• The history of medieval south India has its separate space in the study of political, social, and economic realms of the society. The history of medieval India in north is marred by extreme turmoil due to rising and falling empires. But the history of medieval south is relatively stable.
  • The Tamil country was ruled by three dynasties namely the Chera, Chola and Pandyas during the Sangam Age.
  • The political history of these dynasties can be traced from the literary references like Sangam literature, the records of Greek authors like Megasthenes, Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy, Ashokan inscriptions which mention the Chera, Chola and Pandya rulers on the south of the Mauryan empire, Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela of Kalinga.

Chola Dynasty

  • After the end of the Gupta dynasty a little after the fifth Century AD, a process of political fragmentation started in the whole subcontinent. Feudatories and subjugated powers took the opportunity to become independent which led to emergence of small kingdoms. Rise of small Kingdoms increased rivalry and competition to gain political supremacy.
  • By 9th Century AD the Pallavas of Kanchi, Chalukyas of Badami and the Pandyas of Madurai emerged to be the three major states. This phase after the Guptas saw far more expansion of the agrarian economy. We also notice the march of triumphant Brahmanism with the beginning of the construction of stone temples for Shiva and Vishnu in Tamil Nadu under Pallavas and in Karnataka under Chalukyas of Badami.
Later Cholas
  • After the end of the Sangam era, the Cholas became feudatories in Uraiyur. They again came into prominence in the 9th Century AD when they established an empire in South India. Tanjore became the capital of Chola Kingdom.
  • Cholas extended their dominance in Sri Lanka and Malay Peninsula. These Cholas colonized the South East Asian Countries and had the most powerful army and navy of the world at that time.
Chola dynasty

Important Rulers of Chola Dynasty

Vijayalaya Chola (848- 871 AD)

  • Vijayalaya Chola was the founder of the Imperial Chola empire. He ruled over the region to the north of the river Kaveri. Vijayalaya took advantage of fight between the Pandyas and Pallavas and rose into prominence by capturing Thanjavur and the surrounding regions from the Elango Muttaraiyars, who was the final ruler of mutharaiyar dynasty.
  • After capturing Tanjavur, Vijayalaya built a temple of Goddess Nishumbhasudini (Durga). He also undertook the renovation of the city of Thanjavur.
  • Shortly after Vijayalaya’s capture of Thanjavur, the Pandyan king Varagunavarman II and Pallava King Nandivarman III joined hands to reduce the growing prowess of Chola power under Vijayalaya.
  • Vijayalaya Chola, a veteran of many battles, was getting old and thus handed the control of the army to the crown prince Aditya I. Soon, Aditya I succeeded his father as the emperor after his death in 871 AD.
  • Narttamalai, Pudukkottai has a solesvara temple attributed to vijayalaya.

Rajaraja Chola I (985 – 1014 AD)

  • Rajaraja Chola I, born as Arulmozhi Varman, was one of the greatest emperors of the Chola Empire who ruled between 985 and 1014 AD.
  • In his reign, the Cholas expanded beyond South India stretching from Kalinga in the north to Sri Lanka in the south. Rajaraja I possessed a strong army and a considerable navy. He fought many battles with the Chalukyas in the north and the Pandyas in the south.
  • He followed the Shaivism school of Hinduism but was tolerant towards other faiths. In 1010, Raja Raja built the Brihadesvara temple in Thanjavur dedicated to Lord Shiva. He also helped in the construction of a Buddhist monastery at Nagapattinam.
  • Rajaraja I was involved in many successful military conquests during his reign. The extent of the Chola Empire under Rajaraja I included the Pandya, Chera and the Tondaimandalam regions of Tamil Nadu, the Gangavadi, Nolambapadi and northern part of Ceylon. Rajaraja’s last military achievement was a naval expedition against the Maldives Islands.
  • Rajaraja Chola I died in 1014 AD and was succeeded by his son Rajendra Chola, who was declared as the crown prince in 1012 AD.
  • The powerful standing army and a great navy organized under Rajaraja Chola-I achieved even greater heights under Rajendra Chola.

Rajendra Chola-I (1014- 44 AD)

  • Rajendra Chola is considered as one of the greatest rulers and military generals of South India. He succeeded his father Rajaraja Chola I in 1014 AD.
  • Rajendra had demonstrated his military leadership skills during his father’s reign. After becoming the ruler, he continued his father’s policy of aggressive conquests and expansion.
  • Apart from reaching northwards to river Ganga and moving overseas to Maldives and Sri Lanka, he also invaded the Southeast Asian territories of Srivijaya in Malaysia, Indonesia and southern Thailand making the Chola empire one of the most powerful empires of India.
  • His important conquests are as under :
    • When Mahinda V, the King of Sri Lanka attempted to recover the northern part of Sri Lanka from the Cholas, Rajendra defeated him and seized even the southern Sri Lanka, thus taking control of the whole of Sri Lanka.
    • He reasserted the Chola authority over the Chera and Pandya countries.
    • He defeated Jayasimha II, the Western Chalukya king and consequently, river Tungabadhra was recognized as the boundary between the Cholas and the Chalukyas.
    • His most significant military expedition was of North India. The Chola army crossed the Ganges by defeating a number of rulers on its way. Rajendra defeated Mahipala I of Bengal. To commemorate this successful north-lndian campaign, Rajendra founded the city of Gangaikondacholapuram and constructed the famous Rameshwaram temple in the city. He also excavated a large irrigation tank called Cholagangam on the western side of the city.
    • Another famous venture of Rajendra was his naval expedition to Kadaram or Srivijaya. It is difficult to pin point the real objective of the expedition. The naval expedition was a complete success as the Chola forces occupied a lot of places. But it was only temporary and no permanent annexation of these places was contemplated. He assumed the title Kadaramkondan.
  • Like his father, Rajendra I also followed Shaivism. He built a temple for Lord Shiva at the new capital Gangaikonda Cholapuram and made liberal endowments to this temple and to the Lord Nataraja temple located in Chidambaram.
    • Rajendra I was tolerant towards other religions and sects including the Vaishnava and Buddhist sects.
  • He established many educational institutes in his empire, for this he got the title Pandita chola.
  • After the death of Rajendra I, his three successors were also killed in short time.

Kulathunga Chola I

  • Kulathunga Chola I, grandson of Rajendra chola preserved the legacy of Imperial Cholas.
  • He aboilished many taxes and got the title sungam tavirtta.
  • He sent trade embassys to China
  • He united the Vengi kingdom with the Chola Empire.
  • He was contemporary to Ramanujacharya.

Rajendra III

  • Rajendra III was the last Chola king who was defeated by Jatavarman Sundarapandya II
  • On the ruins of Chola empire Pandya and Hoysala kingdom came into existence.


  • The system of governance under Cholas was monarchical. Besides Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Thanjavur, Madurai and Kanchipuram acted as regional capitals under Rajendra I where occasional courts were held.
  • The King was supreme with absolute authority and issued oral commands to officers as and when needed. As there was no formal legislative process, the fairness of the King’s order depended on his intuition, morality and belief.


  • The Chola kingship was hereditary in nature. King was centre of all the power in which all the decision making power was vested, though he was aided and advised by the council of ministers on different matters.
  • Chola Empire was divided into provincial, district and local administration. There was elaborate administrative machinery comprising various officials called Perundanam and Sirudanam.

Provincial Administration

  • The Chola Empire was divided into mandalams and each mandalam into valanadus and nadus. In each nadu there were a number of autonomous villages.
  • The royal princes or officers were in charge of mandalams. The valanadu was under Periyanattar and nadu under Nattar. The town was known as Nagaram and it was under the administration of a council called Nagarattar.

Village Assemblies

  • The system of village autonomy with sabhas and their committees developed through the ages and reached its culmination during the Chola rule.
  • Two inscriptions belonging to the period of Parantaka I found at Uttaramerur provide details of the formation and functions of village councils. The local administration was vested in village. Village administration was quite powerful and had the power to collect revenue.
  • Basically there was two type of villages.
    • The first type was called ur. This type of village was consisted of people from different caste.
    • The second type of village was called agrahara. In this type only the caste Brahmins were settled. Most of the land in agrahara was tax free.
  • The affairs of the village were managed by executive committees. In this committee only educated person owning property were elected by drawing lots or by rotation. 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 well thought out system.


  • The Cholas maintained a regular standing army, of which the King was the supreme commander. The military consisted of elephants, cavalry, infantry and navy.
  • The Chola army was spread throughout the country and was stationed in local garrisons or military camps called as Kodagams. Many war elephants were present in Chola army as they played a vital role in wars.
  • The Chola army used weapons such as bows, swords, spears, javelins, and shields which were made up of steel.
  • About seventy regiments were mentioned in the inscriptions of which the royal troops were called as Kaikkolaperumpadai. The royal troops had personal troops, named Velaikkarar to defend the King.
  • The Cholas paid special attention to their navy, which played a prominent role in the expansion of Chola Empire. The naval achievements of the Tamils reached its peak under the Cholas as they controlled the Malabar and Coromandal coast.


  • The revenue department, called as puravuvarithinaikkalam, was well established. All lands were surveyed in detail and classified for assessment of revenue. The residential land and temple lands were exempted from taxes. The tax rates were fixed depending on the fertility of the soil and the status of the land.
  • Besides land revenue, there were tolls and customs on goods moved from one place to another, different kinds of professional taxes, judicial fines and dues levied on ceremonial functions and occasions like marriages.
  • Various units of the land measurement are kuli, ma, veli, patti, padagam, etc.
  • The main government expenditures were the expenses on the King and his court, maintenance of army and navy and construction of roads, irrigation tanks and canals.


  • Cholas were followers of Hinduism. They built many temples and offered generous endowments to these temples. Both Shaivism and Vaishnavism continued to flourish during the Chola period.
  • A number of temples were built with the patronage of Chola kings and queens. The temples remained centres of economic activity during this period. The mathas had great influence during this period.
  • In addition to number of temples built during this time, Buddhist monasteries like Chudamani vihara at Nagapattinam were also constructed.
  • However, despite the presence of different religions, there were no major incidences of violence in the name of god or religion.


  • The main source of income for the Chola Empire was revenue from land and trade tax. Agriculture remained the principal occupation for the people.
  • Uraiyur, the capital city of the early Chola rulers, was a famous cotton textiles centre from where cotton clothes were exported to foreign countries.
  • The Chola Kings took great interest in development of weaving industry as weaving earned great amount of revenue for the Chola Kingdom. Silk weaving attained a high degree during the Chola rule. Kanchipuram developed into a major silk city and became famous for its high quality silk weaving. High degree of excellence made the jewellery and the metal industries prominent.
  • The traders organized themselves into guilds. The best known of these guilds where the Manigramam and Ayyavole guilds through other guilds such as Anjuvannam and Valanjiyar were also in existence.
  • The manufacture of sea-salt was carried on under government supervision and control.


  • As caste system was widely practiced Kshatriyas enjoyed special privileges in the society. The inscriptions of the Chola period classified castes into Valangai and Idangai castes. Despite the division, there was cooperation among various castes and sub castes in socio-religious life of Chola people.
  • The position of women, however, did not improve. Sati, a custom in which a widow immolates herself on her husband’s death, was practiced in the royal families. The practice of Devadasi system or dancing girls attached to temples started during this period.
  • Farmers occupied one of the highest positions in society as agriculture remained the principal occupation for majority of the people. Reclamation of forest lands and the construction and maintenance of irrigation tanks fuelled the agricultural prosperity.
  • Trade and commerce prospered with improvements of roads or peruvazhis and merchant guilds. The weaving industry, particularly the silk-weaving at Kanchi flourished. During the Chola rule, weavers started to organize themselves into guilds and were able to establish their own residential colonies in towns.
  • There were also local organisations of merchants called ‘Nagaram’ in big centres of trade like Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram.
  • The metal works also developed owing to great demand of images for temples and utensils. Gold, silver and copper coins were issued in plenty at various denominations.
  • Commercial contacts between the Chola Empire and China, Sumatra, Java and Arabia were extensively prevalent. Arabian horses were imported in large numbers to strengthen the cavalry.


  • The development of Tamil literature reached its apex during the Chola period.
    • The Ramayana composed by Kamban and the Periyapuranam or Tiruttondar Puranam by Sekkilar are the two master-pieces of this age.
    • Ottakuttan wrote Kulothunga Cholan Ula, a poem extolling the virtues of the Chola king.
    • Kalingattupparani, written by JayamKondar describes the Kalinga war fought by Chola King Kulottunga I. The grammarian Buddhamitra wrote a text on Tamil grammar called Virasoliyam.
    • Jivakachintamani by Tirutakkatevar and Sulamani by Tolamoli are a few notable works by non-Hindu authors.
    • Nannul, a Chola era work on Tamil grammar, discussed all five branches of grammar. It is still considered relevant today and is one of the most distinguished normative grammars of Tamil literature.
  • The Chola Kings took great interest in establishing educational institutions around the temples.
    • The inscription at Ennayiram provides significant details about the colleges that existed in these places. In addition to Vedas and Epics, subjects like mathematics and medicine were also taught in these institutions. Endowments of lands were made to run these institutions.
    • Virarajendra, a Chola King maintained a school in the Jananamandapa within the temple for the study of the Vedas, Shastras, grammar, and Rupavatara. The students were also provided hostels with provision of food.
  • Kamban flourished during the reign of Kulothunga Chola-lll. It was the age in which the great telugu poets Tikkana, Ketana, Marana and Somana enriched the literature with their contribution.

Art and Architecture

  • The Cholas made a significant contribution in the development of Dravidian style of art and architecture. They built enormous temples and were appreciated for their magnificent temple architecture as well as delicate workmanship. A famous historian, James Fergusson, once commented, “the Chola artists conceived like giants and finished like jewelers”.
  • Temple building received great momentum from the conquests of Rajaraja Chola and his son Rajendra Chola I. A new development in Chola art that characterised the Dravidian architecture in later times was the addition of a huge gateway called gopuram to the enclosure of the temple.
    • The Brihadesvara temple at Thanjavur, built by Rajaraja I is an excellent demonstration of South Indian art and architecture.
      • It consists of the vimana, ardhamandapa, mahamandapa and a large pavilion in the front known as the Nandimandapa.
    • The Shiva temple at Gangaikondacholapuram built by Rajendra I, and Darasuram Temple built by Rajaraja II, is another noteworthy contribution by the Cholas.
    • The Airavathesvara temple at Darasuram in Thanjavur district and the Kampaharesvara temple at Tribhuvanam are examples of later Chola temples.
  • The Cholas also made notable contributions to the art of Sculptures made up of bronze. The walls of the Chola temples at Tanjore and Gangaikondacholapuram contain numerous icons of large size with exceptional execution. The bronze statue of Nataraja or dancing Siva was an absolute gem.
  • The Chola paintings were also found on the walls of Narthamalai and Thanjavur temples.
Chola bronze sculptures

Importance of Dynasty

  • The Cholas support in the development of Tamil literature and their passion for temple architecture has resulted in many excellent works in the field of Tamil literature and temple architecture.
  • The Chola rulers envisaged temples not only as the place of worship but also as a centre of economic and educational activities. The Chola school of art spread to south-east Asia and influenced their art and architecture.
Chola inscriptions mention several categories of land
VellanvagaiLand of non-Brahmana peasant proprietors
BrahmadeyaLand gifted to Brahmanas
ShalabhogaLand for the maintenance of a school
Devadana, TirunamattukkaniLand gifted to gods/temples
PallichchhandamLand donated to Jaina institutions
Types of Land Grants
AgraharaPrimarily a rent free village in the possession of Brahmanas
DevadanaRent free land gifted to brahmanical temples deities. Its Jain and Buddhist counterpart is pallichanda
ShasanasLand grants, often kara-shasanas, i.e rent paying land grants
BrahmadeyaLand gifted to Brahmanas or groups of Brahmanas
Few Important Points
  • The famous Virupaksha temple is located at Hampi. This temple is devoted to Lord Shiva, who is known as Virupaksha there.
    • The term Panchayatan refers to a style of temple construction.
  • A lot of details regarding the village administration under the Cholas is provided by the inscription at Uttarmerur.
  • Nataraj is considered to be the world’s greatest iconographical creations made by Sthapatis of south India, particularly during the Chola period.
  • The Dakshinamurti idol of Shiva depicts him as a mentor (Guru, Teacher).
  • The Chola sent goodwill mission of 72 traders to China in the reign of Chola king Kulottunga-I in 1077.
  • Rajendra-I coverted the Bay of Bengal into a ‘Chola Lake’.
  • Kulottunga-I gave complete freedom to Sri Lanka and got his daughter married to the Sinhala prince Vijayabahu.
  • Tagara trade centre of ancient India was on the trade route connecting kalyana with vengi.
  • Kural is considered as the Bible and Laghuveda of Tamil literature. It was written by the famous poet Tiruvalluvar .
  • Famous south Indian battle of Takkolam was fought between Chola king Parantaka-I and Rashtrakuta king Krishna-Ill at Takkolam (949 AD). The Cholas were defeated.
  • Chola empire was devastated by Malik Kafur, commander of Allauddin Khalji.
  • Vengi river was the lifeline of Pandya state.
  • According to the Sangam texts the terms kon, ko and mannan were attributed to king.
  • The river Kaveri also known as Ponni (Golden) river, had a special place in the culture of Cholas. The annual floods in the Kaveri marked an occasion for celebration known as Adiperukku, in which whole nation took part.

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