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Did Rajaraja Chola support brahmin ascendancy, caste system?

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More than the novel and film Ponniyin Selvan, the BJP’s bid to make use of the film to depict emperor Rajaraja Chola as a Hindu icon has washed away some of the harsh criticism against the medieval king by Leftists, Dalit activists and Periyarists. The debate has helped the Chola emperor gain acceptance among all political streams in the State which now see him as their icon. Among the accusations against him is that he promoted Brahminism and perpetuated the caste system in Tamil Nadu.

Rajaraja cannot be viewed through Ponniyin Selvan which is only a fiction set in the historical background of the tenth and eleventh century. Historians only mention that there was power struggle in the Chola empire before Rajaraja ascended the throne and Aditya Karikala was murdered. One of the inscriptions at Udaiyarkudi is an instruction by King ‘Rajaraja to the heads of a village panchayat to seize the property of three brahmins Soman, Ravidasan, Parameswaran involved in the murder of his elder brother Aditya Karikala. While the names of the murders are known by inscriptions, the novel leaves the murder as a suspense.

Also Read: Ponniyin Selvan and the politics of Vetrimaaran

Neither the novel nor the film can be taken seriously as material to throw light on the Chola king or the allegations against him. Though Leftists, Dalit activists and Periyarists usually run down Rajaraja as a feudal king who donated land freely to brahmins and created the Devadasi system, this time they backed five-time award winning director Vetrimaran’s criticism that there is an attempt to portray Rajaraja as a Hindu icon.

Some of the fiercest criticism against Rajaraja has come from Marxist scholars like N Vanamamalai and his followers, who blame the king for all the evils of the society during his time. Vanamamalai who has lashed out at the ‘feudal and barbaric’ Chola empire had admitted that there are only a few rare inscriptions to support his views. He reasons that such inscriptions cannot be found since it would be against the government. But, how did he draw his conclusions when he himself accepts that evidences for his arguments are rarely found?

He cites the Punjai inscription which speaks about the suicide of a temple worker when the village official orders the seizure of lands belonging to them. But, he himself admits that the king ordered the restoration of their lands after the suicide. The other inscriptions at Udaiyalur, Valikandapuram and Aaduthurai do not belong to Rajaraja’s times and Valikandapuram inscription speaks of an agreement between two groups of communities not to fight against each other following the king’s efforts.

Land was given to people of all communities during the period of Rajaraja Chola and the land given to non-brahmins was tax free

Caste has its origin in the third century CE when Kalabhras were ruling Tamil Nadu. Acharakovai, a book belonging to the period, is the first to support untouchability. Historian Mayilai Seeni Venkatasamy cites a poem on Kalabhra king Achuthan which describes how he donated land to brahmins. On the contrary land was given to people of all communities during the period of Rajaraja Chola and the land given to non-brahmins was tax free, according to historian Kudavayil Balasubramaniam.

Besides, the name Cheris which are used to denote the residential areas of downtrodden communities now were used for places of other communities including upper castes. For example, the names of Parpana Cheri is also found. The name Theenda Cheri did not indicate the place of downtrodden communities since the name Paraicheri is also found separately.

The administration of Thanjavur big temple was entrusted to 118 villagers belonging to various castes. The inscriptions at Thiruppananthaal, Vellore and Thiruvallam mentions that punishments to all criminals including brahmins were the same, showing that a common criminal code was followed, says historian T.S. Krishnavel.

Rajaraja introduced Tamil worship in temples and appointed non-brahmin priests. He appointed Pavana Pidarar, a non-brahmin as the first head priest of Thanjavur temple

Rajaraja introduced Tamil worship in temples and appointed non-brahmin priests. He appointed Pavana Pidarar, a non-brahmin as the first head priest of Thanjavur temple and the temple Linga in the temple was installed by Karuvur Thevar, a non-brahmin, whom the emperor considered as his religious guru.

He conferred the title Rajaraja to communities which are found in the Scheduled Caste list now. Rajaraja Perumparaiyan and Rajaraja Perunavithan were some of the titles, said Kudavayil Balasubramanian.

Blame for Devadasi
As early as second century CE, Madurai Kanchi of the Sangam era mentions the presence of women workers in temples who were called Salini. Historian Leslie C Orr, who had written about women in temples during the period of Rajaraja Chola, says, “They enjoyed high status in society and were allowed to marry if they wished. They were allowed to have property and they donated large area of land to many temples. Most of them belonged to the royal families and the families of landlords”.

The first inscription with the word Devadasi’ is found at Alanahalli in Karnataka and it belongs to 1113 CE, many years after Rajaraja’s period, writes VM Sundaram, a research scholar on Devadasi system.

‘Historical materialism’, put forth by Karl Marx, identifies society’s relations of production as the economic base of the society. From this economic base arises the political institutions, religion, culture, law, customs, ideas and moralities which he called as ‘super structure’. The ‘super structure’ has its origin in the economic base and its features ultimately correspond to the character and development of that economic base. (‘Karl Marx’s theory of History: A defence’ by G.A. Cohen).

Rajaraja as the political head of the society is only part of the ‘super structure’ which has its origin in the economic base. As per historical materialism, an emperor or any individual cannot create the economic base during his regime since it arises naturally as per the stage of economic development at that time. Super structure consisting of culture and religion arises from economic base and it is not the creation of an individual, even if he is a mighty emperor. Besides, any emperor is bound by the customs and ideas of his times and it is unfair to use the scales of one millennium to assess a person who lived in another millennium.

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