The Chola Empire, starting as an unnoticeable state by around 200 BC in Tamil Nadu, evolved into a mighty imperial state by 9 CE dominating all of South India and South Asia and lasting till 1279 CE.
By Ashok N.R.
It’s hard to imagine India’s military, diplomatic and economic might, given the way our textbooks currently give the impression that India was a land conquered successively by the Greeks, Mughals, Portuguese and the British.
Another perspective that is floating around is that there never was something like India, but it was a loose congregation of feudal states always at war with each other.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
From an Indic history perspective, given our geography, we were always a mixed set as far as culture goes. This led to a complex mixture of cultures and histories that bore striking resemblance to medieval Europe. There were empires, states and independent satraps who held their own, thriving within the ecosystem. While some were at war with each other, most major powers sometimes went so far as to cooperate and have strong diplomatic relationships with their neighbors. Many in the Indic region combined mighty military powers with excellent diplomatic and trade skills. This led them to evolve from a small state to an empire with fantastic military powers.
Take for example the Chola Empire. Starting as an unnoticeable state by around 200 BC in Tamil Nadu, they evolved into a mighty imperial state by 9 CE dominating all of South India and South Asia and lasting till 1279 CE. This made them one of the longest running dynasties in the world. The Chola period also for the first time formed a single government in South India.
The Cholas had extended their empire up to the Ganges at one point of time. It was estimated that at one time, they had over two million soldiers who were occupied in wars on various fronts. And that is large even by today’s standards. In fact, Raja Raja Chola and Rajendra Chola had such powerful militaries of that time that they were the only known Father-Son duo who never lost a single war or battle they fought. However, while empires like Gupta, Maurya and others primarily concentrated on land armies – the infantry & cavalry, as far as military areas go, the Cholas evolved a super navy at that time. These were equipped with flame throwers that bestowed a decided advantage on them during sea battles. This powerful navy gave the Cholas a unique hold over the seas, unheard of by Asian powers of the time. At the peak of their power play, they controlled Sri Lanka, Maldives, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia along with their surrounding areas. They used their Indian naval base to dominate South Asia as a region that was unheard of at that time.
Diplomatically, it was another fascinating story altogether. The Cholas’ sphere of influence extended far beyond their military borders in South Asia. Their naval commanders also backed up as diplomats when required. The Cholas had extremely friendly relationships with their neighbors, including the Mauryan Empire. They collaborated with the Mysore kingdom to conquer Sri Lanka. They developed excellent diplomatic relationships with China and Burma. The Chola King Rajendra Chola 1 sent out three ambassadors to China, which the Chinese reciprocated by sending their ambassadors, as told by Ban Gu in his work The Book of Han. The relationship between the Cholas and the Chinese is backed up by the finding of Chinese coins at the hubs of Chola Dynasty.
Another interesting thing is that while the Cholas built magnificent temples across their territories as places of worship backed up by fine art, these temples were also the hubs of economic activity, which also backed their diplomatic efforts. They excelled in foreign trade, which was especially strong with the Arabs and across South and South East Asia and China. Merchants during the Chola period were of two types and had their own settlements and guilds – one domestic or Swadesi and foreign or Nanadesi. These merchants financed building of temples and also lent money to the Chola Kings. Two of the most powerful of the Nanadesi guilds were Ayyavole, which looked at trade with West Asia and Maninagaram that looked at trade with South East Asia. Even today, one finds footprints of the Chola Empire all over South East Asia.
Such was the reputation of the Cholas that even at their lowest, when they were on the verge of takeover by the Pandyan and Pallavan Empires, the hands of their princesses was considered very prestigious by other kingdoms and budding empires.
There is a wealth of knowledge and ideas in the strategies and tactics used by ancient and medieval Indic kings to combine and balance military, trade and diplomacy to achieve lasting success. For those of us who do not know or study this, we are beholden to follow the western ideas of using military, diplomacy and trade in our international relations and domestic policies. And when we play by the rules of the party facing us, we are always in a position of weakness with our reputations at stake. Which is where we are today.