Medieval India

The Chola Empire

(From the ninth to twelfth century)

The Chola empire which arose in the ninth century brought under its control a large part of the peninsula. The Cholas developed a powerful navy which; enabled them to develop India’s sea-trade, in the Indian Ocean and to conquer Sri Lanka and the Maldives Islands. Their Influence was felt even in the countries of South-East Asia may be said to mark a climax in south Indian history.

The Rise of the Chola Empire  

The founder of the Chola empire was Vijayalaya, who was at first a feudatory of the Pallavas. He captured Tanjore in 850By the end of the 9th century, the Cholas had defeated both the Pallavas of Kanchi and weakened the Pandyas, bringing the southern Tamil country (Tondamandala) under their control. But the Cholas were hard put to defend their position against the Rashtrakutas. As we have noted in a previous chapter, Krishna III defeated Chola king and annexed the northern part of the Chola empire. This was a serious setback to the Cholas, but they rapidly recovered, particularly after the death of Krishna III in 965 and the downfall of the Rashtrakuta empire.

Age of Rajaraja and Rajendra I

The greatest Choia rulers were Rajaraja (985-1014) and his son Rajendra I (1014-1044) Rajaraja had been appointed heir apparent in his father’s life-time and had extensive experience of administration and warfare before his accession to the throne. Rajaraja destroyed the Chera navy at. Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) and attacked Quilon (Kollam). He then Conquered Madurai and captured the Pandyan king. He also invaded Sri Lanka and annexed its northern part to his empire. These moves were partly motivated by his desire to bring the trade with the South-East Asian countries under his control. The Coromandal coast and Malabar were the centres for India’s trade with the countries of South-East Asia. One of his naval exploits was the conquest of the Maldies Islands.

Rajaraja annexed the north- western parts of the Ganga kingdom in north-west Karnataka and overran the Vengi. Rajendra I carried forward the expansionist policy of Rajaraja fay completely overrunning the Pandya and Chera countries and including them in his empire. The conquest of Sri Lanka was also completed, with the crown and royal insignia of the king and the queen of Sri Lanka being captured in a battle. Sri Lanka was not able to free herself from the Chola control for another 50 years.

Rajaraja and Rajendra I marked their victories by erecting a number of Siva and Vishnu temples at various places. The most famous of these was the Rajarajeshwara temple at Tanjore which was completed in 1010. The Chola rulers adopted the practice of having long inscriptions written on the walls of these temples, giving a historical narrative of their victories. That is why we know a great deal more about the Cholas than their predecessors.

One of the most remarkable exploits in the reign of Rajendra 1 was the march across Kalinga to Bengal in which the Chola armies crossed the Ganga and defeated two local kings. This expedition, which was led by a Chola general, took place in 1022 and followed the same route which the great conqueror Samudragupta had followed. To commemorate this occasion, Rajendra 1 assumed the title of Gangaikondachclapuram (or the Chola conqueror of Ganga) He built the new capital near the mouth of the Kaveri and called it Gangaikondacholapuram (or the city of the Chola conqueror of the Ganga rulers).

An even more remarkable exploit in the time of Rajendra I was the naval expedition against the revived Sri Vijaya empire. The Sri Vijaya empire, which had been revived in the 10th century, extended over the Malay peninsula, Sumatra, Java and the neighbouring islands and controlled the overseas trade route to China. The rulers of the Sailendra dynasty were Buddhists and had cordial relations with the Cholas. The Sailendra ruler had built a Buddhist monastery at Nagapatam and, at his instance, Rajendra I had endowed a village for its upkeep. The cause of the breach between the two apparently was the Chola eagerness to remove obstacles to Indian traders and to expand Chola trade with China. The expeditions led to the conquest of Kadaram or Kedah and a number of other places in the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. The Chola navy was the strongest in the area for some time and the Bay of Bengal was converted into a Chola lake.

The Chola rulers also sent a number of embassies to China. These were partly diplomatic and partly commercial. Chola embassies reached China in 1016 and 1033A Chola embassy of 70 merchants reached China in 1077 and, according to a Chinese account, received “81, 800 strings of copper-cash that is, more than four lakhs of rupees in return for the articles of tribute comprising “glassware, camphor, brocades, rhinoceros horns, ivory, etc. Tribute was the word used by the Chinese for all articles brought for trade.

The Chola rulers fought constantly with the Chalukyas who had succeeded the Rashtrakutas. These are called the later Chalukyas and their capital was at Kalyani. The Cholas and the later Chalukyas clashed for the overlordship of Vengi (Rayalseema) the Tungabhadra doab and the Ganga ruled country in north-west Karnataka. Neither side was able to gain a decisive victory in this contest nor ultimately it exhausted both the empires. If also appears that the wars were becoming harsher during this time. The Chola rulers sacked and plundered Chalukyan cities including Kalyani and massacred the people, including brahmanas and children. They adopted a similar policy in the Pandya country, settling military colonies to overawe the population. They destroyed Anuradhapur, the ancient capital of the rulers of Sri Lanka and treated their king and queen harshly. These are blots in the history of the Chola empire. However, once they had conquered a country, the Cholas tried to set up a sound system of administration in it. One of the remarkable features of the Chola administration was their encouragement to local self-government in the villages all over their empire.

The Chola empire continued in a flourishing condition during the twelfth century. But it declined during the early part of the thirteenth century. The later Chalukyan empire in the Maharashtra area had also come to an end during the twelfth century. The place of the Cholas was taken by the Pandyas and the Hoysalas in the south and of the later Ghalukyas by the Yadavas and the Kakatiyas. These states extended patronage to arts and architecture.

Unfortunately, they weakened themselves by continually fighting agaiqst each other, sacking the towns and not even sparing the temples. Ultimately they were destroyed by the Sultans of Delhi in the beginning of the fourteenth century.

Chola Government

The king was the most important person in the Chola administration. All authority rested in his hands, hut he had a council of ministers to advise him. The kings often went on tours in order to keep better touch with the administration. The Cholas maintained a large army consisting of elephants cavalry and infantry which were called the three limbs of the army. The infantry was generally armed with spears. Most of the kings had body-guards who were sworn to defend the kings even at the cost of their lives. The Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, who visited Kerala in the thirteenth century, says that all the soldiers in the bodyguard burnt themselves. In the funeral pyre of the monarch when he died  a statement which may well be an exaggeration. The Cholas also had a strong navy, as we have seen, which dominated the Malabar and Coromandal coast and for some time, the entire Bay of Bengal.

The Chola empire was divided into mandalams or provinces and these, in turn, were divided into valanadu and nadu. Sometimes, princes of the royal family were appointed governors of provinces. officials were generally paid by giving them assignments of revenue bearing lands.

The Chola rulers built a network of royal roads which were useful for trade as well as for the movement of the army. Trade and commerce flourished in the Chola empire and there were some gigantic trade guilds which traded with Java and Sumatra.

The Cholas also paid attention to irrigation. The river Kaveri and other rivers were used for the purpose. Many tanks for irrigation were built. Some of the Chola rulers carried out an elaborate survey of land in order to fix the government’s share of the land revenue. We do not know what precisely the goveruncit’s sliare was.

In addition to land tax, the Chola rulers drew their income from tolls on trade, taxes on professions and also from the plunder of the neighbouring territories. The Chola rulers were wealthy and could afford to build a number of towns and magnificent monuments including temples.

We have already referred to local self-government in the villages in some areas in the Rashtrakuta empire. We know more about village government in the Chola empire from a number of inscriptions. We hear of two assemblies, called the ur and the sabha or mahasabha. The ur was a general assembly of the village. However, we know more about the working of the mahasabha. This was a gathering of the adult men in the brahmana villages which were called agraharas. These were villages settled by the brahmanas in which most of the land was rentfree. These villages enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. The affairs of the village were managed by an executive committee to which educated persons owning property were elected either by -drawing lots or by rotation. These members had to retire every three years. There were other committees for helping in the assessment and collection of land revenue for maintenance of law and order, justice, etc. One of the important committees was the tank committee, which looked after the distribution of water to the fields. The mahasabha could settle new lands and exercise ownership rights over them. It could also raise loans for the village and levy taxes.

The self-government enjoyed by these Chola villages was a, very fine system. To some extent this system worked in the other villages as well. However, the growth of local intermediaries tended to restrict their autonomy.

Cultural Life  

The extent and resources of the Chola empire enabled the rulers to build great capitals, such as Tanjore, Gangaikondacholapuram, Kanchi, etc. The rulers maintained large households and large palaces with banquet halls, spacious gardens and terraces. Thus, we learn of seven or five-storeyed houses for their chiefs. Unfortunately none of the palaces of the period have survived. The Chola capital

Gangaikondacholapuram is now just a small village, near Tanjor. However, descriptions of the magnificent palaces of the rulers and their ministers and of equally magnificent houses in which the wealthy merchants lives, are to be found in the literature of the period.

Temple architecture in the south attained its climax under the Cholas. The style of architecture which came into vogue daring this period is called Dravida, because it was confined largely to south India. The main feature of this style was the building of storey upon storeyabove the chief deity-room (garbhagriha). The number of storeys varied from five to seven and they had a typical style which came to be called the virnana. A pillared hall called mandap, with elaborately carved pillars and a flat roof, was generally placed in front of the sanctum. It acted as an audience hall and was a place for various other activities such as ceremonial dances which were performed by the devadasis  the women dedicated to the service of the gods. Sometimes, a passage used to be added around the sanctum so that the devotees could go round it. Images of many other gods could be put in this passage. This entire structure was enclosed in a courtyard surrounded by high walls, which were pierced by lofty gates called gopurams. In course of time, the vimanas rose higher and higher, the number of courtyards was increased to two or three and the gopurams also became more and more elaborate. Thus, the temple became a miniature city or a palace, with living- rooms for priests and many others being provided in it. The temples generally enjoyed revenue-free grants of lands of their expenses. They also received grants and rich donations from the wealthy merchants. Some of the temples became so rich that they entered business, lent money and took part in business enterprises. They also spent money on improving cultivation, digging wells, tanks etc and providing irrigation channels so that agriculture expanded.

An early example of the Dravida style of temple architecture is the eighth century temple of Kailasanatha at Kanchipuram. One of the finest and most elaborate examples of the style is, however, provided by the Brihadiswara temple at Tanjore built by Rajaraja I. This is also called the Rajaraja temple because the Cholas were in the habit of installing images of kings and queens in the temples, in addition to the deity. The temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, though in a dilapidated condition, is another fine example of temple architecture under the Cholas. A large number of temples were, also built at other places in south India. However, it may be well to remember that the proceeds fot some of these activities were obtained from the plunder of the population of the neighbouring areas by the Chola rulers.

After the fall of the Cholas, temple building activity continued under the Chalukyas of Kalyani and the Hoysalas. The district of Dharwar and the Hoysala capital, Halebid, had a large number of temples. The most magnificent of these is the Hoysaleswara. It is the best example of what is called the Chalukyan style. Apart from the images of gods and their attendants, both men and women (yaksha and yakshini) the temples contain finely sculptured panels which show a busy panorama of life, including dance, music and scenes of war and love. Thus life was closely integrated with religion. For the common man, the temple was not merely a place for worship but the hub of social and cultural life as well.

The art of sculpture attained a high standard in south India during this period. One example of this was the giant statue of Gomateswar at Sravanabelgola. Another aspect was image- making which reached its climax in the dancing figure of the Shiva called nataraja. The nataraja figures of this period, particularly those in bronze, are considered masterpieces. Many fine examples of this are to be found in museums in India and outside.

The rulers of the various dynasties also patronised arts and letters during this period. While Sanskrit was regarded as the language of high culture and a number of kings as well as scholars and court poets wrote in it, a remarkable feature of the period was the growth of literature in the language of the areas. A number of popular saints called nayanars and alvars who were devotees of Shiva and Vishnu flourished in the Tamil area between the sixth and ninth centuries. They composed their works in Tamil and other languages of the area. The writings of these saints, which were collected into eleven volumes under the name Tinimurais in the early part of the twelfth century, are considered sacred and are looked upon as the fifth Veda, the age of Kamban who is placed in the second half of the eleventh and the early part of the twelfth century is regarded as a golden age in Tamil literature. Ramayana is considered a classic in Tamil literature. Kamban is believed to have lived at the court of a Chola king. Many, others took their themes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, thus bringing these classics nearer to the people.

Though younger than Tamil Kannada also became a literary language during this period. The Rashtrakuta, the Chalukya and the Hoysala rulers patronised Kannada as well as Telugu. The Rashtrakuta king, Amoghavarsha, wrote a book on poetics in Kannada. Many Jain scholars also contributed to the growth of Kannada. Pampa, Pohna and Ranha are regarded as the three gems of Kannada poetry. Although they were under the influence of Jainism, they also wrote on themes taken from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Nanniah, who lived at the court of a Chalukyan king began the Telugu version of the Mahabharata.

The work begun by him was completed in the thirteenth century by Tikkanna. Like the Tamil Ramayana, the Telugu Mahabharata is a classic which inspired many subsequent writers. Many folk or popular themes are also to be found in these literatures. Popular themes which were not derived from Sanskrit and which reflect popular sentiments and emotions are called desi or rural in Telugu.

We can, thus, see that the period from the eighth to the twelfth century was not only remarkable for political integration in- south India but also for cultural development. Trade and commerce also flourished during this period and agriculture expanded, making it one of the great periods in the history of south India.

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