(Contents courtesy The Life & History of Kshatriya Samanthas by Shri. R V Erady)
Samanthas were the erstwhile rulers of small Nadus (Places) under the Chera Dynasty in the southern Indian State of Kerala.
Very little is known about the history of Malabar prior to 800 A.D. as it was a marshy forest land landlocked between Arabian sea and the Western Ghats, very scarcely populated and of no interest to the various monarchs for territorial expansion. Some burial monuments called topicallus found during archaeological excavations indicate that the land was inhabited by some tribals, who had a custom to bury their chieftains. Early residents had sea trading links with the Romans, Arabian and Chinese countries through the ports of Tundi, Muziris, and Vanchi.
During the early sangam period, we come across three ruling powers namely the Ay kingdom in the south, rulers of Ezhimala in the north, and the early Chera rulers of Tamilakam. Historical evidence is lacking to know the extent of these kingdoms, and the socio-political systems prevalent during their reign.
Till 500 A.D. the people of Malabar did not follow any specific religion except some Dravidian cults and forms of worship. Ancestor worship and the worship of Goddess Kotowai (Dravidian Durga Bhagawati) was common. The land was of no interest to the Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, Badami kings, Pallavas or Pandyas although wars were fought over some portions of land.
During 500-800 A.D. or so, the Jainese, Buddhist and Aryan missionaries started coming to this area from the deccan through Mysore, and Kalinga route and spread their religion. According to legends and tradition, Sage Parasuram Bhargava established 32 Brahmin settlements, and the advent of these brahmins brought significant changes in the society, and they claimed to be the owners of the entire land.
The Aryan Brahmins had a well organised community life in the form of semi-autonomous temple centred gramas (villages). They were conversant with superior irrigation systems and agricultural technology. They exploited the local inhabitants and tillers of the land by prescribing religious rituals and wrath of gods in case of non-adherence of practices suited to their advantage. Society was also divided across caste lines and new castes sprung up amongst a hitherto casteless society. The Aryan Brahmins also championed the rise of an independent Chera kingdom called the later Kulasekhara Dynasty having its capital at Mahodayapuram. However, the evolution of this Chera kingdom took a different form in Kerala than its counterparts at Thamilakam. It was an Oligarchy of Kerala Brahmins within a ritual monarchy and governance by the people of local origin.
The kshatriyas are usually described as belonging to the Surya vansa (solar race) or Chandra vansa (lunar race) or Agnivansa (fire race). The first two follow the puranic order and the third is a device adopted to absorb the new rulers into the field of this caste. The Kshatriyas of Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas, Pallavas, Kadambas, Musakas, Ays do not imply a north Indian origin to them. In all probability, the Brahmins who came here followed the policy of treating the traditional ruling classes as Kshatriyas and providing them with legends connecting their families with classical mythological heroes, and inducing them to perform vedic sacrifices. In this manner, the Cheras recieved the status of Kshatriyas of Suryavamsa. The court astronomer, Sankaranarayana refers the Kulasekhara dynasty as 'Ravikula' and 'Diptasumsivansa'.
Initially, due to close co-operation of the ruling class and Brahmanas, the recruitment of traditional rulers into the Aryan fold took place by taking vows to protect cows, Brahmanas and uphold Dharma. Gradually, when the kings began to take pride in their lineage, this reflected a new status in society which they had aquired and various class divisions started. Different vedic practices prescribed by the Nalutalis and 32 aryan settlements had to be followed before the ruling class could get their sthanam rights. This also gave birth to caste heirarachies as defined by the brahmins according to heredity origins in the matrilinear society.
The Cheras belonging to the later Kulasekhara dynasty (800-1122 A.D.) ruled Kerala from Mahodayapuram or Kodungallur.
According to the latest genealogy and chronology as accepted by historians, notably M.G.S. Narayanan, the period of their rule is summarised below:
No history of Samanthas can start without reference to the partition of Kerala by the legendary Cheraman Perumal belonging to the above dynasty. Although legends are full of contradictions and inserted stories, it is generally believed that the last of these Chera kings, in all probability, Rama Kulasekhara abdicated his kingdom and partitioned it to 17 principalities.
The incident first finds its mention in Keralopatti which says that the last perumal developed a sense of guilt for having appropriated for a long time the land of Kerala which really belonged to the brahmans through the gift of Parasurama. In this context, the anxiety of Rama kulasekhara, in order to please the brahmanas and make amends for having offended them, could be reflected in the 'prayaschitta' which he offered to them during his 13th year of reign. The Keralopatti further adds that the last perumal ordered the execution of "Patamel Nayar" (supreme commander of his forces)on the basis of ' womens words' and on regretting his action later, he felt that he had committed an unpardonable sin for which there was no pardon in Hindu scriptures. As a result, he embraced Islam and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Although the above legend has no historical base , there are many evidences which corroborate the above story. According to the belief prevalent amongst Hindus and Muslims, as recorded by Sheikh Zeinuddin, during the middle of 16th century, the last Perumal sent some messengers from Arabia to preach Islam in Kerala and they established 10 mosques in different parts of the kingdom, including one at Matayi. The date inscribed in the foundation of this mosque is Hijra 518 corresponding to 1124A.D. i.e. two years after the disappearance of the last perumal from the political scene. With the help of other epigraphical evidence from Kulattunatu and Kannapuram, few other details have been corroborated regarding the above tradition.
The Keralopatti gives a detailed account of the Cheraman kingdom of 160 katam between Putupattanam in the north and Kanerri in the south being partitioned into 17 principalities in the following order of importance.
Besides these seven major principalities, five minor principalities called Kollam (principally north Kollam or Pantalayani kollam) with 3 katam land, Pantalam with 5 katam land between Venatu and Onanatu, Parappunatu swarupam, Vettam and Kayamkulathu Cerai swarupam are also mentioned. From another list, we hear Ravananatu, Tirumanasserinadu, Nedunganatu, Venganatu, and muringanatu. This makes a total of 17 kingdoms and with Tulunadu, they are stated to be total 18 traditional Kingdoms of Kerala.
The above list does not include the names of Nedumpurayurnatu, Kalkarainatu, Venpalinatu, Kilmalainatu, Nanrulainatu, and Munninatu which are also mentioned in some of the Chera inscriptions. However, these are minor discrepancies, and there may have been omissions, alterations, and substitutions at a later stage depending on the polity at that stage. There was an unwritten code of Maryada (custom)and Acharam (convention) which played the part of the constitution safeguarding the boundaries of the separate kingdoms, guiding the relations between them and promoting understanding amongst them in the fields of religion and culture.
The rulers of Ernadu, Valluvunatu and Nedunganadu came to be known as SAMANTHA RULERS as they belonged to a sub clan of non-kshatriya origin following the matrilinear heredity pattern.
Although many historians disbelieve the grant of power to the zamorin with the gift of the famous sword and the dictum "Kollum Kollayum" due to confusion in the dates of the various chronicles, recent epigraphic evidences have established the truth of the above legend. The Granthavari of the zamorins of Calicut and an old malayalam sloka discovered by Ulloor S Parameshwara ayyar from ancient manuscripts refer to the above gift . The broken parts of a sword, kept in a copper sheath, are still worshipped in the palace bhagavati temple of the Zamorin at Thiruvachira. Barbosa, in the beginning of 16th century, mentions this sword amongst one of the royal emblems taken out in ceremonial processions. According to Calicut granthavari dated 14th minam 845 M.E. this sword was burnt in a surprise attack by the Dutch forces at Crangannore, while the zamorin was camping with Velutta Nambiar. The present sword has been made out of the fragments of the old sword and kept in a fully sealed sheath and can be inspected Ref;Kunhikuttan thampan--Keralam 103-104
After the central administration of the Perumals came to an end, political fragmentation took place, and this gave rise to the emergence of 'swaroopams" or naduvazhis, which were autonomous territories. These were known by the original locality of the joint family where they were located. The senior-most member of the joint family became the ruler of the swaroopam and known as the moothakur. However, as the families grew large in number, there emerged, junior families known as ilayamkoors which had the gradation, rights and privileges divided amongst themselves.
Some of the swaroopams, in the course of time, developed into nadus, covering vast territories. A nadu consisted of several urs or settled villages. The rulers of such nadus thus became the authority of power with the support of the nair militia, their resources, and traditional elite. The Brahmins also extended their support to such local rulers after obtaining a pledge from them by performing a yagna that they will protect brahmins, cows and uphold dharma. It is these naduvazhis belonging to the Samantha kshatriya class who came to be known as Samantha rulers who claim themselves as belonging to "agnikula race' a status conferred to them with the ritual initiation of the brahmins .This class of kshatriya community perhaps find their origin from the sambandham of aryan kshatriyas with the local non aryan women, and their progeny, in the matrilenear form of society.