If nationalist historiography invariably looked for centralised, expansive empires, thereby negating the possibilities of changes beyond dynastic shifts, Marxist historiography stressed on the traits of decentralized, fragmented polity which itself spoke of some structural changes in political life from the scenario prevailing prior to c. 600 CE. The salient feature of Marxist approach is to identify the institution of landgrants – initially in favour of religious donees, but later to secular donees – as the principal agent of change, bringing in parcellised sovereignty which sought to explain the multiplicity of political powers in the absence of a handful number of centralized, imperial entities. In this perspective, early medieval polity is equated with feudal polity that emerged as a result of the breakdown of centralized polity.
The feudal model, largely constructed by using Puranic and epigraphic data pertaining to north India, was sharply criticized by the model of segmentary state, drawing from the anthropological researches on the east African Alur society and the vast body of Pallava and especially Chola inscriptions. Although the feudal and the segmentary models of polity were mutually critical of each other, there is a commonalty in their approaches. Both the explanatory models emphasized on the rampancy of political disintegration and therefore argued for political crises and ritual sovereignty. Both these positions have received major critiques from ‘non-aligned’ historians who have ably demonstrated the distinct elements of integrative polity. Integrative polity facilitated the emergence of state societies at local and supra-local levels as a result of local formation, developments from within, and not because of external stimuli like the perceived decline of long-distance trade and incursions from without.
Amidst these scholarly debates, which have immensely enriched the study of political history of early
Significantly enough, a few historians—without minimizing the importance of agriculture as the principal material basis of emergent state societies—have also been alive to the contribution of the non-agrarian sector of the economy to the making of the state. Although the majority of such works relate mostly to the north Indian scenario (e.g. Chattopadhyaya and V.K. Jain), Champakalakshmi, Hall and Abraham have highlighted vibrant artisanal productions, commercial exchanges and urban formations (cf. Chattopadhyaya’s ‘Third Urbanization’) in south Indian experience. Both Champakalakshmi and Abraham took into account the stellar role played by several mercantile organizations in south India. Taking the cue from them, two of the foremost experts on south Indian state and society, viz. Karashima and Subbarayalu, have drawn our attention to the importance of maritime commerce in the making of the state and economy in south India during the early medieval times. Both the historians have so far been primarily focusing on agrarian history and rural society as integral components of south Indian polity. Their principal data base remains inscriptions which are staple sources for political and agrarian history. Yet, by bringing into light and recognition many known and unknown inscriptions, directly related to the numerous mercantile bodies, they have established how south Indian inscriptions offer a wonderful spectacle of commerce and merchants. As the peninsular India opens out to long coastal stretches, it is hardly surprising that they have also given due attention to maritime trade, especially in the Bay of Bengal arena which provides crucial commercial and cultural connections with both mainland and maritime south-east Asia. In this context, the sustained Chola interests in the matters maritime have been revisited by Kulke, Karashima, Subbarayalu and Tansen Sen. That the Chola aggressive and diplomatic designs were not merely manifestations of the digvijaya model, nor symptomatic of the segmentary polity, nor prompted by plunder dynamics, but largely because of their lively interests in and admirable awareness of the Indian Ocean world, now looms large in the current trends of research. At this juncture the Chola maritime expeditions in the