Indian History Part 35: THE CHALUKYA EMPIRE – A CONCLUDING APPRECIATION

Canberra, 15 December 2014

The Chalukya dynasty ruled the Deccan Plateau and adjoining areas for more than six centuries and then faded from the historical narrative of the Indian sub-continent, as so many had done before and since. The central family was established in Badami in early 6th century. They were ambitious and capable, creating a vast Empire within the span of little over a century. Their self-confidence is demonstrated by the kings setting up their brothers as powerful viceroys in conquered areas and more importantly by later permitting these off-shoots to set up sibling dynasties independent of the principal group. The subsidiary dynasties were established in the periphery of the core Empire; in the east around Vengi, and in the west with Kalyani as capital. The Kalyani branch came to its own only towards the end of the dynastic rule in Badami and there was nearly a 200-year period when this branch was dormant.

The reign of the Chalukyas had its own cycle of ups and downs, victories and defeats, civil wars and other disturbances, but they were never completely defeated by any one king or dynasty, nor was their kingdom annexed. They were never vanquished and never vanished for six centuries; at the end being pushed aside into relative obscurity only because of the overwhelming fatigue that came with the constant wars and the heavy burden of holding a large empire together. It cannot be said that the Chalukyas suffered from Royal hubris or that they went into decline because of overstretch, like so many other empires.

The Chalukyan Society

Like most other kingdoms of the time, the Chalukya Empire was primarily agrarian in nature and a majority of the population was centred on villages, making a living off agricultural pursuits. The staple crops were rice and pulses with cotton in dry areas and sugar cane being cultivated in rain-deficient regions. [Since the pattern of monsoons have not changed significantly in the past 1500 years, it is not surprising that the region even today follows a similar pattern in agricultural activities.] It was common practice for labourers to migrate en mass to another ruler’s jurisdiction if they were unhappy with the treatment meted out to them. This would have put the landlords in a quandary if such an exodus took place at some critical point in the cultivating cycle and therefore would have had a salutary effect on the treatment of the ‘lowly’ labourer. Since there is no record of any kind of labour rebellion during the Chalukya reign, it can be ascertained that the labourers were treated well.

Tax collectors who were called Praja Gavundas (today corrupted to Gaundas) were appointed by the State and these officials also doubled as the peoples’ representatives in front of the ruler, especially in times of draught, flood etc. There were also the Prabhu Gavundas who were the lords of different groups of Gavundas, obviously a senior position. The peoples’ representative also doubling as the collector of taxes is bound to have created conflicts of interest and encouraged the tendency of the junior officials towards corruption.

The Importance of Trade

The Chalukya Empire had a number of powerful merchant guilds that transcended political divisions. [This is clear indication of the understanding the ruling kings had regarding the importance of trade to the well-being of the treasury, an essential constituent in the broader polity of the State.] Accordingly, trade activities were not halted in times of wars and rebellions. The wealthiest and obviously the most powerful South Indian Merchant Guild of the time was called the ‘Ainnuruvar’, meaning ‘the five hundred’, a sort of ‘chosen’ and exclusive group. They were also called the Aihole Svamis and their successors are resident in Aihole even today.

The Ainnuruvar conducted extensive and extremely profitable trade both through maritime and land routes. Their significant power is demonstrated by the fact that they were permitted their own flag and assumed the bull as their emblem. [Was this the beginning of the adoption of the bull as a symbol of wealth like the ‘Wall Street’ bull?] Further, they also committed their achievements in writing in the form of inscriptions called ‘Prasastis’, a privilege normally reserved for the Royal family. According to their records, this group traded with Maleya (the Malaya Peninsula), Parasa (Persia), Kambhoja (Cambodia), Nepal and Magadha in precious stones, spices and perfumes.

The Western Chalukyas conducted extensive trade with the Chinese Tang Empire around 10th century and were also frequent traders with the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Indian ships have been reported in Dhofar and Aden as well as in Siraf, an important port of the time in the Eastern coast of the Persian Gulf. The Indian merchants and their trade was considered important enough in Siraf for local eateries to maintain separate plates for their feasting because of the differences in dietary habits.

Religious Practices

For a long period during Chalukya rule Jainism and Hinduism existed side-by-side on an equal basis with Jainism being more predominant in the Western parts of the Empire. The fall of the Rashtrakutas to the Western Chalukyas during the brief revival of the Chalukya glory combined with the almost simultaneous defeat of the Gangas by the expanding Chola dynasty was a setback for Jainism from which it never fully recovered. However, the conscious practice of religious tolerance by the kings and high officials kept Jainism alive in the Peninsula, albeit in a diminished form.

The revival of alternative Hindu philosophies like the Advaita philosophy propagated by Adi Shankara had already made Buddhism go into terminal decline by late 7th century. Although both Buddhism and Jainism were in decline, there are no reports of religious strife and therefore it can be taken for granted that the change in circumstances was gradual, smooth and evolutionary. This period also coincided with the growth of Vaishnavism in the form of the Lingayats in the Chalukya Empire and of a different version of Vaishnava Hinduism in the Hoysala controlled region. The ascendancy of the Lingayats was doctored by Basavanna, considered a saint in later days, who extolled the concept of direct worship of god through his Vachanas, sayings in a sort of poetry form written in simple Kannada and therefore appealing to the common people. For example he wrote ‘Kayakave Kailasa’, meaning ‘Work is worship’, a catch phrase that is still used in India.

Ramanuja, the head of the Vaishnava monastery in Srirangam was an influential teacher and preached the Bhakti Marga, a way of devotion and also wrote the much lauded Sribhasya, which is a commentary on a critique of the Advaita philosophy of Adi Shankara. Essentially, the Chalukya reign was one of constant activities in the religious sphere. These religious advances, all of them peaceful, impacted the development of culture, literature, and architecture in the whole of South India. Literature was particularly influenced with a number of people writing poems in praise of Shiva in the Vachana form and a large number of prolific Vaishnava scholars producing writings that survive to this day.

Literary Achievements

There was substantial literary activity, both in Kannada and Sanskrit, during the entire Chalukya reign, spurred on by the extensive patronage that the kings extended to talented scholars. At one stage more than 200 Vachanakaras, or Vachana poets, were listed of whom 30 were women. These poets expressed their closeness to god through these poems. Ranna was the court poet of king Satyasraya and was honoured with the title ‘Kavi Chakravarti’, meaning the Emperor amongst Poets, and is credited with five major works. Ranna’s most famous book is Saahasabhima Vijayam, which is also called Gada Yudham, written in 982 as a eulogy to his patron whose valour he compares to that of Bhima of the Mahabharata.

Nagavarma II who was the poet laureate of king Jagadhekamalla produced erudite books on Kannada grammar and vocabulary—Karnataka Bhashabhushana providing details of the grammar and Vastukosha, a lexicon that provided the Kannada equivalent for Sanskrit words. Around 1129, king Somesvara II wrote Manasallosa an encyclopaedia in Sanskrit that covered varied subjects such as medicine, magic, veterinary science, fortifications, evaluation of precious stones, music, painting, and provided information on a whole lot of other subjects. This tome is a landmark and provides detailed information and understanding of the level of knowledge prevalent at the time. From this book it is abundantly clear that the knowledge resident in the Chalukya Empire was certainly extensive. During Vikramaditya I’s rule the Sanskrit scholar Vijnaneshwara wrote the legal treatise, Mitakshara, which formed the basis for Hindu Law at that time. This book was translated by the philologist Colebrook and formed the basis for the British law on Indian inheritance that was formulated in later years.

Henry Thomas Colebrook (1754-1812)

Colebrook was one of the first European Sanskrit scholars, who spent 32 years in the service of the British East India Company starting in 1782. Since the British judges had difficulty in administering justice to the local population according to the local Indian law, he considered it necessary to study it, which in turn made it necessary for him to learn Sanskrit in order to read the Hindu Law books. He was taken in by the language and the refinements of Sanskrit grammar as well as the flexibility and capability of the language, which was in the words of Paulinus, ‘the admirable craft of the devil which had led the Brahman philosophers to form a language at once so rich and complicated’. After translating the ‘Digest of Hindu Law’ he went on to research and translate a large body of work and also wrote several essays on medicine and the Vedas.

Colebrook’s essays were published at a time when there was considerable scepticism regarding the authenticity of translations and other essays on Hindu (Sanskrit) literature written by even brilliant scholars such as Sir William Jones. However Colebrook was considered to be extremely truthful in his writings, never embellishing any translation. Stanley Lane-Poole writes about Colebrook in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume II, ‘His honesty, learning, and extreme caution were apparent to all who were competent to examine the question; he treated the literary problems with which he dealt as though they were problems of physical science, and made a point of under- rather than over-stating his case. Precision, scientific sobriety, absolute accuracy and truthfulness were his characteristics.’

In 1810, Colebrook published the translation of two treatise on the law of inheritance and came to be known as the preeminent legal expert in British India of the time.

To Conclude…

Some sources state that the Chalukya kings received only limited income from the land and other taxes. However, this is an untenable argument considering the records of the pomp and ceremony that attended all Chalukyan monarchs; the availability of a large and powerful standing army at all times; the conduct of expensive expeditions against the neighbours; and the chronicles of extensive and profitable trade within the sub-continent and with outside nations. The image that emerges is of a dynasty of pious, serious and well-meaning but militarily ambitious kings who were not averse to being ruthless when it was required. The times dictated the streak of ruthlessness without which the dynasty could not have survived for the long duration of its rule. It is noteworthy that no king of the dynasty has been accused of moral corruption.

The Chalukya kings were also astute enough to recognise natural boundaries that could be fortified and easily defended. Further, they relied on the circle of feudatories to effect collective defence while being extremely careful to emphasis their own greater status and stature within the collective. They were the quintessential ‘Mandala Kings’, perambulating the borders of their kingdom constantly, while also being actively involved in the welfare of the people. The dynasty was laid low primarily because of the enduring long term rivalry with the Pallavas and subsequently with the Cholas. A constant state of war can never be sustained for long and it is a credit to the Chalukya kings that they managed to maintain a state of military readiness for such long period of time before finally succumbing to fatigue—both military and financial.

The Chalukya rule was undoubtedly the golden age of the Deccan, being the last of the glorious empires of the medieval age in the Indian sub-continent. This is particularly remarkable considering that at the same time North India was gradually but surely sliding into veritable anarchy. The Chalukyas were not defeated and overrun by external elements but declined and came to an end because of a sense of lethargy and extreme tiredness in holding a large and troublesome empire together—they effectively imploded on their own. This event, paved the way for the Islamic invasion into the Gujarat region.

‘As new Islamic challengers ventured across the deserts of Sind and over the Hindu Kush, India’s dynasties appeared to be woefully indifferent as they lavished all available resources not on forts and horsemen but on flights of architectural fantasy. In fact they were meeting the new threat by a gloriously defiant assertion of self-belief in their superior sovereignty.’

John Keay, India: A History, p. 179.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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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) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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