Karikala was the son of Ilamcetcenni ‘…distinguished for the beauty of his numerous war chariots.’ The name Karikalan has been held to mean 'the man with the charred leg' and perpetuates the memory of a fire accident in the early years of his life. Some scholars also hold the view kari and kalan are Tamil words meaning "slayer of elephants". Porunar-aatrup-padai describes the back-formed origin legend of this incident as follows:
The king of Urayur Ilancetcenni married a Velir princess from Azhundur and she became pregnant and gave birth to Karikala. Ilamcetcenni died soon after. Due to his young age, Karikala's right to the throne was overlooked and there was political turmoil in the country. Karikala was exiled. When normality returned, the Chola ministers sent a state elephant to look for the prince. The elephant found the prince hiding in Karuvur. His political opponents arrested and imprisoned him. The prison was set on fire that night. Karikala escaped the fire and, with the help of his uncle Irum-pitar-thalaiyan, defeated his enemies. Karikala’s leg was scorched in the fire and from thence Karikala became his name.
Pattinap-paalai, written in praise of Karikala also describes this incident, but without mention of the fable of the burnt limb:
Like the Tiger cub with its sharp claws and its curved stripes growing (strong) within the cage, his strength came to maturity (like wood in grain) while he was in the bondage of his enemies. As the large trunked elephant pulls down the banks of the pit, and joins its mate, even so after deep and careful consideration, he drew his sword, effected his escape by overpowering the strong guard and attained his glorious heritage in due course. karikalan is known as karikal valavan
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