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The Undefeated Triumph of South India

The Sangam Age, which ran from the third century BC to the third century AD is seen by historians as a time of rapid growth and socio-economic prosperity in India. Throughout its rich history that spans thousands of years, southern India, like any other part of the country, witnessed the meteoric rise and fall of several kingdoms. Regardless of their monarch, these kingdoms of the South have always managed to emerge as a hub for international trade and commerce. India's richest ancient civilizations originated in the southern part of the peninsula. These civilisations were recognised for being way ahead of their time in almost every field—be it science, technology, architecture or daily life. Such was the Sangam period, during which the prosperous empire of the Cholas reigned—an era that is often remembered as the “Golden Age”.


Contrary to agriculture in the north, trade surpluses were what fueled urbanization in the South. Due to this, the South has always had a keen interest in world events, particularly what happens in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, from a very early time, the value of traders and the infrastructure supporting commerce were understood by the kings of that time in southern India. Trade, both domestic and international, was very well established for an empire given the state of communication at that time. The Sangam Age had a straightforward and self-sufficient economy. The populace was hardworking and held the view that money creation was the key to a good life. Due to extensive local and international commerce, the economies of all three kingdoms prospered. This aided the development of significant towns and craft hubs.


The Sangam economy's most significant aspect was the thriving trade with the Romans. Roman author Pliny bemoans the loss of money from the Roman empire due to her commerce with India in his book Natural History. In return for these exports, the Romans sent gold and silver to India, which has been confirmed by the discovery of several Roman gold coins in southern Indian archaeological sites. The Chola empire found a harmonious balance between centralization and local self-governance. The monarch would be in charge of diplomatic relations, military affairs, and infrastructural projects. The local assembly oversaw daily operations, provision of public services, and tax collection. To deter theft and smuggling, the market areas (known as Avanam), roadways, and highways were kept up and guarded. Administration truly reached a form of efficiency beyond comparison at the time and this saved up resources that would be otherwise used to aid maladministration.


The weaving industry, local crafts and small-scale cottage industries were strongly fostered by kings who understood the economic importance of these crafts. Tamil poets praised the cotton textiles made at Uraiyur, the early Chola rulers' capital city, in their writings. During this era, silk weaving attained a high caliber, and Kanchipuram emerged as one of the key hubs for silk manufacturing. Around this period, weavers started forming guilds among themselves and lived in distinct neighborhoods in each town. The guilds, known as nanadesis, were a powerful, independent organization of merchants that traveled to several countries as part of their trade. They had their mercenary force to protect their merchandise. Additionally, there were local associations of merchants called "nagaram" in important commercial centers like Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram. The south Indian monarchs also understood and recognised the importance of developing infrastructure to uphold this economic system. An example of this is the creation of effective irrigation systems to maintain the viability of the land's agricultural design, which was another source of income for their subjects. The region lacked permanent waterways, and hence, the construction of tanks and dams facilitated agricultural activities. The Kaveri river dam, constructed by the Chola king Karikala is regarded as the first dam of the nation and is evidence of the period's rulers' awareness of architecture and societal needs. In conclusion, these kings of South India understood precisely what the need of the hour was and acted upon it effectively. Their efforts still astound us due to their originality. Their foresight was commendable, to say the least. What they achieved was not only extraordinary but also revolutionary because it challenged preconceived notions of what "India" as a civilization accomplished. Because of their efforts, there was an economic and social revolution that led to, what we now know as the South Indian Golden Age.



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