Lord of the Ocean – Aneeta Sundararaj

View from the summit of Gunung Jerai. Author photograph.

“China is going to take over our world,” my friend declared.

Unlikely to happen!

I didn’t say the words aloud, though, for this man’s convictions were delivered with such ferocity that any meaningful debate was impossible. Rumour had it that he believed that every country was doomed to inevitable failure unless it bowed down to the might of China. To state otherwise would result in arguments that lasted days. He’d gone so far as to make sure that his only child was already fluent in Mandarin and not her mother tongue, Tamil. The girl was all of five years old.

Rubbing his day-old stubble, he said, “You know, they have roads with five lanes on each side. They’re catering for the future. Here, we are still living in…” Waving his hands, he added, “this jungle.”

Those words struck a raw nerve.

Perhaps it was because I was frustrated that he couldn’t see beyond this ‘jungle’ and appreciate the beauty and purity of our picnic site. We were at a resort built on what the locals fondly call ‘Kedah Peak’. Located on the summit of Gunung Jerai in the north of the Peninsular Malaysia, this mountain was unique because it was surrounded on three sides by absolutely flat paddy land, as well as the Straits of Malacca on the west.  

Perhaps it was because I’d completed reading Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expedition to Southeast Asia, based on a collection of papers and essays presented at an international conference called ‘Early Indian Influences in Southeast Asia: Reflections on Cross-cultural Movements’ held between 21st and 23rd of November 2007 in Singapore.1

Perhaps I was simply fed up with my friend’s ‘pontificating’.

When he then demanded to know how I could remain so calm, I said, “It’s all happened before.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”   

I decided then to tell him what I’d learnt from the book mentioned above. I said, “Let me tell you a story about this place. You will see that the politics of this region has been in a state of constant flux. We have to go back to a time when the ‘Lord of the Ocean’ invaded Kedah; when Kedah was still Kadaram and found its place in history.”

***

Briefly, from the oral tradition of storytelling, the region regarded as modern-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu in South India has had a history of continuous human habitation for more than 15,000 years. During the first few centuries, the main dynasties that ruled the region that was concentrated around the fertile valley of the Kaveri River were the Pallavas, Pandyas, Cheras and Cholas. The stories about the Chola’s domination proper only began in the 8th century when there was rivalry between the Pandyas and the Pallavas, which in turn caused the revival of the Cholas. From the 10th to the 14th centuries, the entire region was united and it began with the rule of a man called Arulmozhivarman. When he ascended to the throne in 985 AD, he reinstated the Chola power and supremacy in the region and took the title of Raja Raja Chola.1 Incidentally, his story was chronicled in a novel from the 1950s by Kalki Krishnamurthy called Ponniyin Selvan, and is now being adapted for an upcoming Indian Tamil language film directed and co-produced by Mani Ratnam and starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.2

Raja Raja Chola was succeeded by his son, Rajendra Chola I, in 1014 AD. Where the father conquered the eastern kingdoms and parts of modern-day Sri Lanka, it was the son who expanded the Chola kingdom throughout the Indian sub-continent and beyond the Bay of Bengal to modern-day Sumatra and Java in Indonesia. Generally, the three decades of his rule are referred to as the ‘Golden Age of the Cholas’. Having established a formidable armada, Rajendra Chola I became known to his contemporaries as the ‘Lord of the Ocean’. He established his capital at a site 70 kilometres from Thanjavur in the Jayankondam Ariyulur district and called it Gangaikondacholapuram (which, when translated, means ‘City of the Chola Who Took the Ganges’).3

Both Raja Raja Chola and Rajendra Chola I commissioned the construction of stunning temples as homages to Lord Shiva. It is the father’s, called Brihadeeswara, in Thanjavur that has later inscriptions on its walls which tell the story of the son’s naval expedition and invasion of Kadaram in the year 1025 AD (henceforth called the ‘1025 AD invasion’). Translated into English, the inscription reads as follows:

“[Rajendra Chola I] having dispatched many ships in the midst of the rolling sea and having caught Sangrama–vijayattunga-varman, the King of Kadaram, together with the elephants in his glorious army, [took] the large heap of treasures, which [that King] had rightfully accumulated; [captured] with noise the [arch] called Vidhyadhara-torana with the jeweled wicket-gate’ adorned great splendour at the ‘gate of large jewels’; Pannai with water in its bathing ghats; the ancient Malaiyur with the strong mountain for its rampart; Mayirudingam surrounded by the deep sea [as] by a moat; Illangsoka, undaunted [in] fierce battles; Mappappalam having abundant [deep] water as a defence; Mevilimbangam having fine wall as defence; Valaippanduru having Vilapandur; Talaittakkolam praised by great men [versed in the sciences], Madamalingam, firm in fierce and great battles; Ilamuridesam whose fierce strength rose in the war; Manakkavaram, in whose extensive flower gardens honey was collecting and Kadaram, of fierce strength, which was protected by the deep sea.“4

It is amazing that this inscription survives to this day. After a while, however, there is a sense that something is amiss – the story is somewhat incomplete. Yes, an invasion occurred, but we’ve not been privy as to why it happened in the first place. Historians have skirted around the various reasons for this seemingly apocalyptic event, which range from the prevailing contemporary maritime practices and geopolitics, to a clash of religious beliefs. Historiography has stated no definitive motives or chronicled the genesis behind the 1025 AD invasion. Yet such an oversight shouldn’t necessarily be seen in negative light. In fact, it provides a particularly enthralling opportunity for a storyteller with an active imagination to reconstruct the possibilities of what could have, should have and might have happened in a bygone era.

In the Middle

For millennia, all the states within the Southeast Asian region have forged and maintained relations with their great neighbours on either side, India and China.

Around the 10th and 11th centuries AD, the usual route for Indian merchants would begin in Nagapattinam in the far south-east of present-day India. This was the main port for the Chola dynasty from which the merchants would sail eastwards across the Bay of Bengal. The end of the crossing was marked when the navigational landmark of what is today called Kedah Peak was sighted. Even today, there are ruins of a Hindu temple at the summit of Kedah Peak. Through the oral tradition of storytelling from one generation to another, the belief among locals is that the temple is an homage to the nine sacred planets of the Hindus, the Navagraha. Indeed, it is said that a fire was kept alight at the temple to facilitate navigation by night for sea farers. What is undisputed is that at the base of Kedah Peak is the Bujang Valley, which is divided by the Merbok River. On the banks of this river are ruins of several ancient Hindu temple sites which provide us with evidence of a once-thriving community. Indeed, because of its strategic location and natural port, Bujang Valley emerged as an entrepôt “which witnessed the sale and purchase of merchandise. … It was, in effect, a replenishment and repair point for ships and also a venue for the exchange of culture, religions and social practices.”5

Once the merchants were reinvigorated, they would travel south to a port located right in the middle of this trade route between India and China – Srivijaya. This city was on an island called Suvarnabhumi.6 Modern-day names for both these places are Palembang and the island of Sumatra respectively. Similar to merchants of south India who found safe harbour at Srivijaya, Chinese merchants eager to trade with those from India and further afield, such as the Arab countries, would call on the same port to repair their ships and exchange goods. Naturally, Srivijaya was considered the richest port in the Malay Archipelago.

World Conquest

One of the first explanations for the 1025 AD invasion was for Rajendra Chola I to extend his digvijaya (world conquest).7 Having done the seemingly impossible and conquered the lands to the north as far as the Ganges, he now wanted to venture further afield and across the Bay of Bengal. This ties in with the argument that it was a culmination of the politics of plunder and expansionism started by his father and which had been employed for decades in South India and Sri Lanka. This, however, is a simplistic view that ignores the complex issues at play which include religion and economy.

Religion and Economy

Many of the countries in Southeast Asia practised Hinduism and/or Buddhism. In addition to being an important trading nation, India was considered the holy land of both these religions which is why many Southeast Asian nations maintained their good relations with the states of the sub-continent. In fact, Rajendra Chola I seems to have continued his father’s policy of friendly relations with Srivijaya as he confirmed his father’s grant to that port’s Buddhist temple at Nagapattinam. In return, he received gifts of valuable presents from the kings of Srivijaya.8

Towards the end of the 10th century, there was a rise of new powers – namely the Fatimids in Egypt – as the dominating power in the Islamic world. This not only caused a shift in the Muslim trading activities from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, but also increased the importance of the Malabar Coast. This necessitated both a change the trading routes and a struggle for market share, as well as a growing awareness that China under the Song Dynasty was becoming an increasingly important trading nation. Equally aware of these changes, in 987 AD, Song China dispatched four missions vested with imperial authority and gifts to foreign countries to induce traders to come more frequently to the Chinese ports with the promise of special facilities and import licences issued via a ‘Bureau of Licenced Trade’.9 Srivijaya was the first country to react to the offer made by the Chinese and sent a tribute mission to Imperial China.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing when greed reared its ugly head in Srivijaya. Having established a monopoly on the trade of sandalwood, the rulers ordered merchants to sell it to them, thereby increasing its value manyfold. No one dared to sell it privately, and this system became regarded as an effective form of governance. Chinese records show Srivijayans forced foreign ships to stop at their sea ports; if the ships failed to do so, they were attacked and destroyed by the powerful Srivijayan navy.10

Indeed, there is a record that Srivijayan kings attempted to strangle Indian trade with China. Srivijaya rulers demanded a levy of 20,000 dinars for rightful passage through their waters before they allowed a Jewish merchant ship to continue its voyage to China. Such high levies may have been imposed on Indian ships as well and upset the Chola rulers.11

With the usual route for trade becoming increasingly taxing, the question that must have been on the minds of the Cholas was whether or not there was an alternative trade route they could use. As it happens, the answer was in the affirmative. Before the difficult and sometimes dangerous maritime trade route via the Straits of Malacca existed, merchant ships originating in India, Sri Lanka and northern Sumatra carrying goods bound for China were unloaded at three ports – Takuapa, Trang and Kedah – on the west coast of the Malay peninsula for trans-shipment via land on the Isthmus of Kra to ports in Chaiya, Ligor and Patani. From there, ships could then set sail across the Gulf of Siam via Funan port to Guangzhou (better known today as Canton) in China.12 They could bypass Srivijaya altogether. 

Based on an original map in K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, The Colas (Madras: University of Madras, 1955), p. 212.

Intelligence, Monsoons and A Surprise

An attack on the scale of the 1025 AD invasion couldn’t simply have been done overnight. There must have been meticulous planning put into place well before the decision to undertake the voyage was even made. As the story goes, it is plausible that the Cholas garnered intelligence about the latent unrest in the region long before the invasion happened. This was done through the many merchant guilds that had been set up both in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.

Then came the question of when this attack should take place. There can be no doubt that the Chola armada had an in-depth knowledge, and made judicious use, of the prevailing wind conditions and currents in the Bay of Bengal. They understood that this particular region and that of the wider Indian Ocean experiences both the “westerly monsoon winds and the retreating easterly monsoon.”13 “The voyage will generally commence after the sighting of the Migasiram Ardra and the Ottraivelli in the southern horizon and the Kootu nakshatram on the port bow of Ardra.”14 Keeping this in mind, the easterly voyage undertaken by the Chola armada for the invasion in 1025 would have probably commenced in late December or January.15 This was one of the two times in the year when the north easterly winds and easterly currents facilitated a smooth and quick voyage. The journey from Nagapattinam to the Malay Archipelago would take anywhere between twelve and fifteen days.16

By the time Rajendra Chola I ascended the throne, he was already the supreme commander of a formidable military. The 1025 AD invasion included his armada which comprised seasoned seafarers with considerable nautical wisdom. This invasion, therefore, found its place in history as it remains one of the few that was an interplay and coordination between the two factions of the Chola’s armed forces which resulted in this swift and successful attack in a single foray. There is a Tamil inscription from Alur in Karnataka in India which “informs of a lifetime endowment made to ‘Kadaram-konda Chola Brahmarayar’ by Rajendra Chola I for his military service. He appears to be a general in the Kadaram invasion.”17

Certainly, the element of surprise played an enormous role in the success of the 1025 AD invasion. Instead of sailing to the northwest opening of the Straits of Malacca and making landfall at Kadaram (which the Srivijaya navy was guarding) the armada sailed along the west coast of Sumatra. They entered the Sunda Straits from the south taking the navy by surprise. After the fall of Srivijaya, the armada continued its plunder of several other ports and cities mentioned in the inscription on the walls of the Thanjavur temple. Some of the modern names for these places have been identified in Table 1 below.

After the 1025AD invasion, Rajendra Chola I acquired a new title – ‘Kadaram Kondan’ (He Who Took Kadaram).19 Quite simply, the 1025 AD invasion was an ambitious manoeuvre based on a hindrance to a trade route that ended Srivijaya’s maritime monopoly in the region.

***

My friend leaned back in his chair for a long while. He remained uncharacteristically silent for so long that I wondered if he was alright. Slowly, he leaned forward and said, “You said there’s a temple at the top. Can we go see it?”

I smiled for I knew then that the telling of this beautiful story had had its desired impact. No longer agitated, he now saw what I saw – great powers will always be challenged; politicians, power brokers, tradesmen, king makers, sultanates, republics, kingdoms and empires will come and go; they will appear, disappear and in some cases, re-appear. The Southeast Asian region has played, and will continue to play, a pivotal role in trade between India and China. He had taken on board the knowledge that even though close to a thousand years have passed since the 1025 AD invasion, the legend of the Lord of Ocean still inspires awe. Like me, he’d imbibed the wisdom that the circle of life will continue unabated. And I witnessed an important metamorphosis – with straightened shoulders, the slight lift of his chin and a confident gait, he now bore the calm awareness of someone who’d found his self-worth and wore his history with pride. That was as beautiful a sight to behold as the pristine beauty of the area once known as Kadaram.

*

Once upon a time, Aneeta Sundararaj created a website and called it ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. She has contributed feature articles to a national newspaper and also various journals, magazines and ezines. Aneeta’s bestselling novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. Throughout, Aneeta continued to pursue her academic interests and, in 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’. She can be found on Twitter @httags.

References

1.   Kulke, H, Kesavapany, K and Sakhuja, V., Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to South East Asia. (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2009).

2.   Wikipedia, ‘Ponniyin Selvan: I’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponniyin_Selvan:_I (Accessed 9 January 2022).

3.   Wikipedia, ‘Gangaikonda Cholapuram’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gangaikonda_Cholapuram (Accessed 9 January 2022).

4.   Sakhuja, V and Sakhuja, S., ‘Rajendra Chola I’s Naval Expedition to Southeast Asia: A Nautical Perspective’, in Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to South East Asia. (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2009), pp. 77-78.

5.   ibid., p. 87.

6.   ibid., p. 86.

7.   Kulke, H., ‘The Naval Expeditions of the Cholas in the Context of Asian History’, in Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to South East Asia. (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2009), p. 1.

8.   ibid., p. 6.

9.   ibid., p. 5.

10. Sakhuja and Sakhuja, ‘Rajendra Chola I’s Naval Expedition’, p. 79.

11. ibid., p. 79, citing Hall, K., Maritime Trade and State Developments in Early Southeast Asia, p. 85.

12. Sakhuja and Sakhuja, ‘Rajendra Chola I’s Naval Expedition’, p. 87.

13. ibid., p. 80.

14. ibid., p. 82.

15. ibid., p. 83.

16. ibid., p. 83.

17. A. Meenakshisundararajan. ‘Rajendra Chola’s Naval Expedition and the Chola Trade with South East Asia’, in Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to South East Asia. (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2009), p. 170, citing P. Suryanarayana’s Tamilnattu varalattru Ilakkia Atharangal 200 B. C to 1350 A. D. (1998).

18. A. Meenakshisundararajan. ‘Rajendra Chola’s Naval Expedition and the Chola Trade with South East Asia’, in Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to South East Asia. (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2009), p. 170.

19. ibid., p. 170.

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