The state of Cholas

Print edition : February 24, 2012

Disciplined analysis and rigorous thinking have arrived in south Indian historiography.

AMONG the better researched areas in the history of pre-modern India is the south under the Cholas, thanks to the richness and number of inscriptions on copper and stone that the reign left behind. In fact, in terms of sheer numbers and wealth of information, the epigraphical material from south India under the Cholas ranks as the first in the whole world.

However, the material was utilised for historical reconstruction only after modern historical writing was inaugurated in this part of the world following the establishment of British rule. Systematic copying, editing, translation and publication began only towards the latter half of the 19th century, and it was only in the 20th century that attempts were made to write a connected history with the help of these inscriptions. Pioneers in the field drew broad outlines of chronology and political history and also achieved some understanding regarding the social and economic history.

By the mid-1930s, with the publication of K.A. Nilakanta Sastri's celebrated works on Chola history, the master narrative of the history of that dynasty and the country under its rule was available. The mass of details was so bewildering that these earlier scholars had to follow the rule of the thumb in making generalisations. What followed for many years was more or less a repetition of what the great master had written.

It was only in the 1970s that major changes began to happen, not the least of which was on account of the rigorous research of Y. Subbarayalu. The publication of his Political Geography of the Chola Country (Madras, 1973) marked a new beginning in the field of south Indian historiography. Uncontrolled pronouncements were gradually giving way to careful conclusions drawn from scientific analysis of data.

Following, and making use of, this masterly research, a few scholars raised interesting questions in the history of medieval south India. Burton Stein, for instance, forced a change in the course of historical writing with a bang, but it is seldom remembered that even behind his generalisations was the solid, down-to-earth research of Subbarayalu.

The silent researcher would occasionally publish an essay in an obscure journal here or read a paper in an innocuous conference there. What these communicated were results of highly scientific research seeking answers to questions hitherto not posed, thus effecting a veritable revolution in the methodology of historical writing in this part of the world much in the way Jacques Vovelle had made sense of the massive parish records in France and brought out meaningful patterns in the accounts of baptisms, marriages and deaths. The reader is now grateful to the author and the publisher for bringing together the results of nearly four decades of this research, revised and updated, under two covers to make them easily accessible.

This volume comprises 17 of Subbarayalu's essays written over more than three decades, all based on epigraphical material and relating to the economic, social or administrative history of medieval south India, especially under the Cholas. Appropriately, therefore, the collection opens with a competent introduction to this rich material, with a discussion of the progress registered in the field of epigraphical studies and the scope and methodology used to handle the material. From this the author goes on to demonstrate, in the next couple of articles, the process through which the discovery of new inscriptions pushes the frontiers of historical knowledge. This includes analyses of the social and economic milieu of the Pulangurichi inscription, the discovery of which was promptly hailed as outstanding, and a merchant guild inscription from Barus, Sumatra.

The essay on the sociological aspects of personal names and titles in Chola inscriptions is more important than the unassuming title suggests. For the historian the bewildering mass of details contained in the inscriptions was as much a problem as it was a rich mine of information. To make sense of this was extremely difficult. Thus, Nilakanta Sastri talked about the superior executive strength of the Chola polity on the basis of the personal names and titles figuring in these inscriptions, while Stein denied the existence of any such officialdom precisely on the same basis! But when these names and titles as well as the correspondence between these and the positions in the administrative structure were analysed with the help of the computer and a concordance of personal names was prepared, that was a breakthrough. The dust kicked up was settled and the statistical replaced the random. This essay is in fact an introduction to this thoroughgoing analysis of inscriptions, which brought about a total shift in the way Chola history is studied. The essay on interpreting inscriptional terminology, likewise, offers new interpretations of certain terms in Tamil inscriptions that help in clarifying many doubts regarding the agrarian and administrative processes and structures in south India under the Cholas.

The twelve essays in the next section are concerned with agriculture, trade, administration at different levels, and so on. The first of these takes up a systematic analysis of the measurement, classification and assessment of agricultural land under the Cholas. As inscriptions talked about accurate measurements of land to as small a unit as 0.002 centimetres, scholars had doubted the validity of these statements and even rejected all the statements regarding revenue assessments. Subbarayalu's interpretation shows that such figures were notional and resulted from a mental calculation by the officers for purposes of rationalisation of revenue assessment of different grades of land. This understanding of the grading of lands and the notional standard unit of measurement clarifies many issues regarding the land revenue assessments.

Again, the overview of the revenue system under the Cholas is a major advance in our understanding of the nature of surplus extraction during that period. This systematic analysis of revenue terms with the aid of the computer set at rest the noisy debate regarding Chola revenue administration. While Nilakanta Sastri described the revenue terms as myriad, Stein denied the very existence of a revenue system. This analysis shows that many of the terms used to indicate various items of revenue indicated local levies or temporary impositions. A few terms, however, are found distributed across the territory and throughout the period covered by Chola rule. These hold the key to understanding the fiscal base of Chola polity. Land tax and labour extractions accounted for a major chunk of the surplus that was siphoned off the primary producers. The behaviour of these extortions also presents interesting patterns that have serious implications for the understanding of the economic base and political superstructure of the Chola state.

THANKS TO THE richness and number of inscriptions on copper and stone left behind by the Cholas, pre-modern south India under their reign is among the better researched areas in history. Here, the epic inscription on the Big Temple at Thanjavur where Rajaraja Chola says he built the temple.-D. KRISHNAN

The essay on sale deeds and property rights is a down-to-earth analysis of the evolution of land rights. It demonstrates the pattern of the emergence of private property and the gradual disappearance of communal property in land. Similarly, an examination of the constitution and functioning of corporate bodies in both Brahmana and non-Brahmana settlements reveals not only the nature of these bodies but also the changes that were taking place in the economy and in society with their implications for an understanding of the political structure of the times. Of particular interest is the study of the groups of non-Brahmana peasants, the ur and the nadu. Insufficiently treated in conventional historiography and distorted in the writings of later American scholars, the importance of these bodies is brought out clearly by this sober study.

Another major intervention that Subbarayalu makes is in relation to the corporate body of itinerant merchants, of both Indian and non-Indian origin. His attempt to link anjuvannam with the Persian hanjamana is plausible. So also is his rejection of Hermann Gundert's statement that manigramam consisted of Muslim trading groups. It could probably have been a body of indigenous merchants. And the discussion of the spread of the Ayyavole 500 is refreshing and so is the attempt to examine documents relating to erivirapattanam. Together, these discussions bring out the importance of trade and traders in the polity during the period under review.

Perhaps the most significant and by far the most admirable essay in this collection is the one that has a succinct presentation of the author's understanding of the Chola state. Nilakanta Sastri had conceived of it as a highly centralised empire characterised by the superior executive strength of an efficient bureaucracy, a strong coercive arm consisting of an army with numerous regiments and a navy with numberless ships.

Stein, on the other hand, refused to see a fully developed state at all, not to speak of an empire. For him, the political structure in medieval south India he does not accept the idea of a Chola state was to be placed somewhere on a continuum between the pre-state and the state situations. Both were, to be sure, speculating on the basis of an impressionistic reading of the massive data. It is difficult not to be polemical while participating in this debate, but taking an extremely level-headed position, Subbarayalu presents his understanding of the state on the basis of his systematic analysis of the data. You have to shout, as Winston Churchill is said to have noted, only when your point is weak.

Four phases

Earlier scholars had treated the Chola state as a monolith without recognising the changes that had taken place during the four centuries of its existence. One major improvement in the present case is the periodisation of Chola rule. Subbarayalu recognises four clear phases in its history: Period 1 (A.D. 850-985), Period 2 (A.D. 986-1070), Period 3 (A.D. 1071-1176) and Period 4 (1179-1279). Following this periodisation, he orders the data systematically in an attempt to understand the political processes and structures in a differential manner.

He shows how, beginning as a chiefly house, the Cholas established themselves in the ninth century as a prominent dynasty in the Cauvery delta, presiding over the newly formed state in the fertile valley, and grew from there to form within one century one of the most impressive empires. In another century, however, centrifugal tendencies got the better of attempts at centralisation, and by the third quarter of the 13th century, the Chola state succumbed.

These changes are demonstrated to have followed changes in the nature of landholding, growth in importance of powerful landed magnates, and their being recognised by and enlisted into the service of the state. The presence of minor chiefs just outside the core area of the Cauvery delta is documented during Period 1, but in the century of centralisation following the accession of Rajaraja I, they are not seen anymore. In their place are officials of the state, many of them recruited from old chiefly houses.

In the century that followed the imperial phase, they raise their head again and re-establish themselves with a vengeance, as the numerous padikaval and nilamaittittu documents demonstrate. They were now strong enough to undermine the very foundation of the Chola state. This pattern is seen in the matter of the officialdom, military organisation, revenue mechanism and all such things.

The way in which the results of enquiries, represented in the earlier essays of this collection, are integrated and made use of in constructing a meaningful picture of the evolution of the polity and its structure commands the admiration of the reader. One realises how masterly the author's command over the rich data is and how convincingly he has ordered them to form an intelligible picture. At the same time, one is also struck by the unassuming way in which it is all done no noise, no pretentions, proving once again the adage that it is empty vessels that make the most sound.

This essay is followed by a discussion of the attempts made by scholars so far to characterise the Chola state. The earlier formulations of a highly centralised empire, a segmentary state, a political expression of a qualified Asiatic Mode of Production, the early state, and so on, are all taken up for detailed examination and rejected as being incapable of explaining the data. That point is well taken.

However, the author does not propose any alternative model to explain the nature of the Chola state. This is not to say that it is only when models are constructed that explanations will become meaningful; models only help to make sense of the data in a pattern that one is familiar with. Cognitive encounter demands that. Also, while discussing the various models being used to try and explain the Chola state, the article does not mention the feudalism model. Whether one accepts it or not, one cannot ignore it.

There are places where the reader wishes that the copy editor had been more careful. That, however, does not detract from the value of the book, which is a lasting contribution to the study of south Indian history. Disciplined analysis and rigorous thinking have arrived in south Indian historiography. Impressionistic statements of a speculative nature will not pass for history any more. That is where the author deserves all congratulation.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor