Babur [right] and Humayun with Courtiers (Detail), Late Shahjahan Period, ca. 1650.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chola Expansion in the broader context of trading activities.

I was mainly reading two articles by Hermann Kulke and Tansen Sen and this is a brief understanding of their views, based on their perception as understood from the two articles.

One must broaden the horizon and include the greater geography of south and eastern asia and even the west to understand the Chola maritime expeditions, instead of focusing solely on the south asian peninsula. We need to keep three points in mind while trying to understand the contemporary relations: a potent trading system under Song China, a strategic location of Sri Vijaya and a commercially expanding Chola empire. Tansen Sen views the conflict between Sri Vijaya and Chola as intense competition to access the viable markets in Song China.

One thing must be kept in mind as Hermann Kulke pointed out that Rajendra’s expedition was a unique case in point because otherwise the relation between the peninsula and south east asia was peaceful. Several causes have been put forward ranging from digvijaya to looting and plundering to removing sri vijaya as a hurdle towards commercial expansion, or may be all of them worked at some levels.
The possibilities of a trade war cannot be ridiculed because of sri vijayan diplomatic attempts to stall chola trade with the song market. This is evident in a chinese document from sri vijaya that gives the false data that the cholas were under Sri Vijayan suzereinty.

Hermann Kulke identifies the three major dynasties rising in the 10th century and of major concerns in this context as the Fatimid in Egypt, Cholas, and Song in China. Trade with the gulf and malabar is recorded in documents of Jewish traders of Cairo and Aden. The kingdom of Angkor too extended frontiers dominating part of Laos and Thailand and northern part of Malay Peninsula. The attack of Chola on Sri Vijaya has to be thus seen on the broader context of rise of new powers, shifting trade routes on which all these powers wanted to capitalise upon, and a struggle for market share.
The redifinition of trade routes and growing importance of new states that affected the dynamics of trading networks in south and east asia is evident from various facts: A chinese account suggests the growing military and piracy skills of the Sri Vijaya. Regarding india and china, hermann Kulke suggests that though the former was still the holy land, the latter was arguably the middle kingdom to be reckoned with and most kingdoms tried to win it’s favour by sending tributary missions. Its importance in chinese trade is evident from the meticulous recording of the chinese on tributaries and gifts. The reunification of china under the song dynasty further added to its importance.

Diplomatic relations of Sri Vijaya with the Chola state is evident too, like in the Leiden grant of 1005 where Rajendra granted the revenue of a village to maintain the Buddhist shrine constructed by the Sailendra king at Negapattinam. Initially during the trade rivalry both the states tried to maintain friendly relations. That the conflicts need to be seen from a larger picture is evident from the fact that Sri Vijaya had conflict with Angkor too, though sources are scarce on this.

Kulke has tried to bring in the role of guilds in trying to influence chola court to eliminate trading rivalry in Sri Vijaya. However the chola kings always tried to maintain a diplomatic relation with the south east and east asian powers. Kulottunga tried to do so, and consecrated them also with rituo- political missions.

The decline of cholas didn’t necessarily mean a decline of eastern trade. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries show heightened functioning of Ayavvole and Manigramam merchants in south india and ceylon. In the 13th century there’s evidence of large presence of south indian merchants in china. Muslim rule brought the subcontinent into the fold of international muslim trade in the indian ocean.

-Sohini Chattopadhyay (Dept. of History, Second Year, Presidency University, Kolkata)

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