A Chola Tiger on the Iron Throne

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Rajendra Chola, who succeeded to the Chola throne in 1014, ruled the Chola empire at a time of expansion, forging the Cholas into a mighty naval power that dominated and controlled the Indian Ocean. During his reign, the Cholas grew to become second only to Song China in their influence and authority. But how would this Chola king compare with the fictional kings and queens battling for control of the seven kingdoms, on our favourite TV show, the Game of Thrones?

The current occupant of the Iron Throne, Cersei Lannister, is a queen too absorbed in anger at those who have betrayed her, and too driven by her thirst for revenge to rule effectively or build alliances. Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, however, are ambitious but also have an eye on the long game, willing to put old crimes committed against their families behind them in order to rule well. Rajendra Chola was similarly strategic: like the best of planners, his blood ran cold. The Chola tiger was closer in attitude to the Stark wolf and the Targaryen dragon than the Lannister lion. He captured regions he thought critical to the control of his naval trade, avoiding wars that he deemed unnecessary.

For instance, he attacked the Srivijayans in Indonesia only when they actively thwarted his sea trade, and he was a canny war commander, plotting a sea course that allowed him to take the Srivijayans by surprise. He didn’t have dragons, but the war elephants he brought with him in the ships terrified his enemies, and they capitulated easily. And once he had won, he negotiated marriages between the kingdoms to keep the peace.

Like the honourable King in the North, Jon Snow, Rajendra kept his promises – he came to the aid of the Vengi king when he needed help defending against invaders, and provided protection to the lords who pledged allegiance to him. With the ordinary people, he worked to win their love: throwing lavish feasts, whose richness were celebrated in poetry, and donating to temples.

But in his personality as a ruler, Rajendra was closer to Daenarys, who rules over a motley crew of people, of various races and temperaments. However, he didn’t have the moral authority that Daenarys appears to exert over her army, for numerous accounts indicate that the Chola armies were cruel with the people they captured, pillaging the place and often destroying homes.

George R R Martin has said that he doesn’t plan to give GoT a happily-ever-after ending. And that’s probably where real life comes closest: Rajendra Chola was one of the greatest Chola kings, but his successors couldn’t hold on to his victories. As always in the case of empires, from the moment of creation, decay begins. Kings have to be constantly on their guard, especially when they are at their most powerful.

In an echo of the great rivalry of the Starks versus the Lannisters, the Cholas were constantly fighting with the Pandyas, another southern dynasty, for supremacy. After Rajendra’s death in 1044, Chola power gradually diminished. Eventually, the Pandyas allied themselves with the Lankans and the rival kingdom of the Cheras to defeat the Cholas.

But the strongest resemblance to the Game of Thrones can be found in the southern kings’ dismissal of dangers from the outside. No one believes that the White Walkers exist until they are shown clear evidence: both Daenerys and Cersei deny them as fairytales. So overwhelmed were the South Indian kings by their rivalries with one another that when they finally crumbled, it was to an outsider. Obsessed as they were with internal battles, the kings failed to recognize the danger from the North, until the Delhi Sultanate invaded the region, ransacking much of the territory.

The Chola empire eventually fell to invaders and internal revolts. As with all empires, real and fictional, palaces become monuments, and greatness becomes a memory.


Read Devi’s Empire here.




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