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’s 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

17 thoughts on “The Five Hundred Swamis of a Thousand Directions”

  1. All that is fine and good. But one wonders how on earth did 500 swamis (never mind what they were up to) go in 1,000 directions. Simple arithmetic reveals that would mean half a swami for each direction. The mind struggles with the image.

  2. Atanu,

    Swamis in those days might have been bidirectional. You know, being itinerant traders, they came and went.

  3. I always have thought the ayinutruvar were related to the Nagarattars. Hmmm… There is one more book to be added to my reading list.

  4. There seems to be something lost in the translation. Although my Tamil is a bit rusty, disai ayirattu ainnurruvar will translate into [those in] fifteen hundred and thousand directions, and not [those in] five hundred of a thousand directions; the latter will translate as disai ainnurruvar.

    In any case, who cares if it’s five hundred or thousand five hundred directions? The important point is that the Cholas effectively used the n-dimensional space to spread their joy around, and were not restricted to the paltry 3, 4, or 9 ones 🙂

  5. Oops, that should read five hundred and thousand directions 🙁

    Nitin, please, please, reinstate the preview applet, for the sake of typing-disadvantaged ones like me. Thanks.

  6. TRF,

    The problem is solved when the word is written like this,

    Disai-ayirattu ainnurruvar

    1000 directions, 500 people (link: ASI)

  7. Anand,

    According to Kanakalatha Mukund’s book, the nagarams and guilds were different—with the former being limited to one urban region, while the latter were spread across several regions. Page up a couple of paragraphs above this section of the book.

  8. Sumanth,

    You are right. I should have inserted the hyphen.

    But from the ASI link, it appears that the Aihole 500 were different from the “500 from the 1000 directions”; while John Keay and Ms Kanakalatha seem to think they were the same. To complicate matters the nanadesi disai ayirattu ainnurruvar are supposedly yet another guild.

    Too many 500 Swamis in too many 1000 directions.

  9. Sumant / Nitin,

    I am still not convinced. First, there’s no hyphenation in Tamil, as far as I know. Also, it’s not disai ayirattil ainnurruvar, but disai ayirattu ainnurruvar. The junction u is between ayiram(1000) and ainnuru(500). That’s exactly how 1500 is written in Tamil – ayirattu ainnuru.

    There may have been more lost in archaeology – nanadesi is suspiciously close to nanadisai [four directions]. nanadisai ainnurruvar [or ayirattu ainnurruvar] will translate into five hundred [or thousand and five hundred] in/from four directions, and makes more sense than any other translation so far. It does, however, negate my conjecture of the Tamils’ awareness of n-dimensional space 🙁

    Well, what better to do on a weekend than quibble about Tamil grammar? It’s Atanu who started it first, though $#151; fifteen hundred swamis in fifteen hundred directions avoids the horror of slicing 500 swamis into 1000 halves 🙂

    Btw, Nitin, where do the “Swamis” come from?

  10. TRF: The Tamil text I have from History of the Tamil Country (part IV) is ?????????? ???????????????????????? (Naanaadesi thisaiyaayiraththainjuutruvar) ???? (Naanaa) means ‘many’, and not ‘four’. Naanaadesi would mean (of?) many nations or many countries. And the traditional split has been thisaiyaayirath ainjuutruvar. The book mentions a possibility of 500 important tradesmen.

    Nitin: This has prompted me to do some more reading and apparently there were many guilds from the Tamil country dealing in both domestic and foreign trade. Apart from the Ayinjuttruvar, the book I have mentions the Manigramattaar, Ayyapozhil, AnjuvaNNam, VaLanjiyar etc. Have to read the Mukundan book to check these out. Also the Aihole connection needs investigation as well. Because what would be classified as ‘domestic’ trade could actually include trade within the northern ‘conquered’ areas of mainland South India too. This is very very interesting!

  11. Oops! All my precious Tamil typing has been reduced to question marks! That leaves you with my slightly ambiguous transliterations. Also I have to agree with TRF, “Swaamis”?

  12. Anand,

    Yes. Ms Kanakalatha’s book refers to other guilds. She refers to Meera George’s “Two Merchant Guilds of South India” as her reference.

  13. Disai ayirathu shouldn’t be literally translated. It means an equivalent for “multi-directional”. Ayiram thisai is often used in Tamil poems to mean multi-directions. “Pallayiram thisai” is also used.

    Traders were considered elite and elite men used to be referred as “swamy” [“saamy” to be more local] and so these tradesmen may be referred as swamis?

  14. Should the question be, why just the Cholas and why just Southeast Asia?

    I think Indian Ocean littoral would have been lot more different, especially Africa, and much better off if a few Hindu kings from the east ventured out over the seas transferring traditions and way of live to these areas – lot better than the colonialism and slavery of the west…even now the rest of world is dominated by the two dominant monotheistic religions and their philosophies.

    Agree with Venkat that Swami, even now, is very common reference to someone learned or one who knows the ways of the world – at least in telugu country side….

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