Drawing on the large corpus of Chola period Tamil inscriptions, this paper attempts to clarify the meaning of the apparently obscure and neglected term in Tamil epigraphy, known as veḷam. The paper argues that the term in Chola period sources should best be understood as a “palace establishment” composed mostly of women (and sometimes men) of servile status. A relatively comprehensive review of the term in inscriptions and literature sheds significant light on the organization of the lower echelons of labour in the Chola royal household and the conditions under which men and women of this status were incorporated into such service. The paper argues for a reconsideration of the importance of the veḷam as an institution in Chola times, as well as the lives of its members, concluding with reflections on how the institution changed over time.
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