The grandeur of the Chola Empire, one of the longest ruling dynasties in South India 

When monumental eras like the Cholas are missing from the pages of history, books and novels about the period amassed through archaeological discoveries and interpretations from classic literature, art, architecture and sculptures, change the way one sees the past

Published - October 13, 2022 10:42 am IST

 The Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur

 The Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur | Photo Credit: File Photo

Our history books offer little to read about ancient Tamil kingdoms such as the Cholas which are much in discussion now. With Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan I, based on Kalki’s wonderful creation of a world of the Cholas, mesmerising audiences, there is a renewed interest in knowing more about one of the oldest and longest ruling dynasties in the history of Southern India spreading over four centuries. When monumental eras like the Cholas are missing from the pages of history, the best option to know more about the ancient civilisation is to read from the available literature that talk of the valour and conquests of these kings of yore, their trade links and wealth, styles of administration, art and architecture, and cuisine and skills of the period. The monumental relics left behind; the majestic bronzes and 1,00,000 inscriptions and temples which are characteristic of the times, are for the eyes to feast on. All recent archaeological discoveries and interpretations are also a great way to explore.

Exhaustive collection

There is an interesting mix of Tamil and English books and novels by scholars and modern writers on the Dravidian kingdom. A unanimous choice of historians is The Cholas (spelt The Colas) by Prof K. A. Nilakanta Sastri. This account of the social, political and cultural history of the Chola dynasty from 850 to 1279 AD from Vijalaya Aditya I to Rajendra III, up to the end of the dynasty, is considered a pioneering work in South Indian History.

The first edition of the book was published in two volumes, in 1935 and 1937 and even after decades the book remains in demand given the fabulous narrative of the Chozhan Empire. The author relies on references made to the Chola kings in Tamil Sangam literature such as Pattinappalai and Puranaanooru, brought to print by U.V. Swaminatha Ayyar. He bases his research on inscriptions from the Archaeological Survey of India, the Mahavamsa (which tells the history of Sri Lanka), Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and other notes by Chinese and Arabian travellers to India.

Volume I contains the history of the Cholas from Karikalan to Kulothunga III in detail and Volume II describes the attributes of the Chola dynasty — how it became a military, economic and cultural power in South and South-East Asia under Rajaraja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I, the tax and land revenue collection techniques and ways of measuring grains and metals, the importance of education imparted to the citizens, the development of Tamil literature (such as Kalingathu Parani by Jayam kondar, Kamba Ramayanam by Kambar, Periya Puranam by Sekkizhar that were written during the reign of Kulothunga I and II) and the varied architectural achievements (construction of the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur by Raja Raja I, Gangai konda Chozhapuram by Rajendra I, and the Airavateswara Temple at Dharasuram by Rajaraja III).

The might and power

Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa, compiled by Hermann Kulke in 2009 has a lot of historical research on naval power and expeditions of the Chola kings. Art historian C. Sivaramamurti has chronicled the architecture of the period in The Chola Temples: Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram & Darasuram. Japanese historian Noboru Karashima has written insightful volumes on the Cholas’ economic, social and administrative prowess.

Early Cholas: History, Art and Cuture by Dr. S. Swaminathan, gives a good account of the period from 850 AD to 970 AD that forms an important epoch in the history of Tamil Nadu. The book is about how the early Chola rulers started from scratch and went on to establish a vast empire by their conquests and are best remembered for their contribution to rules relating to the mode of local administration and imprints on art, architecture and sculpture.

S. R. Balasubrahmanyman, published a series of books — Early Chola Art (1966); Early Chola Temples (1971); Middle Chola Temples (1977); Later Chola Temples (1979), two of which were co-authored by his son B. Venkataraman, who like his father had a passion for Chola art, history and architecture and was the first historian to compile information on the Rajarajesvaram and the Brihadeeshwara temples at Thanjavur from the epigraphs available there.

In South India Under The Cholas (published in 2012), Y. Subbarayalu provides a round-up of the known history and features of the Chola dynasty. The comprehensive account of the Empire’s administration, society and economy is done in two parts — Epigraphy and History, State and Society. The first part is an in-depth analysis of Tamil epigraphy and inscriptions, how to study them and analyse socio-economic milieu, merchant guilds, and other sociological aspects. The second section traces the evolution of the medieval state, economy, and society while discussing land surveys, Chola revenue system and sale deeds, and property rights.

The book is a value-addition as it also scrutinises the evolution of organisations like Urar, Nattar, and Periyanattar, social classes like the left- and right-hand divisions, and the merchant militia and for the first time attempts to quantify the revenue of a pre-Mughal Indian state.

The search is still on

Last year, Leadstart published Raghavan Srinivasan’s Raja Raja Chola - An Interplay between an Imperial Regime and Productive forces of Society that appealed to the academia and public. The author rivetingly weaves together the lives and times of one of the most enigmatic medieval personalities, Rajaraja Chola. He elucidates the king and his stupendous legacy from the eyes of a commoner to help readers see history in ways they wouldn’t imagine.

While he writes about Rajaraja Chola as an important figure who played a crucial role in establishing peace, carrying out development and infrastructure as well as ingraining values of social and cultural significance among the people, Srinivasan also talks of the tumultuous development of the times. He presents a critique of history to acknowledge that the rise and fall of kingdoms are not the result of the strengths and weaknesses of kings and queens alone but an inevitable outcome of the greater rhythm of world events.

Juggernaut published Empire by Devi Yesodharan, who got drawn to the enormous Chola Empire stretching from the south to the Ganges, and an emperor who commanded an impressive Army and Navy that was the envy of the world. She looks at his strategic conquest of territories to protect the economy and ensure his continuing control of the naval trade in the Indian Ocean. The author says, a king who restrains himself from pursuing unnecessary wars and preserves his strength to defend his Empire, is a unique administrator. In her book, Devi projects the Chola kingdom as one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places to live in with a vibrant art scene and gorgeous writings.

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