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The Chola Empire of Medieval South India - Chola Dynasty

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Question: Critically examine the degree of political and administrative centralisation achieved by the Chola rulers.

The Chola Dynasty was based in modern day Tamil Nadu and ruled primarily in southern India until the thirteenth century. The dynasty is said to have originated in the fertile valley of the Kaveri River. Karikala Chola stands as the most famous among the early Chola kings, while Rajaraja Chola, Rajendra Chola and Kulothunga Chola I ruled with mighty power as notable emperors of the medieval Cholas.

The Cholas reached the peak of their power during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries; under Rajaraja Chola I (Rajaraja the Great) and his son Rajendra Chola, the dynasty became a military, economic and cultural power throughout Asia. The Chola territories are said to have stretched from the islands of the Maldives in the South to as far North as the banks of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh. Rajaraja Chola conquered peninsular South India, annexed parts of Sri Lanka and occupied the islands of the Maldives. Rajendra Chola sent a victorious expedition to North India that touched the river Ganga and defeated the Pala ruler of Pataliputra, Mahipala. He also successfully raided kingdoms of the Malay Archipelago. The power of the Cholas appears to have started on a path of decline around the twelfth century with the rise of the Pandyas and the Hoysala, eventually coming to an end towards the end of the thirteenth century.

Based on the importance and the legacy left behind by the Cholas, it is important for us to examine the nature of the Chola State and the degree of political and administrative centralisation. There is a spectrum of opinions by various historians regarding this issue which we must critically examine.

Nilakanta Sastri:

Nilakanta Sastri presents one of the earliest views on the Chola State formation in which he projects the State to be highly centralized and bureaucratized with a clear hierarchy which facilitates control even over the vast and diversified geographical terrain which was under the rule of the Cholas. It is not difficult to imagine this simplistic arguement in which Sastri keeps the ruler has the epitome of all political activity. He is not just the ruler but even the military head (additional exertion of force). Although Sastri does go into the divisions of clusters of villagaes which form the nadu and the nadus which form vallanadu, he basically comes back to state that all of these territorial units were ultimately controlled by the kind because of the high degree of central authority.

Sastri's view slowly gained a fair share of counter views attached to it which emerged as critiques to the centralized theory. It is crucial for us to explore some of these views in order to see the Chola State formation from various points of views and capture its complexity as a State formation.

Burton Stein:

Burton Stein proposes the segmentary state model (inspired by Southall).

Aiden Southall and Burton Stein are the major propounders of this theory. They have made an attempt has been ,made to view the medieval polity, particularly that of the medieval South India, in terms of segmentary state. The segmentary state is understood as one in which the spheres of ritual suzerainty and political sovereignty do not coincide. The ritual suzerainty extends more widely towards a flexible, changing periphery and the political sovereignty is confined to the central core area. In segmentary state there exist several levels of subordinate foci, organised pyramidally beyond a royal centre from the primary centre of the ruling dynasty kings unified their subordinate centres ideologically. In the state segments actual political control was exercised by l o d elite. It is also assumed that there existed close co-operation between brahmanas and dominant peasants. However, the segmentary state formulation has some limitations. Ritual suzerainty is confused with cultural suzerainty. It also relegates the different foci of power to the periphery and does not see them as components of the state power. Moreovq, the heterogeneous character of South Indian peasantry is not adequately understood. In so far as the notion of segmentary state subordinates political and economic dimensions of the State structure to its ritual dimensions, it does not inspire much confidence.

Burton Stein's model of the segmentary state in South Indian history has to be regarded as the second major conceptual contribution to contemporary medieval Indian historiography. Aidan Southall formulated the segmentary state model for his study of the Alur in highland East Africa in 1956 for the same reason that Burton Stein adapted his formulation for the Cholas of South India almost two decades later: in order to provide a conception of 'state' that satisfied emperical conditions in respective researches as well as the desire to theorize political relationships in our different fields in new ways.

At a series of workshops in 1963 and 1964 on land control and social structure in India, Stein came forward with his seminal study on 'Integration and the Agrarian System of South India'. This was strongly influenced by Subbarao as he elaborated on his concept of 'nuclear areas of corporate institutions', which became fundamental to Stein's interpretation of South Indian history. It was understood that the core components of these nuclear areas that he was talking about were 'the brahmadeya or Brahman - controlled circle of villages' and the 'periyanadu or a Sat - Sudra - controlled extended locality'. These areas were generally situated in the fertile drainagebasins of the major rivers and in the coastal districts of the Coromandel coast of South India and they all shared a set of distinctive characteristics.

All these areas contain a set of highly autonomous, self - governing institutions, Brahman and Sat - Sudra settlements, caste and occupational assemblies, and religious bodies which maintained some relationships with the Chola rulers to whom some tribute was sent.

Another major point of Stein's interpretation is that he discusses the question of revenue or surplus transfer from these autonomous nuclear areas to the royal treasury.He admits that they usually transfered at least a small portion of their surplus to the royal treasury.

So, what exactly was Stein's segmentary state model proposing?

The most difficult question confronting the historians of India has been to characterize the state in pre - modern times. When the history of the Cholas,Vijayanagara, and other medieval kingdoms was revisited by Stein it was obvious



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