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Focus on a PhD thesis that threw new light on Perumals

R. Madhavan Nair


Kozhikode: These are times, when more often than not, doctoral theses are forgotten as soon as PhD is awarded to the author. But there are a few exceptions to this rule. There are PhD works that continue to figure in academic debates.

The PhD thesis of historian M.G.S. Narayanan, former chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), which is hailed by many scholars as one such work, was the focus of a talk by Kesavan Veluthat, Professor, University of Delhi, at the monthly meeting of the Calicut Heritage Forum.

Epigraphic evidence

C.K. Ramachandran, convener of the Calicut Heritage Forum, says the thesis deserves special mention since it is one of the early attempts by a historian to write and interpret history of Kerala on the basis of epigraphic evidence.

It marks a major departure from times when even respected historians depended on fanciful accounts of foreign travellers and traders for information.

Such an approach can be seen also in the attempt to understand how and when Kerala became a separate entity from Tamizhagam on the basis of the evidence thrown up by the recent excavations at Pattanam.

The new evidence that surfaced during the excavations gave new information about the glorious past of Kerala as a vibrant trading centre, able to negotiate on equal terms with the Romans and the Chinese.

Reinterpretation

The history of the Perumals is another period in Kerala history which underwent re-interpretation as a result of epigraphic evidence. Traditionally, it was believed that the Perumals who ruled Kerala were invited from outside the territory by the community to rule over the country for a limited period of 12 years after which the Perumal was to abdicate and retire from public life.

The story is related to the founding of Kerala by Parasurama and the settlement of 64 Brahmin gramams. Keralolpathi gave credence to this story which was repeated by orthodox historians.

Even historians like K.A. Nilakanta Sastri accepted the story of the imported Perumals and suggested that Kulasekhara Alwar was one such foreign ruler invited to rule over Kerala.

Prof. Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai took the path of Kerala history away from unsubstantiated foreign sources to scientific analysis of epigraphic and other documentary evidence and succeeded in establishing that a Chera dynasty, different from the Sangham era Chera kingdom, existed in the ninth century with their capital at Mahodayapuram (Makothai) near the present day Kodungalloor.

He named this dynasty the Kulashekharas of Mahodayapuram.

Extensive research

The findings were further refined and enriched by the path breaking research conducted by Prof. Narayanan during the 1960s and 70s. Elamkulam had access to more than 150 copper and stone inscriptions, but he had utilised only less than half of these in his studies. The chronology of many of these was also not correctly interpreted.

Prof. Ramachandran said Prof. Narayanan took pains to interpret all these epigraphic evidence from copper and stone inscriptions, indexed and translated them and fixed a new chronology on the basis of detailed interpretation of the Mahodayapuram era.

New inscriptions

During the course of his research, he was able to unearth 11 new inscriptions and all this new evidence led to new interpretation of the political and social conditions of the Mahodayapuram era.

One of the important findings was that there was no substance to support the theory of a hundred years of war between the Cheras and the Cholas.

The Cholas had conquered the Chera kingdom but the latter continued to rule as feudatories of the mighty Chola kingdom for well over a hundred years.

It was only in the last decades of the 11 {+t} {+h} century, when the power of the Chola kingdom had weakened, that the Perumal of Mahodayapuram asserted his sovereignty. But this did not last long. The reign of the last Perumal, Ramakula Sekhara Perumal, was disturbed by internecine quarrels which led to his abdication and possible conversion.

An important finding of Prof. Narayanan is that the stories of Perumal's conversion as well as many events mentioned in Keralolpathi are not totally baseless.

This represents a major departure from mainstream thinking about using such sources.

It is pointed out that the importance of the new findings of Prof. Narayanan had been recognised by scholars like Prof. A.L. Basham, Professor of Ancient Civilisations in Australian National University, Canberra, and the author of the seminal work The Wonder that was India.

Prof. Basham, who was the external examiner for the PhD thesis of Prof. Narayanan remarked: “This thesis is one of the ablest and most thorough Indian theses I have examined and I have no hesitation in recommending it for the award of the degree of PhD....As the thesis is obviously such a good one, a detailed report seems hardly necessary.”

Prof. Ramachandran and many others believe despite such encomiums, many even among the academia are not aware of the significance of the evolution of the history of the Perumals from Nilakanta Sastri through Elamkulam to Prof. Narayanan and beyond.

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