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

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A New Taxonomy for the Chola State: Contemplating a Shift from the Agrarian to the Non-Agrarian

As the concept note of the session suggests, the period in question i.e. 600-1300 c.e., witnessed significant political shifts and is marked by the absence of a “centralized” empire congruent to the size and nature of that of the Mauryas.

Hermann Kulke in his introduction to “The State in India 1000-1700”- says that the study of the state in India have been one of the most controversial issues of contemporary Indian historiography. The various opposing and agreeing concepts that have emerged to define the Indian state could be divided into some major groups- 1.Oriental despotism related to the Marxian notion of Asiatic mode of production later used by Karl Wittfogel in his theory of hydraulic bureaucracy where put schematically the state represented by the despot laid supreme and central claim on the agrarian resources; 2. Indian nationalist historiographical model of a unitary, centrally organized empire; 3. The Indian feudalism model of a decentralized and fragmented feudal state that presupposes the existence of an earlier strong state, weakened by the feudalization; 4. The segmentary state model which provides for the condition of transition to a strong state from a multicentred structure.
The central concern of all the mentioned concepts -is the degree of central authority of the state, but the central concern for any conceptual formulation regarding the nature of a polity could not be limited by the concern with aspects of stability in its power structure, the aspects of resource mobilization demanded equal attention, which as B.D. Chattopadhyay says, “logically, cannot be separated from the process of the redistribution of resources to integrative elements within the state structure.”[i]

The apparently disparate approaches- from the Asiatic mode of production to the Indian nationalist model that stressed on the overarching centrality of the state power on the one hand and the feudal and the segmentary state approaches that laid stress on the decentralized nature of the state on the other hand, had a commonality in their emphasis on the aspects of resource mobilization in terms of the agrarian revenue. The nature and scale of appropriation of agrarian revenue and the degree of control on the chief means of production, i.e. the land, the peasantry and the irrigation water made the basis for the classification into centralized and decentralized state structures.

It has been considered that the historiography of the state in “early medieval” South India received a new turn with Burton Stein’s propagation of the model of ‘Segmentary state’- inspired by the 1956 anthropological study of Allur society in Africa by A.W. Southall. B. Subbarao in 1958 distinguished certain segments in the structure of the polity- 1) areas of attraction, 2) areas of relative isolation and 3) tribal areas or areas of isolation. Stein in 1969 elaborated the concept of nuclear areas of corporate institutions, the core components being the Brahmadeya or the Brahman controlled villages and the Perinayadu or Satsudra settlements, situated mainly in the fertile areas of drainage basins of the major rivers and coastal districts of Corromondal coast- having rich agrarian economy. They had highly autonomous and self governing institutions and maintained ‘some relations’ with the Chola rulers in the forms of providing tributes and participating in the plundering expeditions. Stein says that despite considerable revenue earning came from the agrarian sector in the areas around Tanjore, the major royal income came from the looting expedition.[ii] Therefore for him yet again-somehow correlated to the degree of control on the land revenue resources, the Chola state was invariably a multicentred state.

Critics of Stein like Subbarayalu or James Heitzmann have stressed on the fallacies of treating the entire Chola rule as a single historical unit and for applying the segmentary concept for the whole period. Subbarayalu suggests the segmentary idea can be applied only for the phase up to 985 c.e. James Heitzmann in his 1987 article “State formation in South India 850-1280”[iii] elaborated on the line of Subbarayalu and his scale for classifying the nature of the polity were, “the relationship of state institutions with local and intermediate areas of power and their ultimate relationship with forms of production and control of resources in an agrarian world.”[iv] The core political geographical areas of Heitzman’s work were:
a) Kumbakonam taluk- near the capital always under direct control of the Chola kings. The economy was based on rice production with elaborate artificial irrigation system dependent on the Kaveri and its effluents.

b) Tiruchirapalli taluk on southern banks of kaveri with elaborate riverine irrigation and rich rice producing economy.

c) Tirrruturaippundi taluk situated near ocean facing to the south east. He calls this a ‘political backwater’ integrated within Chola Empire but having no impact on political affairs.

d) Tirukkoyilur taluk-a poorly waterd land area with tank irrigation and having a mixed economy of some agricultural production and animal husbandry.

e) Pudukottai- a dry cultivation area with some man made lake irrigation.

Heitzmann classifies the first two areas as central political areas, the third as intermediate and the last two as peripheral. Suggesting in his methodology of analyzing the ‘progressive move from segmentary to a more centralized state’- the control on agrarian resources was the deciding factor.

In such schema of analysis that operates on a given ontological position of the central importance of the agrarian resources in classifying a state, mercantilism sustains only as a marginalized concept and naval expeditions as in George Spencer’s 1976 article churns no explanation other than that of an arbitrary act of plunder, which if we recall-according to Stein was perhaps the main source of royal income.

However for being the chief source of income the plundering acts do not remain arbitrary anymore, they acquire an urge of systemization. The earlier explanation therefore needs to be reviewed.

An alternative approach was suggested by B.D. Chattopadhyay in the presidential address of the 1983 session of the Indian History Congress. He proposed that the segmentary state approach tends to relegate different foci of power to the periphery and does not really see them as components of the state structure. This allows us only to see the politics of plunder and not the state which acts for the integration and control of the growing networks of trade and exchange that could diversify and expand its resource bases enormously and also redefine the given role of the peripheral regions like that of Tirruturaippundi.
The alternative epistemological approach thus proposed and the emerging works identifying the importance of the contribution of the non-agrarian sector of the economy to the making of the state, like Champakalashmi, B.D. Chattopadhyay VK Jain have led to the turn of conceptualizing the importance of maritime commerce in the making of state and society in South India (Karashima, Subbarayalu, Kulke, Prof. Ranabir Chakrabarty).
This has prompted redefinitions for the acts of maritime violence from arbitrary plunders to an act of manipulating control on the oceanic trade, where as Neil Streensgard says the use of violence would be subordinated to the rational pursuit of profit. James Tracy[v] in this mode of analysis suggests-the great invasion of Srivijaya by the Cholas in 1025 was not directed by impulses of unrestrained violence and arbitrary loot but coordinated by concerns of trading monopoly with the Chinese empire which preferred dealing with a single power in a given region and the act of the Cholas have been explained by Tracy as that of a newcomer to the trading activities in the region, reacting to hostilities by show of force just as the European interlopers would do many centuries later.

The rethinking of the given alternatives of resource mobilization therefore not only redefines the acts of a state from plunder to controlled mercantilist concerns but also questions the allotted taxonomies for the nature of the state by rethinking the relation of the Chola centre with its various components that had been considered as peripheral.

[i] Political processes and the structure of polity- B.D. Chattopadhyay (from The State in India 1000-1700 (ed.) Hermann Kulke; Oxford University Press; New Delhi 1995.) p. 225.
[ii] Kulke; p.20.
[iii] Kulke; pp. 162-194.
[iv] Kulke; p.163.
[v] The political economy of Merchant empires: State power and world trade 1350-1750- (ed.) James D. Tracy.

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