The Legend of the Chola King Karikalan

The beautiful Ekambareswara temple is in the heart of Kanchipuram. At its entrance, the statue of King Karikalan welcomes you. Why is it here? Because, according to one legend, Karikalan built this temple! We do not know if the legend is true, but we do know that he was a swashbuckling hero and a master-builder.

Above: Karikala statue at Ekambareswara Temple. Image Credit: S V Kaushik

No one knows the precise dates, but we guess from ancient Tamil Literature, known as Sangam Literature, that he lived around the 1st or 2nd century CE. His father, Ilamcetcenni, was a powerful ruler of the Chola kingdom. He was assassinated while Karikalan was still a young lad, so Karikalan could not ascend the throne immediately. Just to make sure that he never staked his claim to the throne, his rival clansmen tried to kill him too, but Karikalan was smart enough to escape their clutches. He lived incognito as a Vedic scholar, secretly training with his uncle to fight back. Unfortunately, the rival clansmen tracked him down and placed him under house-arrest. And in the night, they set fire to the house.  But the maverick prince managed to escape in the melee. The fire injuries left a permanent black scar on his leg: that is how he earned the title “Kari-Kalan” or “one with the charred leg”.

Karikalan returned with a vengeance, killed the usurpers and rightfully ascended the throne. The neighbouring kings of Pandya and Chera kingdoms now sensed an opportunity. A novice king, already weakened by internal rivalries was easy pickings! They formed a military alliance and attacked the Chola kingdom. How wrong they were! Karikalan soundly defeated them and the Chera King had to flee the battlefield. It is said that the embarrassed Chera committed suicide in shame!

According to contemporary literature, Karikalan then conquered Srilanka and also sent a successful military expedition to the Himalayas — the first Tamil King to do so. Did that really happen, or did Karikalan’s court poets embellish facts with a flourish? We are not sure, but he left one unquestionable legacy that has stood the test of time till date.

Above: This South India map shows the approximate extent of the Chola Kingdom when Karikala became king. Image Credit: Venu62 at the English language Wikipedia

In those days, the mighty Kaveri river gushed unharnessed from the Western Mountain ranges with untameable force. Near Tanjavur, Karikalan built a dam made of gigantic stones across the turgid river. Called “Kallanai” — meaning “stone-dam” — it is 329 metres long and 20metres wide. This dam changed the economy of the Chola kingdom forever: it irrigated about 1 million acres, converting it to the “Rice Bowl” of the South! It is one of the world’s most ancient irrigation projects. Nearly 1700 years later, when the British built another dam across the neighbouring River Kollidam, they took Karikalan’s dam as their inspiration!

To discover more such stories, join Storytrails on a walking tour or download the Storytrails App to explore a city at your own pace, in your own time.

Main Image Credit: This is the Kallanai as it looks today: please note that reinforcements were added to it during the British rule. Beckamrajeev [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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