It is an extraordinary fact that no authoritative book exists on the history of the four centuries of Chola rule despite the name and fame associated with the term “Chola,” whether such fame be attributed to their polity, their expeditions to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, their elegant temples and exquisite sacred bronzes, or their literary production in Tamil. K. A. Nilakantha Sastri's original, celebrated volumes have been set aside, Burton Stein's “segment state” model has been challenged by R. Champakalakshmi's studies, and a comprehensive study to replace these is long overdue. The current volume by Y. Subbarayalu, a collection of seventeen essays published by this meticulous epigraphy scholar between 1977 and 2007, contains the type of documentation that will prove invaluable when the Chola history is written. His essays highlight the crucial importance of utilizing the over ten thousand existing Chola inscriptions, often carved on the walls of temples, that can provide empirical data to help elucidate a range of socioeconomic issues that include topics like taxation, land revenue, property rights, mercenaries, personal names, merchant guilds, and a range of village bodies.

In emphasizing the importance of statistical methods, Subbarayalu insists that individual pieces of information become meaningful only when considered as a group. He takes readers through his arguments point by point, demonstrating the painstaking process involved in clarifying the accurate meaning of a term, and alerts readers to the fact that meanings change over time, even within the four hundred years of Chola rule. Subbarayalu's work stands up there with the analytical epigraphical work of Noboru Karashima, who has worked on a parallel stream. In fact, it is apt that one of the most useful volumes relating to the Chola period to be published in recent years is the 2002 joint Karashima-Subbarayalu volume, Ancient and Medieval Commercial Activities in the Indian Ocean: Testimony of Inscriptions and Ceramics-sherds: Report of the Taisho University Research Project, 1997–2002, widely spoken of as AMCA.

This is not a book one attempts to read in a single sitting; rather it is a reference book to which one resorts when looking for an in-depth study of the terms used in sale deeds, merchant transactions, land measurements, irrigation rights, and the like or when seeking the exact meaning of a word in an inscription. The most useful chapters for the general reader are likely to be the first, an introduction to the field of Tamil epigraphy, and the last, “The Chola State,” which is an excellent summary of Chola history. Subbarayalu demonstrates how the Chola rulers started out by sharing power with a number of chiefs of varying lineages who ruled territories of differing sizes, moved into the period of imperial expansion, returned to a phase in which local chiefs reappeared, and ended by controlling only the Kaveri Delta and relying on the armies of local chiefs. A fascinating intervening chapter devoted to an inscription of a Tamil merchant guild in Sumatra demonstrates the importance of gold, camphor, and other aromatic substances for Indian trade and alerts readers to the reach of the Tamil merchant world.