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Namboothiris and Perumaals

Legendary Perumaals

The people of Kerala have cherished the legends of the Perumaals for centuries. The memory of the last one of them, who is said to have partitioned the kingdom and left for Mecca, is vividly enshrined in tradition and literature. This "Cheramaan Perumaal" is often associated with the founding of principalities, temples, churches and mosques, the establishment of the Kollam era, the inauguration of the Onam festival, the introduction of the matrilineal system and the settlement of different communities, in short with everything important in the life of Kerala. His personality pervades everything in the past to such an extent that anyone is left wondering whether this is one individual or a series of them, though it was difficult until recently, to distinguish fact from fiction. It is now clear from the numerous inscriptions of Cheras that Cheramaan Perumaal was a dynastic title enjoyed by all the rulers of the family.

Chronology of Perumaals

The earliest Perumaal known to epigraphy is Rama Raja Sekhara (800 - 844 AD). He is followed by Sthanu Ravi Kulasekhara (844 - 883 AD), Kota Ravi Vijayaraga (883 - 913 AD), Kota Kota Kerala Kesari (913 - 943 AD), Indu Kota (943 - 962 AD), Bhaskara Ravi Manukulaaditya (962 - 1021 AD), Ravi Kota Raajasimha (1021 - 1036 AD), Raja Raja Ravi Raja Adityan Kota Ranaditya (1036 - 1089 AD) and Rama Kulasekhara (1089 - 1122 AD).

The history of the origin and early development of this Chera kingdom of Mahodaya (Makotai) remains obscure. It is distinguished from the earlier Chera kingdom (of Karur) of the Sangham Age by its new capital Mahodaya.

Chaalookyaas and Braahmanans

The Chaalookyaas were great patrons of Braahmanans* and the Aaryan culture and their kings had issued several copper-plate charters to Braahmanan settlers all over their territory.

* The Caste Suffix Namboothiri - The Braahmanans in Kerala are designated as "Aaryan" and "Aarya Braahmanan" in one inscription. But the caste suffix "Namboothiri" which their descendants employ in present day Kerala is not found in the records. The Aaryan Braahmanans of Chera period and Namboothiris of the present day are one and the same people.

Braahmanans Choose Governors

There is no clear picture of the political history and administration in the Chera kingdom of Kongu during this period when they were subordinate to the Chaalookyaas. The earlier Sangham works and inscriptions would suggest that at least during the close of the Sangham age, some members of the Chera royal family lived in the capital, Karur (Salem district of Tamil Nadu) while others ruled in Tondi and Muziris. This same system would have continued in the post-Sangham period from the 4th century onwards, and when Chaalookyaas and Pallavaas, and later the Paandyaas, became the overlords, they must have exercised their right to send governors to this part of Kerala. Perhaps this is what the traditional Braahmanan chronicle of "Keralolpathi" describes as the system of Braahmanan assembling at Tirukkaariyur (Karur) and bringing Perumaals from the other lands (or "Paradesam"). When the organised Braahmanan settlers of the new 32 colonies became prosperous and powerful, they naturally must have had an important role in the administration and also in the choice of the governor stationed at Muchiri (Muziri of Greeks and Romans and Muyirikod of the Jewish copper plates).

Foundation of New Chera Kingdom

The governors from outside must have been appointed by the Cheraas of Karur in Kongu or by their overlords in the Chaalookyaas, Pallavaas and Paandyaas at later times. However, the exact point of time when the Cheraas or other governors were discontinued following the foundation of a new Chera kingdom at Makotai cannot be ascertained with the help of the sources available at present. It is possible that a political revolution supported by the new powerful Aaryan Braahmanan oligarchy enabled some governor belonging to the Chera dynasty to become the founder of a new kingdom with its capital at Makotai near the site of the ancient Muziris of the Sangham age. As pointed out earlier, the Braahmanans of the Aaryan settlements had become established and prosperous by the 8th century. They could well have had a share in promoting the foundation of this kingdom at sometime in the beginning of the 9th century. Their traditional chronicle, "Keralolpathi" gives an account of such a development which may be summarised here.

Finding anarchy and mutual conflicts intolerable, the representatives of the 64 Braahmanan settlements (32 of Tulu and 32 of Kerala) elected the representatives of four settlements as leaders and they brought Perumaals from outside Kerala. These Perumaals were to rule for periods of 12 years according to certain rules and regulations. After a long time of rule by Perumaals, they brought the Cheramaan Perumaal, a Kshathriyan once. He was not sent back after the term of 12 years. His sister, a Kshathriya princess, was married to a Braahmanan so that the offspring could be good Kshathriyas of the solar race. When this Perumaal ruled for 36 years, and did not return after that, the overlord, called Krishna Raayar, invaded Kerala. The subjects were divided in their loyalties, but they finally decided to forgo the pattern of government laid down for them by Parasurama and allow Cheramaan Perumaal to rule over Kerala. In spite of some discrepancies in detail, this account is convincing in its outlines. In the absence of clear-cut epigraphic or literary evidence regarding the foundation of this Chera kingdom, this Braahminical tradition may be provisionally accepted. It has the advantage that it suits the known background of Kerala's early connection with Kongu in the Sangham age, the subsequent conquest of the old Chera capital in Kongu by the Chalookyaas, Pallavaas and Paandyaas, and the emergence of the new Chera kingdom of Makotai.

Braahmanans and Caste Symbols of Perumaals

The tendency on the part of the kings to adopt the caste symbols and legendary claims of the northern rulers and the readiness on the part of the Braahmanan priesthood to confer such honours, would signify close co-operation between kings and Braahmanans. Recruitment of the traditional rulers of Dravidian origin into the Kshathriya caste represents definite stage in the progress of Aaryanisation of south India. According to orthodox Braahminical theory, it was the duty of Kshathriyans to protect the cow and the Braahmanan and uphold "Dharma".

These implications of caste status in terms of king's rights and privileges could be found in contemporary Chera practice. The king himself or his representative called "Koyil Adhikaarikal" and "Aalaakoyil" is often found presiding over the assemblies in Aaryan settlements which met inside the temple. His chief councillors were the Braahmanans of "Naaluthali" or the four chief temples.

Braahmanan Oligarchy

The royal dramatist Kulasekharan claimed that his hand was the "sun to the darkness of poverty among Braahmanans". An extreme case of subservience to Braahmanans may be noticed in the Kollam inscription of Rama Kulasekharan, 13th year, which says that the king offered "Praayaschitham" for having offended the Aaryans of the place. Such surrender of royal authority to Braahmanans is extremely rare elsewhere in India.


The "Naalu Thali" must be the four chief temples of the capital city, Mahodayapuram, near Kodungallur. They are referred to in "Keralolpathi" as "Mel Thali", "Kizh Thali", "Netiya Thali" and "Chingapuram Thali". Of these, Kizh Thali and Chingapuram Thali are still known by their old names. Since "Kizh" means east and "Mel" means west, Mel Thali might be some temple to the west of Kizh Thali temple of Siva. The great Thirukkula Sekharapuram Vishnu temple can still be seen to the west of Kizh Thali and a record of the 12th century found there clearly shows that it was one of the Naalu Thali or four chief temples. Netiya Thali literally means the great temple and this title must certainly go to Thiruvanchikkulam Siva temple which is the biggest and the oldest in the capital of Kerala.

It may be gathered from Keralolpathi that each of the four chief temples was the seat of the representative from a Braahmanan settlement near the capital. Thus the representative of Moozhikkulam Graamam sat in Mel Thali, the representative of Airaanikkulam Graamam sat in Kizh Thali, the representative of Paravoor sat in Netiya Thali and the representative of Irinjalakuda sat in the Chingapuram Tali. Several other records also mention that close relationship existed between the four chief temples in the capital and the four chief Braahmanan settlements around the capital.

This last event clearly demonstrates that the Braahmanans of Naalu Thali and the 32 Aaryan settlements whom they represented had the upper hand in this kingdom and that the kings were guided by their advice. Even the Cholas have described Kearla as the state founded by Raman (Parasuraman), the killer of all Kshathriyans and inhabited by the "Sistajana" or the best people - a term obviously intended for Braahmanans. Thus a kind of Braahmanan oligarchy prevailed in Kerala though the government was monarchical in appearance.

The king was entitled only to "Vritti" (maintenance) but not to "Shadbhaaga" (one-sixth of revenue) and he was to do everything according to the advice of the Braahmanans and never to question their action. Thus an oligarchic pattern and theocratic character were manifested within a monarchical frame. This political set up reflects the dominant position attained by the Braahmanans of the traditional settlements in the social, economic and religious life of Kerala.

Braahmanans as Councillors and Secretaries

The king's council of Naalu Thali consisting of the managers of the four Thalis or temples which were the seats of the four leading settlements of Braahmanans around the capital, has already been mentioned. The word "Stthali" in Sanskrit means a natural spot of ground, and Thali in Tamil is derived from it, but is commonly used in old Tamil and Malayalam records in the sense of a temple. Therefore, Naalu Thali as applied to individuals, referred to the representatives of the four chief temples of the capital. The temple officers called "Thaliyaathirikal", in the inscriptions, must have been intended here. As pointed out earlier, tradition supported by fragments of evidence shows that the four chief temples of the capital were allotted to the four chief Graamams or Aaryan settlements around the capital. Tradition affirms further that the four chief Graamams were the leaders of the four "Kazhakams" (see box) in which the 32 Aaryan settlements of Kerala were organised.

The names of the families in the four Graamams which had a hereditary right to send Thaliyaathiris* into the capital have been mentioned in some versions of the traditional chronicles. Thus,

* Muthil and Kothamangalam families represented Moozhikkulam;
* Karingampalli represented Airaanikkulam;
* Elanthuruthi and Kadambanaad represented Paravoor.

The names of the families representing Irinjalakuda Graamam have been lost or omitted. These Thaliyaathiris, according to tradition, represented the interests of the 32 Braahmanan settlements in Perumaal's council. Even if a margin is left for possible exaggeration of Braahmanan's rights in the Braahiminical chronicle, it is established by the epigraphic records that Naalu Thali formed an integral part of the king's ministry.

* Thaliyaathiris = Thaliyaathirikal or Thaliyaathirimaar

The fact that the Aaryan Braahmanans of Kerala were well-organised under a central leadership is proved by the information pattern of temple inscriptions, and above all, the reference to the Moozhikkulam Kachcham or Agreement of Moozhikkulam as the precedent in records from different parts of Kerala. Moozhikkulam is actually one of the four leading settlements mentioned in this tradition. Therefore, Keralolpathi-claim in this regard may be taken as largely and substantially true.

The "Keralolpathi" mentions that the Braahmanans were organised into four Kazhakams under the leadership of Perinchelloor, Payyannur, Paravur and Chengannur respectively. One from each of these four Graamams was appointed as "Rakshaapurushan" (protector) for three-year periods. When the protector became corrupt and this arrangement broke down, the Braahmanans assembled at Thirunavaya (in the present Malappuram district)¸ and decided that they must have a king, and entrusted the work to the four Kazhakams. They brought a Kshathriya prince and princess from outside. An oath was administered to the Kshathriyan to govern the kingdom according to the wishes of the Braahmanans and the capital at Kodungallur was established.

This is followed by a confused story of several Perumaals brought from outside for 12-year periods - a story which is most probably an interpolation at some later stage. However, there is an account of four new Kazhakams to replace the old group of four Kazhakams which were at a distance from each other and from the capital. The four new Kazhakams of the Perumaal period were led by Moozhikkulam, Airaanikkulam, Paravur and Irinjalakuda.

Two persons were jointly put in charge of the four temples. Therefore, Perumaal had an eight (Braahmanan)-member council. Evidences show that a representative of the Budhist Vihaara was included in the council as the spokesman of that section of the people. On certain important occasions the king used to have a joint meeting of the Braahmanan councillors and Kshathriya and Saamantha feudatories.

Oor or Graamam

The Chera king allowed the village assemblies and temple committees of Aaryan settlements, which were rural agrarian corporation in character, to enjoy partial autonomy and take part in local administration as the urban guilds and corporations. The term "Oor" means village and "Ooraalan" ("Ooraalar", if joint partnership) means master (masters) or proprietor in these villages. The villages with assemblies that we come across in the Chera inscriptions are only temple-centered Aaryan settlements and the observations that are made in regard to these local bodies called Oor, "Paratai" ("Parishath"), "Konam" ("Ganam"), etc. are limited to them. The original characters or endowments of the major Braahmanan settlements of this period have not come down to us, probably because most or all of the settlements were in existence even before the Chera kingdom of Makotai.

However, several charters to Braahmanan families have been registered in the dated and undated records of the periods of Jayamaani (1020 AD), Serivallavan Kotha (Governor of Venaattu, 974 AD), king of Venaattu (1189 AD) as well as the records of Kilimanoor (1168 AD).

Ooraalar and Decision-making

The number of Ooraalar in a village (Graamam) varied. The Avittiputhoor settlement built around a Siva temple had 27 Ooraalar while the Kumaaranelloor settlement built around the Bhagavathi temple had 16 Ooraalar. The Ooraalars were Braahmanans by caste.

In Kerala, the term Oor is applied to Braahmanan settlement which is also Graamam while non-Braahmanan settlements were known as "Cherikkal". The Oor usually met in the precincts of the temple. A separate "Yogamandapam" is mentioned in Thiruvalla temple inscriptions. They passed all important resolutions in the presence of kings, governors or some royal officers or representatives. There is no reference to quorum and the expression "Kuraivu Teerttu Kooti" shows that full attendance was the rule. Perhaps the hereditary membership of the family was exercised by some junior member in the absence of the head of the family. Records say that they were always unanimous. There is no reference to any system of lots or voting.

Agreements and Notifications

The agreements arrived at were first committed to writing on palm leaves and some of the important resolutions were transcribed on stones. These were then planted in the courtyard of the temple within the Praakaaram (outer wall). In many cases, these records were caused to be inscribed on the granite blocks of the foundation, rising three to six feet above ground, either in the Sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum) or the Mandapam or the first Praakaaram. Sometimes records are found on a Sthambham (pillar) or Balikkal (sacrificing stone). There was also the practice of recording the decisions at that time or later in copper plates.

Moozhikkulam Kachcham

Several inscriptions of the 10th and 11th centuries from Chokkur, Porangattiri, Trikkakara, Thirunelli, Moozhikkulam, Thiruvalla, Ezhimala, Kaviyur, Thiruvanvandur, Maaniyoor, Ramanattukara, Pookkottoor, Alanalloor, Triprayar, Kumaaranellur, Navaykulam and Thirunandikkara show that Moozhikkulam Kachcham was followed as model by Braahmanan settlements all over Kerala. It has been suggested that the Moozhikkulam Kachcham was a grand agreement between the representatives of all Kerala temples arrived at in a meeting under the President-ship of the Perumaal or his representative.

There is nothing in the records to warrant such an assumption. They only prove that certain rules followed at Moozhikkulam in regard to the management were accepted as a model in several other settlements also. These inscriptions generally register the allotment of Brahmaswam and Devaswam land of that temple and state that Ooraalar who violated the agreement shall perish or be expelled (outcast) from the village, according to Moozhikkulam Kachcham. These indications are sufficient to show that it was the policy enunciated at Moozhikkulam to see that those who violated an agreement, arrived at unanimously by the Ooraalar and government officers, had to be excommunicated after the confiscation of their rights and properties. This was essential to build up a strong, well-knit and efficient system of local government in the Aaryan Braahmanan settlements. This was the secret of their unique success and continued prosperity in Kerala. Some of these records also give the court procedure in which the village assembly, presided over by the district governor is transformed into a judicial institution.

Even after the formulation and popularisation of Moozhikkulam Kachcham, there are references in some other Kachchams as precedent. Thus we have Kachchams of Katangaattu, Thavaranoor, Sankaramangalathu and Kaithavaarathu. There are some records of the Braahmanan settlements in which punishment in the form of temporary loss of rights or losses of tenancy or office or fine are prescribed for certain offences.

Braahmanans and Culture

Apart from the political predominance which the Braahmanans enjoyed and which has been brought out earlier and in the discussion above, it is necessary to mention the high standard of culture which they had already achieved even before the Chera kingdom was revived. It may be noted that Dandin, the 7th century poet and scholar who adorned the Pallava court at Kanchi bestowed high praise on his excellent Braahmanan friends, Maathrudatha and others from Kerala. Maathrudatha's father Bhavathraatha is represented as a great scholar, the author of "Kalpasoothraadika", the performer of 33 sacrifices (Yaagam/Yajnam) (click) and a man endowed with power to bless or curse. His son is described as equal to the father in all respects and unique in poetic ability, loyal to his teacher and friends, learned in the four Vedams and expert in interpreting Thanthram.

The position that Sankaraachaaryar (click : Sree Sankaraachaaryar), another Braahmanan from Kerala, achieved in the scholarly world of India by the beginning of the 9th century also speaks well of the cultural background and competitive training of Braahmanans of Kerala. Though numerically small in relation to the vast majority of non-Aaryan, non-Braahmanan population of Kerala, this Braahmanan community is found to have captured an enviable status in the land of their adoption through their unity, hard work, ability, resources and dedication to the cause of Aaryan culture.
Braahmanans and Language

The language of Chera was at first mistakenly described as Tamil. Later on it was recognised that there was some difference between this and Tamil, and scholars christened it as "western dialect of Tamil". The development of a new dialect (old Malayalam) must have occurred in the 7th or 8th century, even before the rise of Cheras of Makotai.

The earliest literary work which has come to light in old Malayalam is "Bhaskara Kautaleeyam" by an anonymous author. The reference of "Achu" as coin and the operation of six rules would show that it was composed in 12th or 13th century.

In other words, the Braahmanan settlements created not only a temple-centered oligarchy and temple-oriented culture, but also a new temple-language in which the Vidooshakan's (harlequin's) speeches of "Koodiyaattam" composed by Tholan for performance at the Koothambalam constituted the earliest literature venture.

Temple Organisation

In fact almost all the artistic and intellectual activities of the period seem to have their centre in the temple so much so that there arose what we may call a temple culture. Separate records (copper plates / epigraphs) of different dates from Thiruvalla, Thrikkakkara, Nedumpuram Thali, Karikkad, Thiruvanvandur, Perunna, Chokiram (Sukapuram) and Avittathur were collected, studied and arranged subject-wise. The Vaishnava saints known as Aalvaars have composed songs on 13 temples of Malainaadu. These temples accorded a special place among the Vishnu temples in South India. They are Thiruvanparisaaram, Thiruvathaaru, Thiruvananthapuram, Thiruchengannoor, Thiruppuliyoor, Thiruvanvandoor, Thiruvallavaal, Thrikkadinjithaanam, Thiruvaaranvila, Thrikkaakkara and Thirunaavaaya. Thirumanga Aalvaar's "Periya Tirumoli", Nammaal- vaar's "Tiruvaymoli" and Thirumangai Aalvaar's "Periya Tirumoli" also sing about many of these temples. Kulasekhara Aalvaar's "Perumaal Tirumozhi" refers to another, namely Thiruviruvakkode. Two of them happen to be the Graamakshethrams of the respective Braahmanan settlements of Kerala. Except Thiruvanparisaaram, Thiruvattaaru and Thiruvananthapuram, all were clearly within Chera kingdom.

Bhattar (Bhattathiri) and Chattar (Chaathira Namboothiri)

There are other items of temple routine which throw light on the temple's patronage of sciences, arts and literature. Two classes of Braahmanans called Bhattar and Chattar are mentioned in the records of the age. From the available inscriptions, it may be inferred that it was a common practice to appoint a learned Braahmanan (Bhatta) in temples for the purpose of reciting and explaining the "Mahaabhaaratham" to the common people. Then there were other Bhattaas who conducted discourses among themselves on sacred literature. This is called "Vakkainikka" ("Vyaakhyaana" discourse) and "Pattakkal" (Bhaatta) who conducted a discourse within the temple on Thiruvonam day as mentioned in Thiruvalla copper plates. (click here : Three Types of Bhattathiris).

In course of time, "Bhattastthaanams" were instituted in temples for other subjects as well, so that we find the Kozhikode Thali having an institution called "Revathi Bhattastthaanam" (click: Pattathaanam and the Role of Namboothiris) in the 16th century.

A class of Braahmanans, called Chattar or Chaathirar or Chatra also figure in temple records. The Thiruvalla copper plates reveal a standing arrangement to feed three Chaathirar. More information about the Chaathirar and institution called "Saala" to which they belonged may be gleamed from Paarthhivapuram copper plates. They speak of the creation of a Saala and the institution of "Kalam" or seats for 95 Chaathirar on the model of Kaanthalloor Saala by the king in that temple.

It is clearly stated that out of 95 Kalam, 46 were set apart for Pavizhiya Charanam (Pakazhiya or Aaswalaayana Charanam - a Rigvedi Braahmanan sub-group), 35 for Thaithireeya Charanam (Yajuvedi Braahmanans) and 14 for Thalavakaara Charanam, adding that the seats to be endowed in future were to be divided equally between these three sections. These groups represent Braahmanans who specialised in particular sections of Vedam. Even these Braahmanans could join the Saala only when five other Chaathirar certified that they were competent as Vaiyaakaranan, Meemaamsakan and Purohithan and that they possessed "Othu" or Vedic training. The routine of Vedic recitation is mentioned.

The rules of discipline specified that the Chaathirar were expected not to quarrel within the temple, not to injure anyone or the tenants of the "Saalaabhogam" and "Devadaanam" lands, not to carry arms into the assembly, not to play dice within the temple and not to keep concubines in their residence. The regulations prove that they were a class of Braahmanans with Vedic scholarship and military training, leading to the life of Braahmanaachaarins in monastic centres (click : Classes of Namboothiris).

Chaathirar have figured in several poetic works of the medieval period in Kerala. These Braahmanans, with spiritual and political training, had great roles in founding kingdoms, fighting battles or choosing a successor to the throne. They appear as heroes in a number of medieval "Manipravaalam" poems, and a peculiar form of military entertainment with dance, drama and music known as Chaathirakkali (Sanghakkali) (click) has also survived in Kerala.

| Article No:2.4 | Last update of this article:12th November 2004 |
Article by : Prof: M G S Narayanan (Former Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi), M - 6 / 7 , "Maitri", Malaparamba Housing Colony, Kozhikode - 673 009. Tel.: 0495-2370328

Reference : "Perumals of Kerala" (Text of PhD Thesis) - Prof: M G S Narayanan (to be published shortly by : Pragathy, New Delhi)

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