Chola dynasty
January 16, 2022

History of India’s Chola Empire:

By Nilakhi Banerjee

Nobody knows exactly when the first Chola kings took power in the southern point of India, but 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 until 1279 CE—more than 1,500 years.

The Cholas ruled for more than 1,500 years, making them 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).

Early Documentation of the Chola Kingdom

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 into the Pallava and Pandya families.

Beginning of the Medieval Chola Period

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.

Expansion of Chola Territory

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.

Collapse of the Chola Empire

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.


Chola art saw culmination of dravida temple art resulting in most sophisticated buildings

Cholas followed the architectural style of the Pallavas deducting essential features of Pallavas such as lion motifs, for tigers, adding greater refinement etc. and were mostly involved in the construction of temples (Dravidian Style)

They used material of stone instead of bricks due to its greater durability. Neatly detailed frescos including birds, dancing figurines and other also pictorial stories from Puranas. Some temples have potraits of the Kings and queens themselves.

The temples had a Garbhaghriha(Deity room); Vimana(Brihadeshwara Temple); Shikhara(Stone weighing 90 tonne); Mandap. Metal Art(Nataraja at Chidamabaram Temple) Lofty Gates

Dvarpalas at the entrance of the mandap became a unique feature

Temples were covered with exquisite well composed. Sculptures and frescoes

Ganas are the most memorable figures were built during the chola period

Yazhi a recurring pattern of the sclupted mythical animals were also a unique features

Examples include Brihadeswara , Vijayalaya temples

Presence of water tank is the unique feature of chola architecture.

Brihadeswara temple:

The Grand Temple of Tanjavur, known as Rajarajisvaram and Brihadishvarar Temple, stands as an outstanding example of Chola architecture, painting, sculpture and iconography.

Built by RajaRaja Chola

It has shadowless vimana

The sanctum with a vimana of. 190 feet is capped with a stone weighing. 80 tons

The fgures of Lakshmi, Vishnu, Ardhanarisvara and Bikshadana, a mendicant form of Siva, on the outer walls of the sanctum are some unique features.

The fresco paintings and the miniature sculptures of the scenes from also puranas and epics in the temple walls reveal the religious ideology of the Chola rulers.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram: In commemoration of his victory in North India, Rajendra I built GangaikondChozhapuram on the model of Brihadisvarar temple

Darasuram Temple : Darasuram Temple,built by Rajaraja II(1146–1172), is another testimony of Chola architecture.

Chola bronze sculptures:

The cire-perdu or ‘lost-wax’ process for casting was learnt as long ago as the Indus Valley Culture.

Along with it was discovered the process of making alloy of metals by mixing copper, zinc and tin which is called bronze.

The bronze casting technique and making of bronze images of traditional icons reached a high stage of development in South India during the medieval period.

Chola bronzes are the most sought-after collectors’ items by art lovers all over the world.

The well-known dancing figure of Shiva as Nataraja was evolved and fully developed during the Chola Period and since then many variations of this complex bronze image have been modelled.

A wide range of Shiva iconography was evolved in the Thanjavur (Tanjore) region of Tamil Nadu. The ninth century kalyanasundara murti is highly remarkable for the manner in which Panigrahana (ceremony of marriage) is represented by two separate statuettes.

Shiva with his extended right hand accepts Parvati’s (the bride’s) right hand, who is depicted with a bashful expression and taking a step forward.

The union of Shiva and Parvati is very ingeniously represented in the Ardhanarisvara Murti (in fig) in a single image.

Beautiful independent figurines of Parvati have also been modelled, standing in graceful tribhanga posture.