Canberra, 12 December 2014

The Chalukya kings left copious records regarding most aspects of their rule, leaving some areas of the administrative procedure only partially explained, which makes the historian’s analytical work a slightly more difficult. Even so, sufficient information can be culled and corroborated from different sources to bring out a sufficiently clear picture of the manner in which the Chalukyas ruled their vast Empire. In some instances minute details of the day-to-day administration can also be gleaned, providing an intimate ring-side view of the administration at work. In an overarching way it is seen that the Chalukya kings were influenced directly and significantly by the prescriptions of the Smritis and other ancient texts on State polity.

Ancient Indian political thinkers prescribed seven constituent elements that were essential to be embodied in a kingdom for it to be stable and successful—Svami (king); Amatya (ministry); Rashtra (territory); Durga (fort); Kosa (treasury); Bala (army); and Mitra (ally). A kingdom was not considered to be viable unless all seven constituents existed in harmony within it. In this theory the king was held to be above the other six. The Chalukya Empire had these seven in the required balance throughout its long existence.

The Succession Process

The Chalukyas ruled in accordance with this prescribed system of the seven constituents and believing in the supremacy of the king over everything else in the kingdom. Succession was based on the accepted concept of primogeniture and supported by an entrenched, hereditary aristocracy, created at the pleasure of the king. Like most of the greater medieval dynasties, the Chalukyas also practised the doctrine of the divinity of the king, holding him as the divine protector of the realm. Similarly, the Chalukya king was the sole repository of sovereignty, being the head of state, chief executive and the commander-in-chief of the Royal forces.

The Concept of Primogeniture. The underlying concept of Chalukya succession was primogeniture—where the eldest son of the ruling king succeeded him to the throne. Accordingly, the eldest son was brought up with particular care being taken to train him in the Sastras and in the art of war. It was also ensured that the heir apparent was personally a sound and courageous warrior, which was an attribute that was critical to the success of his rule and could not be substituted. The exception to this rule of primogeniture was instituted only when the son was a minor at the death of a king, at which time a regent, normally the king’s brother was appointed to rule till the prince reached majority. Although the regency system was accepted practice, it had the unfortunate fall-out of the regent trying to usurp power leading to contests for succession and even civil wars as happened between Mangalesa and Pulakesin II. In the case of a king having more than one competent son also succession struggles were common. In order to avoid a civil war between brothers, kings started nominate the heir apparent—Yuvaraja or Crown Prince—early in their rule, as soon as the favoured son came of age. This process had the added advantage of the crown prince being able to learn the administrative ropes by carrying out some of the royal responsibilities under the tutelage of the king himself.

Although primogeniture as a principle was normally adhered to, and the order of succession was indeed hereditary, succession was also influenced by the ability of the prince to rule. This meant that it could not at all times be assured that the eldest was automatically nominated as the Yuvaraja. In fact primogeniture was not an absolute guarantee. In order to ensure that the successor was worthy of the throne, especially when a number of princes were available, they were educated and trained in a properly organised manner. The education curriculum was well-rounded and comprised of an in-depth and long duration training in the art of war, knowledge of the Sastras and sacred laws, political training and instructions to make them proficient in diplomacy.

The training of princes was primarily oriented towards achieving self-control and inculcating personal valour. Military prowess was essential, and it was almost an unwritten requirement for the Yuvaraja to have taken part in successful military campaigns before becoming the king, both to display his ability to become an effective commander-in-chief as well as to gain practical experience in leading large armies in the field. The heir apparent also took an active part in the administration of the kingdom and after having gained sufficient experience, was normally vested with limited independent executive powers. They also carried out representative duties. These activities were important elements in their training. The overall training must have been effective since a number of epithets for various kings credit them with being astute politicians well-versed in diplomacy.

On assuming office, the crown prince underwent an elaborate coronation ceremony that consecrated the individual as fit to rule and conferred legal status on his kingship. This ceremony was a mixture of tradition, religious sanctification and a display of pomp and ceremony, contextually appropriate to the status of the king and the kingdom. It was common practice to date the dynastic records in regnal years after the date of coronation, making it complicated in some cases to establish the actual date in which a particular event occurred.

The Exalted State of the King

The king was central to the administration and his personality was the driving force of the kingdom. There was an expectation from the people that the king would be diligent, courageous, learned, and proficient in war and diplomacy. Efficient leadership and demonstrated personal courage was the most prized characteristics of a king, while it was accepted that political insight (naya) and statesmanship (niti) were critical to success. According to the dynastic records, the Chalukya kings exemplified in individual moral qualities, being bestowed titles such as ‘Vrdbhopadesagrahi’, meaning ‘one who follows the counsel of elders’ and others that indicate the doing of ‘good’ deeds such as paying reverence to the gods. Essentially the king had to be above petty human vanities and needs.

As a Kshatriya, the king was also the protector of the people from aggression of all kinds, thereby ensuring the welfare of the State. He also had to adhere to the ancient tradition of being ambitious to conquer new territories, in the role of a ‘vijigishu’ the sovereign conqueror. In addition, it was necessary for the king to be a dedicated patron of art, learning, architecture and literature. However, the primary function of the king was to protect the kingdom from internal disorders and external aggression through embodying an enlightened understanding of duties and responsibilities. The rest came later. It was therefore obvious that he would maintain a strong army and police force.

Almost all the Chalukya kings were sincere in their efforts to ensure the well-being of their subjects and diligently practised the ideals of tolerance, charity, impartiality and patronage of learning. They were universally respected by their subjects. The Chalukyas were transparent in their effort to uphold the established social order and to preserve ‘dharma’ as they perceived it.

The Queen and the Royal Family

The Queen was a very visible person and was actively involved in charity and other welfare activities to uplift the lot of the people at the lower end of the economic spectrum. There were also instances of the Queen being the governor of a province and being effective in that role. The Chalukya Queens were prominent in temple-building and other activities that were supposed to bring religious merit to the family as a whole. Capable members of the Royal family were given important appointments within the central administration. They were also at times appointed as governors, especially of recently conquered provinces where the chances of rebellion was the highest. Some of them were made military commanders and send out on independent but minor operations. While this practice had the advantage of the ruling family keeping a tight centralised control of the administration, it also led to fratricidal wars and to the breaking away of few of the stronger branches of the family as independent entities.

Centralised Administration

The king laid down the policy on all matters of national importance, which was then administered by ministers. There is some uncertainty regarding whether or not a ‘Council of Ministers’ existed under all Chalukya kings. It is more probable that the extended Royal family was vested with some amount of administrative powers and therefore acted as a de facto council that advised the king. However, there is absolute proof that the Minister for Foreign Affairs was the most important and influential person in the court after the crown prince. There is no information to suggest that the Chalukya administration had a Prime Minister who functioned as the senior most minister, and it can be assumed that the Minister for Foreign Affairs fulfilled that role. This position was called ‘Sandhivigrahika’, the literal meaning being adviser or counsellor on matters of peace (Sandhi) and war (vigraha). In other words, the Foreign Minister was actually the Minister for War and Peace.

The Foreign Minister also kept the records of the kingdom and a literary work, Manasollasa, of the time provides an insight into the qualifications that were required to fill the post—he needed to have an in-depth knowledge of several languages and scripts; outstanding skill at diplomacy while also being tactful; and he had to be an expert in financial matters.

There were other ministers, appointed personally by the king, who looked after the lesser aspects of the administration. Over the years these appointments were made, or became by default, hereditary, a practice that became a double-edged sword. On the one hand the hereditary nature of the appointment ensured family loyalty to the dynasty, while on the other it encouraged sycophancy complementing self-interest. An astute king had to be able to balance the two opposing forces, which otherwise had the potential to derail the administration. The officials could have overlapping responsibilities in different areas of the administration and some of them carried out dual roles of civil administration in peacetime and that of military commander in times of war. The plurality of roles and responsibilities were normal within the centralised Chalukya administration.

The practice of hereditary appointments from both Brahman and Kshatriya castes, in the long term created a group of prominent families who were became the nobles and aristocrats. These families tended to inter-marry and therefore became kinsmen supporting each other and protecting mutual interests. This process, while gradual and spread over a number of generations, finally made the administration self-serving and open to graft and corruption. Even so, the picture that emerges of the Chalukya Empire is one of a centralised administration with the stability, peace and prosperity of the kingdom entirely dependent on the personal ability of the king to lead in all matters. The long reign of the Chalukya dynasty is testimony to a long line of exceptionally able kings with exemplary strength of character.

Administrative Divisions

The Chalukya Empire was divided into many geographic divisions of different sizes with no discernable or uniform pattern to it. This could be the result of evolving conquests and capture of lands in almost all directions. The conclusion is that the divisions were purely meant to facilitate revenue collection and did not take into account the geographic size or strength of the resident population. At the time of the greatest spread of the Empire there were at least three Great Divisions normally referred to as ‘rashtra’, although there are a number of other terms also in the dynastic records that indicate these Divisions. The ‘rashtras’ were further sub-divided into smaller administrative units variously called desa, nadu, vishaya etc., although once again there was no set pattern or geographical consistency to these divisions. The lowest unit was the ‘grama’, the eternal Indian village. [The ‘grama’ formed the fundamental unit in the Indian polity and continues to be the lowest level of the administrative system even in the 21st century India.] There is sufficient information to confirm that cities and towns, called nagara, were administered as separate and independent entities.

The Chalukyas instituted three categories of administrative processes. The first were provinces governed by viceroys who were members of the Royal family and appointed by the king. The Vengi and Kalyani Chalukya dynasties were initially rulers of such viceregal provinces. The viceroys were independently responsible to safeguard their province against external invasions. This meant that they maintained their own separate military forces, loyal only to the viceroy. The availability of such forces outside the control of the king was a major contributory factor in some of the viceroys attempting, and succeeding, in declaring independence from central control after some years of rule. The viceroys were also responsible to watch over feudatories that bordered their provinces and provide assistance to them as and when required. The advantage of such a system was that it provided uniformly good governance to the people and increased their loyalty to the ruling dynasty. This system formed the basis of a strong foundation for the long term viability of the dynasty. The obvious disadvantage was that a strong and powerful viceroy could gradually become an alternative centre of power, which invariably led to rebellion and civil war.

The second category was provinces ruled by governors appointed by the king, primarily based on their demonstrated competence and personal allegiance to the king. Minor kings who had surrendered after being conquered were also made governors. However, in order to be appointed a governor, they needed to be capable of high calibre administration and also to have displayed unshakeable loyalty to the king. It is certain that governorships were not hereditary positions and that the governors were rotated even during the tenure of one individual. This pattern made sure that concentration of power was avoided and that the chances of a plot being hatched against the king was minimised. The Chalukya kings were adept at ensuring that no secondary or alternative centre of power emerged; one of the reasons for their longevity.

The third category were the feudatories given in fief and ruled almost as independent kingdom paying homage to the overarching Chalukya Emperor. They accepted the overlordship of the Chalukyas and also attended the king’s court periodically. These rulers were called Samantas and had varying status dependent on the size and wealth of their feudatory kingdom. They were also expected to provide a prescribed number of troops when demanded by the Emperor and paid annual tribute to the Chalukyas. However, this system always presented an intrinsic threat to the greater well-being of the Empire.

A centrally administered hierarchy of officials, from the court down to the village level, oversaw the efficient functioning of the kingdom. It is significant that even the lowest rung of the administrative ladder at the village level was consulted by the higher authorities before any decision of importance that had a direct influence on the region was made. The lower positions were appointed by the higher levels with the king appointing the officials at the highest levels.

The Judicial System

The king was the supreme judge of the realm and appointed a set of officials who laid down and enforced law and order within the kingdom. These officials functioned under a centrally appointed head of a designated area. The officials of the judicial system dispensed justice through courts functioning at different levels of the administrative divisions of the kingdom. A system of appeal also functioned across the kingdom with the king himself being the final court of appeal for the people. Although some indications exist that point towards the administrative and judicial roles being combined in the same person in some instances, it is not certain whether this was a common practice. Although the dynastic records are silent on this matter, considering the efficiency of the Chalukya administration, it is highly unlikely that the executive and judiciary powers would have been vested in the same person.

The judicial officers prescribed punishment and fines for offences and the punishments were by and large fairly even across the kingdom. At the village level a sort of peoples’ court functioned in determining the outcome of civil matters, while criminal cases were judged by the appointed officials. The Chalukya kings dealt with crime and punishment within the broad concepts of deterrence and retribution. Fines were common even for minor offences. Even with the extensive amount of records that are available, it cannot be ascertained whether these fines were deposited in the central treasury or went to the local treasuries dependent on the level at which the punishment was meted out. While capital punishment was common for murder charges, the soldiers of the State were given immunity even when charged with murder. [The importance of the soldier in ensuring the welfare of the kingdom is evident in this minor detail that is available from dynastic records.] Punishment also included ex-communication from the society and loss of caste, dependent on the severity of the crime.

Details are not available in the Chalukya records to corroborate punishment with the crime. Therefore, it can be surmised that the punishment for a particular crime was not centrally laid down and perhaps did not even depend on the king’s directives, if there were any. This system could have given rise to local officials becoming powerful and being open to corruption to the detriment of the welfare of the common people. In addition, there is also information that it was not uncommon for army officers to be given civil administration responsibilities—a practice that is highly likely to have compounded the issue of oppression with no effective checks and balances. The officials of the judiciary also looked after the expenditure and revenue of the local bodies, while subservient officials were appointed to apprehend criminals and administer the punishment after their conviction by a judge. There was also an effective watch and ward system that was designed to deter crime.

Foreign Relations

Ancient Indian political thinkers propounded the Mandala theory aimed at maintaining the balance of power, based on the concept of two neighbouring states being normally natural enemies. The Chalukya Empire bears out the practice of this maxim; it had hostile relations with its immediate southern (Pallavas) and northern (Kingdom of Kanauj) neighbours, while in keeping with the Mandala Theory, the Chalukyas attempted to maintain friendly relations with distant powers—Persia (Iran), Simhala (Sri Lanka) and China—and with the relatively closer Southern kingdoms like the Cheras, Pandyas and the Cholas to the south of the Pallava kingdom.

Pulakesin II’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Since Harshavardhana, the king of Kanauj was unfriendly towards the Chalukya Empire, Pulakesin II (who subsequently defeated Harshavardhana in battle) initiated diplomatic relations with his Persian contemporary. The Persian Empire bordered that of Kanauj in the north-western regions. The establishment of Chalukya-Persian diplomatic relations is confirmed by the Persian historian Tabari who records that in the 35th year of the reign of Khusru Perviz II, around 625-26, the Indian king ‘Pharmish’, or ‘Paramesa’ send an Ambassador with letters to the Emperor and presents for the Royal family.

The return Embassy to the Chalukya court came through the sea route in order to avoid having to travel through the lands controlled by Harshavardhana. Their arrival at the Chalukyan court is depicted in the fresco in Cave No 1 in the Ajanta caves.

Dynastic chronicles indicate that Vinayaditya send an Embassy to China through Cambodia. This event is also recorded by the Chinese historian, Ma-Twan-Lin who refers to an embassy from the Indian ruler ‘Tche-Leou-K’I-Pa-Lo’ (chi-lu-khi-pa-lo) or Chalukya Vallabha to the court of the Chinese Emperor Kao-Tsung in 692.

The Chalukyas also used matrimonial alliances as diplomatic tools, a practice that was emulated by succeeding dynasties across Indian history. The Chalukyas initiated such relations with the Kadambas, Sendrakas, Haihayas and the Gangas. These alliances helped bind the empire together giving it more strategic depth in terms of security, military forces, and availability of resources.

Financial Administration

Kosa, the treasury, is listed as one of the seven constituents of a state. From the time of the Mahabharata, Kosa has been considered the basis for the well-being of the other six constituents. The success of a king was directly dependent on the strength of his treasury and his ability to raise revenue. Since the mainstay of the State was its financial stability built on a system of taxation, it was innate wisdom to keep the treasury under the personal control of the king.

Ancient legalists regarded taxes as the legitimate wages of a king, paid by the people in return for administrative services rendered to the State and for his leadership in protecting it. In agrarian societies land revenue was the main income and it was also the case in the Chalukya Empire. The dynastic records provide a great deal of details regarding the taxes that were levied. In sharp contrast, there is scant information available regarding the process of land settlements as gifts and the process of tax assessment.

Taxes of the Chalukya Empire

Bhoga            a fixed contribution, normally in kind, collected from individual cultivators by persons who had been gifted villages by the king for personal use

Kara              a recurring periodical tax; also subsidies paid by feudatories

Sulka             toll or customs fees levied on vendors for merchandise that were imported or exported; also tax on sale and on goods imported, even for non-commercial use

Uparika          tax on cultivators who had temporary lease of the land without having any property rights on it [indicates that sub-letting of property for agricultural purposes was common enough for the State to impose a tax on it]

Pangu            tax levied collectively on a village, although how the villagers decided individual contributions, or the sub-division of the sum, is unclear [this term is still used in all South Indian languages with slight variations and means ‘share’]

Udanga          tax collected from permanent tenants of the land, as opposed to Uparika (described above)

Bali                gifts, normally in kind, donated voluntarily to religious institutions or temples and was considered a tax in the common meaning of the term

Income Tax paid annually and levied directly on individuals based on net earnings and the their societal status

Other Taxes there were a number of local taxes and occasional levies such as one time taxes paid as tribute, festival taxes at times; the names of these taxes vary across the spread of Chalukya chronicles

Other than taxes, there were also other sources of income into the exchequer—a rudimentary system of banking had been introduced whereby individuals of adequate social standing were allowed to deposit private wealth into the treasury for a yearly return or purely to beget the favour of the king; there were fines that were paid directly in to the central treasury; the practice of escheat, a process by which the estate of a citizen dying without issue was automatically confiscated by the State; and tributes and war booty that normally came in the form of gold and precious stones.

While the income to the Chalukya Royal treasury was fairly large, the expenditure involved in maintaining the expected pomp and ceremony, the salaries of the officials, and the maintenance of a large standing army was very high. Further, the expenditure involved in patronage of religion and the arts, the building of grand temples and their upkeep, and the need to donate wealth to Brahmans and accomplished artisans was also enormous. The Chalukya kings found it necessary to grant land for the upkeep of charitable institutions and also to support poets and other distinguished men of learning and art because the wealth in the treasury would not have sufficed for this purpose. Since some of these land grants were hereditary and made in perpetuity, the system was disadvantageous to the Empire. It created vested powers in different regions whose loyalty could not always be relied upon.

The Chalukyan Army

The Chalukyas maintained a large and well organised army as was to be expected of such a glorious dynasty that ruled continuously for over six decades. The king was the commander-in-chief of the military forces and almost always led the army into battle personally. It was expected that the king would lead out to war and it had the added advantage of boosting the morale of the forces and also creating an aura of personal stature for the king. In order to gain and maintain the respect of his subjects, the king had to be seen to be brave, gallant and heroic. As commander-in-chief the king formulated grand strategy and personally applied operational strategy in the battlefield.

Records show that the Chalukyan army consisted of four primary wings and also that the kingdom possessed a strong navy, which conducted successful maritime operations. The power and capability of the army was demonstrated in the conclusive defeat it inflicted on Harshavardhana of Kanauj, the only battlefield defeat that monarch suffered as reported by Hieun Tsang. They also repeatedly crushed the mighty Pallava army, storming and ransacking the Pallava capital number of times. The four wings of the army were: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots.

The infantry, called ‘Padati’, meaning on foot, included both regular and irregular troops and were a mix of forces raised by the ruling king, inherited from his immediate predecessor and also provided by feudatories and allies. [The division of the force into what was created by the current incumbent and those of his predecessor, who would normally have been his father, is interesting. It indicates a running uncertainty regarding the absolute loyalty of the inherited force to the incumbent king.] The cavalry was called ‘asvasena’ or horse-mounted force, and were considered the elite element of the army. [This elite position, gained through a combination of derring-do and ‘cavalier’ dash, became the primary input to the making of legends. Over the years the glory of the cavalry was usurped by the armoured regiments of modern armies who are considered, at least by themselves, the elite of the fighting arms.] Since horses were not native to the Chalukya territory, they were imported from Sindh, Persia, and Arabia. They were properly saddled and bridled, and as shown in a painting in Cave XVII in Ajanta, were ferried across rivers in custom-built boats when necessary.

The elephant wing was considered a defensive force and normally acted as a baseline for the infantry, providing a bulwark in the rear. They also performed ceremonial duties, forming the Royal guard as part of the regal retinue in peacetime as depicted in few Ajanta frescos. In a clear demonstration of the logistical capability of the Chalukyan army, the elephants were ferried across to Simhala (Sri Lanka) to take part in a war against that kingdom. This is not an easy feat to accomplish by any yardstick. There are also records that outline the training imparted to convert the elephants into fighting animals.

Contrary to the contemporary kingdoms of the north, the Chalukya army did not consider the chariot to be an important military capability. This could be attributed to the differences in terrain between the Gangetic Plains and the Deccan Plateau—one flat and conducive to the manoeuvring warfare that suited the fast moving chariots and the other hilly and forested that neutralised the advantages of the chariot. By the time the Chalukya Empire was firmly established, chariots had by and large been relegated to ceremonial roles and cavalry had replaced them in the battlefield since they afforded much greater mobility to the strike capabilities of the army.

The navy kept constant vigil over the long coastline of the Empire in the west and while protecting maritime trade was also used to transport goods. The Chalukyan navy also carried out expeditions against island nations that were hesitant in accepting Chalukyan suzerainty. Dynastic chronicles state that the navy reduced Puri, the then capital of the Konkan with a fleet of more than 100 fighting vessels. Simhala (Ceylon/Sri Lanka) was also brought under Chalukya overlordship by the navy and the Chalukyas reigned in unchallenged supremacy over the seas to its west, south and east for a considerable period of time.

The common weapons used were the bow and arrow, swords of different sizes and length, the lance, and the flying disk called the chakra. All of these are depicted in various frescos in the Ajanta caves. The Chalukyan victories in the field is testimony that the soldiers were brave and the army valorous. An unknown Chinese pilgrim’s notes state that the soldiers of the Chalukya army were such that, ‘one man having a lance in his hand will meet ten thousand and challenge them in fight’.

The king as the supreme commander led all important military enterprises and had the Minister for War and Peace in attendance at all times. The army was efficient, well-organised, trained, and groomed, led by valiant generals who were lauded even by their adversaries time and again for their bravery. The generals preferred death to the humiliation of defeat, in itself a powerful incentive to be brave and audacious in battle. Unfortunately the rank structure of the officer cadre is unavailable but it has been ascertained that only Kshatriyas were officers in the army.


Although some gaps still exist in the narrative of the ruling ethos of this dynasty and their administration of a vast Empire, there can be no doubt that their rule was benign and conducted according to the accepted Sastras and norms of the time. There is no evidence of any of the kings being unworthy of the throne, being uniformly of a high moral standard, and this could have been an important factor the Chalukyas ruling for as long as they did. Even though their longevity as a dynasty is almost unparalleled, in the broader sweep and retelling of Indian history they do not find a sufficiently important place. Even their defeat of Harshavardhana of Kanauj, the only one that king encountered amongst a long list of victories, is underplayed in the narrative. There could be for a number of reasons for this neglect, the least being that this was a South Indian dynasty and the modern recounting of Indian history has always been a north-centric affair.

The glorious Chalukya dynasty deserves better. The kings of the dynasty were, almost all, paragons of virtue, attempting to rule their kingdom in keeping with ancient wisdom and in the bargain becoming beloved of their people. Their decline and final eclipse is an unfortunate accident of history, of the passage of time that weakens even the best, one that visits all empires however strong, at some stage or the other. The Chalukyas faced the same fate as others before them and could not muster the strength at the right time and place to stave off the inevitable. They ended like most others, not in glory, but in a gradual decline into oblivion.

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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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