The Chola Empire

CholaBrihadeeswararTempleNarasimmanJayaramanFlickr.jpg
Brihadeeswarar Temple, built around 1000 CE by the Chola dynasty. Narasimman Jayaraman on Flickr.com

Nobody knows exactly when the first Chola kings took power in the southern point of India.  Certainly, the Chola Dynasty was established by the third century BCE, because they are mentioned in one of Ashoka the Great's stelae.  Not only did the Cholas outlast Ashoka's Mauryan Empire, they continued to rule all the way to 1279 CE - more than 1,500 years.  That makes the Cholas one of the longest-ruling families in human history, if not the longest.

The Chola Empire was based in the Kaveri River Valley, which runs southeast through Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and the southern Deccan Plateau to the Bay of Bengal.  At its height, the Chola Empire controlled not only southern India and Sri Lanka, but also the Maldives.  It took key maritime trading posts from the Srivijaya Empire in what is now Indonesia, enabling a rich cultural transfusion in both directions, and sent diplomatic and trading missions to China's Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE).

Chola History

The origins of the Chola Dynasty are lost to history.  The kingdom is mentioned, however, in early Tamil literature, and on one of the Pillars of Ashoka (273 - 232 BCE).  It also appears in the Greco-Roman Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c. 40 - 60 CE), and in Ptolemy's Geography (c. 150 CE).  The ruling family came from the Tamil ethnic group.

Around the year 300 CE, the Pallava and Pandya Kingdoms spread their influence over most of the Tamil heartlands of southern India, and the Cholas went into a decline.

 They likely served as sub-rulers under the new powers, yet they retained enough prestige that their daughters often married in to the Pallava and Pandya families.

When war broke out between the Pallava and Pandya kingdoms in about 850 CE, the Cholas seized their chance.  King Vijayalaya renounced his Pallava overlord and captured the city of Thanjavur (Tanjore), making it his new capital.

 This marked the start of the Medieval Chola period and the peak of Chola power.

Vijayalaya's son, Aditya I, went on to defeat the Pandyan Kingdom in 885 and the Pallava Kingdom in 897 CE.  His son followed up with the conquest of Sri Lanka in 925; by 985, the Chola Dynasty ruled all of the Tamil-speaking regions of southern India.  The next two kings, Rajaraja Chola I (r. 985 - 1014 CE) and Rajendra Chola I (r. 1012 - 1044 CE) extended the empire still further.  

Rajaraja Chola's reign marked the emergence of the Chola Empire as a multi-ethnic trading colossus.  He pushed the empire's northern boundary out of Tamil lands to Kalinga in the northeast of India and sent his navy to capture the Maldives and the rich Malabar Coast along the subcontinent's southwestern shore.  These territories were key points along the Indian Ocean trade routes.  

By 1044, Rajendra Chola had pushed the borders north to the Ganges River (Ganga), conquering the rulers of Bihar and Bengal, and he had also taken coastal Myanmar (Burma), the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and key ports in the Indonesian archipelago and Malay Peninsula.  It was the first true maritime empire based in India.  The Chola Empire under Rajendra even exacted tribute from Siam (Thailand) and Cambodia.

  Cultural and artistic influences flowed in both directions between Indochina and the Indian mainland. 

Throughout the medieval period, however, the Cholas had one major thorn in their side.  The Chalukya Empire, in the western Deccan Plateau, rose up periodically and tried to throw off Chola control.  After decades of intermittent warfare, the Chalukya kingdom collapsed in 1190.  The Chola Empire, however, did not long outlast its gadfly.

It was an ancient rival that finally did in the Cholas for good.  Between 1150 and 1279, the Pandya family gathered its armies and launched a number of bids for independence in their traditional lands.  The Cholas under Rajendra III fell to the Pandyan Empire in 1279 and ceased to exist.

The Chola Empire left a rich legacy in the Tamil country.  It saw majestic architectural accomplishments such as the Thanjavur Temple, amazing artwork including particularly graceful bronze sculpture, and a golden age of Tamil literature and poetry.

  All of these cultural properties also found their way into the Southeast Asian artistic lexicon, influencing religious art and literature from Cambodia to Java.