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.
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.
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.
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.)