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

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Interpreting epigraphic sources referring to long-term commerce and mercantile concerns of Chola State

The articles given deal with the discovery , interpretations and propositions made  over the inscriptions found in the vast geographic expanse ranging from south Asia , South-East Asia to as far as China. They refer to the long-term commercial endeavours of the south Indian mercantile people in the early medieval period. The first two articles are authored by N. Karashima and the last one is penned down by Y. Subbarayalu. Karashima’s first article throws light on the readings of the inscriptions found from south India , Sri Lanka and Myanmar whereas the second article lists total seven inscriptions found from South east Asia and  China . Among them one particular inscription of Sumatra in  Indonesia has been thoroughly dealt by Subbarayalu in the last discussible article .As a whole ,  I would like to look at the matter holistically  keeping in mind that the enormous  commercial expansion in India and abroad  received considerable fillip during the heyday of the Chalukyas and Cholas in Karnataka and Tamil nadu respectively. As Karashima considers that his predecessor in the work of the study of the oceanic commerce in the early medieval period , was Meera Abraham who had dealt with only 150 epigraphs mainly concentrating upon two major guilds which are  Manigramam And Ainurruvar .  Later under the leadership of Karashima , The Taisho university project undertook  a thorough research . Their study is  based on the evidence of total 314 inscriptions from south India and abroad .
From the study it is evident that Ainurruvar was undoubtedly the most significant and wide-ranging merchant guild of this period. The term ‘Ainurruvar’ means ‘the five hundred members’ and the very name proves the enormity of the body of both size and extent. It was primarily an organization of Brahmins known as Mahajans or chaturvedins at that time . Karashima postulates that it is still quite unclear that how this body was formed and formulated and there is a debate as well regarding the original place of its growth . However the findings suggest that it  may be originated in Aihole in Karnataka but it first took its grandiose outlook in Tamil nadu . Mysore , which is now in Karnataka became the pivot of their commercial activities when the  Cholas witnessed their  heyday .  Chola conquerors like Rajendra I or Rajadhiraja I occupied those regions including Mysore  .
In this case the study shows a strange factor in this context that the occurrence of the inscriptions in Tamil nadu seemed to decline in Tamil nadu in 11th and 12th century when the Cholas seemed to have been in the zenith of their  power . I would like to emphasize this point in my own way and what I make out is that it is not always possible to equate the flourish of the commercial sector with the heyday of the chief political power in the throne and we should study the non-agrarian sector without the spectacle of the mainstream politics especially when the mercantile class itself emerges as a separate , independent entity in the society and it had its own course of  origin , growth , expansion and decline . Later I would like to emphasize that the imperial government was not necessarily directly involved in the expansion of oceanic commerce of South Indian people .

Again we come to Karashima’s study where he at length  mentioned about the diversity of the contents of the  inscriptions , their common features and their inherent differences .
As far as the contents are concerned , we get varied epigraphic accounts like- some grants mention patronage to  temple-building or a tank-constructing work (s we find in pagan inscription of Myanmar where a reference was made towards a tank named “ nanadesi-vinnagar’ or in pudukottai inscription where the reference is made to “ainiurruvar –pereri’ ) Some inscriptions declare personal charity , lavish donation to a person or to group . Some declare the resolution or consensus among the merchant groups or  a artisans’ body .
 Actually typologically Karashima categorized all there inscriptions into two sorts . the very first sort consists of the records of earlier century  which mention the conferment of the title “eri-virapattinam’ on a certain town by the Ainurruvar guild itself . the term ‘eri-virapattinam’ itself has been a matter of great attention as there are many interpretations of it by several scholars preceding Karashima and his followers . It has been variedly interpreted as mercantile town , fortified mart , market town protected by warriors , emporium connecting nagaram(town) and pattinam (port) . Champakalakshmi ascribes it as ‘privileged town ‘ . But the interpretations of Karashima is somewhat different from them . He finds from Samuttirapatti inscription that the merchants of Ainurruvar conferred the title of eri-virapattinam ‘ to town where they dwelled along with their guardsmen known as ‘virakodiyar’ . These particular Virakodiyar group was warriors with arms and ammunition who protected the merchants from antagonism posed by rivals . They were employed and remunerated by the townsmen . As , in many cases they were referred to as “our son ‘ or the sons of Ainurruvar , its is clear that they gelled pretty well with merchants of the guild. Karashima seems that these warriors must have some connections with the chola army whose composition is still unclear  as He cites  the famous polonnaruva inscription of Ceylon where a Buddhist temple was to be protected by the virakodiyars and this temple was patronized by the merchants living there . The association with the army helped the warrior protectors to augment their power to control the safety and flow of commercial endeavours in south India and Ceylon .

Now , we come another sort of epigraphic sources according to Karashima and it consists of the epigraphs which record the grant to the temples by the income known as Pattana –pagudi in tamilnadu and Dharamyam in Karnataka of the ainurruvar guild itself . The income or pattana-pagudi was made of by commercial transactions . the greatest examples can be found at the inscriptions of Sarkar periyapalaiyam , Piranmalai , Kovilpatti and miraj .
At the end of this article I   conclude that as the 11th century inscriptions are more vocal about the warriors and the later inscriptions speak more of the Tamil merchant , it can be assumed that primarily the control of that state more extant with employment of the class of warrior-protectors called virakodiyar , but later the control of state declined and Tamil merchants became much more independent .

Karashima’s second article focuses on the Tamil inscriptions found from South east Asia and china . Actually , both in South East  Asia and China , Sanskrit inscriptions are found in greater number than the Tamil ones . As the Sanskrit inscriptions mainly dealt with the eulogy of the local political figures , henceforth the Tamil epigraphs have been considered as the core source of information regarding the commercial activities undertaken by the south Indian merchants living there permanently or not . Among such seven inscriptions , chronologically the oldest one datable to 3rd- 4th c. is found at south Thailand . The epigraph shows a presence of a flourishing bead and jewelry industry whose glory was augmented by a colony of Tamil merchants living their and the collaboration resulted great commercial success. The was discovered in 2nd Tamil inscription to reckon was discovered in  Takua pa and this site yielded some art objects resembling Pallava art tradition. From the transcription of that particular inscription we get to know that a tank named “sri avnainaranam ‘ which a title of pallava king narasimhavarman III  of 9th century was constructed under the patronage of merchants probably of  Manigramam. So this is definitely a good evidence to show the acknowledgement by the merchant class to the supervising political power . But whether this acknowledgement was ritualistic or state-ordained is not ascertained beyond doubt .     The 3rd epigraph of Barus in Sumatra in Indonsian Archipelago has been fairly dealt in detail in Subbarayalu in the third discussible article. The epigraph was found in Loboe toewa and it was issued in AD 1088 . A merchant body called “ the five hundred of the thousand directions met at Velapuram in baros and made a grant to two individual and to a group . The inscription refers to saka era and also to a colony of Tamil merchants in Baros who were as much privileged as to designate a old port town of Barus in  Tamilian manner. So , it can be interpreted as the extension of larger coimmerical activities of the Ayyavole-5oo guild within and beyond south India in 11th c.   (Subbarayalu concluded that this guild is found in several coastal towns including isakhapattinam under the heyday of the Cholas ). The two more epigraphs from Thailand are important to reckon . One stone inscription of a Buddhist temple records a grant made by a a rich merchant named Danma senapati to Brahmins . Another inscription sculpted with head of Ganesha conveys a donative deed by important personage named Dipankara for the merit of a local king . Though the donor seemed to be army commander in designation , but he could be rich merchant who praises merit of a local king by donation. In the 13th c.  The next inscription from Pagan in Myanmar is also related to a merchant guild of Nanadesi who patronized the installation of a front hall in a Vishnu temple there , (and also to the installation of a door and a lamp in the temple ). the last inscription of Guangzhou in china dated to 13th c. reveals the endeavour of a tamil merchant named Champanda Perumal by the permission of Chechchai khan installed an image of lord Shiva in a temple named Tirukkanichchuram . We find traces of Hindu Diaspora in Guangzhou in that time and that was made by the commercial colonization of Tamil merchants there.

 Now in the final review it can be suggested that all these Tamil inscriptions found from South east  Asia and china are however quite silent about factor of the political authoritative control over the mercantile class or the vice-versa. Undoubtedly three major guilds grabbed all the attention –viz.Ainurruvar , Manigramam and nanadesi. We hardly get utterances regarding commitments of these overseas merchants or entrepreneurs to the core political authority of their original homeland  which is south India itself . However with scanty and occasional references to the existing ruling head , the merchants were more vocal about their own deeds, endeavors , arena of their network , their charitable mind and so on. I am quite sure that the nitty –gritty of  the south Indian commerce was not directly dictated by the central ofiice . The central office definitely had their motive of gaining control of the prospectful regions in the maritime space and it is extant from their overseas expeditions where they were eager to control the trade-routes leading to China . The merchants in their turn were great in making their own glorious career !  These nonresident south Indian mercantile people nicely managed themselves to settle themselves in alien lands and they  sustained their livelihood of  trade and commerce pretty well . They were able in such a vigour that they were intent to undertake charitable and constructive work in the foreign land as the signs of colonizing alien land in order to expand their domain of activities .Hence they were able to form diasporas in abroad . They took pride upon these endeavors in their proud utterances in the apparently humble declaration of charitable works which are extant in all these inscriptions. 

- Aritri Chakrabarti


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