The Chola Dynasty (சோழர் குலம், 'ʧoːɻə) was a Tamil dynasty that ruled primarily in southern India until the 13th century. The dynasty originated in the fertile valley of the Kaveri River. Karikala Chola was the most famous among the early Chola kings, while Rajaraja Chola, Rajendra Chola I and Kulothunga Chola I were notable emperors of the medieval Cholas.
The Cholas were at the height of their power continuously from the later half of the 9th century till the beginning of the 13th centuries. Under Rajaraja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I, the dynasty became a military, economic and cultural power in Asia. During the period 1010–1200 CE, the Chola territories stretched from the islands of the Maldives in the South to as far North as the banks of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh. Rajaraja Chola conquered peninsular South India, annexed parts of Sri Lanka and occupied the islands of the Maldives. Rajendra Chola sent a victorious expedition to North India that touched the river Ganga and defeated the Pala ruler of Pataliputra, Mahipala. He also successfully raided kingdoms of the Malay Archipelago.
The Cholas left a lasting legacy. Their patronage of Tamil literature and their zeal in building temples have resulted in some great works of Tamil literature and architecture. The Chola kings were avid builders and envisioned the temples in their kingdoms not only as places of worship but also as centres of economic activity. They pioneered a centralised form of government and established a disciplined bureaucracy.
On the history of the early Cholas there is very little authentic written evidence available. Historians during the past 150 years have gleaned a lot of knowledge on the subject from a variety of sources such as ancient Tamil Sangam literature, oral traditions, religious texts, temple and copperplate inscriptions. The main source for the available information of the early Cholas is the early Tamil literature of the Sangam Period. There are also brief notices on the Chola country and its towns, ports and commerce furnished by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Periplus Maris Erythraei). Periplus is a work by an anonymous Alexandrian merchant, written in the time of Domitian (81–96) and contains very little information of the Chola country. Writing half a century later, the geographer Ptolemy gives more detail about the Chola country, its port and its inland cities. Mahavamsa, a Buddhist text, recounts a number of conflicts between the inhabitants of Ceylon and the Tamil immigrants. Cholas are mentioned in the Pillars of Ashoka (inscribed 273 BCE–232 BCE) inscriptions, where they are mentioned among the kingdoms which, though not subject to Ashoka, were on friendly terms with him.
The Sangam literature also records legends about mythical Chola kings. The Cholas were looked upon as descended from the sun. These myths speak of the Chola king Kantaman, a supposed contemporary of the sage Agastya, whose devotion brought the river Kaveri into existence.
Two names stand out prominently from among those Chola kings known to have existed, who feature in Sangam literature: Karikala Chola and Kocengannan. There is no sure means of settling the order of succession, of fixing their relations with one another and with many other princelings of about the same period. Urayur (now in/part-of Thiruchirapalli) was their oldest capital. Kaveripattinam also served as an early Chola capital. The Mahavamsa mentions that an ethnic Tamil adventurer, a Chola prince known as Elara, invaded the island around 235 BCE.
Epigraphy and literature provide a few faint glimpses of the transformations that came over this ancient line of kings during this long interval. What is certain is that when the power of the Cholas fell to its lowest ebb and that of the Pandyas and Pallavas rose to the north and south of them, this dynasty was compelled to seek refuge and patronage under their more successful rivals. The Cholas continued to rule over a diminished territory in the neighbourhood of Uraiyur, but only in a minor capacity. In spite of their reduced powers, the Pandayas and Pallavas accepted Chola princesses in marriage, possibly out of regard for their reputation. Numerous inscriptions of Pallavas, Pandyas and Chalukya of this period mention conquering 'the Chola country'. Despite this loss in influence and power, it is unlikely that the Cholas lost total grip of the territory around Uraiyur, their old capital, as Vijayalaya, when he rose to prominence hailed from this geographical area.
Around the 7th century, a Chola kingdom flourished in present-day Andhra Pradesh. These Telugu Cholas (or Chodas) traced their descent to the early Sangam Cholas. However, it is not known if they had any relation to the early Cholas. It is possible that a branch of the Tamil Cholas migrated north during the time of the Pallavas to establish a kingdom of their own, away from the dominating influences of the Pandyas and Pallavas. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who spent several months in Kanchipuram during 639–640 writes about the 'kingdom of Culi-ya', in an apparent reference to the Telugu Chodas.
While there is little reliable information on the Cholas during the period between the early Cholas and Vijayalaya dynasties, there is an abundance of materials from diverse sources on the Vijayalaya and the Chalukya Chola dynasties. A large number of stone inscriptions by the Cholas themselves and by their rival kings, Pandyas and Chalukyas, and copper-plate grants, have been instrumental in constructing the history of Cholas of that period. Around 850, Vijayalaya rose from obscurity to take an opportunity arising out of a conflict between Pandyas and Pallavas, captured Thanjavur and eventually established the imperial line of the medieval Cholas.
The Chola dynasty was at the peak of its influence and power during the medieval period. Through their leadership and vision, kings such as Rajaraja Chola I and Rajendra Chola I extended the Chola kingdom beyond the traditional limits of a Tamil kingdom. At its peak, the Chola Empire stretched from the island of Sri Lanka in the south to the Godavari basin in the north. The kingdoms along the east coast of India up to the river Ganges acknowledged Chola suzerainty. Chola navies invaded and conquered Srivijaya in the Malayan archipelago.
Throughout this period, the Cholas were constantly troubled by the ever-resilient Sinhalas, who attempted to overthrow the Chola occupation of Lanka, Pandya princes who tried to win independence for their traditional territories, and by the growing ambitions of the Chalukyas in the western Deccan. This period saw constant warfare between the Cholas and these antagonists. A balance of power existed between the Chalukyas and the Cholas, and there was a tacit acceptance of the Tungabhadra River as the boundary between the two empires. However, the bone of contention between these two powers was the growing Chola influence in the Vengi kingdom.
Marital and political alliances between the Eastern Chalukyas began during the reign of Rajaraja following his invasion of Vengi. Rajaraja Chola's daughter married Chalukya prince Vimaladitya. Rajendra Chola's daughter was also married to an eastern Chalukya prince Rajaraja Narendra.
Virarajendra Chola's son Athirajendra Chola was assassinated in a civil disturbance in 1070, and Kulothunga Chola I, the son of Rajaraja Narendra, ascended the Chola throne starting the Chalukya Chola dynasty.
The Chalukya Chola dynasty saw capable rulers in Kulothunga Chola I and Vikrama Chola; however, the decline of the Chola power practically started during this period. The Cholas lost control of the island of Lanka and were driven out by the revival of Sinhala power. Around 1118, they lost control of Vengi to the Western Chalukya king Vikramaditya VI and Gangavadi (southern Mysore districts) to the growing power of Hoysala Vishnuvardhana, a Chalukya feudatory. In the Pandya territories, the lack of a controlling central administration prompted a number of claimants to the Pandya throne to cause a civil war in which the Sinhalas and the Cholas were involved by proxy.
The Cholas, under Rajaraja Chola III and later, his son Rajendra Chola III, experienced continuous trouble. One feudatory, the Kadava chieftain Kopperunchinga I, even held Rajaraja Chola III as hostage for sometime. At the close of the 12th century, the growing influence of the Hoysalas replaced the declining Chalukyas as the main player in the north. The local feudatories were also becoming sufficiently confident to challenge the central Chola authority. The Cholas were exposed to assaults from within and without. The Pandyas in the south had risen to the rank of a great power. The Hoysalas in the west threatened the existence of the Chola empire. Rajendra tried to survive by aligning with the two powers in turn. At the close of Rajendra’s reign, the Pandyan empire was at the height of prosperity and had taken the place of the Chola empire in the eyes of the foreign observers. The last recorded date of Rajendra III is 1279. There is no evidence that Rajendra was followed immediately by another Chola prince. The Chola empire was completely overshadowed by the Pandyan empire and sank into obscurity by the end of the 13th century.
Kaverippattinam on the coast near the Kaveri delta was a major port town. Ptolemy knew of this and the other port town of Nagappattinam as the most important centres of Cholas. These two towns became hubs of trade and commerce and attracted many religious faiths, including Buddhism. Roman ships found their way into these ports. Roman coins dating from the early centuries of the common era have been found near the Kaveri delta.
The other major towns were Thanjavur, Uraiyur and Kudanthai, now known as Kumbakonam. After Rajendra Chola moved his capital to Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Thanjavur lost its importance. The later Chola kings moved around their capitals frequently and made cities such as Chidambaram, Madurai and Kanchipuram their regional capitals.
Between 980, and c. 1150, the Chola Empire comprised the entire south Indian peninsula, extending east to west from coast to coast, and bounded to the north by an irregular line along the Tungabhadra river and the Vengi frontier. Although Vengi had a separate political existence, it was closely connected to the Chola Empire and, for all practical purposes, the Chola dominion extended up to the banks of the Godavari river.
Thanjavur, and later, Gangaikonda Cholapuram were the imperial capitals. However both Kanchipuram and Madurai were considered to be regional capitals, in which occasional courts were held. The king was the supreme commander and a benevolent dictator. His administrative role consisted of issuing oral commands to responsible officers when representations were made to him. A powerful bureaucracy assisted the king in the tasks of administration and in executing his orders. Due to the lack of a legislature or a legislative system in the modern sense, the fairness of king’s orders dependent on the goodness of the man and in his belief in Dharma—a sense of fairness and justice.
The Chola kings built temples and endowed them with great wealth. The temples acted not only as places of worship but also as centres of economic activity, benefiting their entire community.
Justice was mostly a local matter in the Chola Empire; minor disputes were settled at the village level. Punishment for minor crimes were in the form of fines or a direction for the offender to donate to some charitable endowment. Even crimes such as manslaughter or murder were punished with fines. Crimes of the state, such as treason, were heard and decided by the king himself; the typical punishment in these cases was either execution or the confiscation of property.
The Cholas excelled in foreign trade and maritime activity, extending their influence overseas to China and Southeast Asia. Towards the end of the 9th century, southern India had developed extensive maritime and commercial activity. The Cholas, being in possession of parts of both the west and the east coasts of peninsular India, were at the forefront of these ventures. The Tang dynasty of China, the Srivijaya empire in the Malayan archipelago under the Sailendras, and the Abbasid Kalifat at Bagdad were the main trading partners.
Chinese Song Dynasty reports record that an embassy from Chulian (Chola) reached the Chinese court in the year 1077, and that the king of the Chulien at the time was called Ti-hua-kia-lo. It is possible that these syllables denote "Deva Kulo[tunga]" (Kulothunga Chola I). This embassy was a trading venture and was highly profitable to the visitors, who returned with '81,800 strings of copper coins in exchange for articles of tributes, including glass articles, and spices'.
A fragmentary Tamil inscription found in Sumatra cites the name of a merchant guild Nanadesa Tisaiyayirattu Ainnutruvar (literally, "the five hundred from the four countries and the thousand directions"), a famous merchant guild in the Chola country. The inscription is dated 1088, indicating that there was an active overseas trade during the Chola period.
The quality of the inscriptions of the regime indicates a presence of high level of literacy and education in the society. The text in these inscriptions was written by court poets and engraved by talented artisans. Education in the contemporary sense was not considered important; there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that some village councils organised schools to teach the basics of reading and writing to children, although there is no evidence of systematic educational system for the masses. Vocational education was through hereditary training in which the father passed on his skills to his sons. Tamil was the medium of education for the masses; Sanskrit education was restricted to the Brahmins. Religious monasteries (matha or gatika) were centres of learning, which were supported by the government.
Under the Cholas, the Tamil country reached new heights of excellence in art, religion and literature. In all of these spheres, the Chola period marked the culmination of movements that had begun in an earlier age under the Pallavas. Monumental architecture in the form of majestic temples and sculpture in stone and bronze reached a finesse never before achieved in India.
The Chola conquest of Kadaram (Kedah) and Srivijaya, and their continued commercial contacts with the Chinese Empire, enabled them to influence the local cultures. Many of the surviving examples of the Hindu cultural influence found today throughout the Southeast Asia owe much to the legacy of the Cholas.
The Cholas continued the temple-building traditions of the Pallava dynasty and contributed significantly to the Dravidian temple design. Aditya I built a number of Siva temples along the banks of the river Kaveri. These temples were not on a large scale until the end of the 10th century.
Temple building received great impetus from the conquests and the genius of Rajaraja Chola and his son Rajendra Chola I. The maturity and grandeur to which the Chola architecture had evolved found expression in the two temples of Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. The magnificent Siva temple of Thanjavur, completed around 1009, is a fitting memorial to the material achievements of the time of Rajaraja. The largest and tallest of all Indian temples of its time, it is at the apex of South Indian architecture.
The temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram at Gangaikondacholapuram, the creation of Rajendra Chola, was intended to excel its predecessor. Completed around 1030, only two decades after the temple at Thanjavur and in the same style, the greater elaboration in its appearance attests the more affluent state of the Chola Empire under Rajendra.
The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram at Gangaikondacholapuram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram were declared as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO, and are referred to as the Great living Chola temples.
The Chola period is also remarkable for its sculptures and bronzes. Among the existing specimens in museums around the world and in the temples of South India may be seen many fine figures of Siva in various forms, such as Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi, and the Saivaite saints. Though conforming generally to the iconographic conventions established by long tradition, the sculptors worked with great freedom in the 11th and the 12th centuries to achieve a classic grace and grandeur. The best example of this can be seen in the form of Nataraja the Divine Dancer.
The age of the Imperial Cholas (850–1200) was the golden age of Tamil culture, marked by the importance of literature. Chola inscriptions cite many works, the majority of which have been lost.
The revival of Hinduism from its nadir during the Kalabhras spurred the construction of numerous temples and these in turn generated Saiva and Vaishnava devotional literature. Jain and Buddhist authors flourished as well, although in fewer numbers than in previous centuries. Jivaka-chintamani by Tirutakkatevar and Sulamani by Tolamoli are among notable by non-Hindu authors. The art of Tirutakkatevar is marked by all the qualities of great poetry. It is considered as the model for Kamban for his masterpiece Ramavataram.
Kamban flourished during the reign of Kulothunga Chola III. His Ramavatharam (also referred to as Kambaramayanam) is a great epic in Tamil literature, and although the author states that he followed Valmiki's Ramayana, it is generally accepted that his work is not a simple translation or adaptation of the Sanskrit epic: Kamban imports into his narration the colour and landscape of his own time; his description of Kosala is an idealised account of the features of the Chola country.
Jayamkondar’s masterpiece Kalingattuparani is an example of narrative poetry that draws a clear boundary between history and fictitious conventions. This describes the events during Kulothunga Chola I’s war in Kalinga and depicts not only the pomp and circumstance of war, but the gruesome details of the field. The famous Tamil poet Ottakuttan was a contemporary of Kulothunga Chola I and served at the courts of three of Kulothunga's successors. Ottakuttan wrote Kulothunga Cholan Ula, a poem extolling the virtues of the Chola king.
The impulse to produce devotional religious literature continued into the Chola period and the arrangement of the Saiva canon into 11 books was the work of Nambi Andar Nambi, who lived close to the end of 10th century. However, relatively few Vaishnavite works were composed during the later Chola period, possibly because of the apparent animosity towards the Vaishnavites by the Chalukya Chola monarchs.
In general, Cholas were the adherents of Hinduism. Throughout their history, they were not swayed by the rise of Buddhism and Jainism as were the kings of the Pallava and Pandya dynasties. Even the early Cholas followed a version of the classical Hindu faith. There is evidence in Purananuru for Karikala Chola’s faith in the Vedic Hinduism in the Tamil country. Kocengannan, another early Chola, was celebrated in both Sangam literature and in the Saiva canon as a saint.
Later Cholas were also staunch Saivites, although there was a sense of toleration towards other sects and religions. Parantaka I and Sundara Chola endowed and built temples for both Siva and Vishnu. Rajaraja Chola I patronised Buddhists, and provided for the construction of the Chudamani Vihara (a Buddhist monastery) in Nagapattinam at the request of the Srivijaya Sailendra king.
During the period of Chalukya Cholas, there were assumed to be instances of intolerance towards Vaishnavites, especially towards Ramanuja, the acharya of the Vaishnavites. Kulothunga Chola II, a staunch Saivite, is said to have removed a statue of Vishnu from the Siva temple at Chidambaram, though this is only a probability
The history of the Chola dynasty has inspired many Tamil authors to produce literary and artistic creations during the last several decades. These works of popular literature have helped continue the memory of the great Cholas in the minds of the Tamil people. The most important work of this genre is the popular Ponniyin Selvan (The son of Ponni), a historical novel in Tamil written by Kalki Krishnamurthy. Written in five volumes, this narrates the story of Rajaraja Chola. Ponniyin Selvan deals with the events leading up to the ascension of Uttama Chola on the Chola throne. Kalki had cleverly utilised the confusion in the succession to the Chola throne after the demise of Sundara Chola. This book was serialised in the Tamil periodical Kalki during the mid 1950s. The serialisation lasted for nearly five years and every week its publication was awaited with great interest.
Kalki perhaps laid the foundations for this novel in his earlier historical romance Parthiban Kanavu, which deals with the fortunes of an imaginary Chola prince Vikraman who was supposed to have lived as a feudatory of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I during the 7th century. The period of the story lies within the interregnum during which the Cholas were in eclipse before Vijayalaya Chola revived their fortune. Parthiban Kanavu was also serialised in the Kalki weekly during the early 1950s.
Sandilyan, another popular Tamil novelist, wrote Kadal Pura in the 1960s. It was serialised in the Tamil weekly Kumudam. Kadal Pura is set during the period when Kulothunga Chola I was in exile from the Vengi kingdom, after he was denied the throne that was rightfully his. Kadal Pura speculates the whereabouts of Kulothunga during this period. Sandilyan's earlier work Yavana Rani written in the early 1960s is based on the life of Karikala Chola. More recently, Balakumaran wrote the opus Udaiyar based on the event surrounding Rajaraja Chola's construction of the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur.
There were stage productions based on the life of Rajaraja Chola during the 1950s and in 1973, Shivaji Ganesan acted in a screen adaptation of this play titled Rajaraja Cholan. The Cholas are featured in the History of the World board game, produced by Avalon Hill.