Tales of steely Wootz sword, forgotten empire in two Tamil novels

While 'Punai Paavai' throws light on superior steel swords made in Kongu Nadu and bought by Arabs and arrival of invader Malik Kafur to end Pandya rule, Padai Veedu talks about 'a forgotten empire',of the Sambuvarayans

Two recent Tamil novels talk about a time between the invasion of Malik Kafur and the birth of the Vijayanagara Empire which has gone undocumented until now

Two recent Tamil novels shed new light on ancient Tamil Nadu or ‘Tamilakam’ and they carry interesting, unknown details about this time.

‘Tamilakam’ was once ruled by three kingdoms namely the Chera, Chola and the Pandya. Known as ‘Moovendar’ (Tamil for triumvirate), many historical records throw light on how culture, religion, politics and business thrived in these kingdoms.

In between, the Pallavas and Kalabrahas too ruled Tamilakam for many years. The three ruling dynasties of Tamil Nadu came to an end in the 13th century. After the fall of these three kingdoms, Tamil Nadu was ruled by Madurai Sultanate, Vijayanagara Empire, Nayak Dynasty, Marathas and then the British.

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The arrival of Malik Kafur

It was in 1311, with the arrival of Malik Kafur, the slave-general of Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji, Tamil Nadu started witnessing heavy bloodbath and looting.

Many historians, while writing about the chronology of Tamil Nadu jumped from Kafur’s invasion to the reign of the Vijayanagara Empire. But the time between Kafur’s invasion and the arrival of the Vijayanagara Empire has gone completely undocumented in the state.

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Two recent Tamil novels ‘Punai Paavai’ and ‘Padai Veedu’ however shed light on this period which has been erased in history. It is rare in the Tamil literary world that two writers are exploring the same subject and interestingly, they are not known to each other and separated geographically.

An overlooked ‘sword’ culture

The first novel ‘Punai Paavai’ was written by Coimbatore-based advocate Ra Murugavel. The title has been taken from a couplet found in the ‘Thirukkural’. The term ‘Punai Paavai’ means, literally a doll. Though the doll may look beautiful, it has no use to humans since it cannot act on its own.

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The novel talks about a hitherto undiscovered industrial culture, which existed in ancient Kongu Nadu. Today, this area is a key archaeological centre Kodumanal in the present-day Tiruppur district. It was once a major bustling trade centre since it housed many steel industries.

It was here swords made up of Wootz, a high quality alloy, were manufactured. The word was derived from the root words ‘urukku’/’ukku’/’utsa’ (Tamil/Kannada/Sanskrit for steel). The Arabs, who had maritime connections with Tamil Nadu, used to purchase these swords in exchange for Arab horses.

“Ancient Tamil Nadu had exported this high-quality steel-like material to Arab countries. The use of Wootz swords became important during the Crusades (a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims in Europe),” said Murugavel.

The ironsmiths were once regarded with much respect because of their work which contributed to keeping their territory safe.

“However, after the agricultural economy started developing, the ironsmiths and carpenters were not given much importance. Cities like Kodumanal too lost the attention of the rulers. After some hundred years, the same Wootz steel returned to Tamil Nadu under a new name, Damascus steel. But now the swords were in the hands of warriors like Malik Kafur,” he explained.

It is interesting to note the quality of steel played a role in the last Tamil dynasty Pandyas losing out to the power of the mightier swords from the North.

While the first part of the novel talks about how the tribals in Kongu Nadu were turned into slaves to mine the steel and make the sword, the second part focuses on how Kafur’s arrival brings an end to the Pandya kingdom.

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A forgotten empire

The second novel ‘Padai Veedu’ was written by Tamilmagan, a journalist-turned-novelist, who is based in Chennai.

This book talks about the life and times of what is being called ‘a forgotten empire’ –Sambuvarayan Empire –which ruled the state for nearly a hundred years.

“Generally, the historians used to skip a hundred years between the regimes of the last Pandya kingdom and the Vijayanagara Empire. Some will say, in that hundred years Madurai Sultanate ruled the region. But they ruled only Madurai. What about the other parts of Tamil Nadu? This made me research the ‘blank period’ and I found that the Sambuvarayan Empire ruled during this period between 1273 to 1363,” said Tamilmagan.

Though there are sufficient epigraphs found in temples from Trichy to Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, it is surprising not much research has been done on this particular Empire, pointed out Tamilmagan.

The Sambuvarayars ruled from their capital Padai Veedu, a village now located in Tiruvannamalai district and hence the title. It is interesting to note that Tiruvannamalai was once referred to as Sambuvarayan district in 1989 during the DMK regime.

“The main aim of the Vijayanagara Empire was to dethrone the Madurai Sultanate. Ganga Devi, the wife of Kumara Kampana, a king of the Vijayanagara Empire has written about their travels in her book ‘Madura Vijayam’. She also speaks highly of the Sambuvarayans in her book, which was evidence of their valour,” added Tamilmagan.

Both the novels also talk about the clash between the religions like Saivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism and Jains in detail. They also discuss how the caste hierarchy was formed after the arrival of Brahmins from the North.

While Tamilmagan refers to the regime of Sambuvarayans in the 14th century as a ‘dark period’ since there are no detailed studies on them, Murugavel quips that all the regimes of the Tamil kingdoms were a ‘dark period’ because of the constant religious and caste clashes.

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