With the release of teasers and trailers for Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan, social media has erupted in jubilation over this cinematic celebration marketed as a “Golden Age for Tamils”. In this sense, the film is part of a decades-long attempt to reclaim the medieval Chola dynasty as icons of muscular nationalism.
The books upon which the film is based, written by freedom fighter Kalki R Krishnamurthy between 1950–54, are certainly among the most important works of modern Tamil literature. Kalki’s utopian optimism about the dynasty is understandable, given the century’s need for national icons around which to build political consciousness. What is less understandable is modern media’s increasing yearning for Chola ‘glory.’ Their unceasing appetite for expansion and frequent violence against women were written about even during Kalki’s time. Since then, decades of scholarship have shown that the Chola polity was not only as brutal as any other, but that even its own subjects had a much less rosy picture of it than we do.
A disturbing peasant-lord equation
Imagine a history of modern India based only on advertisements of ruling political parties. We would conclude that every single party has been efficient, incorruptible, and transformed India and all its people for the better. Of course, this is completely untrue. We all have families and friends who have lived through disastrous governmental incompetence, and generations of journalists have exposed the foibles of state power. Yet this is exactly how we see medieval India—most of the sources that writers like Kalki rely upon are inscriptions of royals praising themselves, or poetry, drama and ritual texts written by their propagandists.
To understand the realities of Chola rule, we thus need to look at the testimony of commoners who were affected by it. Folk ballads are one such source of evidence. The Ananmar Kathai, an epic of Tamil Nadu’s Kongu Vellalar community composed between 1000–1500 CE, sings of a family of upper-caste landlords. They are sent by an unnamed Chola king to claim a nearby territory, though it is already inhabited by artisans and Adivasis. As soon as they arrive, the Vellalar family begin to fight with both groups. In the Kathai, the god Vishnu helps subjugate the artisans himself. He then commands that they will be henceforth paid not in gold, but in grain, as decided by their landlords. The landlord family gradually grows in power. Though they were initially allies and vassals of the Chola kings, a pair of twins born to the family decide that this is not enough. First, in a show of machismo, they slaughter almost all the artisans in their lands. Next, chafing at the Chola ruler’s tyranny and insults, they assassinate him in his palace and burn it down. Then, they go to war with the Adivasis of their region, killing dozens and attaining victory before being commanded by Vishnu to commit ritual suicide. The twins are still worshipped today.
The Kathai shows us that Tamil history is rather more complicated than the Chola kings being glorious, righteous heroes. Here, we have a narrative from the powerful landlord castes that made up the backbone of the Chola tax and military apparatus; clearly, the landlords were not in much awe of the Cholas, and would not hesitate to kill a king when needed. Indeed, medieval landlords (including temples) were completely unafraid to use brutality to keep their tenants, serfs and slaves in line. In the Annual Reports of South Indian Epigraphy 1926, inscriptions 94 and 95, we see a mention of runaway slaves branded with the trident of Shiva. In texts from medieval Gujarat such as the Lekhapaddati (letters 58 and 59) we see punishments such as dragging by the hair and kicking and beating with sticks. If female slaves died by suicide, they were cursed to be reborn as donkeys, bitches, or Dalits, while their masters were declared blameless. (Medieval attitudes to caste, as seen here, were every bit as disturbing as todays’.)
Furthermore, as shown by professor Brenda EF Beck, the world’s leading scholar on the Ananmar Kathai, medieval landlords of the ‘right-hand’ castes were brutal to artisanal groups of the ‘left-hand’ castes. In Resistance versus Rebellion in a South Indian Epic, Beck examines archaeological evidence from sites close to where the Ananmar Kathai was composed. She finds that artisans were paid in gold in the early centuries of the common era, before agrarian states were the norm. However, their material conditions declined steeply in the medieval period, when agrarian states such as that of the Cholas were expanding. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that the ‘left-hand’ castes spearheaded major medieval revolts, especially the Virashaiva or Lingayat movement in 13th century Karnataka that shook the temple-based agrarian polities of the region to their foundations. Many rebellions are also documented in Chola period Tamil Nadu in MD Rajkumar’s Struggles for Rights During the Later Chola Period.
The historical amnesia of Chola reverence
The Chola polity was at its heart a group of elites — including local strongmen, landlords, temple institutions, and Brahmins assembles — that collaborated to generate revenue from land, often fighting to keep as much wealth for themselves as possible. This “network of lords”, consisting of overlapping layers of authority, was led by the Chola king. The Cholas claimed their right to rule through their family’s prestige, expressed through temple building and patronage of poets, priests, and artists, but much more significantly, through military accomplishments.
The conquests of the Cholas are perhaps what they are best known for today, with many claiming that the Cholas “colonised” Southeast Asia. More recently, some have even made absurd claims of the Cholas defeating Mahmud of Ghazni and of “peacefully” conquering vast territories. While the former is not based on a single contemporary source, the latter conveniently ignores the fact that Chola kings took great pride in destroying cities and seizing and killing women. For example, in the Karandai Tamil Sangam Plates verses 53–54, Rajendra Chola I describes his burning of the city of Manyakheta: “While that great city was burning amidst thousands of flames thrown by his army, the women, moving in the open spaces of high palatial residences inlaid with jewels, appeared, on account of the nets of smoke rising from the fire, like lightning moving amid clouds. The divine horde, abandoning even the celestial abode caught by the ever-consuming flames burning aloft from that city… fled away out of fear, suspecting it to be the fire of the apocalypse.”
From the most oppressed slave in the Kaveri River valley to the violence committed by emperors on elephant-back, the evidence shows us that the Chola empire was no different from any of its contemporaries. If this can be called a golden age, it was only a golden age for its kings. In 2022, as we prepare for yet another film whitewashing the realities of our medieval past, perhaps it is worth asking why we are so nostalgic for these distant rulers.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.