Karikalachola is said to belong to the Solar Race and Kasyapa Gothram. He was the greatest and most powerful among the Chola kings of the Sangam age in South India. Karikala was an able and just king. He was the son of Ilamcetcenni and ruled around 120 C.E. He is known by the epithet Karikala Peruvallattan and Thirumavalavan.
Illanjchetchenni, the father of Karikala had many chariots and he was an expert in riding them.
‘Karikala’ means ‘elephant legged’ or ‘charred leg’, which is assumed to be a reference to an accident by fire which befell the prince early in his life. Pattinappaalai describes this accident and the enterprising way in which the prince escaped and established himself in the Chola throne. Pattinappalai is a long poem on the then Chola capital Kaveripattinam.
Karikala married a Velir girl from Nangur. He most certainly had more than one queen. The Ganga ruler Durvinita, who ruled in the later half of 6th century AD., had a Chola princess as his Chief Queen. She is called ‘the daughter of the family of Karikala Chola, an exemplary Kshatriya, and ruler of Uraiyur’.)
This does show that Karikala Chola’s family, ruling from Uraiyur, was still recognisd as a dynasty powerful enough to be reckoned with.
Karikala as an able ruler & administrator:
Karikala Chola is famous for having united the kingdoms of South India. The first Chola Empire was established by Karikala, who subdued the Cheras and the Pandyas.
He collected the whole of the Mudali tribe of the Vellalars and settled them in Tondaimandalam. The country was divided into territorial domains called Kootams.
Karikala as a great warrior:
Pattinappaalai work describes the numerous battles Karikala fought against the other two Tamil kings in one of which the Chera king was disgraced (received a wound on his back) and committed suicide. He fought a great battle at Venni near Thanjavur in which both the Pandyas and the Cheras suffered crushing defeats. Karikala thus broke the confederacy that was formed against him and established hegemony over Pandyas and Cheras. Venni was the watershed in the career of Karikala which established him firmly on his throne and secured for him some sort of hegemony among the three crowned monarchs. It was Karikala who brought Kongunad under Chola control in the second or third century AD.
After the battle of Venni, Karikala had other opportunities to exercise his arms. He defeated the confederacy of nine minor chieftains in the battle of Vakaipparandalai. In later times Karikala was the subject of many legends found in the Cilappatikaram and in inscriptions and literary works of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They attribute to him the conquest of the whole of India up to the Himalayas.
The northern expeditions of Karikala gained for him the alliance and subjugation of the kings of Vajra, Magadha and Avanti countries. He conquered territories up to the Himalayas and made a pass into China through the Himalayas.
On his return he brought back the monuments and gifts presented by the Vajras, the Magadha King and the Avanthis who were defeated by him, and exhibited them at Poompuhar. He marched north up to the Ganges river, defeating all the kings on the way. It is said that he fought a war against King Gangabaghu and conquered the whole of Sri Lanka.
Karikala as a promoter of Irrigation & agriculture
Karikala raised embankments on either side of the Kaveri and controlled its floods by constructing the Kallani dam. Kallani was the world’s first dam constructed across a river. It supplied water for Irrigation for more than 50000 acres of land. It is still used to its maximum limit. The dam is a great engineering marvel and would have earned Karikala a memorable place in history. It still stands as an amazing feat of irrigation engineering.
Karikala built the Kallanai – commonly known as the Grand Anaicut – a dam across the Cauvery River about 48 km. from Thanjavur. The Grand Anicut is the most ancient surviving irrigation work in Kaveri river delta. It is attributed to the Chola king Karikalan, and dates back to the 2nd century. It is considered the oldest water-diversion structure in the world still in use. It is said that Karikala captured twelve thousand Sinhalese soldiers as prisoners of war and brought all the way to the Cauvery delta in Tanjavur to use them as labourers and excavate channels for drawing water from the river Cauvery and setting up a very detailed, intricate and elaborate irrigation system, which is being used till date.
The setting of this canal system has resulted in making ‘Tanjavur’ the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. Pattinappaalai gives us a vivid idea of the state of industry and commerce under Karikala who promoted agriculture and added to the prosperity of his country by reclaimation and settlement of forest land. He also built a number of irrigation canals and tanks.
Karikala as a great city & temple builder
During Karikala’s reign, the capital city was moved to Kaveripattanam from Uraiyur. He made Kanchi a city of palaces. According to historical sources, Karikala Chola first set his foot on the divine land of Kanchi. Some say that his conquests and building of Kanchi palaces are as debatable.
Perumchottu is a contemporary of the great Chola, King Karikala, but the dating for him conflicts badly with the apparent early years AD dating for the Cheras (circa 270 BC). This is a mismatch that at the moment cannot be satisfactorily resolved (although the possibility is that the Chola dating is inaccurate). After suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chola ruler in the Battle of Venni, Perumchottu commited suicide.
Perhaps around the same time (and most likely within a few years), Ilam Cheral Irumporai (Cheraman Kuddako of the ‘northern’ Irumporai Chera kings) is described by Perunkundrur Kilar as the lord of the cities Tondi, Kongu, and Puli. He defeated Perunchola Ilam Palaiyan Maran (seemingly of the Cholas) and Vicci and destroyed five forts.
Cheraman Kanaikkal Irumporai of the Cheras marched against Kocengannan, who defeated him at the Battle of the Ovur and took him captive. He was imprisoned at Kunavayil Kottam. Poigaiyar, the Chera court poet, sang Kalavali Narpattu in praise of Kocengannan to secure his release, but the Chera king, feeling insulted when he was not given water to quench his thirst, breathed his last before his release could be ordered.
After Karikalan’s death, the Chola kingdom plunged into utter chaos as a result of the internal strife among the royal family. His two sons were ruling from two different capitals Uraiyur and Kaveripumpattinam.
Karikalan’s great grandson Ilagovadigal, is credited with the authorship of the greatest Tamil epic Silappadigaram.
The last great Chola ruler of the Sangam period was Nedunjelian who defeated the rulers of Chera and Pandya dynasties. He was, however, mortally wounded in war.
After the third century AD, the decline for Chola kingdom set in due to the frequent attacks by the Cheras and the Pandyas.
Pallavas who were now emerging as another power also invaded the Chola territory. According to the Tamil epic Manimekalai written by Sattan of Madurai, the port town of Kaveripumpattinam was destroyed by vicious tidal waves of the sea during the reign of the later Chola ruler Killivalavan.