The Chola empire rose to prominence during the middle of the 9th century C.E. and established the greatest empire South India had seen. They successfully united the South India under their rule and through their naval strength extended their influence in the Southeast Asian countries such as Srivijaya. They dominated the political affairs of Lanka for over two centuries through repeated invasions and occupation. They also had continuing trade contacts with the Arabs in the west and with the Chinese empire in the east.
Cholas and Chalukyas, the other major power of that time were continuously in conflict over the control of the Vengi kingdom and this conflict eventually exhausted both the empires and brought down their decline. The Chola dynasty merged into the Eastern Chalukyan dynasty of Vengi through decades of alliances, and at the end of this period came under one ruler (Kulothunga Chola I).
After the Sangam Era
The Early Cholas of the Sangam era were one of the most dominant political force in the Tamil country. They had managed to establish hegemony over the Pandyas and Cheras and their influence was even felt beyond the traditional boundaries of the Tamil country.
After the close of the Sangam epoch, from about 300 C.E. to 600 C.E., there is an almost total lack of information regarding events in the Tamil country. Some time after 300 C.E. the whole south India was upset by the predatory activities of the Kalabhras. These people, possibly from the south Deccan, were not Tamil speakers, and could have once been part of the Satavahana kingdom. After the demise this kingdom, its various dominions split up and established their independence. Kalabhras arose out of this political confusion, and trying to carve themselves a territory, invaded the land of the Tamils. The Tamil dynasties were not prepared to face this new threat and their defiance quickly crumbled.
Kalabhras, not bound by the norms and customs of the Tamils, upset the existing order by their ways. They are speculated to be the followers of Buddhism and did not respect the traditional Hindu values. These differences in the custom probably caused animosity to them amongst their subject and were probably the reason for the uniform adverse reports by the Tamil historians and authors who wrote following their demise.
Pandyas and Pallavas
From c. 600 C.E., the Pandya Kadunkon and the Pallava Simhavishnu managed to oust the Kalabhras from their territories and dominted the Tamil country for the next three centuries. After repeated wars, their frontier fluctuated along the river Kaveri. Cholas almost disappeared from the political map. They retained their ancient seat of Urayur and probably aligned with both the Pandyas and the Pallavas as the situation demanded. Their home country around Urayur was the location of many battles between the two major kingdoms. It is most likely, due to the strategic location of the Chola country during this time, both the Pallavas and Pandyas sought their help.
Beginnings of the Empire
Vijayalaya Chola, who was probably a Pallava Vassal, rose out of obscurity during the middle of the 9th century C.E. Making use of the opportunity during a war between Pandyas and Pallavas, Vijayalaya rose out of obscurity and captured Thanjavur in 848
We don not know whom Vijayalaya defeated to capture Thanjavur. During the 8th century a family of chiefs known as the Muttaraiyans ruled Thanjavur. Historians have suggested that they may have belongs to the Pandya clan. In the disturbed state of affairs that existed then, Vijayalaya seems to have found a good opportunity to defeat the Muttaraiyan chiefs, and make himself the ruler of Thanjavur and the surrounding Chola country.
The Cholas under Aditya I soon displaced the remnants of Pallava power in the north (c. 869 C.E.) and subdued the Pandayas and Cheras in the south (c. 903 C.E.). Parantaka I drove the Pandayas out of their territories and into Lanka (c. 910 C.E.). He then invaded the island to quell any opposition to the Chola expansion.
Rashtrakutas and Gangas in the north posed the biggest threat the nascent Chola Empire (c. 940 C.E.). The Chola prince Rajaditya was killed in one of the bloodiest battles in Thakkolam (949 C.E.) and the growth of the Cholas was halted for a few years.
The period following was one of the most difficult and dangerous for the Cholas. Parantaka had a long reign and when he died in 950 C.E., his second son Gandaraditya became king. He was more suited to the realm of religion than politics. His reign was marked for the stagnation in the progress of the Chola power. The Chola throne went to Gandaraditya’s younger brother Arinjaya briefly before Arinjaya’s son Sundara Chola took the reigns of the kingdom overlooking the claims of the still minor Uttama Chola, Gandaraditya’s son.
The Chola power recovered during Sundara Chola’s reign. The Chola Army under the command of the crown prince Aditya Karikala defeated the Pandyas and invaded in the north up to Tondaimandalam in the north. Sundara Chola’s reign although was marked by a personal tragedy His son Aditya Karikala was assassinated in a political intrigue. Uttama Chola’s involvement in this plot has been suspected. Uttama, son of the previous Chola king Gandaraditya forced Sundara Chola to declare him heir apparent. Uttama Chola’s reign was conspicuous for the lack of any major initiatives and he was replaced by the great Rajaraja Chola in 985
Under Rajaraja Chola and his equally distinguished Rajendra Chola gave political unity to the whole of Southern India and established it as a respected sea power. Rajraraja consolidated the Chola defences in the north by eliminating the last remnants of the Rashtrakuta power. The Rashtrakutas were replaced by the resurgence of Chalukyas of Kalyani. This was the beginning of the long history of conflict between the Cholas and the Western Chalukyas. The Chola-Chalukya conflicts resulted in the river Tungabhadra being recognised as the frontier between the two kingdoms.
Rajaraja soon extended his kingdom overseas to Lanka and the Chola army occupied most of the island (993 C.E). Rajaraja also invaded Vengi to restore the throne to his nephew
Rajendra Chola extended his father’s successes by completing the conquest of Lanka (1018 C.E.). The Sinhala king was captured and imprisoned in the Chola country. Rajendra also had to fight the Western Chalukyas (1021 C.E.) and invade Vengi to sustain the Chola influence there (1031
Rajendra’s reign was marked by his expedition to the river Ganges (c. 1019 C.E.). The Chola army dashed through the kingdoms north of Vengi and engaged the Pala king Mahipala and defeated him. The victorious Chola army returned with the waters of the holy Ganges. Historians now discount this expedition as nothing more than a pilgrimage to the Ganges and no permanent gain of territories resulted from it. The inscriptions of Rajaraja however glorify this as a major conquest.
Rajendra’s overseas conflicts are of similar nature. The Chola navy attacked and conquered the kingdom of Srivijaya. The cause of this conflict is likely commercial interests rather than political. Srivijaya was located at the hub of the thriving trade between Cholas and the ancient China. This expedition was to secure Chola strategic interests. There was no permanent territorial gain and the kingdom was returned to the Srivijaya king for recognition of Chola superiority and the payment of periodic tributes.
Chola Chalukya Wars
The History of Cholas from the period of Rajaraja was tinged with a series of conflicts with the Western Chalukyas. The Old Chalukya dynasty had split in to two sibling dynasties of the Western and Eastern Chalukyas. Rajaraja’s daughter Kundavai was married to the Eastern Chalukya prince Vimaladitya. Stemming from this Cholas had a filial interest in the affairs of Vengi. Western Chalukyas however felt that the Vengi kingdom was under their natural sphere of influence. Several wars were fought and neither could claim mastery over the other. Cholas never managed to overwhelm the Kalyani kingdom and the frontier remained at the Tungabhadra River. These wars however resulted in a lot of bloodshed and the death of at least one monarch (Rajadhiraja
Rajendra after his long reign was followed by three of his sons in succession. Rajadhiraja Chola I, Rajendra Chola II and Virarajendra Chola all had to continue the Chalukya wars. Rajadhiraja lost his life on the battlefield during one such battles and Rajendra Chola II crowned himself on the battlefield and continued the fight. Virarajendra managed to split the Western Chalukya kingdom by convincing Vikramaditya IV to an alliance. Vikramaditya acted as a buffer between the Cholas and the Chalukyas in
Vikramaditya also tried to prevent Rajendra Chalukya, an Eastern Chalukyan prince of Chola descent from ascending the Vengi throne. However when Virarajendra died in 1070 C.E., Rajendra Chalukya utilised and even engineered some internal confusion in the Chola kingdom, in which the Chola king Athirajendra Chola was assassinated. Rajendra Chalukya crowned himself Kulothunga Chola I (1070 C.E.), thereby starting the Chalukya Chola dynasty.
Society and Culture
The medieval Cholas under Rajaraja and his successors developed a highly organised administrative structure with central control and autonomous village assemblies. The system of government was a hereditary monarchy and the coronation of the king was an impressive ceremony. The royal household comprised of numerous servants of varied descriptions. For the purpose of administration the empire was divided into convenient areas such as valanadu, mandalam, nadu, etc. Land revenue was the mainstay of public finance and great care was undertaken to recording land rights and revenue dues.
Justice was administered by regularly constituted royal courts in addition to village courts. Crimes of the state, such as treason, were dealt with the king himself. The most striking feature of the Chola period was the unusual vigour and efficiency of the autonomous rural institutions.
This period of the Chola rule saw the maturity of the Tamil Temple architecture. Rajaraja built the great Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur. His son Rajendra imitated this effort by building the temple at his new capital Gangaikonda Cholapuram.
This age also saw the Hindu religious revival in both Saiva and Vaishnava traditions. The Saiva and Vishnava canons were collected and categorised during this period. However the later half of this period saw the state sponsored persecution of those of the Vaishnava persuation. Their spiritual leader Ramanuja was persecuted and driven out of the Chola country.
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article "Medieval Cholas"