What modern day dynasts can learn from an 11th century Tamil kingdom
Fratricide and patricide were the grease that lined the cogs of ancient dynasties. Humayun killed his brothers, Ashoka too, Jahangir had his son Khusrau blinded and killed and Aurangzeb went a step further and imprisoned his father Shah Jahan and killed his brothers Murad and Dara Shukoh.
Bimbisara and Rana Kumbha were both felled by their own children. Razia Sultan’s downfall, too, was perpetrated by her half-brother. Thrones, then, are blind and equal-opportunity offenders.
They look not at the religion or gender of their claimants and it is a rare dynasty that has been able to engineer some kind of peaceful continuity from one generation to another.
Surprisingly, the 11th Century threw up an example of succession that looked like a Karan Johar film in comparison with the gore-fests surrounding it. The most striking feature of the Cholas, specifically their reign from 985 AD to 1070 AD, is the fact that none of the dynasts – brothers or sons – killed one other.
At its height, which coincided with this spell of familial harmony, the Chola empire in the South of India extended from the Godavari river to Sri Lanka and also included the Maldives for a good measure.
It was a truly international empire with its products – spices and precious stones – being shipped as far as the islands of Indonesia (which it raided on at least two occasions) and welcomed by the Song dynasty in China.
The Cholas oversaw the equivalent of the Tamil cultural renaissance in art, storytelling and literature, and for most Tamils, the Cholas epitomize a golden age of sorts.
Raja Raja Chola, the originator of this good run, ruled from 985 AD to 1014 AD, and apart from taking the empire to Sri Lanka and Maldives, also executed a complex land audit and found time to build the biggest temple in ancient India, the Brihadeeswara Temple, or Periya Kovil, which literally means the ‘the big temple’. But perhaps his greatest achievement, in this writer’s opinion, is his determination to not botch up his own succession plan.
Raja Raja had more reason to be cautious than most. He had become emperor by the skin of his teeth under extraordinary circumstances. His elder brother, the heir designate, Aditya Karikalan, had been assassinated under dubious circumstances; some believe his death was brought about by his uncle Uttama Chola, who coveted the throne himself.
Uttama Chola muscled his way onto the throne and Raja Raja, in an astonishing act of restraint (given that he had to watch his uncle who had supposedly murdered his brother occupy the throne that was entitled to him), bided his time for 15 years till Uttama Chola passed away after which he ascended the throne and began said golden age.
Some say, Uttama Chola made a pact with Raja Raja to allow him to rule (without having to watch his back) in return for kingship at the end of his time.
One wonders how Uttama Chola’s son felt about this decision. Interestingly enough, he accepted this situation without complaint and served as a senior official in Raja Raja’s court. Kingship it appeared, was not the highest privilege of the land. It was a responsibility and, for some time at least, good order and governance was held in higher esteem than personal ambition.
Not wanting a succession crisis, Raja Raja made his son Rajendra the co-regent of the empire in 1012 AD.
As co-regent, Rajendra was the second-most powerful man in the empire and was inducted into the intricacies of command and management through a series of military campaigns across Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka.
Raja Raja ruled for another two years and passed away due to the rarest of benedictions afforded to emperors – old age.
Rajendra was no man-child when he ascended the throne and in a general bid to show everyone who was boss, mounted expedition after expedition, steam-rolling his way to the Ganga and conquering the whole of Sri Lanka, not to mention the Maldives and Andaman and Nicobar.
The full extent of his muscle-flexing was felt in Indonesia where the ruling Srivijaya empire was toppled in a sea expedition, a first for an Indian empire. What was achieved by this is debatable, since the Cholas didn’t actually set up an empire to replace them. They took back much in terms of wealth and left back only a vacuum.
Rajendra, the son of Raja Raja, understood the precariousness of power better than most. And so, he set up his son Rajadhiraja promptly as his regent around 1018 AD. This could have posed a massive problem. He had two more sons, Virajendra and Rajendra Chola II, who were as ambitious as Rajadhiraja himself.
And yet, the structure held. Whether it was love or other practical benefits provided to them, none of the other princes revolted against this arrangement. Indeed, they supported it as the next paragraph will show.
History has no record of what was the secret sauce behind this massive love-in. Brothers were supposed to hate each other, right? This wasn’t in the script.
Rajadhiraja became the emperor after the death of his father. And reigned from 1044 AD to 1054 AD, when he died on the battlefield of Koppam. The story goes that moments after he died, his brother Rajendra Chola II, who was his second-in-command and had also been designated as co-regent to the throne in the style of Rajendra Chola and Rajadhiraja Chola, took his place on the field and spurred the troops on to victory.
He was crowned emperor and after a successful reign, was succeeded by his younger brother, Virajendra, who, mounted another raid of Indonesia in 1068 AD. After Virajendra, however, dynasty returned to its stereotype, as Virajendra’s son was possibly assassinated by the next ruler of the Chola dynasty, Kulothonga Chola, but that is another story.
So, what do modern dynasts looking to set up a pipeline of family ambition have to learn from this?
For one, power, is like a porcelain vase or a Chola bronze. It needs to be transferred with care. A careless hand or a slippery surface, and the whole structure shatters. The modern dynast, be he or she political or cinematic or an industrialist, needs to be keenly aware of this.
In the age of social media, the handing over of power to one’s own needs to be done both visibly and delicately and in a manner that shows that the next generation is capable of meeting the standards set by the previous one.
21st-century creators of legacies should take note of this wisdom of a thousand years. Succession is a public show. A drama where the benefits and reins of power are handed slowly and carefully in full view so that everyone feels re-assured.
All the Cholas from Raja Raja to Virajendra Chola set up very visible succession plans well in advance, perhaps for two reasons. One – to give ample time for the successor to learn the ropes. Two – to give ample time to see if there was a revolt brewing.
However, perhaps the most important thing that added to the adhesive unity between these rulers was a shared sense of purpose. Kingship, as mentioned before, was a responsibility.
The structure had to hold under the king and for that purpose, all the roles needed to pre-defined and grown into visibly. All the princes in the realm were given substantial portfolios in full view of the governed public to display their competence and also ensure they wouldn’t feel left out of the making of the empire.
They were also routinely given tasks that brought glory to them, like the conquest of kingdoms to satiate their own burgeoning ambition. There was immense pressure to be successful at these roles before they could take the final step to the throne.
There is, of course, also the less cynical way of looking at things: just maybe these dynasts were taught to love and respect each other and had worked out the succession plan among themselves.
It’s not something we expect from dynasties, but that could also be a less heralded explanation for why they survived so long without the blood of their own on their hands.
Raja Raja’s advice, transmitted down the years to 21st century dynasties, would probably tell his fellow legacy builders to not wait till the end to make a succession plan, and to do it in a visible manner drawn over a long period of time so that everybody is used to it, if not happy about it.
He, one of the most powerful emperors in India would probably end with a word of caution: power is a delicate thing, he would say, and perhaps the most delicate of all.
(Aditya Iyengar is the author of The Conqueror that revolves around Rajendra Chola’s conquest of the Srivijaya empire in Indonesia. Buy a copy here.)