The might of the sea is well established by the numerous examples of pompous empires that thrived along the waterfront. The mighty Cholas are one of the famous trio, that ruled South India for a long time; Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas.

The Chola empire is known to be the longest ruling dynasty in the world history and has credits of humongous territorial expansion, overseas trade, architectural development etc.

There are mentions of early origins of the dynasty in the Ashoka edicts but the empire is known to reach its zenith during the medieval eras between 9th to 13th centuries.

Cholas flourished in the fructuous Kaveri basin and gradually carved out the whole of South India till the Tungabhadra river under its dominance. The dynasty fabricated itself a large empire owing to its location and not only ruled the southern part of India, but also expanded in North up till the Ganges.

This augmentation also proceeded to the East and the empire penetrated in the regions of Sri Vijaya (Indonesia). They stretched as far as the islands of Maldives with the help of naval raids and sent repeated embassies to China. They also annexed parts of Sri Lanka. What is most significant about the Cholas is their naval fleet, and its utilisation for domestic and international expansion.

Unlike many of its contemporaries, the Chola Navy was an autonomous service. The Army depended on the naval fleets for transportation and logistics.

The ancient Chola Navy used trade vessel designs with little more than boarding implements, while the concomitant navy was a specialized force with specially built ships for different types of combat.

In addition to the regular navy (Kappal-Padai), there were many auxiliary forces that could be used in naval combat. Rajaraja commissioned various foreigners prominently, the Arabs and the Chinese in his naval building program. These efforts were continued and its benefits were reaped by his successor, Rajendra Chola I, who led the successful expedition against the Sri Vijaya kingdom (Indonesia) for establishing commercial interests.

The Chola rule had established some important port towns like Kaveripattinam and Nagapattinam which where sprawling grounds for mercantile activities. Like Roman ports, they were trading centers with overseas equations and were also centers of cultural exchange. It was during this kingship that the entire Southern India was under a single governance. The economy was majorly driven by a multi-tier land revenue system, complemented by a variety of small and large-scale industries. The Cholas must be credited with the commencement of the world market that resulted in strengthening the local guild systems in the homeland.

The ancient Navy of the Cholas not only enabled the rulers to expand their territories but this expansion also led to cultural amalgamation. They primarily traded with China, Sri Vijaya and the Arabs. This exchange also led to transfusion of goods, people, ideas and faiths. Hindu cultural influence can be found today throughout Southeast Asia courtesy to the legacy of the Cholas. For example, the great temple complex at Prambanan in Indonesia exhibits a number of striking similarities with the South Indian architecture.

Submerged archaeological sites like Kaveripattinam reveal evidences of some artifacts that served as trade goods. The Cholas were pioneer in overseas trade as is evident from a  fragmentary Tamil inscription found in Sumatra that cites the name of a merchant guild Nanadesa Tisaiyayirattu Ainnutruvar literally meaning, “the five hundred from the four countries and the thousand directions”, a famous merchant guild in the Chola country. Due to the popularity of handicrafts and increased demands for the same, the artisans and local trade guilds bloomed at the prospect of international trade and the consequence was availability of indigenous goods at cross regional markets. A very significant and fascinating role that the Chola navy played was to curb piracy which was fueled by the Sri Vijaya kingdom in a bid to monopolies the sea.

The rulers of the Chola kingdom were also great patrons of art. They are credited to the construction of beautiful temples like the very famous Brihadisvara temple of Thanjavur, which served as a pilgrimage as well as an economic center. They managed to hold their place in history by effectively using the sea as their greatest strengths.

The history and legacy of this empire can be discussed in lengths, but what distinguishes them is the growth which occurred, owing to the utilisation of their maritime capacities. This is a classic example of how numerous civilisations have prospered by being close to water bodies. Through their growth they have empowered the weaving of a cosmopolitan fabric. India is blessed with bounty full of coastlines and idyllic islands across its maritime space. When we look back at history, it testifies our strength as a maritime power and it is time we enhance it, to rise once again as a maritime nation.

(This post was first published here on The Tilak Chronicle.)

Tiya Chatterji

Tiya Chatterjee is a Delhi-based Maritime Archaeologist, with a background in History, Archaeology and Museology.


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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