Cheraman Perumal and the Myths

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Revisiting the topic….

Some years ago I wrote briefly about this interesting bloke who appears often in Kerala History. Most of the discussions from readers focus around his retirement actions where he distributes his kingdom and goes off on a pilgrimage. I touched upon the topic a few times after that and more recently JK at Varnam penned an interesting article about the event

We see that in general the popular versions cover the travails of a Chera king who leaves the West Coast of Malabar, bound for another location which is purported to be variously Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Kailas in North India and the abode of St Thomas in Mylapore (there are many other versions too, but too obscure).  We see the possibilities of three or even four conversions in these stories, one to Islam, the second to Buddhism, third Jainism and finally to Christianity. The timelines vary widely, from the 9th to the 12th century. But each of these myths found takers and were promptly spread by both the Portuguese and the Dutch as well as Muslim scholars creating much confusion as to which was most probable.

Armed with a fascinating and thorough study done well before Indian independence by the doyen of Malabar history, Mr KV Krishna Ayyar, I decided to revisit the topic. Ayyar starts by confirming that it is an unsolved puzzle and after a thorough analysis, concludes with the Bhuvibhaga or Chera empire partition. It is a very difficult 25 page treatise, especially for those uninitiated to what is known as the Periyapuranam. It also requires you to have a working knowledge of the Keralolpatti, at least the version authored presumably by Tunjath Sankaran Ezhutachan in the 16th century. So without much ado let us get to the points raised by KVK and more specifically get introduced to the Tamil epic PeriyaPuranam (a.k.a Tiruttontarpuranam - the life stories of the sixty-three Shaiva Nayanars) penned by Sekkizhar in the early 12th century.

Set during the period of the Chola king Kulothunga II, the story goes that Sekkizhar a poet chief minister of his decided to wean the king away from his fascination of the 10th century Jain erotic epic Civaka Chintamani. Now you can imagine that it is a difficult task, but then again Sekkizhar wrote about the 63 Saivite saints, sitting in the thousand pillared hall of the Chidambaram temple. Interestingly, all of the saints mentioned in this epic are actual persons. Therefore, this is a recorded history of the 63 Saiva saints called as Nayanmars (devotees of Lord Siva), who incidentally belonged to different castes, different occupations and lived in different times.

As you may guess, one of these saints was none other than our Cheraman Perumal. KVK first of all establishes that the Malayalam sources like Keralolpatti are all proto-history works which are somewhat haphazard and purely inconsistent attempts at making a record of their history. As he himself explains, with a little patience, one can remove the legendary encrustations to reach the nucleus by reading through both works in detail. The entire work of Ayyar’s painstaking detection and deduction is best left where it has originally been published, so I will get to the crux of the matter, only briefly touching on the meticulous work starting with the establishment of the fact that the Tamil Cheraman is exactly the same person and the Malayalam Cheraman after carefully analyzing the dates seen in the documents. KVK establishes Cheraman’s date of birth as 742 AD, then his parentage, later his peculiar accession to the throne, his progeny, internal and external events to Tiruvanjikulam (Kodungallur), periods of strife, his division or partition of Malabar and finally pilgrimage and ascension to the heavens in 826 AD, following which the Kollam era was sanctioned.

In summary therefore, Cheraman was born in 742 AD at the Chera capital Tiruvanjikulam or Cranganore. He was the son of the sister of King Sengorporiayan. Interestingly his father was a Chola prince, who had strayed to the Chera court, and in those days the powerbases at Tamilakam were actually with the Pallavas and the Pandyas. Cheraman grew up in his uncle’s palace, but was mostly found in the Mahadeva temple of Tiruvanjikulam, interested mainly in the service of Siva. As times go by, he married a lady from the Nediviruppu kovilakom and had a son through her. His sister incidentally married the Perumbadappu Namboothiri. Cheraman’s son was Manavikiraman (the first Zamorin of Calicut) the Nedivirippu Thamburan, while his nephew became the Perumbadappu Thamburan (later known as the Cochin king). The fact that the Cochin and Kolattiri kings were higher born Kshatriyas while the Zamorin was a Nair born of the Sambandham with the Eradi lady has been the biggest bone of contention since in all the acrimonious issues between the three of them, for hundreds of years.

One thing bothered me though in this analysis. KVK is clear that there was just one son named Manaivicraman, not two boys as all other myths mention. He also details that the Cheraman sword is given to this one boy, (not two boys Manavan and Vikraman) following the battle at Palghat. He also states that this is the Manavikraman who becomes the first Zamorin. I wondered for a moment at how Palghat comes up in all critical points of passage in Malabar history! Later it comes to the fore again, when the Mysore Sultans attacked.

Life seems to have been going well, till Rajasimha Pandya decided to invade Kerala in 765AD. The powerful Pandya was not something the Chera ruler could contend with, so he decided to abdicate and retire to the forests, as the tale goes. The ministers of the palace were greatly perturbed, and agitated. By conjecture, the only male who could be persuaded to take over was young Cheraman as was the custom of Malanad (being the nephew and not the son) or for some other good reason such as a recommendation by the invader Rajasimha, who might have perceived that the ascetic ruler would be a good proxy, a man without heroic and kingly ambitions or inclinations.

Nevertheless Cheraman Perumal was an able king who rebuilt the 16 ports and temples, and built a fort Cheramankotta as well at the Northern border town of Valarpattanam near Talipparamba. Around this time, the great Sankaracharya was born in 788AD, adding luster to the King’s reign. However there was further strife at the Eastern borders and we see Pandyan attacks near Palghat, the establishment of the fort at Taravur (Tarur) and the takeover of Vizinjam. As the war continues, Manavikraman his son (in other stories we hear of two youngsters Manavan and Vikraman) rushes to his support and defeats the Pandyan king Varaguna in 782AD.

From here on, KVK observes Cheraman’s disinterest in worldly pursuits and in 810AD, he leaves on a pilgrimage after dividing up the land among his feudatories. He goes on to Chidambaram and then to Tiruvalur where he becomes a friend and disciple of Sundaramurti. They move on to tour various temples and places in Tamilakam, and after all this Cheraman and Sundara turn back to Malabar in 820AD. After a sojourn in Cranganore for another 6 years, both of them depart from this world (or leave for Kailas) in 826AD. The day is called Cheraman day which is an annual event since then, celebrated with pomp and splendor.

So as you see, KVK links up filtered events from Kerala proto-historians to the little bits of history he could dredge out from Periyapuranam in order to create a coherent account on the life of Cheraman Perumal. Of course he debunks the events leading to Perumal becoming a Muslim or a Christian.
But we can’t close the topic just like that, for there would be many unanswered questions hovering around the conversions, the division of land and so on. What could be the possible directions? Let’s check.

Quoting the words from the Census - The world knows nothing of its greatest men, and so it is with Cheraman Perumal, for while he is the most familiar and famous of the Viceroys of Kerala, while his name is in everybody's mouth from the most cultured Brahman down to the most ignorant Paraiyan, there are no reliable materials affording any definite information about his life and times. Cheraman Perumal's rule, from the important events it contained and from the little direct knowledge we have on the subject, has naturally attracted the attention of many diligent scholars, and many are the traditions that have gathered round his name. The Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Mahommedans all claim him as a convert to their religion. There is the tradition of a Perumal having become a Buddhist, or as others would have it, a Jain. It must be observed in this connection that Buddha Matam or Buddhism has often been confounded with any religion other than Hinduism, for in the days of the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism, to a Hindu all non-Hindus were Bouddhas or followers of Budha, which term acquiring a general significance was indifferently applied in later times to the followers of Mahomed, Christ, etc. To a Hindu in Kerala, any one professing any religion other than Hinduism has been a Bouddha, a term which is even applied to a low caste Hindu. One of the Perumals is said to have renounced his faith, and become a Jain, and not a Mahommedan. His name is supposed to have been Pallibana Perumal.

First we go to the Tuhfat Al Mujahideen. Sheik Zainuddin admits that even during his period, the Hindus had stated that the king ascended to the sky. They also believe that he will come down one day and that is the reason why they keep a pitcher of water and a pair of sandals with lit lamps and decorations at a place near Kodungallur on certain nights. So there is a good amount of backing to the Periyapuranam story. Nevertheless, Zainuddin does not provide any factual support to the story of this perumal going to Makkah. Also there is confusion about the dates with Zainuddin stating this happened in the 9th century while others state it was during the reign of the Prophet Mohammed. Zainuddin is clear anyway that this person could not have been the Cheraman Perumal. Ibn Batuta writing in 1342 mentions the king of Balipatanam as the convert, dating it to the 13th century and Abdul Razak visiting Calicut in 1442 does not mention these stories at all (for him it would have held great propaganda value!). Ferishta, the Mohammedan historian, is positive that the Malabar king who embraced the Moslem faith and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, at the end of the 9th century, is a Zamorin of Calicut.

Cheraman becoming a St Thomas Christian is alluded by Decouto and Faria Souza, and here again there is confusion about the dates, and there is also mention of the Cheraman being one of the three wise magi’s visiting the infant Jesus. The problem is that the dates fluctuate between the birth of Christ and the 4th or 6th century and so it seems difficult to lend the stories too much credence.

So in all the conversions of Cheraman Perumal to Christianity and Islam seem to be backed with little by way of fact or conjuncture. Buddhism on the other hand was in the decline already by 850AD, and Jainism in Malabar predated it by many centuries, so it is very probable that the Periyapuranam account borders the truth that the Perumal eventually passes away while on his pilgrimage. But there is another twist in the analysis of legends, for it is stated in the Census of India as follows relating to the Jain link.

As far as the handing over of the kingdom is concerned, KVK clarifies that this was how it always was and these local feudatories were under the suzerainty of the Perumal at Cranganore. When the king left on his trip, all he did was release them from that symbolic connection. He could have asked his son Manavikraman to take over but that was not permitted in those days as he was not a Kshatriya.

But when he left, he authorized the Zamorin to annex what he could wisely, with his sword. As the Zamorin had no areas in profitable regions or ports he could only annex them by might.

PC Alexander in his ‘Dutch in Malabar’ concurs by stating that the Perumal died a Saivite and never converted. And he indicates that the mural in the Brahadeeswara temple in Tanjore depicts the Perumal proceeding to Kailas with his friend. MGS Narayanan agrees with KVK’s theories and connects the first Cheraman Perumal to the Periyapuranam and names him the Rama Rajashekara – Rajadhiraja Parameswara Bhattaraka of Makotai. Sadasivan says that the king of Maldives was the person who converted to Islam.

I am sure the myth will remain for more decades, but the above is a summary of the studies of KVK Ayyar, which I believe makes a lot of sense.

Bharata Kaumudi Pt 1, 1945 - Cheraman Perumal – A New study – KV Krishna Ayyar
Perumals of Kerala – MGS Narayanan
Census of India, 1901, Parts 1-2