As time passes and history of an event gets older, it is embellished with all sorts of exaggeration and sometimes, degenerates into a sort of pseudo-mythology. And if there is a reinvigorated effort to elevate him to a higher pedestal after the passing of centuries, it gets very hard to sift fact from fiction. One such person we have amidst us is Karikala Chola, whose provenance itself is a question.
So, who exactly is this Karikala Chola?
He is supposed to be one of the greatest Chola rulers of the old line. Son of Ilanjetcenni and the daughter of a Velir chieftain, he married a woman from the same clan. It is possible his father and grand father died when he was very young due to which his claim to throne was overlooked. He was captured by enemies but he escaped. His maternal uncle Pidarttalai helped him in his endeavours to claim back his throne. The royal elephant identified him and brought him back to the capital city. It is said that when the elephant was not able to lift him, a sage made marks on his feet with charcoal and he became light. He was good in both war and peace and patronized arts. One of his greatest achievements was the Battle of Venni where he defeated the Chera and the Pandya rulers. He led an invasion of victory till Himalayas and planted his standard there. He renovated Uraiyur and controlled Kaveri Delta; obtained vassalage of Oliyar, Aruvalar, Northerners, Westerners, Pandya, petty chiefs including that of the line of Irungovel. He built Kallanai, a dam to control Kaveri water flow and is considered an architectural masterpiece.
Origin of the word Karikala:
The oldest reference giving a meaning of the word is Palamoli which says it means charred leg. Others include Death to Kali, Killer of Elephants and even the charcoal marks which his mother got made on his feet when the royal elephant was not able to lift him.
Before trying to identify the real person behind this, let’s consider the sources which talk about him. They are categorized into two categories – those from the Sangam Age and those from the Modern Age
Sangam Age:

1. Puranuru: Verses 7, 65, 66
2. Puram 224 by Karungalal Adanar
3. Pattuppattu: Porunararrupadai by Mudattamakkanniyar
4. Pattinappalai by Kadiyalur Unruttirangannanar
5. Anhanuru: No 55, 125, 141, 246, 876
6. Silappadikaram: Cantos 3, 5, 6, 12
7. Manimegalai: Canto 1
8. Palamoli: Verses 6, 230, 239

Medieval Literature:
It is interesting to note, besides the traditional literature, the first reference of Karikala from a dateable age comes from the Melpadu plates of the Telugu Choda king Punyakumara, dated around 630 AD. This inscription is unique from three angles – linking Karikala with the Telugu people, first reference to Karikala’s Kallanai and the first reference to Trilochana Pallava.
After the Medieval Cholas came, there are a flood of references for Karikala, may be to legitimize their origins. Karikala is mentioned as early as that of Velanjeri plates of Parantaka Chola(932 AD). For reference, Aditya Chola is heard from 870 AD and became independent in 897.
As time went by, the inscriptions became more detailed, attributing more features to Karikala. Udayendram, Anbil, Thiruvalangadu, Leyden, Kanyakumari…all gave more finer details generally than the previous one. However, all of them said Karikala is from Surya Vamsa.
Karikala myth exploded on the world after Kulottunga’s invasion of Kalinga. Everyone wanted to link themselves to that illustrious person whom Cholas treated as the greatest in their line. The main works of this category are

1. Kalingattupparani describing Kulottunga’s invasion of Kalinga.
2. Ulas of Ottakkuttan: Vikrama, Kulottunga, Rajaraja. In both the Ulas and Kalingattupparani of Jayakondan, reference is made to Murkari or three eyed or Trilochana. Murkari is also interpreted as Maukharis on the basis of Northern invasion accd to Silappadikaram. There are two Maukharis, one around 200 BC and one around 500 AD. This gave impetus to some fertile imagination.
3. Kulottungan Pillaittamil by Ottakkuttan. This elaborates on Jayakondan’s Kalingattupparani.
4. Periya Puranam of Sekkayir

When Karikala is referred in Panditaradhya Charitra of Palkuriki Somana, he became popular in Andhra area. Approximately at the same time, Trilochana Pallava also took form. One of the first references is that of Vimaladitya’s Darsi inscription of 1023.
As the myth spread, everyone from Kakatiyas and the Vijayanagar chieftains of Matla, Saluva and others tried to associate them with Karikala. However, one needs to be careful how they picked it. Kakatiyas would have picked it through Coastal Andhra Chola territory while the rest, through Tamil traditions. A hint of this comes from a Bastar inscription of a Nagavamsi feudatory Chandraditya in 11th Century. Another is Bhaktiraja’s 1356 inscription. He operated in Godavari Delta area as a rebel for the Reddy kings.
Enter Vijayanagar. The legend refuses to die. Navacholacharitra(Kannada translated into Telugu), Cholavamsacharitra or Brihadeeswara Mahatyam, Sevvandippuranam, all give the story with their new details.
With regard to the reasons behind the massive impetus to the Karikala myth, one need to understand who the Modern Cholas were. The king lists with regard to three early inscriptions give a hint of what transpired with regard to them.
Velanjeri(932): Murari, Brahma, Marichi, Kasyapa, Surya,(gap), Usinara, Sibi,(gap), KARIKALA,(gap), Kochengannan,(gap) Orriyura, (unknown son), Aditya, Parantaka
Udayendram(941): Vishnu, Brahma, Marichi, Kasyapa, Surya, Rudrajit, Chandrajit, (gap), Sibi, (gap), Kokkili, (gap), Chola, (gap), KARIKALA, (gap), Kochengannan, (gap), Vijayalaya, Aditya, Parantaka
Tiruvalangadu(1020): Surya, Manu, Ikshvaku, Vikukshi, Puranjaya, Kakshivat, Aryyama, Analapratapa, Vena, Prithu, (gap), Dhundhumara, Yuvanasva, Mandhatri, Muchukunda,(gap), Valabha, Prithulaksha, Parthivachudamani, (gap), Dirghabahu, Chandrajit, Samkriti, (gap), Panchapa, (gap), Satyavrata/Rudrajit, (gap), Usinara, Sibi, Marutta, Dushyanta, Bharata, Cholavarman, Rajakesarivarman, Parakesarin, Chitraratha, Chitrasva, Chitradhanvan, (gap), Suraguru, Vyaghraketu, Narendrapati, Uparichara, (gap), Visvajit, (gap), Perunatkilli, (gap), KALIKALA, (gap), Kochchengannan, (gap), Vijayalaya, Adityavarman, Parantaka.
We can see names getting added as time passed. Even, it is interesting to note Vijayalaya is added in the middle. As names got added, details also got added. How much of this invention and how much of this is tradition? This is a clear indication that whoever Aditya Chola was, he decided to link himself to Karikala so as to claim legitimacy as a Chola. Initially, it just started with a name and slowly, additional details got added one after one.
Now, before trying to separate fact from fiction, there are a few markers to consider.

1. Karikala is shown as of remote past in Silappadikaram, meaning Sengottavan, the ruler in the book and Karikala are separated by long period, at least fifty years. Also to note is the fact that Silappadikaram is a book of fiction and it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. This is in reference to Karikala’s northern expedition.
2. Origin of the elephant story where the royal elephant identified him and brought him to the capital city came from a commentary on Palamoli 230.
3. Another Sangam work, Perumbanarruppadai written contemporaneous to Pattinappalai states Tondaiman Ilandirayan ruling Tondainad is more powerful than the three Southern neighbours. It is worthwhile to note, besides an account of Karikala’s northern expedition, all sources of his holding Kanchi and settling outsiders there are from medieval references. It is possible that Karikala holding Kanchi may have come from two possible areas – that Trilochana Pallava is one of his biggest enemies and though unrelated to the Pallavas of Kanchi and the word Pallava is enough to create a story of Karikala’s occupation. Alternately, this may have been confused due to an interregnum in Early Pallava rule where they lost Kanchi and bounced back. It is possible those who ejected the Pallavas from Kanchi were the Cholas.
4. The first reference to Kaveri embarkments comes from Malepadu plates of Punyakumara which talk of it as a miracle and not as an architectural achievement.
5. Ptolemy and Periplus who mentioned lesser kings didn’t mention Karikala. It’s an indication either he came after them or he is not as great as is projected.
6. One poem from Pattuppattu says kingdom is his birthright while the other says he escaped from prison to become a king. Combine both of them, though the kingdom was his birthright, he lost it. Is it possible that the poems were interpreted based on Pulakesi and Mangalesa?

All these centuries of distortion, the legend has turned from a human king to that of a superhuman one attributed with all sorts of impractical features. His enemy is three-eyed(an allusion to Madurai Meenakshi?), elephant is unable to lift him and all such.
Cholas being identified with Tamil pride has resulted in wishful interpretations extolling his virtues. Take for example, a few from Kanakasabhai Pillai.

1. Karikala’s daughter is Sengottavan’s mother Naroonai.
2. Karikala ruled Kanchi and Ilandirayan usurped Kanchi from him. It is worthy to note Tiruvalangadu is the first direct reference to Kanchi.
3. Karikala was on friendly terms with the northern entities like Avanti, Vajra and Magadha. Ignoring the military aspect in Silappadikaram, he states the military angle is a fertile imagination of the subsequent poets.

So, removing all the chaff which got created because he is identified as a prominent king in the dynasty of the contemporary superpower, what have we got? Nothing except this should be treated as truth.

1. He is a local king ruling Kaveri Delta, with his rule extending to Uraiyur.
2. He is either post Ptolemy or insignificant enough for him to consider.
3. He faced some troubles during accession – either he lost his kingdom in a battle or in a coup but he regained it through his personal capacity and with some help.
4. He defeated a confederacy of Chera and Pandya at Venni.
5. He is one of the prominent ones of his age, but not the most powerful. Tondaiman Ilandirayan is considered to be more powerful than him in a Sangam work written during his time.

Sources: Nilakantha Sastry in Studies In Cola History And Administration