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Why the Cholas Were Rich

Author: Anirudh Kanisetti
Publication: Nationalinterest.in
Date: December 6, 2017
URL:    https://nationalinterest.in/why-the-cholas-were-rich-d1bc6ad18837

The socio-economic processes that culminated in a South Indian Golden Age

In the 11th century CE, Rajendra I (“Lord of Kings”) of the Chola Empire of South India embarked on an extraordinary series of campaigns. Extraordinary not because of what they achieved, but because they overturn the traditional views of what “India” as a civilisation did.

A recurring myth about India is that its kings were not interested in anything that happened outside the subcontinent, and even if they were, they were not violent enough to do anything serious about it (I debunked this in my review of Upinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India). Such a view is barely justifiable even when applied to North India. South

India, however, is a different matter entirely, as we shall see.

This article aims to explore the rise of Rajendra’s dynasty, and why they chose to devote their wealth and power across the ocean to subjugate Southeast Asia, instead of across the subcontinent to conquer the North. I will draw on economic, political, and social processes, in addition to geography, to understand this.

The South Indian Vision

Alone promontory that protrudes into the Indian Ocean, South India has been at the centre of global trade since at least the 3rd century BCE. Owing to the high transport costs involved in pre-steamship global trade, most of the goods coming to and departing from South India were luxury goods.

Urbanisation in the South was driven by surpluses arising from this trade, as opposed to agriculture in the North. This has traditionally given the South a deep interest in global affairs, especially in what happens in Southeast Asia. In addition, the importance of merchants and trade infrastructure in maintaining a high quality of life was recognised from a very early period.

The relative geographic diversity of South India resulted in many warring states that were unable to dominate each other, or powerful enough to conquer the North. On the other hand, the flat geography of North India gave rise to many powerful empires that were unable to effectively control the rough terrain of the South. This divide was so extreme, argues Trautmann, that even in 150 CE North Indians considered the South to be a foreign country.

However, a gradual process of cultural exchange was present — called “Sanskritisation”. The prestige-conferring Brahminical paraphernalia and rites of North Indian kingship were gradually adopted by South Indian kings, and spread via their prosperous ports to Southeast Asia.

Since sea transport depended on weather patterns, merchants often constructed trading bases and then set down roots in Southeast Asia. The resulting ties of marriage and mutual prosperity, coupled with a well-developed transport infrastructure the relative ease of sea transport and burgeoning cultural similarity, meant that South Indians saw their Southeast as much more part of their worldview than the distant North.

Cadet branches of Indian dynasties often married into new Southeast Asian kingdoms, such as Champa in Vietnam. The importance of the sea trade to them is reflected in poetry and temple inscriptions. The presence of the Chinese giant, looming collectively over South India as well as Southeast Asia through its control of trade, was acknowledged by diplomatic missions and gifts. It should also be noted that it is much more difficult for North Indians to reach China — perhaps accounting for the fact that North India saw itself as an almost isolated geopolitical world in contrast to the “globalised” South.
From the Gupta of the Oceans to the Cholas of the Heavens

At the end of my last article, Samudragupta’s Geopolitics, I pointed out how most Indian states aligned culturally with the North, as the emperor imposed a post-1990s-America-like “unipolar moment” on the subcontinent by the 5th century CE. In the centuries that followed, global trade declined somewhat as the Roman Empire collapsed in a period of global cooling and de-urbanisation, and the Arab conquests drastically reshaped the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Closed off for a couple of centuries, India lost some of the cultural, religious, and ethnic plurality that once characterised it. Buddhism and Jainism declined, and Hinduism spread aggressively across the South, and from there to Southeast Asia. This new Hinduism was different from Brahmanism in that it had a relatively broader social base, helped along by proselytising from religious reformers. In addition, it was expressed with the construction of structural stone temples, often with royal patronage. This will be explored later.

South Indian rulers also began to show an increasing interest in Northern culture. From the 9th to the 10th centuries, the Rashtrakuta rulers of the Deccan highlands sparred with North Indian powers to control the grand imperial city of Kannauj, and built temples that reflected a sort of “transference” of sacred significance from North India to the South, as Diana L. Eck argues in India: A Sacred Geography. Consider the magnificent monolithic Kailasanatha (“Lord of Kailasa”) temple at Ellora, which figuratively represents the holy mountain of the god Shiva, which is actually in the Himalayas. (This will be referenced in the sequel to this article).

In this milieu, in the deepest South of India, the Tamil land, the Chola dynasty emerged from relative insignificance to sear the rice-fields with the heat of a King-of-Kings, to paraphrase Keay.
Why the Cholas Were Powerful

As urbanisation in the Tamil land depended on trade, any ruler worth his (or her) salt recognised how important it was to keep it thriving. Despite (or perhaps because of) the continuous rise and fall of dynasties, merchant guilds became more and more powerful, as did local councils.

Kanakalatha Mukund points out that this was the most efficient way to govern, given the state of technology at the time. Local councils would collect taxes for the central administration, and possessed authority over reinvesting some of the wealth collected. Each assembly was responsible not only for law and order, irrigation, and the stewardship of land under its jurisdiction, but also for running the local temple.

The local temple was much more than merely a religious institution. They served as headquarters for the local assembly, as cultural and entertainment centres, and as providers of jobs and capital. Everyone from shepherds and gardeners, to sculptors and bronze-workers, to priests and dancing-girls, would find profit here. The construction of a temple, therefore, led to spreading wealth and prosperity.

This process took centuries to come to a head. First merchants had to emerge, then cities, then a widely-accepted temple-building culture, and then the wealth needed to build a temple. This culminated roughly when the Chola dynasty emerged, and the factors which characterise an Indian Golden Age once again aligned. The South burst into prosperity.

The Chola administration reached a sort of “golden mean” between local self-governance and centralisation. The king would be responsible for foreign affairs, military matters, and monumental works such as the massive Brihadesvara Temple (pictured above). The local assemblies handled day-to-day administration, public goods, and tax collection.

The military aggressiveness of the Cholas — who did not shy from sacking temples and monasteries — provided wealth which the military classes reinvested in temple construction. This was seen as a way to generate social capital, and was also done by the wealthier merchants.

This meant that the Chola state, almost by definition, continuously stimulated further urbanisation and prosperity. This fine balance was achieved possibly because of the shrewd policies of the first of the imperial Cholas, Rajaraja I, the father of the aforementioned Rajendra. I will discuss the geopolitical actions of the dynasty, and the causes of its decline, in a sequel to this article.
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