The first part of the series on the Imperial Cholas can be read here.
While the Cholas were historically present from the ancient times, it was mainly after the decline of the Pallavas, between 980 CE and 1150 CE, that the Chola Empire reached its zenith as the most powerful dynasty of south India. The Chola empire at that time extended across almost the whole of south Indian peninsula, and was separated from the north by the river Tungabhadra. It was primarily during the reign of Rajaraja I (985 CE – 1014 CE) that the Chola kingdom expanded from a small kingdom and took the form of a great Empire. Not only did Rajaraja I turn the Cholas into a mighty naval power, he also introduced many reforms and re-organised the administrative system. The Chola rule of this time can be studied in great details owing to the large number of inscriptions that were issued by the royal family, temple authorities, trading guilds, village councils, etc.; a practice adopted and rigorously implemented by Rajaraja I.
Before the rule of Rajaraja I, many parts of the Chola territory were controlled by independent hereditary overlords who all were in alliance with the Chola kings. Under the orders of Rajaraja I, from around 1000 CE, a detailed form of land survey and assessment was started, which reorganised the empire into smaller units known as valanadus. Along with this reorganisation, the hereditary overlords were slowly replaced and made into dependant government officials. This process of replacing the overlords, however was a long term one, and the process which was started by Rajaraja I continued for almost a century, until the rule of Vikrama Chola (1133 CE). The removal of the overlords allowed the king to gain greater control over the entire empire. Rajaraja I also started with the practice of involving the crown Prince or Yuvaraj in various administrative works, while the other princes were placed as regional governors. While the succession was primarily hereditary in nature, sometimes the kings would bypass the Yuvaraj and choose an heir from the minor or younger princes who they thought were more suitable to rule.
Among other administrative reforms brought in by Rajaraja I, the one that merits mention is the strengthening of local self-governance by giving autonomic powers to various public bodies and village councils; while at the same time bringing in a system of audit-control that made these local governing bodies accountable to the king. In Chola administration, the King was the central axle around whom the state administrative machineries revolved. The king (referred to as Chakravartigal and Tribhuvanachakravarti) was helped and guided by a council of ministers that looked after executive matters such as finances, security, and foreign affairs. To aid this council, an Enperaayam or a Committee of Eight was formed, which consisted of learned and experienced men selected by the King. The council also acted as an Appellate Court that provided justice to the subjects.
Besides these bodies, there was a well-developed secretariat that oversaw the working of the central administration. The head of each governing bodies/departments were in close contact with the King who often sought their advices. The king had a personal secretary who drafted and recorded his verbal orders. Regular royal tours added to the efficiency of the administration, and diligent officers were amply rewarded with lands, titles, and court honour. An important aspect of the Chola administration was the construction of many trunk roads to facilitate trade, army, and administrative movements.
In India, the village has always been at the core of local governance, until the advent of the British. The Cholas were no different, and during their reign the villages formed to be the political and social units of governance. Many villages were grouped together to form districts known as Nadus, which were governed by an autonomous body called Nattar. The Chola state was divided into 9 provinces that were known as Mandalam, which were placed under salaried governors termed as Mandala mudalis. Rural governance under the Cholas followed a complex and well-organised system comprising of numerous officials and committees, as are evident from various the Chola inscriptions.
Land could be owned by an individual or communities, and tax (fixed at one-third of the produce) was primarily derived from land, both in cash and kind. Since agriculture was the main source of revenue, providing proper irrigation and water sources such as tanks, were the duties of both the state and local authorities. Besides land tax, the state also earned revenues from taxes on trade and other professions, and also from the conquests of neighbouring territories. The village assemblies that controlled local governance during the time of the Cholas were of three types: Ur (an assembly of all taxpaying landowners); Sabha (an assembly functioning in exclusively Brahmin villages); and Nagaram (a body made of local merchants and traders). Most of the governance were left at the hands of the local bodies, with the Centre interfering only when needed.
Another point of interest during the Chola reign was the development of temple towns where the temples would play an important role influencing many aspects in the lives of a common man. The temples which received large donations from the kings and other wealthy patrons, were not only religious centres, but were also the hubs of various political, social, economic, cultural, and educational activities. Local assembly meetings took place in temples; and as seen from the 18 Chola era inscriptions found from a Shiva temple located at Visalur village near Keeranur (Koluthur taluk) in 2012, the temples at that time were also the centres of arts, cultural festivals, trade (often acting as banks), fairs, and various forms of charity works. The innumerable Chola inscriptions provide us with a mirror that gives a beautiful insight into the social, cultural, and economic history of medieval India.
The Cholas, especially from the time of Rajaraja I, developed a well organised administrative system that largely aimed at the welfare and prosperity of their subjects.