The Chera Dynasty or Cheras ruled over parts of modern Kerala during Sangam period. Their capital was Vanji and their important seaports were Tondi and Musiri. The emblem of the Cheras was ‘Bow and arrow’.
The Chera kings were also known as “Keralaputas” (sons of Kerala).
Uthiyan Cheralathan is the earliest known Chera ruler. His ruling base was in Kuzhumur in Kuttanad, Kerala.
Whereas, Kulasekhara Alwar was the first king of the later Chera kingdom, which later evolved into the Kulasekhara dynasty.
For more than five centuries, there was no trace of a Chera monarch, but Kulasekhara Alwar appeared on the scene, claiming to be a descendant of the Chera.
Most likely he ruled around 800 AD from Tiruvanchikkulam in the present state of Kerala and he ruled for more than 20 years.
Then throne was held by Ramavarma; Kulasekhara Perumal, Ramar Tiruvati, or Kulasekhara Koyiladhikarikal was his name.
His tenure was marked by political turmoil and insecurity.
He was the last ruler of the Later Chera dynasty.
The Pugalur inscription of the first century A.D. refers to three generations of Chera rulers. Perum Sorru Udhiyan Cheralathan, Imayavaramban Nedum Cheralathan and Cheran Senguttuvan were the famous rulers of this dynasty.
Cheran Senguttuvan belonged to 2nd Century AD Among his military achievements, his expedition to the Himalayas was remarkable. He defeated many north Indian monarchs. Senguttuvan introduced the Pattini cult or the worship of Kannagi as the ideal wife in Tamil Nadu. After the 2nd Century AD, the Chera power declined and we have little knowledge about its history until the 8th Century AD.
Everything that one knows today about the Cheras is through the texts of Sangam Literature. The most common sources include the Pathitrupattu, the Akananuru, and the Purananuru
The Chera Kingdom gained its importance from the 9th Century AD under King Alwar Kulasekhara Varman, who succeeded his father Thidaviradhan in 800 AD. He established the Second Chera Kingdom from the new capital at Mahodayapuram.
Though he established the new kingdom but still his influence was constrained by the pre-existing power of the Aryan-Brahmin settlements across his kingdom and the hereditary chieftains called ‘Naduvazhis‘.
The second Cheras allied with the Cholas against the Pallavas, and with Pandyas against the Cholas between 8-10th Century AD.
By the last centuries of their rule, Kulasekharas became an active ally of the Pandyas and Lambakannas of Sri Lanka, against the raising Later Chola power.
Polity and Administration
The king was the most important and powerful person in this empire. But still his power was constrained by the presence of council of ministers and learned persons of his court.
The King held daily durbar to hear the problems of the common men and to redress them on the spot.
The next important institution was known as manram which functioned in each village of the Chera kingdom.
Its meetings were usually held by the village elders under a banyan tree and they helped in the local settlement of disputes. The Manrams were the venues for the village festivals as well.
In the course of the imperial expansion of the Cheras the members of the royal family set up residence at several places of the kingdom (at Vanchi, Karur and Tondi). They followed the collateral system of succession according to which the eldest member of the family, wherever he lived, ascended the throne. Junior princes and heir-apparents (crown princes) helped the ruling king in the administration.
The Chera population followed the native Dravidian practices of worship. The worship of departed heroes was a common practice in the Chera kingdom along with tree worship and other kinds of ancestor worships.
The people of this kingdom used to assuage the war goddess Kottavai with complex sacrifices and ceromonies. The Cheras probably worshiped this mother goddess. Kottavai was later on assimilated into the present day form of goddess Devi.
A small percentage of the population followed Jainism, Buddhism and Brahmanism. These three philosophies came from northern India to the Chera kingdom. A small Jewish and Christian population also lived in the Chera territories.
The Chera Kingdom owed its importance to the trade with the Romans. The geographical advantages, like the abundance of black pepper and other spices, the navigability of the rivers connecting the high mountains with the Arabian Sea and the discovery of favourable trade winds which carried sailing ships directly from the Arabian coast to Chera Kingdom in less than forty days, combined to produce a veritable boom in Cheras’s foreign trade.
Muziris, the famous sea port with two Roman regiments, was in the Chera kingdom and throughout the reign of the Cheras, trade continued to bring prosperity to their kingdom, with spices, ivory, timber, pearls and gems being exported to the middle-east and to southern Europe.
The Chera population was not divided into castes and communities. The Varna system had not takena clear shape. Social exclusiveness and un-approachability were unknown.
Communities such as the Pana, Kuruva, Paraya and Veta were held in high esteem by the rulers. These people educated and enjoyed social freedom and equality.
Women enjoyed a high status in the Chera realms. The royal queen had a very important and privileged status and she took her seat by the side of the king in all religious ceremonies.
Art and Architecture
The Chera style of architecture is only one of its kind in Dravidian architecture, and their temples are mostly octagonal or rectangular in shape, built with sandstones or granite. Their temples are divided into four sections: vimanam, mandapams, gopurams, and garbhagriha.
The gopurams, an imposing tower over the entrance, were the tallest structures in the villages and towns where they were built.
The temple was more than just a place of worship. It was a place for socialising, education, and celebration, not just of the king’s battle victories, but also of local functions and ceremonies such as marriages.
The temple was also used as a sort of emergency storage facility, and many temples also housed hospitals.
It was a place where art such as music, dance, drama, and handicrafts, was encouraged and flourished.
The Thirunelli Temple, the Vadakkunnathan Temples, Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple and Kandiyur Siva Temple are its examples.
Thiruvanchikulam Shiva Temple
It was built in Kerala-style architecture during the Chera period when Lord Shiva was worshipped by Umadevi.
This temple falls under India’s archaeology, and it is one of the oldest Shiva temples in South India, built in the Thrissur district of Kodungallur.
Bhagavathi Amman Temple
This temple located in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, is also known as Bhadrakali Amman temple and it is one of the 52 Shakthi Peetam temples.
According to legend, Lord Shiva failed to keep his promise to marry her, and as a result, she turned into a demon.
The Navarathri, Kalabhavan, and Vaisakha festivals are all grandly celebrated here.
It is located in Thrikkodithanam, Kottayam, Kerala, and represents five ancient shrines connected to Mahabharatham.
Kazhivetti Kallur, a strange form of art, is displayed between the pond and the eastern entrance.
It is kept as a reminder that the king bribed the caretaker and gained access to the temple, where he soon became ill and died.
Literature of Cheras
The Sangam texts are a large body of Tamil works that describe a number of Chera rulers along with Pandya and Chola rulers.
The Pathitrupathu, Akananuru, and Purananuru are the most important literatures of the Cheras.
Silapathikaram was written during their reign, when Tamil poets, Paranar, and Kongar ruled.
Some other literary works of Sangam time which are common for the Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas are Tolkappiyam, Ettutogai, Pathinenkilkanakku, and two epics named Silappathikaram and Manimegalai.
Tolkappiyam, written by Tolkappiyar, is considered the first Tamil literary work. Though it is a work on Tamil grammar, it also provides insights into the time’s political and socioeconomic conditions.
Pathinenkilkanakku is a collection of eighteen works on ethics and morals. The most important of these works is Tirukkural, written by Thiruvalluvar, a great Tamil poet and philosopher.
Decline of Cheras
Rashtrakutas conquered the Cheras in 805 AD, and ruled over them for a brief period between 855 and 865 AD.
During the reign of Bhaskara Ravi Varman I, the Chola Chera war (“Hundred Years War”) began.
By the end of Raja Raja Chola’s reign, the Cholas had annexed the entire southern Travancore south of Kuzhithara from the Cheras.
These prolonged wars had significantly weakened the Chera power and taking advantage of this chaotic opportunity several chiefs of Cheras asserted their independence.
Later, the Cholas consolidated control over a vast area of the Chera kingdom.
Rama Varma Kulasekhara, the newly crowned King, was confronted with an unprecedented and chaotic crisis.
He turned a large portion of his army into suicide squads (dubbed “the Chavers”) and fought heroically.
In the absence of central power at Mahodayapuram, the Later Chera kingdom’s divisions quickly emerged as principalities led by separate chieftains.
The post-Chera period saw the gradual decline of Nambudiri Brahmins and the rise of the Nairs.