Angkor, Chola, Kulittunga, Madurai, Maduraikkanchi, Mahavamsa, Merchants of Tamilakam, Quanzhou, Rajarajesvaram temple, Sailendra, Srivijaya, Tirukkanichhuram, Tiruvallikkeni, velaikkara forces

Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakalatha Mukund – A Review – Part 4

Overseas Relations

Carvings on the walls of Banteay Srei or Banteay Srey – a 10th century Cambodian temple dedicated to the Lord Shiva

The author divides the foreign policy of Cholas and Pallavas into two – Hindu Kingdom and Buddhist Kingdoms. 

The Hindu kingdoms cover from Thailand to Vietnam and Indonesian islands forming a region of greater India. The author explains one crucial feature of the imperial expansion adopted by the Monarchies of Tamilakam – “This overseas expansion did not come about as a result of military conquest. The expansion based on commercial and cultural interactions was long-lasting, while those made via naval attacks – such as in Sri Lanka and Sailendra Empire of Sri Vijaya proved that colonization based on military initiatives was not sustainable.

Not just the famous Angkor in Cambodia, built by Kambuja king Suryavarman II in 12th century, the many other lesser monuments, all-over SE Asia support the above opinion. For nearly 1000 years, these countries had close relation with empires of Tamilakam. But the Chinese supremacy over the region was given its due by sending embassies. Here too, the guild members of Ainnuruvar and Manigramam play a significant role. Inscriptions which show the public-works that had been completed by the two guilds, such as constructions of roads or water tanks, have been found in Thailand and Vietnam.

Buddhist Kingdoms consist of China, Sailendra Empire of Sri Vijaya in Sumatra, and Sri Lanka. These have been the most important countries as far as foreign policy of the Cholas was concerned. An interesting anecdote about a Hindu temple in China honouring the Khan of China is mentioned by Mukund:

“This 13th century inscription was discovered in Quanzhou, a famous medieval port of China, and refers to construction of a Siva temple in the port. The temple was called Tirukkanichhuram, meaning the temple of the Khan after the Khan of China, one more instance of Tamil custom of naming public places after rulers. Hindu artefacts found in the temple area indicate a sizeable Tamil population living in Quanzhou at that time.”

The Cholas had, in general, a normal relationship with Sri Vijaya. While Rajaraja administration was cordial to the Sri Vijaya, Rajendra I sent a naval force to attack Kadaram (present-day Kedah, a Malaysian province) and captured it along with vast amount of valuables. It earned Rajendra the title of Kadaram-konda. Historians suggest that the naval expedition was undertaken to protect the commercial interest of the merchants of Tamilakam; perhaps as a counter to the efforts of Sailendra kings to monopolize the trade to the east. Inscriptions found in the region, about the presence of Ainnurruvar only add to the above reasoning.
By far the most tumultuous relationship was between the Tamilakam and the Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka used to be referred to as ‘Ilam’. Both Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola had invaded Sri Lanka. While Rajaraja destroyed Anuradhapura, and made Polonnoruwa the new capital, Rajendra completed the conquest and annexed the entire Lanka by 1018. But this did not last long.  By 1030 Vikkamabahu got back the Southern part and his successor Vijayabahu completely freed Lanka of the Cholas during Kulottunga I. There is an interesting part of the conquest which Mukund narrates:

“Tamil mercenary soldiers known as velaikkara forces revolted against Vijayabahu; who put down the rebellion with brutal effectiveness. The mercenaries gave an undertaking to serve the king loyally and the Buddhist shrine of Polonnuruwa was placed under their protection. According to Mahavamsa, the uprising was instigated by Kulottunga I who made a last-ditch attempt to restore the Chola rule in Sri Lank by exploiting the loyalty and sentiments of the very large Tamil population still living in the island.”

The economic history of Tamilakam and Sri Lanka is equally fascinating. In fact, these expeditions were not just to satisfy the imperial ambition, but also to allow the merchants and the merchant guilds to perform their trade without hassle. Aromatic woods, camphor, silk, porcelain, and fine goods from South East Asia and China was the main trade items between the two kingdoms. The Ainnuruvar appear to have played a large role in controlling the business in Sri Lanka. The guild survived despite the victory of Vijayabahu. The author attributes this to the social activities done by the guild such as supporting the Buddhist temples. Yet they themselves were Hindus and continued to remain so. 

The Importance of Temples

The temple had always been and continues to be a distinctive feature of Tamil society. Building supporting temples gave legitimacy to the ruling elite. Also, the temple construction and maintenance had many economic activities associated with them. Not just the fact that temple construction itself employed many artisans and craftsmen, the temples themselves juggled between various economically important roles – as employers, land owners, consumers of a variety of goods etc. Besides, temples were nodes of urban centres. Vaishnavite saint, Thirumangai Alvar describes the development of a town around the temple in Tiruvallikkeni.

“Tiruvallikeni has towers and groves with honey bees; it has been laid out by the Tondaiman (Pallava king), with wells, outer walls, towering monuments and many structures.”

The temples no longer remained a religious institution and instead had become a cultural, educational and social hub. To gain legitimacy, honour and religious merit, rich and poor alike donated money and goods to temples. As a result the administration of temple affairs became a coveted and prestigious posts and the importance of nagaram assemblies went higher. In short, temples became “the focal point of social interaction and an outlet for the concerns of the community”. It is no wonder that maximum information about this period is obtained from the inscriptions from the temple. The stone inscriptions throw light on the existing social mores. The following anecdote by the author is interesting:

“A tenth century inscription from Tanjavur district states that a Brahmin had gifted land to his second wife, which raises many conjectures as to why a purely private, intra-household disposal of assets needed to be recorded in a public institution.”

  • Temples and the Economy

It is surprising to note that the presiding deity of the temple was deemed to be a person in a legal sense and all transactions were carried out in the name of the deity. In India, even today, the temple deity is a legal entity. Temple was a major consumer of oil since it had lamps that burned day and night continuously called nonda vilakku and lamps lit during morning and dusk called – sandhya deepam. Similarly, it also consumed flowers, fruits, rice, imported aromatic substances etc. For this, temples needed sizable funds, which were mainly raised through donations. Donations were not just made through food and flowers. Land grants to temples were an important feature. Land donations had a lateral monetary intent of bringing more land under 
cultivation. This was a prominent feature of the Tirupati temple. 

Another feature of temple is that it acted like a bank. The nagarams, which are corporate assemblies, borrowed money from the temple, and agreed to supply the required amount of ghee or oil as interest on money. Temples thus enabled circulation of resources across a wide section of society. Mukund gives the following example to study how temples led to redistribution of resources 

“The Rajarajesvaram temple built by Rajaraja I in Tanjavur becomes a special case for studying the redistributive aspects of the temple. Donations to the temple were of two categories – livestock and money. Most of the livestock was donated by the king and nobility. Military officers were the main donors of money, accounting for 79.3% of all donations. Livestock was better redistributed since cattle or sheep rearing was done only by shepherds as an occupation group. Money, however, was borrowed almost exclusively by village assemblies (95.4%). Presumably this money was circulated in the local rural economy and used for the development of agriculture.”

This reminds one of the fabulous treasures discovered at Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. This explains how Temples thus acted the soul of the Tamil society since time immemorial. 


Usually when books on such specific topics are written, it is done so with cognoscenti of history in mind. The remarkable feature of Kanakalatha Mukund’s Merchants of Tamilakam is that it doesn’t try to be intellectual. She explains the matters of history with lucidity and brevity; quite unlike the writer of this article. Most importantly, she touches on those aspects of history that are rarely mentioned, explored, let alone be shown in a positive light. In the midst of a tired group of historians and their anaemic books, Mukund shines. The book makes you proud of your history. The book makes you awe at the sophistication of our ancestors. The book allows you to reconnect with our oft-neglected cosmopolitan urban past. The book allows you to rewire your brain to an inspiring, agenda-free history. The book leaves you wanting for more. 

I end this review with a passage from the book, translates from Silappadikaram and Maduraikkanchi about my favourite city: 

“Madurai was encircled by a fearsome fortress wall surrounded by a moat and a strong hedge. There was an underground passage beneath the moat which was wide enough for an elephant to cross to reach the fort gate. Guarded by yavana carrying large swords, Madurai looked as grand as the opened jewellery casket of Indira himself. Madurai was so large and populous that, ‘like the ocean, which does not overflow or dry up, Madurai with its towers did not diminish when people took goods away nor did it become over crowded when more and more people came in … Madurai is as immeasurable as the Ganga flowing into the sea, with ships bringing tribute and many goods each day.”

Quick Links to Other Parts –

  1. Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakaltha Mukund – A Review – Part 1
  2. Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakaltha Mukund – A Review – Part 2
  3. Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakaltha Mukund – A Review – Part 3

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