From what little we know, ancient Tamilakam did not produce treatises on the art and science of war. This is interesting because the 64 arts of living included several subjects on military matters. Perhaps these records remain below the waves in sunken cities.

But works from Sangam literature such as the Tolkappiyam, Ettutogai and Pattupattu yielded snippets. The epochal classics Silappathikaram and its twin, Manimegalai, also contain nuggets of information.

Before Aryan influence and the caste system, South India did not have a recognised warrior caste.

Kings recruited fighting men from among the hill tribes and semi-arid regions—the Maravars and Kalavars. Born of the harsh lands they inhabited, these men, and their women, exhibited a natural martial spirit and fearsome bearing.

The Kalavars (latter day Kallans) resorted to banditry to supplement their livelihood. The kings recruited these men, and their martial prowess served the common good.

Many of these mercenaries turned professional soldiers, and some attained high positions as ministers and military commanders in the Cheran, Cholan, and Pandyan kingdoms. They intermarried with royalty and in time found their own royal lineage.

Kings of ancient South India avoided war but not every chieftain was peace-loving. When hostilities broke out, there were several recurring reasons:

  • Insults to the king
  • Cattle lifting
  • Failure of vassals to pay tribute

As war was the last resort, according to extant literature, the king undertook several stages to avoid open conflict:

  • Conciliation:

He sent ambassadors to negotiate settlement. The ambassador represented and spoke on behalf of his king. An insult to the ambassador was an insult to the king. The king also used a network of spies to gather information to determine the true cause or person behind the dispute. The kings even recruited travelling bards and sages to broker agreements.

  • Compensation:

A king might offer or demand gifts as settlement. Often this involved substantial payments. Sometimes, the gift was symbolic, a token. Other times, it was a renewed oath of allegiance or promise of good conduct.

  • Ultimatum:

Served outside the public eye, the offending king receives one last chance to back down or face war. A king who resorted to war without delivering an ultimatum was not held in esteem.

When a king wished for war to expand his dominion, which became common with every passing generation, one can assume that much subterfuge took place to garner public support and outrage before declaring open warfare.

Over time, the age of seeking alliance and living under a patron sovereign’s protection gave way to forced subjugation.

When executing wars the combatants adhered to strict codes of conduct:

  • Soldiers retiring from the field were not killed.
  • Women (other than harlots) were not taken as war booty.
  • Old men, children, priests and skilled artisans were left unmolested.
  • Temples and graveyards were not desecrated.

If in the conqueror’s opinion the fallen king had proven himself treacherous or committed some heinous crime, the victor filled the loser’s city moat, razed the city walls and ploughed over the city. The forest encroached and history forgot the loser’s city, and often his name.

Next week: Ancient South Indian Military

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019


  1. There are two aspects that I admire:

    Firstly, instead of fearing or casting the hill tribes as barbaric, they were recruited to serve the people. The king knew how to spot, recognize and nurture talent.

    Secondly, even in war they uphold a degree of proper ethics.

    Sometimes I like to believe what Buddhism preached that the innate nature of man is good. Circumstances, poor counselling, bad influence , wrong choices brought harm and undesirable results.

    1. Hello Windy,

      I believe that good and bad are points in a continuum. All of us have positive and negative traits – some more than others. And the degree of our good and bad changes with life’s experiences and how much we humble ourselves, reflect and learn.

      Some people simply don’t learn. They continue to plunge into the deep. I believe many more people struggle and pull themselves up and slip. But they continue to persevere.

      The latter are on the right path. They move to higher realms and infinitely better lives. The former end up far worse than when they first started. But all is not lost for them. They get another chance and another – until they learn and progress.

      Peace, luv and hugz,

I like to hear your thoughts

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