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A Benevolent Despot

Raja Raja, cholas

Among the most notable and by far the most successful dynasties of the medieval world were the cholas. That phase of medieval history between 900 A.D and 1200 A.D, saw them dominate the subcontinent very consummately and completely. During that period possibly for the last time there was a genuine surge in creativity in all spheres of life and this was actively encouraged by a powerful and strong political power. Two of the most important rulers of this great dynasty during medieval ages are the illustrious father son duo of Raja Raja and Rajendra. Raja Raja, the great chola emperor is remembered for his turning cholas into the most powerful military power in the subcontinent and laying foundation for overseas conquests.

One of the other personal hallmarks of cholas, along with unparalleled piety was the assiduity and conspicuity in setting their objectives and the brilliant no nonsense approach to achieving the same. No work on cholas is ever complete without noting the humble, selfless, devotion shown by the kings, queens and princes to the almighty, particularly Lord Siva, to whom this clan paid obeisance from ancient days. Raja Raja was a heir to this tradition. He was raised in pazhayara vadatali near kumbakonam, traditionally, one of the places where cholas were crowned as kings. The very name pazhayarai vadatali brings to mind the ancient chola king kochenkannan who out devotion to lord built seventy temples including the magnificent one at pazhayarai vadatali. The tiruvalangadu and kanyakumari copper plates of the cholas which also throw some light on their administration, note that Raja Raja also known as Raja kesari varma, Rajasraya and arumoli (The one of refined speech) varma, among a host of other names, had declined the throne after the death of his illustrious elder brother, the conqueror at a tender age, of pandya and Karnataka kings, Aditya Karikala-II, so that his uncle uttama chola may become the king. This act itself shows his selflessness and professionalism, a hallmark of the most of great ancient Indian monarchs. Uttama chola though not a selfish or corrupt monarch, did not rule for long and died in 985 A.D and very much in line with the wishes of people Raja Raja ascended the throne. Tiruvalangadu copper plates commemorate this occasion by praising him to be “ a matchless pile of courage, intelligence, piety and strength of arms.”

The military expeditions of Raja Raja are mentioned in almost all available inscriptions of his.
He was a very ambitious monarch who spent a lot of time building and training the army and navy, to realize his high goals. The innumerable references to various regiments and their number itself tells about the importance attached by the emperor to military. The regiments consisted of professional soldiers and volunteers. The volunteers having come from various sections of society like temple musicians, temple servants, skilled workers (like carpenters and weavers) etc. The voluntary soldiers seemingly were pushed to service during times when the requirement did not match with existing resources. As a return for this they were allowed to borrow a specified amount of money from temple at given interest rate and a bonus gift of paddy on return. Himself a great warrior and disciplinarian, his stern dislike and disapproval of his soldiers falling short of expectations is brought to light in one of the inscriptions that states that a soldier belonging to a particular special service regiment had deposited money with the temple to burn a perpetual lamp if he successfully met his goals at crushing a rebellion. Among the most noted of his conquests was the chola occupation of maldives. The motive behind this action seems to have been to cut off the tradelinks with West Asia then being dominated by Mohammedans. This and another invasion of udagai during which we know that the cholas killed as many as eighteen princes of chera clan seems to have completed the conquest of cheras, in the west. Next came the pandyans who were completely routed.

Rajaraja simultaneously directed his arms against Ceylon. The king is said to have undertaken his expedition in order that “the eight quarters might praise him”. The result as we know from Mahavamsa was the chola occupation of Srilanka which continued for another century and a half, though not without dispatching punitive expeditions time and again. One of the conquest to which the king attached great importance to was the defeat of chalukyas of deccan, the inveterate enemies of cholas. It was a savagely cruel war in which thousands died, and thousands were crippled. Putting in field two armies simultaneously, the cholas according to many inscriptions invaded the territory of their enemies and annihilated everything that they found there man, woman, child and animal.The occupation ended only when the clans of the deccan agreed to pay the yearly tribute to the chola treasury. The king seems to have attached a great deal of importance to this conquest of his worst enemy as we see that he worshipped Lord Siva with thousand golden flowers, and made a gift of several kilos of gold and jewellery to the big temple he built in tanjore on his victorious return from the expedition. With this expedition and another one against orissa , the cholas seem to have consolidated their power and made themselves the most powerful force in subcontinent. In subsequent years many administrative reforms were introduced. Land as small in extent as 1/52,428,800,000 of a veli ( is a piece of land) was measured and assessed to revenue. Many of the management procedures employed are so clear that they can be instantly fed into the modern digital computer for analysis.Many revisions were also made in the election of governing councils and constitution. A series measures were also undertaken to streamline judiciary by limiting the term and preventing repetition of judges.

The meticulousness displayed underline the serious attitude maintained by the king with regards to administration and dispensing of justice and this may not have been the characteristic of a good majority of kings particularly during medieval ages when every ruler jealously viewed the other’s possessions and frequently indulged in Machiavellian conspiracies.

Raja Raja’s intellectual nature is brought out well in his inscriptions. In each of his inscription a brief geneology of chola clan is first given and is followed by accurate quotation of regnal date. This is followed by the list of conquests and tributes levied from the same, a legacy carried on scrupulously by his successors. Addition of list of conquests is clearly an innovation by the king as we see that the previous kings of dynasties of both pallavas and cholas had made extensive conquests but they did not feel it necessary to mention the details in the inscriptions, though they did so without fail in copperplates. Raja Raja’s period also witnessed a spurt in literary activity, though we do not possess any work from the period.

Apart from being a great warrior and general, he is also known for his piety. Inscriptions speak of great munificence to many temples and especially chidambaram which housed the Lord to whom the chola clan bore servitude since ancient times. The big temple commissioned by the king in his capital was supposed to and actually had the measurements of the temple ( chitrambala(temple at chidambaram) kol(measure)) at chidambaram as personally instructed by the king. It is a remarkable achievement on the part of artisans that the work was completed in a matter of five years. In that he installed the images of the great nayanmar saints of yore. Singing of tiruppadiyam hymns (devotional outpourings of four canonical nayanmar saints), prevalent during the previous pallava period was streamlined with the rediscovery of the hymn collection in the cellars of chidambaram temple. The enormous endowments in lands and gold made to the temple show that the king had one sole object in his later life, viz., to leave no want of the temple unsupplied.

To commemorate the events that led to his building the great temple in his capital, a play called Rajarajeswara tirunatakam was written and enacted on festival days. The script of this play is missing and is considered by many historians as a substantial loss, assuming it could have provided some valuable historical information. It is sad that out of the several thousands of documentations undertaken during the period, only the temple inscriptions now remain in a crude form and they bear silent testimony to the rule of this great monarch, who ruled during one of the most hazardous times in the world.

-K.Sethumadhavan
Published: 2007-10-12
Author: K.Sethumadhavan

About the author or the publisher
A management professional with eight years experience in telecommunications industry, I have written a lot of articles in subjects related to management and strategic information analysis.

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