The Shipping Technology of Cholas

by K V Ramakrishna Rao, Proceedings of the South Indian History Congress, Rajapalayam, India, 2007, pp.326-345. ark:/13960/t7mq2mb83

The Shipping Technology of Cholas 2007


Of late, some researchers1 have started throwing doubt on the
overseas expedition of Rajaraja Chola through Rajendra Chola on the plea that
the Parasasti / Meikkirti could have been written with poetic fantasy rather than
the factual accuracy. Even, had Rajendra Cholan gone there, it could have been
only a raid to loot and not to set foot as a conqueror! Earlier Aidan Southhall2
analyzed the West African politics in terms of the “segmentary states
theory” and applied to medieval European states. Burton Stein3 applied such
model to South India, though Bernard S. Cohn4 opposed. Burton, then applied
such theory to Cholas and George W. Spencer5 accepting it to declare that in such
“segmentary states”, the state’s functions were custodial rather than regulative,
magico-ritualistic rather than managerial. Thus Cholas resorted to the policy of
“plunder and piety” just like Frankish kings of early mediaeval Europe. Rajaraja
too fulfilled his charitable obligations – his “necessary giving” – in an extravagant
way, aggressively acquiring booty only to donate more lavishly to temples and
Brahmans. In such an attempt, the Tanjore inscriptional details of Cholas
expedition to South East Asian Countries are dubbed as mere rhetoric. All these
continue, though R. C. Majumdar6 after discussing the “struggle between the
Silendras and the Cholas”, long back pointed out, “That the story of this
victory is not merely an imagination 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”.
Though, non-Indian researchers point out the maritime activities7, international
trade, import and export of goods, movement of people-groups with religious
beliefs8 etc., their studies have been restricted to Chinese, Arabic and European
exploits or impact with passing remarks to Indians and Cholas. Accepting the fact
of Indian goods, people, their religion, temple-building technology etc., going
there, but doubting their mode of travel appears illogical and unhistorical.
Therefore, a critical study is made in this paper to analyze the shipping, shipbuilding and naval capabilities of the Cholas.

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