The Kalabhra dynasty (Tamil: களப்பிரர் Kalappirar || Kallar) ruled over the entire ancient Tamil country between the 3rd and the 7th century in an era of South Indian history called the Kalabhra interregnum. The Kalabhras, displaced the kingdoms of the early Cholas, early Pandyas and Chera dynasties by a revolt.
Information about the origin and reign of the Kalabhras is scarce. They left neither artifacts nor monuments, and the only sources of information are scattered mentions in Sangam, Buddhist and Jain literature. The Kalabhras were defeated by the joint efforts of the Pallavas, Pandyas and Chalukyas of Badami.
The origin and identity of the Kalabhras is uncertain. They are generally believed to have been hill tribes that rose out of obscurity to become a power in South India. Their kings were likely followers of Buddhism and Jainism. Some of their coins feature images such as a seated Jain monk, the Buddhist Bodhisattva Manjushri, or the Swastika symbol, with Prakrit inscriptions in Brahmi script on the other side. Later specimens dating towards the 6th century employ both Prakrit and Tamil in their inscriptions and feature images of Hindu gods and goddesses.
A number of theories have been advanced for the identity of the Kalabhras. T. A. Gopinath Rao equates them with the Muttaraiyars and an inscription in the Vaikunta Perumal temple at Kanchi mentions a Muttaraiyar named as Kalavara-Kalvan. M. Raghava Iyengar, on the other hand, identifies the Kalabhras with the Vellala Kalappalars. The c. 770 Velvikudi plates of the Pandyan king Parantaka Nedunjadaiyan mention the Kalabhras and R. Narasimhacharya and V. Venkayya believe them to have been Karnatas. K. R. Venkatarama Iyer suggests that the Kalabhras might have settled in the Bangalore-Chittoor region early in the 5th century.
The history of Cholas of Uraiyur (Tiruchirappalli) is exceedingly obscure from 4th to the 9th century, chiefly owing to the occupation of their country by the Kalabhras. Buddhadatta, the great writer in Pali, belonged to Uraiyur. He mentions his contemporary, King Achyutavikranta of the Kalabharakula, as ruling over the Chola country from Kaveripumpattinam. He was a Buddhist. Tamil literary tradition refers to an Achyuta who kept the Chera, Chola and Pandya rulers in captivity. On the basis of the contemporaneity of Buddhadatta with Buddhaghosha, Achyuta may be assigned to the 5th century. Thus, after the Sangam age, the Cholas were forced into obscurity by the Kalabhras, who disturbed the placid political conditions of the Tamil country. The Kalabhras are mentioned in Cāḷukya, Pallava and Pāṇḍyan copper-plates, indicating Kalabhras presence from the sixth to the eight century. These records suggest that the Kalabhra Dynasty was overcome and never ruled in South India.
Kalabhras, by ruling the Tamil country, disturbed the prevailing order. The Velvikudi inscription from the third regnal year of Pandya ruler Nedunjadaiyan (c. 765 – c. 815) say that Pandya ruler Mudukudumi Peruvaludi gave the village of Velvikudi as Brahmadeya (gift to the Brahmins). They enjoyed it for a long time. Then a Kali king named Kalabhran took possession of the extensive earth, driving away numerous great kings.
The period of Kalabhras was marked by the ascendancy of Buddhism, and probably also of Jainism. It was characterized by considerable literary activity in Tamil. Most of the works grouped under the head, "The Eighteen Minor works" might have been written during this period as also the Silappadhikaram, Manimegalai and other works. Many of the authors were characterised as belonging to the "heretical" sects (meaning Buddhists and Jains). However, the great Tamil lexicographer Vaiyapuri Pillai had ascribed later dates to many of these works. This theory would undermine the link between the Kalabhras and the "Eighteen Minor works".[unreliable source?]
It is known that the Kalabhras patronised Jainism and Buddhism. The late Kalabhras appear to have been Shaivite and Vaishnavite. Scholar F. E. Hardy traced the palace ceremony to a Vishnu or Mayon temple to the rule of the Kalabhras. They are known for patronising the Hindu god, Skanda or Subramanya. They imprinted his image on their 5th-century coins, especially those of the Kaveripumpattinam rulers. King Achyuta worshipped Vaishnava Tirumal.
The rule of the Kalabhras of South India was ended by the counter-invasions of Pandyas, Chalukyas and Pallavas. There are other references to the Kalabhras in Pallava and Chalukya inscriptions. They were conquered by Pallava, Simhavishnu and Pandya, Kadungon.