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Why don’t we remember the Cholas?

 

Chola bronze, Chennai. Photo by Eric Parker

When you think of the great empires of India − and indeed the world − the Mughals will be the first name to pop up. And no wonder. At its peak the Mughal empire covered much of Afghanistan and nearly all of India.

Such was its dominance of the global economy that the region accounted for nearly 25 percent of the world’s GDP. The fame of their fabulous wealth spread far and wide, their glory recorded with awe by the many Europeans who visited the courts, stories from which passed into popular imagination and into the present day. So impressed were the British by their wealth that the word ‘mughal’ entered the English language to describe a powerful leader.

Yet four hundred years before the Mughals, there existed an equally glamorous empire, the Cholas in the south of India. Their empire covered the entire southern peninsula, the eastern Indian coast and all of Sri Lanka. Unlike the Mughals, this empire went beyond the traditional boundaries of the Indian subcontinent. During his naval campaigns Rajendra Chola captured parts of what is now Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia – becoming the only Indian king to control parts of south east Asia.

 

If the Mughals left behind great buildings such as the Taj Mahal and exquisite miniatures to remind us of their glory, the Cholas rivaled them in the great temples that dot south India and its bronzes that now grace the world’s top museums. While the Mughals were a manufacturing behemoth,the Cholas flourished via agriculture and their strategic control of the vast Asian sea trade, the first Indian empire to do so.

The Cholas had a massive naval fleet of up to a thousand ships and they dominated the Indian and Lankan coastlines. If you were a trading ship from the port of Aden in Yemen on your way to the Malayas or Song China, you had to weigh anchor at an Indian or Lankan port. Chola control of the ports meant they could collect taxes and tariffs from all the ships that went through the Indian Ocean, east or west.

It made the Chola empire extraordinarily wealthy. The mind reels to hear that Rajaraja Chola donated more than two hundred kilos of gold and of silver, and sacks of jewels, to the Brahadisvara temple in Tanjore. This apart from building the mammoth and stunning stone temple that is covered in a profusion sculptures. They also built flourishing port, palace and temple towns. And they left behind several thousand inscriptions in copper plate and stone recorded in the hundreds of temples across their empire. Travellers to Chola ports and towns describe bustling streets, multistoried buildings, gardens and markets filled with traders selling everything from spices to pearls under cool canopies.

The master artists of the Chola empire could rival those of the Mughals though their aesthetics were startlingly different. The spectacular Chola bronzes are semi-nude human figures, with sensuous curves and slender limbs. The art of the Mughals have, on the other hand, restraint as a key feature. The vaulted halls of the buildings are spare, the walls profuse with stencil calligraphy, on which light falls like silk. The beauty is pulled off without a single human sculpture in sight. It feels like a challenge the best brains of the Mughal empire set for themselves: to enchant the human eye, without ever resorting to the human form.

Chola sculpture and architecture, on the other hand, runs riot with its emphasis on human beauty, turning the gods too into erotic human sculpture. The gorgeous form of Nataraja, the god Shiva dancing creation and destruction, was conceptualized by the Cholas. The most famous example of Chola architecture, the Brahadisvara temple has its walls festooned with a playful array of demons, gods, kings and queens, ordinary people and animals. Village scenes and war scenes, dances and fights, all spool into one another: the tumult of life is up there frozen in stone.

And yet despite the grandeur and size of their realm, their wealth and artistry, the Cholas don’t feature in our imagination as much as the Mughals. When I was writing my novel featuring Rajendra Chola, my references were primarily academic texts and translations. While they were a treasure trove of detail, they weren’t exactly written with an eye to the crowd. On the other hand, when I did a decidedly unscientific search online for Mughal related books, I discovered that there are nearly 2000 titles written about the Mughals, a vast collection that includes comics, romances and even a Mughal werewolf fantasy.

One of the main reasons is of course the historical material we have about both empires. Since they existed centuries before the Mughals, we have fewer surviving texts about the Cholas produced outside of India. Records within India tend to be inscriptions, the study of which is left to the specialists. If the Cholas are a question mark for us, with the Mughals we are full of answers: we can march through a familiar list of names of kings, important monuments, and series of events.

One can almost imagine the event of a Chola and a Mughal meeting: the raising of eyebrows on both sides, each confounded at the other’s preferences. The Mughal aghast at the Chola’s taste for strong alcohol, perhaps, and for any kind of meat that can be killed with arrows or caught by dogs, for his love of raucous, public dances, and the women with their bare legs and arms.

And the Chola might rub his chin in bemusement at the Mughal, who is wearing a turban that makes him sweat in the summer, who opens up his chess board when it’s such a nice day out; baffled at his cultural restrictions of everything fun, watching him as he hastily diverts his eyes from the beautiful girls. Both shaking their heads at the incomprehensibility of the other’s culture.

This piece by me was first published in the Hindustan Times.

Rajendra Chola’s royal seal

Rajendra Chola’s seal, which he used to ratify documents with the king’s authority during his reign and accompanied the copper plates used to communicate with other kingdoms, is a very interesting piece of art. It has a tiger, the emblem of the Cholas; an umbrella and two fly-whisks at the top representing royalty and the court, a Hindu swastika (at the base).

On each side of the centre of the seal you can see two lamps, to signify the holiness and auspicious nature of the seal.

The royal seal of Rajendra Chola I (1014-1044 CE)
The royal seal of Rajendra Chola I (1014-1044 CE)

Rajendra Chola had conquered the Pandyas, Cheras, and the eastern Chalukyas. Their symbols are on his seal as well to show his dominance over these kingdoms –  two vertical fish (the  emblem of the Pandyas), a bow (the Cheras’ emblem, below the fish), and the boar (the eastern Chalukyas’ emblem, beside the bow).

The legend around the emblem proclaimed in Sanskrit, “Hail, Prosperity!” which was the core of Rajendra Chola’s promise to his people, with his dominance of naval trade and conquest of rival kingdoms.

The royal tiger seal of Rajendra Chola I (1014-1044 CE)
Another view of the royal tiger seal 

Analogies and similes in ancient Indian poetry – the Bhakti movement

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 4.44.36 PMOne of the books I found especially useful to my understanding of ancient Indian literature was Speaking of Siva. The collection consists of Kannada poems written between the 10th and the 12th centuries, poems full of intense emotion, speaking of love, jealousy and loneliness while addressing the Lord. They also interrogate their own beliefs in a deeply modern way: questioning customs, the rights of women, customs and superstitions. It’s deeply personal poetry, with the speaker holding little back.

It was also hard to contain once it started: the poetic tradition spread like fire, feeding off the need for poets to express themselves in ways beyond traditionally approved meter and structured verse.The words were sung not in scripture, but in the locally spoken, often downtrodden tongue. A variety of similes weaved through these poems: similes that played with the relationship of one object to another. Popular similes, as Speaking of Siva notes, included: the Seed and the Tree; the Sea and its Rivers; the Spider, and the Web it weaves; the Thread, and its Gemstones; the Child, and its Fantasies; the Puppet, and the Puppeteer.

One of my favorites among these is Akka Mahadevi’s song about the silkworm and its cocoon. She sings,

Like a silkworm weaving

her house with love

from her marrow,

and dying in her body’s threads,

winding tight, round

and round,

I burn,

desiring what the heart desires.

Mahadevi writes about a self caught up and destroying itself in its illusions and desires – the theme is powerfully religious, and she calls out to her lord to rescue her. But the poem is also sensual and emotional.

The Bhakti poet Basavanna said,’I will sing as I love’, and that’s how these poets render their devotion. It was effective, for the words caught at the hearts of their audiences, and spread better than any bestseller. The lines sustained themselves long enough to reach our ears, so that we can admire them from a distance of several centuries.

Cha’s Best of the Net 2016 Nominations: Prose

My short story The Double, has been nominated for Sundress Press’ Best Of the Net Anthology, woohoo! (I should be more dignified. But cannot).

Cha

We are happy to announce that the following two short stories and two creative non-fiction pieces, first published in Cha, have been nominated by us for inclusion inBest of the Net Anthology 2016 (published by Sundress). Congratulations to these writers and good luck!

SHORT STORIES

Bashir Sakhawarz“Dost-e-Whisky and Me”by Bashir Sakhawarz (Issue 30, December 2015) | Bashir Sakhawarz is an award-winning poet and novelist. His first poetry collection in 1978 won the first prize for New Poetry from the Afghan Writers’ Association. Sakhawarz has published seven books in Persian and English. His latest novel, Maargir, The Snake Charmer was entered for the Man Asian Literary Prize by the publisher and was long-listed for India’s 2013 Economist Crossword Book Award. His other works have been published in: Proceeding of the Ninth Conference of the European Society for Central Asia, Images of Afghanistan and Language for a New Century. In…

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Blog: building a repository

Two years ago, I began to research the Chola Empire in earnest. I have been interested in history – a passion that started only once I was out of college.

The history of the Cholas: that was the motherlode. I circled back to them again and again. The culture, the music, the literature – it became my obsession. Conquerors who called themselves gods but had to negotiate with some very human politics. The naval trade, the wealth, the defending of empire! I was very taken with the time period and began to read whatever I could get hold of. It was a struggle: translations of the very rich Sangam literature is not easy to find, and a lot of the history is spread out across essays behind paywalls, and some very expensive hardcovers, some out of print. Somewhere in this process, I began to write a historical fiction novel based on the Chola empire.

This website is a passion project. It’s a place for me to pull together and discuss the research, links and readings I could find about this time period. My focus is the Rajendra Chola period, who reigned from 1014 to 1044 CE. He was the son of RajaRaja Chola, the King of Kings, someone who worked hard to come out of his father’s shadow and carve a name in history that was his own. A man who travelled across the sea and captured the Srivijaya kingdom (in Indonesia) and expanded his empire to Sumatra, the Malayan peninsula and parts of Vietnam and Cambodia. In India he expanded the empire across the South, to Lanka, and up north to the Pala kingdom. An impressive and fascinating king, who deserves far more attention than he has received.

This site is dedicated to him and the overall Chola period – its history, literature, art and empire.