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Historians divided over Raja Raja Cholan’s legacy
Filmmaker and Dalit activist Pa Ranjith’s comment that the king was among those who usurped land from the Dalits triggered a discussion among historians and history enthusiasts about his reign, while a few argue that there isn’t enough evidence to portray the monarch in bad light.
At a time when the whole country is pondering over BJP’s “one nation, one election” policy, the Dravidian hinterland is debating if the millennium-old monarch Raja Raja Cholan was anti-Dalit and anti-women?
Filmmaker and Dalit activist Pa Ranjith’s comment that the king, though revered and even celebrated as the greatest ever, was among those who usurped land from the Dalits triggered a discussion on the reign of the dynast, dividing even the intellectual circle in the state. While some admit that the society was equally unequal and caste discrimination was commonplace during his reign, a few contemporary historians opine that there is not enough evidence to paint the monarch in a bad light.
The heated debate that followed Ranjith’s remark exposed the intolerance of the right wing and Tamil nationalists, who have been crying foul over the criticism of the monarch.
Writer Aadhavan Dheetchanya argued: “Ranjith is speaking because at least eight castes are claiming that Raja Raja Cholan is their ancestor. Historian A Sivasubramaniam in his book Brahmana Bojanam says: ‘Raja Rajan had acquired land from non-Brahmins to light nanda vilakku. Land acquired from others was given to Brahmins and taken from them by the kingdom.’ Inscriptions stand testament to that. Ranjith is only handling the issue.”
“Celebrated historians like Noboru Karashima and AK Kalimuthu have also admitted that in their books. If the society was equal in his times and if land was not acquired from Dalits, why was it not mentioned in the inscriptions of Karunthattaikudi. Ranjith was speaking for poor agricultural labourers,” he said.
Author of historical fiction and non-fiction, K Arunan, calls Ranjith’s statement on Raja Rajan true and argued that KA Neelakanda Sastri (in his book The Cholas) and KK Pillai (History of Cholas), the two historians considered as authority in Chola history, have documented that the king had donated land only to a few select castes.
“Why was land donated only to Brahmins and Velallars? About 340 students were taught Sanskrit in Rajarajachaturvethi Mangalam village in present day South Arcot during his days. KK Pillai says, it can be easily construed as to how Sanskrit was promoted during his period, but he says no evidence could be found for Tamil development during Chola period. Land ownership and education was driven by the Varna system. “People don’t present an objective picture of him. Critics only talk about his positives or negatives. Never both. Brahminism was established during Chola period. Poojas were performed only in Sanskrit during Chola period. Discrimination based on birth existed even before Raja Raja Chola era, which concretised caste discrimination,” said Arunan.
Author V Mathimaran, an otherwise harsh critic of Ranjith’s allegedly selective silence on BJP and Brahmins, argues: “What is wrong in Ranjith’s statement? Raja Rajan was indeed casteist. Historical evidence suggest that he had confiscated lands from the marginalised section. The monarch led a lavish life and did not rule to uplift the people. The grand temple in Thanjavur was not only a shrine, but also his fort, which had imposing walls, gates, moats around it to protect him during enemy invasion. He was anti-women, which is confirmed by the Devadasi system that he promoted. The problem with Ranjith statement was his refusal to question who the king gave the acquired land to. The director never asks why did he not snatch land from Brahmins.”
Villupuram MP and writer D Ravikumar denies the casteist charge and targeted land acquisition from Dalits during the said Chola era, and said: “Historians Noboru Karashima, James Heitsman, R Tirumalai are authorities in Chola history. While Karashima propounds that land was not privately owned, historian Tirumalai says private ownership had existed. But, it would be myopic to claim that Dalits were targeted in land acquisition. Casteism and casteist atrocities started during 12th and 13th century.
“Land ownership during 10th century requires thorough research. TV Sadasiva Pandarathar’s History of the Later Cholas would be a credible document. His documentation of inscriptions confirms that people were sold and bought then. Slave trade (not western slavery) was practised. ‘Devaradiyals’ were stamped like cattle. Sati was also practised then. Position of women and working class in the society was very low. People were divided based on their occupation, but they were not divided on caste lines, which came in to being only over a century later. So, we cannot be claim that land was taken from Dalits alone,” opined Ravikumar.
Meanwhile, the controversy stoked by the director has exposed the disturbing intolerance towards personalities celebrated by the society. In the instant case too, people want to forget Raja Raja Cholan’s promotion of slave trade and oppression of women because of his admirable contribution to archaeology and water management, which would be an impartial study of history.