In 1025 AD, when Mahmud of Ghazni was invading India from the north, the Chola monarch of the Tamil lands, Rajendra Chola sent forth a naval armada to modern day Indonesia. An expedition of this sort had not been attempted before, certainly not by the Cholas who had been happy (till then) merely to send their merchants across the seas to trade with the ruling Srivijaya empire.
So what brought upon this tidal wave of Tamil truculence? As with most things historical, there are many theories, but little in terms of fact. Srivijaya was a thalassocratic empire; an empire that dominated the ocean rather than land, and controlled the enormously lucrative trade routes in South East Asia. A medieval melting pot, its ports were laden with riches of all kinds – black pepper, sandalwood, frankincense, rosewater, perfumes, medicines, exotic animals; the entire earth come together in one land. At its peak, traders from South India, Bengal, China and Arabia crisscrossed these waters hoping to make enough money never to leave home again.
The empire also possessed one specific item of great interest to Tamil and Arab traders that all the money in Asia could not buy: the ears of the Chinese monarchs.
China was perhaps the most important destination of international commerce in those times. The relative proximity of Indonesia and China ensured that the interactions between Srivijaya and the Chinese Song dynasty were more frequent than those of the Arabs and Indians. As a consequence, the Srivijaya empire controlled not only the trade, but also the information that reached the Chinese officials about other lands.
Ancient sources say the Srivijayas, in an act of spectacular mischief, made it appear to the Chinese that the Cholas were a minor kingdom who were dependent on the Srivijaya empire. In fact, one source even mentions the Srivijaya rulers speaking about how they wrote to the Chola emperors “on coarse paper” as if they were not worth the effort of something fancier. Fake news rearing its head a thousand or so years back.
This impressive impression management of the Cholas by the Srivijaya empire lasted at least till the 1070s if not later, and the Song dynasty continued to believe that the Cholas were at best a middle-grade empire of little ambition.
In 1025 AD, fed up perhaps by the iron-grip in which Srivijaya held trade in the region (and perhaps of the enormous clout they held with the Chinese), the Cholas decided to invade it.
This wasn’t their first expedition overseas. Their great ports lined across the eastern coast of India had issued forth ships that had conquered Sri Lanka, Maldives, and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The Srivijaya empire, powerful as it was, perhaps was never expecting an attack of this nature on its territories. The element of surprise may have played a decisive role, for the Chola armada, it is reported, raided 12 cities of the empire, took heaps of treasure, captured a “great jewelled gate” called the Vidyadharatorana, and took the Srivijaya monarch Sangrama Vijayatunggavarman captive, for good measure.
The invasion affected the region’s psyche enough to merit a mention in the Malay Annals named Sejarah Melayu, that speak of a “Raja Shulan” believed (by some academics) to be the emperor Rajendra Chola himself. Interestingly enough, the Annals also state (and this is still in the realm of conjecture; the interpretation of historical texts being fluid rather than stone) that Raja Shulan married a Srivijaya princess called Onang Kiu.
In a material sense however, the outcome of all of this was scant. The Srivijaya kingdom was weakened temporarily, but survived. The Cholas even continued to trade with the empire, and with China, and built a formidable land empire over the 11th century. For the rest, all the other details of the expedition – its motivations, and any tangible outcomes – were buried under the manure of time, far from the prying eyes of memory. Possibly, the only things of any long-lasting significance to come from this expedition were the stories.
Aditya Iyengar is the author of The Conqueror, which revolves around Rajendra Chola’s conquest of the Srivijaya empire in Indonesia.