The Cholas were an ancient race. By second century of the Christian era, a Chola king named Karikalan rose to fame as a powerful ruler.
It is believed that many Southern royal families claimed their origin from the Cholas. They ruled over several small territories in the Tamil land.
The early capital of the main Chola Kingdom was situated at Uraiyur and the kingdom extended from the river Vaigni in the south to Tondaimandalam in the North. Had all the Chola kingdoms united, the Cholas could have formed a bigger kingdom in the south. But the Chola race could not achieve that unity. The sources of information of the Cholas are derived from inscriptions, monuments, and literature.
The Ashokan inscriptions also give us references of the Chola kingdom. The Chola kingdom of the ninth century was called Cholamandalam or Caromandala. It covered Chennai, several districts of south, and Mysore. The Cholas conquered Sri Lanka and Maldives Island as well. With a powerful navy the Cholas made their influence felt in the countries of south-east. They provided a strong and stable administration.
The inscriptions and literature contain chronological history of Cholas with gaps and breaks. Rising to power in the later part of the second century of the Christian era, the founder of the Chola kingdom, Karikalan (A.D. 190). Defeated the combined army of Pandyas and Cheras. He shifted his capital from Uraiyur to Kaveripattanan. He invaded Sri Lanka and captured 1200 men. With his manpower, the constructed 160 Kilometer-long embankment along the Kaveri to protect the agricultural land from flood.
Nedumudikilli ascended the throne after Karikalan. During his reign, the Chola kingdom suddenly declined for regular invasions by the Cheras, the Pallavas and the Pandyas. Several centuries later, the Chola kingdom was revived by Vijayala (A.D. 850-871) who was at first a chieftain under the Pallavas. Vijayalaya was succeeded by his son Aditya-I. He defeated the Pallavas, Pandyas and Bana kings. The cholas received a set back at the hands of the Rastrakutas in the battle field of Takkolam.
The Greatest Chola ruler was Rajaraja Deva, who ascended the throne in A.D. 985, and ruled upto 1014 A.D. He won battle after battle and defeated several rulers of Southern India. He also invaded Sri Lanka as also the two Islands of Laxyadives and Maldives. He destroyed the grand navy of the Cheras at Trivandrum. Rajaraja conquered some parts of Gonga region about 991 A.D. He invaded the kingdoms of Chalukyas, Pandyas and Kalinga. His kingdom included almost the whole of South India, the Maldives and a part of Sri Lanka. He was a great builder, an able administrator and a conqueror. He was a patron of art and architecture.
The Brihadesvara Temple at Tanjore stands as a fine specimen of Rajaraja’s temple architecture. He is regarded as the greatest of Chola kings and a man of adorable personality. Rajendra Deva I, the son of Rajaraja ascended the throne after his father. He followed the path of his father’s ambitious career with virour. He defeated the Cheras, the Pandyas and the Western Chalukyas. His feet crossed the Bay of Bengal and invaded the outside rulers.
The Chola army crossed the Ganga, and to commemorate that occasion, Rajendra Deva I assumed the title of Gangai Konda Chola. He defeated King Mahipala in 1023 A.D., and brought water from river Ganga to his new capital Gangai Konda Cholapuram near the mouth of Kaveri.
He annexed the whole of Sri Lanka. The naval expedition of Rajendra Deva I against the Sailendra empire extended the Chola power up to Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java and other Islands. A great empire builder, Rajendra Deva I, was a patron of education and art. He was the worthy son of an illustrious father. The successor of Rajendra Deva I was Rajadhiraja. He carried out the annexationist policy of his predecessor.
But he failed in the battle against the Chalukyas of Koppam in 1032 A.D. Rajadhiraja was succeeded by Rajendra II. Virarajendra, his successor, continued to fight against the Chalukyas and was successful. His death in 1070 A.D. was followed by a disputed succession and civil war. Other Chola rulers included Adhirajendra, Kullotunga I (1070-1110 A.D.), Vikrama Chola (1120-1135) and Kullotunga II (1135-1150 A.D.). The Chola kingdom continued to exist till 1310 A.D.
Life under the Cholas:
The Chola rulers established a sound administrative system along with their wars and expeditions. The kingship was the most powerful element of the Chola administration. The king was the supreme authority of the state. There was a Council of Ministers to help the king in the state affairs. The Chola kingdom was divided in to several Mandalam or provinces with provincial governors.
Each Mandalam was also divided into Upamandalam or Kottams. Each Kottam was sub-divided into a number of districts or Nadus. The smallest unit of administration was the village or Tar-Kurams. The system of local self government was prevailing in the Chola period. The Chola village assemblies enjoyed autonomus power. A highly developed committee system for the village assembly was constituted for local self government of the villagers.
The inscriptions and literature of those days speak of the ‘Sabha’, ‘Mahasabha’ and village general assembly. The village committee was responsible for assessment and collection of land revenue, maintenance of law and order and other aspects of village administration. The threefold classification of the village property prevailed. Those three modes of enjoyment of privileges were known as ‘somudayam’ (common property), ‘palabhogam’ (permanent property) and ‘ekabhogam’ (sole enjoyment property).
The Chola state was like a modern welfare state. The Chola rulers built networks of roads which were useful for trade and commerce. Irrigation facilities were provided to farmers from rivers, tanks and wells. The Chola rulers were patrons of learning and established vedic educational institutions.
The Cholas maintained a big army and a powerful navy. The army was consisted of cavalry, infantry and war elephants. The king commanded the army in the battlefields. They offered sacrifices before gods before wars. The Chola army was well organised and extremely disciplined. There were different ranks with qualifications and capability. The Chola navy and warships were also known for valour. With the help of a powerful navy the Chola rulers conquered Sri Lanka, Maldives, Sumatra and destroyed the fleet of the Cheras. They were engaged in trade and commerce with Myanmar, Ceylan and the Islands of Indian Ocean.
The Chola society rested on the principles of Hinduism. Castiesm, child marriage and Sati system prevailed. At the same time, a policy of religious toleration was followed by the Chola kings. Saivism enjoyed royal patronage while Vaishnavism became a strong religious force in Chola kingdom.
A large number of magnificent temples were constructed by the Chola rulers. During their time the Dravidian art and architecture reached a high degree of perfection. The Brihadesvara temple of Tanjore which was built by Rajaraja is considered as the finest monument of the ‘Dravida’ style. Rajendra Chola constructed a beautiful temple in his capital city of Gangai Konda Cholapuram. The Subramaniya temple at Tanjore, the Airavateswaram temple at Darasuram and Tribhubaneswara temples belong to the Chola period. The glory of the Chola art and architecture lay in the creative genius of the people of the South.
The South Indian art of sculpture is regarded as the best example of ancient India. The magnificent stature of Gomateswar at Sravanbelgola speaks about the artistic taste of the Cholas. The dancing figure of Siva, called Nataraja, is considered as a master piece of Chola sculpture.
The creative genius of the people found expressions in the literature of the Chola period. The rulers paid high regards to scholars, saints and poets. The scholars of Chola period worked for excellence in every sphere of literature and culture. Sanskrit was regarded as the royal language of high culture. A good number of court poets composed their works in Tamil and other languages. Ottakuttan was the famous court poet of the Cholas. Sivakasindamani was written by Tirukadevar and Kalingttuparani was written by Jayangondar.
This work speaks of the Kalinga war of Kulottunga. Amritsagar was the famous Jain poet of the Chola age. The age of Kamban was regarded as the golden age of Tamil literature. Kamban’s Ramayan is considered a classic in Tamil. Pagalendi’s work Nala Vanba, the Tamil version of the love story of Nala Damayanati, is a classic of Tamil literature. It is for these reasons that the Chola period is considered as one of the finest phases of the South Indian history.