The world of the medieval Indian Ocean never ceases to surprise us with its parallels to our present. From the domineering presence of China to innovative forms of cultural diplomacy and international merchant corporations, its thriving ports and cosmopolitan peoples have much to show us about the deep dynamics that govern how nations and rulers interact.
Commerce and kingship
Sometime in the late 11th century, the Buddhist Burmese king Kyanzittha of Bagan made a rather audacious claim to his vassals. He said that he wrote a letter in vermillion ink on gold leaf proclaiming the grace of the Three Jewels of Buddhism and sent it off to a South Indian king called ‘the Choli prince’. This prince, according to Kyanzittha, then ‘immediately cast off his adherence to fake doctrines, and adhered straight away to the true doctrine of Buddhism’, and even sent his daughter to marry the Burmese king.
The ‘Choli prince’ was probably none other than the mighty Chola emperor Kulottunga I (1070–1122 CE), a major patron of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism. A letter from a distant Burmese king, even a prospective son-in-law, is unlikely to have convinced him to become a Buddhist. So why did Kyanzittha boast as he did?
Studies of Chola inscriptions reveal the answer: in 1090, Kulottunga I had renewed an endowment made by his grandfather to a Buddhist monastery in the great Tamil port of Nagapattinam. This monastery had been built there in 1006 by another Southeast Asian power: Srivajaya, a naval confederacy based in Indonesia, which controlled trade routes between India and China. The monastery’s original construction and Kulottunga I’s 1090 endowment were signs of friendly commercial ties expressed through religious patronage.
Soon after this, Kulottunga I sought to cultivate diplomatic and marital ties with Bagan, which, at that time, was a rising Burmese kingdom and an important stopping point for Tamil shipping. All this was creatively spun by its king Kyanzittha to meet his own domestic political agenda. But Kulottunga I’s strategy worked: about 100 years later, Chinese texts recorded that Bagan and the Chola kingdom were closely connected and easy to travel between.
Similarly, in 1079, we are told that Kulottunga I gave an endowment of 6,00,000 gold pieces to a Taoist monastery in Guangzhou, which so impressed the Chinese court that they granted him the title of ‘The Great General Who Supports Obedience and Cherishes Renovations’. The Chola empire was also granted first-class trading status by the Chinese, which may have been Kulottunga I’s real goal. Historical evidence reveals similar moves to build or renovate temples and exchange gifts and scriptures between various other courts of the time, including those of Lanka, Java, and Cambodia, suggesting a unique form of cultural and religious diplomacy that would be later extinguished by colonial rule.
The world of the Indian merchant
Royal diplomacy helped structure and smoothen international trade in the medieval Indian Ocean world, but far more significant and pervasive exchanges were conducted by the merchants of the time. Indian merchants, especially Tamil, are among the unsung heroes of global economic history. One particular guild, known as the Ainnuruvar or the ‘Five Hundred’, was perhaps the most influential commercial organisation in Asian history, trading in everything from horses to spices to ivory, textiles, and bronze. They have been attested in historical materials for nearly 900 years, originating in the Deccan in the eighth century and spreading through much of the southwestern and eastern Indian coastline by the 11th century.
Medieval merchants used both war and diplomacy to achieve their commercial objectives. A 1015 embassy from the Chola court to the Chinese presented 21,000 ounces of pearls; the ambassadors, who were merchants themselves, also separately presented 6,600 ounces of pearls and 3,300 catties of drugs that they purchased. In return, they received a number of court honours and even participated in the emperor’s birthday festivities. Professor Tansen Sen has suggested that the ensuing Chola raid of Southeast Asia — undertaken by Kulottunga I’s grandfather Rajendra I in 1025 CE — may have been prompted by Tamil merchant guilds seeking to punish the Srivijaya confederacy for competing with them in Chinese markets and open up opportunities for themselves.
Thereafter, Tamil merchants settled across Southeast Asia and China, often forming influential intergenerational diasporas. Dr Risha Lee has shown that in the late 14th century, they even constructed a Shiva temple in the port of Quanzhou, which was unfortunately destroyed by ethnic rebellions in the region soon after. This was the eastern-most Hindu temple in history until the 20th century saw a new wave of Indian diasporas spreading across the world.
The history of the Indian Ocean is one of extraordinary drama, full of violence and cultural innovation, greed and loss. What repeatedly emerges over time is that its peoples had a sophisticated understanding of each others’ courts, cultures, religions; they developed long-term commercial strategies spanning thousands of kilometres, all of which unfolded through diplomacy and gift exchange. These medieval peoples have much to teach us about creating respectful, deeply-involved trading policies in the 21st century as well as the possible risks of mercantile, military and political power coming together.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a writer and digital public humanities scholar. He is author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. 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 Humra Laeeq)