One of the most prominent dynasties in Indian history is the Chola
dynasty. The rulers of this line founded during the 9th century
AD a powerful empire which dominated a large part of the peninsula right
till the early part of the 13th century. During the 9th century
AD, there were many kingdoms in South India. The strongest among them were
the Pallavas and the Pandyas. The Pallava king at that time had a vassal
named Vijayalaya who used to come to his master’s aid with troops during
war time. The Pallava and the Pandya rulers were always at war with one
another as each wanted to be the strongest king in the region. During one
such war in the year 848 AD, Vijayalaya attacked and captured a place
named Thanjavur, which probably belonged to the Pandyas. Instead of
handing over his conquest to his Pallava master, Vijayalaya crowned
himself the king of Thanjavur and established there the famous Chola
of the Cholas
By the end
of the 9th century AD, the Cholas had defeated the Pallavas and the
Pandyas and become the most powerful kings in South India. They had
brought the southern Tamil country (then known as Tondamandala) under
their control. However they had to face the onslaughts of the Rashtrakuta
kings of the Deccan but after the death of the last powerful Rashtrakuta
ruler Krishna III, the fortunes of this dynasty declined while the Cholas
rapidly recovered their power.
Chola was one of the greatest kings of this southern dynasty. He had been
appointed heir apparent during his father’s life time and was an
experienced administrator and military general. This mighty conqueror
ascended the throne in 985 AD. He defeated the neighbouring south Indian
kingdoms of the Cheras and the Pandyas. He annihilated the Chera navy at
Trivandrum and took the key port of Quilon in the Chera kingdom
(corresponding to modern day Kerala). His next conquest was Madurai which
had belonged to the Pandyas.
victories he was constantly at war with them as he had to maintain his
superiority. He annexed parts of north-western Karnataka known as the
Ganga region and subjugated Vengi which lay on the Andhra coast. He
invaded Sri Lanka and added the northern half of that country to his
kingdom. Another achievement of his was the conquest of the Maldive
Islands. He followed a policy of conquest because he wished to control the
trade routes to South East Asia. Business with this region was carried on
through the important centres at the Coromandel Coast and Malabar.
Rajaraja Chola ruled till 1014 AD.
Rajendra1 succeeded him in that year. Rajendra1 was also a great
conqueror. He marched northwards, crossed Kalinga (corresponding to modern
Orissa) and Bengal. During this campaign, he crossed the River Ganga and
defeated two local kings there in the year 1022. He celebrated this
victory by taking the title, “Gangaikondachola” or the Chola conqueror of
the River Ganga. Rajendra 1 built a new capital near the mouth of the
River Kaveri in south-west India and named it “Gangaikondacholapuram” or
the city of the Chola conqueror of the Ganga.
feat of Rajendra 1 was his victory over the Sri Vijaya Empire that
extended over the Malay Peninsula and the neighbouring islands in
South-east Asia. Friendly relations had earlier existed between the Cholas
and the Sailendra ruler of the Sri Vijaya Empire. However a breach
developed between the Cholas and this empire as Rajendra1 was very eager
to establish trade relations with China. The Sri Vijaya Empire controlled
the overseas trade route to China and this proved to be main obstacle to
his efforts to initiate trade with the Chinese . Inevitably war broke out
between the erstwhile friends. Rajendra 1 conquered a number of places in
the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. The conflict ended in victory for the
Cholas and their dominance over the area. The Bay of Bengal was
monopolized by the Chola navy. Like his father, Rajendra 1 was determined
to establish Chola control over the trade routes leading to South East
Asia. His rule lasted till 1044 AD.
rivals of the Cholas were the Pallavas who ruled over the area now
corresponding to present-day Maharashtra. There was a struggle between
these two dynasties over the Deccan Peninsula. The Cholas emerged
victorious from this long and bitter war with the Pallavas. They destroyed
the Pallava cities and massacred the population. The Chola Empire now
extended over large parts of the Indian peninsula. They also destroyed
Anuradhapur, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka.
Cholas were cruel as conquerors, they tried to set up a sound system of
administration in the conquered areas. Under the Chola system of
administration, the king was the head of the government and all authority
rested in his hands. He divided the Empire into provinces and put a
governor in charge of each province. Sometimes princes of the royal family
were appointed as governors of these provinces. The king often travelled
throughout the country in order to keep in touch with the administration.
rivers were used for irrigating the lands. Many tanks were also built for
irrigation. The government’s share of the land revenue was fixed after an
elaborate survey of the land. The other sources of income for the
government were the tolls on trade, taxes on professions and the plunder
from the invaded lands.
There are a
number of inscriptions which describe the village government in the Chola
Empire. The villages enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. Each village was
administered by an executive committee consisting of educated men owning
property. The members of the executive committee were elected either by
drawing lots or by rotation. They served for a term of three years.
committees managed the different heads of administration such as revenue
collection, justice, law and order, etc. Prime among these committees was
the tank committee which managed the distribution of water to the fields.
army was very large and consisted of horsemen, foot soldiers and
elephants. The infantry, i.e. the foot soldiers, were generally armed with
spears. The kings were protected by bodyguards who were expected to lay
down their lives in carrying out their duties. The Chola navy was very
strong and it dominated both the eastern and western coasts of India, as
well as the Bay of Bengal, for some time.
commerce flourished under the Chola Empire. Business was carried on with
places as far off as China in the north. The Cholas tried to encourage
trade with China by sending embassies to the country.The articles brought
for trade by the Cholas included glass ware, camphor, brocades, rhino
horns and ivory. Their ships carried goods from West Asia and Africa to
China. Roads were built across the Chola country which not only
facilitated the movement of goods for trade but also of troops during
Chola rulers built grand cities such as Gangaikondacholapuram, Tanjore and
Kanchi. Both the royalty and the nobility lived in grand palaces with
large banquet halls, spacious gardens and terraces. They maintained large
households. Though none of these structures have survived the ravages of
time, contemporary literature contain descriptions of the luxurious
lifestyle of the ‘creamy layer’ of Chola society.
architecture which was an important aspect of the culture of the times had
touched heights of glory during the reign of the Cholas. This
architectural style involved the construction of 5-7 storeys above the
room in which the chief deity was kept. Another feature of this style was
a pillared hall with a flat roof. The pillars were elaborately carved. The
hall, also known as a mandap was usually located in front of the sanctum.
The hall was used for other activities as well. Ceremonial dances by women
were held in the mandap. Passages and courtyards were also built
around the sanctum so that devotees could go around it. The entire
structure was surrounded by high walls interspersed with towering gates
known as gopurams. One of the famous masterpieces is the massive
Brihadeswara temple built during the reign of Rajaraja Chola. It was
dedicated by him in the year 1020 to Lord Siva. The area occupied by the
temple measures 750 feet by 400 feet. One could write reams about this
temple but it might suffice to mention here some of its most unique
features. The towering roof crowning this magnificent structure is a piece
of engineering marvel. The topmost stone weighs 80 tons and engineers are
baffled as to how it was brought to this position when there were no
cranes around! According to an interesting story, a ramp was built right
from a village about four miles away and elephants were used to pull the
stone up the incline to the top of the temple. Situated in a fort and
surrounded by a moat, the temple complex required 130,000 tons of granite
for its construction.
passage of time the temple complexes increased not only in height but also
in area. The gates became elaborately carved works of art. The temples
also housed the living quarters of the priests. The places of worship were
supported by grants and donations by wealthy citizens and they received
revenue free grants of land. In fact some of the temples became so rich
that they even participated in government enterprises.
of Chola Power
Empire prospered during the 1100’s AD but from the 1200’s AD onwards it
lost its power. It was ultimately replaced by the Pandyan and the Hoysala
dynasties of South India.