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How Cholas, Mings dominated Indian Ocean before INS Vikrant

The idea of dominating the Indian Ocean is not new. Naval interactions between South India and Sri Lanka date back to the 11th century.

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The commissioning of the INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, has set off a storm on Twitter. Some have drawn parallels to the Maratha and Chola navies, and others have pointed out connections to that of the East India Company. The idea of India dominating the Indian Ocean is one of the most sought-after dreams of modern strategists. From the 20th century onwards, Indian diplomats and thinkers have pointed out that the country is ideally situated to control the “gateways” to the Indian Ocean at the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, the Palk Strait, and the Straits of Malacca.

This idea is not new, though it might be surprising to see how far back it goes. The Portuguese, for example, successfully seized Malacca in 1511 and Hormuz in 1515, less than 20 years after Vasco da Gama first entered the Indian Ocean. But less than a century before that, another great power—China under the Ming dynasty—had visited (and, in some cases, attacked) the very same ports with enormous fleets of ships, nearly 250 in number. These floating cities carried thousands of people, from Africans to Arabs, Malayalis to Sinhalas to Bengalis. On them were translators, merchants, diplomats, veterinarians, soldiers and even a few kings. These expeditions, led by the admiral Zheng He, were the culmination of hundreds of years of globalisation in the Indian Ocean. They will show us the earliest examples of how a world power can successfully execute a strategy across this vast region.


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The Chola precedent

Ming interventions in the Indian Ocean were not the first example of a trans-regional military expedition in the region. Such interactions between South India and Sri Lanka had happened for centuries. But truly trans-regional expeditions began in 1017–18 when the Chola emperor Rajendra I claimed to have successfully attacked Kedah in present-day Malaysia. In 1022–23, his armies raided Bengal, having sacked several independent towns and forts along the east coast in present-day Andhra Pradesh and Odisha en route. Finally, in 1024–25, he claimed to have attacked a number of cities of the Srivijaya confederacy across Indonesia and Malaya, including Kedah, Palembang, Panei, Jambi, and Lamuri. It is difficult to establish whether all these attacks were successful. Given the logistical challenges of an expedition at such distance, the Cholas either had local allies, had small numbers of highly effective troops, or exaggerated their successes to claim a maritime “conquest of the directions,” as was common in medieval Indian geopolitics.

There seems to have been some success in ensuring regime change — or at least temporary compliance — through these projections of force. In Bengal, the Cholas set up a dynasty called the Senas, who appear to have been Kannada speakers. They would gradually undermine the local Pala dynasty and their vassals. In 1018, the king of Kedah sent a large gift of gold for a temple in Nagapattinam, the premier Chola port on the Indian Ocean. Finally, after the 1025 raids, it appears that there was a change in the structure of the Srivijaya confederacy, with the city of Jambi taking over the premier position from Palembang. Tamil merchants set up several enclaves in the region. Though later Chola emperors found themselves unable to undertake similarly impressive expeditions, it seems that the court still tried to maintain influence in Kedah, then the gateway to the Malacca Strait. The future Chola emperor Kulottunga I was dispatched there in the late 1060s after a request for mediation.

Some consistent themes appear throughout. First, the selection of targets based on commercial and geopolitical priorities — both Bengal and Srivijaya were major Indian Ocean players and situated at strategic points in trade networks. Next, the installation or support of friendly regimes conducive to trade in these regions.

However, by the 1050s, the Cholas faced tremendous pressure inland, drawing resources away from oceanic expeditions. Four hundred years later, another Indian Ocean power would find the resources to do what they did on a larger scale.


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The Ming apogee

Ming interventions in the Indian Ocean followed the same basic template as the Cholas. However, the resources that the Ming State poured into these expeditions were unprecedented, involving enormous ships hundreds of feet long, over 27,000 soldiers, and large quantities of provisions and fine trading goods, especially silk and porcelain. Unlike the Cholas, they could both coerce and convince. They also used the knowledge and connections built by the earlier Yuan dynasty to trade and profit, but also to “civilise” — which is to say, exercise and profit from hegemony in the Indian Ocean region.

In Sri Lanka and Palembang, the Ming rulers ensured outright regime change. In 1405, Zheng He brought a stone tablet declaring Malacca, then a tiny unimportant port, a “country,” and a Ming garrison and government depot were established there. This gradually decreased the importance of Kedah as the entrance to the Straits. This sort of outright State-directed colonising activity is not attested from earlier periods.

Similarly, in 1417, Zheng He also granted a seal to the ruler of Kochi on the Malabar Coast. He also set up a tablet on a nearby hill, declaring it “the mountain that protects the country,” making it part of the Ming political landscape and thus allying with Kochi against the rival kingdom of Kozhikode. Kozhikode had been on the verge of monopolising the pepper trade by conquering the rest of the Malabar Coast, and the Ming clearly did not see this as being in their interest. The same year, after carrying out a naval artillery bombardment, the Ming traded and exchanged embassies with Malindi on the East African coast, elevating it to the most important port in the region.

But that’s not to say that Ming influence was always destabilising. In 1408, they ordered Java to cease all demands for tribute from Brunei, and fined them heavily. In 1420, the young Sultan of Bengal, Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah, requested that the Ming assist him against invasions from the Sultanate of Jaunpur. In response, Zheng He’s deputy Hou Xian arrived with troops and imperial orders, commanding the Jaunpuris to cultivate good relations with Bengal (which they seem to have, temporarily). Indeed, Bengal became so important to the Ming that by the 16th century they had compiled a Chinese-Bengali dictionary.

So, what does this tell us about the nature of power in the Indian Ocean? While regime change and the control of chokepoints are important, any hegemonic superpower needs to be able to provide incentives to local powers to engage with them. While the grand military gestures are important, there’s a reason that so many Indian Ocean powers sent elaborate embassies to and engaged with medieval China, consisting of valuable gifts, large numbers of people, and even animals. In a region as vast and diverse as this, filled with so many competing polities, the big stick must also be accompanied by a tasty carrot.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, 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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