Keralas were mentioned in the Mahabharata Epic as a Kingdom which took part in the Kurukshetra War on the side of the Pandavas. Keralas were good at sea-trade and had trade-relationships with Dwaraka (Gujarat) during the life time of Krishna. The navigators and survivors of the Yadava Dynasty of Dwaraka, also settled in Kerala later, resulting in the cult of Krishna worship. Some remnants of the Sinhalas of Sri Lanka and of the Naga culture are also found in Kerala.
The Pandyas, Keralas (also known as Cheras) and the Cholas were mentioned in surviving Tamil Literature (comprising of Chilappatikaram, Tirukkural etc), complementing their mention in the existing Sanskrit Literature (constituted by the Puranas, Vedas, Ramayana and the Mahabharata).
Remembrance of King Mahabali
The modern people of Kerala, a Southern state of India, celebrate the legend of King Mahabali who it is believed, was the Emperor of Bharatavarsha in pre-ancient times, several eons ago. The biggest festival of Kerala is Onam, celebrated in the remembrance of King Mahabali. Mahabali was described in ancient Indian texts as belonging to the Asura clan of Kings.
Relationship between the Asuras and Bhargavas
Small pockets of Asura regions existed in Northern India and regions beyond the Himalayas as well. Vrishaparvan, was a famous Asura King. The founder of the Puru dynasty of kings in North India (described in the epic Mahabharata as the forefather of the Pandavas and Kauravas), viz King Puru, was the son of Sarmishta, the daughter of King Vrishaparvan. Vrishaparvan's priest was the sage Sukra, (alias Usanus), who was a Bhargava (the son or a descendant of the sage Bhrigu.) Often, the Asura Kings chose sages in the line of Bhrigu as their priest, whereas the Devas chose sages in the line of Brihaspati or Angiras, as their priests. Mahabali was yet another king whose priest also was named Sukra, in the line of Bhrigu.
The legend of Vamana coming and disrupting the sacrifice of Mahabali is as follows:- Vamana (meaning a dwarf-bodied man), who was a small Brahmin Boy, came and requested of the King Mahabali, three feet of land as alms, for his daily use and for practicing his daily ceremonial customs. Mahabali agreed to it, in spite of the warning by the Bhargava Sukra, his priest. Vamana, after getting the consent of the King, started to measure the three feet of land he wanted. But prior to that, he grew in size to unimaginably large and seemingly infinite proportions, and then he measured the land he wanted in just two steps - the first covering all the Heavenly planets, and the second taking up all the Mortal planets, and therefore in effect, covered the whole of Mahabali's Kingdom. Upon Mahabali's own request, (so as to be able to fulfill his given promise of three feet of land), Vamana placed his third step on the head of Mahabali and sent him to the netherworld. Vamana also gave Mahabali a boon, that his subjects and everybody else in all the ages to come, would always remember him as a great, virtuous and true King forever, and that every year he would be able to come and see them. It is to supposedly commemorate his arrival every year that the festival of Onam is celebrated.
In terms of modern scholarship, and according to the existing line of thinking with regard to recorded Indian History, this legend can be interpreted as follows. Vamana represents the arrival of a new foreign tribe into the Kingdom of Mahabali. Since Vamana was described as the son of Sage Kashyapa this new tribe could be the Kashyapa tribe. They asked the King for a small piece of land for their settling in his Kingdom. The King consented to it, in spite of the warning of his priest, the Bhargava Sukra. The Bhargavas were already aware of the Kashyapas as another priest-class but as having adherence to the Devas. The consequence of this consent by Mahabali was that the Kashyapas, starting from their small settlement permitted for occupation by the King, spread through out the Kingdom of Mahabali and finally overthrew him or his Dynasty from his Kingship. Mahabali was later forgotten and existed only in the minds of his loyal subjects as a great King.
The transfer of power from the Bhargavas to the Kashyapas might also be interpreted from the legend of Bhargava Rama, where it is described that Bhargava Rama, after overthrowing the Kshatriya rulers of Central India, took the lordship of their lands and transferred the lands and the wealth to the Kashyapas, before retiring to the woods.
Thus the legend of Vamana, can be interpreted in a way to signify the transfer of power from the Asura Kings and their Bhargava Priests, to the Deva worshiping rulers and their Kashyapa Priests.
Roles of Sages Agastya and Vasistha
The Sage Agastya was very popular in the South Indian Kingdoms including the Kerala Kingdom. Agastya was described as a brother of Sage Vasistha. Sage Vasistha is also linked with the story of the Kerala tribe as per the epic Mahabharata. (See Mbh 1.177) This epic also says that Agastya and Vasistha were the sons of the ancient Devas Mitra and Varuna. Both were Gods common to the Deva and Asura groups of pre-ancient beings. But the Deva group demoted Varuna, who was one of the important deities of both the groups, to the status of the Sea-God while Indra took over the role of Varuna as the main God for them. But the Asura group maintained their reverence to both Varuna and Mitra.
Most conventional historians believe that Agastya and his kinsmen arrived in South India including Kerala by migration through land. Agastya is said to have opened a path across the Vindhya ranges in Central India into South India. It is believed, that there was a hermitage of Agastya near Panchavati or Nasik, where Raghava Rama made his temporary abode. There are numerous places in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, believed to be related to Agastya, like Agastyavata, Agasteswara, etc. The attribution of Sage Agastya, as a son of the Sea-God Varuna, could be due to his being good at sea-navigation and probably sea warfare as well. Indra and other Devas sought the help of Agastya, in defeating a clan of Asuras called Kalakeyas, who were ferocious sea-warriors. Thus Agastya's arrival in Kerala and South India could have been by sea as well.
Agastya was mentioned in Tamil Literature as Akattiyar. He is said to have developed a grammar for the Tamil language and probably introduced writing in Tamil using Tamil Brahmi script. Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala is derived from this Middle Tamil and Sanskrit.
References of Keralas in the Mahabharata
The myth about the origin of the Kerala Tribe
- Mahabharata, Book 1, Chapter 177
When the sage Vasistha was attacked by king Viswamitra's army, Vasistha's cow, Kamadehnu, brought forth from her tail, an army of Palhavas, and from her udders, an army of Dravidas and Sakas; and from her womb, an army of Yavanas, and from her dung, an army of Savaras; and from her urine, an army of Kanchis; and from her sides, an army of Savaras. And from the froth of her mouth came out hosts of Paundras and Kiratas, Yavanas and Sinhalas, and the barbarous tribes of Khasas and Chivukas and Pulindas and Chinas and Hunas with Keralas, and numerous other Mlechchhas.
In the ancient Indian literature, cow is a symbol of earth or land. Thus the myth mentioned above simply means that, these tribes gathered for the protection of sage Vasistha's land against the army of king Viswamitra.
Keralas had sea-trade with China and hence here we Keralas as mentioned along with the Chinas as trading tribes. Here the word Mlechcha is used to denote all the tribes engaged in trade (sea trade and trade through land).
List of provinces of Bharata Varsha (Ancient India)
Chapter (6:9) of Mahabharata mentions about the kingdoms and provinces of ancient India (Bharata Varsha). In this list we found mention of Keralas two times, on along with many north Indian kingdoms like Videha and Magadha and the other along with South Indian kingdoms like the Dravidas, the Mushikas, Karanatakas, the Mahishakas theCholas etc.
Keralas in North India
The list of provinces and tribes surprisingly mentions Keralas in the north.
…..the Aswakas, the Pansurashtras, the Goparashtras, and the Karityas; the Adhirjayas, the Kuladyas, the Malla-Rashtras, the Keralas, the Varatrasyas, the Apavahas, the Chakras, the Vakratapas, the Sakas; the Videhas, the Magadhas,….
This apparently look like an error but in close examination more evidences emerge for the presence of Keralas in the north. They reached there part of sea-trade with Kalinga and Vanga. A territory close to Kalinga was called the territory of Udrakeralas. They were same as Odras or an allied tribe. Besides this, the tribal name like Malla has a south-Indian etymology (skt. loan:malla, tamil:malla :- wrestler, a tribe of wrestlers). The mention of Keralas in the list of tribes who supported Vasistha too strengthens this proposition. Kerala's presence as Udrakeralas along the route from Odra-Kalinga (Orissa) in the sea shore to Malla (Eastern Uttarpradesh, Western Bihar) near Nepal (Kirata) and China clear if we consider the ancient trade nexus between Kerala and China.
Keralas traded through sea with Vanga (Bengal) and Kalinga (Orissa) which extended through land to Magadha (Bihar), Malla, Kirata (Nepal) and China. These were colonies of traders from Kerala existing in small pockets of northern India. They are mentioned as the northern Keralas (in Magadha-Vanga region) and also as Udra Keralas:- the Keralas in the Odra (Orissa) country.
Keralas in South India
The list of tribes and kingdoms then continues indicating the native location of the Keralas:- There are other kingdoms in the south. They are the Dravidas, the Keralas, the Prachyas, the Mushikas, and the Vanavashikas; the Karanatakas, the Mahishakas, the Vikalpas, and also the Mushakas; the Jhillikas, the Kuntalas, the Saunridas, and the Nalakananas; the Kankutakas, the Cholas, and the Malavayakas; the Samangas, the Kanakas, the Kukkuras, and the Angara-marishas; the Samangas, the Karakas, the Kukuras, the Angaras, the Marishas…..
Sahadevas military campaign
- Mahabharata, Book 2, Chapter 30
Sahadeva vanquished and brought under his subjection numberless kings of the Mlechchha tribe living on the sea coast, and the Nishadas and the cannibals and even the Karnapravarnas, and those tribes also called the Kalamukhas who were a cross between human beings and Rakshasas, and the whole of the Cole mountains, and also Surabhipatna, and the island called the Copper island, and the mountain called Ramaka. He, having brought under subjection king Timingila, conquered a wild tribe known by the name of the Kerakas who were men with one leg (probably mentioning about people living along with the trees with one trunk i.e. the coconut tree).
He also conquered the town of Sanjayanti and the country of the Pashandas and the Karanatakas by means of his messengers alone, and made all of them pay tributes to him. The hero brought under his subjection and exacted tributes from the Paundrayas and the Dravidas along with the Udra-Keralas (Kerala trader colonies in Odra country in Kalinga / Orissa) and the Andhras and the Talavanas (Telingas?), the Kalingas and the Ushtrakarnikas, and also the delightful city of Atavi and that of the Yavanas. Having arrived at the sea-shore, he then dispatched messengers unto the illustrious Vibhishana (of Lanka), the grandson of Pulastya.
Keralas role in the Kurukshetra War
- Mahabharata, Book 8, Chapter 12
The Pandavas, headed by Vrikodara (Bhima), advanced against the Kauravas. They consisted of Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi and the five sons of Draupadi and the Prabhadrakas, and Satyaki and Chekitana with the Dravida forces, and the Pandyas, the Cholas, and the Keralas, surrounded by a mighty array, all possessed of broad chests, long arms, tall statures, and large eyes.
Karna's opinion about the Keralas
- Mahabharata, Book 8, Chapter 44
Karna, due to his enmity towards Shalya, who was from the Vahlika tribe of Madra, dislikes all these tribes that had culture similar to that of Shalya. Thus he rebuke many cultural traits of this group, including that of sister's son inheriting property rather than ones own son.
There (Punjab) where the five rivers flow just after issuing from the mountains, there among the Aratta-Vahikas, no respectable person should dwell even for two days. There are two Pishacas named Vahi and Hika in the river Vipasa. The Vahikas are the offspring of those two Pishacas. The Karashakas, the Mahishakas, the Kalingas, the Keralas, the Karkotakas, the Virakas, and other peoples of no religion, one should always avoid.