Deciphering Chola inscriptions – The banana arithmetic in Thanjavur Brihadeeswara Ganapathy shrine

The massive Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple has always fascinated me. This thousand-year-old Chola masterpiece built by Raja Raja Chola I is home to some exquisite dravidian architecture. No matter how many times I visit this temple, I always find something new to marvel at during each visit. The massive temple sculptures, detailed inscriptions, thanjavur paintings made with natural colours and intricate carvings along the temple walls echoes the glorious past of the Chola era, their style of administration and much more.

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Inscription that mentions Krishnan Raman Brahmarayan (minister of Raja Raja Chola) built the fortifications around the temple complex of Brihadeeswara Temple

Carved out in stone, the inscriptions of Thanjavur Brihadeeshwara reveal a King’s administrative talents. Archeologists and heritage enthusiasts describe this temple as one of a kind, wherein the King Raja Raja Chola has left behind a large number of inscriptions detailing the temple’s construction, temple rituals, donations made by his family, villagers for it’s construction and much more.

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Sasi dharan from Walkwithus group showing us the inscription detailing on the Chola banana arithmetic in the front walls of Thanjavur Brihadeeswara Ganapathy shrine

In our visit to the Thanjavur Brihadeeshwara temple with CTC (Chennai Trekking Club) and “Walkwithus” in March 2017, we got a chance to get a better idea of some of the inscriptions.

For the benefit of those who don’t understand Tamil, here a brief of what has been conveyed in the video/inscription in the front wall of the Ganapathy shrine in Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple. As per the order of the king Raja Raja Chola, 150 bananas has to be served everyday to the Vinayagar shrine in Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple for the preparation of அமுது (nectar). Hence, for one year, 150*360 = 54,000 bananas would be required for the Ganapathy shrine (*Cholas followed lunar calendar and during that era, one year had 360 days – 30 days in 12 months). The inscription details that 1200 bananas could be purchased with one kasu (coin) during the rule of Raja Raja Chola. Hence, 45 kasu (coins) are needed to maintain supply of bananas for a year. Instead of directly providing the 45 kasu every year, the king deposited a total of 360 coins from treasury among four merchants/traders with one-eight kasu per year (i.e 12.5% annual interest). Hence, the interest of 45 coins earned each year from the four merchants was utilized to supply bananas to the shrine every year as per the inscription. The inscription in front walls of the Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple also mentions the details of the four traders to whom the 360 coins were deposited to arrange funds for the bananas.

Bananas to be supplied every year (360 days) = 54,000
Cost of one banana = 1/1200
Number of coins required = 54,000/1200 = 45 (which is obtained by depositing 360 coins among four merchants with an annual interest of one eighth per coin)

Considering the fact that the rule of King Raja Raja Chola went on for 29 years, this inscription is a testimony to the fact that the price of bananas possibly remained constant under the rule of King Raja Raja Chola. This inscription is a legacy of the administrative talent of the Chola king. While we battle heavy inflation in the 21st century, with vegetable and fruit prices doubling or tripling in a matter of months, we have a lot to learn from our ancestors when it comes to administration. Next time you visit the Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple, do try to give a look at the inscriptions of Raja Raja Chola, his effort to pass on the most elaborate details of his administration and many other things to the future generations.

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Reaching Thanjavur Big temple:-
Brihadeeswara temple is about 320 kms from Chennai. Thanjavur is well connected by road and train with ample buses/trains from Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Nearest airport is Trichy, which is 70 kms from Thanjavur.

Temple darshan timings: 6 am to 12 pm and 4 pm to 9 pm.

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