The Five Hundred Swamis of a Thousand Directions

The Indian East Company

Rajendra Chola’s eleventh century naval expedition across the Bay of Bengal and the conquest of Southeast Asian kingdoms was, according to John Keay, one of “those rare examples of Indian aggression beyond the frontiers of the subcontinent”. The question that intrigues historians is just why did the Cholas embark on such a venture?

The ready answer is booty, for many of the Chola military expeditions involved securing wealth from conquered territories that would be generously given away to their subjects. But there is another angle, arising from the links between the Chola state and commercial interests of the merchant guilds. That’s where the Five Hundred Swamis of Aihole, or disai ayirattu ainnurruvar (the five hundred of a thousand directions) enter the scene.

Geoff Wade argues that “there seems little doubt that the Chola attacks waged on Southeast Asia port polities in 1025 and again in the 1070s, as well as the occupation of Sri Lanka in 1080, were all intended to expand the commercial interests of the polity‚Äôs merchants and thereby of the polity itself.” According to this theory, the Chola expedition was intended to break the Srivijaya empire’s hold over the straits of Malacca, to advance the interests of the Five Hundred Swamis.

The Five Hundred Swamis were established in Aihole, in the Raichur doab of what is now Karnataka, and had a second base at Pudukottai in Chola kingdom. An “supra-regional” association of itinerant merchants, it followed the conquering Chola armies, first in peninsular India, and then to their overseas forays.

So what became of them? According to some historians, the present day Lingayat community of Karnataka has its roots in the guild of the five hundred of a thousand directions.

Related Link: The Trading World of the Tamil Merchant, by Kanakalatha Mukund, via Google Books; Guilds in ancient India, on Kamat’s Potpourri