Kulothunga Chola reigned from 1070 until 1120 C.E. over the vast Chola Empire. His accession marked the beginning of the Chalukya Chola era, a culmination of the decades of close alliances based on marriages between the Chola and the Eastern Chalukya dynasty based in Vengi.
He ascended the Chola throne at a time when the Chola Empire was under mortal danger from internal as well as external troubles. Kulothunga established himself on the Chola throne soon overcoming the threats to the Chola Empire and had a long reign characterised by unparalleled success and prosperity. He avoided unnecessary wars and earned the true admiration of his subjects. His successes resulted in the wellbeing of the empire for the next 100 years.
Chalukyas of Kalyani or the Western Chalukyas were the great rivals of the Cholas during the medieval times. The spread of the Chola Empire was checked by the Western Chalukyas and the frontier between the Cholas and the Western Chalukyas never varied much beyond the river Tungabhadra.
As a result of several inter-marriages over generations, the members of the Eastern Chalukya dynasty had become plainly Cholas at heart. The close relationship started with Kundavai, the daughter of Rajaraja Chola marrying the Eastern Chalukya prince Vimaladitya. Their son Rajaraja Narendra was closely allied to the Cholas, his maternal relatives, who periodically intervened in the affairs of the Vengi throne propping up Rajaraja Narendra in the Vengi throne whenever he was threatened by one rival or the other. There existed a great animosity between Rajaraja Narendra and his step brother Vijayaditya VII.
Rajendra Chola I defeated the rivals to Rajaraja Narendra and helped him celebrate his coronation in Vengi (c 1022 C.E.). Rajendra Chola continued their family relationship with his sister, by giving his younger daughter Ammangadevi in marriage with his nephew, Rajaraja Narendra.
After Rajaraja Narendra's death in 1064, Someshwara I's son Vikramaditya VI conquered Vengi and proclaimed himself king of the Western and Eastern Chalukya Kingdom. But the Chola army led by Virarajendra Chola defeated and drove him back to Kalyani. Virajrajendra then handed the Vengi throne to Vijayaditya VII, a brother of Rajaraja Narendra and uncle of Rajendra II Chalukya.
Virarajendra however made his peace with Vikramaditya VI, giving one of his daughters in marriage to him and supporting Vikramaditya's claim to the Western Chalukya throne against Somesvara II. The Chalukya kingdom was bifurcated and Vikramaditya got the southern half (1069 C.E.). Virarajendra died soon after early in 1070.
Kulothunga Chola was born Rajendra Chalukya to the Eastern Chalukyan king Rajaraja Narendra and Ammanga Devi, the daughter of Rajendra Chola I. Denied any claims to the Vengi throne by his uncle Vikramaditya VI, Rajendra Chalukya carved himself a small dominion near Baster in Chhattisgarh state. When Vikramaditya invaded Vengi, Rajendra Chalukya fought alongside the Cholas and earned much praise and the title of Virudurajabhayankara (terror to Viruduraja – Vikramaditya) for his prowess. Rajendra Chalukya thus maintained good relationship with Virarajendra and kept live his interests in the Vengi and the Chola kingdoms. After these years of cooperation, Rajendra Narendra must have felt betrayed by the Cholas when they supported his uncle Vijayaditya instead of his legitimate claims to the throne.
An opportunity arose with the demise of Virarajendra and Rajendra Chalukya acted swiftly to capture the Chola throne.
Virarajendra Chola died in 1070 C.E. and Athirajendra Chola became the Chola king. Soon after the coronation trouble erupted in the Chola kingdom. The cause and nature of these disturbances is not known. One explanation put forward by historians is due to the religious persecution of the Vaishnava saint Ramanuja in the hands of the Kulothunga Chola I. There is however, no supporting evidence to this point of view and it was Kulothunga Chola II and not Kulothunga Chola I, the title which was later assumed by Rajendra Chalukya, who was known to persecute Vaishnavas
The Chalukya author Bilhana gives a version of the background to Athirajendra’s troubles in his Vikramankadeva Charita.
However, the above poem is more likely to be a figment of the poet's imagination rather than any historical fact, for poets are known to compose verses of praise in return for rewards from eager kings from time immemorial. To repeat, Kanchi was in the occupation of even very weak Chola kings like Raja Raja II, who ruled between 1146-1176 as also his successor Kulothunga-III (1176-1218). The question of Vikramaditya VI occupying Kanchi does not arise. In fact, the authority of Kulothunga-I was firmly established and as per his inscription at the Ranganatha Swami Temple, Srirangam there is mention of a visit and donation of two lamps by Kannadasandhivigrahi and a Dandanayaka of Tribhuvanamalladeva (Vikramaditya VI) in the 29th year of his reign i.e. in 1099-1100. Here, the title of the Chalukya emissary, i.e. Kannadasandhivigrahi is quite significant as it means 'peace negotiator or peace keeper from Kannada land'. That this Kannada inscription was authorized by Kulothunga I also means that there indeed was establishment of peace in due course between Vikramaditya VI and Kulothunga I.
Within a few days of his return, news about the untimely death of Athirajendra in a fresh outbreak of rebellion reached him. The news also told him that Rajendra Chalukya had captured the Chola throne and assumed the title of Kulothunga Chola I.
There is no evidence to support claims that Kulothunga engineered the civil disturbances or prepared his way to the throne by murdering Cholas princes of blood. He seemed to have been welcomed by his subject who were looking forward to stability and good government by a strong leader.
Kulothunga spent the first few years of his reign fighting the war and rebellion that had sprung up in the various parts of the empire. Apart from the residues of the rebellion that caused Athirajendra's death, there was trouble in Lanka where the southern provinces had declared independence.
Kulothunga also had to deal with the Chalukya Vikramaditya who never reconciled Kulothunga's accessiont to the Chola throne.
Kulothunga devoted the first few years of his reign to deal with these troubles and made preparations for war.
The first enemy to be dealt with was the Western Chalukya Vikramaditya VI, who now found that Kulothunga stood in the way of his ambitions to unite his kingdom with the Vengi kingdom. With Kulothunga's accession to the Chola throne, the two kingdoms had become more closely united than evern before. Vikramaditya therefore led an expedition against Kulothunga in 1075 C.E.
The war began with Vikramaditya's incursion into the Chola territories and encountered the Chola army at Kolar. Vikramaditya was pursued by the Chola forces up to the banks of Tungabhadra and there was heavy fighting and Vikramaditya's armies were repulsed.
Kulothunga appealed to Somesvara II, the Western Chalukya king for help. There was no love lost between Somesvara and his younger brother Vikramaditya as Vikramaditya had made Somesvara part with the southern half of his kingdom. Somesvara agreed to assist Kulothunga and attacked Vikramaditya's rear.
Vikramaditya then concentrated all his efforts in saving his kingdom and attacked the forces of Somesvara and defeated them. Somesvara was imprisoned and Vikramaditya made himself the Western Chalukyan emperor. However, it appears that the combined forces of both Somesvara II and Kulothunga had made sufficient inroads and on seeing the retreat Vikramaditya VI, they declared victory. The cunning Vikramaditya VI seemed to wait for Kulothunga to go back to Chola country and at the first opportunity, he waged a separate war and defeated Somesvara II, imprisoned him and became unified northern and southern parts of the Chalukya Kingdom.
While the wars with Vikramaditya were ongoing, Vijayabahu, the Sinhala leader proclaimed himself ruler of the entire island. In 1070 C.E. he attacked the Chola forces from his enclave in the Rohana district and defeated them. Vijayabahu then occupied the territories close to Anuradhapura. Kulothunga sent reinforcements and there was a bloody fighting near Anuradhapura and repulsed Vijayabahu.
The Chola army stirred up rebellion in the South, but Vijayabahu's forces successfully stamped them out. Vijayabahu then camped in Mahanagakula and prepared for war. He then despatched two armies against the Cholas: one against Polonnaruwa and the other against Anuradhapura. Polonnaruva fell after fierce fighting. Anuradhapura was also captured soon after. Vijabahu then celebrated his coronation as the king of entire Lanka at Anuradhapura.
Kulothunga evidently considered this lost of the island unacceptable, and waited for an opportunity to reverse his fortunes. Such an opportunity arose soon. Vijayabahu sent envoys to the court of Vikramaditya VI, true to the maxim 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. While these ambassadors were travelling to the Chalukya country through the Chola territories, they were captured by the Chola army, disfigured and sent back to Vijayabahu clad in women's clothing. Vijayabahu, angry at this insult, attacked the remnants of the Chola army in the north of the country. He also made preparation to invade the mainland.
The Tamils of Lanka, were loyal to the memory of the Chola rule. Tamil mercenaries formed a sizeable majority in the Sinhala army. These mercenaries, perhaps instigated by the Chola army, mutinied. They killed two Sinhala generals and started rioting and ravaging the country. They even killed the king's sister and her children. Vijayabahu gathered his forces and attacked the stronghold of the mercenaries and defeated them. The mutineers were horribly punished. Some of their leaders were burt at the funeral pyre of the murdered Sinhala generals.
Kulothunga perhaps realising the futility of trying to hold a rebellious province, made no further effort to regain the lost province.
At the close of his wars with Vikramaditya VI, Kulothunga turned his attention to the south. The Pandya country never reconciled to the Chola overlordship and its rulers were a source of constant trouble for the Chola emperors. Pandya made use of the troubles in the Chola country during the controversial accession of Kulothunga and tried to reassert their independence.
Kulothunga could not take this situation lightly as the loss of the Pandya territories meant a serious threat to the existence of the Chola kingdom itself. As soon the Chalukyan war ended, Kulothunga turned all his energy to the suppression of the revolts in the Pandya and the Kerala territories.
The Chola armies defeated five pandya princes, and restored order in the territories. However even Kulothunga could not restore complete peace or the Chola administrative arrangements introduced by Rajaraja Chola I. Instead Kulothunga decided to rule the territory by military might and established a series of military colonies along the important routes of communiction in the Pandya and Kerala territories. Except for these military outposts, there was no interference on the local government from the Cholas and the Pandyas were hardly under any political subjection.
The inscriptions Kulothunga contain descriptions of two Kalinga wars. From the brief nature of the description regarding the first war, we may conclude that this perhaps occurred during Kulothunga's youth. The second and later invasion happened after the fortieth regnal year of Kulothunga and was the subject of the celebrated Kalingathupparani by the poet Jayangondar.
The first Kalinga war seems to have been brought about by Kalinga aggression against Vengi. The war resulted in the annexation of the southern part of Kalinga to the Chola kingdom.
The second invasion took place about 1110 C.E. and is described in detail in the inscriptions of Kulothunga. Kalingathupparani describes the reason for was as a response to the default of Kalinga in its payment of annual tributes to Kulothunga. It is ironic to note that the Kalinga king was Anantavarman Chodaganga, a grandson of Virarajendra Chola by his daughter Rajasundari. Dynastic connections did not stop political ambition on the part of Kulothunga.
The real cause of the war is obscure. The reason cited by the literary work of Kalingathupparani may be taken as a literary setting for an epic poem. There was no permanent political results of this invasion. There is no evidence to suggest that Chola territories included the northern Kalinga.
Kulothunga sent an embassy to China in 1077 C.E. This 'embassy' was a trading venture and seems to have ended profitably for the Cholas. The Cholas returned with over 81,000 strings of copper cash and many more valuables.
There is also evidence to suggest that Kulothunga in his youth (1063 C.E.)was in Srivijaya restoring order and maintaining Chola influence in that area. While there is little evidence of the political power of the Cholas having extended to the Malay Archipelago, trade relations and cultural contacts established during the reigns of Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola I seem to had been actively maintained by Kulothunga and his successors. It seemed that even during these times, the Cholas would successfully pursue diplomacy with the far-east by having trade relations and cultural contacts. But it appears that at least two Chola commanders had their battalions stationed at Srivijaya and Kamboja. This would be the explanation for a large Tamilian population existing even today in the Malayas and Moluccas.
While Kulothunga was busy in Lanka, the Vengi kingdom was raided by Yakshakanaradeva, the ruler of Tripura. However this was merely a raid in search of booty rather than an invasion for territorial gains. Vijayaditya, the Vengi king soon repulsed these intruders. Kulothunga left the administration of Vengi with Vijayaditya. After Vijayaditya died, Kulotunga took over the administration of Vengi under direct Chola rule and appointed his son Rajaraja Mummudi Chola viceroy of the province in 1076 C.E. He however did not enjoy the rigours of the viceroyalty and relinquished his position the next year. His younger brother, Vira Choda, was then chosen as Viceroy until 1084 C.E.
Vira Choda was succeeded by another son of Kulothunga Rajaraja Chodaganga ruled between 1084 and 1089 as the Vengi Vieceroy. He was then succeeded by Vikrama Chola as the Viceroy.
The Chola kingdom was at its greatest extent under Kulothunga in his forty-fifth regnal year. Except for the loss of Lanka, the rest of the empire remained intact. The boundary between the Cholas and the Western Chalukyas was as always the Tungabhadra river. The hold over Vengi was quite firm and the southern Kalinga was under the Chola rule.
Towards the end his reign, Kulottunga lost the province of Gangavadi to the rising power of the Hoysalas. Hoysala Vishnuvardhana attacked the Chola provinces (c. 1116 C.E.)and defeated the Chola Viceroy there.
Kulothunga also lost much of his territories in Vengi. The northern half of the Vengi kingdom if not the whole of it seems to have slipped from his hands and gone to the Western Chalukyan empire under Vikramaditya VI. Encouraged by the successes of Hoysala, Vikaramaditya invaded Vengi in 1118 C.E. The aging Kulotunga summoned the Viceroy of Vengi Vikrama Chola and installed him as heir apparent to the Chola throne. Lacking any meaningful leadership in Vengi, it soon fell to Vikramaditya and remained in his hands until his death in 1126 C.E. However, overall for the Cholas the loss of Vengi was a purely temporary one for they would regain Vengi under Vikrama Chola with him routing the Chalukyas in 1124-25 and Vengi would remain in the Chola-fold till rule of Kulothunga-III (1176-1218). In fact, Kulothunga-I's able successor Vikrama Chola would also re-conquer Kalinga along with Vengi, eastern parts of Gangavadi from the Hoysalas and re-establish links with Kadaram, Kataha, Srivijaya etc. for trading purposes.
Therefore, towards the end iof Kulothunga's reign the extent of the empire became marginally reduceed than it was during his accession.
Kulothunga married Madurantakai, the daughter of Rajendra Chola I long before he ascended the Chola throne. Madurantaki had seven sons, of which Vikrama Chola, the successor of Kulothunga was perhaps fourth. She seems to have died sometime before the thirtieth year of Kulothunga (1110 C.E.) Another queen Thyagavalli took the place of the chief queen. Kalingathupparani mentions her and Elisai Vallabhi (also known as Elulagudayal) . It also states that Thyagavalli enjoyed equal authority with the king.
Other queens mentioned in inscriptions are Trilokya Mahadevi, Kadavan Mahadevi, a pallava princess, Kampamadevi and Adittan Adakuttiyar.
Besides his seven sons through Madurantaki, Kulothungan also had a daughter Suttamalli who married into the royal house of Lanka, and Pillayar Amanangai Alvar.
Kulothunga's long reign was for the best part characterised by unparalleled success. However his kingdom was confined to the Tamil country at the end of his reign, which was indeed a setback, but because of capable leaders following him right up to Kulothunga-III (1176-1218), the fortunes of the Chola imperial power revived in no time with Vikrama Chola regaining Vengi, eastern Gangavadi and Kalinga and thus restoring the size of the empire to almost what it was at the time of Raja Raja I's accession. In fact, after almost a hundred years after Kulothunga I, Kulothunga-III would record victories over Kalinga, crush the Chera kings and Pandiyans of Madurai and re-establish the Cholas as a force to reckon with even in times of dwindling fortunes. In comparison by 1180 AD their rivals the Western Chalukyas were to receive inept rulers after Vikramaditya VI with the result that they rapidly hurtled towards extinction between 1130-1170 AD and finally not remaining in existence by 1189 AD due to the rise of the Kakatiyas, Kalucharis, Kadambas and their one-time feudatories the Hoysalas.
Kulothunga's relations with the northern kingdoms of Gahadaval resulted in his increased emphasis on Sun worship. Kulothunga built the Suryanar Koil - Temple of the sun near Pudukkottai.