uraga and AlavAy

Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Wed Mar 31 07:54:43 UTC 1999

Kalidasa in his Raghuvamsa calls the capital of the Pandya kings of Tamil
region as "uraga". Kalidasa's use of this name for Madurai is very
significant. The name uraga is based on the name Alavay found to be attested
for the first time in the post-Classical Tamil text, tEvAram, of 7th century
AD. The Tamil Lexicon explains the name AlavAy as " 1. serpent, as having
poison in its mouth; 2. Madura, as encircled by a coiled serpent which brought
its mouth and tail together to indicate the boundaries of the city". This is
apparently based on interpreting AlavAy as a compound of Alam and vAy, where
Ta. Alam < Skt. "Ala", the poison, and Ta. "vAy" means mouth. But the
indication for the presence of this local snake mythology regarding Madurai is
given by Kalidasa much earlier than any Tamil text!

This demonstrates the intimate scholarly intercourse that must have existed
between the Sanskritists of the Tamil region and the Aryavarta. This also
reveals how Tamil Sanskritists have acted as intermediaries who transmitted
Tamil cultural information to Sanskritists of the north. Moreover, the name
uraga also shows the Sanskritic interpretation given to Tamil concepts in the
creation of Tamil temple myths as early as the time of Kalidasa. They have
succeeded so well even modern scholars  who studied the Madurai mythology seem
to be unaware of the direct Dravidian etymology for the name AlavAy.

Alavay is a compound made up of Alam and vAy where Ta. Alam means banyan tree
and Ta. vAy  should be interpreted as "place". Thus AlavAy means "the banyan
tree place" in much the same way "alaivAy" (aka.266.20) refers to "place of
waves". Originally it seems to have meant only a location inside Madurai and
not the whole of Madurai. What is the significance of the banyan tree place?
That is where dakSiNAmUrti is located along with his disciples. The importance
of dakSiNAmUrti cult in the mythology/history of Madurai, Potiyil, Agastya,
and Tamil grammatical, literary, and aesthetic traditions has not been fully
recognized by scholars till now.

S. Palaniappan

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