The reign of Ravi Varma Kulaśēkhara,1299 AD

The reign of Ravi Varma Kulaśēkhara,  Part the First

Legend tells us that, on the eve of the future emperor’s accession to the throne of Vēṇāṭ in 1299, he heard an aśarīri or disembodied voice from the heavens, which proclaimed that there were three paths his reign could take. He could gamble once (1), and make a name for himself, but let his heirs fade into obscurity for centuries. He could choose not to gamble, and leave a stable but unimpressive realm to his progeny. Or he could gamble thrice, and go down in history as the father of a mighty empire. The naturally ambitious man evidently chose this third option, or so they say, for there was no art at which he excelled more than that of propaganda.

In 1311 when the armies of the Turk of Delhi marched out of the Deccan in triumph, Ravi Varma King of Vēṇāṭ gambled for the first time. The death of his former suzerain, Māravarman Kulaśēkhara Pāṇṭyan had resulted in the princes of the Pāṇṭyas tearing their realm apart through civil strife. In the midst of all this, Malik Kafur, the slave general of the Sultan of Delhi, had mounted a devastating invasion, subjugating the Southern Kingdoms and devastating the Pāṇṭyan capital of Madurai. With the Tamil country reeling from these multiple blows, Ravi Varma mounted an invasion and in a dazzling campaign, quickly subjugated the Pāṇṭyas and Cōlas (the latter had been reduced to a small tributary state by the former decades ago). However, after celebrating his Imperial coronation in great splendour, he realised just how many problems he now had to face.

This had only been the first gamble, and it was obvious why it would not be able to last. Historically, Cēra Kings had gone on occasional rampages in the East and established suzerainty over their neighbours, but this had always proved ephemeral in comparison to the long periods of Cōla and Pāṇṭya hegemony because the West just did not have the demographic advantages required to maintain military dominance and keep the others in line. Ravi Varma was in an even worse position than his forefathers, as he was just the ruler of Vēṇāṭ and not the whole Cēra Kingdom, much of which had been divided amongst the generals and retainers of his ancestor Rāma Varma. The descendants of these men considered themselves independent monarchs, and were only now under Ravi Varma’s suzerainty because of his military feats. Because of this lack of a personal power base, he understood that the Pāṇṭyas would only bow to him for as long as his army was in the field and theirs had not recovered. However, the emperor was far too ambitious a man to accept this reality that was staring him in the face, and decided that, instead of subjugating the Pāṇṭya, he would become the Pāṇṭya. He resolved to make himself lord of all Tamilakam in the same way that he was ruler of Vēṇāṭ.

Thus, Ravi Varma issued a proclamation that denounced the Pāṇṭyas as weak and unfit to rule, for they had fought amongst themselves without protecting their people from the depredations of the Turk. Having stirred up popular sentiment by having this declaration read aloud all over the country, he declared the Pāṇṭya and the largely irrelevant Cōla deposed, with their crowns and personal estates escheating to the Imperial throne. For the first time in history, one man was the Cēra, the Cōla and the Pāṇṭya. However, this bold action was to bring about an unlooked-for consequence, as although the Emperor had had most of the Tamil princes arrested early on, the pretender Sundara Pāṇṭyan had fled to the court of his patron in the North, the Hoysala Vīra Ballala III. This prince attacked Ravi Varma’s actions as illegal and without precedent, attempting to create unrest amongst his former subjects whilst the Hoysala prepared an invasion force. The pretender’s attempts to forment rebellion in 1313 were largely unsuccessful, as the Cēra propaganda machine had managed to alienate many of the people from their erstwhile rulers. A guerrilla band led personally by Sundara Pāṇṭyan did cause some trouble, but the emperor detailed his son Vīra Mārtāṇḍa Varma to hunt him down, with a view to building up the Crown Prince’s image so that he would be a viable successor.

However, the threat of foreign invasion was much more serious, and Ravi Varma immediately took the diplomatic initiative. Allying with Pratāparudra, the Kākātiya King of the Andhras, he mobilised his forces for what looked like a co-ordinated invasion attempt. In fact, this was really a bluff, as actually attempting to fight a war would probably have caused his fragile empire to rupture. This was his second great gamble, and it paid off, as a tense confrontation on the banks of the Palar River resulted in the Hoysala losing his nerve and retreating due to reports of Andhra movements in the North. After negotiating a peace treaty, the Emperor proceeded at the head of his army to his capital of Madurai, whilst the propaganda ministry worked tirelessly to portray Vīra Ballala as a coward and a puppet of the Turk (his own son had been taken as a hostage to Delhi) who was attempting to set up yet another useless puppet in the Tamil country. Having dealt with the immediate threats to his rule, Ravi Varma realised that he would have to prepare for the imminent invasion from Delhi. Using the confiscated wealth of his enemies, he ordered the construction of a network of border forts, stretching along the length of the Palar and also further South to provide defence in depth. Then, with a display of (also confiscated) Pāṇṭyan naval might, he forced the King of Jaffna, who had been a de facto Pāṇṭyan vassal but had obtained independence during the civil war, to recognise him as overlord and contribute troops for the coming campaign. Understanding that this really would not be enough, he consolidated his alliance with the Kākātiya by having his son Vīra Mārtāṇḍa marry one of the former’s daughters (2).

He then resolved to kill two birds with one stone by introducing far-reaching military reforms. These were intended both to provide the army that he would need to resist the invasion and to further entrench his rule by building on the common Tamil identity. The empire was divided into a number of military districts with roughly (a census was to be carried out later for greater precision) equal populations. Each district was to provide a number of units for a standing army, as well as maintain several local militia formations. All physically fit young men were required to spend one year training and two years integrated into a regular army formation (from a different part of the empire) from the ages of 16-19. After that, they would be sent home to join their local militia unit, whose main responsibility would be to deal with provincial disturbances but also supplement the regular army where necessary. The exceptions to this system were the Untouchables and Brahmins, both for political reasons, and potential officer candidates, who were required to pass some tests and prove they were from a good family before shadowing a regular officer for a couple of years. After that, they would be sent to a special “officer Kaḷari” for a year-long intensive course presided over by experienced and loyal Cēra soldiers.

These reforms would hopefully foster loyalty to the Emperor rather than local allegiances, particularly amongst young men of noble and formerly “sovereign” families. They were intended to lay the groundwork for administrative reforms that would take power away from troublesome vassal lords, the most prominent of whom were the proud men of Malabar. Unfortunately, there was never a chance that the new army would be ready in time to face the onslaught of Khusrav Khan in 1314…

The Madurai Sultanate or the Ma'bar Sultanate was a short lived independent Muslim kingdom based in the city of Madurai in Tamil NaduIndia during the 14th century CE. It lasted from 1335 until 1378. It came into existence following the decline of the Second Pandyan empire and was destroyed by the rise of Vijayanagar.


In the early 14th Century, South India was subjected to repeated invasions by armies of the Delhi Sultanate. There were three separate invasions within a period of fifteen years. The first invasion was that of Malik Kafur in 1311 CE which sacked Madurai. Following this there were two more expeditions from the Delhi Sultanate - the second in 1314 CE led by Khusrav Khan and the third in 1323 CE by Ulugh Khan. These invasions shattered the Pandyan empire beyond revival. While the previous invasions were content with plunder, Ulugh Khan annexed the former Pandyan dominions to the Delhi Sultanate as the province of Ma'bar. Most of South India came under the Delhi's rule and was divided into five provinces - Devagiri, Tiling, KampiliDorasamudra and Ma'bar.
In 1325, Ulugh Khan acceded to the throne in Delhi as Muhammad bin Tughluq. His plans for invadingPersia and Khorasan, bankrupted his treasury and led to the issuing of token currency. This led to counterfeiting and further worsened the sultanate's finances. He was unable to pay his huge army and the soldiers stationed in distant provinces revolted. The first province to rebel was Bengal and Ma'bar soon followed. The Governor of Ma'bar, Jalaluddin Ahsan Khan declared independence and set up the Madurai Sultanate. The exact year of founding of the Madurai Sultanate is not clear. Numismatic evidence points to 1335 CE as the founding year. The Persian historian Firishta however places the year of Ma'bar's revolt as 1340 CE.

Jalal-ud-Din Ahsan Khan

Jalaluddin Ahsan Khan declared independence from Delhi Sultanate around 1335 CE. His daughter was married to the historian Ibn Battutaand his son Ibrahim was the purse bearer of Muhammad bin Tughluq. When Tughluq heard of Jalaluddin's rebellion he had Ibrahim killed in retaliation. Jalaluddin is variously referred to as "Syed", "Hasan" or "Hussun" by the historians Firishta and Ziauddin Barani. Tughluq tried to conquer Ma'bar back in 1337 CE. But he fell ill at Bidar on the way to Ma'bar and had to return to Deogiri. His army was defeated by Jalaluddin. Jalaluddin was killed by one of his nobles in 1340 CE.

Ala-ud-Din Udauji and Qutb-ud-Din Firuz

Coin of Ala-ud-Din Udauji, Madurai Sultanate, 1339 AD.

After Jalaluddin's murder, Ala-ud-Din Udauji Shah took power in 1340 CE. He too was soon assassinated during a battle with Hindu armies. He was succeeded by his son in law Qutb-ud-Din Firuz Shah, who in turn was assassinated within forty days of taking power. Qutbuddin's killer Ghiyas-ud-din Dhamagani took over as Sultan in 1340.

Ghiyas-ud-Din Muhammad Damghani

Ghiyasuddin was originally a soldier in the service of Muhammad bin Tughluq. He consolidated his position by marrying a daughter of Jalaluddin Ahsan Khan. Ibn Battuta visited Madurai during his reign and wrote about Ghiyasuddin's atrocities. Ibn Battuta writes about how the sultan impaled Hindus alive and cut the throats of women and children. An appalled Battuta wrote that it was for this reason that God fastened Ghiyasuddin's death.

Ghiyasuddin was defeated by the Hoysala king Veera Ballala III at first, but later managed to capture and kill Ballala in 1343 CE during the siege of Kannanur Koppam. Ghiyasuddin captured Balalla, robbed him of his wealth, had him killed and his stuffed body displayed on the walls of Madurai. Ghiyasuddin died in 1344 CE from the after effects of an aphrodisiac.


Coin of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Damghan Shah, Sultan of Madurai Sultanate, 1344 to 1357 CE.
Ghiyasuddin was succeeded by his nephew Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Damghan Shah who killed all the officers likely to disturb his possession of the throne. Between 1344 and 1357 CE, the Madurai Sultanate went into a decline due to infighting and the rise of Vijayanagar in the North. This is inferred by the lack of any coinage issued during this period. However coins from 1358 to 1378 bearing the names of three Madurai Sultans - Shams-ud-Din Adil Shah, Fakhr-ud-Din Mubarak Shah and Ala-ud-Din Sikandar Shah - have been found. This indicates an interruption of the Muslim power during 1344-57 CE and a brief revival during 1357-78 CE.


The Vijayanagar empire under Bukka Raya I made a series of efforts to conquer Southern India. There were a series of Vijayanagar invasions in the middle of the fourteenth century which succeeded in initially restricting and finally ending the Madurai Sultanate's rule over South India. Vijayanagar's armies were led by Bukka's son Kumara Kampanna Udaiyar. Kampanna first subdued the Sampuvarayars in present day Kanchipuram district and then conquered Madurai. Kampanna's invasion has been chronicled in the Sanskrit epic poem Madhura Vijayam (The conquest of Madurai) or Vira Kamparaya Charithram (History of Kampanna) written by Kampanna's wife Gangadevi. Kampanna's victory is symbolised by the restoration of Srirangam temple to its old glory in 1371 CE. Vijayanagar formally declared Madurai to be its possession during Harihara II's rule in 1378 CE .