"Cholanomics" is a rare book: one that is beautifully written and illustrated, that crosses over from a coffee table book to a storehouse of information, that absorbs the reader into an era of greatness, culture, art and architecture that is virtually unparalleled in the long history of Bharat: the 430-year Chola empire. The book focuses on the medieval Chola period, which was the era of great community building, agrarian reforms, trade, arts and architecture, the veritable "golden era" of South Bharat. Sankar explains the role of temples as central to the Chola social and economic model, "bringing together the non-agrarian and fragmented tribes of this vast empire through rituals". The Cholas created a political and economic model from ground zero, that was far ahead of its time, pushing boundaries on every facet of economy to realize a progressive and inclusive social order - to describe this model, Sankar has coined the catchy word, "Cholanomics".
A primarily agrarian economy, the Cholas built an elaborate network of dams, barrages, lakes, canals and other water bodies for storing and transporting water, many of which survive to this date, such as the more than 1000ft long Kallanai water diversion built by Karikala Cholan around 2nd century CE, and the massive Veeranam Lake, one of the major lakes supplying water to Chennai. Sankar describes the innovative and highly efficient water distribution system and technology developed for prevention of silting of the lakes by a sluice design that deposited the silt on the river bank to further enrich the cultivable soil, with photographs of some of these sluices that survive till date.
The Cholas were a strong naval power that dominated the seas, and Rajaraja Chola, the greatest Chola ruler, and his son Rajendra Chola I expanded the Chola state to Sri Lanka, Maldives, Malaysia, Southern Thailand and Indonesia. On land, their powerful army conquered territories upto Pala and Kalinga, making it arguably the largest kingdom of Bharat and virtually the only one that extended well beyond its geographical borders. Sankar describes the implementation of large infrastructural projects and growth of local and international trade in the Chola empire with some amazing pictures, not only of carvings and artefacts, but also of traditional skills of the period that survive and flourish even today. Sankar elaborately describes the political structure of the day, with something we never read about in our history: an elected government from the village and ward level upwards, a judicial system with just and benevolent laws, free education for citizens, liberal business laws and many other aspects of day-to-day life that would be the envy of most modern states.
And the temples. The Cholas were arguably the greatest temple builders of their age, and Sankar does superlative service in bringing to light over 30 of the great temples built by the medieval Cholas. Despite being devout Shaivites, the Cholas also built great temples to Vishnu and other deities, and incorporated Buddhist and Jain philosophies and architecture in their designs. Every corner of these marvels of architecture has exquisitely carved figurines and idols, that spring to life in Sankar's photographs. Some incredible facts come to light: the over-200 feet tall gigantic temples that have survived unscathed for over a thousand years have a foundation barely six feet deep! He also describes the various intricacies of rituals associated with the shrines, and their role in building communities. The difficult-to-master techniques of creating paintings and murals that have lasted a thousand years, and of using special molds for each metal carving resulting in each piece being entirely unique, keep the reader engrossed.
Sankar explains how temples were at the center of socioeconomic life, contributing to the economy of the state, being a major employer and beneficiary of artisans, musicians, dancers and various other skilled people, extending interest-free loans and grants to all who needed them, running hospitals, building libraries and homes, functioning as warehouses for grain and other goods. In fact, some of these granaries survive till date. Wealth accrued by the temple was strictly audited and the records kept public. He also describes how the temple ponds were constructed and surroundings landscaped for what is now known as "rain water harvesting" to raise the water table in wells of all surrounding villages.
The second half of the book is dedicated to temple architecture and many great shrines such as the Rajarajeshwar of Thanjavur, Meenakshi of Madurai, Ramanathaswamy of Rameshwaram, Thyagaraja of Tiruvarur, Arunachaleswarer of Thiruvannamalai and the great shrines of Kanchipuram have been described with stunning photographs of the temples and carvings, along with a brief explanation of the shrine and its deities. This section is a virtual treasure trove for people seeking to explore the great heritage of the Cholas of Bharat and is sure to add to the tourist circuit of the South. Sankar leaves the readers with some important messages of retrieving our treasures stolen and scattered across the world, and the relevance of conservation of these glorious masterpieces of architecture and heritage.
All this in just one hardbound book of 152 beautifully illustrated pages, making it one of the most comprehensive short reads on the subject. Sankar lets the pictures do most of the talking, and creates a memorable book that earns its place on the desk of lovers of history, art and culture.
Author: Ram Sankar
Publishers: Alpha Publishers, Chennai
Dr Amit Thadhani can be reached at @amitsurg