Inclusive lessons from ancient Chola period coins

When the Chennai Museum recently unveiled a few rare coins of the Chola regime in Tamil Nadu, little did it perhaps realise that embedded in their stunningly silhouetted craftsmanship is a profoundly inclusive message transcending its times.

The three identical coins, minted in gold, silver and copper on display, issued under the reign of King Rajendra Chola-I, who succeeded his father the great Raja Raja Chola to the throne in 1014 C E (Christian era) and ruled till 1044 C E, is a numismatic wonder of social, historical and even metaphysical significance.

For the museum authorities, the key reason for the coins’ display is that the year 2012 marks the completion of 1,000 years since Rajendra Chola-I was declared the “Yuva Raja” (crown prince) for the Chola throne in the year 1012 C E, as shown by inscriptional evidence of he undertaking war campaigns then itself on behalf of his father-monarch, in a kingdom run conjointly as it were.

However, take a closer look at these coins, issued to commemorate Rajendra Chola-I’s “victory over the Gangetic Valley”, from where he brought home “Ganga Jal” in pots to objectify that successful campaign and then to assume a grander title “Gangai Konda Chola”, you get an unalloyed sense of a spherical pictorial legacy in metal radiating universals beyond the issuer’s known intent.

Gleaned from several historical works like “Pirkaala Chozhar Varalaru” (History of the Later Period Cholas) by T V Sadasiva Pandarathar and from scholars like K A Nilakanta Shastri, considered as the greatest historian of South India till date, Rajendra Chola-I had not only made a “triumphal march through Pandya and Chera Countries”, but also later around 1019 C E had “marched through Kalinga (modern Orissa) to the river Ganges.  There, the Chola King had defeated one Mahipala of Pala Kingdom of Bengal to earn the distinction of being the first king ever from the South to register a victorious military campaign in Gangetic valley.

Assuming the title “Gangai Konda Chozhan”, he raised a stupendous temple for Lord Shiva on return home at Gangai Konda Chozhapuram (in modern Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu), South-East of the Chola’s seat of power in Thanjavur. And these coins of Rajendra Chola-I symbolise the commemoration of that victory and its related developments.

These three identical coins-- on which are finely etched  motifs of  “bow and arrow,” a “tiger seated under a canopy”, “two fishes” and a “lamp stand”-- seek to valourise Rajendra Chola-I’s territorial exploits. Just below them, very significantly, they have also inscribed the words “Gangai Konda Chola”, in the “Nagari” script and not in Tamil. That is a clear pointer to the pan-Indian orientation of the Chola kings even granting “Nagari” script was widely used. The letters in the Nagari script are quaintly legible on the coins of Rajendra Chola-I.

Insignia of Chera kings

While the bow and arrow depicted on the coins represent the insignia of the Chera kings of the South, and the two fishes were the royal symbol of the Pandya Kings, both of whom Rajendra Chola-I overran at one point of time, Chennai Museum Curator (Numismatic Division) Sundararajan said the tiger chiselled on the coins depicted the royal insignia of the Cholas’ themselves. But, interestingly, the tiger on these coins under a canopy is in a seated posture, in contra distinction to much earlier Sangam period when the tiger was usually depicted as standing tiger, the curator explained.

The expedition to Sri Lanka was seen as “fulfilling his father Raja Raja Chola’s dream to bring the whole of Sri Lanka under Chola Territory,” according to some historians.

Exercise of authority over “Ilangai” or “Elam” (as Sri Lanka was then known), by successive Chola kings was a long-drawn theatre of conflict with the Lanka kings, marked by rebellions on and off, says Prof Shastri. The other symbol seen in these coins, lamp stand, a profoundly religious symbol from pre-historic times as a light-giving object, was to perhaps indicate the continuing inter-religious engagements of those days including with Buddhism.

Thus, contrary to popular belief, there was no notion of a total hegemony by a singular power, even if history was written by the victor. There have always been institutional creations and leftovers which shaped subsequent history in positive ways, as borne out by Rajendra Chola-I’s remarkably short 30-years tenure itself.

For example, K K Pillai, a former renowned Professor of Indian History in Madras University, in his lectures, “South India and Sri Lanka”, points out how a “peculiar contingent of troops called Velaikkaaras, an institution organised probably for the first time by Rajendra Chola-I, found its way into Sri Lanka.”

Even after the Cholas were later driven out of Sri Lanka by Vijayabahu (AD 1070-1114), the remaining “Velaikaaras” stayed behind and served the armies of Sinhala kings, says Prof Pillai. Significantly, they came forward to “take care of the celebrated Tooth relic (of the Buddha)”, as testified by an inscription in Tamil in Polonnaruva in Sri Lanka, notes Prof Pillai. It alludes to how conflict resolutions, cultural assimilations and influences are mutual as human history marches on.

This is a far-cry from the often insular and intolerant positions taken by groups sparking violent linguistic-ethnic-religious conflicts in modern times. And these set of unique coins issued by Rajendra Chola-I, identical in both its obverse and reverse sides, when revisited seem to be gentle reminders that coins as torch-bearers of history are much more than “Coins of Conquest and Currency”.

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