The Eastern Sea and Golden Lands

The Purvasamudhram[1] was finally quiet after two days of incessantly tossing the boat about. Sokkan the old man still sat in his usual spot near the Kudirai Chettis[2]. Here was another chance for him to brag about the strength of the vessel and the thoughtfulness of the crew. They had come through the storm mostly unscathed and were just past Manakkavaram[3]. The young officer had taken a liking to Sokkan despite the blighter’s ability to constantly disparage the Cholas. Vikramadityan was twenty-five and had already proved himself an able soldier and commander of men. He was from Uraiyur and came from a family that had for generations been utterly loyal to the Cholas. His ancestors had fought at Takkolam. It was now 1026 AD. Rajendra Chola was rapidly expanding the empire his father Rajaraja had first taken out of the Indian mainland—the Chola empire that began growing out of the narrow fertile zone around the Kaveri river in the Tamil country.

The boat was on its way to Kadaram[4] and Vikramadityan was sure that he would be given some messy administrative problems to fix in the new territories. The Srivijaya capital was taken but the Sailendra army did not seem to be giving up that easily. Not that anyone expected any different.

Sokkan claimed he used to be a merchant adventurer. Now he was dressed in the garb of a hermit. As is custom, a hermit’s origin is never sought. His old Prasasti[5] proudly placed his ex-guild’s origin in Ayyavole[6]. He was a Nandesi and he might as well have been from all the thousand directions of their lore. He might have never ever left their Pudukkottai base, but his stories were all filled with exotic countries and ports. He had bought horses from the Arabs, sold perfume to the Chinese, fought pirates off Manakkavaram. He even claimed to have once had a tryst with a Yavana woman at the Kodungallur lighthouse. This man had all the cockiness, irreverence, and lewd jokes of the typical sailor. He was a saffron-clad Shaivite hermit now. Proper sailors would have kept better birds with them. All he had was a tatty old crow, probably as old as himself.

A couple of days after they left Korkai, Vikramadityan had found the old man entertaining his servants. At that time Vikraman’s thoughts were elsewhere. He was cursing his brother Parthiban for having booked him on this merchant fleet. He would have much preferred to have travelled with his soldiers and fellow officers on those warships. Partiban had suggested that his first overseas voyage should be spent in relative luxury. But Vikraman’s stomach was not in any position to appreciate any of it. The old man’s smelly, sour, herbal concoction was more than welcome relief. So was his company.

Sokkan made it clear right from the start that he was not a big fan of the war and the conquest. His opinion of the ruling family was not that great either. He kept talking about the time Sundara Chola’s crown prince Aditya was murdered. He insisted it had something to do with Uttama Chola, Rajendra’s grand uncle who had ruled briefly before his father Rajaraja’s reign. Vikraman, like most of his ilk kept quiet about that incident. His grandfather, who had served under Sundara Chola actually quit active duty and went back to tend his farm when Uttama ascended the throne. That was until finally Rajaraja became regent and called him back to Thanjavur. Only those with wild imaginations and wilder tongues were left to spew outrageous conspiracy theories. Sokkan spoke about palace intrigue, family insiders, some Pandyan spies, a Sinhala prince, and a mysterious woman. “But whatever is to be said” he continued, “They did figure out a way of sorting out succession disputes. Masterstroke really, making your son the co-regent. In China, fathers have their sons killed.”

Thankfully for Vikraman the topic of discussion changed when Sokkan learned more about his work. He did have some praise for the Cholas for having left local administration decentralised and granting a great deal of autonomy to the Nagarams[7] and the Nagarattars. “I have been to a few countries and everything happens around the capital, and you pay your taxes to the king who deigns to have that money redistributed at his will.” Vikraman smiled briefly while Sokkan continued. “Your emperor, like his dad before him, is working hard at reviving trade with the Chinese. And that country is a perfect example of how bad internal politics makes a nation insular and dysfunctional to the outside world. In our country we at least know how the king steals our money. Parakesari[8] also exempts characters like me from taxes”

“I’m glad you find something good about the Emperor. The General was telling me how we’d have to let the merchants do their job, and how we need more Nagarams and specialised trading centres in all our new territories. We do love business and trade. But tell me old man” Vikraman asked, “why are you not in your guild anymore and why do you not appreciate the empire growing and expanding open trade under the Tamil Crown?”

“Sometimes The Crown cannot see the difference between trade and traders, business and businessmen, nations and guilds. And who said I don’t trade anymore? Except I now deal in a commodity that some businessmen and most politicians find no use in. And it is also tax free!”

“Wisdom and love” Vikraman said, repeating the line his servants had picked up from Sokkan like a mantra.

“What is with you and foreigners” Vikraman continued. “That deal with the Chinese does not mean we love them. Just that we’d be better off not fighting them, but doing business with them instead.”

“And Sangrama Vijayottunga Varman was not a big fan of you directly dealing with the Chinese was he?”

“Kadaram had to be conquered. Trade had to be freed up” the young man justified

“Maybe it was just a rich country that also happened to be in the way?”

“Maybe it is just another foreign nation that needs to be taught some proper Tamil values and culture”

“Ah!” the old man exclaimed. “Foreigners needing to be taught the Tamil way… This is where your pride fails you and makes you sound like a slab of stone. A stone slab on a grand temple wall, filled with as much information and as much polemic. But yet, a stone slab.”

Vikraman was not amused.

Many of the men on board truly believed that the old guy held within him the spirits of sailors from the dawn of time, and that he could even predict the future. “Let me explain”, he said, masterfully keeping the aura of a sage. “There were merchant adventurers even before the Cholas or the Pallavas…”

He told their stories like they were his own. Of the older boats that could only sail during the windy seasons. Of having stumbled onto strange lands with strange foreigners until they were better known as the Suvarnadvipam[9].

“We had taken Tamil to the corners of the world before you warriors even thought of subjugating those people with your swords. And you think you are bringing Tamil to those lands? The people you have fought are your own kind, people who speak the same language and worship the same gods. All thanks to years of trade and negotiation and deals and treaties which we managed to have in place. I would claim that your position is very convenient.”

“Frankly old sir, despite what you say, by your own admission, our Empire is the better run than most in this world. Do you want us to give up the world like you, don saffron robes and preach love?”

“Oh I would expect nothing of that sort. Stick to your Dharma. But you could at least abandon your pride. Nothing lasts forever. The Cholas will not last forever.”

Sokkan paused. He knew the young man was aware of the Sri Lankan situation.

“You thought Mahinda was defeated and the Tiger flag would fly over Lanka forever? Today, he is the hunted, tomorrow things could entirely be the other way around. Mahinda will return and hunt your down. If not now, later, and do you think he is going to love you for all that you have done in his land. His loyal Pandyan allies too are waiting for you to fall.”

Vikramadityan did not respond.

“Let your emperor decide”, Sokkan continued “What does he want to leave behind for someone a thousand years later to see and learn. Marvels in stone, or lessons in history?

All this came back to Vikaraman as he sat in the barracks at Kadaram a few months after that voyage. Then Sokkan’s pithy observations seemed to be less caustic, and Vikraman would dare admit, even true. That morning there was another ambush outside the camp, and the week before, two ships were sunk. This war seemed to never end. Maybe like the old man said, Vikraman thought, it might go on for a hundred years.

Back on the boat, that day Vikraman’s slightly wounded ego tried to salvage something from Sokkan’s barrage. “Pride! Well I am proud to be in the army that cleared this sea of the menace of piracy. You have fought them yourself. Aren’t you glad that your emperor could do that for you now?”

“And he certainly gets paid in gold for his services” Sokkan promptly replied “He can have his capital city cross the river[10], yet there are perils in these seas which even the mighty Rajendra cannot surmount”

And that was just before the storm hit.

That fearful sea surge certainly dented, if not shattered Vikaraman’s hubris and his already delicate digestive system. The sailors worked through their practised routine. Techniques perfected over centuries. The boat survived in remarkably good condition. The only one with casualties were the navy’s pilot vessel that veered off course and was found a day later with half its crew missing.

On that calm morning after the storm. Sokkan’s crow crept out of his box, flew out and came back with a throbbing fish in its beak. Clever bird. The old man traded his catch with the Kudirai Chetti‘s handler for an extra ration of fresh water with which he boiled poor Vikraman more herbal medicine.

“In the old days, if a storm lasted more than a few days. We would draw lots thrice, and the unlucky sailor would be lowered down on a bamboo raft for having brought ill-luck upon us. We did that to a Chinaman once. But that never works with the Arabs. And talking of Arabs, there will be a day when both sides weakened by your war would lose to those smart chaps who have been waiting for you to consolidate your conquests. They’ll just pluck them out of your hands. Can you imagine the trade on the Purvasamudhram and the Aparasamudhram[11] run under the banner of the Arab?”

“Rubbish” said Vikraman. “The Arabs conquering Srivijaya because we have weakened it? You must be joking” But he knew it was no use arguing with the old man. In a tone as much meant to humour the man as to mock him said. “Maybe, just maybe if by some miracle, the Chinese can learn enough magic to put the Chola army to sleep, they too could also conquer us huh?”

“Hmm” Sokkan murmured theatrically “Now you know why we lower Chinese men down to the sea on bamboo rafts?”

1. Purvasamudhram – The Bay of Bengal
2. Kudirai Chetty – Merchants who specialised in trading horses (usually Arab horses)
3. Manakkavaram – Nicobar
4. Kadaram – Kedah in present-day MalaysiaTh
5. Prasasti – Laudatory verses
6. Ayyavole – Aihole in present-day Karnataka
7. Nagaram – A large town on city which acts as the administrative/trading centre for a number of villages around it
8. Parakesari – Rajendra Chola
9. Suvarnadvipam – Prsent-day Indonesia
10. Rajendra Chola moved his capital from Thajavur to Gangaikondacholapuram north of the wide Kollidam river probably to ease the movement of his army that was constantly marching northward

11. Aparasamudhram – Arabian Sea