Like the rest of India, Kerala was divided into several local kingdoms that were constantly battling each other to establish superiority over trade centres on the coast. Most of the rulers in these kingdoms had interconnected lineages. In the medieval age, Kerala was part of the Tamil triumvirate, consisting of the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas, with the Cheras holding most sway on Kerala. After the Cheras, several smaller kingdoms arose, four of them becoming more prominent than the rest. From the ancient kingdom of Ay, to the four post-Chera kingdoms, here are seven of the most important kingdoms that ruled over Kerala.
Ay kingdom is the oldest known kingdom in Southern Kerala. Their capital was at Keezhperoor. They claim to have descended from the Yadavas. Their territory extended from the Pamba river to Kanyakumari. The Ay dynasty is said to have started at the beginning of the Sangam Age and went on until the 10th century. Historically, they were hill chieftains and were related to the Cheras and the Vels. The dynasty was established by a chieftain named Ay Andiran, who was called ‘the Lord of Podiyil Mala’ by the Tamil Sangam text ‘Purananuru’. Podiyil Mala is the old name of Agasthyarkoodam near Trivandrum. Ay Titiyan, Ay Atiyan, Vikramadatya Varaguna, etc. were the other prominent rulers of this dynasty. The Ay’s and Vel’s ruled over a territory called Venad(Vel-nad) which got divided between the Chera Perumals and the Pandyas in the 9th century. Other areas that had come under their influence include Vizhinjam, Nenjinad, and Agasthyamalai ranges. Their territory often served as a buffer state between the warring members of the Southern Triumvirate – the Cholas, the Pandyas, and the Cheras.
Here’s a video that you can refer to for more info: https://youtu.be/Fq4Sn8RIaaU
Chera/Chera Perumal Kingdom
The Cheras are the most prominent rulers in medieval Kerala history. Their ruling periods are divided into two eras: The early Cheras ruled from the second century BCE to the third century CE, after which there is a period of decline. The early Cheras profited from the spice trade centred at Muziris and Tyndis. Later, the Chera Perumals ruled over central Kerala from 9th century CE to 12th century CE. Their capital was called Makotai or Mahodayapuram and it seems to be the area that is now called Kodungallur. They too profited from maritime trade based at Quilon. The Chera Perumals had a single script of the language, an early form of Malayalam called Vattezhuthu. They were subjugated by Rajaraja 1 of the Cholas in the 11th century and by the 12th century, they had broken off into lesser kingdoms such as the Kulasekharas of Venad and other kingdoms in Kolathunad, Kozhikode, and Kochi. According to some legends, the last great Chera king Rama Varma Kulashekhara converted to Islam. Modern-day royal families of Cochin and Travancore all claim to have Chera ancestry. Romans Pliny and Ptolemy along with a Pali edict of King Ashoka mention the Cheras as ‘Kaelobotros’, ‘Kerobottros’, ‘Keralaputo’, ‘Keralaputra’, etc.
The rulers of the Kochi Kingdom belonged to the Perumbadappu Swaroopam. Swaroopam here refers to the family of rulers. It is said to have been established in the 6th century CE and was under the Chera Perumals of Mahodayapuram. They gained independence in the 12th century, when according to legend, the last Cheraman Perumal Rama Varma Kulashekhara divided up his kingdom between his nephews and sons, one of whom was the ruler of Perumbadappu. The Kochi Kingdom had territories ranging from Kochi in the south to Ponnani in the north and Anamalai to the east. They were also known to be the rivals of the Kozhikode Kingdom under the Zamorin, whose invasions took away much of their territory. At one point, Kochi Kingdom became a Chinese Protectorate to stave off the Zamorin. They had extensive relationships with the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. To date, the Kochi Dynasty follows a matrilineal system. The last nominal Raja was Ravi Varma VI who died in 2020.
The rulers of the Calicut Kingdom belonged to the Nediyiruppu Swaroopam. Like the Kochi Kingdom, they too had a matrilineal system of inheritance where the eldest male in the thavazhi inherited the throne of the Samoothiri or Zamorin. The Zamorins are the descendants of the Eradis of Eranadu who were trusted chieftains in the Chera kingdom. The last Chera king Rama Varma Kulashekhara had given Kozhikodu along with Eranadu to the Eradis and after his death, they assumed autonomous rule over the region. A sword that seems to have belonged to the Chera King is still kept as a royal relic by the modern-day members of the family. The port they built at Kozhikode was the turning point in their consolidation of power and soon the Zamorin became the strongest ruler in Kerala. The legendary Kunjali Marrakars were the naval chiefs and traders of the Zamorin Kingdom. They were once occupied by the Vijayanagara Empire in the 15th century and later on had trade relations with the Chinese. Vasco da Gama came to Calicut in 1498 and by the 16th century, the Portuguese became a dominant power in the region. In the 18th century, the kingdom was occupied by Mysore and after that came under British control.
Valluvanad used to be a part of the Ay Kingdom before being taken over by the Cheras. The rulers of Valluvanad belonged to the Arangottu Swaroopam and had a matrilineal system of inheritance. Under the Chera Perumals, the area was ruled by the Valluvakonathiri or Vellattiri and protected by his army of arru nurruvar – the six hundred. Like the Zamorins and Kochi Kings, Valluvanadu claimed autonomy after the death of Cheraman Perumal Rama Varma Kulashekhara. One of the most interesting things to note about the Valluvanadu kingdom is their rivalry with the Zamorin. The Zamorin claimed the rights to the Mamangam festival from the Vellattiri who had inherited it from the Cheraman Perumal. Legend has it that the Vellattiri regularly sent warriors to kill the Zamorin during every Mamangam. Valluvanadu was also invaded by Mysore forces. When the British defeated Tipu, they took from him Malabar which included both the Zamorin’s and the Vellattiri’s territory.
The history of Venadu extends to the ancient Ay Kingdom. Venadu was ruled by the Vels, relatives of the Ays. It was added to the Chera Perumal Kingdom in the 9th century after a prolonged battle with the Pandyas. Their capital was at Kollam. It was after this, in 825 BC that the Kollavarsham, a new calendar, began. Some believe that this was meant to commemorate the Chera victory in Venad over the Pandyas and the establishment of Kollam, aka Quilon. Quilon had spice trade with both China and the Middle East. By the 10th century rest of the old Ay Kingdom, which had been under the Pandyas, had come under the Chera control. In the 11th century, Cholas conquered these territories and the last Chera king Rama Kulashekhara led another long battle against them from Kollam. Vira Kerala, the ruler of Venad was said to be his son. After Rama Kulashekhara’s death Venad emerged to be a powerful independent kingdom under the Kulashekharas, also called the Venad Cheras. The ruler of Venad was called the Venad Adikal and the family had a matrilineal system of inheritance. From the 16th century, there are records of Venad’s battles with the Vijayanagara empire. In the 17th century, they paid tribute to the Nayaks of Madurai. By the 17th century, Venad had broken off into smaller territories, one of which was the Trippappoor territory which later became Travancore, under Marthanda Varma. He is credited with transforming Travancore into one of the first modern kingdoms of South India. The rulers of Travancore claim that they are descendants of the ancient Mushika dynasty, a ruling clan of Ezhimala that had direct relations to all the major medieval southern rulers, including the Ays, the Cheras, the Cholas, and the Pandyas. The legendary Padmanabha Swamy Temple is in the Venad region.
Kolathunadu was one of the four most powerful kingdoms that arose after the Cheras. Kolathunadu was ruled by the Kolathiris. They were descendants of the Mushika dynasty who had ruled over the area from the ancient Sangam Age. Mushika dynasty was a branch of the Cheras themselves and rose to autonomous prominence under a 1st-century chieftain named Ezhimalai Nannan. After his death, the Cheras got control of the region. In the 11th century, it was added to Chera Perumal’s kingdom. Up till then, the Mushika dynasty followed a patrilineal system, which from this point on became matrilineal. According to some records, the power of the local Mushika ruler of Kolathunadu exceeded that of the Chera Perumal in his own territory. They controlled most of northern Kerala including Chirrakal. The Kolathunadu kingdom rose to prominence once again after the Chera Perumal died in the 12th century and they gained autonomy. Like most other kingdoms of that period, they too had problems with the Zamorins of Kozhikode. Kolathunadu is mentioned in several ancient foreign records, including that of Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. It was invaded by Tipu Sultan in the 16th century and was later added to the British empire.
Phew, that was one history lesson about Kerala and its kingdoms!