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The Chola dynasty was a Tamil thalassocratic empire of southern India and one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the history of the world. The earliest datable references to the Chola are from inscriptions dated to the 3rd century BCE during the reign of Ashoka of the Maurya Empire. As one of the Three Crowned Kings of Tamilakam, along with the Chera and Pandya, the dynasty continued to govern over varying territories until the 13th century CE. The Chola Empire was at its peak under the Medieval Cholas in the mid-9th century CE.

The heartland of the Cholas was the fertile valley of the Kaveri River. They ruled a significantly larger area at the height of their power from the later half of the 9th century till the beginning of the 13th century. They unified peninsular India south of the Tungabhadra River, and held the territory as one state for three centuries between 907 and 1215 CE.[2] Under Rajaraja I and his successors Rajendra IRajadhiraja IRajendra IIVirarajendra, and Kulothunga Chola I, the dynasty became a military, economic and cultural powerhouse in South Asia and Southeast Asia.[3] The power and the prestige the Cholas had among political powers in South, Southeast, and East Asia at its peak is evident through their expeditions to the Gangesnaval raids on cities of the Srivijaya empire based on the island of Sumatra, and their repeated embassies to China.[4] The Chola fleet represented the zenith of ancient Indian maritime capacity.

During the period of 1010–1153 CE, the Chola territories stretched from the Maldives in the south to the banks of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh as the northern limit. Rajaraja Chola conquered peninsular South India, annexed part of the Rajarata kingdom in present-day Sri Lanka, and occupied Maldives islands. His son Rajendra Chola further expanded the Cholar territory by sending a victorious expedition to North India that touched the river Ganges and defeating the Pala ruler of PataliputraMahipala. By 1019, he also completely conquered the Rajarata kingdom of Sri Lanka and annexed it to the Chola empire.[5] In 1017 and 1025, Rajendra Chola launched raids on the cities of the Srivijaya empire.[6] However, this invasion failed to install direct administration over Srivijaya, as the invasion was short and only meant to plunder the wealth of Srivijaya. However, the Chola influence on Srivijava would last until 1070, when the Cholas began to lose almost all of their overseas territories. The later Cholas (1070–1279 CE) would still rule portions of Southern India. The Chola dynasty went into decline at the beginning of the 13th century with the rise of the Pandyan dynasty, which ultimately caused their downfall.[7]

The Cholas succeeded in building the greatest thalassocratic empire in the history of India, thereby leaving a lasting legacy. They established a centralized form of government and a disciplined bureaucracy. Moreover, their patronage of Tamil literature and their zeal for building temples has resulted in some of the greatest works of Tamil literature and architecture.[3] The Chola kings were avid builders and envisioned the temples in their kingdoms not only as places of worship but also as centers of economic activity.[8][9] A UNESCO world heritage site, the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur, commissioned by the Rajaraja Chola in 1010 CE, is a prime example for Cholar architecture. They were also well known for their patronage to art. The development of the specific sculpturing technique used in the ‘Chola bronzes’, exquisite bronze sculptures of Hindu deities built in a lost wax process was pioneered in their time. The Chola tradition of art spread and influenced the architecture and art of Southeast Asia.[10][11]

There is very little written evidence for the Cholas prior to the 7th century CE. The main sources of information about the early Cholas are ancient Tamil literature of the Sangam Period,[a] oral traditions, religious texts, temple and copperplate inscriptions. Later medieval Cholas also claimed a long and ancient lineage. The Cholas are mentioned in Ashokan Edicts (inscribed 273 BCE–232 BCE) as one of the Mauryan Empire’s neighbors to the South (Ashoka Major Rock Edict No.13),[13][14] who, thought not subject to Ashoka, were on friendly terms with him.[b] There are also brief references to the Chola country and its towns, ports and commerce in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Periplus Maris Erythraei), and in the slightly later work of the geographer PtolemyMahavamsa, a Buddhist text written down during the 5th century CE, recounts a number of conflicts between the inhabitants of Sri Lanka and Cholas in the 1st century BCE.[16]

A commonly held view is that Chola is, like Chera and Pandya, the name of the ruling family or clan of immemorial antiquity. The annotator Parimelazhagar said: “The charity of people with ancient lineage (such as the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras) are forever generous in spite of their reduced means”. Other names in common use for the Cholas are Choda,[17] Killi (கிள்ளி), Valavan (வளவன்), Sembiyan (செம்பியன்) and Cenni.[18] Killi perhaps comes from the Tamil kil (கிள்) meaning dig or cleave and conveys the idea of a digger or a worker of the land. This word often forms an integral part of early Chola names like NedunkilliNalankilli and so on, but almost drops out of use in later times. Valavan is most probably connected with “valam” (வளம்) – fertility and means owner or ruler of a fertile country. Sembiyan is generally taken to mean a descendant of Shibi – a legendary hero whose self-sacrifice in saving a dove from the pursuit of a falcon figures among the early Chola legends and forms the subject matter of the Sibi Jataka among the Jataka stories of Buddhism.[19] In Tamil lexicon Chola means Soazhi or Saei denoting a newly formed kingdom, in the lines of Pandya or the old country.[20] Cenni in Tamil means Head.

The earliest Chola kings for whom there is tangible evidence are mentioned in the Sangam literature. Scholars generally agree that this literature belongs to the late centuries before the common era and the early centuries of the common era.[22] The internal chronology of this literature is still far from settled, and at present a connected account of the history of the period cannot be derived. It records the names of the kings and the princes, and of the poets who extolled them.[23]

The Sangam literature also records legends about mythical Chola kings.[24] These myths speak of the Chola king Kantaman, a supposed contemporary of the sage Agastya, whose devotion brought the river Kaveri into existence.[citation needed] Two names are prominent among those Chola kings known to have existed who feature in Sangam literature: Karikala and Kocengannan.[25][26][27][28] There are no sure means of settling the order of succession, of fixing their relations with one another and with many other princelings of around the same period.[29][d] Urayur (now a part of Thiruchirapalli) was their oldest capital.[24] Kaveripattinam also served as an early Chola capital.[30] The Mahavamsa mentions that an ethnic Tamil adventurer, a Chola prince known as Ellalan, invaded the Rajarata kingdom of Sri Lanka and conquered it in 235 BCE with the help of a Mysore army.[24][31]

The Chola dynasty was at the peak of its influence and power during the medieval period.[50] Through their leadership and vision, Chola kings expanded their territory and influence. The second Chola King, Aditya I, caused the demise of the Pallava dynasty and defeated the Pandyan dynasty of Madurai in 885, occupied large parts of the Kannada country, and had marital ties with the Western Ganga dynasty. In 925, his son Parantaka I conquered Sri Lanka (known as Ilangai). Parantaka I also defeated the Rashtrakuta dynasty under Krishna II in the battle of Vallala.[51]

Rajaraja Chola I and Rajendra Chola I were the greatest rulers of the Chola dynasty, extending it beyond the traditional limits of a Tamil kingdom.[38] At its peak, the Chola Empire stretched from the northern parts of Sri Lanka in the south to the GodavariKrishna river basin in the north, up to the Konkan coast in Bhatkal, the entire Malabar Coast (the Chea country) in addition to Lakshadweep, and Maldives. Rajaraja Chola I was a ruler with inexhaustible energy, and he applied himself to the task of governance with the same zeal that he had shown in waging wars. He integrated his empire into a tight administrative grid under royal control, and at the same time strengthened local self-government. Therefore, he conducted a land survey in 1000 CE to effectively marshall the resources of his empire.[52] He also built the Brihadeeswarar Temple in 1010 CE.[53]

Rajendra Chola I conquered Odisha and his armies continued to march further north and defeated the forces of the Pala dynasty of Bengal and reached the Ganges river in north India.[54] Rajendra Chola I built a new capital called Gangaikonda Cholapuram to celebrate his victories in northern India.[55] Rajendra Chola I successfully invaded the Srivijaya kingdom in Southeast Asia which led to the decline of the empire there.[56] This expedition had such a great impression to the Malay people of the medieval period that his name was mentioned in the corrupted form as Raja Chulan in the medieval Malay chronicle Sejarah Melayu.[57][58][59] He also completed the conquest of the Rajarata kingdom of Sri Lanka and took the Sinhala king Mahinda V as a prisoner, in addition to his conquests of Rattapadi (territories of the Rashtrakutas, Chalukya country, Talakkad, and Kolar, where the Kolaramma temple still has his portrait statue) in Kannada country.[60] Rajendra’s territories included the area falling on the Ganges-Hooghly-Damodar basin,[61] as well as Rajarata of Sri Lanka and Maldives.[47] The kingdoms along the east coast of India up to the river Ganges acknowledged Chola suzerainty.[62] Three diplomatic missions were sent to China in 1016, 1033, and 1077.[47]

Gopuram Corner View of Thanjavur Brihadisvara Temple.

The sikhara of Brihadisvara Temple, a cupolic dome (25 tons), is octagonal and rests on a single block of granite, weighing 80 tons.[citation needed]

Airavateswara templeDarasuram in Thanjavur District.

The Western Chalukya Empire under Satyashraya and Someshvara I tried to wriggle out of Chola domination from time to time, primarily due to the Chola influence in the Vengi kingdom.[63] The Western Chalukyas mounted several unsuccessful attempts to engage the Chola emperors in war, and except for a brief occupation of Vengi territories between 1118 and 1126, all their other attempts ended in failure with successive Chola emperors routing the armies of the Chalukyas at various places in many wars. Virarajendra Chola defeated Someshvara II of the Western Chalukya Empire and made an alliance with Prince Vikramaditya VI.[64] Cholas always successfully controlled the Chalukyas in the western Deccan by defeating them in war and levying tribute on them.[65] Even under the emperors of the Cholas like Kulothunga I and Vikrama Chola, the wars against the Chalukyas were mainly fought in Chalukya territories in Karnataka or in the Telugu country like Vengi, Kakinada, Anantapur, or Gutti. Then the former feudatories like the Hoysalas, Yadvas, and Kakatiyas steadily increased their power and finally replaced the Chalukyas.[66] With the occupation of Dharwar in North Central Karnataka by the Hoysalas under Vishnuvardhana, where he based himself with his son Narasimha I in-charge at the Hoysala capital Dwarasamudra around 1149, and with the Kalachuris occupying the Chalukyan capital for over 35 years from around 1150–1151, the Chalukya kingdom was already starting to dissolve.[67]

The Cholas under Kulothunga Chola III collaborated to the herald the dissolution of the Chalukyas by aiding Hoysalas under Veera Ballala II, the son-in-law of the Chola monarch, and defeated the Western Chalukyas in a series of wars with Someshvara IV between 1185 and 1190. The last Chalukya king’s territories did not even include the erstwhile Chalukyan capitals Badami, Manyakheta or Kalyani. That was the final dissolution of Chalukyan power though the Chalukyas existed only in name since 1135–1140. But the Cholas remained stable until 1215, were absorbed by the Pandyan empire and ceased to exist by 1279.[68]

On the other hand, from 1150 CE to 1280 CE, Pandya became the staunchest opponents of the Cholas and tried to win independence for their traditional territories. Thus, this period saw constant warfare between the Cholas and the Pandyas. Besides, Cholas regularly fought with the Eastern Gangas of Kalinga. Moreover, under Chola’s protection, Veng remained largely independent. Cholas also dominated the entire eastern coast with their feudatories, the Telugu Cholas, Velananti Cholas, Renandu Cholas, etc.. These feudatories always aided the Cholas in their successful campaigns against the Chalukyas and levying tribute on the Kannada kingdoms. Furthermore, Cholar fought constantly with the Sinhala kings from the Rohana kingdom of Sri Lanka, who repeatedly attempted to overthrow the Chola occupation of Rajarata and unify the island. But until the later Chola king Kulottunga I, the Cholas had firm control over the area. In one such instance, the Chola king, Rajadhiraja Chola II, was able to defeat the Sinhalese, aided by their traditional ally, a confederation of five Pandya princes, and kept the control of Rajarata under Cholar rule. His successor, the last great Chola monarch Kulottunga Chola III reinforced the hold of the Chola territories by quelling further rebellions and disturbances in the Rajarata area of Sri Lanka and Madurai. He also defeated Hoysala generals fought under Veera Ballala II at Karuvur. Furthermore, he also continued holding on to traditional territories in Tamil country, Eastern Gangavadi, Draksharama, Vengi, and Kalinga. However, after defeating Veera Ballala II, Kulottunga Chola III entered into a marital alliance with him through Ballala’s marriage to a Chola princess, which improved the Kulottunga Chola III relationship with Hoysalas.[65][i]

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[75] and Rajendra Chola’s daughter Ammanga Devi was married to the Eastern Chalukya prince Rajaraja Narendra.[76] Virarajendra Chola’s son, Athirajendra Chola, was assassinated in a civil disturbance in 1070, and Kulothunga Chola I, the son of Ammanga Devi and Rajaraja Narendra, ascended the Chola throne. Thus began the Later Chola dynasty.[77]

The Later Chola dynasty was led by capable rulers such as Kulothunga Chola I, his son Vikrama Chola, other successors like Rajaraja Chola II, Rajadhiraja Chola II, and Kulothunga Chola III, who conquered Kalinga, Ilam, and Kataha. However, the rule of the later Cholas between 1218, starting with Rajaraja Chola II, to the last emperor Rajendra Chola III was not as strong as those of the emperors between 850 and 1215. Around 1118, they lost control of Vengi to the Western Chalukya and Gangavadi (southern Mysore districts) to the Hoysala Empire. However, these were only temporary setbacks, because immediately following the accession of king Vikrama Chola, the son and successor of Kulothunga Chola I, the Cholas lost no time in recovering the province of Vengi by defeating Chalukya Someshvara III and also recovering Gangavadi from the Hoysalas. The Chola Empire, though not as strong as between 850 and 1150, was still largely territorially intact under Rajaraja Chola II (1146–1175) a fact attested by the construction and completion of the third grand Chola architectural marvel, the chariot-shaped Airavatesvara Temple at Dharasuram on the outskirts of modern Kumbakonam. Chola administration and territorial integrity until the rule of Kulothunga Chola III was stable and very prosperous up to 1215, but during his rule itself, the decline of the Chola power started following his defeat by Maravarman Sundara Pandiyan II in 1215–16.[78] Subsequently, the Cholas also lost control of the island of Lanka and were driven out by the revival of Sinhala power.

The Cholas, under Rajaraja Chola III and later, his successor Rajendra Chola III, were quite weak and therefore, experienced continuous trouble. One feudatory, the Kadava chieftain Kopperunchinga I, even held Rajaraja Chola III as hostage for sometime.[81][82] At the close of the 12th century, the growing influence of the Hoysalas replaced the declining Chalukyas as the main player in the Kannada country, but they too faced constant trouble from the Seunas and the Kalachuris, who were occupying Chalukya capital because those empires were their new rivals. So naturally, the Hoysalas found it convenient to have friendly relations with the Cholas from the time of Kulothunga Chola III, who had defeated Hoysala Veera Ballala II, who had subsequent marital relations with the Chola monarch. This continued during the time of Rajaraja Chola III the son and successor of Kulothunga Chola III[78][83]

The Hoysalas played a divisive role in the politics of the Tamil country during this period. They thoroughly exploited the lack of unity among the Tamil kingdoms and alternately supported one Tamil kingdom against the other thereby preventing both the Cholas and Pandyas from rising to their full potential. During the period of Rajaraja III, the Hoysalas sided with the Cholas and defeated the Kadava chieftain Kopperunjinga and the Pandyas and established a presence in the Tamil country. Rajendra Chola III who succeeded Rajaraja III was a much better ruler who took bold steps to revive the Chola fortunes. He led successful expeditions to the north as attested by his epigraphs found as far as Cuddappah.[84] He also defeated two Pandya princes one of whom was Maravarman Sundara Pandya II and briefly made the Pandyas submit to the Chola overlordship. The Hoysalas, under Vira Someswara, were quick to intervene and this time they sided with the Pandyas and repulsed the Cholas in order to counter the latter’s revival.[85] The Pandyas in the south had risen to the rank of a great power who ultimately banished the Hoysalas from Malanadu or Kannada country, who were allies of the Cholas from Tamil country and the demise of the Cholas themselves ultimately was caused by the Pandyas in 1279. The Pandyas first steadily gained control of the Tamil country as well as territories in Sri Lanka, southern Chera country, Telugu country under Maravarman Sundara Pandiyan II and his able successor Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan before inflicting several defeats on the joint forces of the Cholas under Rajaraja Chola III, and the Hoysalas under Someshwara, his son Ramanatha[78] The Pandyans gradually became major players in the Tamil country from 1215 and intelligently consolidated their position in Madurai-Rameswaram-Ilam-southern Chera country and Kanyakumari belt, and had been steadily increasing their territories in the Kaveri belt between Dindigul-Tiruchy-Karur-Satyamangalam as well as in the Kaveri Delta i.e., Thanjavur-Mayuram-Chidambaram-Vriddhachalam-Kanchi, finally marching all the way up to Arcot—Tirumalai-Nellore-Visayawadai-Vengi-Kalingam belt by 1250.[86]

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The Pandyas steadily routed both the Hoysalas and the Cholas.[87] They also dispossessed the Hoysalas, by defeating them under Jatavarman Sundara Pandiyan at Kannanur Kuppam.[88] 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.[89] The last recorded date of Rajendra III is 1279. There is no evidence that Rajendra was followed immediately by another Chola prince.[90][91] The Hoysalas were routed from Kannanur Kuppam around 1279 by Kulasekhara Pandiyan and in the same war the last Chola emperor Rajendra III was routed and the Chola empire ceased to exist thereafter. Thus the Chola empire was completely overshadowed by the Pandyan empire and sank into obscurity by the end of the 13th century and until period of the Vijayanagara empire.[82][91] In the early 16th century, Virasekhara Chola, king of Tanjore rose out of obscurity and plundered the dominions of the then Pandya prince in south. The Pandya who was under the protection of the Vijayanagara appealed to the emperor and the Raya accordingly directed his agent (Karyakartta) Nagama Nayaka who was stationed in the south to put down the Chola. Nagama Nayaka then defeated the Chola but to everyone’s surprise the once loyal officer of Krishnadeva Raya defied the emperor for some reason and decided to keep Madurai for himself. Krishnadeva Raya is then said to have dispatched Nagama’s son, Viswanatha who defeated his father and restored Madurai to Vijayanagara.[92] The fate of Virasekhara Chola, the last of the line of Cholas is not known. It is speculated that he either fell in battle or was put to death along with his heirs during his encounter with Vijayanagara.[93][94]

In the age of the Cholas, the whole of South India was for the first time brought under a single government.[k]

The Cholas’ system of government was monarchical, as in the Sangam age.[26] However, there was little in common between the local chiefdoms of the earlier period and the imperial-like states of Rajaraja Chola and his successors.[100] Aside from the early capital at Thanjavur and the later on at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Kanchipuram and Madurai were considered to be regional capitals in which occasional courts were held. The king was the supreme leader and a benevolent authoritarian. His administrative role consisted of issuing oral commands to responsible officers when representations were made to him. Due to the lack of a legislature or a legislative system in the modern sense, the fairness of king’s orders dependent on his morality and belief in Dharma. 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 the community as a whole.[101] Some of the output of villages throughout the kingdom was given to temples that reinvested some of the wealth accumulated as loans to the settlements.[102] The Chola dynasty was divided into several provinces called mandalams which were further divided into valanadus, which were subdivided into units called kottams or kutrams.[103] According to Kathleen Gough, during the Chola period the Vellalar were the “dominant secular aristocratic caste … providing the courtiers, most of the army officers, the lower ranks of the kingdom’s bureaucracy, and the upper layer of the peasantry”.[104]

Before the reign of Rajaraja Chola I huge parts of the Chola territory were ruled by hereditary lords and local princes who were in a loose alliance with the Chola rulers. Thereafter, until the reign of Vikrama Chola in 1133 CE when the Chola power was at its peak, these hereditary lords and local princes virtually vanished from the Chola records and were either replaced or turned into dependent officials. Through these dependent officials the administration was improved and the Chola kings were able to exercise a closer control over the different parts of the empire.[105] There was an expansion of the administrative structure, particularly from the reign of Rajaraja Chola I onwards. The government at this time had a large land revenue department, consisting of several tiers, which was largely concerned with maintaining accounts. The assessment and collection of revenue were undertaken by corporate bodies such as the ur, nadu, sabha, nagaram and sometimes by local chieftains who passed the revenue to the centre. During the reign of Rajaraja Chola I, the state initiated a massive project of land survey and assessment and there was a reorganisation of the empire into units known as valanadus.[106]

The order of the King was first communicated by the executive officer to the local authorities. Afterwards the records of the transaction was drawn up and attested by a number of witnesses who were either local magnates or government officers.[107]

At local government level, every village was a self-governing unit. A number of villages constituted a larger entity known as a kurramnadu or kottam, depending on the area.[108][109][110] A number of kurrams constituted a valanadu.[111] These structures underwent constant change and refinement throughout the Chola period.[112]

Justice was mostly a local matter in the Chola Empire; minor disputes were settled at the village level.[110] 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 confiscation of property.[113]

The Chola dynasty had a robust military, of which the king was the supreme commander. It had four elements, comprising the cavalry, the elephant corps, several divisions of infantry and a navy.[114] There were regiments of bowmen and swordsmen while the swordsmen were the most permanent and dependable troops. The Chola army was spread all over the country and was stationed in local garrisons or military camps known as Kodagams. The elephants played a major role in the army and the dynasty had numerous war elephants. These carried houses or huge Howdahs on their backs, full of soldiers who shot arrows at long range and who fought with spears at close quarters.[115]

The Chola rulers built several palaces and fortifications to protect their cities. The fortifications were mostly made up of bricks but other materials like stone, wood and mud were also used.[116][117] According to the ancient Tamil text Silappadikaram, the Tamil kings defended their forts with catapults that threw stones, huge cauldrons of boiling water or molten lead, and hooks, chains and traps.[118][119][need quotation to verify]

The soldiers of the Chola dynasty used weapons such as swords, bows, javelins, spears and shields which were made up of steel.[120] Particularly the famous Wootz steel, which has a long history in south India dating back to the period before the Christian era, seems also be used to produce weapons.[121] Kallar served in the armies of the Chola kings.[122]

The Chola navy was the zenith of ancient India sea power.[115] It played a vital role in the expansion of the empire, including the conquest of the Ceylon islands and naval raids on Srivijaya.[123] The navy grew both in size and status during the medieval Cholas reign. The Chola admirals commanded much respect and prestige. The navy commanders also acted as diplomats in some instances. From 900 to 1100, the navy had grown from a small backwater entity to that of a potent power projection and diplomatic symbol in all of Asia, but was gradually reduced in significance when the Cholas fought land battles subjugating the Chalukyas of the Andhra-Kannada area in South India.[124]

A martial art called Silambam was patronised by the Chola rulers. Ancient and medieval Tamil texts mention different forms of martial traditions but the ultimate expression of the loyalty of the warrior to his commander was a form of martial suicide called Navakandam. The medieval Kalingathu Parani text, which celebrates the victory of Kulothunga Chola I and his general in the battle for Kalinga, describes the practice in detail.

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