The history of the Cholas falls naturally into four periods: the early Cholas of the Sangam literature, the interregnum between the fall of the Sangam Cholas and the rise of the medieval Cholas under Vijayalaya (c. 848), the dynasty of Vijayalaya, and finally the Chalukya Chola dynasty of Kulothunga Chola I from the third quarter of the eleventh century.
The earliest Chola kings of whom there is tangible evidence are mentioned in the Sangam literature. Scholars now generally agree that this literature belongs to the first few centuries of the common era. The internal chronology of this literature is still far from settled, and at present a connected account of the history of the period cannot be derived. The Sangam literature is full of names of the kings and the princes, and of the poets who extolled them. Despite a rich literature that depicts the life and work of these people, these cannot be worked into connected history.
The Sangam literature is also full of legends about the mythical Chola kings. The Cholas were looked on as descended from the sun. These myths speak of the Chola king Kantaman, a supposed contemporary of the sage Agastya, whose devotion brought the Kaveri River into existence. Two names stand out prominently from among those Chola kings known from the Sangam literature: Karikala Chola and Kocengannan. There is no sure means of settling the order of succession, of fixing their relations with one another and with many other princelings of about the same period. Urayur (near Thiruchirapalli) was their oldest capital.
Interregnum or “Dark Ages”
Around 250 CE these rulers and chieftains succumbed to the onslaught of an invading horde, theKalabharas. The origin of the Kalabharas is unclear, but the absence of any reference to them in the Sangam literature suggests that they must have been newcomers to the region. During the next three centuries that the Kalabharas held sway over Tamil Nadu, we hear very little about the rulers and chieftains of Tamil region. The Pandyan and Pallava dynasties barely managed to survive.
There is no mention of the Cheras and the Cholas. The period of their ascendency has been referred to by some scholars as the “Kalabhara interregnum”or as the “Dark Age” by others. Some scholars disagree with these characterizations and point out that during the Kalabhara rule Tamil poets produced some important didactic literature which focused on ethical consciousness.
By 600 CE, Kalabhara control of the Tamil region weakened
Little is known about this transition period of around three centuries from the end of the Sangam age (c. 300) to that in which the Pandyas and Pallavas dominate the Tamil country.
What is certain is that when the power of the Cholas fell to its lowest ebb and that of the Pandyas and Pallavas rose to the north and south of them, this dynasty was compelled to seek refuge and patronage under their more successful rivals. The Pallavas and Pandyas seem to have left the Cholas alone for the most part; however, possibly out of regard for their reputation, they accepted Chola princesses in marriage and employed in their service Chola princes who were willing to accept it. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who spent several months in Kanchipuram during 639 – 640 writes about the ‘kingdom of Culi-ya’. Numerous inscriptions of Pallavas, Pandyas and Chalukya of this period mention conquering ‘the Chola country’. Despite this loss in influence and power, it is unlikely that the Cholas lost total grip of the territory around Urayur, their old capital. Vijayalaya when he rose to prominence hailed from this geographical area.
Around the 7th century, a Chola kingdom flourished in present-day Andhra Pradesh. These Telugu Cholas traced their descent to the early Sangam Cholas. However, nothing definite is known of their connection to the early Cholas. It is possible that a branch of the Tamil Cholas migrated north during the time of the Pallavas to establish a kingdom of their own, away from the dominating influences of the Pandyas and Pallavas.
While there is little reliable information on the Cholas during the period between the early Cholas and Vijayalaya dynasties, there is an abundance of materials from diverse sources on the Vijayalaya and the Chalukya Chola dynasties. A large number of stone inscriptions by the Cholas themselves and by their rival kings, Pandyas and Chalukyas, and copper-plate grants, have been instrumental in constructing the history of Cholas of that period.
Around 850, Vijayalaya rose from obscurity to take an opportunity arising out of a conflict between Pandyas and Pallavas, captured Thanjavur and eventually established the imperial line of the medieval Cholas.
The Chola dynasty was at the peak of its influence and power during the medieval period. Great kings such as Rajaraja Chola I and Rajendra Chola I occupied the throne, and through their leadership and vision took extended the Chola kingdom beyond the traditional limits of a Tamil kingdom. At its peak, the Chola Empire stretched from the island of Sri Lanka in the south to the Godavari basin in the north. The kingdoms along the east coast of India up to the river Ganges acknowledged Chola suzerainty. Chola navies invaded and conquered Srivijaya in the Malayan archipelago.
Throughout this period, the Cholas were constantly troubled by the ever-resilient Sinhalas, who attempted to overthrow the Chola occupation of Lanka, Pandya princes who tried to win independence for their traditional territories, and by the growing ambitions of the Chalukyas in the western Deccan. This period saw constant warfare between the Cholas and these antagonists. A balance of power existed between the Chalukyas and the Cholas, and there was a tacit acceptance of the Tungabhadra River as the boundary between the two empires. However, the bone of contention between these two powers was the growing Chola influence in the Vengi kingdom.
According to Tamil tradition, the old Chola country comprised the region that includes the modern-day Tiruchirapalli District, and the Thanjavur District in Tamil Nadu state. The Kaveri River and its tributaries dominate this landscape of generally flat country that gradually slopes towards the sea, unbroken by major hills or valleys. The river Kaveri, which was also known as Ponni (golden) river, had a special place in the culture of Cholas. The unfailing annual floods in the Kaveri marked an occasion for celebration, Adiperukku, in which the whole nation took part, from the king to the lowliest peasant.
Kaverippattinam on the coast near the Kaveri delta was a major port town. Ptolemy knew of this and the other port town of Nagappattinam as the most important centres of Cholas. These two cosmopolitan towns became hubs of trade and commerce and attracted many religious faiths, including Buddhism. Roman galleys found their way in to these ports. Roman coins dating from the early centuries of the common era have been found near the Kaveri delta.
The other major towns were Thanjavur, Urayur and Kudanthai. After Rajendra Chola moved his kingdom to Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Thanjavur lost prestige. The later Chola kings of the Chalukya Chola dynasty moved around their country frequently and made cities such as Chidambaram, Madurai and Kanchipuram their regional capitals.
Throughout the Chola period, the following emerge as important aspects in the governance of the dynasty.
- “Constant and endemic” wars with their neighbours. Causes for these wars were never made clear in the inscriptions but must have been motivated by expansion of territories. In those days when there were no recognized boundaries, wars were fought to expand territories, which would result in an increase in the revenue base.
- Chola kings and members of the royal family built temples as an act of piety and as a statement of royal authority. During the time span 850 to 1200, anywhere from 200 to 300 temples were erected in the Chola heartland. They were large and the sculptures in them numerous and graceful.
- Chola rulers established brahmadeya villages, granted to brahmins who enjoyed special privileges and were exempted from taxes. These grants were carved on the walls of the local temple or in copper plates.
ARCHITECTURE UNDER THE CHOLAS
The Chola kings built many temples throughout their kingdoms.
- The temples of early Cholas are found in large number in the former Pudukottai region.
These Chola temples reveal the gradual evolution of the Chola art and architecture.The Chola kings earlier built brick temples. Later they built stone temples. The first Chola ruler Vijayalaya Chola built temple at This is a stone temple. It is one of the finest examples of the early Chola temple architecture.
- Balasubramaniya temple of Kannanur in Pudukottai region and Thirukkatalai temple were built during the period of Aditya-I.
- Nageswarar temple at Kumbakonam is famous for sculptural work.
- King Parantaka I built Koranganatha temple at Srinivasanallur (Trichy District). Muvarkoil of Kodumbalur. They are good examples of the later Chola architecture and sculpture.
- Besides all these temples of the Chola period, the greatest landmark in the history of south Indian architecture is BrIhadeeswarar temple at Tanjore. This is also called as big temple. It has many architectural significance. It was built by Rajaraja I. This is the largest and tallest temple in Tamil Nadu.
- Rajendra Chola built a temple at GangaiKonda Cholapuram which is also equally famous. King Rajendra added credit to the art and architecture.
- King Kulothunga I built a temple for Sun God at Kumbakonam. This temple is first of its kind in the south Indian architecture.
- Rajaraja II built Airavatheeswarar temple at Dharasuram.
Rajaraja Chola (Arumolivarman), in the year 1009-10, completed the Brihadeeswara Temple, dedicated to ‘the Great Lord Siva’ was made to express the kings own power and military might as much as the grandeur of the lord.
The Brihadeeswara temple was made to celebrate Rajaraja’s achievements (His empire was expanded in all the directions).
- The temple is 5 times the size of previous temples and its ‘Vimana’ stands 216 feet tall.
- It’s stupi, or crowning element, weighs 80 tonnes.
- According to the inscriptions, 400 dancers were brought from 91 temples from all over the empire, to dance in the temple complex.
- In this temple, Shiva is represented on the walls in many forms such as Bhairava, Ardhanarishvara, Nataraja, Lingodbhava and Harihara.
- The temple walls also depict Saraswati, Gajalakshmi, Durga, Vishnu and Ganesha.
- What stands out is the Tripurantaka form of Lord Shiva.
- Kunjara Mallan Rajaraja Perumthachan was the architect of this temple.
- The Brihadeeshwara temple is part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site among the “Great Living Chola Temples”.
- The other two among these temples are the Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Airavatesvara temple)
- On the walls of the ambulatory path (Pradakshinapatha) around the sanctum is the portrait of King Rajaraja along with his Guru Karuvurar. This is considered to be the earliest surviving royal portrait in painting in India.
The Airavatesvara temple
The Airavatesvara temple at Tanjavur was built by the Chola king Rajaraja II (1143-1173 CE.): it is much smaller in size as compared to the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. It differs from themin itshighly ornate execution. The temple consists of a sanctum without a circumambulatory path and axial mandapas. The front mandapa known in the inscriptions as Rajagambhiran tirumandapam, is unique as it was conceptualized as a chariot with wheels. The pillars of this mandapa are highly ornate. The elevation of all the units is elegant with sculptures dominating the architecture. A number of sculptures from this temple are the masterpieces of Chola art. The labelled miniature friezes extolling the events that happened to the 63 nayanmars (Saiva saints) are noteworthy and reflect the deep roots of Saivism in this region. The construction of a separate temple for Devi, slightly later than the main temple, indicates the emergence of the Amman shrine as an essential component of the South Indian temple complex.
- Stone and metal sculptures are found in plenty in Chola temples.
- They depict the socio religious ideas of the period
- The Nataraja sculpture is world famous not only for itsbeauty but also for its spiritual meaning.
- Vishnu idol is placed in Vaishnava temples.
- A spiritual calmness is depicted in sculptural representations of Alwars.
- Realism dominated sculpture of the Chola period.
- Scenes from Ramayanam Mahabharatam, Puranas and lives of the 63 Nayanmars are sculptured in narrative panels on the walls of temples
- The Cholas excelled the Pallavas in the art of portrait making.
- The best specimens of portraits are found on the walls of Koranganatha temple and Nageswarasamy temple.
- The portraits of Cholamadevi and Kulothunga-III are there in Kalahasti temple. They are good examples of art of portrait making.
- The art of paintings flourished, Figures were painted with realism.
- The proficiency of’ the painters are seen on their paintings.
- Paintings in Big temple are good examples.
- Scenes of Periyapuranam are beautifully depicted Kailasanathar temple at Kanchipuram, Vishnu temple at Malaiyadipatti contain fine specimen of the paintings.
- Rajaraja-I and Rajendra contributed more for the development of the art of painting during the period.
- During the period the art of music was developed.
- Twenty three panns were used in music.
- The seven music alphabets sa. ri, ga, ma, pa, da, ni were used.
- The hymns of Alwars and Nayanars were sung in every temple.
- Nambiandar nambi and Nathamuni contributed much for the development of music.
- Several musicians were appointed in Brahadeeswarar temple.
- Drums, udukkai, veena, flute were famous music instruments Sagadakkottigal formed a group of musicians.
- Musicians were honored by the kings.
- Temples and mutts imparted training in vocal and instrumental music.