Chola Dynasty

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CHOLA DYNASTY The most successful of the royal houses of southern India, the Cholas were first mentioned in the rock inscriptions of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the middle of the third century b.c., together with their perennial rivals, the Pāndyas and Cheras. The Cholas figure prominently in the "preclassical" Tamil literature of the Sangam age of the first three centuries a.d. Two rival branches, one centered on Uraiyur, the other on the port city of Pukar in the fertile Kaveri River basin, seemed to compete for Chola supremacy. Under their greatest king, Karikāla, the Cholas dominated their rivals as a regional power. From the sixth century on, the Cholas played a minor role between the Pāndyas to the south and the powerful Pallavas in the north; one branch of the royal family, known as the Telugu-Cholas, probably moved north into Andhra country.

Imperial Cholas

Around a.d. 850 the Cholas gradually shook off the supremacy of their rivals and reemerged as powerful South Indian rulers. Their core territory comprised the cities of Tanjore (Tanjāvur), Kāncīpuram, Chidambaram, Kumbhakonam, and Kāverippattanam. After a period of shifting fortunes, two outstanding rulers led the Cholas to imperial status: Rājarāja I (r. 985–1015) and his son and successor Rājendra I (r. 1012–1044, initially with his father) gained control of their traditional South Indian rivals and expanded their realm northward. Their campaigns also took them to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), of which they conquered the northern part; for a short time, they controlled the entire island. They were a rare example of Indian power overseas; Chola ships sailed to Sumatra and Malaya and as far away as southern China. Their relations with the kingdom of Srivijaya on the island of Sumatra were generally quite friendly, and one Srivijaya monarch even endowed a monastery in the "land of the Cholas." In 1025, however, a naval expedition was sent to Malaya and Srivijaya, perhaps to secure free passage of Indian shipping, perhaps only in search of plunder. The kings of Cambodia and Burma sent delegations, and a large Chola delegation traveled to China. At home, they dominated their rivals, the Pāndyas and Cheras, controlling thus the maritime trade on both coasts of South India. Their ships visited and conquered the Maldive Islands off the western coast and the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. On their northern border, they were engaged in constant warfare against northern dynasties, and Rājendra I led an expedition to the north, reaching the Ganges (Ganga). The eastern seacoast was secured through a marital alliance with the eastern Chālukyas, and Kulottunga I, an offspring of that alliance, succeeded to the throne when it fell vacant after some dynastic disturbance. In the thirteenth century the Cholas, under pressure from the reinvigorated Pāndyas, held onto their core territory only with the help of the Hoysalas in Karnataka, then vanished toward the end of that century. Only their name survives in the Coromandel coast in southeastern India, originally Chola-mandala (Circle of the Cholas).

An empire as large as that of the Imperial Cholas at the height of their power could not be administrated with a rigid central bureaucracy; much authority was delegated to dependent rulers and governors. It would be an overstatement, however, to call them merely a regional state that depended for sustenance on warfare and plunder rather than tax revenue. There is evidence of royal inspection and interference in local matters. Their internal administration financed large irrigation projects, fostered overseas trade, and had an impressive program of temple construction.

Religious and Cultural Contributions

The Cholas were ardent devotees of Lord Shiva. They built large temples dedicated to Shiva and expanded the Shiva shrine at the temple complex at Chidambaram, covering the roof of the shrine with solid gold. Their greatest architectural achievement is the Rājarājeshvara or Brihadīshvara temple at Tanjore, whose central shrine rises 190 feet (216 feet with the finial) and is topped by a capstone 20 feet in diameter, said to be a granite monolith weighing perhaps 20 tons (estimates vary). It was completed about a.d. 1009 under Rājarāja I. A few years later, his son Rājendra I founded a new capital called Gangaikkonda-Colapuram (The city of the Chola who took the Ganges) and built an even larger Shiva temple there (though not quite as tall). Images and statues of a dancing Shiva in various postures are attested from the middle of the first millennium, but only in the tenth century did Shiva's cosmic dance (as Nata-Rāja, "King of dancers") receive major attention. A special school of artisans produced numerous Shiva Nata-Rāja bronze statues that are among the finest specimens of Indian metal sculpture.

Most Chola rulers, while devotees of Shiva, were not only tolerant of the beliefs of others but even supported the building of temples to Vishnu and Jina. Exceptions are rare: one ruler, possibly Adhirājendra, persecuted Rāmānuja, the famous scholar, and his followers in the tradition of Vishnu worship, and Kulottunga II tried to end the long-established coexistence of the Vishnu and Shiva shrines in great temple of Chidambaram. Both attempts ended in failure, but the old harmony between the sectarian beliefs was never fully recovered. The kings were seen as the earthly representatives of Shiva, and idols and lingams (phallic symbols of Shiva) are sometimes named after a ruling monarch, leading to the mistaken notion that they were themselves worshiped as "god-kings," when they were, in fact, devout worshipers of Shiva. Mausoleums (called palli-padai) were built for several rulers and their family members, where memorial services were held; later disapproval of the practice led to the attempted erasure of the word palli-padai in one such structure.

Some of the crowning achievements of Tamil literature fall into this period. Kamban's Irāmāvatāram, his Tamil version of the ancient Rāmāyaṇa, is a massive epic in an ornate style of great emotional intensity. Though Kamban was a Vishnu devotee and the Rāma legend belongs to the Vishnu mythology, the work is not sectarian but centers on the human values of valor, generosity, and righteous action. Tamils consider it the highpoint of Tamil literature. Sekkilār's Periya-purānam is an extensive hagiography of saints devoted to Shiva, and the Jīvaka-cintāmani is an epic by a Jain poet who tried to blend a sensuous narrative with the austere teachings of Jainism.

Hartmut E. Scharfe

See alsoBronzes: South Indian


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Sastri, K. A. Nilakanta. The Cōḷas, 2nd rev. ed. Madras: University of Madras, 1955.

Spencer, George W. The Politics of Expansion: The Chola Conquest of Sri Lanka and Sri Vijaya. Madras: New Era Publications, 1983.

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