“Ariyar” in the Ancient Tamil Literature

published on April 8, 2007

K. V. Ramakrishna Rao


The paper, “‘Ariyar’ in the Ancient Tamil Literature” has been presented in the following seminars / conferences and published details are given as follows: 

  • A paper presented at the Indian History Congress, Calcutta. 

  • Summary published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Calcutta, 1990, p.165. 

  • A paper presented at the Seminar of “The Aryan Problem” held at Bangalore in July 1991. 

  • Published in the proceedings of “Seminar on the Aryan Problem”, The Mythic Society and The Bharatriya Itihasa Sankalana Samiti, Bangalore, 1991, pp.215-225. 

  • Published in “The Aryan Problem” by Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalana Samiti, Pune, 1993, pp.75-80.



1. Introduction: Ever since the advent of “Ariyar” in Indian history, the word “Aryan” has assumed significance and far-fetching linguistic and racial connotations. Then came the advent of “Dravidians”. Caldwell’s linguistic invention was given a racial twist by the westerners and Indian scholars, though the concept of race and language are two separate entities. Leaving these hypotheses and theories aside, an attempt is made in this paper to study the word “Ariyar” fund in the ancient Tamil literature, popularly known as Tamil Sangam literature. In the process of understanding the past, there have been persistent and insistent attempts in historiography to import later day ideas, concepts and theories to reflect back on the past events leading to diversified and contradicting situation.  But, here the approach has been restricted to get the meaning of the word “Ariyar” as found in the ancient Tamil literature.


2. In the ancient Tamil literature, the word “Ariyar”, “Ariyan”, “Ariya” etc., found in various places withy their other forms and have been used both as nouns and adjectives. As in recent times, diametrically opposite views have been expressed1 about the inclusion of the Tamil epics Cilappatikaram and Manimekalai within the ambit of  Sangam literature, the discussion is restricted to Ettutogai (the eight anthologies), Pattupattu (the Ten poems) and Padinen Kizh Kanakku (the Eighteen Minor works). Now, let us see, what these poems say about “Ariyar”.


3. Natrinai: It is the heading the list of Ettuttogai and its general theme is love. The word “Ariyar” appears in the 170th poem, sung by an unknown poet. The companion of the heroin of the poem warts that the hero might be seduced by the beautiful lonely dancing girl. She compares the victory of the Virali (the dancer), who came to a festival clad in a leaf-garment, over her group to the fact that the famous town of Mullur, the “Ariya” soldiers swarmed, but ran away before the lance-battalion of Malayan (a Cheran), who unsheathed a shining sword and attacked with his large army. From this, we can see that the people who came from the north to attack Cheras were known as “Ariyar”.


4. Kuruntogai: Literally meaning `a collection of short poems’, it comes next and its theme is also love. The word “Ariyar” appears in the verse 7, line 3. Here, it is described how “Ariyars” dance on a tied rope according to the beatings of a drum. “The forest full of bamboos were rattled the white ripe seeds of shivering vakai tree (Sirisa tree) tossed by the wind like the drumming of the “Ariyar” dancing on the rope”. Therefore, here it is evident that “Ariyar” refers to a group of jugglers or tumblers, who performed acrobatics.


5. Paditruppattu (the Ten tens): It gives more information about `Ariyar’ in historical setting. The entire extant collection of poems with the deeds and exploits of the Chera Kings. The first and tenth Tens are not available. In the Second Ten, the Patigam (Preface) describes how Imayavaramban Nedunjeraladhan engraved his royal sign `bow’, which figures on his flag, on the top of the Himalayas (lines 4-7). Having roaring oceans has his boundaries (imizh kadal velittamizhagam), he ruled Tamizhagam (the Tamil country) in such a way o excel the other nadus (countries). He made `Ariyar’ bow before him, who were having very great name (fame and heritage).


5.1. In the Second Ten, the 11th verse details as how the very famous Himalayas abound with “Ariyas”. Hence, scholars give two different meanings for the `Ariyar’:


  1. `Ariyar” = Munivar (rishis) and
  2. “Ariyar’ = `Ariya mannar’ ( Aryan kings) .


The hillside was resplendent with densely and well grown trees of erthrina indica (mullu murukka), a kind of citrus and the yak sleeping there would dream of waterfalls and sweet smelling grass. The Himalayas with such fertility was filled with many rishis. In between the Himalayas (in the north) and Kumari in the South, there wee Kings who boasted their valour but they were conquered by Nedunjeraladhan. The meaning is thus rendered, “You quelled the valour of those who called themselves monarchs of the land between Camorin in the South and the famous Himalayas, where the Ariyas2 abound and yak sleeps on the hills covered thick with the Oleander and dreams of the broad mountain stream and the narandam (lemon-grass)”


5.2. In fifth Ten, the patigam mentions `vadavar‘, i,e, the people of north and `Ariya Annal’ i.e, head of Ariya Kings. It describes how the kings of the north were afraid of Kadal Prakkottiya Senguttuvan. He marched with his army to bring a good stone for chiseling an image of the goddess of chastity. He came across a head or chief of Ariya Kings, while passing through forests, and defeated him. Then, he brought a stone and washed it in waters of the Ganges. While coming back, he stayed at Irumbil, destroyed Viyaur and Kodungur. He also killed a king named Pazhaiyon.


5.3. In the same fifth Ten, the 43rd verse mentions the defeat of kings who were ruling between the Himalayas in the north and Kumari in the south as boundaries. However, the names of the kings or the countries thus defeated are not given in the poem. In the padigam, the kings are mentioned as the `vadavar‘ (the Kings of north), the Chiefs of `Ariyar‘ are called `Ariya Annal‘, but here they are generally mentioned as `Ariya arasar‘, i.e, the Kings between the Himalayas and Kumari.


5.4. In Seventh Ten, the 68th poem narrates how the people who were living in the north or northern direction, were leading a fearless and happy life. The expression used to denote them is `vadapula vazhnar‘.


5.5. So from the description of Paditruppattu, we can see that `Ariyar’ are ?


?  `the Kings of the north’,

?  `Rishis of the Himalayas’,

?  `the Kings between the boundaries of Himalayas and Kumari’ and

?  `the people of the north or northern direction of Tamilagam’.


6. Agananuru (or Neduntogai): It also gives more details about `Ariyar’. `Ariyars’ capture elephants by the use of trained female elephants. A public woman takes a vow that she would chain her hero with her hair just as the `Ariyar’ make the wild elephant domesticated with the she-elephant. Mullaippattu throws light on their employment by the kings of Tamilagam to train elephants.


6.1. In another poem, a harlot wishes her bangles may be broken just like the army of `Ariyars’, which was defeated by the Kurumba bowmen who fought under the Cholas, with their shower of arrows, victorious spears and the black buckler. Here, also the names of the defeated `Ariyars’ are not given, but it is mentioned that they were defeated at Vallam (Tanjore).


6.2. Paranar3 in his poem eulogises Senguttuvan that he attacked the Aryar so as to make them scream, carved his emblem bow on the very famous mountain and chained the ferocious Kings. Here one can notice that the name of the mountain is not specified and it is mentioned in singular. As Himalayas are always mentioned in plural to denote a chain of mountains, a doubt arises as to whether the poet actually alludes to the Himalayas or to a certain `very famous, ancient and well grown’ mountain situated north of Tamizhagam in those days.


6.3. Agam.386 narrates how an Ariya wrestler was defeated by one Panan. The Ariya wrestler was known as `Ariya Porunan’ and Panan was another wrestler, whose state was in the north of Tamizgagam (Agam.325). Panan wrestled with Ariya Porunan and crushed his shoulders and arms, the sight of which made Kanaiyan, the commander of Chera army, feel ashamed.


6.5. So, according to Agananuru, `Ariyar’ were ?


?  the people who captured and trained elephants,

?  who got defeated by the Cholas at Vallam,

?  who were the Kings of the north, conquered and chained by Senguttuvan and

?  who were in possession of a mountain where gold was available.


As there was a wrestler known as `Ariya Porunan’, the name should imply either that he was an Ariya or he came from the north. But, it should be noted that Panan, who defeated Ariya Porunan and came from a state situated north of Tamizhagam, was not given the prefix of `Ariya’. Therefore, it is evident that there were Ariya wrestlers, just like Ariya jugglers, tumblers or rope dancers, elephant trainers and trainers in Tamizhagam.


7. Purananuru: In one poem4, Kovur Kizhar, a Tamil poet, describes how the kings of north were afraid of Cholan Naklankilli that they were spending their nights without sleep. Marudanila Naganar, another poet5 describes how Pandiyan Kudakartattutunjiya Maran Vazhudi was having a chariot to wage a fierce war to kill the kings of north (vadapula mannar). Actually, the poet eulogises Maran Vazhudi who is said to have caused `northern kings to fade’. But, particular given about the names of such northern kings or countries and the place or places where he defeated them in the battles are not at all given. There is a mention6 of a type of a sandal paste of `northern mountain’ (vadakundrattuchandanam), Agananuru also refers to this7. But here also, the name of the northern mountain is not mentioned. Thre important point to be noted is, though the expressions `vadapulattarasar‘, `vadapulamannar‘ and `vadakundram‘ are used to denote the kings of the north and northern mountain, the prefix `Ariyar’ is conspicuously missing. Therefore, it is very evident that there were northern kings and northern mountains other than Ariya kings of north and northern mountain of `Ariyar’.


8. Non-Tamilian people of North: In the case of non-Tamilian people, specific names have been mentioned like Kosar8, Moriyar9, Nandar10, Tondaiyar11, and Vadugar12. Kosars belonged to Tulu country and they were living south of the Vindhya and near the shores of western ocean. Nandar and Moriyar are no others but the Nandas and Mauryas of north India. Tondaiyars were found in the forests of Vengadam hills where elephants were abundant. So they went on expeditions, captured, trained and formed them into a brigade. The trained elephants brought firewood to the Rishis and they ate the food of their country only. From this, we can infer that Tondaiyars were having similar vocation like Ariyars, as far as elephants are concerned. Vadugar were having their lands beyond Vengadam and they spoke a different language. Another point to be noted is that at one place (Puram. 378), the Vadugars are denoted as `vada vadugar’. The term `vadugar’ connotes that they were from the north and hence the expression `vada vadugar’ is very significant, as it actually denotes `northern group of northerners’. This can be compared with the expression `vada Ariyar’ and vadavariyar” denoting `northern Ariyar’, but such expressions are found in Silappathikaram and not in the Sangam literature taken for discussion. But the important point to be noted is the usage of `Ariyar’, while the word `Ariyar’ is generally used to denote the people of north or the kings of north, the above mentioned words Kosar, Nandar, Moriyar, Tondaiyar and Vadugar are used to denote only particular groups of people who lived in the north of Tamizhagam.


9. Arya and Ariya suffixes and prefixs: Epigraphic, numismatic and literary evidences are abundant to show that the Sathavahanas were ruling in the north of Tamizhagam with their intruding territories extended up to Caddalore. The important point which should be mentioned here is that the `Arya’ endings in the names of the donees are found only in the grants coming from the territory immediately south of river Krishna (The Kondamudi, the Mayadavolu, the Hira Hadagalli, the Kanteru Nandivarman I and the Mattapad grants). `Arya’ (venerable) as honorific prefix to the names of Buddhist and Jain teachers and saints occurs in inscriptions all over India. Indeed the Tamil epic Manumekhalai mentions Buddha as `Ariyan’ (25-6). `Arya’ as an honorific title is found in the Hathigumpa inscription of Kharavela13. `Arya’ as initial part of personal names occur in Junnar inscription inscription14 (Ayama), and in the Nagarjunakonda inscription15 (Ayakotosiri) and Ayasiri, names of royal ladies. `Aryadeva’ is the name of the celebrated disciple16 of Nagarjuna (3rd cent. CE), who spent a greater part of his life in Andhradesha. But the earliest inscription to exhibit names with Arya-ending is the Kondamudi grant of Jayavarman (3rd cent.CE), where all doinees have names ending with `aja’, as also found in the same manner in the Mayadavola and Mattapad grants.


9.1. `Aja’ is another form of Prakrit `Arya’, Sanskrit `Arya’ and Tamil `Ayya’, `Iyya’, `Iyer’ and `Ariyar’. `Ariyar’ or `Ariya’ started as an honorific prefix anmd become a name-ending much the same way as `sri’ found in many inscriptions. And we can find the same trend in Tamil literature, as in `Ariya Annal‘ (Head or chiuef of Ariya Kings), `Ariya Porunan‘ (Arya wrestler), `Ariya Arasan Bragadattan17 (Ariya king named Bragadattan) and `Ariya Arasan Yazh Brahmadattan18 (Ariya king poet Brahmadattan). The word `Ayyar’ or `Iyer’ is found in many places in ancient Tamil literature including Tolkappiyam19, which is considered as the oldest extant Tamil work. It is used to represent a teacher, brother, priest, saint, andanan (Brahmana), superior, master or king, with veneration.


10. `Ariake’: A reference to Periplus’ `Ariaca’ and Ptolemy’s `Ariake’ has to be made, as it has direct bearing on the discussion of `Ariyar’ of the ancient Tamil literature. About the name `Ariaca’ of the Periplus, W. H. Scoff opines: “the word in the text is very uncertain”. Lassen thinks that the name Sanskrit `Latica’ (pronounced Larica) and included  the land on both sides of the gulf of Cambay20. Ptolemy (c.140 CE) calls the first province of Tamil country going down from the north as `Lymyrice or Dymirike’. He and the author of Periplus use it only as the name of the Chera territory. The country north of it was to them `Ariake’, belongoing to the Aryas, in the restricted sense of Marathas. Taking the other forms `Ariake Sadinon’ and `Ariake of the Pirates’, they could easily have made out that `Ariake’ referred to the country later known as  the Maharastra, then ruled over by the Satavahana kings of the Andhra dynasty21. Therefore, it is evident that Ariake or Aricca denotes `Akam’ or the country of Ariyar who were ruling or living immediately north of Dymirike or Tamizagam.


11. Himalayas of Ariyar: We have seen how some Tamil kings marched towards the Himalayas to bring stones or to defeat the kings in between the `Himalayas’ and `Kumari’, and inscribed their royal emblems on it. Already it has been pointed out that the poets considered `Himalayas’ as single Tall Mountain. From various expressions like `very famous, ancient and well grown’ mountain (Agam.396), `tall mountain with gold’ (Agam.398), `a big stone’ (Puram.171) and a `tall mountain’ (Puram.61), even without naming the mountain, it is evident that the poets coisidered `Imaiyam’ or `Imayam’ was a single mountain situated north of Tamizhagam. `Imam’ means snow,

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