Cholas – Ancient History Notes

Introduction to the Chola Dynasty

The Chola dynasty was one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the history of South India, with a rule that lasted from the 9th to the 13th century CE. The Chola dynasty emerged in a region that is now modern-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala and left a lasting impact on the history and culture of South India.

Cholas Dynasty

Early Cholas:
– Poompuhar
– Urayur
– Tiruvarur
Medieval Cholas:
– Pazhaiyaarai
– Thanjavur
– Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Capitals in Chola Dynasty
King and Emperor
First KingVijayalaya Chola (848-871)
Last KingRajendra Chola III (1246-1279)
First King and Last King in Chola Dynasty
Historical EraMiddle Ages
Established300s BCE
Rise of the medieval Cholas848 CE
Empire at its greatest extent1030 CE
Disestablished1279 CE
Time Period of Chola Dynasty

Sources for Chola Dynasty

  • The primary sources for the study of Chola history consist of more than 10,000 inscriptions engraved on copper and stone.
  • These inscriptions mainly document the endowments and donations made by rulers and individuals to temples, and they also contain information about land transactions and taxes, including both collections and exemptions.
  • In addition to stone inscriptions, royal orders and other important details can be found in copper plates.
  • These documents also provide information on genealogy, wars, conquests, administrative divisions, local governance, land rights, and various taxes that were levied during the Chola period.
  • Literary sources also offer insight into the sociocultural features of this time, as Tamil literature flourished during the Chola period. The rise of bhakti saints and the compilation of hymns are examples of this literary development. Notably, the epic works of Muvarula and Kamba Ramayanam were written during this period.
  • One of the most significant inscriptions is the Uttarameruru Inscription, issued by Pranthaka Chola, which provides details about the election process for local self-governance bodies.

Geographical and Historical Background

The Chola dynasty emerged in a region that is now known as the Coromandel Coast, which extends from the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh to the Kaveri River in Tamil Nadu. The region has a long history of seafaring, trade, and agriculture, which contributed to the prosperity of the Chola kingdom.

The Chola kingdom was situated in a region that was historically known for its political and cultural significance. The region witnessed the rise and fall of several dynasties, such as the Pallavas, the Cheras, and the Pandyas, before the emergence of the Chola dynasty. The Cholas rose to power at a time when the Pallava dynasty was declining, and they were able to establish their rule in the region.

Origin of Cholas

  • After the Sangam Age, historical records indicate that the Cholas remained subordinate to the Pallavas in the Kaveri region.
  • However, the Cholas began to regain power and influence with the conquest of the Kaveri delta from Muttaraiyar by Vijayalaya in 850-871 CE.
  • Vijayalaya founded the Chola kingdom and established the city of Thanjavur, leading historians to refer to the Cholas as the Later Cholas or Imperial Cholas.
  • According to copper plate documents, the Cholas trace their ancestry back to Karikala, the most famous Chola ruler of the Sangam Age. The progenitor of their lineage was a king named ‘Chola,’ as noted in their genealogy, which also mentions members of the line such as Killi, Kochenganan, and Karikalan.
  • From Parantaka I (907–955) to Kulothunga III (1163–1216), Vijayalaya’s successors brought glory and fame to the Cholas. Parantaka Chola expanded the territory and broadened the base of governance, setting the tone for territorial expansion.
  • Rajaraja I (985–1014) and his son Rajendra I (1014–1044) further consolidated the Chola power, establishing their hegemony in peninsular India through military conquests and naval operations, including the construction of the magnificent Brihadishvara temple at Thanjavur.

Chola Administration

  • In the Chola government, the king held supreme authority, serving as the head of the administration with all powers concentrated in his hands.
  • The form of governance in the Chola dynasty was that of a hereditary monarchy, with the rule of primogeniture being generally followed.
  • Typically, the king would appoint his Yuvaraja, or heir, during his reign.
  • The Chola rulers adopted grandiose titles, such as Gangaikondacholapuram.
  • The royal household was managed on a grand scale.
  • The royal priest, Rajguru, became a trusted advisor to the royal family.
  • The king was aided by a council of ministers who offered advice on important matters.
  • The king issued verbal orders (tiruvakya-kelvi), which were recorded by the private secretary, confirmed by the Olainayamak (Chief Secretary), and dispatched by the Vidaiyadhikari (dispatch clerk).
  • The government was run by a complex bureaucracy with a tendency to form a separate class in society.
  • The officials were divided into two categories: Perundaram (higher officials) and Sirutaram (lower officials).
  • The government used Peruvalis (trunk roads) to facilitate royal tours.
  • The general trend was to make the officials’ positions hereditary.
  • The officials were compensated with land assignments called Jivitas based on their status.

Cholas Revenue Administration

  • The Cholas had a well-organized land revenue department known as puravu-varitinaik-katam.
  • Land revenue was collected in cash or kind, and the land was owned by individuals and communities.
  • Under Rajaraja, the state demanded 1/3rd of the gross produce as land revenue, known as kadamai or kudimai.
  • Taxes were imposed on professions, mines, forests, salt-pans, and other sources of income.
  • Kulottung I abolished tolls.
  • Unpaid labor was frequently employed for various tasks.

Cholas Military Administration

  • Infantry, cavalry, and elephants formed the three limbs of the great army, known as Mun-rukai-Mahasenai.
  • The Kaikkolas were soldiers armed with strong weapons, and the Sengundar were armed with spears.
  • The Velaikkarars were the most dependable troops in the royal service and served as the bodyguards of the monarch, ready to defend him with their lives.
  • Training and infrastructure:
    • Attention was given to the training of the army to ensure their readiness for battle.
    • Cantonments, known as Kadagams or padaividu, existed to provide military accommodations.
    • The Cholas also paid special attention to their navy.

Cholas Village Administration

  • The Chola Empire was divided into mandalams or provinces, which were further divided into valanadus (divisions), nadus (districts), and kurrams (villages).
  • Village was the basic unit of administration.
  • Villages were mainly of three types: intercaste population villages, Brahmadeya or agrahara villages, and Devadana villages.
    • Intercaste population villages: land was held by all classes of people and paid taxes to the king in the form of land revenue.
    • Brahmadeya or agrahara villages: granted to the Brahmins and entirely inhabited by them. They were exempted from tax and were prosperous.
    • Devadana villages: granted to god, and the revenues from these villages were donated to a temple. Gained more popularity during the Chola period.
  • Remarkable autonomy at the village level. Chola officials participated in village administration more as observers than as administrators.
  • Three assemblies called the ur, sabha or mahasabha, and nagaram:
    • Ur: a general assembly of the village, open to all male adults but dominated by the older members. Consisted of all the tax-paying residents of an ordinary village. The Alunganattar was the executive committee and the ruling group of the ur.
    • Sabha: an exclusively Brahmin assembly of the brahmadeya villages. Had more complex machinery, which functioned largely through its committees called the variyams.
    • Nagaram: an assembly of merchants found more commonly in trading centers.
  • The sabha possessed proprietary rights over communal lands. It also controlled private lands of the villages.
  • It reclaimed forest and waste land, aided in the assessment of the produce and land revenue, collected land revenue, and had the power to sell the land in question, in cases of default.
  • Two additional committees were Pancha-variyam (a standing committee) and Pon-variyam (gold committee).
  • Variyapparumakal were the members of the committee, Perunguri were the members of the Mahasabha, Nyayaffar was the Judicial committee, and Madhyasthas were a small staff of paid servants in the village who assisted the committees and maintained village records.
  • The Assembly generally met in the temple, or under a tree, or near a tank.

Cholas Economic Life

  • Land tax and local levies:
    • Land tax was the single largest source of income for the Chola state.
    • It was generally assessed at one-third of the produce.
    • The village assembly took land tax and local levies.
    • Cattle rearing was a subsidiary occupation.
  • Trade and commerce:
    • Trade with foreign countries was an important feature of Cholas’ mercantile activities.
    • The rulers built a network of royal roads for trade and army movement.
    • Gigantic trade guilds traded with Java and Sumatra.
    • South India exported textiles, spices, drugs, jewels, ivory, horn, ebony and camphor to China.
    • Trade brought considerable prestige and affluence to the Cholas.
    • Kalanju was the currency prevalent in the Chola kingdom.


  • The Chola society was based on the caste system, which divided people into different social groups.
  • Each caste was hereditary and had a specific occupational role.
  • Brahmanas held a privileged position in society, as they had religious authority and economic power.
  • They were exempt from taxes, owned land, and enjoyed royal support.
  • Brahmanas were responsible for learning and teaching the Vedas, performing rituals and ceremonies, and serving as chief priests of the temple.
  • Some of them engaged in trade and received lighter punishments for offences.
  • The absence of Kshatriya institutions led to an alliance between brahmanas and the dominant peasant community of Nattars.
  • The cultivators were the subordinate client group of the Nattars.
  • Newly assimilated castes were combined into mass groupings of Idangai and Valangai.
  • The social hierarchy according to the Silapadikaram consisted of Vellalars (cultivators), Kovalars (cowherds and shepherds), Vedars (hunters), Padaiyacciar (artisan groups and armed men), and Valaiyars (fishermen).
  • The Chola period had a special feature of worshiping deceased rulers and constructing temples as tributes to dead kings.

Foreign Trade

  • The Cholas were known for their excellence in foreign trade and maritime activity
    • They extended their influence overseas to China and Southeast Asia
    • Southern India had developed extensive maritime and commercial activity by the end of the 9th century
    • The south Indian guilds, such as the Manigramam and Ayyavole, played a major role in interregional and overseas trade
      • The Chola court encouraged the expansion of Tamil merchant associations into Southeast Asia and China
      • The Cholas, with possession of parts of both the west and east coasts of peninsular India, were at the forefront of these ventures
    • The Tang dynasty of China, the Srivijaya empire under the Sailendras, and the Abbasid Kalifat at Baghdad were the main trading partners
  • The emergence of a world market was partly credited to the Chola dynasty
    • They played a significant role in linking the markets of China to the rest of the world
    • The market structure and economic policies of the Chola dynasty were more conducive to a large-scale, cross-regional market trade than those enacted by the Chinese Song Dynasty
    • A Chola record gives their rationale for engagement in foreign trade: “Make the merchants of distant foreign countries who import elephants and good horses attach to yourself by providing them with villages and decent dwellings in the city, by affording them daily audience, presents and allowing them profits. Then those articles will never go to your enemies.”
  • Song dynasty reports record that an embassy from Chulian (Chola) reached the Chinese court in 1077
    • The king of the Chulian at the time, Kulothunga I, was called Ti-hua-kia-lo
    • This embassy was a trading venture and was highly profitable to the visitors, who returned with copper coins in exchange for articles of tribute, including glass and spices
    • The motive behind Rajendra’s expedition to Srivijaya was probably the protection of the merchants’ interests.

Cultural Contributions

  • The Cholas brought about a cultural renaissance in Tamil country, excelling in art, religion, music, and literature, building on the earlier movements under the Pallavas.
  • Monumental architecture in the form of temples and sculpture reached unprecedented levels of finesse.
  • The Cholas’ conquest of Kadaram and Srivijaya, and their commercial contacts with China, enabled them to influence the local cultures in Southeast Asia.
  • The Hindu cultural influence found throughout Southeast Asia owes much to the legacy of the Cholas.
  • The temple complex at Prambanan in Indonesia shows similarities with South Indian architecture.
  • The rulers of the Malacca sultanate claimed to be descendants of the Chola Empire kings.
  • Chola rule is still remembered in Malaysia today through the names of many princes, such as Raja Chulan, the Raja of Perak

Cholas Art & Architecture

  • The Cholas continued the temple-building traditions of the Pallava dynasty and contributed significantly to the Dravidian temple design.
  • The Cholas built a number of Shiva temples along the banks of the river Kaveri.
  • Aditya I and Parantaka formulated the template for these and future temples.
  • Chola temple architecture has been appreciated for its magnificence and delicate workmanship, following the traditions of the Pallava Dynasty.
  • The addition of a huge gateway called gopuram to the enclosure of the temple characterised the Dravidian architecture in later times.
  • The Chola school of art also spread to Southeast Asia and influenced the architecture and art of Southeast Asia.
  • Rajaraja Chola and his son Rajendra Chola I gave great impetus to temple building.
  • The maturity and grandeur of Chola architecture found expression in the temples of Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram.
  • The magnificent Shiva temple of Thanjavur is the largest and tallest of all Indian temples of its time and is a fitting memorial to the material achievements of the time of Rajaraja.
  • The temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram at Gangaikondacholapuram, created by Rajendra Chola, was intended to excel its predecessor and attests to the more affluent state of the Chola Empire under Rajendra.
  • The Brihadisvara Temple, the temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram, and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram were declared as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO and are referred to as the Great living Chola temples.
  • The Chola period is also remarkable for its sculptures and bronzes.
  • Many fine figures of Shiva, Vishnu, and his consort Lakshmi, and the Shaivite saints can be seen in museums around the world and in the temples of South India.
  • The sculptors worked with great freedom in the 11th and the 12th centuries to achieve a classic grace and grandeur.
  • The best example of this can be seen in the form of Nataraja the Divine Dancer.

Cholas Literature

  • The Imperial Chola era was the golden age of Tamil culture, marked by the importance of literature.
  • Chola records cite many works, including the Rajarajesvara Natakam, Viranukkaviyam and Kannivana Puranam.
  • The revival of Hinduism from its nadir during the Kalabhras spurred the construction of numerous temples and these in turn generated Shaiva and Vaishnava devotional literature.
  • Jain and Buddhist authors flourished as well, although in fewer numbers than in previous centuries.
  • Jivaka-chintamani by Tirutakkatevar and Sulamani by Tolamoli are among notable works by non-Hindu authors.
  • The grammarian Buddhamitra wrote a text on Tamil grammar called Virasoliyam.
  • Commentaries were written on the great text Tolkāppiyam which deals with grammar but which also mentions ethics of warfare.
  • Periapuranam was another remarkable literary piece of this period.
  • Kamban flourished during the reign of Kulothunga Chola III.
    • His Ramavataram (also referred to as Kambaramayanam) is an epic of Tamil literature.
  • Jayamkondar’s masterpiece, Kalingattuparani, is an example of narrative poetry that draws a clear boundary between history and fictitious conventions.
  • The Tamil poet Ottakuttan wrote Kulothunga Cholan Ula, a poem extolling the virtues of the Chola king.
  • Nannul is a Chola era work on Tamil grammar.
  • The period was in particular significant for the development of Telugu literature under the patronage of the rulers.
    • It was the age in which the great Telugu poets Tikkana, Ketana, Marana and Somana enriched the literature with their contributions.
    • Tikkana Somayaji wrote Nirvachanottara Ramayanamu and Andhra Mahabharatamu.
    • Abhinava Dandi Ketana wrote Dasakumaracharitramu, Vijnaneswaramu and Andhra Bhashabhushanamu.
    • Marana wrote Markandeya Purana in Telugu.
    • Somana wrote Basava Purana.
    • Tikkana is one of the kavitrayam who translated Mahabharata into Telugu language.
  • The arrangement of the Shaivite canon into eleven books was the work of Nambi Andar Nambi, who lived close to the end of the 10th century.
  • However, relatively few Vaishnavite works were composed during the Later Chola period, possibly because of the rulers’ apparent animosity towards them.

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