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A tribute to the Cholas: An Introduction

A little over 10 months ago, I published a small article called The Lost History about how many Indians are unaware of the grandeur and achievements of the Chola Empire. This article can be considered as in continuum.

Of the three great dynasties[1] to have made Ancient Tamilakam[2]their home, the Cholas are arguably, the greatest. At its greatest extent under Rajendra Chola I, it stretched near to the Ganges in the north, to Sri Lanka in the south, to Indonesia in the East. The Cholas have left a great legacy in the form of their patronage to Tamil Literature, Arts as well as architecture. Today, the Great Living Chola Temples – Brihideswar, Darasuram (Airavatesvara Temple) and the Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple, are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Chola Empire at its greatest extent under Rajendra Chola I

The Cholas were the first Maritime Empire, a Thalassocracy[3], as the Greeks would say. They were able to project their wealth and might way beyond the Indian Peninsula, playing an active role in Geo-politics in the Sumatras, and even maintained diplomatic relations with China.

Rajraja Chola I was the first true ‘Emperor’ of the Cholas: He assumed the title of “Mummudi Cholan”: ‘The Chola who is the ruler [Suzerain] of all three’ after conquering the Pandyas and Cheras. After vanquishing the Chera King, Bhaskara Ravi Varman the First, he heralded it as his first military triumph. From 994 to 1003 C.E., ( he was crowned in 985 C.E.), Rajaraja Chola expanded his territory significantly, adding Sri Lanka. Subduing the Chalukyas, and then conquering Kalinga[4]. In 1010, he started building the famousBrihideshwar Temple in Thanjavur. (The Temple was the tallest building in India until 1368, when the Qutub Minar was built.) The construction would have taken immense skill and ability from the ancient Indian engineers; thevimana[5] of the temple was hoisted by elephants, who traversed on an inclined plane that spread out for 1+ kilometres. In a rather somber tribute to him vanquishing the Cheras, he built the Keralanthaka Gopura, in the entrance to the temple.

Keralanthaka Gopura, Photo: Authour

Visiting the temple is surreal. Its magnificence and majesty of the temple is certain to awe any visitor. In this grand structure, the minutest of detail is sculptured. As one can observe here:

Lord Brahma(?), Keralantahaka Gopura Photo: Authour

and here:

An Asura, Keralanthaka Gopura

The Brihideswar was built to represent the power prestige and majesty the Cholas had acquired, and represent it well it does. Even the anointment of the Chola Emperor was done at the temple.

Rajaraja Chola I was the first truly great Chola Emperor, whose contributions should not be forgotten. He was, as the poets of the time note, Rājakesarī, “A Lion of a King”. His administrative reforms and patronage of arts are cornestones of his legacy. But nothing exhibits it like the Brihideswar Temple does.

The Brihideswar Temple, a view. Photo: Authour

He died in 1014 C.E., to be succeeded by his son Rajendra Chola I(who was already co-regent from 1012 C.E.) as Emperor, who expanded the empire to even greater heights.

To be continued.

(A first part of a hopefully 3 part series: A tribute to the Cholas.)

[1] “The Three Great Warring Clans” for the purpose here are The Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas, as envisioned in Sangam Era Literature. They were the “The Three Crowned Kings”, Mūvēntar. The Common legends, myths and history these dynasties share are unique. Which results in historian classifying their histories similarly. The Satyapuras, are not included in the rendition of Sangam History, and thus I have excluded them. I have also excluded the Pallavas and the Chalukyas as well, who at some point were suzerains of Tamil Land.

[2] Ancient Tamilakam include Kerala & Tamil Nadu generally.

[3] An Empire at sea; Greeks used it to describe the Minoan civilization.

[4] Yeah. The Kalinga  of Asokan fame.

[5] The Tallest part of the Gopura/Tower

Additional Notes C.E: Common Era.


“The Ocean of Churn:How the Indian Ocean shaped Human History”, Sanjeev Sanyal, Penguin Random House, 2016

” A History of South India”, KA Nilakanta Sastri, Oxford University Press, 1975

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