Ancient history is among contemporary India’s most pressing concerns. That contention was borne out yet against this week as Tamil Nadu expended a great deal of energy – and some court time – debating an emperor who lived 1,000 years ago.

Raja Raja Chola I (985-1014 CE) was thrust back in the limelight because of a speech by popular Tamil director Pa Ranjith in Thanjavur on June 5 in which he described the king’s reign as a dark period for Dalits.

The director – whose films such as Kabali and Kaala have been hailed for their mature handling of the caste question – declared that the emperor was responsible for land being forcibly taken away from Dalits. In addition, said Ranjith, the monarch had entrenched the devadasi system, which institutionalised the sexual exploitation of women.

Ranjith’s remarks about times past had immediate consequences: an incensed official of the Hindu Makkal Katchi, a fringe Hindutva group, lodged a police complaint about the speech. On Tuesday, a first information report was filed against the director for attempting to create enmity between groups. On Wednesday, the director approached the Madras High Court seeking anticipatory bail. The next day, the Tamil Nadu government opposed his petition though it assured the court that it would not arrest Ranjith until Wednesday.

To some, Ranjith’s speech was an insult to a great Tamil hero. To Hindutva groups, the king is a Hindu icon. Most of all, the seemingly disproportionate reaction brought into focus the many ways in which the Chola king is perceived by Tamil Nadu’s various caste groups. Several dominant castes claim Raja Raja Chola I as their ancestor. As a result, the contention by Ranjith – a Dalit – that the emperor’s reign had an oppressive aspect to it sparked an explosion of invective online and a criminal complaint.

A statue of Raja Raja Chola in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Nittavinoda [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

‘Wake up, Tamils’

In Tamil Nadu, the medieval Chola dynasty, which begins with the rule of Vijayalaya Chola in 848 CE and ends with Athirajendra in 1070 CE, is imagined in Utopian terms: its kings are believed to have been upholders of justice who treated their subjects with respect. In popular culture, these kings are projected as upholders of equality and warriors of great valour.

The greatest of these kings was Raja Raja Chola I, who built the Big Temple in Thanjavur. He became a household name in Tamil Nadu in the 20th century as the protagonist of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s acclaimed five-volume novel Ponniyin Selvan, which was published as a series of stories in a magazine in the 1950s.

Over the last few decades, over a dozen caste groups have been claiming to be direct descendants of Raja Raja Chola I. Among them are the Thevars and Nadars, which are powerful Other Backward Classes groups in South Tamil Nadu, a section of Vanniyars, a strong OBC group in North Tamil Nadu, and the Devendra Kula Vellalars, a community that is included in the Scheduled Caste list.

The contest to claim Raja Raja Chola I is perhaps most strident in South Tamil Nadu, where hundreds of posters put up by various caste groups can be seen describing the Chola emperor as their ancestor. Each October, the emperor’s birth anniversary becomes a competition for these groups to showcase their attachment to the Chola ruler.

On Thursday, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam legislator TRB Raja tweeted a video that disputed Ranjith’s claims about Raja Raja Chola I, asking Tamils to “wake up”. Raja is a Thevar and son of former Union Minister TR Baalu.

Karthik Ram Manoharan, an assistant professor of political science at Kolkata’s Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, pointed to the irony of the situation. He said that the 20th-century social reformer “Periyar” EV Ramasamy had been a harsh critic of monarchy: he believed that the Tamil kings contributed to the dominance of the Brahmins and other elite castes at the expense of the subaltern castes.

However, Manoharan noted, over the past few decades, it has been these formerly marginal castes such as the Vanniyars and the Nadars that have made the loudest claims to have descended from Tamil dynasties.

“Their vicious response to Ranjith’s statement not only reflects their ignorance of Tamil history, but also anxieties about their own status within it,” Manoharan said.

It isn’t only caste groups who hailing the Chola king in contemporary Tamil Nadu. Hindutva organisations also celebrate Raja Raja Chola I as a great champion of Hinduism. Some claim that he gave refuge in the Chola land to Hindus fleeing Gujarat following raids by Mahmud of Ghazni on the Somnath Temple.

Some observers believe that the Tamil Nadu government’s reluctance to allow the Madras High Court to grant Ranjith anticipatory bail reflected its hesitation about angering these powerful groups.

But how much of this debate about the Cholas is rooted in historical fact? To construct a picture of Raja Raja Chola I and other members of his dynasty, spoke to several experts about the period.

Thanjavur's Brihadishvara Temple, also referred to as the Rajesvara Peruvudaiyar or Brihadeeswarar Temple, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It was built by Raja Raja Chola I between 1003 and 1010 BCE. Credit: Sharvarism [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Much of what we know about the medieval Cholas, the dynasty to which Raja Raja Chola I belongs, comes from a huge number of stone inscriptions and several copper plate inscriptions that the kings have left behind.

Japanese historian Noboru Karashima, who is considered to be one of the foremost experts on early and medieval South India, says in an essay that of about 60,000 inscriptions from those periods documented across India, 28,000 are in Tamil. Of these Tamil inscriptions, about 19,000 date back to between 10th century CE and 13th century CE, the time when the Cholas were at their peak, expanding their empire beyond India and into South-East Asia.

Despite the popular imagination of the Chola reign as being a time of equality for its subjects, many historians have demonstrated that by the time of Raja Raja Chola I, the caste system had taken root. Brahmins had a special place in the social hierarchy. If they committed crimes, Brahmins were given lighter punishments than non-Brahmins. They were given large donations both by the kings as well as the common people.

Villages donated to Brahmins were called Brahmadeya. Many of them enjoyed tax concessions. Each occupational group had its own residential area. The area where the untouchables lived was called the Teendacheri.

At an international conference on Tamil studies in Malaysia in 1966, the Japanese scholar Karashima said that while land in the Brahmadeyas was privatised, non-Brahmin villages (called Ur in the Chola period) remained communal holdings.

There are, however, contesting claims on when exactly the Chola kings began donating land to non-Brahmins.

Complex acquisition process

M Rajendran, an Indian Administrative Service officer who transcribed and published 21 copper plate inscriptions of the Cholas in his 2012 book titled Chola Kala Ceppedugal, says that as early as 1030 CE, a few years after the death of Raja Raja Chola I, inscriptions record land donations to non-Brahmins.

Evaluating Ranjith’s claim that land was forcibly taken away from Dalits by Raja Raja Chola I, Rajendran said that the Cholas had a complex land acquisition process. “You needed the approval of the gram sabhas,” he said. Inscriptions detail the process, he said: it involved 42 officials verifying land records with a second-level of vetting that required 21 additional officials.

The copper plates also indicate that the Paracheri, where the community of Paraiyars lived, were exempt from acquisition, Rajendran said. Paraiyars were mainly cultivators, though modern-day Paraiyars are classified under as being members of a Scheduled Caste. Also exempt was the Kammanacheri, where the Kammalas, who were mainly artisans, had their quarters.

“We see that alternate land and other compensation were given to those from whom land was taken,” said Rajendran.

Karashima details an inscription at Raja Raja Chola’s Big Temple in Thanjavur with a preamble indicating that some of the Paracheri and Kammanacheri , land for which was given by the king, were also exempted from taxes.

Po Velsamy, who wrote a book titled Kovil, Nilam, Jati (Temple, Land and Caste) in 2007, argued that while living quarters may have been exempted from acquisition or tax, there is nothing to show that cultivable land of the Dalits was not taken over.

Velsamy said from reading the available inscriptions, it seems that until the 11th century CE, most land donations were confined to Brahmins. Later, people in the Chola army become the first set of non-Brahmins to be granted land by the kings. In time, the Vellalas, now a powerful community of agriculturists, slowly turn into the major landowners, he said.

“The Brahmins, the Vellalas and other non-Brahmin landowning castes came to a compromise later and this was sustained till the 20th century, when Brahmin domination of British government administration started the non-Brahmin revolt and eventually the Dravidian movement itself,” Velsamy said.

In his essay ”State and Religion in the Chola Empire: Taxation for Thanjavur Temple’s Music and Dance”, historian N Vanamamalai mentions that when the Cholas transformed the taxation system to raise funds for the upkeep of the Big Temple in Thanjavur, the kings began taxing the Brahmadeyas as well. Later, there were also instances where ownership rights for the land of Brahmins and Vellalas were transferred to the temple and they became mere plot holders, affecting their income. As a result, they began charging the cultivators higher taxes, leading to a revolt of the Paraiyars.

A detail from the Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram, Tamil Nadu, built by Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century CE. Credit: Nithi Anand/Flickr

Devadasi system

Another element of Ranjith’s speech that is being debated is his contention that that the devadasi system came to be entrenched under Raja Raja Chola I. The word “devadasi” means servant of god. Under this system, women were given away to temples and remained its property.

Velsamy said there was enough evidence to show that the devadasi system, then called Devaradiyal, already existed in the times of the Pallavas –
the pre-medieval dynasty that ruled between the 4th CE and the 9th century CE.

“What happened with Raja Raja Chola was that this system was institutionalised in a big way,” Velsamy said. In this sense, Ranjith was right in claiming that Raja Raja Chola I was instrumental in strengthening the Devadasi system. An inscription in the Big Temple talks about 400 such women who maintained the premises and had been given quarters nearby.

In an essay in 2009, writer and Lok Sabha member D Ravikumar quoted several sources and historians to state that many inscriptions tell the tales of women being sold to temples during Chola times. As early as in 948 CE, three women were sold to the Vayalur temple to help with the rituals.

In 1002 CE, during Raja Raja Chola I’s reign, Ravikumar said, 12 people were given away to the Varaha temple Thiruvidanthai from the fisher community. In 1099 CE, two Vellalas sold women to the temple in Thirvakkarai.

But was the Devaradiyal system of Raja Raja Chola I the same as the later Devadasi system that led to sexual exploitation of women by powerful men?

Velsamy said that the system that had became an important feature of temples by 8th century CE degenerated slowly into the devadasi system of sexual exploitation by the 18th and 19th centuries. “By the time of the last Maratha ruler of Thanjavur Saraboji II, the system had completely become degenerate,” he added.

This is where perhaps Ranjith erred. For instance, he mentioned the concept of “Mangala Vilas” or houses where the courtesans lived. “This was not a Chola concept but more a Maratha concept of later centuries,” Velsamy contended.

Also read

In the verses of Dalit shahirs, you can hear the history of India’s anti-caste movement

The Taimur controversy illustrates Hindutva’s self-inflicted neurosis regarding Islamic history