There’s an old proverb that says fools never learn from their mistakes, clever people do and the wise learn from the mistakes of others. Undoubtedly the best place to learn from others’ mistakes is history, provided we are also able to grasp it in our context. Sadly, our history lessons are often just reams of irrelevant lists of dates that have little bearing on the issues and challenges we face daily.
A thousand years ago, the Chola king Raja Raja I built the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur. Most of us know this is one of the Unesco world heritage monuments. But few of us would have paused to look at the leadership techniques of the Chola kings, which worked a millennium ago and could work just as well today.
But firstly, why should we learn from the Chola kings? Though they lived 1,000 years ago, the marks of their contribution still survive. The lands they gave to temples still survive, many astonishingly called the same and marked by the same boundaries; the irrigation systems they developed continue today; the legal and financial rules they followed are still in existence; even the root for the word ‘coriander’ is actually Chola Mandalam. So, for corporations aspiring to live 1,000 years, the Cholas offer valuable lessons in what to do and what not to do!
Two very important lessons can be learnt from the inscriptions in the Brihadeeswara Temple and its fate after the king. Here they are:
It had long been a tradition for kings to give gifts to the temple. Gifts weren’t given just for kings to have a positive balance with God, but also because the temples were powerful social institutions that promised legitimacy to the ruler. Not just that. They were the kings’ representative institutions when they were on the move. Also, temples, with their high walls and granaries, were often the last bastions of defence in wartime.
Several gifts—villages, land, jewels and servants—were given to the Brihadeeswara Temple. Raja Raja specifically says, “On the plinth of this temple, I have caused to inscribe, all the gifts I have given, my sister and my wives have given and all others that were given by everyone.” Thus, in one stroke, he equates every fellow devotee to himself.
All the temple servants he nominated were given a name with the added title of the king’s name. Raja Raja used titles very cleverly to create a sense of “exclusivity.” The servants were also given land to cultivate rice. Among the servants he appointed, the most important group involved the more-than-400 dancing women. The inscriptions mention their name, their original village, the street in which they were given a new house and the door number as well! Raja Raja’s attention to detail did not stop there. Very detailed rules were laid out regarding the procedure to be followed if a dancing girl died without an equally talented successor.
Raja Raja recorded the features of the bronze images and jewellery he gifted in great detail too. The weight of the gems, the quality of the gems and the gold (diamonds have, for example, more than 15 different classifications) are explicitly listed. The description of bronze images and their measurements can compare with any product catalogue we have today.
This ability to think of every eventual outcome and the ability to document with precision are requirements we face even today and in different levels.
The Chola dynasty at its height of power in the 11th-12th centuries controlled all of South India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Its territories extended to parts of Maharashtra and Orissa, Burma and South East Asia (till Indonesia). The Malay state of Kedah, for example, is believed to have been derived from the Chola name Kadaram. By the late 12th and early 13th century, however, its power waned. Possibly, its kings began to travel less and began to be less responsive to local needs. Also, as the empire expanded, the model of delegation was not uniformly applied or, when applied, did not account for local buy-in. Most importantly, the earlier practice of the ruling king appointing an heir in his lifetime and grooming him was slowly discontinued and upon the death of the king, succession disputes vitiated the power of the king.
In Raja Raja’s own case, this is most apparent. Though his son Rajendra was as brilliant a conqueror as him, within a year of his assumption of power, he moved the capital out of Thanjavur and gifts given in perpetuity to the Brihadeeswara temple were transferred to a new temple he built at Gangaikondacholapuram. Clearly, the Brihadeeswara temple was only his father’s pet project and not his.
In many companies today, issues of succession are not always considered. Even if they are, they become half-hearted attempts at skills development. That’s too little too late, ignoring the need to build succession from a point of view of carrying a culture forward and yet keeping it current.