The Kalabhra dynasty, also called Kalabra, Kalappirar or Kalvar were rulers of all or parts of Tamil region sometime between 3rd-century and 6th-century CE, after ancient dynasties of early Cholas, early Pandyas and Chera. Information about the origin and reign of the Kalabhras is uncertain and scarce. Their proposed roots vary from southeast region of modern Karnataka, Kalappalars of Vellala community, to Kalavar chieftains. The Kalabhra era is sometimes referred to as the "dark period" of Tamil history, and information about it is generally inferred from any mentions in the literature and inscriptions that are dated many centuries after their era ended.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Kalabhras were largely overthrown in the 5th-century, as new power centers led by Chalukyas and Pallavas arose. In contrast, Upinder Singh states that Shivaskandavarman rise in 4th-century, as evidenced by inscriptions, show Kalabhras were not in power at that time near rivers Penner and Vellar (close to Kaveri). The Kalabhras dynasty had ended for certain by the last quarter of 6th-century when Simhavishnu consolidated his rule up to the Kaveri river, south of which the Pandyas by then were already in power.
The origin and identity of the Kalabhras is uncertain. One theory states that they were probably hill tribes that rose out of obscurity to become a power in South India. Other theories state that they were probably from north of Tamil speaking region (modern southeast Karnataka), or on etymological grounds may have been the Kalappalars of Vellala community or the Kalavar chieftains.
According to Kulke and Rothermund, "nothing is known about the origins or tribal affiliations" of the Kalabhras, and their rule is called the "Kalabhra Interregnum". They are reviled in texts written centuries later, particularly by Tamil Hindu scholars. This has led to the inference that the Kalabhra rulers may have ended grants to Hindu temples and persecuted the Brahmins, and supported Buddhism and Jainism during their rule. However, the textual support for these conjectures is unclear. In support of their possible Jaina patronage, is the 10th-century Jain text on grammar which quotes a poem that some scholars attribute to Acchuta Vikkanta, a Kalabhra king. A non-Tamil language Buddhist text Vinayaviniccaya by Buddhadatta was composed in the 5th-century Tamil region. According to Shu Hikosaka, Buddhadatta in this Pali language text mentions "Putamarikalam in the Chola country". According to Karl Potter in , multiple scholars place the 5th-century Buddhadatta in the Chola kingdom near Kaveri river. According to Arunachalam, the Pali manuscripts of this text includes the name Acutavikkante Kalambakulanandane and therefore he states Acutavikkante must have been a Kalabhra king. However, the oldest surviving Vinayaviniccaya manuscript in Pali does not have that name, it has Kalabbha. This could be Kalabhra.Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: Buddhist philosophy from 360 to 650 AD
According to Burton Stein, the Kalabhra interregnum may represent a strong bid by non-peasant (tribal) warriors for power over the fertile plains of Tamil region with support from the heterodox Indian religious tradition (Buddhism and Jainism). This may have led to persecution of the peasants and urban elites of the Brahmanical religious traditions (Hinduism), who then worked to remove the Kalabhras and retaliated against their persecutors after returning to power. In contrast, R.S. Sharma states the opposite theory and considers "Kalabhras as an example for peasant revolt to the state" – with tribal elements, albeit around the 6th-century. All these theories are hampered by the fact that there is a "profound lack of evidence for the events or nature of Kalabhra rule", states Rebecca Darley.
A much-cited and discussed epigraphical evidence for the existence of Kalabhras is the 155-lines long 8th-century Velvikudi grant copper plate inscription of Nedunjadaiyan. It was created at least 200 years after the end of the Kalabhras. It opens with an invocation to Shiva and many lines in Sanskrit written in Grantha script, followed by Tamil written in Vatteluttu script. Loaded with myth and exaggerated legends, the inscription has the following few lines about a Kalabhra king and his relatively quick end by Pandya king Kadungon (lines 39–40, translated by H. Krishna Sastri):
L 39: Then a Kali king named Kalabhran took possession of the extensive earth driving away numberless great kings (adhiraja) and resumed the (village mentioned [Velvikudi]]) above.
L 40: After that, like the sun rising from the expansive ocean, the Pandyadhiraja named Kadungon, the lord of the South of sharp javelin who wore (the cloak of) dignity and was the leader of an army, sprang forth, occupied (the throne), spreading around him the brilliant splendour of (his) expanding rays (prowess), destroyed the kings of the extensive earth surrounded by the sea together with (their) strongholds and (their) fame, wielded the sceptre of justice and removed by his strength the evil destiny of the goddess of the earth whose splendour deserved to be under the shade of (his) white umbrella, by terminating by his strength the possession of her under others and establishing her in his own possession in the approved manner and destroyed the shining cities of kings who would not submit to him.
The inscription then recites the generations of Pandya and Chola kings who followed the victorious Kadungon, and finally to king Nedunjadaiyan who ruled in the year of the inscription (c. 770 CE). The copper plate records that a Brahmin complainant said that the land grant which was given to his ancestors before Kalabhras "ignobly seized it" has not been returned so far after numerous generations (lines 103–118). The king sought evidence of past ownership, which he was provided, and thereafter the king restored the grant to the complainant. The inscription ends in Sanskrit with verses from Vaishnavism and Shaivism traditions of Hinduism, followed by the engraver's colophon. This inscription has been assumed to be an accurate historical record by some scholars, interpreted to affirm that Kalabhras existed for some period, they conquered some or all parts of the Pandyan kingdom, they seized lands belonging to Brahmin(s) and were defeated by the Pandyas (Pāṇṭiya). Some scholars dismiss the Kalabhra interregnum as for all practical purposes "a myth".
The passing mention of Kalabhras in some records have led to a number of theories for the identity of the Kalabhras. T. A. Gopinath Rao equates them with the Mutharaiyars and an inscription in the Vaikunta Perumal temple at Kanchi mentions a Mutharaiyar named as Kalavara-Kalvan. M. Raghava Iyengar, on the other hand, identifies the Kalabhras with the Vellala Kalappalars. Based on the Velvikudi plates inscription above, R. Narasimhacharya and V. Venkayya believe them to have been Karnatas. K. R. Venkatarama Iyer suggests that the Kalabhras might have emerged from the Bangalore-Chittoor region early in the 5th century.
A study of unearthed coins of that era show on the two sides of each coin, a range of Brahmi inscriptions in Prakrit language and images. Typically the coins show tiger, elephant, horse and fish icons. In "rare specimens", states Gupta, one finds an image of a seated Jain muni (monk) or the Buddhist Manjushri, or a short sword or the Swastika symbol. Other coins of this era have images of Hindu gods and goddesses with inscriptions in Tamil or Prakrit. According to Gupta, these use of Prakrit language on the coins may reflect the non-Tamil origins of Kalabhra. Other scholars are skeptical of the coin's dating and interpretation, the origins of the coins and the impact of trade, and the rareness of Jain and Buddhist iconography.
According to Timothy Power – a scholar of Middle East and Mediterranean archaeology and history, coins and texts attest to an on-going trade between the Mediterranean, Middle East and South Indian ports such as Muziris until the 5th-century, but then suddenly there is no mention of Indian ports in the Mediterranean texts around mid-6th century. This "dark age" may be related to the conquest of Kalabhras over Tamilakam in the 6th-century. This period of violence and the closure of trading ports probably lasted about 75 years, around the first half of the 6th-century.
The religious affiliation of Kalabhras is unknown. According to Peterson theory, the Kalabhras likely patronised the Sramana religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikas). More particularly, states Peterson, the Kalabhras may have supported the Digambara sect of Jainism and that they "supposedly" suppressed the Vedic-Brahmanical traditions that were well established in the Tamil regions by the 3rd-century CE. During their patronage, states Peterson, Jain scholars formed an academy in Madurai and wrote texts in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, and Tamil. These include classics such as the Tirukkural, the Tamil epics, long and short devotional poems. Some of these texts "paint a picture of dialogue and mutual tolerance" between the various Indian religions in the Tamil country, according to Peterson. Other scholars disagree that these are Jain texts, or that the authors of these texts that praise the Vedas, the Brahmins, Hindu gods and goddesses were Jains.
According to F. E. Hardy, the palace ceremony of Kalabhras was dedicated to a Vishnu or Mayon (Krishna) temple. This supports the theory that they may have been Shaivite and Vaishnavite.[full citation needed] Their inscriptions include the Hindu god Murugan. King Achyuta worshipped Vaishnava Tirumal.[full citation needed]
It is unknown as to how the Kalabhras rule ended. However, a multitude of evidence affirms that Simhavishnu – the Pallava king had united the Tamil regions, removed Kalabhras and others, consolidated his kingdom from south of the Krishna river and up to the Kaveri river by c. 575 CE. To the south of Kaveri, the Pandyas were already in power at that time. This is attested by the numerous inscriptions dated from the 6th-century and thereafter, as well as the Chinese language memoirs of the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang who visited the Tamil region about 640 CE along with other parts of the Indian subcontinent. Xuanzang describes a peaceful cosmopolitan region where some 100 monasteries with 10,000 monks were studying Mahayana Buddhism, Kanchipuram was hosting learned debates with hundreds of heretic Deva (Hindu) temples but no Buddhist institutions. Xuangzang makes no mention of the Kalabhras.