Karikala Chola – The Chola King, The Greatest Visionary

Karikaala Cholan Kallanai

Karikala Chola is also called as Karikala Peruvallattan (கரிகால பெருவளத்தான்) and Thirumavalavan (திருமாவளவன்). It goes without saying that Karikala Chola (கரிகால சோழன்) is one of the greatest kings to ever rule South India.  However there is no consensus about the year of his rule, different accounts give different time frames from 270 BC, to 180 AD. The sangam literature Pattinappaalai, sung by uruthirang kannanar was sung in praise of Karikala chola, so the only thing that we know for sure is Karikalan lived during or before the time of Pattinappaali (estimated around 100 BC – 100 AD). The other theory is there might be more than one Chola King named Karikalan during the Sangam period. This article is about the widely accepted history of Karikala Chola.

Life Story of Karikalan:

Since his story is 2000 years old, the story of Karikalan mixes legend and anecdotal information with historical facts. With few and scattered  authentic records available, it is difficult to piece together the entire life of Karikalan.  According to the widely accepted version, the Chola king Ilancetcenni, ruled the kingdom with Urayur as its capital, he married a Velir princess from Azhundur and she gave birth to Karikala (initially named as Peruvalathan). Ilamcetcenni, died when Karikala was still a kid. Due to his young age, Karikala’s right to the throne was overlooked and he was exiled (sent to a place named Karuvur). Due to the absence of a king there was a political turmoil, and those who were loyal to the throne brought him back from exile.  This time his political opponents imprisoned him. When the popular support among people shifted to Karikalan’s side, they conspired and burnt the prison along with Karikalan. Karikalan escaped from the prison and went underground for a while. While escaping his leg got burnt in the fire, thereby giving him his name Karikalan (means ‘a person with a charred leg’). He later built an army with the help of his uncle Irumpitarthalaiyan and defeated his enemies to get back his throne.

Karikaala Cholan

Military Conquests:

After getting the throne he set his sights over all the major kingdoms of the South India.  In the Battle of Venni, he crushed the Pandya and Chera forces, thereby becoming the first of the early cholas to conquer and unify all the three Dravidian kingdoms. We get most of the information about his military conquests from the books Pattinappaalai, Porunaraatruppadai, and a number of individual poems in Akananuru and Purananuru. Some of the songs in purananooru explains the beauty of his war chariots. His legendary campaign into northern India has been mentioned in several literary works. Cilappatikaram has a wonderful account of the northern expeditions of Karikala, which took him as far north as the Himalaya Mountains. Kings of Vajra, Magadha and Avanti were subjugated and they accepted his alliance.

The temple history of Thiruvaiyaru Shiva temple says that his chariot wheel sank into the mud when he came back after his victories in North India, and when his chariot wheel was dug out idols of Dakshinamurthy and saptha rishis were discovered. Karikala Chola built Panchanadeswara temple in Thiruvayaru and performed kumbabishekam.

Karikala defeated the union of nine minor chieftains in the battle of Vakaipparandalai. This incident has been mentioned by Paranar, a contemporary of Karikala, in his poem in Agananuru. Karikala was one of the few Tamil kings who won the whole of Lanka. Winning Lanka was important for Karikalan, because until he build Kallanai, the Kaveri delta was not irrigated well. So several spices, grains and food were imported from Lanka. [‘ஈழத்து உணவும் காழகத் தாக்கமும்’ – Patinapaalai explains how ships from Eelam (Sri Lanka) brought food and ships from Burma brought merchandise to the port Kaveripoompattinam].

Karikalan The Great Visionary:

Kallanai (கல்லணை) – The Grand Anicut

He has built great temples (like the Shiva temple in Perur), and forts, but his biggest legacy is the construction of Kallanai. There is a certain amount of misconception about Kallanai, some over enthusiastic tamil historians call this as the oldest living dam. The fact is Kallanai is not a dam, it is one of the oldest water-diversion and water-regulatory structures in the world which is still in use.

With his vision, Karikaalan changed the fate of Chola Kingdom forever. Karikalan did not just think of the near future, he thought about a structure that can stand the vagaries of time for a very long time (it is now around 2000 years old and still fully functioning).  In my opinion his extraordinary long term planning and foresight makes him even greater than Raja Raja Chola.

The Cauvery delta region has always been fertile, but the river caused great floods during the rainy season and the delta experienced droughts during the dry months. Karikalan wanted to change this, so he and his advisers devised this grand project to maintain a steady flow of water throughout the year. Originally the the river got split in to two channels (Northern channel is Kollidam, and souther channel retained the name Cavery) at Srirangam and the two channels came close again downstream. Karikalan built the kallanai in the southern channel where it came close to Kollidam river. Kallanai served two major purposes: Flood control and Irrigation.


Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world. – Joel A. Barker

His first step was to raise the banks of Cauvery river. The rate of flow of water in Cauvery back then was 2,00,000 cubic ft per minute. Building an engineering structure like kallanai in such a ferocious river was unthinkable. However the architects back then used a peculiar method to build Kallanai. When we stand in a sea shore experiencing the waves, we can feel our feet getting under the sand when the waves go back, the longer we stay the sand under our leg will get eroded and our feet will move further in. Based on this concept huge blocks of granite were dropped in the river, and as the stones moved under, they used an insoluble binding material and placed another block over the existing ones. They were able to build a perfect structure even in such a ferocious river. Kallanai splits the river Kaveri into 4 major streams namely Kollidam Aru, Kaviri, Vennaru and Puthu Aru. This structure supplied a model to later engineers, including Sir Arthur Cotton’s 19th-century dam across the Kollidam, and the one in Godavary.  Sir Arthur Cotton named Kallanai as The Grand Anicut.

Karikalan turned Tanjore from a kingdom importing food grains, to the rice bowl of South India. Even today Tanjore is addressed as the rice bowl of South India. In addition to diverting the existing flood water in to 4 smaller streams, he also built canals from those streams to utilize the water for irrigation. The structure when constructed was 329 m (1,079 ft) long, 20 m (66 ft) wide and 5.4 m (18 ft) high. The structure was later developed by the British who laid the grid separators and a bridge on top of the old structure. One account say that at the time of construction Kallanai irrigated 69,000 acres of land, and another account says that it irrigated 84,000 acres of land. It now irrigates more than 1 million acres of agricultural lands.

In my opinion, Karikalan is one of the greatest management gurus. The engineering marvel, which has served its purpose for over 2000 years, was made possible because of a long term vision, excellent planning and meticulous execution.. Today management gurus talk about ‘looking for opportunities in disasters and challenges’, Karikalan did it 2000 years ago.

During the times when Egyptian Kings built Pyramids for themselves by torturing the citizens and slaves, Karikala built a phenomenal architectural marvel to serve his people for 1000s of years.

Karikaala Cholan Kallanai

The Death and Legacy:

Agriculture and trade thrived during his rule, traders from Rome and South East Asia visited Kaveripoompatinam regularly. He left a great legacy as an able and just king, by winning great wars, promoting commerce and administering justice.  Several literary works depict how the whole country mourned his death. One of those is from purananooru.

அறிந்தோன் மன்ற அறிவுடையாளன்;
இறந்தோன் தானே; அளித்துஇவ் வுலகம்
அருவி மாறி, அஞ்சுவரக் கருகிப்,
பெருவறம் கூர்ந்த வேனிற் காலைப்,
பசித்த ஆயத்துப் பயன்நிரை தருமார்,
பூவாட் கோவலர் பூவுடன் உதிரக்
கொய்துகட்டு அழித்த வேங்கையின்,
மெல்லியல் மகளிரும் இழைகளைந் தனரே. – Puranaanooru 225

he, the great and wise king alas, is no more! Poor indeed is this world, which has lost him. Like the branches of the vengi tree, which stands bare, when their bright foliage has been stripped down by shepherds eager to feed their cattle in the fierce summer, are his fair subjects (wives), who have cast off their happiness (Jewels). 

This is an apt elegy for a king of his stature.


Some other Important Texts:
காவிரியின் பெருமை

வசையில் புகழ் வயங்கு வெண்மீன்
திசை திரிந்து தெற்கு ஏகினும்
தற்பாடிய தளி உணவின்
புள் தேம்பப் புயல் மாறி
வான் பொய்ப்பினும் தான் பொய்யா
மலைத் தலைய கடல் காவிரி
புனல் பரந்து பொன் கொழிக்கும் (1-7)

Even if the faultless, famous, bright Venus drifts to the south, even if the skylarks are distressed without rain drops to drink and even if the clouds change and the skies fail, Kaveri, which starts in the mountains and ends in the ocean, does not fail. Its flowing water spreads and showers abundant prosperity.

கூர் உகிர் கொடு வரிக் குருளைக் கூட்டுள் வளர்ந்தாங்குப்
பிறர் பிணியகத்து இருந்து பீடு காழ் முற்றி
அருங்கரை கவியக் குத்திக் குழிகொன்று
பெருங்கை யானை பிடிப்புக் காங்கு
நுண்ணிதின் உணர நாடி நண்ணார்
செறிவுடைத் திண் காப்பு ஏறி வாள் கழித்து
உரு கெழு தாயம் ஊழின் எய்தி –  (220-227) Pattinapaalai


Karikalan was imprisoned by enemies while young.  He was like a sharp-clawed, tiger cub with curved stripes, that was raised in a cage. He had a resolute mind.  To gain his rights to the throne, he escaped by analyzing his enemy’s strength, scaled protected walls, used his sword removed from its scabbard and won his kingdom back, like a big trunked bull elephant in heat that breaks and collapses the banks of a trench, to escape and unite with his mate.


  • Melapadu copper plate inscriptions.
  • Trinetra Pallava  inscriptions.
  • Pattinappaalai, Porunaraatruppadai, Akananuru and Purananuru
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K.A (1984) [1935]. The ChoĻas. Madras: University of Madras
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K.A (2002) [1955]. A History of South India