The Cholas

Other articles, Indian History

The Cholas

 By Padma Mohan Kumar

   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 dynasty.

The Rise 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.

  Rajaraja 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.

Despite his 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.

His son 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.

Another 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.

The main 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.


Though the 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.

Waters from 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.

Different 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.

The Chola 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.


Trade and 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 wartime.

Cultural Life

The wealthy 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.

 Temple 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.

With the 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.

Decline of Chola Power

The Chola 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.



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