Ancient Indian history: The Chola Empire

(9th cent. AD - 13th cent. AD)

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The Chola Empire

The Northern Kingdoms

 

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In the ninth century, the Pallavas gave way to the Cholas. The Cholas are noteworthy as the one dynasty of India, which, if only for a while, adopted a maritime policy, expanding their power by sea, conquering Sri Lanka and the Maldive islands. The Chola Empire may be said to mark a climax in south Indian history

The empire was founded by Vijayalaya , who captured Tanjore in 850 AD. The Chola power became solidly established in the reign of Rajaraja (985 AD - 1014 AD) and his son Rajendra I (1014 AD - 1044 AD). Both these kings led ambitious conquests, overrunning the Pandya and Chera countries, conquering Sri Lanka as well as crossing the Ganges and marching across Kalinga to Bengal. The successors of Rajendra I fought constantly with the later Chalukyas over Vengi. However, by the 13th century, the Chola kingdom had exhausted its resources and was on the decline. It succumbed to an attack by the Hoysalas from the west and the Pandyas from the south. Local self-government was a remarkable feature of the Cholas administration. The revenue of the Cholas came from 'tax on land' and 'tax on trade'. Trade was carried on with west Asia, China and Southeast Asia. The high volume of trade led to the rapid development of towns from the 11th century onwards.

Society and Culture

More important than the kings and their conquests is the cultural and artistic record of those times. The temple was the cultural and social center, where people used to gather. The courtyard of the temple was often used as a school. Society was divided into Brahmans and non-Brahmans. Many of the temples in the south, even now, seem to resemble citadels where people can defend themselves, if attacked. Life revolved around the temple. As Brahmanism came into contact with firmly entrenched beliefs in the power of fertility, the Bhakti cult emerged. Shiva was worshipped in the form of a lingam (phallic) emblem. During this period, several regional languages branched off from Sanskrit. Marathi evolved from the local Prakrit, while Tamil, Telugu and Kannada stemmed from a Dravidian root, but owed much to Sanskrit.

Art and Architecture

Under the Cholas, the 'Dravida' style of temple architecture, exclusive to the south, attained its most magnificent form. An example is the Brihadiswara temple at Tanjore, built by Rajendra I. The Chola craftsmen excelled in making bronze figurines. The Nataraja, the dancing figure of Shiva, is considered a masterpiece.

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