The year 2014 marks the 1,000th anniversary of the mighty Hindu monarch Rajendra Chola I’s ascension to the throne. The occasion calls for greater national and international commemoration.
Rajendra I, described by Georges Coedès as “prince audacieux”, and by R C Majumdar as the “greater son of a greater father”, inherited a great kingdom and through his dexterous and bold exploits turned it into one of the mightiest powers in the ancient world-order—stamping India’s civilisational mark on the world’s then most vibrant and civilisationally pulsating regions. Such a monarch and his reign ought to see national commemoration turning the occasion into an opportunity, not only to remind ourselves of our past civilisational heights and achievements, but to also re-forge and re-formulate strategies keeping in view our aspiration to emerge as a civilisational state.
Not only did Rajendra venture as far as Bengal in the north and the east in course of his conquests, but, having defeated the kings of Bengal and the surrounding region and having accepted their vassalage, he did that which symbolically reflected India’s subliminal unity—he brought the waters of the sacred Ganga, in a spirit of reverence, to his new capital and poured it into the “Cholagangam”, the “large irrigation tank” in the city. That epochal civilisational act not only earned for Rajendra the sobriquet “Gangaikondachola” but also dissolved the artificial north-south demarcation by demonstrating how India’s sacred and life-giving river flowing in the north could be equally invoked and invited to spread her life-sustaining waters for nourishing the southern lands and lives.
An astute strategist and a fearless planner, Rajendra did not hesitate to launch “many ships in the midst of the rolling sea” to subjugate the powerful kingdom of Sri Vijaya which was hampering trade between India and the Far East. Taking over a number of ports along the route—prominent among them being Kadaram, Malacca of later centuries—Rajendra protected the commercial interests of his merchants from Tamilakam and monopolised the “trade to the east”. Seen through the prism of the present, he ensured that strategic and commercial control of the Malacca strait and the region beyond remained under the control of his Hindu empire. This conquest saw him being paid homage by other surrounding Hinduised states of the region and earned him the title “Kadaram Konda”—the subjugator of Kadaram, Malacca. In order to display his strength as well as goodwill and to preserve the links of his empire with China, Rajendra, following in the footsteps of his illustrious father, sent an embassy sometime in 1033.
Yet, his reign was not all about conflicts, as one of the finest historians of south India and of the Cholas, K A Nilakanta Sastri, was to note. The Cholas “built up a remarkably efficient administrative system which combined vigorous central control with a very large measure of local autonomy” and liberally patronised the arts and allowed it to reach a higher water mark. Rajendra’s chef d’oeuvre, the temple of Gangaikondacholapuram, remains to this day a manifestation of the cultural and aesthetic heights that the Chola Empire reached under Rajendra.
The anniversary of Rajendra’s coronation, thus, offers an opportunity to revisit these dimensions of the past in the spirit of present exigencies and is an occasion for evolving and renewing fresh civilisational linkages in all their dimensions—strategic, cultural, educational and economic.
As Tagore once said, “The relics of the true history of India are outside India… let us feel that India is not confined in the geography of India—and then we shall find our message from our past.”
This might be a great occasion to make a fresh start.