The Cholas were an ancient political power, mentioned in the Asokan epigraphs and the Sangam literature. Karikalachola was the earliest well-known ruler of the earliest Chola line.

Urayur was their capital. Once again, the Cholas rose to the imperial position during the period AD 850 to 1200.

Chola Aditya I, son of Vyayalaya crushed the political power of Aparajita, the Pallava king, in the last quarter of the 9th century and laid foundations for the rule of the Cholas of Vijayalaya line.

The history of this period was dominated by the rivalry of the Cholas with the Rashtrakutas of Manyakheta and later with the Chalukyas of Kalyani.

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Vijayalaya, who ruled between AD 846 and 871 was the founder of the imperial Chola line, well known in the history of India as conquerors of repute, efficient administrators and patrons of art and architecture. Originally, a feudatory of the Pallavas, Vijayalaya took the city of Tanjavur from the Mutharaiyar of judukkottai and made Tanjavur his headquarters.

This initial success strengthened the power of the Cholas. Taking advantage of the civil war between the Pallava heirs Nriptunga and Aparajita, Chola Aditya joined hands with Aparajita. Both Aparijata and Aditya won a decisive victory over Pallava Nriptunga at Sripurambiyam near Kumbakonam in AD 885. Later Aparajita rewarded Aditya by granting additional territory. However a dissatisfied Aditya waged war against Aparajita, killed him in AD 903, and annexed the whole of Tondaimandalam. Later, Aditya annexed the Kongu country and thereby made the Pandyas accept his sovereignty. The crown prince Parantaka in all these conquests helped Aditya. Parantaka’s rule followed that of Aditya from AD 907 to 955 for a period of 48 years.

His reign was marked by success and prosperity except towards the end of his career. His death was followed that of by anarchy and confusion that was ended by Rajaraja I, who ascended the Chola throne in AD 985 and ushered in the imperial phase of the Chola rule of the Vijayalaya line.


Rajaraja I successfully united the entire Tamil country into a single powerful state by his successful conquests. He first attempted to weaken the confederacy of the rulers of Pandya, Kerala and Simhala. First, he crushed the power of the Pandyas and then brought Kerala under his control, He also despatched a naval force against Simhala and occupied the northern half of the island, destroying Anuradhapura and making Polonnaruwa the capital of the Chola province in Simhala.

Rajaraja extended the frontiers of his kingdom by conquering certain areas of Kamataka and knocking at the gates of Tailapa II the Chalukyan ruler of Kalyani. Further, Rajaraja made the eastern Chalukyan kingdom of Vengi, a Chola protectorate by offering the hand of his daughter Kundavai to Vimaladitya and installed Saktivarman, (Vimaladitya’s brother) as the ruler of Vengi. After successfully extending his control over Vengi, Rajaraja turned his attention towards Satyasraya, the western Chalukya ruler.

Rajaraja claims that Satyasraya prayed for peace and the Chola army returned with immense booty, which was used for the construction of the magnificent Rajarajeswara or Brihadiswara temple at Tanjavur. Rajaraja is said to have conquered Maldives towards the end of his reign. He also maintained friendly relations with Srivijaya, the maritime kingdom of Sumatra.

In AD 1041, after a long and successful reign, Rajaraja passed away and was succeeded by his son Rajendra, a worthy successor and son to Rajaraja. He made his son Rajadhiraja the Yuvaraja in AD 1018. He completed the conquest of Ceylon; yet he had to face constant trouble from them as the Ceylonese was not reconciled to his conquest. It is suggested that the motive behind invasion and conquest of Ceylon was his desire to rob them and use the booty for the local betterment of the Chola state.


He constituted a separate viceroyalty for the Pandya and Kerala territories with the headquarters at Madura. Rajendra claims to have supported Rajaraja to Vengi throne, and proceeded to Kalinga to teach a lesson to the eastern Ganga ruler who opposed Rajaraja at Vengi, from then he proceeded to the Ganges valley. After his successful invasion, he assumed the title of Gangaikonda and built a new capital named ‘Gangaikonda Cholapuram’ and the tank of this new capital was filled with the water of Ganga, which is called ‘liquid pillar of victory’. Rajendra also despatched a large naval fleet against Srivijaya in AD 1025. The reason for this invasion appears to be the desire to control the route to China for diplomatic and commercial purposes. Rajendra occupied Srivijaya and Kadaram or Kedah on the west coast of Malaya.

He is also credited with the suppression of rebellions in the Pandyan and the Kerala territories, also led an expedition to Ceylon in AD 1041, and ruthlessly put down the rebellion. After a successful reign of three decades and after making the Chola power supreme, he died in AD 1044. Rajadhiraja, who ascended the Chola throne after his father, continued Rajendra’s aggressive policy of expansion. He fought with the Chalukyas of Kalyani and defeated them in a battle at Pundur on the Krishna, gained Yadgir and sacked the new Chalukyan capital Kalyani.

He performed Virabhisheka and assumed the title of Vijayarajendra. As a mark of his victory at Kalyani, he took away with him the image of the Dwarapalaka that can be seen even today at the museum in Thanjavur. The Cholas continued their wars with the western Chalukyas of Kalyani and the eastern Chalukyas of Vengi. With Kulottunga Chola’s accession in AD 1070, a new era commenced in the history of the Chola empire. Kulottunga Chola was more of a statesman than an expansionist, but continued the policy of fighting for the control of Vengi region and Tungabhadra doab against the Chalukyas of Kalyani.

He reinstated the local rulers and wisely concluded a peace with Ceylon by giving his daughter in marriage to the Simhalese prince Viraperumal. In AD 1077, a Chola embassy of merchants was despatched to China. Epigraphic evidence reveals the existence of a Tamil merchant guild at Srivijaya. Kulottnga’s sons ruled over Vengi as viceroys. When the eastern Ganga ruler failed to pay tribute, he dispatched an army under Karunakara Tondaiman against Kalinga. Jayagonda’s celebrated war poem in Tamil Kalingattupparani records vividly the Kalinga invasion.

Except for the loss of Ceylon, the rest of the territory remained intact under his rule. He maintained diplomatic relations with Kanauj of northern India and the rulers of Burma and Kamboja in Indo-China. However, towards the close of his reign, he had to forgo certain territories due to the revolts in Karnataka and Vengi. Consequently, Chola territory was confined to Tamil Nadu including Malabar region. Kulottunga Chola ruled until AD 1120, though his son Vikrama Chola is said to have started his rule from AD 1118.

Vikrama Chola’s rule was marked by peace. He is credited with renovating the temple of Nataraja at Chidambaram and with the improvement of Ranganatha temple of Srirangam. After Vikramachola, his son Kulottunga II ruled from AD 1135 to 1150. He carried on the construction of the Chidambaram temple. His son Rajaraja II ruled from AD 1150 to 1173. The Chola political fortunes began to decline and powerful feudatories emerged as rulers of different parts of their territory. Kulottunga III, the last great ruler of the dynasty, followed him.

He again revived the glory of the Cholas by defeating Vira Pandya of the Pandyas of Madurai. He defeated the Cheras and Hoysala Ballala II and had Vijayabhishekha performed at Kamvar in AD 1193. He had to wage a war against the Pandyas as Kulasekhara Pandya, the successor of Vira Pandya revolted.

The Chola Kulottunga III sacked Madurai and demolished the coronation hall of the Pandyas in AD 1205. This led to further wars between the Cholas and the Pandyas. Once again, a war arose between Kulottunga III and his son Rajaraja III, and Sundara Pandya. In this war, Sundara Pandya drove away the Cholas. The Cholas appealed to Hoysala Ballala II. It is said that realizing the impending danger, Sundara Pandya discretely restored to Cholas their throne and assumed the title of ‘Sonadu-valangiyaruliya’, i.e., who was pleased to give away the Chola kingdom. Rajaraja Chola III ruled from AD 1216 to 1256 and appears to have been defeated by Sundara Pandya and Pallava Kopperajanga.

Narasimha II of Hoysala helped Rajaraja Chola to regain his throne in AD 1231 and the friendship between the Cholas and Hoysalas continued for some time. Yet, Jatavarma Sundara Pandya defeated Chola Rajendra, the successor of Rajaraja III, Rajendra III was the last of the Vijayalaya line and his latest regnal year is 33, corresponding to AD 1279. At this time the Chola Empire suffered an eclipse and became a part of the Pandyan Empire.


Generally, the Chola kingdom was characterized as a centralized bureaucratic state where the sovereigns lived in magnificent palaces. They were assisted by a graded bureaucracy. In recent years vigorous research by scholars with a thorough examination of the available epigraphs and structural constructions suggests a new perspective to the study of the Chola state and society.

Burton Stein, an American historian suggested that the Chola state was a segmentary state, but some critics point out that this segmentary state concept was untenable as the insistence on dual sovereignty, i.e., political and ritual was not a reality. Another perspective suggested was that of the model of the feudal state by historians like R.S. Sharma, D.N. Jha and Champaka Lakshmi. Spencer, another American historian argues that the viability and stability of the Chola state depended upon the plunder of the contemporary neighboring states in the guise of constant invasions. B.D. Chattopadhyaya suggests that the model of the integrative state is applicable to the Chola state.

Romila Thapar is very critical of the above theories and argues that the relationship between the relatively autonomous, local, agrarian, commercial, and religious organizations and the hierarchical political authority needs further critical investigation before we arrive at a theoretical model.

The Chola state carefully surveyed and classified all land suitable for irrigation into taxable and non-taxable lands, as land revenue was the major source of income. We come to know that the village was assessed as a whole and revenue was payable either in cash or in kind. Granting of lands to the beneficiaries for the services rendered to the king was very common. It is suggested that in the Chola period the Brahmins and the Vellalas were the two landowning groups, who were classified as the wealthy and less wealthy.

We come across tenants and cultivators also. Brahmadeyas or the Agraharas existed in large numbers in the Chola state. The local bodies and the state provided irrigation facilities. A feature which needs to be noticed is the emergence of individual ownership of land from the village controlled land in the later part of the Chola rule. In the Indian context, peasant uprisings are few but we come across sporadic instances of agrarian discontentment. For adminis­trative convenience, the Chola Empire was divided into Valanadu or Mandalam, Nadu and Kurram in descending order.

Large townships formed a separate Kurram called as Tanniyuror, Tankurram, Mandalam or Valanadu was the largest administrative unit, which can be compared to a province. K.A.N. Sastri observes that ‘the most striking feature of the Chola period was the unusual vigour and efficiency that characterized the functioning of the autonomous rural institutions.

Romila Thapar suggests that the village assemblies were crucial to Chola administration. The earliest references to village Sabha in the Tamil land are found in the epigraphs of the close of the 8th century AD from the Pandya and the Pallava territories. KA.N. Sastri maintains that the origin and early history of these assemblies is at present very obscure, although their general prevalence over the whole of southern India is widely proved by innumerable inscriptions.

Two Uttrameruru epigraphs of Parantaka give us valuable information regarding the functioning of village assemblies. The two epigraphs record resolutions passed by the local Mahasabha on the constitution of Variyam or executive committees. We come to know that each village was divided into 30 wards.

Each ward had to nominate selected persons possessing certain qualifications like:

(a) Ownership of more than one-fourth veli of land,

(b) Residence in own house on one’s own site,

(c) Aged between 35 and 70,

(d) Knowledge of Vedic mantras and of being a Brahmana.

The records further state that as an alternative, one who had one-fourth veli of land and knowledge of one Veda and a Bhashya can be nominated. The epigraph also specifies those to be excluded from the process of nomination.

They are:

(a) Individuals who were on the committee for the past three years,

(b) Those who being members of the committee failed to submit accounts, and

(c) Those who committed incest or great sins and those who had stolen the property of others. From among such nominees who met prescribed norms, one had to be chosen for each Kudumba or ward through the process of Kuduvolai or pot ticket of the 30 who were elected by this process, 12 were appointed to the annual committee – 12 to the garden committee and six to the tank committee.

Besides these committees, there also existed a standing committee and a gold committee. The number of committees and membership also varied from village to village. The members of the committees were known as Variyapperumakkal. Generally, regular royal courts, besides the village panchayats, administered justice. The courts followed the practice of depending on evidence.

The Chola rulers spent a good amount of money on public utility services. They looked after the maintenance of roads, bridges and ferries. They undertook irrigation facilities such as construction of the dams, artificial reservoirs, tanks, and wells. The Cholas maintained a huge standing army and navy.

Chola epigraphs refer to seventeen regiments of army, consisting of infantry, cavalry and elephants. The kings actively lead the army assembly, met in a temple and sometimes, it met on the bank of a tank or under the shade of a tree. These assemblies managed all the activities of the entire village. They were not only the sole proprietors of the village lands but also collected total amount of the tax revenue due to the state. They were empowered to act as a court of justice. Thus, the village assemblies were entrusted with the general welfare of the local activities of the village.

The ordinary peasant villages met at an assembly called the ‘ur’ and in the Brahmadeya villages, the assembly met at the Sabha. It appears that royal officials were present at the meeting. Their role was restricted to being present in the battlefield, and Rajaditya and Rajadhi Raja I died the on battlefields of Takkolam and Koppam. The Chola rulers were ruthless in war and caused misery to the people who were in no way connected with the war. They possessed a strong navy which enabled them to control the Coromandel and the Malabar coasts. This navy also helped them to conquer other countries like Ceylon, Maldives, Sumatra and the Malayan Peninsula.


During the Chola period, society was in a flux, and was organized based on Varnasrama model. KA.N. Sastri observes that the general atmosphere was one of social harmony and contentment with the existing order. Differences and disputes were there but were seldom acrimonious. Epigraphs state that towards the close of the reign of Kulotmnga I, the ‘bhattars’ of a village consulted the codes and laid down the professions to be followed by the Anuloma caste of Rathakaras. Another epigraph testifies that the Chola ruler granted the privi­leges of the blowing of two conches, the beating of drums and so on, at domestic occurrences, good or bad; the use of sandals when people went out of their homes and the plastering of the walls of their residences with lime plaster.

We also notice proliferation of subcastes like Kaikkala, Chatti, Cheek, Kammalar, and Rathakara besides the regular four Varnas. Another feature to be noted is the further division of the subcaste into Valangai and Idangai or the right hand and left hand castes. This division appears to be based on the social position of the subcastes in the society.

The Chola kings were Saivites and constructed a number of Siva temples. The Vaishnava faith was also prevalent during this period. Because of the growth of temple-based Bhakti movement, the temple became the centre of all activities in each village. K.A.N. Sastri observes that the temple became a landlord, an employer, a consumer of goods and services, a hospital, and a theatre, in short, a nucleus, which gathered round itself all that was the best in the art of civilized existence and regulated the people with the humanness born of the spirit of Dharma. The medieval Indian temple had few parallels in human society. In the literary sphere too, the Chola period constitutes, the most creative epoch of South Indian history. Tamil literature made rapid strides during this period.

Owing to the growth of devotion based temple worship of icons of Siva and Vishnu, the saints propagated their faith in the vernacular language of Tamil. Of this category, the most important one was that of Sekkiliar’s Periapuranam or Tim Hondapurana. This work is venerated as the sixth Veda. The other important devotional literary works are Tiruvalaiyadala Puranam of Nandi and Ramanuja-Nurrandai of Amundanor. Among secular literary works, the most important are Sivakasindamani of Tirukkadevar, Kamba’s Ratmyana and Jayagondar’s Kalingattupparani. Vikramachola Kulottuga II and Rajaraja II patronized Ottakuttan as a court poet. Ottakuttan wrote an Ula on each of his patrons.

He also appears to have written Parani recording of Vikrama Chola’s Kalinga War and Pillaittamil on Kulottuga II. Coming to grammar, Virasoliyam of Budhamitra and Nannul by Pavanandi are very important works. Sanskrit literature was also encouraged by the Chola rulers. Vaishnava religious works were composed in Sanskrit. We may conclude with the statement of K.A.N. Sastri that the age of the imperial Cholas was the golden age of the Tamil culture.

It was naturally marked by the widespread practice and patronage of literature. The Prabandha form became dominant and the systematic treatment of Saiva ‘siddhanta’ in philosophical treatises began. A quantum of Vaishnava devotional literature and commentaries on the canon also came into existence. Interestingly, Jaina and Buddhist authors also flourished in this period.

The picture of religious practices, beliefs and life in the Chola period is quite complex. There appears to have been a perpetual stirring and mixing of various creeds, each influencing the other and being influenced in turn. K.A.N. Sastry aptly remarks that because of this long process of assimilation the Buddhist Vihara, the Jaina Palli, and the Hindu temple presented many similarities in their worship, organization and festivities in the midst of equally striking differ­ences; and the ideals of asceticism and renunciation made a common appeal to all religions alike. It is a fact that there existed religious differences, but they did not tend to social discord. We can say that the religious environment did not create animosity between followers of different faiths.

Art and Architecture:

The Cholas, who ruled for centuries in the early medieval period, inherited and continued the traditions of the Pallavas and Pandyas in the promotion of art and architecture. They built many stone temples throughout their kingdom. The early Chola stone structural temples are not very large and the district of Pudukkottai has a number of temples and among them, the Vijayalaya Cholesvara temple at Narttamalai claims our attention. This temple is said to have been built by Vijayalaya, the first Chola ruler; undoubtedly, it is a fine example of the early Chola style. Temple building activity appears to have received great impetus during the reign of Rajaraja I and his famous son Rajendra.

Rajaraja I built many temples in the early years of his rule and one of such unique structures was the Tiruvalisvaraswami temple at Brahmadesam in the Tirunevelli district. Its wealth of sculpture is unique. The Uttara Kailasa shrine at Tiruvadi in Tanjore district, the Vaidyanatha temple at Tirunelavadi in Trichinopoly district, the twin temples of Siva and Vishnu at Dadapuram in South Arcot district, and Sivadevala 2 at Polonnaruva in Ceylon are the other notable examples of Rajaraja’s encouragement of temple construction the maturity of Chola temple architecture finds expression in the two magnificent temples of Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

The superbly executed Siva or Brihadisvara temple that took six years or more for completion is a fitting memorial to the material advancement of the time of Rajaraja. It is the largest and the tallest of all temples of India. The Vimana, the Arthamandapa, the Mahamandapa and the large Nandi pavilion in front are all aligned in the centre of a spacious walled enclosure, 500 ft. by 250 ft., with a Gopura gateway on the east. The main feature of the whole scheme is the great Vimana reaching a height of nearly 200 feet over the Garbhagriha in the west and dominating everything in its vicinity.

A massive dome consisting of a single block of stone, 25 ft high and weighing 80 tons covers this temple. The temple structure is covered from the base to the top with sculptures and decorative mouldings. Percy Brown, the famous art historian praises the Tanjore Vimana as a touch­stone of Indian architecture as a whole. K.A.N. Sastri aptly observes “the Tanjore temple as a whole is the finest monument of a splendid period of South Indian history and the most exquisite specimen of Tamil architecture at its best. The temple is remarkably alike for its stupendous proportions and for the simplicity of its design”.

He further observes that the temple’s great dignity is due to the simplicity of its parts, the square vertical base, the tall tapering body, and overall the graceful domical finial. Rajendra, the worthy son of Rajaraja I built the temple of Gangaikondacholapuram. Today this temple stands in lonely wilderness but for mud huts and a nearby small village. It was built in the style of Rajarajeswara or the Brihadeswara temple at Tanjore. This temple is larger in plan, but is not as tall as the Tanjore temple. Its Vimana is 100 ft square at the base and 186 feet high. This temple is a large rectangle 340 feet long and 110 feet wide. The temple occupies the middle of the immense walled enclosure.

The existence of a substantial bastion at the south-east angle and a smaller one in the west made scholars suggest that it was designed for defence purposes. The temple’s main entrance is located in the east, next to it is located the Mahamandapa. It is a low building 175 ft. by 95 ft. with over 150 pillars of ordinary design. There are similarities as well as dissimilarities between the two temples built by Rajaraja and Rajendra. The scheme of decoration and sculpture is more ornate in this temple compared to Tanjavur temple. Of the Chola temples of the later times, the temple of Airavatesvara at Darasaram of Tanjore district and the Kampaharesvara temple at Tribhuvanam near Kumbakonam built by Rajaraja II and Kulottunga III deserve special mention. The archi­tecture and sculpture of both these temples have many features in common with their predecessors. In the Darasuram temple, one of the Mandapas is designed in the shape of a chariot drawn by elephants.

Art historians and critics point out that the influence of Chola art can be noticed in the conception and execution of the temples of Indo-China and Far East. Ananda K. Coomara Swamy found a parallel of Chola architectural and sculptural designs in a temple of old Zayton or modem Chun Chow, opposite to Farmosa. The Chola phase is also well known for masterpieces of sculptures and bronzes.

Bronze images of Siva, Brahma, the Saptamatrikas, Vishnu and his consorts Lakshmi and Bhudevi, Rama and Sita with their attendants, Sambandar, a Saiva Saint and the infant Krishna dancing on the serpent Kaliya are famous examples of their artistic skill. Coming to sculpture, it is said that the Chola sculpture shows classic grace, grandeur and perfect taste. Portraits, icons and decorative sculpture are the main items of sculpture.

Among the Chola bronzes, the image of Nataraja occupies a unique place. The Nataraja of the Nagesvara temple is one of the largest and finest images known. Grousset describes the divine dancer, Nataraja as follows, “whether he be surrounded or not by the flaming aureole of the Tiruvasi (Prabhamandala) the circle of the world which he both fills and oversteps – the king of dance is all rhythm and exaltation. The Tambourine that he sounds with one of his right hands draws all creatures into this rhythmic motion and they dance in his company. The conventionalised locks of flying hair and the blown scarfs tell of the speed of his universal movement, which crystalizes matter and reduces it to powder in turn.

One of his left hands holds the fire that animates and devours the worlds in this cosmic whirl. One of the God’s feet is crushing a titan, for ‘this dance is danced upon the bodies of the dead’. Yet one of the right hands is making the gesture of reassurance or Abhayamudra, so true it is that, seen from the cosmic points of view and, indeed, on more than one of our bronzes, the king of dance wears a broad smile. He smiles at death and at life, at pain and at joy alike, or rather, if we may be allowed so to express it, his smile is both death and life, both joy and pain. Here art is the faithful interpreter of the philosophical concept”.

The Cholas continued the tradition of Pallavas and the Pandyas in painting too. Of the Chola paintings, the most important are to be found in the Pradakshina passage round the sanctum of the Tanjore temple built by Rajaraja and Rajendra. Invariably the theme of the painting is religious. In art, religion and letters, foreign trade and maritime activity, the Chola period reaches heights of excellence never reached either in the past or in the succeeding periods.