A Closer Look: The Cholas

Social ScienceAncient Indian History


Not much is known about the Cholas before the beginning of the 8th century CE. It is mostly written literary sources that throw a light on the rule and kingship of the Chola rulers.

Rise of the Cholas (850-1250 CE)

Ancient Tamil literary texts composed during the Sangama period act as chief sources to know about the times and history of the Cholas. References to the Chola life and times, trade routes, towns, ports and commerce are also found in the Greek text, “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”.

Mahavamsa, which is a Buddhist canonical text written down during the 5th century CE, also talks about the rule of the Chola kings dating back to 1st century BCE.

Did You Know?

  • Sangama Literature, a body of Tamil religious work is unique in its content to south India.

  • Composed between 1st and 4th century CE, probably in Madurai it acts as an important source of history of south India.

Though the Chola rulers have ruled large tracts of land in south India from the 1st BCE, it is only the later Cholas (850-1250 CE) who gained prominence.

Later Cholas/ Imperial Cholas

The later Cholas and Chola dynasty in history are synonymous and it lasted for more than 1500 years.

Vijayalaya was the founder of the Imperial Cholas. He hailed from a family of chieftains of Uraiyur who ruled parts of Kaveri Delta. Under the reign of the Pallavas, Vijalaya soon rose to political power from the middle of 9th century CE.

He utilized the state of conflict between the Pallava and Pandya dynasties, captured Thajavur (or Thanjor) and founded the Chola Empire. Throughout the middle ages the Cholas were one of the most popular dynasties in India and flourished in art and culture, trade and commerce. They even established trade links outside India.

Cholas are known for their temple architectures and trade and commerce.

Extent of the Empire

The rulers who succeeded Vijalaya conquered the neighbouring areas and established a vast empire. The territories of the Pallava and Pandya dynasties in the north and south were also annexed by the successors of Vijayalaya.

Notable Chola Rulers

Rulers Time Period
Vijayalaya 847-871 CE
Rajaraja I 985-1015 CE
Rajendra Chola I 1014-1044 CE
Rajadhiraja Chola 1044-1052 CE

There were quite a few powerful rulers of the Chola empire, and Rajaraja Chola I was one of them.

  • Rajaraja Chola I not only consolidated the empire, but also brought about a number of unique administrative changes that are praised by historians even today. His farsightedness went a long way to help the Cholas fortify their rule in south India.
  • Rajaraja Chola was succeeded by his son, Rajendera Chola I. He further strengthened the Chola rule, and continued to implement his father’s administrative policies.
  • Rajendra Chola is known for his military prowess as he captured and annexed parts of northern Gangetic planes and even led a military expedition to Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka), parts of South-east Asia. Under his reign, the Chola navy grew up to be a formidable force.

Art & Culture, Trade & Commerce

Temple architecture, carvings on stone and pillar inscriptions flourished during the Chola period. Vijalayalaya built the town of Thanjavur and instructed construction of the beautiful temple dedicated to goddess Nishumbhasudini in Thanjor.

The huge temple complex of Thanjavur (Brihadeshwara Temple) and of Gongaikonda Cholapuram were built by Rajaraja Chola I and Rajendra Chola I, respectively. Both of them bear specimen to the high degree of artistic ability achieved during that time. The sculptural carvings on the walls of these temples are regarded as artistic marvels by the Art historians.

Did You Know?

  • Brihadeshwara Temple is one of the largest Hindu Temples of India

  • Built by Rajaraja I in 1010 CE.

  • Currently, it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

  • The temple is also popularly called Rajarajeshwaram temple.

  • The temple is highly regarded for the use of perfect and symmetrical shapes of square and rectangle while building it.

Did You Know?

  • Gongaikonda Cholapuram was the capital city of Chola emperor Rajendra Chola I.

  • It was the city built to celebrate the victory of Rajendera Chola I over the Pala kingdom.

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Chola Temples & Settlements

Settlements grew up lining these temples. These temples were often tied to a patch of farming land. Those who lived in around these temples depended on them for their living and livelihood. Be it the priests and their families, the artisans and craftsmen who helped and worked in the construction of the temple. Others who directly depended on the land associated with the temple would involve garland markers, cooks, sweepers, musicians, dancers etc.

Thus, during the Chola period, temples were not only sacred places of worship but were also important administrative and economic centres. Needless to say as the temples saw a confluence of people from diverse background with varied areas of interest, temples during the Chola period were also at the heart of cultural lives of people during that time.

Chola Sculptures

Chola Sculptures Artists during the Chola period not only left behind marvellous temple architectural specimen but they also showcased their refined artistic abilities through metal sculptures. Metal sculpture, especially those engraved on bronze became an artistic highlight of the Chola period. Bronze images during this period were highly regarded across the world. These sculptures were mostly of deities and rulers.

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Q1: Around the banks of which river did the Chola Empire come into existence?

Ans: Chola Empire came into existence on the banks of river Kaveri in south India.

Q2: Which was the seat of power during the Chola period?

Ans: Thanavur or Thanjor was the main seat of power during the Chola period.

Q3: Which two dynasties lost their power due to the rise of the Cholas?

Ans: Weakness of the Pallava and Pandya dynasties led to the rise of the Chola empire in South India during the second half of 9th century.

Q4: Name any two powerful Chola rulers.

Ans: Rajaraja Chola I and his son and successor Rajendra Chola were two of the powerful rulers of the Chola dynasty.

Q5: What become an important socio-cultural hub during the Chola period?

Ans: Temples during Chola period were not only important as they bore testament to the level of artistic ability achieved during that time. It was also an important seat of socio-cultural activities as agrarian lands were tied to each temple and human settlement grew up encircling these. The settlements involved people from different professions like priests, sculptors, cook, sweepers, musicians etc.

Updated on 13-Oct-2022 11:19:47