Chola Empire





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Chola Empire

At the turn of the 2nd millennium AD, the Chola Empire, based out of Thanjavur was among the most powerful empires in the world. The Cholas are reputed for their military triumphs, temple architecture and cultural glory, courtesy great emperors like Rajaraja I and Rajendra I.

Chola Empire

Chola Empire
Date of decline 1279 CE
Capital Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram
Language of region Tamil
Date of rise 850 CE

Indian history has relatively few stories of kings or empires moving outside the subcontinent and capturing foreign territory. The very act of colonising is oftentimes deemed as anathema to the Indian way of life, that preaches, Live and let live. However, South India presents a different story, and the architects for this shift were the Imperial Cholas, who dominated South Indian political history for over three centuries (850 CE-1200 CE). Though the overtures of Rajaraja and Rajendra Chola may not fit into the conventional definition of colonisation, they certainly shed light on their influence in global politics at the turn of the second millennium.

Origin/Rebirth of the Chola dynasty

Vijayalaya Chola, who must have been a Pallava feudatory, founded the Chola dynasty by capturing Tanjaore in about 850 CE. He also consecrated a temple to the goddess Nishumbhasudini (Durga), a symbolic gesture to seek legitimacy from the omnipotent divinity. At this time, the Pallavas and Pandyas were fighting wars to obtain supremacy in South India. Eventually, the death of Pallava emperor Nandivarman III gave rise to internecine conflicts that eventually derailed the power of Kanchipuram in South Indian politics.

Aditya Chola I (871-907)

Vijayalaya's successor Aditya Chola I was chiefly responsible for making the Cholas a mighty force in South India. Through calculated strategy and deceit, he killed the last Pallava monarch Aparajita and thus annexed the fertile region of Tondaimandalam. He went on to conquer Kongudesha from the Pandyas and later captured Talakad from the Western Gangas. Thus, by the turn of the 9th century AD, the Cholas had displaced the Pallavas, and for the next half century dominated in all fronts. [ref]

Parantaka I (907-953 CE)

Chola Aditya I was followed by Parantaka I, who acceded to the throne in 907 and remained in power till 953 CE. Historian K.A Nilakanta Shastri alludes to tenth century South India having multiple empires jostling for power, ensuring a balance of two empires. The Cholas, Pandyas and Rashtrakutas were the three primary empires in this period, with the Eastern Chalukyas becoming a potent force towards the end of that century. [ref]

Parantaka locked horns with both his arch rivals very early in his reign. In 910, Parantaka he invaded the Pandyan country and assumed the title Maduraikondan. When the Pandyan ruler Maravarman Rajasimha II sought and received assistance from Ceylon, Parantaka again trumped the combined forces in the Battle of Vellur. Almost parallely, the Rashtrukas led by Krishna II attacked the Cholas (c.914 CE). This was ostensibly because Krishna IIs daughter had- in the spirit of an alliance- married Aditya Chola, and now their son Kannaradeva was being kept from the throne. Parantaka, along with the support of the Ganga ruler Prithvipati II decisively defeated Krishna II and his allies. Thus, by 920 CE, Parantaka had become the most powerful ruler in South India.

His strength, however, began to wane in the 940s. He lost the support of the Gangas, who entered into an alliance with the Rashtrakutas. Moreover, a lot of his trusted feudatories had either shifted sides or passed away. In 949, the feisty Rashtrakuta king Krishna III won a battle at Takkolam, and the defeat was personal for Parantaka, as he lost his son Rajaditya in course of the war. As Parantakas reign drew to a close, most of his vassal states and feudatories declared independence. The thirty years following his reign (955-985 CE) were chaotic for the Chola empire, and barring a spirited attempt at revival by Sundara Chola, nothing noteworthy unfolded in this interregnum. The reign of Uttama Chola (973-985)- who incidentally had usurped power through foul play- though did show signs of recovery considering the dip in the fortunes of the Rashtrakutas.

Rajaraja Chola (985 CE-1014 CE)

Arumolivarman acceded to the throne of Thanjore in 985, and assumed the title Rajaraja (King of Kings). The thirty years of his reign are counted among the most illustrious in the history of India. At the time of accession, the Chola empire had been shorn of all its erstwhile dominance, and he realized the importance of nurturing a strong army and navy. His first great achievement was destroying the Chera navy at Kandalur (modern Trivandrum). He attacked and defeated a confederation between Pandyas, Cheras and Ceylon. He then upended the monarchs of Madurai and Coorg, and his military prowess only enhanced over time. He went on to lead a naval expedition to Ceylon and destroyed its capital Anuradhapura, making Polonnaruva the capital of a Chola province. Thus, by the turn of the eleventh century CE, Rajaraja had elevated the Cholas to a position of complete dominance in South India.

Rise of the Western Chalukyas

It must be noted that the political conditions at the time of Rajarajas entry proved fortuitous at least in the first leg of his career. By the 980s, the Rashtrakutas had almost been wiped out from the scene, and the Western Chalukyas led by Taila II had begun consolidating an empire between the Narmada and Tungabhadra. They fortified a capital at Manyakheta. He and his successor, Satyasraya made the Western Chalukyas the single-most significant threat to the expanding power of the Cholas.

The primary bone of contention between the two empires was the strategically placed Vengi region (modern Andhra Pradesh), that had earlier been under the rule of the Eastern Chalukyas, who eventually dissolved into the Chola empire. Thus, most battles were fought over this region, but at the turn of the tenth century, the scales were clearly tilted in the favour of the Cholas, courtesy the incandescence of Rajaraja.

Conquest of Maldives

Rajaraja conquered and annexed Maldives towards the close of his reign. The rationale for attacking the island is not very well established, but some scholars claim that it may have been in order to control vital trade routes, with many ships passing through the Maldives. [ref]

Religious contributions of Rajaraja I

Rajaraja was a devoted Shaivite, and assumed the title Sivapadasekhara. The magnificent Rajarajeshwara temple (later Brihadiswara), completed in 1010, almost celebrates the greatness of Rajaraja. However, he ensured that other communities in his kingdom were not alienated, by installing Buddhist sculptures in temples in Thanjavur and also overlooking the construction of many Vishnu temples. He is also regarded as a patron of arts and letters, and while he may have been ruthless on the battlefield, his administrative skills sparkled with magnanimity.

Rajendra Chola 'Gangaikondan' (1014-1043 CE)

His son Rajendra Chola acceded to the throne in 1014 CE, although he had been made yuvaraja a couple of years back. The institution of a yuvaraja was an innovation of Rajaraja to Tamil politics, and prevented unwarranted conflicts over succession. Rajendra Chola continued the aggressive brand of politics he inherited from his father, and in fact surpassed him on many fronts. The Tirumalai Rock inscription (issued in AD 1024) records the sheer scale of victories he achieved in his career, though it may contain exaggerated details.

Rajendra I conquered Ceylon, and then went on to seize the Padyan crown and royal insignia, that had been in the custody of the Ceylon ruler. Thus, he had managed to accomplish the dream of his ancestor (Parantaka I). However, Rajendra turned his attention northwards, and led his troops till modern Bengal. Here, he defeated Mahipala I, and in a historic feat, brought back water from the Ganges to his capital. This was a colossal achievement, both militarily and also in terms of Rajendra asserting his cultural superiority over the monarchs of north India. He assumed the title Gangaikondan and established a capital at Gangaikondacholapuram (modern Tiruchirappali district). The water of the Ganges was poured into a large irrigation tank called Cholagangam.

Conquest of Kadaram (Sri Vijaya)

Rajendra continued his military exploits, by leading a naval expedition against the kingdom of Sri Vijaya. The pretext for this attack may have been Sri Vijayas interfering in the Indo-Chinese trade, or simply Rajendras desire to extend his empire beyond the seas. His expedition was a huge successor, and the Sri Vijayan capital of Kadaram was sacked. However, it wasnt incorporated within the Chola empire, buttressing the claims for this being a warning against impeding any trade activities. Nonetheless, the expedition and its success was a feather in Rajendra Cholas cap.

Defeating the Chalukyas

The Western Chalukyas posed a constant threat, and Rajendra Chola managed to assert himself by invading them towards the end of his career. It must be noted that both Rajendra and his father indulged in a lot of excesses while plundering cities, and there are records of innocent women, children and Brahmanas being killed in the course of campaigns.

Rajendra Chola also laid down an education policy, wherein many Vaishnava centres began having spaces with Vedic knowledge being disseminated.

The Chola-Chalukya tussle

Rajendras son Rajadhiraja had an active political career ever since he was made Yuvaraja (c. 1018 CE). He was the most important warrior for the Cholas on the battlefield even during his father's reign. After acceding to throne in the 1040s, he maintained his fathers empire until he lost his life in a war against the Western Chalukyas in 1052 CE. This battle, fought at Koppam, was hotly contested, and the Cholas largely won it on the back of the valorous Rajendra II (1052-1063 CE) , who went on to become the next Chola emperor. For ten years, he kept the Chalukyans and their spirited leader Someswara at bay. By the mid-11th century, the Chalukyans had managed to regain control over Vengi, and Someswara was chiefly responsible for this achievement.

Virarajendra I (1063-1070 CE) , the successor of Rajendra II, did inflict a crushing defeat on the Chalukyas, but a settlement of sorts was also reached during his reign. The next Chalukyan king, Vikramaditya entered into negotiations, and diplomatic relations were healthy after decades of conflict. However, Virarajendras death in 1069 led to tense standoffs again, with an ambitious Kulottunga I emerging as the ruler of both the Chola and Vengi kingdoms. The trust deficit between the Cholas and Western Chalukyas deepened, and war was on the horizon.

In 1075, the forces of Vikramaditya and Kulottunga clashed at Nangili in Kolar district, wherein Kulottangas forces triumphed with ease. However, the victory was pyrrhic in nature as at the same time, the legendary Vijayabahu was coronated as the king of Lanka, and Vengi suffered a disastrous raid. He managed to broker a peace treaty with Vijayabahus forces, though the latters alliance with the Chalukyas often soured relations.

Kulottunga I (1070-1122 CE)

Kulottunga I ruled for nearly fifty years, and reign was largely marked by peace and administrative reforms. His accession resulted in the extinction of the Vijayalaya line, as he came from another family distantly linked with Rajaraja Chola. Kulottunga I sent an embassy to China in 1077, and received a lot of cash and tribute through this channel. Trade with Sri Vijaya too prospered, and the emperor is known to have exempted Buddhist monastry at Negapatnam from paying taxes. Inscriptions hail Kulottanga as sungam tavirrta (he who abolished the tolls).

However, by the twilight of his career, he lost control over Vengi and saw the Chola empire shrink in size. The early twelfth century witnessed the rise of empires like the Hoysalas (of Dwarasamudra) and Kakatiyas (of Warangal), and these developments reduced the power of the Cholas, who gradually lost their footprint on South Indian politics.

Decline of the Cholas

Vikrama Chola (1118-1135 CE) succeeded his father Kulottunga to the throne in AD 1118. His religious contributions were noteworthy, as he made extensive additions to the temple at Chidambaram. He also re-established Chola power in the Vengi. His successor Kulottunga II is said to have patronized the legendary poet Kamban. Rajaraja III (c.1146-1173) oversaw a civil war between Parakram Pandyan and Kulasekhar Pandyan. By the time Rajadhiraja II had come to power in 1173, the civil war had nearly concluded, but the Pandyans had emerged as a force to reckon with. [ref]

Kulottunga III (AD 1178-1216) was arguably the last great monarch in the Chola lineage. His reign saw art and architecture blossom, with the temple at Tribhuvanam being the finest work in this period, with striking Ramayana reliefs dotting its walls. Kulottunga maintained good relations with the Telugu Chodas and some other local chieftains, but otherwise the Chola Empire was clearly nearing its twilight. Local chieftains had begun asserting themselves, and this process only hastened with the end of Kulottunga's reign. His successor Rajaraja III (AD 1216- AD 1246) was incompetent, and couldn't prevent the meteoric rise of the Kakatiyas and Hoysalas. Gradually, he was forced into an alliance with the Hoysalas, and became dependent on them for a large part. By the end of his reign, multiple feudatories (including the Banas, Kadavas and Telugu Chodas) had freed themselves from the Chola yoke and begun evolving independent policies.

The last Chola emperor, Rajendra III, was defeated by the powerful Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan in 1258 and made a feudatory of the Pandyan empire. Thus, came to an end the glorious Chola empire that continues to capture the imaginations of people across the world. 

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