Ancient and medieval literature and inscriptions are replete with names of dynasties, kings, wars and the like. The names of princesses and queens are hard to come by and when they do, they are mentioned only as the wives of rulers and not many details are available about them. However, there is one princess about whom a few historical details are known and these help us realize that she was an extraordinary person. She was Kundavai of the 10th-11th centuries AD, of the lineage of the Imperial Cholas, the daughter of Parantaka Chola II (Sundara Chola) and his queen Vanavan Madevi.
Kundavai’s younger brother was Arulmozhivarman, who later became the famous Rajaraja Chola I. Their mother performed sati after the death of Sundara Chola and Arulmozhivarman looked to his elder sister for guidance and affection which were given to him aplenty by Kundavai. It is believed that she played a huge role in shaping his career and that his place as one of the greatest sovereigns of India was in no small measure due to her input.
The respect given to Kundavai by Rajaraja is reflected in his inscriptions. In the Brihadishwara Temple, which was constructed in Rajaraja’s reign in Thanjavur, the emperor’s own donations are inscribed in the most important place in this temple which are the exterior walls of the central sanctum sanctorum. The only other person whose gifts to the temple are also etched in the same place are those of Kundavai. Even the donations of Rajaraja’s queens are found in other peripheral places inside the temple. The respect Rajaraja Chola I accorded to his elder sister is also clear from the fact that he named his daughter after her aunt.
This Chola princess, called in inscriptions as Parantakan Kundavai Pirattiyar (princess, the daughter of Parantaka) married a chieftain known as Vallavaraiyar Vandyadevar and is believed to have spent a lot of time in a historical place called Pazhaiyarai near Kumbakonam.
If shaping young Arulmozhivarman to become a great monarch was Kundavai’s seminal contribution, her works of charity are legion. Donations to Hindu and Jain shrines, setting up images and establishing hospitals are some of them. An inscription mentions her building three temples — one for Shiva, one for Vishnu and a third for the Jains in a place called Rajarajapuram now called Dadapuram (near Tindivanam). The Vishnu temple here was called Kundavai Vinnagaram and the Jina temple was called Kundavai Jinalaya.
A matha (seminary) called Kundavai matha worked at Uttiramerur (close to Vandavasi). Her donations to the famous Thanjavur Brihadishwara temple included staggering quantities of gold and vessels. She also commissioned artisans to make metal icons for this temple, two of which were of Parvati. The other two were idols of her parents — her mother Vanavan Madevi and her father Parantaka Chola II showing her devotion to them. Kundavai’s gifts to these images in the form of jewels, garments and food-offerings is mind-blowing as detailed in the inscriptions.
Tax-free grants of land were often given by Chola royalty to scholars. One such village, called Kundavai Chaturvedimangalam, was her gift to Vedic scholars. She sponsored the construction of irrigation tanks, one of which is called ‘Kundavai-pperiri’ (the tank of Kundavai) and another is called ‘Sundara-Chola-ppereri’ bearing the name of her father in north Tamil Nadu.
But Kundavai, surely, was not a rarity. There must have been many more like her. Not recorded in literature, not registered in inscriptions and long forgotten. And their works must have helped innumerable people over many long years.
(The writer is a historian who focuses on temple architecture)