One of the delightful things about travelling in Tamil Nadu is the inexplicable joy of discovering grand art set in stone in remote villages, especially in the temple belt in and around Tiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Tanjavur, Tiruchinapalli, and Madurai. Apart from the sheer awe, the aesthetics, and the devotion this inspires, it teaches us valuable history lessons if we care to just scratch the surface. And so it was when I discovered a stunning Shiva and Vishnu temple in a remote village near Sivaganga district. The priests at these temples informed me that they were built during the Chola reign. Ironically, this was a Muslim-majority village, which could only mean two things: a bulldozing Muslim invasion in the region followed by sustained Muslim occupation, which changed the character of the place and that such changed character has remained intact till today .
Further investigation revealed that this village was once part of a little-known titbit of history: the Madurai Sultanate. I wasn’t too far off the mark: today’s Sivaganga is some 65 Kilometres from Madurai.
Decline and End of the Pandyas
Our history begins with the disintegration of the Pandya Empire. The Pandya Empire is among the most famous dynasties to have ruled Tamil Nadu and finds a place of pride with the Cholas, Cheras, and Pallavas. Among other things, the Pandyas were renowned to be great patrons of pretty much all aspects of Sanatana Dharma—dance, art, temple-building, sculpture, music, and literature. A tribute of sorts to the greatness of the Pandya empire is given by Muthuswami Dikshitar, singer, composer, raga-founder, and one of the Carnatic Classical Trinity along with Thyagaraja and Shyama Sastri. In his Meenakshi Memudam Dehi set in Raga Poorvi Kalyani, he describes the Goddess of Madurai, Meenakshi as Malayadhwaja Pandya Raja Tanaye—daughter of the Pandya King.
Maravarman Kulashekara Pandyan I, who presided over the Second Pandyan Empire, is credited with bringing an end to the weakened Chola Empire in 1279 when he dealt a decisive defeat to Rajendra Chola III. His 40-year rule saw the re-consolidation and stabilization of a reawakened Pandyan Empire. These 40 years saw the visits of various travellers including the Persian traveller-historian, Abdulla Wassaf who described the Pandyan country under Kulashekara as “most agreeable abode on earth and the most pleasant quarter of the world.” Wassaf mispronounces his name as “Kales Dewar” and says that he ruled for forty years during which time “neither any foreign enemy entered his country, nor any severe malady confined him to bed” and the “treasury of the city of Mardi (Madurai) had 1,200 crores of gold not counting the accumulation of precious stones such as pearls, rubies, turquoises, and emeralds” (SOUTH INDIA AND HER MUHAMMADAN INVADERS, DR. S. KRISHNASWAMY AIYANGAR, PG 96).
Kulashekhara Pandyan I, towards the end of his life began to favour Jatavabrman Vira Pandya, his “illegitimate” son born of a courtesan/mistress over his “legitimate” son, Jatavarman Sundara Pandya. Upon Kulashekhara Pandyan’s death in 1308, a fratricidal war broke out between the brothers paving way for what is described in the rest of this account.
The First Muslim Incursion
Hoysala Consolidation in Karnataka
The Hoysala Empire, which came of its own following the disintegration of the Chalukya Empire made huge strides by conquering large territories under Bittideva or Vishnuvardhana, who is regarded as the greatest ruler of that dynasty. After Vishnuvardhana’s death in 1152, the Hoysalas lost territory owing to weak successors and powerful enemies. A recovery of sorts was made by Vira Ballala III in 1292 who annexed the territory of his uncle, Ramanatha after the latter’s death. This proved to be strategic because Vira Ballala III ruled from three capitals—Dwarasamudra (today’s Halebid in Hassan district) in the North/North-West, Kundaani (north frontier of today’s Salem district) in the middle, and Kannanur (today’s Kandur) in the South.
Politics in Delhi
Meanwhile in Delhi, Jalal-ud-din Khilji who had become the all-powerful Sultan indulged his nephew, Ala-ud-din Khilji to an inordinate extent. And so, when Ala-ud-din Khilji sought the Sultan’s permission to conduct a raid in the Dekkan, the senior Khilji blindly gave his assent not realizing that the purpose of this raid. Ala-ud-din Khilji’s unquenchable ambition to occupy the seat of Delhi required truckloads of money, which his trusted informers said, was available in plenty in the Dekkan. And so, his maiden raid of Deogiri (Devagiri, today’s Daulatabad) in 1296 was hugely successful. After this, he secured victory after victory until he had Jalal-ud-din Khilji murdered, and became the Sultan. However, in his ascent to Sultanhood, Ala-ud-din Khilji spent money like water to buy the loyalty of nobles, courtiers, and the army.
Malik Kafur’s Devastation of South India
Somewhere along the line, Ala-ud-din Khilji had taken an extreme fancy for a handsome Hindu youth named Chand Ram, who had been captured in an earlier battle and forcibly converted to Islam, and then castrated. Chand Ram was rechristened Malik Kafur who, thanks to Ala-ud-din Khilji’s fondness, quickly rose to become a fierce general. Once on the throne, Ala-ud-din Khilji realized that it took even more money to expand and sustain his empire. His gaze turned again to the Dekkan and the regions beyond it.
Ala-ud-din Khilji despatched Malik Kafur on an expedition to the South. And so, when Kafur reached Devagiri, Ramadeva, the Yadava king who had earlier been subdued by Khilji, readily offered his services. He sent his general, Parasurama Deo as advance party to Dwarasamudra to “render it available for the extermination of rebels and the destruction of Bir [Vira Pandya] and Dhur Samundar [Dwarasamudra]” and “to hold the gates of access to the Bir and Dhur Samundar” (SOUTH INDIA AND HER MUHAMMADAN INVADERS, PG 92), apart from sending a large infantry comprising elephants, horses and soldiers. Malik Kafur was bent upon conquering and subduing the whole of Ma’bar Country (Ma’bar was the name given to the territory occupied by the Cholas and Pandyas, which roughly corresponds to today’s Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and parts of Karnataka).
Meanwhile in the South, the battle for the dead Kulashekhara Pandya’s throne was in full swing between his sons, Sundara Pandya and Vira Pandya. Vira Ballala III descended upon the Pandyan kingdom to take full advantage of this brotherly feud unaware of the destruction that had begun to happen in his own backyard.
Malik Kafur’s march to Dwarasamudra wrought with it large scale devastation and destruction of forests, villages, and entire regions that were under Vira Ballala III’s control. When reports of this barbaric march reached him, Vira Ballala III immediately returned to Dwarasamudra. However, it was a trifle too late. He sent negotiators to sue for peace. This, despite the fact that Vira Pandya had already sent his army for Ballala’s assistance. Malik Kafur accepted the peace offer on the condition that his object was to convert Vira Ballala III “to Mohammedanism, or of making him Zimmi, or of slaying him” (SOUTH INDIA AND HER MUHAMMADAN INVADERS, PG 93). After much negotiation, Ballala III was spared of conversion but had to surrender all his wealth, horses and elephants.
Once Malik Kafur had secured Ballala III’s subservience, he took his assistance to march upon Vira Pandya.
Malik Kafur Returns Empty Handed
When they heard what happened to Vira Ballala III, the warring Pandya brothers united at once. They knew Kafur’s force was far superior to their own but put up a courageous fight. They never gave him a direct, open fight. They knew the country intimately and put this knowledge to the best use. They attacked his force stealthily and displayed superior guerrilla warfare taking care never once to fall into his hands. For weeks without end, they harassed Kafur. And then the rains came to hamper Kafur even further.
A thoroughly frustrated Malik Kafur fell upon Chidambaram. His Chidambaram expedition began at night and by morning, he “seized no less than 250 elephants. He then determined on razing the beautiful temple to the ground…you might say that it was the Paradise of Shaddad, which, after being lost, those “hellites” had found, and that it was the golden Lanka of Ram …it was the holy place of the Hindus, which . Malik dug up from its foundations with the greatest care and the heads of the Brahmans and idolaters danced from their necks and fell to the ground at their feet, and blood flowed in torrents. The stone idols called Ling Mahadeo, which had been a long time established…the kick of the horse of Islam had not attempted to break. The Musalmans destroyed all the Lings and Deo Narain fell down, and the other gods who had fixed their seats there raised their feet, and jumped so high, that at one leap they reached Lanka…(words in italics are by Amir Khusru quoted in SOUTH INDIA & HER MUHAMMADAN INVADERS, Pg 99)…They destroyed all the temples and placed the plunder in the public treasury.”
The Pandya brothers still couldn’t be captured. Ten days after Malik Kafur wrecked Chidambaram, he marched into Mathra (Madura, today’s Madurai) and found it empty. He seized the royal elephants and burnt down the temple of Jagnar (Jagannath or Sokkanatha).
Ibn Batuta, the Muslim traveller-cum-chronicler who accompanied Malik Kafur on this devastating journey records in his Ashika that after Chidambaram was completely destroyed, Kafur marched further down into a city named Fattan. Fattan corresponds to the Tamil Pattanam (or Pattinam), which is a generic name denoting a city or town. It was a temple town entrusted to a Brahmin. Ibn Batuta mistook the Brahmin to be a king. This “king” fled when he saw Malik Kafur’s destructive march. The distinctive feature of Fattan was a huge temple with an equally huge idol laden with jewels. Malik Kafur seized the horses and elephants and destroyed the idol. This Fattan is today’s Rameshwaram.
Contented with his victorious campaign, Malik Kafur turned back and reached Delhi in October 1311.
However, the consequence of Malik Kafur’s unstoppable death march was the first definitive carving out of a Muslim state of sorts deep in the South, in Madurai, which reported directly to Delhi for at more than two decades.
Continued in the next part…