The Chola Empire (Administration, Society, Commerce, Art, Architecture & Philosophy)

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THE CHOLA EMPIRE

The Cholas: The decline of the Pallavas in the 9th century  created  a political vacuum which was filled by the Cholas.

  • Vijayalaya Chola (846-907 AD): He was a vassal of the Pallavas. He captured Tanjore from the Pandyas and made it the capital of the Cholas.

  • Aditya  I (871-907 AD): Extended the work of Vijayalaya by occupying the territories from the Pallavas.

  • Parantaka Chola I (907-955 AD): Was the first imperial Chola. He defeated the Pandyans and Shrilankans initially but was later defeated by the Rashtrakuta king Krishna III. This loss undermined the glory of the Cholas and they entered a dark phase of thirty years from 955 AD – 985 AD.

Raja Raja Chola I (907-1014 AD): Orchestrated the resurgence of the Cholas. He defeated the Pandyans and the Cheras. In 993 AD when Cheras sought support from the Sri Lankan rulers, the Cholas captured the northern portion of Sri Lanka and the capital-Anuradhapura was captured and they also raided another capital Polonnaruwa. Northern Sri Lanka was organized in the form of a province. Raja Raja Chola is also said to have captured the Laccadive islands and Maldives Islands. He also captured a few territories in Mysore from the Gangas and from the Chalukyas of Kalyani, although he maintained friendly relations with Chalukyas of Vengi.

  • Raja Raja I developed the naval strength of the Cholas

  • He re-organised the administrative system

  • In 1000 Ad he began the conduction of a land survey

  • He adopted the practice of inscribing the historical inscriptions

  • He began the practice of associating Yuvaraja or crown Prince with the administration

  • Raja Raja I being a patron of Shaivism constructed the great Raja Rajeshwar temple (Also called as the Brihadeeswarar temple) at Tanjore.

Rajendra I (1014-44 AD): is considered as the greatest Chola ruler. He completed the conquest of Sri Lanka  in 1017 AD and captured the whole of Sri Lanka and made it a part of Chola empire. He suppressed the rebellions of a captured portion of the Krishna Tungabhadra doab. He maintained friendly relations with Chalukyas of Vengi. He launched on expedition to Orissa and maintained matrimonial relations with the Ganga dynasty of Orissa. He then reached Bengal upto Ganga river in 1022 AD and defeated dynasty of Orissa. He then reached Bengal Ganga river in 1022 AD and defeated the Pala ruler of Bengal, Mahipala Rajendra I then assumed the tittle of Gangaikonda and founded a capital by the name Gangaikondacholapuram on the mouths of the Gangaikondacholapuram. His expedition to Bengal along the east coast was undertaken to establish Chola domination over the bay of Bengal that it was called the Chola lake. He had a well organized naval fleet with which he launched an 100 years naval war with Sailendra rulers of Sumatra. He sent two embassies to China for Promoting trade and commerce.

Chola Administration


King:  was the most important person in the Chola administration. All authority rested in his hands. He often went on tours in order to keep better touch with the administration . The king was aided and advised by a council of ministers who held office at the pleasure of the king. There was a fully developed secretariat to oversee the functioning of Central administration.

Military Administration: The Cholas maintained a large army consisting of infantry, cavalry and elephants which were called the three limbs of the army. The venetian traveler Marco Polo says that all the bodyguards of the king burnt themselves in the funeral pyre of the dead king.

Revenue Administration: The Cholas paid attention to irrigation and used river such as Kaveri for this purpose. Raja Raja I conducted a land survey during his time in order to fix the governments’ share of land revenue. In addition to land tax, income was derived from tolls on trade, taxes on professionals and also from plunder of the neighbouring  territories.

Provincial  Administration: The Chola empire was divided into 9 provinces called mandalam, each under a governor called Mandala mudalis who were paid salary in the form of lands. They were required to maintain an army out of the resources and maintain peace in their respective territories.

 District Administration: The provinces were in turn divided into divided districts called Nadus which were about 500 in number and were run by an autonomous assembly called Nattar.

Local Administration: There were two types of villages at the local in the Chola empire. One type of village consisted of people from different caste and the assembly which ran this type of village was called ‘ur’. The second type of village was ‘agrahara’ types of village which were settled by Brahmins in which most of the land was rent-free. The assembly of this agrahara type of village was a gathering of the adult men in brahmana villages called ‘Sabha’ or ‘mahasabha’. These villages enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. The affairs of the village were managed by an executive committees to which educated person owning property were elected by drawing lots or by rotation. These members had to retire every three years. These members had to retire every three years. There were other committees for helping in the assessment and collection of land revenue for the maintenance of law and order, justice etc. One of the important Committee 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 the Chola villages was a very fine system. However, the growth of feudalism tended to restrict their autonomy.

Chola Society


  • Four fold varna system was absent.

  • Brahmins had many privileges and were exempted from taxation and had control over religious and economics power.
    Chola emperors linked themselves to solar and lunar dynasties and claimed Kshatriya status and called themselves as Brahmakshatriyas.
    Trading communities claimed Vaishya Status and called themselves as kamati, Vanijiya, Chettiar.

  • Rest of the society was divided into Sat Sudras (higher) and asat sudras (lower). Sat sudras or higher sudras were consisting of classes like Kaikkolas who were weavers and collected taxes on behalf of temple and also Saliyas who were also weavers and prepared clothes for the royal family. Vellalas who were the dominant peasantry also came under Sat Sudras.

  • Asat sudras (lower sudras) comprised of paraiyans and chaklians. Untouchability was prevalent in chola Society. Slavery was prevalent in Chola society and slaves were imported. The position of women was a mixed one with the queens called as devis and were respected and honoured, on the other hand devadasi system prevailed and ganikas (prostitutes) also existed in the society.

  • The Chola society was marked by constant tensions between the Brahmins and Vellalas between the higher castes and untouchables, between the kaikkolas and Sollyas between Velangai (rights Handers) and Idangai (Left handers), between Mudali (land owners) and Adimai (slaves) and between Sharivites and Vaishnavites as is evident by the persecution of the vaishnavite Ramanuja by Chola ruler Kulottunga I.

Trade and Commerce


Trade and commerce flourished under the patronage of Chola emperors. The Cholas developed links all over south India. They then brought Srilanka, South- East Asia and even China under the network of trade. There are references to 72 nagarams and many trade guilds. Most important of these were manigramam, Ayyavolu-500 (Five hundred Lords of Aihole) also called as Ainnuruvar, Nanadesi, Vira Valanjiyar, Vira Balanju and Anjuvannan. Mahablipuram were also known as nagarattars. Trading organisations formed fortified settlements called Erivirpattinams on trunk roads and were protected by army cantonments called Nilaippadai.

Mostly barter system was employed in trade and commerce where even paddy was used as a unit of exchanges of gold coins such as pon, kasu, kalanju were used. Also, silver coins were used.

Some Chola emperors sent embassies to Indonesia, Cambodia and China. The temples in Chola period, apart from religious activity were also centers of development of arts and crafts. Many stone cutters, weavers, potters, oil makers, bronze workers lived in temple complexes. Temples became centers of exchange of commodities. Temples also collected taxes from craftsmen, traders and peasants. Temple received land donations from kings and offerings from religious followers.

Chola Art


Music: Cholas contributed to the growth of both vocal and instrumental music. Instruments such as Kudamula, Vina, Flute were used. Devadasis were expert musicians and singers.

Dance: Bharatanatyam acquired its basis from under Chola patronage based on rules of Bharatamuni in Natyasastra, a book on dance.

Drama: Various plays were enacted in the premises of the temples for the temples for the saka of entertainment of the people.

Paintings: Paintings on the themes of Puranas were painted on the inner walls of the Raja Rajeswara temples and gangaikondacholapuram temple and Nataraja temple at Chidambaram. A painting believed to be that of Marco Polo is in the Raj Raja temple (Brihadeeswarar temple) at Tanjore. Lord Shiva in cosmic dance from with celestial dancers is also found on the walls of Gangaikondacholapuram temple.

Sculpture: Bronze images of Nataraja (the dancing Shiva) are described as the cultural epitome of Chola period and are the best specimen of Chola art.

Chola Architecture


Chief features of Chola architecture are:

(i) Dravidian feature initiated by the Pallavas acquired the classical forms and features under the Cholas such as gopurams, mandapams and  Vimanas.

(ii) In the beginning, gopuram features was subdued and vimana features dominated but in the later stages, gopurams overshadowed the Vimanas.

(iii) In the beginning, Vimanas were constructed in the cellular mode as in the Raja Rajeshwar temple (Brihadeewarar temple) at Tanjore where in the Vimana, various storeys were constructed in a graded manner. It had 13 storeys. In the later phase, vimanas began to be constructed in circular concept as in the Nataraj temple at Chidambaram.

(iv) The Brihadeeswarar temple at Tanjore is surrounded by a rectangular wall protected by 8 vimanas which hosed the 8 keepers of directions called Ashtadikpalas. The temple is dedicate to lord Shiva and is known as Dakshimeruvitankar. An enormous Nandi which is the second largest in India, carved out of a single block of granite guards the entrance of the sanctuary. The Brihadeeswarar temple at Tanjore is the Tallest of all the temples in India in the medieval period.

(v) Various public works as cities, roads, irrigation works and artificial tanks were constructed. Rajendra Chola I constructed a city, a water tank and a temple with the same name of Gangaikondacholapuram temple.

Cholas: Religion and Philosophy


(1) With the rise of devotional cults such as Shaivite and Vaishnavite cults from the 6th to 9th centuries A.D Buddhism practically disappeared from tamil country, but Jainism managed to survive.

(2) The Chola ruler were patrons of Shaivism. Raja Raja I assumed the tittle of Shivapada Shekhara and built the Raja Rajeswara temple. (Brihadeeswarar temple) at Tanjore and dedicated it to Lord Shiva.

In the Chola period , Suddashaiva order appeared and the Vellala community supported this order. Kapalikas and Kalamukhas which were shaivaite orders also influenced the people.

(3) The Chola rulers such as Kulottunga I resented Ramunuja who was a Vaishnavite Saint who propounded the concept of Vishistadvaita. Ramanuja was though, successful in broadening the social base of the Vaishnavite Cults.

Literature in the Chola Period


(1) Though Sanskrit was patronized by the Chola emperor, there were non significant original works in the Chola period. Most Sanskrit works were commentaries on older works.
(2) The language from dravidian root such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada started drawing from Sanskrit and began evolving further.
(3) Much work was done in Tamil where Kambana translated the Ramayana from Sanskrit and Began evolving further.
(4) Jayangondar composed Kalingattuparani which is an account of Kulottunga-I’s kalinga war in detail.
(5) Sekkilar composed his famous periya Puranam (Tiruttondar Puranam) during the times of Kulottunga II.
(6) Pugalendi wrote Nalavenba (the tragic story of Nala and Damyanti)


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