Why don’t we remember the Cholas?

Regional history, historical fiction and more: ‘Empire’ author Devi Yesodharan speaks to TNM at the Bangalore LitFest.
Why don’t we remember the Cholas?
Why don’t we remember the Cholas?
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An interest in history and love for stories is imbibed in us unconsciously as we grow up, especially while listening to stories and tales from grandparents, until introduced to high school history, which – save for a good teacher – is often daunting and something that students stay away from. That education, too, has greater emphasis on Mughal history and the freedom struggle, but leaves room for a wide range of Indian history that is reserved only for one chapter in our textbooks.

Devi Yesodharan’s debut novel ‘Empire’ is an interesting work of historical fiction, rich in detail about the Chola king Rajendra Chola I and his conquests in the 11th century. It explores in detail the culture and colourful history of the period.

A session at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2017 titled ‘Why Don’t We Remember the Cholas,’ explored questions regarding available literature, the historical significance, and why the Cholas are still not as well-known despite the scale and extent of their conquests.

“I think one of the challenges is that it was a regional empire. We’re talking about a Tamilian king. We don’t really talk about the regional empires much. Our focus has always been the more recent empires – and that’s what has dominated our popular culture as well. The popular books written on the period – they focus on Akbar, on the Mughal period in general. I think we even know the names of some British Governor-Generals better than we know the name of Rajendra Chola,” says Devi, speaking to TNM.

Devi says that one of the reasons that we don’t really know as much of regional literature is because we haven’t fully embraced our Indian-ness in terms of regional literature.

“I think what needs to change is that we see regional literature and regional history and actually embrace it as ours and talk about it more,” she says.

Image courtesy: Madhumita Gopalan

She has said that another reason why the Cholas are not remembered as well as the Mughals is because the historical texts available for the Cholas are far lesser. “Since they existed centuries before the Mughals, we have fewer surviving texts about the Cholas produced outside of India. Records within India tend to be inscriptions, the study of which is left to the specialists.”

Rajendra I became the Chola ruler a couple of years after Rajaraja I, his father built the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur. Rajendra ruled along with his father and served as a general under him, and was an accomplished warrior leading several successful military expeditions. He had his army march all the way to the Ganga, to bring home pots of holy water from the river. Defeating enemy armies along the way, his men returned victorious, earning Rajendra the title ‘Gangaikondachola’, meaning ‘the Chola who conquered the Ganges’, writes Madhumita Gopalan.

“And yet despite the grandeur and size of their realm, their wealth and artistry, the Cholas don’t feature in our imagination as much as the Mughals. When I was writing my novel featuring Rajendra Chola, my references were primarily academic texts and translations. While they were a treasure trove of detail, they weren’t exactly written with an eye to the crowd. On the other hand, when I did a decidedly unscientific search online for Mughal related books, I discovered that there are nearly 2,000 titles written about the Mughals, a vast collection that includes comics, romances and even a Mughal werewolf fantasy,” Devi writes.

Talking about the research for the book, Devi says she went from not knowing anything about Rajendra Chola to writing a book in the span of a year.

The research is evident, as the book is in extremely rich in detail. There are vivid descriptions of food, the surroundings, the battles etc. “I’m a foodie – I loved reading about the food. The description of the recipes used to make me hungry. I really used to enjoy reading the uninhibited descriptions of the food. The other thing was about the battles. They were extremely entertaining to write because so much of it during that time was spears, arrows and hand-to-hand combat. Those parts I really enjoyed writing,” Devi says.

Devi also says she really enjoyed writing Aremis, one of the book’s most important characters. Aremis is a Greek, who goes on to become the king’s bodyguard, but is still an outsider looking in.

Some of Aremis’ character was inspired by Devi’s own experiences, of being brought up in Dubai and then coming to India, and being one of the few females in male-dominated spaces.

“It’s a very gendered experience,” she says. The experience of constantly being on your guard and in unstructured environments is something Devi wanted to bring out – and hopes that women can identify with it and men can empathise.

Talking about history in schools, Devi said that the teaching is often limited to teaching people about the architecture rather than the literature of the time. “There is so much wonderful work that is written by historians – make that more accessible to students. We rarely find the best of historians unless we grow up and start going through the non-fiction shelves and we find them ourselves,” Devi adds.

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