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The Imperial Cholas Part III: Naval supremacy

The Imperial Cholas not only had a succession of able rulers, but the kings were also experts at global diplomacy; and under them, the kingdom enjoyed a great deal of prosperity owing to skilful governance, and flourishing overseas commercial and naval activities.

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The Chola rule, which lasted from sometime around 300 BCE to 1267 CE, can be easily cleaved into two tenures: the first part from 300 BCE to 740 CE, and the second part from 850 CE to 1267 CE. During the second part of the rule where they re-appear in full glory, under the “Imperial Cholas of Tanjore,” south India saw a great deal of intense socio-political, military, religious, and cultural activities. While keeping much of South India under their control, the Cholas also conquered parts of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Maldives.

Besides armed conquests, Cholas were also experts at global political games, and their ambassadors were sent to China, Myanmar, and Malaysia, as part of diplomatic missions to win allies. Not only did the Cholas maintain a well organised military body (army and naval fleets), they were also experts at forging alliances with various local rulers by entering agreement deals and exchanging gifts; thus, being able to assert their indirect control over new lands at minimal administrative costs. As Neelakanta Sastri tells us, “In the age of the Colas, the most creative period of South Indian History, the whole of South India was for the first time brought under the sway of a single government, and a serious attempt made to face and solve the problems of public administration arising from the new conditions. In local government, in art, religion and letters, the Tamil country reached heights of excellence never reached again in succeeding ages; in all these spheres as in that of foreign trade and maritime activity, the Cola period marked the culmination of movements that began in an earlier age, under the Pallavas” (1935, p. 12).

Read: The Imperial Cholas, Part I: An Introduction to the longest ruling Dynasty in India

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Some scholars (George Spencer, Richard Fox, and Burton Stein) have expressed doubts on the overseas expeditions of the Cholas, stating that the Thanjavur inscriptions that detail Chola expeditions to the South East Asian countries are mere rhetorics, while other epistographic records (meikkirti) dating from the same period as the king’s rule, were likely to be more of poetic imaginations. Furthermore, these scholars on the basis of their studies of early medieval European kings and West African politics of “segmentary states,” have also stated that the conquests, if they really happened, were for ‘loot and raid’ and not for any long-term conquests. However, RC Mazumdar in his book “Hindu Colonies in the Far East” tells us quite clearly that “the story of this victory is not merely an image of the court-poets, but based on facts, is proved, beyond doubt, by the detailed references to the vassal states. It is interesting to note that many of these States are included in the Silendra Empire by later Chinese authorities” (1973, pp. 38-39).

PK Gautam also explains that “There is a lot of weight in the argument that the Cholas undertook maritime expeditions to South East Asia not for short-term plunder motive, but with a long-range view of minimizing the role of Srivijaya as the intermediary between the Cholas and the Sung Dynasty in China. I will call this good strategic thinking by the Cholas as we know it today. The Cholas continued to be a power to be reckoned with, including in their maritime exploits” (2013, p. 59).

Moti Chandra, while expressing doubts on naval battles (owing to lack of many references to such wars in the Indian literature), holds no doubts about Chola conquests in parts of what we now know as South East Asia.  He writes, “In the conquests of Rajendra Chola came almost the whole eastern part of Sumatra, and the central and southern parts of the Malay peninsula. He also occupied the capitals of Srivijaya (Indonesia) and Kedah (Malaysia)” (Trade and Routes in Ancient India,1977, pp. 212-214).

In the book “Tilakamanjari of Dhanpala” there is a description of a navy fleet, led by an Indian prince named Samaraketu from Rangasala. This fleet went to Indonesia, as the overlords there had refused to pay their taxes and tributes. This resembles very closely the narration that describes the naval expedition under Rajendra Chola. Besides inscriptions and texts, among other evidence of naval battles are the hero-stones that depict naval wars. There are also depictions of ships on coins from the earlier Satavahana and Pallava eras; thus, Cholas not maintaining a navy fleet would be an unlikely scenario.

Satavahana coin depicting a ship, (130 CE – 150 CE). British Museum.

Rajendra Chola in one of his inscriptions (1026 CE) mentions that he conquered “the whole of Ilam (Ceylon) in the raging ocean girt by the crystal waves of the sea…[and] countless old islands (about 12000 in number) in the midst of the ocean in which conches resound (likely to be Lakshadweep and Maldives) (Mukherjee, 1912, p. 176). The same inscription records his naval conquest of King of Kadaram (the ancient kingdom of Prome or Pegu, whom he caught by dispatching many ships across the stormy sea (Bay of Bengal). Along with Kadaram was also captured flourishing ports of Takkolam, Mataba, Martoban, Sri Vijaya (Indonesia) and Nakkavaram (Andaman and Nicobar).

Read: The Imperial Cholas, Part II: Uniting South India under a highly organized and efficient monarchic form of governance

These inscriptions thus clearly show that Cholas had a well-developed naval fleet, and had undertaken naval expeditions to foreign shores. Venkatesan in his 1998 paper “Naval Battles and Shipwrecks Referred to in Tamil Epigraphs” also talks in great length about various naval wars and shipwrecks as deciphered from the various inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola.

Rajendra Territories

Southeast Asia trade route map

The Imperial Cholas not only had a succession of able rulers, but the kings were also experts at global diplomacy; and under them, the kingdom enjoyed a great deal of prosperity owing to skilful governance, and flourishing overseas commercial and naval activities.


Gautam, P.K. 2013. “The Cholas: Some Enduring Issues of Statecraft, Military Matters and International Relations.” Journal of Defence Studies. 7(4); 47-62.

Majumdar, R. C..1973. Hindu Colonies in the Far East. Sures Das, Calcutta.

Mookerji, R., 1912. Indian shipping; a history of the sea-borne trade and maritime activity of the Indians from the earliest times. Longmans, Green and co., Bombay.

Sastri, Neelakanta, 1935. The CōĻas. University of Madras, Madras.

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