The Cholas

( Emblem – Tiger)

The Cholas – An Introduction

The Cholas, who ruled South India were a formidable force with a rather chequered history due to their repeated appearing and disappearing from the political scene of South India. While the civilizational history of South India is not as old as North India, still they caught up very fast. The Megalithic culture continued here till almost 300 A.D. The 3 major kingdoms that flourished here from 200 A.D. to 300 A.D. were – Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas. Nevertheless, The Cholas happen to be one of the longest ruling dynasties of the world. Their history can be divided into 2 broad Categories:

  • 1st Phase – 3rd century B.C. to 5th century A.D.
  • 2nd Phase – 9th Centuty A.D. to 13th Century A.D.

The Cholas – 1st Phase

The Early Chola Kingdom

While not much is known about the history of The Cholas of 3rd century B.C. The 2 most prominent kings of The Cholas of the 1st phase were Karikala and Elara. The basic homeland of the Cholas was the Kaveri delta and the adjoining region of modern Tanjore and Thiruchirapally. They were the first to acquire ascendancy in the far south with Kaveripattanam, or Puhar as their capital. Its early capital was Uraiyur

Towards the beginning of the fourth century A.D. the power of the Cholas began to decline mainly because of the rise of Pallavas on one hand and the continuous war waged by the Pandyas and the Cheras on the other. 

  • The Chola  kingdom called as Cholamandalam was situated to the north-east of Pandya kingdom between Pennar and Vellar rivers.
  • The Chola kingdom corresponded to modern Tanjore and Tiruchirapalli districts.
  • Its inland capital was Uraiyaur a place famous for cotton trade. One of the main sources of wealth for Cholas was trade in cotton cloth.
  • Their capital was firstly at Uraiyur and later shifted to Puhar(Tanjore).
  • King Karikala was a famous king of the Sangam Cholas.
  • The insignia of Cholas was “Tiger”.
  • Pattinappalai portrays his life and military conquests.
  • Many Sangam Poems mention the Battle of Venni where he defeated the confederacy of Cheras, Pandyas and eleven minor chieftains.
  • He also fought at Vahaipparandalai in which nine enemy chieftains submitted before him.
  • Hence, Karikala’s military achievements made him the overlord of the whole Tamil country.
  • Therefore, Trade and commerce flourished during his reign.

More Facts

  • He also built irrigation tanks near river Kaveri to provide water for reclaimed land from forest for cultivation.
  • Puhar identical with Kaveripattanam  was the main port of Cholas and served as alternative capital of Cholas.
  • The earliest known Chola king was Elara who in 2nd century BC conquered Sri Lanka and ruled over it for nearly 50 years. This is straightaway evident from the Buddhist text ‘Mahavamsa’.
  • Their greatest king was Karikala (man with charred leg) who founded Puhar and constructed 160 Km of embankment along the Kaveri River.
  • They maintained an efficient navy in contrast to their contemporaries.
  • The Cholas were wiped out due to the attacks of Pallavas from North and the Kalabhras from the South.
  • With this, it was curtains for the 1st phase of the Chola dynasty.

The Cholas – 2nd Phase (9th -12th Century)

Not much is known of the fate of The Cholas during the succeeding three centuries after their displacement by the Pallavas and Kalabhras, until the accession of Vijayalaya in the second quarter of the 9th century. During the interregnum period of 300 years, the Cholas fell into their lowest ebb with the rise of Pallavas in the north and Pandyas in the south.

The Cholas
Chola Kingdom in 800 A.D.
  • The founder of the revived Chola Empire was Vijayalaya, who was first a feudatory of the Pallavas of Kanchi. He captured Tanjore in 850 A.D. He established a temple of goddess Nishumbhasudini (Durga) there.
  • Aditya I succeeded Vijayalaya. Aditya helped his overlord the Pallava king Aparajita against the Pandyas but soon defeated him and annexed the whole of the Pallava kingdom.
  • By the end of the ninth century, the Cholas had defeated the Pallavas completely and weakened the Pandyas capturing the Tamil country (Tondamandala) and including it under their domination. He then became a sovereign ruler.
  • The Rashtrakuta king, Krishna II gave his daughter in marriage to Aditya. He erected many Shiva temples.
  • He was succeeded in 907 A.D. by Parantaka I, the first important ruler of the Cholas. Parantaka I was an ambitious ruler and engaged himself in wars of conquest from the beginning of his reign.
  • He conquered Madurai from the Pandya ruler Rajasimha II. He assumed the title of Maduraikonda (captor of Madurai).He, however, lost to the Rashtrakuta ruler Krishna III at the battle of Tokkolam in 949 A. D.
  • The Cholas had to cede Tondamandalam to the adversary. At that point of time the Chola kingdom almost ceased to exist. It was a serious setback to the rising Chola power.
Chola King Vijayalaya


  • Revival of Chola power began from the accession of Parantaka II who recovered Tondamandalam to re-establish dominance of the dynasty.
  • The climax in Chola power was achieved under the successor of Parantaka II, Arumolivarman, who crowned himself as Rajaraja I in 985 A D the next thirty years of his rule formed the formative periodof Chola imperialism.
  • In general the Chola kingdom grew under him into as an extensive and well-knit empire, efficiently organized and administered and possessing a powerful standing army and navy.
  • Rajaraja began his conquests by attacking the confederation between the rulers of the Pandya and Kerala kingdoms and of Ceylon. Polonnaruva became the capital of Chola province in North Ceylon after the defeat of Mahinda V, the Ceylonese king.He also annexed the Maldives.
  • Elsewhere, several parts of modern Mysore were conquered and annexed which intensified their rivalry with the Chalukyas. Rajaraja built the magnificent Shiva temple of Brihadeshwara or Rajaraja temple at Thanjavur which was com­pleted in 1010.
  • It is considered a remarkable piece of architecture in South Indian style. Rajaraja I also encouraged Sri Mara Vijayottungavarman, the Sailendra ruler of Sri Vijaya to build a Buddhist Vihara at Negapatam.
  • This vihara was called ‘Chudamani Vihara’ after the father of Sri Mara. Rajaraja was succeeded by his son Rajendra I in 1014 A.D. He ruled jointly with his father for a few years.
  • He also followed a policy of conquest and annexation adopted by his father and further raised the power and prestige of the Cholas. He followed the expansionist policy and made extensive con­quests in Ceylon.
The Brihadeshwara Temple

Further Expansion

Chola Empire
Chola Empire At Its Peak
  • The Pandya and Kerala country after being conquered was constituted as a vice royalty under the Chola king with the title of Chola-Pandya. Madurai was its headquarters. Pro­ceeding through Kalinga, Rajendra I attacked Bengal and defeated the Pala ruler Mahipala in 1022 A.D. But he annexed no territory in north India.
  • In Order to commemorate the occasion, Rajendra I assumed the title of Gangaikondachola (the Chola conqueror of Ganga). He built the new capital near the mouth of the Kaveri and called it Gangaikondacholapuram (the city of the Chola conqueror of the Ganga).
  • With his naval forces, he invaded Malaya Peninsula and Srivijaya Empire that extended over Sumatra, Java and the neighboring islands and controlled the overseas trade route to China. He sent two diplomatic missions to China for political as well as commercial purposes.
  • Rajendra was succeeded by his son Rajadhiraja I in 1044 A.D. He was also an able ruler. He put down the hostile forces in Ceylon and suppressed the rebellious Pandyas and subjugated their terri­tory.
  • He celebrated his victory by performing Virabhisheka (coronation of the victor) at Kalyani after sacking Kalyani and assumed the title of Vijayarajendra. He lost his life in the battle with the Chalukyan king Someswara I at Koppam. His brother Rajendra II succeeded him. He continued his struggle against Someswara.
  • He defeated Someswara in the battle of Kudal Sangamam. Next came Virarajendra I, he too defeated the Chalukyas and erected a pillar of victory on the banks of Tungabhadra.

More Facts

  • Virarajendra died in 1070 A.D. He was succeeded by Kulottunga I (1070-1122 A.D.) the great-grandson of Rajaraja I. He was the son of Rajendra Narendra of Vengi and Chola princess Ammangadevi (daughter of Rajendra Chola I). Thus Kulottunga I united the two kingdoms of the Eastern Chalukyas of Vengi and the Cholas of Thanjavur.
  • The most important reforms carried out by him in the internal administration was the re- surveyal of land for taxation and revenue purposes. He was also titled Sungam tavirtta (he who abol­ished tolls).
  • The Chola authority in Ceylon was overthrown by Vijayababu, the monarch of Ceylon during Kulottunga’s reign. He sent a large embassy of 72 merchants to China and also maintained cordial relations with Sri Vijaya.
  • He defeated the rulers of the Pandya kingdom and that of Kerala. The Chola Empire continued for more than a century after him. Weak rulers succeeded him. The Cholas and the later Chalukyas clashed for the overlordship of Vengi, the Tungabhadra doab and the Ganga country.

In the final analysis The Chola Empire continued in a flourishing condition during the twelfth century but declined by the end of the thirteenth century. The Pandyan king Sundara rendered the final blow by seizing Kanchi in 1297 A.D. The place of the Cholas was taken over by the Pandyas and the Hoysalas. This marked the end of the Chola power once and for all.



  • The king was the head of the administration of the Cholas and all powers were concentrated in his hands. The form of the Chola government was hereditary monarchy.
  • The rule of primogeniture generally prevailed. The king generally appointed his Yuvaraja (heir) during his reign.
  • Chola rulers took high- sounding titles as Gangaikondacholapuram. The royal household also runs on an elaborate scale.
  • The royal priest Rajguru became the close confidant of the royal family.
  • The king had council of ministers which aided and assisted him.
  • The king gave verbal orders (tiruvakya-kelvi) which were drafted by the private secretary and confirmed by the Olainayamak (Chief Secretary) and a Perundaram before its despatch by the Vidaiyadhikari (despatch clerk).
  • They often advised him on important matters. An elaborate and complicated bureaucracy ran the government.
  • The officials tended to form a separate class in society.
  • Perundaram were higher officials, while Sirutaram were lower officials.
  • Peruvalis (trunk roads) helped in royal tours. The general tendency was to make the officers hereditary. The officials were paid by assignments of land called jivitas according to their status.

Revenue Administration:

  • Undoubtedly a well-organised department of land revenue, known as the puravu-varitinaik – katam was in existence.
  • Land revenue was collected in cash or kind. Land was possessed by individuals and communities. The state under Rajaraja demanded 1/3rd of the gross produce which is undeniably quite reasonable.
  • Kadamai or Kudimai, according to N.K. Sastri was the land revenue.
  • There were taxes on professions, mines, forests, salt­pans, etc. Kulottung I abolished tolls.
  • While unpaid labour was frequently employed.

Military Administration:

  • The army consisted of infantry, cavalry and elephants which formed the three limbs of the great army – Mun-rukai-Mahasenai.
  • The Kaikkolas were soldiers armed with strong arms and the Sengundar were armed with spears.
  • The Velaikkarars were the most dependable troops in the royal service and were the bodyguards of the monarch, who defended him with their lives and were ready to immolate themselves on the king’s funeral.
  • Attention was thereupon given to the training of the army and cantonments, called Kadagams or padaividu, existed.
  • The Cholas paid special attention to their navy.

Divisions Within The Empire

  • The whole empire was divided into Mandalams or provinces. Sometimes princes of the royal family were appointed governors of the provinces.
  • Further they were divided into valanadus (divisions), nadus (districts) and kurrams (villages).
  • Village was the basic unit of administration.

Chola Villages

The villages were mainly of three types:

  1. First type constituted of an inter caste population where the land was held by all classes of people and paid taxes to the king in the form of land revenue. It was the most frequent type.
  2. The second type was the Brahmadeya or agrahara villages which was granted to the Brahmins and was entirely inhabited by them. They were exempted from tax and were prosperous.
  3. The third type of village was the Devadana, which were villages granted to gods. The revenues from these villages were donated to a temple. During Cholas the Devadana type of villages gained more popularity as the temples became the centres of life.
  • There was remarkable autonomy at the village level.
  • Chola officials partici­pated in village administration more as observers than as administrators.
  • The Cholas are best known for their local self government at the village level.

Village Assemblies

We hear of three assemblies called the ur, sabha or mahasabha and nagaram.

  1. The Ur was a general assembly of the village. The ur consisted of all the tax-paying residents of an ordinary village. The Alunganattar was the executive committee and the ruling group of the ur. The ur open to all male adults but was dominated by the older members.
  2. The Sabha was apparently an exclusively Brahmin assembly of the brahmadeya villages. The sabha had more complex machinery, which functioned largely through its committees called the variyams. Elec­tion to the executive body and other committees of the ur and sabha appears to have been conducted by draw of lots from among those who were eligible.
  3. The Nagaram was an assembly of merchants and were found more commonly in the trading centers.

Uttaramerur inscriptions of the Chola monarch Parantaka I of 919 A.D. and 921 A.D may be said to constitute a great landmark in the history of the Chola village assemblies. It gives details about the functioning and constitution of the local sabha.

Element Of Elections

The 919 A.D. inscriptions framed the rules for election and 921 A.D. incriptions amended them.

  • There were 30 wards (kudumbus) each nominatin members for selections of people with the prescribed qualifications.
  • Elections from each ward was by lot (kudavolai, literally means pot-ticket) for a period of one year.

Of the thirty so selected,

  • Twelve members who had earlier served in the garden and tank committee and were advanced in age, were assigned to the Samvatsarvariyam or annual committee,
  • Twelve to the Tottavariyam or the garden committee and
  • 6 members to the Eri-variyam or tank committee Pancha-variyam (a standing committee) and
  • Pon-variyam (gold committee) were the other two committees.
  • Variyapparumakal were the members of the committee,
  • Perunguri were the members of the Mahasabha;
  • Nyayaffar was the Judicial committee and
  • Madhyasthas, a small staff of paid servants in the village assisted the committees and maintained village records.
  • The Assembly generally met in the temple, or under a tree or near a tank

The sabha possessed proprietary rights over communal lands. Sabha also controlled private lands of the villages. It reclaimed forest and waste land. It aided in the assessment of the produce and land revenue. The body collected land revenue and had the power to sell the land in question, in cases of default. I also had the powers of taxation for purposes connected with the village and of remission of taxation for specific reasons.

Economic Life:

  • Land tax constituted the single largest source of income of the Chola state.
  • It was generally assessed at one-third of the produce. The village assembly took land tax and local levies. Cattle rearing were a subsidiary occupation.
  • Trade with foreign countries was an important feature of the Cholas mercantile activities.
  • The rulers built a network of royal roads that were useful for trade as well as for the movement of the army.
  • There were gigantic trade guilds that traded with Java and Sumatra.

South India exported textiles, spices, drugs, jewels, ivory, horn, ebony and camphor to China. Trade brought considerable prestige and affluence to the Cholas.

Kalanju was the currency prevalent in the Chola kingdom.

Social Life:

  • The caste system was the basis of the social organization under the Cholas.
  • Society was divided into a number of social groups or castes.
  • Each caste was hereditary and constituted an occupational group.
  • Bramhanas occupied a privilege position in the society.
  • They combined both religious authority and economic power. They were exempted from taxes, owned and enjoyed land with full royal support.
  • Their main duties included learning and teaching of the Vedas and performing rituals and ceremonies. Some of them served as chief priests of the temple. Some of them were more adventurous and engaged themselves in trade.
  • They were given lighter punishments in case of offences committed.
  • The almost total absence of Kshatriya institutions necessitated an alliance between sections of Brahmanas and the dominant peasantry.
  • The Nattar was the dominant peasant community, and the cultivators were the subordinate client group of the nattars.
  • The newly assimilated castes from marginal tracts were often combined in mass groupings of Idangai (left handed castes) and Valangai (right handed castes.

Rudimentary hierarchy of social groups from classical times according to the Silapadikaram were vellalar-cultivator, kovalar-cowherds and shepherds, vedar-hunters, Padaiyacciar- artisan groups and armed men and valaiyar-fishermen. Worship of deceased rulers and construction of temples as tributes to dead kings was a special feature of the Chola period.

Quick Bytes

  • The greatest Chola rulers were Rajaraja (985-1014 AD) and his son Rajendra I ( 1014-1014 AD).
  • Raja built a Saiva a temple of Rajarajeshwara at Tanjore.
  • Rajendra assumed the title of Gangaikondachola and built a city called Gangaikondacholapuram.
  • The Chola Empire was divided into Mandalams or provinces and these in turn were divided into Valanadu and Nadu.
  • The arrangement of local self-government had been regarded as the basic feature of the administration of Cholas.
  • The style of architecture which came into vogue during this period is called Dravida e.g. Kailashnath temple of Kanchipuram.
  • Another aspect was image making which reached its climax in dancing figure of Shiva called Natraja.
  • Kambama who wrote Ramavatrama was one of the greatest figures of Tamil poetry. His Ramayana is known as Kamba Ramayana.
  • Pampa, Ponna and Ranna are considered as three gems of Kannada poetry.
Kailashnath Temple

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