History of the mighty Chola empire
Nobody exactly knows when Cholas’ took power in southern India. But the Chola dynasty is believed to have been established by the third century BCE, as there are mentions about them in the mighty Ashoka’s stelae. Interestingly, they outlasted the great Mauryan empire of Ashoka and continued to rule until 1279 CE- for over 1,500 years.
Ruling for more than 1,500 years, Cholas are definitely one of the longest-running families in human history, if not the longest!
The Chola empire was located in the Kaveri river valley covering Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and the southern Deccan Plateau. During their golden age, Cholas exercised power over southern India, Sri Lanka and also the Maldives. They had trade relations with the Srivijaya empire, the modern day Indonesia. The Chola empire shared diplomatic relations with China’s Song dynasty as well (960-1279 CE).
The origin of the Chola dynasty is not clearly mentioned in history. But they are mentioned in the early Tamil literature and also in one of the Pillars of Ashoka (273-232 CE). There are remarks about them in historic Greek and Roman books as well. However, the ruling family came from the Tamil ethnic group.
By 300 CE, the Pallava and Pandya kingdoms had strong influence in Tamil heartlands. Cholas had to serve as sub-rulers under the new powers. But they still had their importance in the region, the women from the Chola dynasty were often married into the Pallava and Pandya families.
Medieval Chola Period
Around 850 CE, war broke out between Pallava and Pandya kingdoms. Cholas made the most of this opportunity, king Vijayalaya captured the city of Thanjavur (Tanjore). He declared it as the new capital of the Chola empire. The event marked the beginning of the medieval Chola period, when they were at the peak of their powers.
Aditya I (King Vijayalaya’s son) defeated the powerful Pandyan kingdom in 885 and reigned over the Pallava kingdom in 897 CE. During his son’s rule, the Cholas extended their powers to Sri Lanka (925 CE). By 985 CE, the Cholas held power in the whole of Tamil-speaking regions of Southern India. The following Kings Rajaraja Chola I and Rajendra Chola I extended the empire further with their exploits.
During Rajaraja Chola’s rule, the Chola empire had started becoming a multi-ethnic trading colossus. The empire expanded into the Kalinga region (north eastern India). The navy force of the Cholas went on a rampage in the Maldives and the Malabar coast. The regions were key points in the Indian Ocean trade route.
By 1044, Rajendra Chola had conquered the rulers of Bihar and Bengal, expanding further north, pushing the borders to the Gangers river (Ganga). Cholas had gained control over coastal Myanmar, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Indonesia and Malay peninsula, making it the first Indian based maritime empire. The Chola empire flourished under Rajendra exacting tributes from even Siam (now Thailand) and Cambodia. It was not just all about gaining power and overhauling power, the Cholas facilitated a fair bit of exchange of cultural and art forms between Indochina and the Indian mainland.
The Chola reign was never without challenges. Throughout the medieval period, the Chalukyas who ruled over the western Deccan Plateau constantly challenged their dominance in the region and waged wars with them to gain power. Failing in their attempts to defeat the Cholas, the Chalukya empire finally collapsed in 1190. But, it was time for the sun to set on the Chola empire as well!
The ancient rivalry between the Cholas and Pandyas had continued unabated. Between 1150 and 1279, the Pandya family gathered their army and launched several struggles for Independence. Eventually Cholas under Rajendra III were defeated by the Pandyas in 1279 and perished for good!
The Chola empire had played a pivotal role in the Tamil legacy. Their rule marked the golden age of Tamil literature and poetry. The architectural marvels of the period include the majestic Thanjavur temple and amazing artworks in the form of some graceful bronze sculptures. In the bigger picture, these art and cultural entities became an essential part of the Southeast Asian artistic lexicon, influencing religious art and literature of several regions, ranging from Cambodia to Java.
The Chola empire goes down in history as yet another kingdom which has left an everlasting impression/influence over the region and the people it ruled over. In Tamil Nadu, where the Cholas ruled for the longest period of time, the heroics of the Chola kings and warriors are very much part of the local folklore and imbibes the essential spirit of Tamil Nadu!
Check your knowledge