Leiden plates

Mystery of a royal grant

Print edition : May 30, 2014

The royal Chola insignia mounted on the copper ring that holds the plates together. Photo: A. Rangarajan/Leiden University Library (special collections)

The first plate with Sanskrit lines in the Grantha script. Photo: A. Rangarajan/Leiden University Library (special collections)

A Tamil plate. Photo: A. Rangarajan/Leiden University Library (special collections)

The copper plates, held in place by a large ring. While the Tamil section dwells on the practical, the Sanskrit section deals with the ethereal. Photo: A. Rangarajan/Leiden University Library (special collections)

Seated Buddha with two Naga attendants, 11th century. This bronze was found in Nagapattinam. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The Leiden plates provide a glimpse of the story of how a great Buddhist centre of learning and spirituality flourished in Nagapattinam thanks to the benevolence of a Chola emperor.

THE copper plates preserved in Leiden University in the Netherlands, commonly referred to as the “Leiden Plates”, have a unique story to tell—of a royal charter issued by a great Chola emperor granting resources and revenues to ensure the upkeep of a Buddhist vihara. Interestingly, it was for a monastery built by a distinguished king from the distant Malay region in close-by Nagapattinam.

This document spells out in great detail the legal tenets, fiscal stipulations and bureaucratic machinery involved in the assessment and execution of the deed. Drawn and executed in the 11th century, this deed is impressive in its thoroughness and precision.

The use of copper plates to record royal charters or “sasanas” followed the initial use of stone tablets in temples and monuments and the later tradition of using palm-leaf inscriptions. Copper plates are believed to have been in use from as early as the 1st century A.D., and the earliest authentic copper plate charters containing the proclamations of the Pallava kings date back to the 4th century. Copper plates had been in extensive use in north India as well, while rich finds in the south have greatly helped construct the history of the region. In keeping with this tradition and fashioned after the Devapala Charter, the mighty Rajaraja Chola I made this grant. King Devapala of Bengal, in the middle of the 9th century, executed a similar grant, offering revenues of five villages for the maintenance of a Buddhist vihara built in Nalanda by a Sailendra king. In Nagapattinam, too, another Sailendra king, referred to as “Chulamanivarman” in the Leiden plates, constructed the vihara and hence it is often referred to as the “Chulamanivarmavihara”.

These great Sailendra kings, who find reference in the memoirs and chronicles of Chinese scholars such as Xuanzang and Yijing, ruled the watery straits of Malaya, Java, Sumatra and adjacent parts.

Possibly considered to be of Indian descent, their ancestors having left Indian shores in the distant past, they established in the 8th century their suzerainty over the famed Kadara (or Kataha) and Sri Vijaya kingdoms of the Far East. This led to the creation of a great religious and political intercourse between India and the Far East.

The beautiful and astoundingly magnificent temple at Borobudur in modern-day Indonesia is said be a timeless legacy of these kings. Much like the Borobudur temple which, during its extended construction, alternated between becoming a Hindu and Buddhist monument and eventually ended as a Buddhist monument, the Sailendra kings too were in the end more Buddhist than Hindu. Thus, the Sri Vijaya Buddhists, the Nalanda monks, the Kancheepuram philosophers and the Nagapattinam Sangha enriched one another’s theology and practice.

The Leiden plates contain several of these references. The kings of Sri Vijaya and Kadara are referred to as being associated with a mystical animal, Makara. Makara was a motif adopted by these kings and is represented with the body of a fish and head of an elephant. This Sailendra emblem often occurs as an ornamental representation in Javanese architecture.

The plates

The Leiden Chola plates are a complete set of 21 large plates and three small plates. The large plates were committed to writing by Rajendra Chola in five Sanskrit plates and 16 Tamil plates, honouring his father Rajaraja’s oral commitment. The small plates are all Tamil plates, executed later by Kulotunga I, making certain additional grants to the Sangha associated with the vihara in Nagapattinam, which is interestingly referred to as the Rajarajaperumpalli in the smaller plates ( palli was a word used to denote Budhhist and Jain assemblies). It is on the large Leiden plates that we shall dwell on in relative detail.

The Sanskrit part of the plates, using the Grantha script, totalling 111 lines set out in poetic metre and rich imagery, talks about the genealogy of the Chola kings and their various exploits, conquests and accomplishments. It further invokes the gods and the elements to keep the Chola domination in perpetuity for the good of the world. Interestingly, the backward tracing of genealogy in the plates beyond a specific individual named Chola, after whom the subsequent kings adopted the dynastic identity, dissolves into mythical ancestry leading right back to the sun god himself. It goes on to proclaim that in the 21st year of Rajaraja’s reign, the village of Anaimangalam is the subject of the grant to the lofty Chulamanivarmavihara. It further states that the boundaries of the grant-land have been established after the ceremonial circumambulation by a female elephant and the marking having been completed with stones. And finally, the Sanskrit part mentions the person who composed the prasastis (the poetic compositions of these texts), the officials who executed the edict, the artisans who wrote out the words and the sculptors who rendered the inscription.

Serious students of history have compared the genealogy traced out in the Anbil plates of Sundara Chola and the Tiruvalangadu plates of Uttama Chola. These plates, along with the Kanyakumari inscription of Virarajendra and the Leiden plates, provide a wealth of information about the Chola period. The Tamil classic Kalingathu Parani too dwells on the mythical ancestry of the Cholas as eulogised in these inscriptions. K.V. Subrahmanya of Coimbatore published the results of his extensive study of the plates in Epigraphia Indica in the mid-1930s. We owe a great deal to this seminal work and from it we learn a lot about the contents of the plates.

As a matter of physical detail, all the 21 plates are held and bound by a circular copper ring and the impressive regal seal is mounted on this ring. The Chola emblem, the tiger, along with two lamps and fish forms, and a Sanskrit text are etched in the seal. It is the extensive Tamil portion consisting of 332 lines that sets out all the practical details of the grant in amazing detail. While the Sanskrit section deals with the ethereal, the Tamil section dwells on the practical. This portion specifies that it was on the 92nd day after the 21st year of Rajaraja’s reign that the intent of grant was declared by the emperor to take effect from the very same day. That an income of 8,943 kalam, 2 tuni, 1 kuruni and 1 nali of paddy accruing from the assessment of some 97 veli of land (the charter specifies sophisticated subunits and fractions that needs to be added to the 97 veli) would constitute the grant. It lists out the 26 villages that border Anaimangalam—constituting a schedule—and the officials who surveyed it and the authorities who signed on behalf of these villages concurring with the grant. Further, taxes from the village, which would have been naturally the right of the king, is bequeathed again on the vihara and the monastery.

The taxes levied make an awesome list—water cess, taxes due to the state when people marry, taxes on sheep herds, grazing, cloth taxes on looms, washermen stones, pottery, etc. The Tamil phrases used are specific for each kind of tax. The officialdom and the nomenclature used to describe bureaucracy are equally impressive, establishing yet another versatile facet of the Tamil language. One finds phrases like Tirumandiravolai-nayagam, denoting the superintendent of royal writs, naduvirukkum,meaning arbitrator, puravuvari, the tax department, and varipottayam, officials who maintained the tax registers. The recording of dates is so meticulous that one can infer that the survey of Anaimangalam took two years and 72 days to complete and that the construction of the vihara took no less than nine years.

Further, certain specific conditions are stipulated upon the beneficiaries. Adherence to them was laid down as preconditions for continued peaceful enjoyment of the grant and the attendant privileges. These conditions spoke about irrigation, maintenance of channels, digging of wells, and sharing and passing of water through grant-village and other villages. There are conditions about planting trees and groves, about using oil presses, about using burnt bricks and maintaining quality in constructions, etc. The idea seems to be proper upkeep of the lands left in the charge of the monastery and peaceful coexistence with neighbouring villages. Use of big drums and ornaments by families living nearby the monastery was to be tolerated and lived alongside with. Plurality of cultures and practices seems to have been an abiding feature.

Thus arose and flourished this great Buddhist centre of learning and spirituality in the south, benefiting from the benevolence of a king who built a mighty Siva temple in Thanjavur. And history would take its course and Buddhism would decline and cease to be the dominant philosophy of India. Quite evidently, having lost patronage and support, the Chulamanivarmavihara fell into ruin. We may never know all the details.

The sad finale to this grand vihara structure came in the 19th century when the British were ruling India. Sir W. Elliot recorded: “Till within the last few years there was to be seen on the Coramandel coast, between one and two miles to the north of Negapatnam, a tall weather-beaten tower, affording a useful land mark to vessels passing up and down coast.” That was a virtual epitaph, reducing the tower to a mere navigational aid. The Jesuits who were expelled from Puducherry at that time settled nearby and petitioned the government, demanding the tower’s destruction.

After some wrangling within the government and after the files having gone up and down, finally, on August 28, 1867, orders for demolition were passed. The orders started with the following lines: “The Governor in Council is pleased to sanction the removal of the old tower at Negapatnam by the officers of St. Joseph’s college, at their own expense….” And some time later a fine bronze image of the Buddha was recovered at one of the excavations nearby. It was given to Lord Napier as a present and a trophy. Thus disappeared a great legacy.

And finally the Leiden copper plates leave some important questions unanswered. Why did a great Chola emperor help the construction of a Buddhist vihara at the behest of a Sailendra king from a faraway land? Was it out of respect for other faiths? Was it a part of a truce with the Sailendras? Or was it a mixture of both or something else? Students of history should do more to solve this puzzle and other similar ones.

A. Rangarajan is a freelance writer.

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