Is it the Kurinji blossoms fluttering in the breeze or the towering gopurams and sculptural marvels of ancient temples, the colourful and intricate kolams on virgin earth or the sweet melody of the classical Tamil language that render a million hues to the cultural fabric of Tamil Nadu?
For more than two thousand years, the cultures of southern India have been shaped by the sea. The sea yielded a wealth of fish and gems. It brought a different kind of wealth on ships from other lands. It carried with it strangers who traded goods and taught religion and adventurers who came to conquer but often surrendered to the charms they found here.
It was by the sea that the early kingdoms of Tamilakam – the land between the Tirupati hills (Vengadam) and the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula grew and flourished. They were the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas, or the Muvendhar, which translates to ‘The Three Crowned Kings’.
The Pandya kingdom, centred in Madurai and stretching south, has a history dating back to fourth century BC. This was the kingdom in which the climax of the epic Silappadhikaram was enacted, and its wealth, insistence on justice, and respect for the arts has been recorded in much of Sangam literature. The rival kingdoms of the Pandyas were the Cheras to the west and Pallavas to the north. The Pallava kingdom, its capital at Kanchipuram, flourished in the mid-sixth to the ninth century AD. Its history shows an assimilation of Sanskrit influence. Rulers followed the vedic religion, and there are many Sanskrit inscriptions among the Tamil ones in the seventh century shore temple in Mahabalipuram, possibly the oldest surviving stone-built temple in India. All the southern kingdoms traded extensively with one another and with countries to the west. Kanchipuram remained an important centre for the later Chola and Vijayanagara kingdoms.