The Chola Dynasty: Exploring the Achievements of an Indian Empire Spanning 400 Years
The Chola Dynasty was a dynasty that ruled over the southern part of India for about 400 years. Although there were some up’s and down’s, including a time when Chola princesses were the only ones able to keep the dynasty’s prestige afloat, the empire had a major impact on politics, arts, literature, philosophy, and architecture in ancient India.
The best recorded part of their history dates to between the 9th and 13th centuries. It was during that time that the Chola Dynasty reached the height of its power, as the dynasty’s territories included not only the southern part of mainland India, but also the islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Furthermore, the influence of the Chola rulers extended as far afield as maritime Southeast Asia, including modern day Indonesia and Peninsula Malaysia.
The ornamented pillars at the Airavateswara temple at Darasuram are a classic example of Chola art and architecture. (Ravichandar/CC BY 3.0)
Early Rulers of the Chola Dynasty
It is unknown when the Chola Dynasty was founded, although it is traditionally said to have been in existence before the period when the early Sangam poems were written, i.e. around the 2nd century AD. The Chola rulers of this period are referred to as the ‘Early Cholas’, and form the first period in the history of the Chola Dynasty.
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The main source of information about this period is the Sangam literature, though this source deals mainly with legends about mythical Chola kings. For instance, the Cholas are recorded to have claimed descent from the Sun. Other sources that mention the Cholas include a Greco-Roman periplus () entitled Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, and inscriptions found on the pillars erected by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka.
Hanging on then Expanding
The second period in the history of the Chola Dynasty is known as the ‘Interregnum’. This began around the end of the Sangam era, i.e. around 300 AD, when the Chola Dynasty fell from power. As a consequence, the southern part of India was divided between the Pallava and Pandya Kingdoms. Although the Cholas experienced a decline, the dynasty did not become extinct, and it is supposed that they served as sub-rulers under these new powers. Moreover, the new powers left the Cholas alone for the most part, perhaps due to the prestige that they still had. It was also due to this prestige that the Pallavas and Pandyas were willing to marry Chola princesses.
Chola bronze of Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati. (Thiago Santos/CC BY SA 2.0)
This Interregnum period came to an end around the middle of the 9th century AD. That was when the Pallavas and the Pandyas were in conflict with each other, and the Cholas, under the leadership of Vijayalaya, seized the opportunity to rise up against them. The uprising was a success and led to the establishment of the ‘Medieval Chola’ period.
Vijayalaya’s successors continued to expand Chola territory in southern India, eventually subjugating both the Pallavas and the Pandyas. Once the Tamil-speaking regions of southern India were under the control of the Cholas (by 985 AD), the Chola rulers sought to expand still further. Under Rajaraja Chola I (r. 985 – 1014 AD) and his successor, Rajendra Chola (r. 1014 –1044 AD), the Chola Dynasty reached its pinnacle. Under these two rulers, the Cholas conquered Sri Lanka, expanded their territory to the north as far as the Ganges River, and even brought maritime Southeast India under their sphere of influence.
Mural depicting Raja and his guru Karuvuruvar found in the Brihadeesvara temple, Tamil Nadu, 11th century. (Public Domain)
The Later Chola Period
The last period in the history of the Chola Dynasty is referred to as the ‘Later Chola’ period, which began not long after Rajendra Chola’s reign, and ended during the latter half of the 13th century AD. The first ruler of this period was Kulothunga I, whose father was an Eastern Chalukyan prince, and mother a Chola princess. Thus, the rulers of the Later Chola period were known also as the Chalukya Cholas. Due to his parentage, Kulothunga inherited both the lands of the Chola and those of the Eastern Chalukyas. The latter, however, was crumbling at that time, and Kulothunga decided to abandon his claim on it, and focused on his Chola domains.
The Chola Dynasty came to an end in 1279 AD, when it was overthrown by the Pandyans.
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Kulothunga I Chola instructs the surveyors 1086 AD. (Public Domain)
Chola Impact on Arts and Culture
The Cholas had a huge impact on India, especially the Tamil-speaking parts of southern India, not only from a political dimension, but also in the arts and culture. Thanks to the patronage of the Chola rulers, numerous Hindu temples, including the Thanjavur Temple, and the Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple, were built.
Detail of the main Vimanam (Tower) of the Great Temple at Thanjavur. (Public Domain)
Additionally, many bronze sculptures of incredibly high-quality were also produced during this time, several of which have survived till this day. Literature flourished under the Chola rulers too, and education was promoted, leading to a high literacy rate amongst their subjects.
Top Image: Detail of a bronze statue presenting Shiva as the Lord of Dance. Nataraja from Tamil Nadu, India. Chola Dynasty. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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