Indian History Part 37 Kingdoms of the Deep South Part III The Chola Dynasty

Canberra, 6 March 2015

The illustrious Chola dynasty and the kingdom they ruled was known to Panini and acknowledged by Asoka Maurya the Great as an independent entity. Further, the Mayry records confirm that the northern boundary of the Chola holdings was the River Pennar. In fact the limits of Chola Mandalam, the ‘Chola Country’, in the north and west are determined by tradition and mark the ethnic difference between different peoples rather than political boundaries. They were the lines that demarcated the areas of Tamil-speaking people from the territories of kingdoms, dynasties and people speaking other Dravidian languages—Telugu, Kannada, Tulu, and Malayalam. On the other hand in the south, the Pandya dynasty were also Tamil-speaking and although there was clearly defined geographic borders between the two kingdoms, there was no clear ethnic separation. During the period of Pallava ascendancy, the Chola kingdom had been weakened and reduced to a much smaller territorial holding, although the dynasty continued to maintain some semblance of independence.

The Chola dynasty is prominently mentioned in the early Tamil literature as well as in Greek and Roman chronicles. During the 1st and 2nd centuries, ports on the Chola coast, transliterated as the ‘Coromandal coast’, conducted active trade with the West. The main Chola port at that time was Kaveripattinam located at the northern mouth of the River Kaveri. The port is non-existent now. From here the Chola fleet sailed out across the Bay of Bengal to the mouths of the great Rivers Ganga and Irrawaddy, and then ranged across the Malay Archipelago. During its heydays, the Chola kingdom was one of the most predominant maritime powers of the region.

The Cholas are celebrated in the Sangam literature although their power seems to have been in decline from the 3rd century onwards. It is reported that around 350, when Samudragupta invaded the Peninsula, a Pallava king was ruling at Kanchi, a township situated in the heart of Chola country. (Details of the Early Cholas rule can be gleaned from the book From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History, Volume II, pp 78-81)

There is very limited interpretable information available regarding the Cholas from the 4th to 7th centuries. At this stage the Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang once again comes to the rescue of Indian historical narrative. He visited Kanchi around the year 640 and mentions the kingdom of Chu-li-ya (Chola) that was restricted to an area of a 500-mile circumference and being ruled from a small non-descriptive town located about 200 miles south-west of Amaravati. Essentially this territory would be the larger Cudappah district and the country is reported as being rugged and wild with the scanty indigenous population being fierce warriors. It is obvious that the Chola ruler, whose name is not mentioned in the Hieun Tsang chronicles, was subordinate to the Pallava king.

The Medieval Cholas

The defeat of the Pallavas by Chalukya Vikramaditya in 740 provided the opportunity for the Chola king to rebel from a position of insignificance and recover the dynastic fortunes. The Chola king, Vijayalaya who claimed descent from the Sun as a Suryavanshi, came to the throne in mid-9th century and wrested control of Tanjore from a local chieftain Muttarayer who was a Pandyan subject. Vijayalaya ruled for 34 years and was succeeded by his son Aditya (880-907) who went on to defeat Aparajita Pallava, conclusively ending the Pallava supremacy in the region. He also conquered the Kongu country and consolidated the annexed territories into a functioning kingdom. Aditya’s son Parantaka I who came to the throne in 907 left behind over 40 stone inscriptions dating from the 3rd to the 41st year of his rule (approximately corresponding to 909-10 to 947-48). Thereafter a great deal of accurate information is available regarding the Chola dynasty.

Parantaka I, who was married to the daughter of the Chera king Sthanuravi was an ambitious and capable king and warrior. He conquered the Pallava kingdom, and invaded and captured the Pandyan capital of Madurai, sending the Pandyan king into exile. He also invaded Ceylon, although this expedition was not very successful other than in collecting a large amount of war booty. The inscriptions made during his rule provide detailed descriptions of the village administration favoured by the Cholas. On the death of Parantaka in 949, his son Rajaditya assumed the throne. However, he was killed in the Battle of Takkolam by the Rashtrakuta king Krishnaraja III and was followed by five obscure and insignificant rulers which created a turmoil for nearly 30 years in the Chola kingdom.

30 Years of Weakness and Confusion

Parantaka had anticipated trouble for the kingdom from the north-west and accordingly placed his eldest son Rajaditya in that region, giving him charge of a large army, which also contained the elephant corps. Unfortunately Rajaditya was killed in the Battle of Takkolam in the same year that he assumed the throne, and the Cholas were forced to cede the northern part of the kingdom to the victorious Rashtrakutas. The Chola throne then fell into the hands of Gandaraditya, who was more religiously oriented than fit to rule a kingdom already in turmoil. By the end of his seven-year rule, in 957, the once illustrious Chola kingdom had been reduced to a small principality. At this stage Krishnaraja III, the Rashtrakuta king, still occupied Tondai Mandalam.

Gandaraditya was followed by his brother Arinjaya who ruled only for two years. Arinjaya was succeeded by his son Sundara Chola, who was forced to concentrate his military activities to the south because Vira Pandya, the Pandyan king had declared independence with the assistance of Mahinda IV, the king of Ceylon. Sundara Chola defeated Vira Pandya who was killed by the crown prince Aditya Chola II in the course of the second battle of the campaign.

Sundara Chola then invaded Ceylon in 959 although it did not result in any definitive results. Further, the victories over the Pandyas also did not re-establish Chola power.  After putting out the rebellion in the south to some satisfaction, Sundara Chola turned his attention to the north. Unfortunately he died while preparing to campaign against the Rashtrakutas. At this stage Uttama Chola, the son of Gandaraditya had conspired and assassinated Aditya Chola II and had forced Sundara to declare him heir apparent, instead of Arumolivarman the younger son and next in line for the throne. Uttama became king in 973 and was defeated by the Chalukya Taila II in 980. Thirty years of chaos and confusion had passed through the Chola Empire.

Rajaraja Chola ‘the Great’

In 985, Prince Arumolivarman assumed the throne after Uttama Chola relinquished power—either voluntarily or by force, details of which are unavailable—crowning himself as Rajaraja Deva. This marked the beginning of the real greatness of the Chola Empire. A number of historians qualify Rajaraja with the title ‘the Great’, while some others refute him this status. In any case he put an end to the intrigue that was becoming a hallmark of Chola dynastic succession and turned out to be an extremely capable ruler. He reigned for a busy 28 years and towards the end of his reign he was known as the ‘Lord Paramount of Southern India’. At his death the Chola kingdom consisted of the entire Madras region, a large part of Ceylon and a major portion of Mysore.

The Chronology of Rajaraja’s Conquests

Early in his reign Rajaraja destroyed the Chera naval fleet and defeated a confederation of the Pandya, Chera and Ceylon kingdoms in two separate campaigns. He devastated the Pandya kingdom and then went on to conquer the haughty Chera (Kerala) king, attacking and laying waste the towns of Kandalur and Villinum.

Between 995 and 1000, Vengi the erstwhile Eastern Chalukya kingdom was annexed from the Pallavas; Coorg was taken from the Pandyas; and extensive portions of the Deccan tableland brought under direct Chola control.

Rajaraja then turned his attention to the trading posts in the West Coast, where Arab traders had been incorporated into the Malabar society and were proving to be competitors to Chola trade in South-East Asia. In a quest to strike at the root of the competition, he invaded and captured the port of Kollam in 1003 from the Cheras. He next conquered Kalinga in the north-east and added it to his domain. Around 1005, he embarked on a protracted campaign against Ceylon, annexing the northern part of the island to the Chola holdings. This was his last campaign. [The roots of the Tamil population in northern Sri Lank today can be traced back to this occupation and earlier invasions.]

The last eight years of his reign was peaceful and according to Chola custom his son, the crown prince Rajendra, ruled as equal ruler during this period. Rajendra Chola co-ruled with his father from 1011, although there are minor discrepancies in the actual date in different accounts. Since the Cholas had ‘inherited’ the Pallava lands by this time, the ancient Chalukya-Pallava enmity also came as part of the inheritance taking on the guise of minor internecine wars for almost four years till the final defeat of the Chalukyas, who were by then already subjugated by the Rashtrakutas. Rajaraja maintained a powerful navy, which he used extensively to project Chola power. The last military exploit of Rajaraja was his navy’s conquest of Maldives and the Lakadive islands.

Although the king was a confirmed Shiva worshipper, he was also an enlightened liberal and practised religious tolerance. He had the famous and magnificent Tanjavur (Tanjore) temple built, with its walls engraved with details of his military victories. As John Keay mentions in his book, India: A History, ‘Tanjore’s great temple is as much about the king as his God’, (p 216) and stands as a majestic memorial to a brilliant career.

Tanjore in the days of Rajaraja Chola

‘The hum of people in the city is like the noise of the ocean … in the streets all the colours of the rainbow … banners fluttering, blue-painted water pots on terraces, tanks as deep as the hearts of the courtesans. Men and women beautifully dressed like a city of the gods.’ This is from a poem by a Jain writer, influenced by traditional Tamil descriptions of cities, but it has the feel of the tenth century, when ‘the people of eighteen languages were congregated here as thick as birds on a tree ripe with fruit.’ The poem Civakacintamani, goes on to describe the interior:

‘[Inside] the city was filled with merchandise of the islands … its bazar streets long and wide, beautifully arranged, glinting with treasures, their warehouses crammed with precious luxuries … People of the seven castes so numerous, so close together that sandal paste rubbed on one shoulder came off on another, and voices were heard but language was not distinguishable … The smoke of a thousand cooking fires gusting through streets, darkens the sun, and when the festival is over the visitor must tread over heaps of garlands in the streets, through pools strewn with petals and reddened by coloured powders.’

Michael Wood,

The Story of India, p. 220.

Religious tolerance is one of the hallmarks of medieval Southern rulers and Rajaraja was not an exception. He endowed a Burmese Buddhist temple, which had originally been constructed by Sri Mara Vijayottungavarman the Sailendra ruler of Sri Vijaya (South-East Asian Empire), at the port of Nagapatam. This temple continued to be a place of foreign pilgrimage till the 15th century and remained a recognisable ruin thereafter till 1867. Around this time it was pulled down by Jesuit priests to provide building material for a church.

Rajendra Chola Deva I

Rajendra Chola continued to further his father’s ambitious moves and in comparison was more vigorous and successful. He raised the Chola Empire territorially to its most extensive and in status to the most respected Hindu kingdom of the time. Around 1025 the Chola navy crossed the Bay of Bengal and captured Kadaram (also mentioned as Kidaram in some texts) or Kedah which was initially Thai, then Malay, and now a Malaysian state north of Penang, which was also called Tharekhettra. The Cholas then went on to capture the ancient capital of Prome or Pegu (modern day Burma/Myanmar).

The invading maritime forces then took on the might of the Sri Vijaya Empire ruled by the powerful Sailendra kings. The Sri Vijaya kingdom controlled important trade routes and regularly interfered in the smooth flow of shipping since they had a stranglehold over the Straits of Malacca and Sunda. These activities constrained the smooth flow of Chola trade. The Chola emperor decided to settle this issue through military might, defeating and capturing the Sailendra king while also temporarily annexing the entire Sri Vijaya kingdom. The king was subsequently restored to the throne although Rajendra Chola did not relinquish control over the important sea ports of Takkolam and Matama (Martabian). Two granite pillars were erected to commemorate these victories and they can still be seen in the town of Pegu in Myanmar. The Chola navy next annexed the islands of Nakkavaram (Nicobar), the Andamans, and some parts of Sumatra and Malaya.

The Conquest of Ceylon

After annexing the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Rajendra invaded Ceylon and completed the conquest of the southern part that his father had left unconquered. The Ceylonese king Mahinda V was captured and transported to Chola country where he died in captivity.

Manhinda’s son Kassappa then became the focal point of Sinhala resistance, waging a war of attrition for nearly a year before successfully recapturing the southern part of the island, which he ruled as Vikramabahu I for 12 years.

After the maritime triumphs, Rajendra turned his attention to North India. He waged a number of inconclusive wars with the smaller northern powers and then collided with Mahipala, king of Bengal and Bihar. Again the encounter was inconclusive, although the Chola army managed to reach the banks of the Ganges. He brought back Ganga water from this campaign and assumed the title Ganag-Konda (the Victor of Ganga). However, Rajendra did not hold any territory in the north and his invasion of the north can be equated to the southern campaign of Samudragupta.

The assumption of the title of Ganga-Konda was a marked departure from the earlier traditions of the Cholas when the kings had always assumed only unobtrusive titles. Rajendra then titled himself Chakravartigal. More importantly he introduced and encouraged the concept of divinity of the king and a cult of the perception of a God-King by creating and worshiping the images of his forefathers. Temples were built to his deceased predecessors and their worship actively encouraged thereby ensuring the incumbent king was also worshipped almost as god incarnate. The Raja-guru (the priest of the Royal family), a modified version of the North Indian Royal purohit (priest), from being a pure priest became the adviser of the king on all matters, both temporal and religious. [In the medieval Indian context, it can be seen that the concept of divinity of kings is never far from the surface in most dynasties.] Rajendra Chola also reduced the Pandyas to a feudatory status and the Pandyan kingdom was ruled by Rajendra’s son as viceroy with the title Chola-Pandyan.

Rajendra Chola built a new capital in Trichinapoly district and called it Gangaikonda Cholapuram to proclaim his ‘conquest’ of North India, although in reality the invasion was nothing more than a successful raid. He also constructed a large artificial lake with a 16-mile long embankment and an embedded irrigation system. The capital also had a magnificent palace and a gigantic temple with a 30 feet high black granite Shiva lingam (idol). The ruins of both the palace and the temple are still visible and from what remains it can be confirmed that the sculptures that beautified the buildings were singularly excellent. It is in the ruins of the once magnificent Cholapuram that one can see not only the ravages of time but also the callousness with which modern India treats its resplendent historical background, its cultural artefacts, and its architectural monuments. [India is unique in treating its magnificent history in an extremely shabby manner, giving no importance to buildings, artefacts and other structures, which even by the strictest of standards was glorious and of monumental importance in understanding the past. A contributory factor for this apathy could be the ingrained belief in Hinduism of repeated rebirth controlled by the actions of the current life, which underplays the role of the past in the individual life of a person.]

The Remaining Medieval Cholas

The eldest son of Rajendra, Rajadhiraja, co-ruled the empire with his father for more than 15 years, continuing an established Chola tradition. The period of the combined rule of the father and son is considered the most decisive in Chola supremacy over the Tamil country. Their control over the Peninsula was almost absolute and never as strong or certain before or after this golden period. Rajadhiraja became king in 1035 and continued the constant and never-ending conflicts with the neighbours. In 1052, he was killed in the fierce Battle of Koppam with the Chalukyas. Although the king died in the battle, the Cholas were not defeated. His brother Rajendra Parakesarivarman was crowned on the battlefield and managed to retrieve the day. He led his forces in an advance to Kollpura and erected a Jayastambha ‘vicory pillar’ there. In the aftermath of this conflict, the Tungabhadra River was recognised to be the geographical border between the Cholas and the Chalukyas.

The regular conflicts, skirmishes, and small-scale wars between the neighbours continued during the reign of the next three kings. From the perspective of the Cholas, no event of any significance took place during this time. In 1062-3, Virarajendra Chola, then ruling the kingdom got involved in the succession struggle of the Chalukyas that was plunging their kingdom into a Civil War. In the Battle of Kudal Sangamam at the junction of the Rivers Tunga and Bhadra, Virarajendra resoundingly defeated Somesvara II who was one of the contenders of the throne. The Chola then placed Vikramaditya, who he had supported in the succession struggle, on the throne and also gave his own daughter in marriage to the new Chalukya king.

Virarajendra died in 1070 and there followed a disputed succession that culminated in a Civil War. By this time Vikramaditya Chalukya was well established in the Deccan and in his turn interfered in the Chola succession, making his brother-in-law Adhirajendra king in 1072. However, Adhirajendra proved to be ineffective and unpopular, being murdered in 1074. He was the last of the direct line of the great medieval Cholas.

The Later Cholas

Adhirajendra was followed on the throne by a relative, Rajendra, who later assumed the name Kulottunga I. His father was the Eastern Chalukya Prince of Vengi who died in 1062 and his mother was the daughter of the illustrious Ganga-Konda Chola (Rajendra Deva Chola I). The younger Rajendra had opted to stay in the Chola court, letting his uncle rule Vengi on his behalf, but returned to be crowned king of Vengi in 1070. In 1074, on the assassination of Adhirajendra, he assumed governorship of the entire Chola kingdom and founded a new Chalulya-Chola dynasty, with the title Kulottunga Chola. Kulottunga I (Chola) ruled for 49 years, proving to be a worthy king of an extensive empire. The only major battle that he fought was the re-conquest of Kalinga that had once again broken free from Chola subjugation. This was achieved by the defeat of the Anantavarman Choda of the Ganga dynasty, then ruling Kalinga. [The Kalinga kingdom, mostly ruled by the Ganga dynasty, crops up frequently in the historical chronology of the Deccan Plateau and the Southern Peninsula as a state repeatedly defeated and annexed by the more powerful kingdoms. Two facts seem certain—one, that the people of Kalinga were rebellious and found of their independence; and two, that the Kalinga territory was coveted because it was fertile and also because of the ports and other trading facilities that it possessed.] The regular and routine conflicts with the neighbours continued unabated, although at this stage the power of the Cholas was such that these minor wars could be considered mere pin-pricks in a broader overview.

The Chola Empire now covered the entire country south of the Rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra and at least to the Godavari River in the north-east. It maintained cordial diplomatic relations ship with the kingdom of Kanauj in North India and had a thriving trade with Kambhoja in Indo-China. Kulottunga’s bureaucracy completed a survey in 1086 based on which his internal administration carried out an elaborate revision of revenue. This was a distinguished and important reformation. The peace that prevailed is demonstrated by the fact that although the kings were overtly Shiva worshippers, the venerated Vaishnava teacher and philosopher Ramanuja resided in Srirangam near Trichinapoly for an extensive period of time during this reign. Kulottunga’s son Vikrama Chola continued to fight minor conflicts periodically, but presided over a period of relative peace and tranquillity and took great initiatives in temple renovation activities at Chidambaram. He successfully maintained Chola supremacy and predominance in the region.

Kulottunga II followed Vikrama Chola and although religious to a fault in his worship of Shiva, managed to shoulder the kingly responsibilities well, ensuring a peaceful reign. His son Rajaraja II died without any issues and had appointed Rajadhiraja II, the grandson of Vikrama Chola through a daughter as the successor. These three kings were of limited ability and in the long list of impressive Chola warrior-kings is of almost no import. During this time the Chola administration also started to show signs of fatigue and weakness at the Centre. The control over the outlying areas started to unravel and the traditional feudatory chieftains became more assertive regarding their independence. Further, the Cholas also became unnecessarily involved in the Civil War in the Pandya kingdom with the Ceylonese opposing them, leading to the Chola power gradually being drained by misuse and degradation. [The importance of a strong central ruler in perpetuating dynastic rule is once again demonstrated in this gradual, but inevitable, loss of Chola power.]

The last Chola of any importance is Kulottunga Chola III (also referred as Rajendra III in some records) who ruled for 38 years (1178-1216). He fought wars against the kingdom of Ceylon, the Hoyasalas and defeated the Chera king at Karuvur, managing to hold the Chola kingdom together by sheer force of personality and personal abilities as an administrator and warrior. After his death there was a dispute for succession that led to the dissipation of Chola power till it descended to insignificance with no power to influence even minor events in the Peninsula. Although there was a brief period of Pandyan renaissance and reassertion of power, the Southern Hindu kingdoms thereafter went into gradual decline, and was finally and conclusively broken by the power and fury of the Islamic invasion.


From the earliest times the Chola administration was highly systematised and well organised, run by an elaborate and complex bureaucracy. The Royal officials formed a separate class in society and there was no distinction between civil and military officers. Moreover, the class distinction between the bureaucracy and the common people was underlined by the official positions being made hereditary. One of the cardinal achievements of the Cholas was the effortless manner in which they managed to decentralise governance, a feat never achieved before and not emulated afterwards for a number of centuries. The Chola administration is therefore a subject of a great deal of study, research and analysis. Details of the Chola administrative principles and their antiquity are available for study from the various inscriptions.

The fundamental administrative fabric rested on the basic village and a union of villages called the ‘Kurram’. [From time immemorial, the Indian village has been the basic unit of administration, and continues to be so even today.] The Kurram managed the local affairs through an assembly called the Mahasabha. These assemblies were vested with extensive judicial powers and was an excellent and popular system of local self-government. They were also the foundation for the decentralisation of the administration. Since the Mahasabha had extensive powers, it functioned with an adviser appointed by the king (Adhikari) in attendance. The assemblies controlled independent treasuries and its members were elected for a one-year tenure through an elaborate electoral system. The most striking feature of the Chola administration was the unusual vigour and efficiency of these rural institutions, making the villages autonomous ‘little republics’. A certain number of Kurrams (the number was not a pre-set and varied from district to district) created a district (nadu) and a group of districts formed into a province (mandalam).

The kingdom was divided into six provinces with Tanjore and Trichinapoly districts being given special status and specifically declared Cholamandalam. One sixth of the entire gross produce was due to the State and the king also levied a number of other taxes that varied with the nature of the land, its production capacity and the ability of the owner to pay. Fertile fields were taxed by as much as one-third of the produce. The collection of taxes was entrusted to officers designated by the king and there are indications that these officers were often harsh and demanding.

The Cholas had mastered the art of building great dams across the rivers and irrigation canals were constructed on a vast scale, greatly improving the farming output. The popular currency was the gold ‘kasu’ which was about 28 grains troy in weight with the silver coins that were preponderant in North India becoming common in the Deep South only at a much later date. Overall the administration was efficient and the general population was treated in an unbiased manner.

Art and Architecture

Although it has been determined that painting as an art form flourished in the Chola Empire, there are no surviving paintings that can be clearly attributed to the period. Further, the early architectural works of the Cholas have also perished because of the use of impermanent material, although their structure and design formed the basis for subsequent development. It is also clear that South Indian sculpture and architecture developed independent of any outside influence through a gradual evolutionary process that was completely native. In an overarching manner, Chola art can be considered to be an indistinguishable continuation of Pallava art, which in itself was highly evolved through generations of practice and application. The few noticeable differences between the two can be attributed to being the result of spontaneous developments that take place regularly in the evolution of art.

The Cholas were dedicated temple-builders and the earliest temple at Dandapuram in North Arcot district dates back to the 10th century. However, it is the Rajarajeswara Shiva temple in Tanjore, built about a century later, which is considered the epitome of Chola temple architecture. The Hindu temples in the northern parts of Sri Lanka even today show the distinct influence of Chola style temples. The Cholas also undertook public works of gigantic scale and it is highly likely that they used forced labour in completing them. They were advanced in building technique as demonstrated by the single stone weighing nearly 80 tons and 25 and one half square feet in size that forms the summit of the steeple of the Tanjore temple. Raising it to that position and fixing it there is a great feat of architecture and construction even by today’s standards. Although the Chola kings were confirmed Shiva worshippers, they were also religiously tolerant and there was no persecution of religious minorities in their kingdom.

A Recent Development

(News Item from ‘The Hindu’ dated 27 February 2015)

The Arulmigu Anadandavali Ambal Samedha Chandrasekarar temple at Umbalappadi village in Thanjavore district is believed to have been built at least 900 years ago during the reign of Kulottunga Chola I (1070 to 1119-20). Inscriptions near the temple confirm the name of the village as Umbalappadi and its existence during, and maybe before, the reign of Rajaraja Chola. The deity was initially called ‘Nilavani Mahadevar’ in Tamil and changed by the Cholas to ‘Chandrasekarar’, which is the Sanskrit version of the same.

At the moment the temple is in a state of disrepair and restoration work is being undertaken to conduct a re-consecration of the deity around June-July this year. The temple displays all aspects of classic Chola architecture.

The kings were also patrons of both Tamil and Sanskrit literature. The Jivaka Chintamani, written in early 10th century by the Jain poet Tiruttakkadevar resident in the Chola court, is regarded as the greatest ‘Mahakavya’ (epic poem) of Tamil literature. During the Chola rule, Kamban wrote his version of the Ramayana; and the Periya Puranam of Sekkilar was penned during the reign of Kulottunga II. Sanskrit writing was predominated by Vaishnava literature and a succession of Vaishanava teachers, philosophers and saints who wrote numerous devotional poems and philosophical works adorned the Chola court. The prominent amongst them were Ramanuja, Yadavaprakasha, and Yamunacharya. [The large volume of Vaishnava literature that was produced in the Chola kingdom proves the tolerant attitude of the kings towards divergent religions and the meritocracy that prevailed in the court.]

Conclusion – The Greatness of the Cholas

The Cholas were the most successful dynasty that followed the decline and subsequent disappearance of the Gupta Empire. They were also the first South Indian dynasty to reverse the trend of conquest set by the Mauryas and the Guptas, intervening in the events of North India and successfully reaching the banks of the River Ganga. The numerous inscriptions that the Cholas have left behind for posterity provide comprehensive and accurate information regarding the dynamics of dynastic expansion and the principles of law and order that the Cholas imposed on their Empire. They also created a distinguished tradition in the development of literature, architecture, sculpture and painting—a hallmark of all great dynasties. Only when peace and tranquillity brings prosperity can the populace at large turn to the more aesthetic pursuits that in a broad manner can be termed cultural development. A major period of the Chola rule provided these preconditions to the people of the State.

The successful Chola kings were invariably military adventurers—a status prompted by the need to protect the Empire and equally fuelled by ambition and the proclivity to plunder. The plundering raids that the Cholas, and other medieval dynasties, resorted to was prompted by the dual need to enhance the ‘warrior’ status of the king and to gather sufficient wealth for him to be seen as a ‘donor’ of wealth, especially to the Brahmans and the temples. It was customary for a large percentage of the war booty to be donated directly to the king’s favourite temples.

“Its [the Chola Empire] sensational expansion through ‘quixotic’ forays into neighbouring kingdoms, and still further afield, was therefore prompted by domestic necessity, and could even be taken as a measure of royal vulnerability rather than of an autocratic supremacy.”

John Keay,

India: A History, p. 218.

The Cholas were responsible for elevating the temples into central institutions of governance. Temples were made into the distribution centres for the wealth that the king gave to the people and created a metropolitan community around it that in turn performed an integrating function for the kingdom. The king ensured that the temples were closely supervised by officials appointed directly by him and thereby was able to intervene in local affairs at will. This enhanced his ability to constantly monitor the pulse of the people and act decisively when necessary. Another way by which the king kept a track of local attitudes was the system of land grants to Brahmans called ‘Brahmadeya’, spread across the country in every village and kept directly under royal protection. The added advantage was that the Brahmans created a strong caste-based force that ensured the cohesiveness of the political entity. The combination of the Brahmadeya concept and the centrality of the temples formed the nuclei of the Chola rule.

The later Cholas were less capable kings with uncertain and vague aspirations and of limited vision. There weaknesses led to the Empire falling into the classic case of the Matsya-Nyaya state, or anarchy, so dreaded in the Puranas. The geometry of the Mandala theory subverted the Chola Empire in short order. This was a common enough case in 11th and 12th century India. Once magnificent Empires started to disintegrate under the onslaught of a younger and more vicious group of conquerors subscribing to a religion that gave no quarter to a defeated enemy and expected no quarter in defeat. The disintegration was further facilitated by the fact that around the same time, the Indian empires were gradually slipping into apathy born of a sense of invincibility and a feeling of undeserved grandiosity and self-importance.

“Lesser feudatories nibbled at greater feudatories, kingdoms swallowed kingdoms, and dynasties devoured dynasties, all with a voracious abandon that woefully disregarded the sharklike presence lurking in the Punjab.”

John Keay,

India: A History, p. 225.


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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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