was a Chera queen who ruled during the Sangam period. She is known for her valor and is celebrated in Sangam poetry for her leadership qualities.
The later Cheras rose to prominence around the 8th century CE, following a period of relative obscurity after the decline of the Early Cheras. They ruled over parts of present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Kulasekhara Dynasty: The Kulasekhara dynasty, a branch of the Cheras, emerged around the 9th century CE. They ruled over parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and played a significant role in the spread of Vaishnavism in the region.
- The Kulasekhara Cheras established Mahodayapuram (modern-day Kodungallur) as their capital. This city became a center of culture, trade, and religious activity during their rule.
- The Kulasekhara Cheras rose to prominence in the 9th century CE, particularly under the leadership of Chera Udaya Marthanda Varma. They expanded their territories and were involved in trade with foreign powers, including the Chinese.
- The Kollam Era, a significant Malayalam calendar system, is said to have been initiated during the reign of Kulasekhara Cheras, marking the founding of Kollam city as a significant event in Kerala’s history.
The dynasty began to decline in the 11th century due to internal conflicts and external invasions. The Cholas from Tamil Nadu and the Chalukyas from the Deccan are among the external powers that exerted control over parts of the Chera territories.
Administration, Trade and Commerce
The administration of the Chera dynasty was highly decentralized.
- The kingdom was divided into numerous regions, each of which was governed by local chiefs or Naduvazhis. These chiefs enjoyed a degree of autonomy in their respective regions.
- Local assemblies, known as “Nadu,” had a role in the administration of regions within the Chera kingdom. These assemblies often made decisions related to local governance and disputes.
- Revenue collection was an important aspect of the Chera administration. Taxes were levied on trade, agriculture, and other economic activities. Revenue officials known as “Manigramakkal” were responsible for collecting taxes and maintaining order in trade centers.
- The Chera legal system was influenced by customary laws and traditions. Disputes were resolved through local assemblies or by village elders. The Cheras also issued inscriptions and grants, which provide insights into their legal practices.
The Cheras were known for their involvement in trade, particularly the spice trade. The region’s access to important ports along the Arabian Sea allowed them to establish trade links with the Roman Empire and other regions, contributing to their prosperity.
- Trade guilds, known as “Manigramam,” played a crucial role in the administration and trade of the Chera kingdom.
- These guilds organized and regulated trade activities, collected taxes, and ensured the smooth functioning of trade routes.
Art and Architecture of the Chera Dynasty
The Chera dynasty made notable contributions to the culture of South India. This includes their patronage of literature and art. Sangam poetry, a significant Tamil literary tradition, flourished during their rule.
- The Kulasekhara Cheras are known for their patronage of literature, particularly the Malayalam language. Kulasekhara Alwar and his descendants composed devotional poetry in Tamil and Malayalam.
- They patronized poets and scholars who composed works in Sanskrit and Malayalam. Some of the famous literary works from this period include the Ramacharitam and the Bhagavad Gita in Malayalam.
The Chera rulers were known for their patronage of temple architecture, particularly the construction of Hindu temples.
- The architectural style of Chera temples is characterized by its simplicity and emphasis on natural materials, such as wood and stone.
- The temples often have a square or rectangular layout with tiered roofs, reflecting the Dravidian architectural style.
- Intricately carved wooden pillars and ceilings were common features in Chera temples, showcasing the craftsmanship of the period.
The Chera dynasty also contributed to the creation of rock-cut temples, particularly in the region of Kerala.
- These temples were carved out of solid rock, showcasing the skill of Chera artisans in working with stone.
- The most famous example of Chera rock-cut architecture is the Pallava-style rock-cut cave temple at Trichur, known as the Vadakkunnathan Temple.
Kerala, the heartland of the Chera dynasty, is also known for its mural paintings.
- Chera murals are found on the walls of temples and palaces and often depict religious and mythological themes.
- The murals make extensive use of vibrant colors and showcase a unique artistic style.
Religion: Initially, the Cheras practiced indigenous Dravidian religions. Later, they embraced Hinduism, and this period saw the growth of temples and Hindu religious practices in the region.
The Chera dynasty’s decline can be attributed to a combination of factors, including internal conflicts, external invasions, and the emergence of more powerful neighboring dynasties like the Cholas.
The Chera dynasty left a lasting legacy in the southern part of India. Their contributions to literature, art, and trade continue to be celebrated, and they are an essential part of the historical and cultural heritage of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
-Article by Swathi Satish