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The Chola Economy



  • One of the major developments in this period was the expansion of agriculture.
  • People settled in fertile river valleys, and even in areas where there were no rivers, and arrangements were made for irrigation by digging tanks, wells and canals.
  • This led to the production of food grain surplus.
  • Society got differentiated in a big way.
  • The Chola state collected land tax out of the agrarian surplus for its revenue.
  • There was an elaborate “department of land revenue” known as puravuvari-tinaikkalam, with its chief called ‘puravuvari-tinaikkalanayagam’.

Land Revenue and Survey

  • For the purposes of assessing tax, the Cholas undertook extensive land surveys and revenue settlements.
  • Rajaraja I (1001), Kulotunga I (1086) and Kulotunga III (1226) appointed people for land survey so that the land could be classified and assessed for the purposes of taxation.
  • Like other functionaries of the state, the surveyors of the land called naduvagaiseykira too hailed from the landholding communities.
  • Various units of the land measurement such as kuli, ma, veli, patti, padagam, etc. are known, with local variations.
  • Generally, taxes were collected in different forms.
  • The taxes collected included irai, kanikadan, iraikattina-kanikadan and kadamai.
  • An important category of tax was kudimai. Kudimai was paid by the cultivating tenants to the government and to the landlords, the bearers of honorific titles such as udaiyan, araiyan and kilavar.
  • The tax rates were fixed depending on the fertility of the soil and the status of the landholder.
  • Opati were levied and collected by the king and local chiefs.
  • Temples and Brahmins were exempted from paying the taxes.
  • The tax paid in kind was referred to as iraikattina-nellu.
  • All these were mostly realised from the Kavery delta but not widely in the outskirts of the kingdom.
  • At the ur (village) level, urar (village assembly) were responsible for collecting the taxes and remitting them to the government.
  • At the nadu level, the nattar were responsible for remitting taxes.


  • Cholas undertook measures to improve the irrigation system that was in practice.
  • As the state was drawing most of its revenue from agriculture, the Cholas focused their efforts on managing water resources.
  • Vativaykkal, a crisscross channel, is a traditional way of harnessing rain water in the Kavery delta.
  • Vati runs in the north–south direction while vaykkal runs in the east–west direction.
  • Technically, vati is a drainage channel and a vaykkal is a supply channel.
  • The water running through vaykkal to the field was to be drained out to vati and to another vaykkal.
  • Rain water would flow from where the natural canal started.
  • Many irrigation canals are modifications of such natural canals.
  • The harnessed water was utilised alternately through vati and vaykkal.
  • Here the mechanism designed was such that water was distributed to the parcelled out lands in sequel.
  • Many canals were named after the kings, examples of queens and the names gods.
  • Some are Uttamacholavaykkal, Panca-vanamadevi-vaykkal and Ganavathy-vaykkal.
  • Ur-vaykkal was owned jointly by the landowners.
  • The nadu level vaykkal was referred to as nattu-vaykkal.
  • The turn system was practiced for distributing the water.
  • Chola inscriptions list some big-size irrigation tanks such as Cholavaridhi, Kaliyaneri, Vairamegatataka created by the Pallavas, Bahur big tank and Rajendra Cholaperiyaeri.
  • For the periodical or seasonal maintenance and repair of irrigation works, conscripted labour was used.

Water Management

  • Different kinds of water rights were assigned.
  • These rights regulated the share of water from the tanks and wells; it also entailed the right of deepening and broadening the channels and repairing the irrigation system.
  • The allotment of water is described as ‘nirkkintravaaru’ (share of water as allotted).
  • The water was released through kumizh (sluice) or talaivay (head-channel).
  • Royal orders warned the people against the violation of water rights and encroachment of water resources gifted to the brahmadeya settlements.
  • Commonly owned village tank was called enkalkulam (our tank).
  • Land transaction in the form of donation and endowment were accompanied by water rights as well.
  • For the periodical and seasonal maintenance and repair of the irrigation tanks, rendering free labour was in practice.
  • Vetti and amanji were the forms of free labour related to public works at the village level.
  • Village assemblies under the Cholas collected a tax called eriayam, which was utilised for repairing irrigation tanks.
  • Sometimes local leaders like araiyan repaired and renovated irrigation tanks destroyed in a storm.
  • There were instances of the water from a tank shared by villagers and the temples.
  • Special groups known as talaivayar, talaivay-chanrar and eriaraiyarkal were in charge of releasing the water through the head channel and sluice from the rivers or tanks.
  • A group of people who were in charge of kulam was called kulattar.
  • In later period, temples were entrusted with the upkeep of the irrigation sources.

Paddy as tax was collected by a unit called kalam (28 kg). Rajaraja I standardised the collection of tax. He collected 100 kalam from the land of one veli (about 6.5 acres), the standard veli being variable according to fertility of the soil and the number of crops raised.

The irrigation work done by Rajendra Chola I at Gangaikonda Chozhapuram was an embankment of solid masonry 16 miles long. Rajendra described it as his ‘jalamaya jayasthambham’, meaning “pillar of victory in water”. The Arab traveller Alberuni visited the place a hundred years later. On seeing them he was wonder-struck and said: ‘“Our people, when they see them, wonder at them, and are unable to describe them, much less construct anything like them”, records Jawaharlal Nehru in The Glimpses of World History.

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