Archaeological evidence points to the antiquity of Chennai

Updated by admin on Wednesday, February 17, 2016 12:32 AM IST

Chennai: When tracing the early history of the Chennai city and its immediate surroundings, what is truly striking is that many pre-historic relics have been discovered in the region by archaeologists like Robert Bruce Foote, Dr William King, Rea and others. The Madras region, along with the Chengalpattu district as a whole, has in fact been described as the ‘classic ground of early palaeolithic culture in Southern India (P. Mitra; Pre-Historic India, p 163), and the ‘keysite for South Indian palaeoliths’ (Archaeology in India, Government of India Publication, 1950, p 18).

It was in Pallavaram that the first Palaeolithic relic of India was found. It was found in a ballast pit on the Brigade Ground at Pallavaram in 1863 by Robert Bruce Foote, considered the father of Indian pre-historic archaeology. In 1864, Foote found two more Palaeoliths in the same area. Subsequent extensive searches led to the discovery of more Palaeolithic sites in places like Orattur, Sriperumbudur, Panjur, Thirumullaivayil, Poondi, Attrambakkam and others. The Chengalpattu district provides the most numerous and important traces of Palaeolithic man known in South India. A number of implements belonging to the Palaeolithic age or the Old Stone Age, have been discovered at Pallavaram and also all along the Pennar river.

Implements in the neighbourhood of the city were made by chipping the boulders of quartzite situated in the laterite beds. Robert Bruce Foote has said the implements found at Pallavaram which are attributed to the Old Stone Age, “they point to a deliberate choice of colours and distinct progress in craftsmanship. They show how humanity was flourishing in those portions of South India under conditions highly favourable to primitive life. The proximity of the rivers to the rocks highly suitable for the old weapons and implements, helped man hunt animal life. These stone implements though revealing enormous skills were not polished. Bruce Foote in his work Indian Prehistoric and Protohistoric Antiquities provides a long list of tools found in the neighbourhood of the Madras city and calls them the ‘Madras type’.

The Palaeolithic Age or the Old Stone Age moved on to the Mesolithic Age or the Middle Stone Age and then to the Neolithic Age or the New Stone Age. The relics of the New Stone Age, though not many in number, were found in the territory around the city of Madras (J. C Brown and Sir John Marshall; Catalogue of prehistoric Antiquities in the Indian Museum, 1917).

After the Stone Age, Chennai had thrown up relics of the Iron Age. In the garden of a private bungalow on Hall’s Road in Egmore, many interesting pre-historic relics were found including a pre-historic cemetery, burial urns, a small sarcophagus  (of Adichanallur type), a few small hoe blades of a primitive type with a curved cutting edge and a narrow butt, and an iron rod about six inches long. These are attributed to the Iron Age (C. S. Srinivasachari, History of Madras, introduction, p xviii). A number of urn burials and tombs, generally regarded as Megaliths, were found in the tract around Madras. They probably belong to the Iron Age (V D Krishnaswami says that ‘South Indian Megaliths seem to be essentially rooted in the Iron Age supported as it is by the Brahmagiri excavations, Ancient India, p 42).

Archaeologists report there many varieties of such burial graves were found. Dolmenoid Cist, a variety, was found at Pottur near Red Hills, Madras. Around the Red Hills were also discovered pyriform urns and legged sarcophagi without cists. Rea discovered similar burials in Pallavarma and Thirusoolam (G. O. No. 1135 dated 12th August 1887; Rea also found at Pallavaram many tensils along with burial tombs. Significantly, ancient Tamil literature of the Sangam period like the Purananuru makes a clear reference to the custom of urn-burials. G. U. Pope, the renowned Tamil scholar from the West, in his commentary on the Purananuru, says that the vessels discovered by Rea at Pallavaram conform to the description found in the lyric. Indian Antiquary, vol. xxxix, p. 285. Also see Ancient India, No. 2, July 1946.)

Renowned archaeologist V D Krishnaswami has described Chengalpattu district as a Megalithic province in itself. “It has megalithic individuality of its own in that the dolmenoid cists, so far as known, invariably enclose a terracotta-legged sarcophagus, a feature not known in other two regions -Pudukottai and Cochin, where also Megalithic monuments have been discovered (Ancient India, No. 5, p. 36).
Further, in Pallavaram, an interesting terracotta sarcophagus, oblong in shape and standing on short legs, was discovered. It bears a striking resemblance to the terracotta coffins found near Baghdad (Sir John Marshall in Cambridge History of India, QJMS, XVI, p. 256). The similarity of internment in such earthenware coffins, identical in shape, size and material ((J.C. Brown and Sir John Marshall, p. 7) is seen as evidence of active intercourse between South India and the West (Cambridge History of India, QJMS, XVI, p. 256).

When it comes to historical period, this region, along with the modern districts of Chengalpattu, South Arcot and North Arcot, came under two ancient divisions – Aruvanadu and Aruvavadatalainadu (Aruva South and Aruva North). Ptolemy has observed this territory as roughly extending between South Pennar and North Pennar as Aruvarnoi  or Arvarnoi (K N Sivaraja Pillai, Chronology of Early Tamils, pp 227-228). These two divisions together came to be called as Tondaimandalam or Tondainadu, perhaps after the conquest of this place by Tondaiman Ilam Tiraiyan( Walter Elliott, Coins of Southern India, p.37, and R Gopalan,Pallavas of Kanchi, pp 26-27)  and a contemporary of Karikala Chola, ascribed to the 2nd century A.D. (K.A.N. Sastri, Studies in Chola History and Administration, p.45).

The Mackenzie Manuscript throws light on the early inhabitants of Toindaimandalam whom Ilan Tiraiyan conquered. According to the Manuscript, the ancient territory of Tondaimandalam was first inhabited by wild tribesmen, Kurumbas, who evolved a certain type of civilization and political organization. These fierce people built a number of forts and at one point of time dominated Tondaimandalam region which was then known as Kurumba Bhumi (Annual Report of Archaeology, 1906-07, p. 221).

The ancient Tamil work Purananuru  describes the Kurumbas  as a war-like people of whom even kings were afraid (Puram  97, 98 and 177). Dr V Swaminatha Iyer, editor of Purananuru, translated the term Kurumba to mean a fort (Purananuru, V Swaminatha Iyer, Index, p. 27).
The Mackenzie Manuscript refers to Madhavaram or Puzhal near Madras as the headquarters of the Kurumbas, who are said to have divided the Tondaimandalam region into 24 districts or kottams in each of which was built a fort. The 24 districts were : Puzhal kottam, Ikkattu kottam, Manavir kottam, Sengattu kottam, Paiyur kottam, Eyil kottam, Damal kottam, Utrukattu kottam, Kalattur kottam, Sembur kottam, Ambur kottam, Vengunra kottam, Palgunra kottam, Elangattu kottam, Kaliur kottam, Sengarai kottam, Paduvur kottam, Kadikur kottam, Sendirukkai kottam, Kunravarttana kottam, Vengada kottam, Velur kottam, Sethur kottam and Puliyur kottam. From the inscriptions of the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries A.D., it is evident that the area where the present Madras city is situated and its immediate surroundings were included partly in Puzhal kottam and partly in Puliyur kottam. Tiruvottriyur, Puzhal, Ayanapuram (modern Ayanavaram) were in Puzhal kottam. Ezhumur (modern Egmore), Mayilarpil (modern Mylapore), Poondamalli, Pallavaram and Tamparam (modern Tambaram) were all in Puliyur kottam. Puliyur kottam seems to have derived its name from a small village called Puliyur near modern Kodambakkam in Madras. Puzhal kottam seems to have derived its name from Puzhal, a village near the modern Red Hills. These villages were important centres of the Kurumbas who built their forts in these places. The Mackenzie Manuscript says that Puzhal had a fort. Without some such reason as the existence of forts in these places, the naming of the whole district after the small villages is inexplicable.

The antiquity of the Kurumbas is proved by the reference to them in the Sangam work Purananuru. However, there is an even earlier reference to them in the edict of Ashoka. Rock Edict XIII mentions the Visas, the Vajris, the Yonas, the Kamboyas, the Bhoja, the Pitinkas, the Andhras and the Pulindas as his subordinate communities. The Pulindas have been identified by some with the Kurumbas on the ground of close similarity between their civilizations. If this is valid, a natural question that would crop up is did Tondaimandalam, where the Kurumbas lived in large numbers, form part of the empire of Ashoka? Opinion is divided on this.

There is an important Christian tradition regarding the apostolic mission of Saint Thomas to Mayilapur in the first century A.D. According to tradition, Saint Thomas, after preaching in Malabar and other places, came to Mayilapur to found a church there. But the local Hindus rose against him and attacked him and he had to run to nearby Saint Thomas Mount (Parangimalai). In 1547, the Portuguese found on the Mount what they believed to be a Bleeding Cross (a stone cross bearing old inscriptions) and built a church on that spot. Little Mount, which is situated about three miles from Saint Thomas Mount is also associated with this tradition. It is the place where the Apostle is said to have taken temporary shelter from the attackers before finally reaching Great Mount.

The Shaivite Nayanmars provide plenty of evidence on places in Madras. The famous Thevaram trio, Thirunavukkarasar also known as Appar, Thirugnanasambandhar and Sundarar, who lived in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D., visited and sang about Mayilapur, Thiruvanmiyur (5 kms south of Mayilapur) and Tiruvottriyur in north Madras.  All the three Nayanmars came to Mayilapur and sang about this area, according to the Periyapuranam. It must have been a wealthy town of first grade importance during the period of the Aazhwars and the Nayanmars, as everyone who refers to it speaks of it in glowing terms about the buildings, the beautiful streets and the general prosperity of the town (Appar’s Koilpakka – Thiruttandakam I, 1 and Sambandar’s Pumpavai Padhikam, verse – 8).

Sambandar calls it ‘Maadamayilai, beautiful Mayilapur in his famous Pumpavai Padikam, sung in the Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mayilapur. Besides, he also lists a number of festivals that were held in the temple on various occasions. In verse 6, he narrates how the people of Mayilapur, during the Masi Magam festival , a large number of people would go to the sea to have a bath, which custom is still followed in Mayilapur today. Mayilai was the familiar word for Mayilapur in those days. Sambandar used the word Mayilai; Thirumazhisai and Thirumangai Aazhwars also used the word; Nandikkalambakam, a work composed during the rule of Nandivarman III in 9th century A.D., also describes Mayilapur as Mayilai (verse 44 and 51). . Kalingattuparani, a work of the 12th century, too did the same (Vandai  etc….Kaingattuparani, verse 534, edited by P. Palanivel Pillai, - The South India Shaiva Siddhanta Publications, 1954).  Arunagirinathar in the 15th century and Sekkiyar in his Periyapuranam call the town as Thirumayilapuri. Appar refers to Mayilapur as Mayilappil (Thiru – virattanam, Kupputthirutaniakkam, 12; and Appar, 6-2-1).  Some inscriptions also refer to it as Mayillapil and as Mayilarpu. An inscription belonging to Kampavarman, one of the last Pallava kings of the 9th century, refers to it as Mylarpu. A few other inscriptions of the 12th century mention the town as Mayilarppil. Mayilarpu refers to the majestic strut of a peacock. Mayilapur was renowned for its peacocks. Both Marco Polo and John De Marignolli have referred to the peacock feature of Mayilapur. The goddess of the Vishnu temple (Kesava Perumal temple) at Mayilapur is called Mayuravalli, Mayura being the Sanskrit equivalent of peacock. The Kapleeswarar temple too records that the goddess Karpagambal is shown to have peahen features as according to tradition Parvati put on the appearance of a peahen to worship the Lord here. The practice of associating certain places with peacocks or peahens was prevalent, for example, Mayilam, Mayiladuthurai ( R P Setu Pillai, Urum Perum pp. 26, 30, 300).

Archaeological and epigraphical findings made at San Thome, Mayilapur, have raised thoughts whether the old temple of the Thevaram days was situated elsewhere, near the San Thome beach. The present Kapaleeswarar temple indicates of recent growth for the following reasons:  the structures in the present temple including the kalyana mandapa (Marriage hall), judged from the corbels (pillar-brackets) seem to belong to the late Vijayanagar period , maybe 16th or 17th century. There is also a complete absence of any old inscription. Nearby temples like in Tiruvottriyur, Thirumullaivayil, Thiruvallikeni and Thiruvanmiyur contain inscriptions at least from the Rajendra I period (11th century) if not earlier. The old temple must have been re-modelled  to the present one, or the temple was built in a new places due to some emergency situations, causing the abandonment of the old temple. The latter version seems more probable as remnants of what must be the Kapaleeswarar temple were found by the Archaeological Department east of the present temple near the San Thome Beach.
In 1923, the Archaeological Department of India undertook a survey of San Thome and carried out a few excavations near the San Thome Cathedral. (Arcaheological Survey of India, 1922-23, pp 120-121). 

They found a slab with fragmentary inscriptions on it, near the north western end of the verandah of the cathedral. The inscription registers a tax-free gift of land for burning a lamp for the idol of Kuttandavar (Lord Nataraja). The inscription was assigned to the 12th century by the Government Epigraphist. Father Hosten found another slab bearing inscriptions near the San Thome Cathedral in 1921. This was a fragmentary Sanskrit inscription, the translation of which reads as follows: “All the structures including the central shrine to the glorious Shiva and Parvati at Mayilapur ….” This inscription is also ascribed to the 12th century A.D.

The Epigraphical Report for 1923 mentions about more inscriptions found at San Thome. A slab found lying in front of the verandah of the Bishop’s House, Santhome, contained a fragmentary Tamil inscription which mentions goddess Thirupumpavai as Thirumayilappur. Another slab containing a fragmentary Tamil inscription was said to have been kept in a private house. It maintains that some gifts were made to god Thiru Ilampirai Udaiyar.

Some slender pillars with Hindu carvings were discovered in the Santhome area and these were kept in the Bishop’s Museum. A broken idol of Subramanya, leaning on his peacock ‘vahana’ was found near the Santhome Cathedral and this has been kept in the same museum. (Rev. Figriodo; where a good description of certain relics that are kept in the Bishop’s Museum , San Thome, are given).

The stones with Sanskrit and Tamil inscriptions establish that they must have formed part of a Shaivite temple, as they mention gifts to Nataraja and Shiva in the traditional manner in which gifts are made in an old Tamil Nadu temple. Since the Sanskrit inscription records a gift to Shiva and Parvati at Mayilapur, the obvious conclusion is that it refers to a temple at Mayilapur.

The inscription which refers to Pumpavai is considered extremely significant because the Periyapuranam mentions that Pumpavai was a great devotee of Shiva living in Mayilapur. She was bitten to death by a snake but was brought back to life by Thirugnanasambandar who made a fervent appeal to the Lord at the Kapaleeswarar temple. This inscription must have also been part of the old Kapaleeswarar temple where there must have been a shrine for Thirupumpavai. Late C S Srinivasachari believed that the old Kapaleeswarar temple was located close to the sea and that it must have been abandoned as a result of sea encroachment. The strong tradition in Mayilapur regarding the sea encroachment has a place in Jaina tradition also as an old manuscript which says that a Jaina temple had to be abandoned due to encroachment by the sea (Taylor’s Catalogue Raisonne of Oriental Mss. Vol III, p. 372).

Arunagirinathar, the author of the classic Tiruppugazh, makes a reference to the Kapaleeswarar Temple as located close to the sea shore. The inference is that till the Arunagirinathar period, that is, the 15th century, the old Kapaleeswarar temple must have been situated near the sea shore.

Evidence about antiquity of Mayilapur:
Pallava king Nandivarman III ruled from A.D 844 to 866. The association of Nandivarman III with the region around Madras is provided evidence by a contemporary Tamil work called Nandikkalambakam, which provides the information that Mayilapur, along with Mallai (Mamallapuram) and Kanchi, was the chief city during that period and that Nandivarman  III adopted the title of ‘Mayilaikkaavalan’ which meant the guardian or protector of Mayilapur. The inscriptions of Nandivarman III, dated in the 17th and 18th years of his rule, have also been found in the Madras region.

The inscriptions of three Pallava rulers – Nripatungavarman (AD 855-896), his successor Aparajita, and Kampavarman – have been found in the Madras region. Those of Kampavarman, dated to his 6th, 9th and 19th years and an undated one, have been found at Tiruvottriyur. The epigraph dated to the 6th year records a gift of gold to the Tiruvottriyur temple by a resident of Mayilappil (Mayilapur).
The inscriptions of Chola king Rajaraja I (985-1014) have been found in Santhome (Mayilapur), besides Tiruvottriyur, Padi, Velachery, Puliyur, Poonamallee and Pallavaram.
The area around Madras has about 25 inscriptions relating to successor of Rajaraja I, Chola king Rajendra I (1012-1044) including Santhome (Mayilapur), Tiruvotrriyur, Thiruvanmiyur, Poonamallee, Thirumullaivayil and Velachery. Their dates range between the 2nd and 32nd years of Rajendra’s reign.
The Kadava king Kopperunjinga’s clash with the Kakatiyas and their feudatory, Vijayagandagopala, took place sometime  between 1255 and 1262 A.D. In this war, Kopperunjinga was supposedly helped by his son Kadavan Komaran who is hailed as the Lord of Mallai (Mamallapuram), Mayilai, Kanchi and Tandahanadu (Tondaimandalam). Among the important officers and warriors who helped Kupperunjinga were Cholakon of Arasur, his younger brother Venadudaiyan and Pillaiyar Nilagangarayar. (Two historians K V Subramania Iyer and K S Vaidyanathan consider Venadudaiyan as Kopperunjinga’s son). Venadudaiyan is described in an inscription from Thiruvannamalai as the Lord of Mallai and Mayilai.

Santhome, Mayilapur and the Portuguese

Certain important events occurred during the rule of Krishnadevaraya in the Madras region with relation to the Portuguese.
Vijayanagar ruler Sadashiva (AD 1542-1576) was said to be a king only on paper but the real king was his efficient minister Rama Raya, who was considered the de facto ruler. It was noted around this time that the Portuguese intensified their activities at San Thome.  A flashpoint was reached when reports reached Rama Raya about incidents in San Thome and Mayilapur proper that in AD 1558 the Portuguese Franciscan friars at San Thome destroyed some temples of the Hindus and thereby incurred the wrath of the local Hindus, according to Couto. “The poor fathers of the glorious Order of St. Francis having seized all the coast from Nagapatam to San Thome, they being the first to preach the light of the Holy Gospel and having throughout that tract thrown down many pagodas, a thing which grieved excessively all the Brahmanas, these latter reported the facts to Rama Raya, the king of Bisnaga (Vijayanagar) whose vassals they were, and begged him that he would hasten to their assistance for the honour of their gods” (Extract from Chronica dos Reis de Bisnaga as quoted by R. Sewell in his The Forgotten Empire, pp. 193-194).

These reports led to an angry Rama Raya personally undertaking an expedition to Mayilapur and arrived with a huge army. He demanded a sum of hundred thousand pagodas from the Christian inhabitants and collected half the amount. He also took as hostages five chief residents of San Thome. However, he released them after reaching his capital.

With the ascension of a later king Venkata II, Portuguese activities were stepped up due to their friendly ties with him. The city of San Thome was greatly beneficial to the Portuguese both as a commercial port and as a religious centre. Mayilapur and San Thome were under the control of the Nayak of Tanjore , a subordinate of Venkata. An adhigari appointed by the Nayak as his representative at Mayilapur collected revenue and administered justice. The Portuguese settlement at San Thome paid a quarter per cent of the merchandise imported by sea as a contribution to the Vijayanagar empire. From 1600 AD, this contribution was increased. Caser Fredrick’s description of San Thome showed that it was an important port which had considerable trading activity (Love, Vestiges of Old Madras, I. 292).

The Portuguese strengthened their hold in San Thome, with many churches coming up in the same period. However, the Portuguese settlement was beset with internal problems and there were also clashes with the inhabitants of the Hindu town, Mayilapur. In 1606, the Portuguese at San Thome, to hit back after a private argument, attacked the Hindu town, set fire to the place where the Hindu Adhikari had taken shelter and also killed many Hindus. The Adhikari complained to the Vijayanagara King Venkata II who was upset with the Portuguese. A special mission was sent by the Portuguese under the Rector of the College at San Thome. He assuaged the feelings of the king, appeased him and even got the Hindu Adhikari replaced with a person of the choice of the Portuguese.

When the Dutch obtained permission from Venkata to carry on trade from Pulicat, the Portuguese at San Thome became worried. .The Dutch established a settlement there and also built a fort in 1610. This proved to be a big source of trouble for the Portuguese, resulting in rivalry and mutual attacks.

Trade in Mayilapur

Commerce and trade formed an important part of the lives of people in Mayilapur.
Mayilapur, Poonamallee and Tiruvottriyur were  busy centres of commerce where rich merchants lived. That many merchants were rich and also inclined to support social causes can be seen from the number of gifts that they made to the temples. Several epigraphs record the generosity of merchants of Mayilapur. An inscription of Raja Raja I in Thiruvadanthai records the gift of a merchant from Mayilappil in the form of money to the Vaishnava temple in Thiruvadanthai.

Another merchant of Madavidipperunderu at Thirumayilappil (Mayilapur) gifted money to the Shiva temple at Kulattur, about 7 miles south of Chengalapttu. Another epigraph records the endowment of land made by Arulalan Devapperumal, a merchant of Thirumayilappur to the Shiva temple at Kunrattur. Merchant communities from Mayilapur, Tirucottriyur, Pundamalli, Nellur, Narayanapuram, Arkadu,  Nedumpirai, Dimankacheri and other places co-operated to enquire about a village, and gave a devadana to the temple of Tiruppasur to construct its enclosing wall in the beginning of the 13th century.

Mayilapur was also closely connected with a leading maritime corporation which had international links is recorded in a epigraph from Kattur near Ponneri. The community of merchants called the Nanadesis held a meeting at Mayilarpil and declared the village of Kattur which was formerly an Ayyapuzhal, to be a Virapattinam, formulated certain rules of conduct for the members of the Velanjiya community, residing in the village,  to follow. The town should not be inhabited by such members of the mercantile class who demanded taxes or toils by threatening people with swords or by capturing them or wantonly depriving people of their food or harassed them in any way. Those who violated this decision would be placed outside the Velanjiar community, it said. The epigraph proved the existence of a mercantile corporation which was active in the area and that Mayilapur served as a venue of its meetings.

Caesar Frederic, who visited San Thome, Mayilapur, greatly admired the skills of the local people in handling the mussoola boats in the sea. In AD 1567, he writes, “Near unto this church (of Saint Thomas), the Portugals have built a city in the country subject to the king of Bezenagar (Vijayanagar), which city, although it be not very great, yet in my judgement it is the fairest in all the parts of the Indies..”(Extracts of Master Caesar Dredricke from his Eighteen Year Indian Observations” --Purchas his Pilgrims, 1905, Vo. X, p. 109).

John Nieuhef in an account in AD 1662 has written about the importance of San Thome, Mayilapur, as a commercial centre and a port, “The city (San Thome) was quite desolate, when the Portuguese first came there, who rebuilt (it) in 1545. Since then it accounted one of the finest cities in all the Indies both in respect of the magnificence of its buildings and the number of rich inhabitants. It is fortified with a stone-wall strengthened by several bastions and has under its jurisdiction about 300 villages and towns. It is one of the richest sea ports of all the East Indies, its situation being in the midst of all the best harbours of those parts, which renders it the more convenient for the East Indian trade” (Churchill: Voyages II, p.245 quoted by B A Saletore, Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagar Empire (1934), Vol. II, pp 81-82).

The temples played a vital role in the economy of the village/town by virtue of their honoured and wealthy position. They were not only a source of spiritual inspiration but also were looked upon as a great source of succour for the economic, social and moral well-being of the people. The inscriptions reveal that they also performed the role of a bank and a lender of money to the needy, as a stimulator of agricultural production, and a great employer. They were also land-owners in the village.

The movement of people to various places was enabled by the existence of trunk roads leading from one division of the country to another. In Mayilapur, a street called Madavidipperunderu existed in an epigraph of the Chola period. The streets of Mayilapur are praised in religious literature for their high and palatial buildings.



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