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A medieval Malayan king beat Cholas at their game. Almost created a superpower

Not all invasions went from India/Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia. The Malayan rulers of Tambralinga tried to establish an empire across the seas.

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The military expeditions of Rajendra Chola I in Southeast Asia were perhaps the most audacious raids carried out by a medieval ruler from the Indian subcontinent. These expeditions helped the Cholas subjugate Kedah, the gateway to the Indian Ocean, and may have helped Tamil merchants secure a foothold in Southeast Asian and Chinese markets. They are sometimes considered proof of South Asia’s overwhelming military and cultural superiority over Southeast Asia.

But new archaeological excavations, coupled with the evidence of Sri Lankan and Tamil sources, reveal that Rajendra I’s expeditions were not an exception: In the world of the medieval Indian Ocean, such raids were not only commonplace, but one Malayan king, Chandrabhanu, actually conquered part of Sri Lanka and battled with the armies of the Pandya kings of Tamil Nadu. His story reveals a great deal about the religious and political dynamics of this forgotten world.

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The meteoric rise of Tambralinga

Tambralinga, “the land of the Copper [Coloured] Shiva Linga”, was an unlikely candidate for a superpower. In the Tirukkaiyur inscription of Rajendra Chola I—one of a handful of Chola records claiming overseas conquest—it is described as “the great Tamralingam, firm and fierce in many great battles”. In reality, it was just one among the many squabbling ports and city-states that dotted the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra in the 11th century CE, participating in the globalised exchanges of the Eastern Indian Ocean. It was centred around Nakhon Si Thammarat (Nagara Sri Dharmaraja) in the southern part of present-day Thailand—though its incorporation into Thai dominions was the result of a disastrous military expedition to Sri Lanka, on which more later.

In The Rise of Tambralinga and the Southeast Asian Commercial Boom in the Thirteenth Century, Japanese scholar Sumio Fukami studied Chinese court records in conjunction with archaeology. In the Indian Ocean World, dispatching an embassy to the Chinese court was a sign of global status and a statement of economic ambitions. The Cholas, for example, sent an embassy there in 1015, after the successful conquests of Rajaraja Chola I. Records maintained by the Chinese court at the time offer a valuable insight into the Indian Ocean’s turbulent politics.

Fukami’s study noted that Chinese sources generally used the term “Sanfoqi” to refer to a number of Southeast Asian States up to the late 1100s, after which they mention embassies from a single power: Danmaling, or Tambralinga. Danmaling, according to the Chinese, ruled all of the Malay Peninsula and was one of the dominant States of the region. China’s awareness of Southeast Asia also grew clearer from the 1100s to the 1300s: The number of places named in court records almost doubled through this time, suggesting that Southeast Asia’s internal commercial networks were becoming denser.

In The Malay Peninsula: Crossroads of the Maritime Silk Road, archaeologist Michel Jacq-Hergoualc’h argued that there was a “commercial boom” in the Malay Peninsula in the 12th–13th centuries, with a sudden increase in the number of finds across sites. Beads, ceramics, and glass items from West Asia were discovered, having been imported for local consumption. Most tellingly, Tambralingan sites showed a sudden increase in the production of high-quality ceramics, suggesting, as Fukami notes, “that they were made by seasoned artisans brought in from elsewhere.” Whether these artisans had immigrated there or been captured is unclear. However, by the 1200s, Tambralinga had clearly become a major power and had a large, prosperous elite class interested in acquiring luxury goods. But it was still an upstart, and radical measures were needed to legitimise its hegemony.

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Gambling for superpower status

In Sri Lanka and South-East Asia: Political, Religious and Cultural Relations from A.D.C 1000 to C. 1500, historian W.M. Sirisena notes a couple of vivid lines in a text called the Hatthavanagalla-vihara-vamsa. It describes a king known as Chandrabhanu, “a lion in prowess unto the rutting elephants who are the kings of many other countries… who had deluded the whole world by a show of service to the world and the Dhamma… who was determined on taking possession of the sovereignty of Lanka, who came from the Tamb[r]alinga country.” This reflects the depiction of Chandrabhanu in the great medieval monastic chronicle called the Culavamsa: “A king of the Javakas known by the name of Chandrabhanu landed with a terrible Javaka army under the treacherous pretext that they were also followers of the Buddha.” [Book 83, Stanza 37] “Javaka” is a generic term used for Southeast Asians.

The Buddhist relics of Sri Lanka, especially the Tooth Relic and the Bowl Relic, were believed to have miraculous powers. As an up-and-coming new power, Tambralinga needed a way to legitimise its control over the polities of Southeast Asia, many of whom had a state Buddhist cult. The antiquity and miracles associated with the Lankan relics made them an excellent target, coupled with the relative anarchy of the island, where many kings squabbled for superiority. This king, Chandrabhanu of Tambralinga, arrived in Lanka intent on seizing these relics with an army of considerable size, equipped with poisoned arrows and some sort of ballista (ancient weapon for launching rocks or bolts at enemies), according to the Culavamsa.

Chandrabhanu must have had access to ships, raiders and logistics providers to send such a significant force across the seas to Lanka; indeed, the Culavamsa mentions that the Lankans had also raided Burma a few decades before this invasion. In this context, Rajendra Chola’s raids were just the tip of the iceberg as far as Indian Ocean marauding was concerned. And not all raids originated from India.

However, unlike the Chola raids, which aimed mostly at tribute and regime change, Chandrabhanu wanted to build an Indian Ocean empire commanding both the Palk and Malacca Straits. Not only did he raid Lanka, but he also attempted to conquer and rule it. Sirisena notes that many places in the Jaffna Peninsula have names that may originate from Chandrabhanu’s conquests, including Cavakacceri (Javaka Settlement) and Javakotte (Javaka Fort). And securing the Tooth Relic would also have allowed Chandrabhanu to legitimise himself as a Sri Lankan ruler, given that the dominant kings of Sri Lanka had possessed and displayed it for centuries earlier.

Unfortunately for Chandrabhanu, however, the Pandya dynasty of southern India did not take kindly to the appearance of a new power in neighbouring Lanka. He was first forced to pay tribute to them, which he did grudgingly, while consolidating his base of power and recruiting large numbers of Tamil and Sinhala mercenaries. He then attempted to conquer the rest of the island in 1262, which would have solidified his status and made him an equal of the Pandyas. This immediately led to an act of “balancing” worthy of modern geopolitics—the Pandyas allied with other Lankan kings, took to battle, and beheaded Chandrabhanu. His son was briefly left in charge of the Jaffna peninsula but was eventually replaced. With this costly gamble brought to a close, the main Tambralinga kingdom was severely weakened. By the early 1300s, it was conquered by the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai and vanished into the tides of history.

The medieval Indian Ocean world was one of endless complexity. The more we try to maintain the idea of India as its centre, the less able we are to see what it really was: One where the subcontinent was one power among many, one where its kings were just one group of ambitious people among many.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords Of The Deccan: Southern India From Chalukyas To Cholas, and hosts The Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval’ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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