The South Indian Chola Empire, at the peak of its grandeur, was approximately 3.6 million sq km in area. The geographic spread of the empire covered not just most of the southern and eastern parts of the subcontinent, but also Sri Lanka, Maldives and parts of South-East Asia. In addition to its envious size, the empire lasted for approximately three centuries. Expansions of territory were fuelled by a strong army and a world-class navy well ahead of its time. Ruling heterogeneous subjects spread across geographies mandated that the Cholas had great administrative skills.
No organization can become big unless the leader has a vision to steer it towards greatness. The first of the great Chola emperors, Raja Raja I, had a grand vision — a Chola empire beyond the Indian subcontinent — and wanted to spread Dravidian culture in his territories. His successor Rajendra I was a visionary too and didn’t stop with what his father handed him and continued to expand territory and build temples.
The Cholas were able to scan the external environment and create strategies to benefit their cause. The Chinese, the Srivijaya Empire (present-day Indonesia) and the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad were their trading partners. Ships carrying spices, cotton and gems moved from India to China, while iron, silk and incense were brought back to India and the Middle-East. The Srivijiya Empire, lying midway between India and China was in the midst of a succession conflict and piracy grew around the waters. The Chola navy till then was being used to escort convoys but the piracy grew into such a large menace that even the escorted convoys started getting attacked. When repeated diplomatic missions to Srivijaya failed, the Chola emperor led his navy to the Malay Peninsula and combated piracy. This later paved way for Chola dominance over Indonesia and Cambodia.
The Cholas were quick to adapt change and did not let age-old traditions bind them. During Raja Raja’s time, the Chinese and Arabs were noted for their shipbuilding skills. The emperor, in a historical first, commissioned the foreigners into his shipbuilding program, thus enabling his son Rajendra Chola’s famous naval expeditions and conquests. Although the society was strictly stratified on the lines of caste, Chola emperors broke the trend in the army by hiring tribesmen who were sturdy and skilled in warfare and ensuring that they were not discriminated on grounds of caste.
The Cholas believed in building institutions with a good governance framework and at the same time ensured that the people were empowered. The management of the navy, army and day-to-day governance had stamps of this philosophy.
The organization structure of the navy was hierarchical with clearly defined roles, responsibilities and rank structure. Even an auxiliary support department like customs was highly organized and had divisions responsible for various activities. Within this structure, admirals were empowered to recruit and train sailors, engineers and oarsmen. Chola emperors also did not interfere in the day-to-day administration of the Navy.
The army regiments were supposed to have had a culture of their own; they were even empowered to build temples in their own names. In addition to this, achievements of the various military regiments were duly recognized and glorified with inscriptions, thereby inspiring them to achieve more.
Every village was a self -governing unit, a number of villages made a larger entity — ‘kurram’, ‘nadu’ or ‘kotam’, depending on their size. Bigger entities like ‘mandalam’ were governed by princes or noblemen. As in managing the army and the navy, they believed in the theme of empowering the local government while having a tight structure to enable this empowerment. For example, justice was a local matter in the empire. Even crimes such as murder and manslaughter were tried locally. However, there was a very strong central bureaucracy that ensured the framing of laws.
The Chola kings were great leaders and understood their subjects well. They knew religion played a central role in people’s lives and therefore took an active interest in the development of temples and used them to widen their sphere of authority. They also established educational institutions and hospitals near the temples and ensured the awareness among subjects of the existence of a very powerful yet genial royalty. They understood popular culture well and used symbols and artefacts to further strengthen their hold over their subjects. For example, during one of his northern conquests, Rajendra Chola brought back water from the Ganga and filled a temple tank with it , thus creating awe amongst his subjects as the conqueror of the great mythical river.
Great organizations that have lasted decades with a sustained great performance have been based on grand vision. Great leaders focused on building the organization into an institution, quick to embrace change, developing and empowering their people and recognizing their efforts. Whether it is 900 CE or 2015 CE, an empire or a profit-seeking corporate, it is rather comforting to know that nearly the same ingredients go into making it last… and last successfully !