Chola Empire

As per the traditions, the Chola Country or Cholamandalam was along the Coromandel Coast in the fertile valley of Cauvery river. Its most ancient capital was Uraiyur in Tamil Nadu. This was one of the longest lasting dynasties of South India {circa 300 BC to 13th century}. This 1500 years period has been divided into four parts viz. early Cholas, dark Period, medieval Cholas and later Cholas.

Brief Political History of Imperial Cholas

Not much authentic information about Early Cholas is available except that they had ruled between circa 200 BC and 200 AD. Ashoka inscriptions note Cholas as southern neighbour of Maurya Empire. The only notable early Chola king is Karikala Chola, who ruled around 170AD. He fought and won the Battle of Venni and established himself as a firm power in South. He is also known to have built the Kallanai Dam, which is one of earliest anicuts in world.

From third century AD to 9th century, the Chola history is obscure. During these centuries, Chola hegemony was lost and their country was under Kalabhras. Kalabhras were non-Tamil speaking rulers who patronized Buddhism and Jainism. They were probably remnants of Satavahanas whose demise led them to create a niche somewhere in south India. They were finally drove out by Pallavas. Thus, in most part of this period, the Chola territories remained under Kalabhras, Pandyas and Chalukyas. Chola, Pandyas and Chalukyas kept fighting with each other for dominance.

In 848 AD, a Pallava feudatory Vijayalaya Chola re-established the Chola rule by capturing Thanjavur from Pandyas. He renovated the capital and built the Someshwara capital at Padukottai. His son Aditya Chola-I won over Pallavas and further strengthened the empire. The Chola empire was further extended by his son Parantaka Chola who reigned for almost half century between 907 to 955 AD. In the beginning of his career, he attacked and captured Madurai from Pandyas and assumed title Madurakonda. He also defeated a combined army of Pallavas and Ceylon and thus assumed another title Maduraiyum Elamum Konda Parakesarivarman (The conqueror of Madura and Ceylon).

The successors of Parantaka Chola were insignificant. Between 955 AD and 985 AD, the Chola country was ruled by five different princes. Finally, Chola empire was again on path of expansion when Rajaraja Chola-I ascended the throne in 985 AD. By the time he died in 1014 AD, his territories included whole of modern Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, parts of Andhra Pradesh, parts of Odisha, whole of Kerala and Sri Lanka. He built the Rajrajeshwaram temple (also known as Brihadeeswarar Temple or Peruvudaiyar Kovil) at Thanjaur. This temple dedicated to Shiva is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He also endowed a Burmese Buddhist Temple called Chudamani Vihara at Nagapattam Port. This temple survived till 19th century before it was destroyed and replaced by Jesuit priests with a Church in 1867.

The powerful standing army and great navy of Rajaraja Chola-I achieved even greater success under next ruler Rajendra Chola-I who ruled from 1014 AD to 1044 AD. He captured Ceylon, defeated Western Chalukyan king Jayasimha-II in battle of Maski, defeated Pala King Mahipala, defeated Kalinga, Gangas etc and assumed the title Gangakonda. His naval forces subdued the Srivijaya Kingdom (Modern Sumatra) and many other south east Asian kingdoms and colonies. He maintained good diplomatic and trade relations with contemporary Song dynasty of China.

To commemorate his victory over Palas he built the Gangaikonda Cholapuram as his new capital. This capital served all the later Cholas until it was ransacked by the Pandyas. Today, a temple stands there as architectural marvel of the Cholas and is a UNESCO world heritage site. At the time of death of Rajendra Chola-I, the Chola Empire was the widest in the word and naval prestige was highest.

The benevolent imperialism of the Cholas was maintained by his successor Rajadhiraja Chola till 1059 when he was killed in the Battle of Koppam with western Chalukya King Someshwara-I over control of Vengi. His brother Rajendra Chola-II crowned himself as next Chola monarch in the battlefield itself and reactivated the Chola army to fight with Chalukyas. He was able to defeat Someshwara-I.

In 1063, Rajendra Chola-II was succeeded by Virarajendra Chola, who subdued the Chalukyas and made them his tributaries. After this, the Chola Empire started declining. His successor Athiranjendra Chola could reign only for few months and was killed in a civil unrest. This ended the imperial Chola dynasty. The next line of later Cholas was basically a fresh blood arising out of Chola-Chalukya marital alliances.

Chola Administration

Cholas have left an elaborate set of information on their administration.

The King and his Officers

The Chola administration was highly organised and efficient with King at the apex. King discharged his duties with the help of an immediate group of ministers and other high officers called Udankuttam. They represented all the major departments of administration and advised the King on disposal of his business.

The Cholas had an elaborate and complex bureaucracy comprising officials of various grades. The officers, who tended to form a separate class in the society, were organized in two ranks viz. upper perundanam and lower sirudanam.  The higher officers were known with title of adigarigal, while officers of all ranks were usually referred to by the general titles of Karumigal and panimakkal. They were usually remunerated by assignments of land (jivitas) suited to their position. Titles of honour and shares in booty taken in war formed other rewards of public service.

Provincial Administration

The empire was divided into principalities (under vassal chiefs) and mandalams (provinces under viceroys who were mostly royal princes) with further division of the provinces into valanadus (divisions), nadus (districts) and Kurrams (villages).

Town and Village Administration

There was autonomous administration for town and townships, known as tankurrams. Town autonomy was quite similar to village autonomy and both were administered by assemblies.

Revenue Administrations

A well organised department of land revenue, known as the Puravu varitinaikalam, was in existence. All cultivable land was held in one of the three broad classes of tenure which may be distinguished as peasant proprietorship (vellanvagai), service tenure, and tenure resulting from charitable gifts. The first type was the ordinary ryotwari village of modern times, having direct relations with the government and paying a land tax liable to revision from time to time.

All land was carefully surveyed and classified into tax-paying and non-taxable lands. In every village and town, the residential part of the village (or nattam), temples, tanks, channels, passing through the village, the outcastes hamlet (paracheri), artisans’ quarters (Kummanachcheri) and the burning ground (Sudugadu) were exempt from all taxes. In its turn, taxable land was classified into different grades according to its natural fertility and the crops raised on it. Besides land revenue there were tolls in transit, taxes on profession and houses, dues levied on ceremonial occasions like marriage, and judicial fines.

Military Administration

The soliders of the Cholas generally consisted of two types-the Kaikkolar who were royal troops receiving regular pay from the treasury; and the nattuppadai who were the militia men employed only for local defence. The Kaikkolar comprised infantry, cavalry, elephant corps and navy. The Cholas paid special attention to their navy. Within the Kaikkolar, the Velaikkarars were the most dependable troops in the royal service ready to defend the king and his cause with their lives. Attention was given to the training of the army and cantonments called kadagams.

Chola Self Government

The most important feature of the Chola administration lies in the running of autonomous institutions. There was a great deal of local self-government in the villages in the Chola Empire. Each village had its own general assembly which administered control over all the affairs of the village and was free from the control of the Central Government. It enjoyed all powers regarding the village administration. There were two types of institutions working at village level.


Ur was the general assembly of the village. The Ur consisted of all the taxpaying residents of an ordinary village. The Alunganattar was the executive committee and the ruling group of the Ur. The Ur was open to all the adult men but was dominated by the older member of the village. The members of the executive committee of ‘Ur’ were called ‘Shashak Gana’ or ‘Ganam’. Exact number of the committee members or the procedure adopted for their election is not known.


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 rent free. Sabha managed most of its affairs by an executive committee called variyam to which educated persons owning property were elected. Reporters appointed by the sabha were called Variyar. Generally, Variyar was assigned some or other special task. Sabha could settle new lands, and executive ownership rights over them. It could also raise loans for the village and levy taxes.

Villages were divided among sheries, roads and blocks. Each shery constituted a community. Shery was assigned many tasks for the welfare of the village Each shery had its representation in the managing committee of the village.

Chola hegemony over seas: Analysis

In the early medieval period, the maritime commerce of India was adversely affected by two significant developments. One was the replacement of the Abbasid Empire of Baghdad by Fatimids of Egypt. This severed the trade links between ports of Persian Gulf and ports of western India, which were controlled by Rastrakuta. However, under Fatimids, the trade with Red Sea ports provided greater incentive to the merchants of the far south of India. Thus, the Kerala coasts progressed at the cost of Karnataka coasts. The expansionist policy of Chola King Rajaraja-I over Ceylon, Maldives and Chera territories was part of the ongoing efforts to ensure that the merchants were not disadvantaged.

Another challenge came from the commercial opening of the China under the Song dynasty. In those times, China was ahead of other parts of world in terms of manufacturing items {as it stands today} and needed huge imports of raw material from India. The trade of Indian merchants depended on will of the rulers of Sri Vijaya (Sumatra Islands, current Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore) because they controlled the Malacca strait which was an important international shipping lane in those times also. The strait shortened the time gap between China and southern parts of India.

The Sri Vijaya rulers wanted to increase their share in profits from Chola-China trade. The decided that all the ships coming from India would need to terminate their journey in the strait and their middlemen would trans-ship the goods for respective destination. This idea miffed the merchant organizations in Chola state and thus King Rajaraja-I decided to use his substantial naval force to punish Sri Vijaya. Thus, it’s quite apparent that there was no imperial motive behind attack on Sri Vijaya. The campaign was solely for safeguarding the shipping lane for Chola’s merchant fleet to China by royal protection.

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