The early historic pre-Pallava Tamil polities are often described as a "kinship-based redistributive economies" largely shaped by "pastoral-cum-agrarian subsistence" and "predatory politics".Tamil Brahmi
cave label inscriptions, describe Ilam Kadungo, son of Perum Kadungo
, and the grandson of Ko Athan Cheral of the Irumporai clan.
Inscribed portrait coins with Brahmi legends give a number of Chera names.
Reverse of these coins often contained the Chera bow and arrow symbol.
The anthologies of early Tamil texts
are a major source of information about the early Cheras.Chenguttuvan, or the Good Chera
, is famous for the traditions surrounding Kannaki
, the principal female character of the Tamil epic poem Chilapathikaram
After the end of the early historical period, around the 3rd-5th century CE, there seems to be a period where the Cheras' power declined considerably.
Cheras or Keralas of the Kongu country
are known to have controlled western Tamil Nadu
and central Kerala
in early medieval period.
Present-day central Kerala probably detached from Kongu Chera kingdom around 8th-9th century AD to form the Chera Perumal kingdom
(c. 9th- 12th century AD).
The exact nature of the relationships between the various branches of Chera rulers is somewhat unclear.
Some of the major dynasties of medieval south India - Chalukya, Pallava, Pandya, Rashtrakuta, and Chola - seems to have conquered the Chera or Kerala country. Kongu Cheras appear to have been absorbed into the Pandya political system by 10th/11th century AD. Even after the dissolution of the Perumal kingdom, royal inscriptions and temple grants, especially from outside Kerala proper, continued to refer the country and the people as the "Cheras or Keralas".
The term Chera - and its variant form "Keralaputas" - stands for the ruling lineage and the country associated with them.
The etymology of "Chera" is still a matter of considerable speculation among historians. One approach proposes that the word is derived from Cheral
, a corruption of Charal
meaning "declivity of a mountain" in Tamil, suggesting a connection with the mountainous geography of Kerala..
Another theory argues that the "Cheralam'' is derived from "cher" (sand) and "alam" (region), literally meaning, "the slushy land".
Apart from the speculations mentioned, a number of other theories do appear in historical studies.
In ancient non-Tamil sources, the Cheras are referred to by various names. The Cheras are referred as Kedalaputo
(Sanskrit: "Kerala Putra") in the Emperor Ashoka
's Pali edicts (3rd century BCE).
While Pliny the Elder
and Claudius Ptolemy
refer to the Cheras as Kaelobotros
respectively, the Graeco-Roman trade map Periplus Maris Erythraei
refers to the Cheras as Keprobotras
. All these Graeco-Roman names are evidently corruptions of "Kedala Puto/Kerala Putra" probably received through relations with northern India.
The term Cheralamdivu
or Cheran Tivu
and its cognates, meaning the "island of the Chera kings", is a Classical Tamil name of Sri Lanka
that takes root from the term "Chera".
Cheras of ancient south India
Ancient Silk Road
map showing the then trade routes. The spice trade was mainly along the water routes (blue).
Recent studies on ancient south Indian history suggest that the three major rulers – the Pandya
, the Chera and the Chola
– based originally in the interior Tamil Nadu
, at Madurai
, Karur (Karuvur)-Vanchi
, and Uraiyur
respectively, had established outlets on the Indian Ocean namely Korkai
, Muchiri (Muziris), and Kaveri Poompattinam respectively.
Territory of the Chera chiefdom of the early historical period (pre-Pallava
) consisted of the present day central Kerala and western Tamil Nadu.
The political structure of the chiefdom was based on communal holding of resources and kinship-based production. The authority was determined by "the range of redistributive social relationships sustained through predatory accumulation of resources".
There was more than one branch of the Chera family ruling at the same time and contenting for leadership (one in central Kerala and the other one in western Tamil Nadu).
The Cheras are referred to as Kedalaputo
(Sanskrit: "Kerala Putra") in the 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.
There are also brief references in the present forms of the works by author and commentator Katyayana
(c. 3rd - 4th century BCE), author and philosopher Patanjali
(c. 2nd century BCE) and Maurya statesman and philosopher Kautilya (Chanakya)
3rd - 4th century BCE) [though Sanskrit grammarian Panini
(c. 6th - 5th century BCE) does not mention either the people or the land].
A Chera coin with legend "Makkotai"
Archaeology has found epigraphic and numismatic evidence of the Early Cheras.
Two almost identical inscriptions discovered from Pugalur (near Karur
) dated to c. 1st - 2nd century CE, describe three generations of Chera rulers of the Irumporai lineage. They record the construction of a rock shelter for Jains on the occasion of the investiture of Ilam Kadungo, son of Perum Kadungo
, and the grandson of Ko Athan Cheral Irumporai.
Irumporai Cheras from Pugalur inscription
- Ko Athan Chel (Cheral) Irumporai
- Perum Kadungon [Irumporai]
- Ilam Kadungo [Irumporai]
A short Tamil-Brahmi inscription, containing the word Chera ("Kadummi Pudha Chera") was found at Edakkal
in the Western Ghats.
Recent archaeological discoveries increasingly confirm Karur as a political, economic and cultural centre of ancient south India. Excavations at Karur yielded huge quantities of copper coins with Chera symbols such as the bow and arrow, Roman amphorae and Roman coins. An ancient route, from the harbours in Kerala (such as Muchiri or Thondi) through the Palghat Gap
to Karur in interior Tamil Nadu can be traced with the help of archaeological evidence.
Historians are yet to precisely locate Muziris, known in Tamil as "Muchiri", a base of the Chera rulers. Archaeological excavations at Pattanam
) suggest a strong case of identification with the location.
Roman coins have over a period of time been discovered in large numbers from central Kerala and the Coimbatore-Karur region (from locations such as Kottayam-Kannur, Valluvally, Iyyal, Vellalur and Kattankanni).
A number of coins, assumed to be of the Cheras, mostly found in the Amaravati
riverbed in Tamil Nadu, are a major source of early Chera historiography.
This includes a number of punch marked coins discovered from Amaravati riverbed. The square coins of copper and its alloys or silver have also been discovered. Most of these early square coins show a bow and arrow, the traditional emblem of the Cheras on the obverse, with or without any legend. Silver-punch marked coins, an imitation of the Maurya
coins, and with a Chera bow on the reverse, have been reported. Hundreds of copper coins, attributed to the Cheras, have been discovered from Pattanam
in central Kerala.
Bronze dies for minting punch marked coins were discovered from a riverbed in Karur.
Other discoveries include a coin with a portrait and the Brahmi legend "Mak-kotai" above it and another one with a portrait and the legend "Kuttuvan Kotai
" above it. Both impure silver coins are tentatively dated to c. 1st century CE or a little later. The reverse side of both coins are blank.
The impure silver coins bearing Brahmi legends "Kollippurai", "Kollipporai",
"Kol-Irumporai" and "Sa Irumporai"
were also discovered from Karur
. The portrait coins are generally considered as imitation of Roman coins.
All legends, assumed to be the names of the Chera rulers, were in Tamil-Brahmi characters on the obverse. Reverse often contained the bow and arrow symbol.
An alliance between the Cholas is evident from a joint coin bearing the Chola tiger on the obverse and the Chera bow and arrow on the reverse. Lakshmi-type coins of possible Sri Lankan origin have also been discovered from Karur.
The macro analysis of the Mak-kotai coin shows close similarities with the contemporary Roman silver coin. A silver coin with the portrait of a person wearing a Roman-type bristled-crown helmet was also discovered from Amaravati riverbed in Karur. Reverse side of the coin depicts a bow and arrow, the traditional symbol of the Chera family.
Cheras from early Tamil texts
A large body of Tamil
works collectively known as the Sangam (Academy) texts
(c. 2nd century BCE- 3rd century CE) describes a number of Chera, Pandya and Chola rulers.
Among them, the most important sources for the Cheras are the Pathitrupattu
, the Akananuru
, and the Purananuru
, the fourth book in the Ettuthokai
anthology, mentions a number of rulers and heirs-apparent of the Chera family.
Each ruler is praised in ten songs sung by a court poet.
However, the book is not worked into connected history and settled chronology so far.
A method known as Gajabahu-Chenguttuvan synchronism
, is used by some historians to date the events described in the early Tamil texts to c. 1st - 2nd century CE.
Despite its dependency on numerous conjectures, the method is considered as the sheet anchor for the purpose of dating the events in the early Tamil texts. Ilango Adigal
author of the legendary Tamil epic poem Chilapathikaram
describes Chenguttuvan as his elder brother. He also mentions Chenguttuvan's decision to propitiate a temple (virakkallu
) for the goddess Pattini (Kannaki) at Vanchi.
A certain king called Gajabahu, often identified with Gajabahu
, king of Sri Lanka
(2nd century CE), was present at the Pattini festival at Vanchi.
In this context, Chenguttuvan can be dated to either the first or last quarter of the 2nd century CE.
Uthiyan Cheral Athan
is generally considered as the earliest known ruler of the Chera family from the Tamil texts (and the possible hero of the lost first decad of Pathitrupattu
). Uthiyan Cheral was also known as "Vanavaramban" (Purananuru)
. His headquarters were at Kuzhumur (Akananuru
He is described as the Chera ruler who prepared food ("the Perum Chotru") for Pandavas and the Kauravas at the Kurukshetra War
He Married Nallini, daughter of Veliyan Venman, and was the father of Imayavaramban Nedum Cheralathan (Pathitrupattu (II)).
Uthiyan Cheral Athan is probably identical with the Perum Cheral Athan who fought against the Chola Karikala at the battle of Venni. In the battle of Venni, the Chera was wounded on the back by the Chola ruler Karikala
. Unable to bear the disgrace, the Chera committed suicide by slow starvation.
As the name Pathitrupattu
indicates, they were ten texts, each consisting a decad of lyrics; but of these two have not till now been discovered.
The following Cheras are knowns from Purananuru
collection (some of the names are re-duplications).
- Karuvur Eriya Ol-val Ko Perum Cheral Irumporai - Ruled of Karuvur. Praised by Nariveruttalaiyar.
- Kadungo Valia Athan
- Palai Padiya Perum Kadumko
- Antuvan Cheral Irumporai - father of Selva Kadumko Valia Athan (VII decad). Contemporary to Chola Mudittalai Ko Perunar Killi (whose elephant famously wandered to Karuvur).
- "Yanaikatchai" Mantaram Cheral Irumporai ruled from Kollimalai (near Karur Vanchi) in the east to Thondi and Mantai on the western coast. He defeated his enemies in a battle at Vilamkil. The famous Pandya ruler Nedum Chezhian (early 3rd century CE) captured Mantaran Cheral as a prisoner. However, he managed to escape and regain the lost territories.
- Ko Kodai Marban
- Takadur Erinta Perum Cheral Irumporai
- Kuttuvan Kodai
- Kudakko Nedum Cheral Athan
- Perum Cheral Athan
- Kanaikkal Irumporai is said to have defeated a chief called Muvan and imprisoned him. The Chera then brutally pulled out the teeth of the prisoner and planted them on the gates of the city of Thondi. Upon capture by the Chola ruler Sengannan, Kanaikkal committed suicide by starvation.
- Kudakko Cheral Irumporai
- Kottambalattu Tunchiya Makkodai - probably identical with Kottambalattu Tunchiya Cheraman in Akananuru (168)
- Kadalottiya Vel Kelu Kuttuvan
- Man Venko - a friend of the Pandya Ugra Peruvaluti and the Chola Rajasuyam Vetta Perunar Killi.
Cheras in the medieval period
An approximate extent of Kalabhra supremacy in southern India.
After the end of the early historical period in south India, c. 3rd-5th century CE, there seems to be a period where the Chera family's political prestige and influence declined considerably.
Little is known for certain about the Cheras during this period.
Cheras of Kongu country (Karur
) initially appear as the rulers of western Tamil Nadu and central Kerala
There was a domination of present-day Kerala regions of the ancient Chera country by the Kongu Cheras/Keralas (probably via some form of viceregal rule).
The family claimed that they were descended from the Cheras who flourished in pre-Pallava
(early historic) south India.
- An inscription of Kadamba king Vishnu Varma, dated 5th or 6th century, can be found at Edakkal cave in Wayanad. An early historic Chera graffiti containing the phrase "Kadummi Putra Chera" was also discovered from the cave.
- Tradition tells that the Kalabhra (Kalvar) rulers kept the Chera, Chola and Pandya rulers in their confinement.
- The earliest Chalukya king to claim overlorship over Chera/Kerala is Kirttivarman I (fl. 566 - 598 AD) (this claim is generally considered as a "boastfull exaggeration" by historians). A later grant (695 AD) of king Vinayaditya II Satyasraya, with reference to the vassalage of the Kerala country, is now reckoned as a more dependable record. Several Chalukya records of the 7th and 8th centuries speak of the conquest and vassalage of the Kerala country.
- A number of Pallava records also mention the vassalage of the Kerala country.
- Rashtrakuta inscriptions mention "an alliance of Dravida kings including Kerala, Pandya, Chola and Pallava who were defeated" (E. I., XVIII). The Keralas mentioned there might be the Kongu Cheras who had already submitted to the Pandyas (and not Chera Perumals of Kerala).
Pandya conquests in Chera country
There are clear attestations of repeated Pandya
conquests of the Kerala or Chea country in the 7th and 8th centuries AD.
- Pandya king Sendan/Jayantan (fl. 645 – 70 AD) was known as the Vanavan, an ancient name for the Chera king. Arikesari Maravarman (670 – 710 AD), another Pandya ruler, probably defeated the Keralas/Cheras on several occasions. His successor Ko Chadayan Ranadhira also made gains against the Cheras.
- The so-called "renewal of the capital city of Vanchi (Karur) along with Kudal (Madurai) and Kozhi (Uraiyur)", described in the Madras Museum Plates of the Pandya king Rajasimha I (730 – 65 AD), may suggest a Pandya occupation of the Kongu Chera capital Karur.
- It is known that when Pandya king Jatila Parantaka (765 – 815 AD) went to war against the Adigaman of Tagadur (Dharmapuri), the Keralas and the Pallavas went to the aid of the latter though "the Pandyas drove them back to the quarters from which they had emerged" (Madras Museum Plates). Perhaps the Chera branch from present-day Kerala had crossed the Ghat Mountains to offer support to the Adigaman and after defeat they were pursued up to the Palghat Gap by the Pandya forces.
- Present-day central Kerala probably detached from Kongu Chera/Kerala kingdom (around 8th-9th century AD) to form the Chera/Perumal kingdom.
- The Pandyas are known to have made a defensive alliance with the Cheras of Kongu country (who were under their influence) in this period. Pandya king Parantaka Vira Narayana (c. 880 – 900 AD) is known to have married a Kerala (Kongu Chera) princess "Vanavan Maha Devi". The son of this alliance, Rajasimha, described as a member of Chandra-Aditya Kula (Sinnamanur copper plates), was "destroyed by the Chola king Parantaka". It was initially assumed by K. A. N. Sastri and E. P. N. K. Pillai that the Vira Narayana had married a Chera Perumal princess of Kerala.
Chola conquests of Chera country
- The Kongu country was conquered by the Cholas (either by Srikantha or Aditya I Chola) in the last years of the 9th century AD (this campaign probably involved battles between Aditya I and Parantaka Vira Narayana). The Pandyas were eventually defeated in the "great battle" of Sripurambiyam (c. 885).
- The Pandyas were defeated by Chola king Parantaka in 910 AD (the fate of the Kongu Chera country, then ruled by Kongu Cheras, upon the fall of Madurai is not known). Pandya king Rajasimha II, who was defeated by Parantaka Chola, is known to have found asylum in Kerala or Chera country (c. 920 AD). Chola king Sundara (c. 956 – c. 973 AD) had a Chera or Kerala princess among his queens.
- Kongu Chera country (and the Chera Perumal kingdom) was subsequently conquered by the Cholas.
- Amara Bhujanga Deva, one of the princes defeated by Chola king Rajaraja (Tiruvalangadu Grant), was probably a Pandya or a Kongu Chera prince.
- Chola king Rajadhiraja is known for defeating certain Vira Kerala, one of the so-called "thennavar muvar", and trampling him to death by his war elephant. This royal was probably a Kongu-Chera of Chandra-Aditya Kula or a Pandya prince (son of a Pandya and a Kongu Chera princess). Vira Kerala was previously considered as a Chera Perumal king (K. A. N. Sastri and E. P. N. K. Pillai).
Chera Perumals of Kerala
Depiction of Cherman Perumal Nayanar - Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur
While the Pallava and Pandya rulers in Tamil Nadu
emerged into established kingship by c. 5th - 6th centuries CE, the formation of the monarchical polity in Kerala
took place not before c. 9th century CE. The Chera Perumals are known to have ruled what is now Kerala between c. 9th and 12th century CE.
Scholars tend to identify Nayanar saint Cherman Perumal
(literally "the Chera king") and Alvar saint Kulasekhara
with some of the earliest Perumals.
The exact nature of the relation between the Cheras of Kongu and the Chera Perumals remains obscure.
The Perumal kingdom derived most of its wealth from maritime trade relations (the spice trade) with the Middle East.
The port of Kollam
, in the kingdom, was a major point in overseas India trade to the West and the East Asia.
Political units known as "nadus", controlled by powerful hereditary chiefs or by households, occupied central importance in the structuring of the Chera Perumal state. The rulers of the nadus usually acted with the help of a Nair
military retinue. The prominent nadus continued to exist even after the end of the Chera rule during the beginning of the 12th century.Nambudiri-Brahmin
settlements of agriculturally rich areas (fertile wet land) were another major source of support to the kingdom.
"A naval campaign led to the conquest of the Maldive Islands, the Malabar Coast, and northern Sri Lanka, all of which were essential to the Chola control over trade with Southeast Asia and with Arabia and eastern Africa. These were the transit areas, ports of call for the Arab traders and ships to Southeast Asia and China, which were the source of the valuable spices sold at a high profit to Europe."
The Chea Perumal kingdom had alternating friendly or hostile relations with the Cholas
and the Pandyas
The kingdom was attacked, and eventually forced into submission, by the Cholas in early 11th century AD (in order to break the monpoly of trade with the Middle East).
When the Perumal kingdom was eventually dissolved in 12th century most of its autonomous chiefdoms became independent.
The extent and nature of state formation of the Chera kingdoms, from the ancient period to early modern period, cannot be interpreted either in a linear or in a monochromatic way. Each ruling family had its own political prestige and influence in southern India over their life spans.
The extent of political formation in pre-Pallava
south India (before c. third century CE
) was a matter of considerable debate among historians.
Although earlier scholars visualised early historic south Indian polities as full-fledged kingdoms, some of the recent studies rule out the possibility of state formation.
According to historian Rajan Gurukkal, ancient south India was a combination of several "unevenly evolved and kinship based redistributive economies of chiefdoms". These polities were structured by the dominance of "agro-pastoral means of subsistence and predatory politics".
Kesavan Veluthat, another prominent historian of south India, uses the term "chief" and "chiefdom" for the Chera ruler and Chera polity of early historic south India respectively.
Reaching conclusions based on the early Tamil poems and archaeological evidences is another topic of disagreement.
It is assumed that the institution of sabha in south Indian villages, for local administration, was first surfaced during the early historic period.
The early Chera economy can be described as a predominantly "pastoral-cum-agrarian" based system. The emphasis on agriculture increased with time, and provided the base for larger economic change.
The early historic south India (c. second century BCE-c. third century CE
) can be described as a "semi-tribal political economy". In a 2013 paper, historian Rajan Gurukkal describes ancient south India as a collection of "unevenly evolved and kinship-based redistributive economies."
Exchange relations with the merchants from Graeco-Roman world, the "Yavanas
", and with north India provided considerable economic momentum for the Chera chiefdom. Indian Ocean exchange was the major economic activity.
There is some difference of opinion with regard to the nature of the "spice trade" in ancient Chera country. It is disputed whether this "trade" with the Mediterranean world was managed on equal terms by the Tamil merchants, in view of the existence of apparently unequal political institutions in south India.
Some of the more recent studies point out that the "trade" was an exchange of "serious imbalance", because of its being between the Roman Empire
and South India with uneven chiefdoms.
The geographical advantages, like the favourable Monsoon winds which carried ships directly from the Arabia to south India as well as the abundance of exotic spices in the interior Ghat mountains (and the presence of a large number of rivers connecting the Ghats with the Arabian Sea) combined to make the Cheras a major power in ancient southern India.
Spice exchange with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean (Graeco-Roman) navigators can be traced back to before the Common Era and was substantially consolidated in the early years of the Common Era.
In the first century CE, the Romans conquered Egypt, which probably helped them to establish dominance in the Indian Ocean spice trade. The earliest Graeco-Roman accounts referring to the Cheras are by Pliny the Elder
in the 1st century CE, in Periplus Maris Erythraei
of the 1st century CE, and by Claudius Ptolemy
in the 2nd century CE.
The Periplus Maris Erythraei
portrays the "trade" in the territory of Keprobotras
in detail. Muziris
was the most important centre in the Malabar Coast, which according to the Periplus
, "abounded with large ships of Romans, Arabs and Greeks". Bulk spices, ivory, timber, pearls and gems were "exported" from the Chera country to the Middle East and Mediterranean kingdoms.
It is known that the Romans brought vast amounts of gold in exchange for black pepper
This is testified by the Roman coin hoards that have been found in various parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Pliny the Elder
, in the 1st century CE, laments the drain of Roman gold into India and China for luxuries such as spices, silk and muslin. The spice trade across the Indian Ocean dwindled with the decline of the Roman empire in the 3rd - 4th centuries CE.
With the exit of the Mediterranean from the spice trade, their space was picked up by the Chinese and Arab navigators.
The famous damascus blades
relied on the unique properties of the wootz crucible steel
from medieval south India and Sri Lanka.
There are several ancient Tamil, Greek, Chinese and Roman literary references to high carbon Indian steel. The crucible steel production process started in the 6th century BC, at production sites of Kodumanal
in Tamil Nadu
and Sri Lanka
and exported globally; the Chera Dynasty
producing what was termed the finest steel in the world
, i.e. Seric Iron to the Romans, Egyptians, Chinese and Arabs by 500 BC.
The steel was exported as cakes of steely iron that came to be known as "Wootz".
Wootz steel in India had high amount of carbon in it.
The method was to heat black magnetite
ore in the presence of carbon in a sealed clay crucible inside a charcoal furnace to completely remove slag. An alternative was to smelt the ore first to give wrought iron
, then heat and hammer it to remove slag. The carbon source was bamboo and leaves from plants such as Avārai
The Chinese and locals in Sri Lanka adopted the production methods of creating wootz steel from the Cheras by the 5th century BC.
In Sri Lanka, this early steel-making method employed a unique wind furnace, driven by the monsoon winds. Production sites from antiquity have emerged, in places such as Anuradhapura
, as well as imported artifacts of ancient iron and steel from Kodumanal. A 200 BC Tamil trade guild in Tissamaharama
, in the South East of Sri Lanka, brought with them some of the oldest iron and steel artifacts and production processes to the island from the classical period
Society and culture
In general, early Tamil texts reflect the Dravidian cultural tradition as well as elements of the northern Indian cultural tradition, which by now was beginning to come into contact with southern India
It is logical to conclude that most of the Chera population followed native Dravidian religions.
Religious practice might have consisted predominantly of conducting sacrifices to various gods, such as to the pre-eminent god Murugan
The worship of departed heroes was a common practice in the Chera territory, along with tree worship and other kinds of ancestor worship. The war goddess Kottravai was propitiated with elaborate offerings of meat and toddy
. It is theorised that Kottravai
was assimilated into the present-day form of the goddess Durga
It is thought that the first wave of Brahmin migration came to the Chera territory around the 3rd century BCE with or behind the Jain and Buddhist missionaries. It was only in the 8th century CE that the Aryanisation of the old Chera country reached its organised form.
Though the vast majority of the population followed native Dravidian practices, a small percentage of the population, mainly migrants, followed Jainism
Populations of Jews
were also known to have lived in Kerala.
Early Tamil texts do make a number of references to social stratification, as expressed by use of the word kudi
("group") to denote "caste".
A striking feature of the social life of the early historic period (c. second century BCE-c. third century CE
) is the high status accorded to women.
Agriculture and pastoralism were the primary occupations of the people. Various agricultural occupations such as harvesting, threshing and drying are described in the early Tamil texts. Poets and musicians were held in high regard in society. Early Tamil texts are full of references about the lavish patronage extended to court poets. There were professional poets and poetesses who composed texts praising their patrons and were generously rewarded for this.
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