The Pandyan Empire started around the 6th century and ended around the 15th century. It extended from the Southern Vellaru river, to the North down to Cape Comorin, and from the Coromandel Coast on the East to the Achchhankovil Pass leading into Southern Kerala, or Travancore. The modern districts of Madurai, Tinnevelly and parts of the Travancore State were parts of the Pandyan Kingdom (Smith 206). The Pandyan dynasty started out ruling from the city of Korkai but in later times they moved to the city of Madurai, which is known as the capital city.
The Pandyan Empire was one of three ancient Tamil states in southern India. The other two states were the Chola and Chera. The three southern states were constantly in turmoil and confrontation, and there were many wars between them. Tamil literature contains indications that the kings of the Pandyan Empire were looked upon as bloodthirsty. The literature contains hints of massacres with cannibal feasts after the battle (Basham 63). The Pandyan dynasty was in power three separate times. The never-ending wars and revolutions did not bring about any development of political organizations. No republics were formed and no free towns were established. All the states continued to be governed by dictatorial kings, each of whom could do what he pleased, so long as he was in power.
The Dravidian religion and social customs differed from those of northern India. Religious ideas from northern India, such as the worship of the Vedic gods and the doctrines of Buddhism and Jainism, were known to the people of the south. Few people followed these religions, most people still worshipped their gods and goddesses and practised their own religious ceremonies (Chander 12). The caste system of Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra was very foreign to the southern states. The Jains of the Pandyan Kingdom suffered great persecution. Kuna Sundra, who was also known as Nedumaran Pandya was particularly tyrannical. He was originally a Jain, however, he converted to Saivism by a Chola queen. Those that refused to follow his example and convert to Saivism were persecuted greatly. Kuna Sundra signalled his change of creed by outrages on the Jains. Tradition claims that eight thousand Jains were impaled. To this day the Hindus of Madurai, where the tragedy took place, commemorate the anniversary of the impalement of the Jains as a festival known as Utsava (Smith 214,215).
The earliest Pandyan coins were square, die-struck, with an elephant on one side and the other side being blank. Between the 7th and 10th centuries the Pandyan coins bore a fish emblem. The fish appears sometimes single, sometimes in pair, and sometimes in conjunction with other symbols like the Chola standing figure or the Chalukyan boar. The inscription on the silver and gold coins is in Sanskrit and most of their copper coins make mention of Tamil legends. (Sastri 1955:16)
Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan was a Pandyan king, who ruled regions of South India between 1250-1268. Under his rule the Pandyan empire rose to the peak of its power (Sastri 1972:195). Jatavarman Sundra Pandyan had many conquests; he participated in wars against the Cheras, Cholas, Hoysalas, Kadavas, and Sri Lanka. He sent an expedition north where he defeated many armies. He was succeeded by Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I in 1268 and died in 1271.
Some chiefs of the Pandyan Empire were even said to have participated in the battle at Kurukshetra, known as the Great War in the Mahabharata (Thapar 233). Some scholars believe that the Great War spoken of in the Mahabarata took place 2000 years later than the date in the Epic. Some scholars believe that the Pandyas took part in this war and they sided with the Pandavas, helping the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas. Other scholars believe this claim to be absurd due to the fact that the Pandavas and Kauravas were in the North and it the Great War only concerned a small area in the South (Smith 31).
Trade occurred between the Egyptians and the Pandyan Empire. We hear of a mission to Augustus from King Pandion, the Pandya king of Madurai in the far south (Smith 143). During the first and second centuries of the Christian era the trade between southern India and the Roman empire was extensive. Korkai and Algankulam are recently excavated sites, thought to have been exchange centres in Pandyan territory. The horse trade was of considerable political importance and a good part of the revenues went towards the purchase of horses for the king and the army. Marco Polo says: “Here are no horses bred; and thus a great part of the wealth of the country is wasted in purchasing horses” (Sastri 1972:192). The Pandyan territory has long been famous for its pearls. Marco Polo, on his visit to the Pandyan territory, said this about the pearls. “In his kingdom they find very fine and great pearls.” The king benefited greatly from the pearl fishery and demanded a tenth of all pearls (Sastri 1972:194).
Marco Polo’s visit to the Pandyan territory gives a great view of what life was like in the territory. He described in great detail what the king’s life was like. The king had a great deal of treasure and all the best pearls in his territory. Marco Polo speaks of the jewelry that the king wears. He says: “…has a necklace entirely of precious stones, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds… fine silk thread strung with 108 large pearls and rubies… three gold bracelets thickly set with pearls of great value, anklets and toe rings of this such as well… what the king wears is worth more than a city’s ransom…” (Sastri 1972:195-196).
Marco Polo was amazed at the dress of the common people for everybody walked around naked with only loin cloths. He noticed that all the people do this. Men and women, rich and poor, even the king himself. Commoners are also claimed to have spread cow dung on their houses. Dried cow dung is a great plaster for houses and it is also odorless. Another aspect of the common peoples’ lives was the custom of rubbing cow-dung all over their houses. Marco Polo goes on to give great detail of other aspects of common peoples’ everyday social life. He mentions that everyone washes their body two times every day. They only use their right hand when eating, and on no account touch their food with their left hand. Every person drinks from their own drinking vessel and when they drink they don’t let the vessel touch their lips. They have strict laws when it comes to abstaining from wine. If a debtor can’t pay back his creditor and keeps making incomplete promises, and the creditor can draw a circle around the debtor, then the debtor cannot leave that circle until the debt is paid. If he does then he is punished with death (Sastri 1972:197-198).
References and Further Recommended Reading
Basham, A.L. (1968) The Wonder that was India: a Survey of the History and Culture of the Indian Sub-continent Before the Coming of the Muslims. New York: Taplinger Pub. Co.
Chandler, Prakesh (2003) India: Past and Present. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation.
Eaton, Richard (2003) India’s Islamic Traditions, 711-1750. New Delhi: Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Nilakanta Sastri K. A. (1955) A History of South India. India, Oxford University Press.
Nilakanta Sastri K. A. (1972) The Pandyan Kingdom; From the Earliest Times to the Sixteenth Century. Madras: Swathi Publications.
Sewell, Robert (1883) A Sketch of the Dynasties of Southern India. Madras: E. Keys, at the Government Press.
Smith, Vincent (1919) The Oxford History of India: From the Earliest Times to the end of 1911. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press
Thapar, Romila (2002) Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
History of South India
Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan
Marco Polo’s visit to Madurai
South Indian Coins
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Jeff Redford (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.