Cleopatra and Cheraman Perumal

Cheraman Perumal was the last King of the Chera dynasty and popular legend tells how he divided his country among his relatives and dependents, converted to Islam and left for Mecca. He is said to have died there. However a story that I heard from Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan of the Travancore Royal Family merits a mention and finding little online, I decided to post it on my blog.

The story is essentially not really about Cheraman Perumal but about his departure from Kerala which was the result of something hitherto unknown. The general consensus, I understand, is that he left sometime in the 9th or 10th century AD. However the roots of the story go back a millennium into history far away to Egypt to the times of Queen Cleopatra.

Cleopatra-Coin

Cleopatra

Octavius Caesar decided to attack Cleopatra’s kingdom which was defended by the famous Mark Anthony. The reason was that Cleopatra had a son by Julius Caesar, Caesorian, who Octavius feared could claim the throne of Rome as his father’s heir. Collecting a large army he attacked Cleopatra’s country and although Mark Anthony fought valiantly, he knew the end was near. For the Queen, the safety of her son was paramount and she decided to send him somewhere safe.

It is a historical fact that the Cheras of Kerala traded extensively with Egypt, China etc. Historians also concur that Cleopatra decided to send her son for safety to Kerala in India. Obviously she was on very good terms with the Chera king and I am told that members of the Travancore Royal family have indeed heard vague stories from their elders about letters exchanged between Cleopatra and their contemporary ancestor. Anyhow the story gets a little hazy here with two views emerging. The historian George Woodcock says that Caesarion did indeed manage to escape with a large treasure and was granted asylum in Kerala. Lucy Hughes-Hallet in her book “Cleopatra: histories, dreams, distortions” says that the Queen herself intended to flee to India but fell ill and therefore ordered her son to leave without her. The other view is that her son did indeed depart for the safety of the Chera country but was ambushed by Octavius en route and killed. In any case, whether or not he reached Kerala and survived is not known clearly, but the story assumes that he arrived in Kerala and was received as a honored guest of the royal family.

Rukmini Varma

In fact, such was the respect and importance of this guest that there is said to have been a matrimonial alliance between the Egyptian prince and a Chera Princess. When I first heard this, it seemed extremely incredible. However it cannot be dismissed as impossible. When Rukmini Varma of the Travancore Royal family, an artist, dancer and writer with a keen interest in Egyptology heard of this story for the first time, she visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace where certain relics are said to be preserved.She saw over there, and I presume it is still there, an important Egyptian statue of a King with his arms crossed, similar to the statues placed in the Pyramids of the ancient rulers, along with other artifacts. These had been unearthed many years ago from Quilon and remained for long in the custody of the royal family. These could simply be gifts from Egyptian rulers to their trade partner, the Chera king but anyhow the story states that the prince established a connection with the Cheras. Just like the royalties of so many places later were given asylum in Travancore, it is said the Egyptian prince too was welcomed.

The story picks up centuries later with the legendary Cheraman Perumal who ruled his kingdom well for many years from near Cochin. The story about this time notes the two families of the Travancore and Cochin royalties as separate. They were directly related to the Perumal. It was now that the Perumal decided to go looking for his lost relatives in Egypt and proclaimed that he was going to cross the ocean and visit the lands beyond. By now Brahminical hinduism seems to have secured a hold over the region and the Brahmins declared that the king would sustain “bhrashthu” or impurity due to this from which he would never be able to redeem himself. The king however had made up his mind and departed with the Arab traders who regularly travelled the way. Perhaps it was because these traders were Muslims that the king when he left was also considered a Muslim by the Brahmins of his country. The story of an Islamic conversion may have gained currency due to this, or perhaps to travel abroad the king deliberately converted. Anyhow, Cheraman Perumal left and we hear the last of him.

DSC00859

Cheraman Perumal

When he died many years later news eventually reached Kerala. The Rajahs of Cochin ignored the news but the Travancore Rajah decided to perform the “pula” ceremonies. The Brahmins were astounded and declared that the Travancore family having maintained pula and performed funeral obsequies for a converted, impure relative, were diminished in caste themselves now. They had no right to wear the poonool after this and the only way to redeem themselves was through expensive Danoms and associated ceremonies such as Hiranyagarbham. Thus began the tradition of every Travancore Maharajah performing this ceremony to “purify” himself. It may be noted that the Travancore State Manual, and I think, Prof. Sreedhara Menon also, records the story of a member of the royal family performing funeral ceremonies for Cheraman Perumal.

Thus this story traces the arrival of Cleopatra’s son in Kerala and then the departure of a possible descendant, the Perumal, who left to seek his lost relations in Egypt. Historians and scholars on Cleopatra and her times are divided on whether her son reached Kerala or not, but both possibilities may be weighed and studied. This new dimension of the Cheraman Perumal story is also interesting.

Obviously discrepancies may appear in the story. I have merely stated here yet another legend and story connected to Cheraman Perumal. Whether or not it is true is for real historians to determine.

(I am thankful to Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan for introducing me to this story. The picture of Cheraman Perumal is taken from Shungunny Menon’s “History of Travancore” published in the 19th century. For the photograph of Mrs. Rukmini Varma, I thank her son, Mr. Jay Varma. Rukmini Varma is the granddaughter of HH Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and was born in 1940 as Princess Bharani Thirunal Rukmini Bayi. In 1949 her family shifted to Bangalore where she is now based. Had the princely order continued, she would today have held the titles of “Attingal Elaya Thampuran” and Junior Maharani of Travancore.)

21 Responses to “Cleopatra and Cheraman Perumal”

  1. Ah what an amazing piece of research, whoever did it. This is a good blog because of its novel thoughts. I will follow this blog from today. Great job. Keep it going. See if you can lay your hands on a large area of India.

    • manupillai Says:

      Thank you for the kind comment. This is merely a writeup on the original research done by other scholars. The story was related to me by Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan of Bangalore, whose sister Rukmini Varma studied this matter for some time. Thanks again.

  2. R.Nandakumar Says:

    Dear Manu,
    Your style of writing is good and readable. And you truthfully doesn’t forget your sources also. But the periods of Chera King and Cleopatra does not corroborate. Fables and myths can never be actual history though they may light torch to historians. The pre history of Venad spans over Ayvels, cheras and Pandyas. Do not forget the chittarachars also who were the rulers of small provincialities. It is true that there was trade in ancient days with Arabs. It may be true that one chera ruler might have sustained ‘brasht’ by travelling across sea. But linking with Cleopatra is not justifiable by time lines.
    Your interest in history is appreciated.
    Please go on with your fine writings

    With best regards
    R.Nandakumar

    • manupillai Says:

      thank you for the comment sir. My understanding is that the Cheras were a ruling dynasty during Cleopatra’s time. In any case yes this could certainly be some fanciful legend. The story interested me which is why I published it, taking care and, hopefully, succeeding, in presenting it as a possible suggestion rather than real factual history. Thank you for your kind compliments as well.

  3. Manu M Says:

    Dear Friend,
    I have read your research report its wonderful, i think the real incident behind Cheraman Thapuran was beacuse of the attack from the Tippu Empire itself so the Dinasty of ours need to split off actually my ancestors cannot with stand in front of mighty guns of king Tippu.
    this is main reason behind king Perumals fleeing …..
    actually Cheraman Perumal is my Great Gtreat Grand Father.. Manu.M

    • manupillai Says:

      How interesting to note that Cheraman Perumal was your great great grandfather. Also such a pity that that your ancestors could not “with stand in front of the mighty guns of king Tippu”. I hope your present condition is more agreeable and satisfactory. Now, if you spam my blog with any more comments I shall block you. Have a nice day.

  4. k.seshasayee Says:

    While I was travelling from cochin way back in 1996, I was told by fellow passenger who is over 90 Yers of age, told me that Cheran perumaal left Kerala for Mecca not to meet Prophet Mohamed. He came to know that roughly 360 Idols of Shiva which were in the Temple Kabha was to be damaged by mohamed. In order to save the Idols from destruction Cheran Perumal a True Shivite visited Kabaha. If he was converted to islam is created news by musalmans of that time.

    • manupillai Says:

      I have also heard of this story of the presence of Lingams in the holy cities of the the muslims. However this is the first time I am hearing of this angle to the Cheraman Perumal story. Thank you.

  5. Hi There
    I would like to know who is the great great grandson of cheraman thampuran and how he/she traced the ancestry!!!!!!!!

    You will be followed by the whole world on your invention

  6. hi..

    you state – The historian George Woodcock says that Caesarion did indeed manage to escape with a large treasure and was granted asylum in Kerala.

    I did pick up his book The Greeks in India but could not find that reference. can you give me more details on this? There is a story of caesorian going to Kashmir in other works, but Kerala is not mentioned.

    • Hello,
      I do not quite remember which book I found the reference in but it was through google books I think. I had taken snapshots of the pages but since they are all in my computer back home and I am away for a while I cannot access them at the moment. But I will try to locate the source and let you know.

  7. that is really interesting, may not be imagination in total, this story brings another dimension to Perumal legend. now we can imagine, why people dont believe in Ramayana though a written document exists by Valmiki long long ago!

  8. Indu Nair Says:

    This is interesting… I remember taking up a book as I was waiting for an appointment in which there was an article about Cleopatra’s connection with Kerala. Could not locate that book later. Came to this thread accidentally… It is well written.. Congratulations!

  9. Brahmanyan Says:

    Cheraman Jama Masjid in Kodungallur is the oldest and perhaps the first Mosque in India built around 612 AD. It is said the last Cheraman Peruman had gone to Mecca to learn about Islam and became a Muslim there. And, this last Cheraman became sick while returning to India and died in the port town of Salalah(Oman). This has also been confirmed by the present descendant of Cheraman family Raja Valiathampuran of Kodungallur in an interview. Interestingly I was posted in Salalah (Oman) for 18 months during my eight years’ stay in Sultanate of Oman. The locals and my Malabar friends used to say there was “a kabarastan of Malabari King” in Salalah. Now I feel sorry that I did not care visit the place during that time.

  10. Wonderful Post..and is really interesting…….Good Research………
    Well Done :)

  11. Travancore Royal Family gives us so much of proud that they were close to the Royal family of England and now the connection with Cleopatra’s son. I still keep the picture of a beautiful chair on which Queen Victoria proudly sit. This chair was send by Travancore Royal Family to the royal family of England.

    Can I ever think of seeing that our people will change to bring back our royal family to a status by which the eligible queen to be treated like the queen of England.

    Can I also request some one to give more clarity on the study done about Cleopatra and Chera Kingdom.

  12. Vijay Nair Says:

    Hello,

    Nice details. Some doubts and hearsay which need more research.

    a) I believe Cheraman Perumal (Rajasekhara Varman Perumal) lived in 8th Century AD. (Refer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Later_Chera_dynasty )

    b) The first mosque inKerala was built in AD629 or somewhat that time. DIfference of about 200 years. Some part of history tells that Cheraman Perumal gave Cheraman Malik a letter to be presented to the then Kerala Rulers for granting permission for building mosque. This can’t be correct if the timing is correct. (Refer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheraman_Perumal )

    c) Another saying, which I think may be correct, goes like this.

    When Islam started and was propogated in India by the then traders, The then King who ruled at that time gave place for worship inthenthen Sive temple. The Siva lingam which was in the present mosque was moved to the nearby Thiruvanchikulam Temple outskirts (Now known as Kottaratthil Thevar).

    Also, as per old saying, Cheraman Perumal and Sundaramoorthy Nayanar (Two great Shivaite followers) were taken to the Kailas by Lord Siva on white Horse and white Elephant (General belief is this occured in the place in Kottappuram (Chearman Parambu) where relics and remains are still seen).

    Thiruvanchikulam Temple has two idols for Sundaramoorthy Nayanar and Cheraman Perumal, which are worshipped and have daily poojas.

  13. I wish and hope the present day Government of Kerala Institute a Scientific Study of the Concerned Period of the Chera History and find out the true Account of the Cleopatra’s son’s travel to kerala. We should not live on hearsays and conjuctures. Should we?

    The above Article is very well written and rouses curiosity for finding the truth through greater research.

  14. gowri buvaneshwari Says:

    It is a wonderful work i like to know more pls. keep inform me

  15. Interesting. Im inclined to think the king may have known abt his past ancestors and could have set out to take revenge on some people which is why he divided up his kingdom and spent time in isolation before leaving.

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