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Understanding Cholas, the south Indian dynasty that left its imprint on Southeast Asia

“The Cholas are coming…”
Mani Ratnam’s upcoming period drama ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ tries to portray the exploits from the ‘golden age’ of South India’s medieval maritime dynasty, basing it on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 1955 historical fiction by the same name. The narrative of the book, and the movie, is in tune with recent endeavours in Tamil Nadu of reclaiming its long and rich historicity, often highlighting the Cholas as the pinnacle of South Indian glory.

But what really makes the Cholas so special in South Indian memory?

Archeometallurgist Sharada Srinivasan suggests that in “terms of the scale of accomplishments in art and architecture and the wealth of writing and epigraphic records, the Cholas would come across as one of the richest dynasties in South Indian history.” She adds, “There is a profusion of inscriptions that give meticulous details about administration, social life, and material culture… The Brihadeshwara Temple alone that was consecrated in 1010 CE by Rajaraja I has nearly a hundred inscriptions.”

It is also claimed that the Cholas were one of the longest recorded dynasties in world history. At the peak of their rule in the ninth and tenth centuries, the entire area south of the Tungabhadra River was brought together as a single unit under the Cholas. They were perhaps the only dynasty from Southern India to have moved north, marching into Eastern India, where Rajendra Chola is known to have defeated the Pala king of Pataliputra. They were also the first empire with grand commercial and territorial ambitions outside of the Indian subcontinent. “Their singular maritime outreach of expeditions, conquests or trade with respect to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, China, Java/Sumatra and southeast Asia are evoked not only by Chola inscriptions, but also in overseas evidence ranging from inscriptions for Tamil trade guilds (such as from Thailand), to the Song Chinese contacts and Chola-inspired Siva temple in Quanzhou,” says Srinivasan.

The reading of the Chola grandeur though is also politically coloured. Much about the Cholas’ expeditions and territorial expansion was being discovered at a time when India was under colonial rule. The narrative of a resplendent dynasty engaging in maritime trade and making their presence felt in large parts of Southeast Asia, served as the perfect pushback against British claims of the Indian subcontinent lacking its own history.

Who were the Cholas?

It is worth noting that the earliest references to the Cholas date as far back as the third century BCE, and were made by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. However, very little evidence exists about the early Cholas, apart from the early Tamil literature of the third Sangam, and the references made about them in an ancient Graeco-Roman periplus written in the early centuries of the Common Era.

After a long eclipse, the Chola Empire as we know it in all its glory, emerged sometime in the mid ninth century under King Vijayalaya Chola. The dynasty of Vijayalaya left behind a vast number of stone inscriptions and some copper plate grants, which has, in the last few decades, been the main source for reconstructing the history of the Cholas.

The Chola empire was at its most expansive under Arulmozhivarman, who on acceding to the throne in 985 CE, adopted the regnal title of Rajaraja or king of kings. The doyen of South Indian history, Nilakantha Sastri, in his 1955 book The Cholas, writes that under Rajaraja I and his successors, the Chola Empire had reached the capacity of ‘Byzantine royalty’ “with its numerous palaces, officials and ceremonials and its majestic display of the concentrated resources of an extensive empire.” According to Sastri, with the emergence of Rajaraja I, the monarchy underwent a substantial transformation, with the king now becoming an emperor. In his official records, Rajaraja I was referred to as the “emperor of the three worlds” or as possessing the whole universe.

A mural depicting Rajaraja I and his guru Karuvuruvar found inside the Brihadeshwara Temple. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Cholas, along with the Pandyas of Madurai and the Cheras were the three great kingdoms of ancient Tamilakam which roughly corresponds to present day Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Lakshadweep and the southern parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. By the time Rajaraja I came to the throne, the Cholas had gained the upper hand over the Pandyas and emerged as the primary power in the northern and eastern parts of the Tamil country. Under the new king though, the imperial expansions of the Cholas took a whole new turn, with maritime trade emerging as the hallmark of their rule. Author Hema Devare in a 2010 article notes that “the Cholas controlled the most extensive shipping from the Coromandel Coast across the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.” She adds: “They employed various sizes of ships. Colandia were large ships used on the voyage up the Ganges, light-coasting boats were for local traffic, and big ocean-going vessels reached Malaya and Sumatra.”

“Rajaraja Chola understood that domination of lucrative trade routes was a sure way to distinguish himself and his court from the other fragmented polities of the Tamil country,” writes public historian Anirudh Kanisetti in his book, Lords of the Deccan: Southern India from the Chalukyas to the Cholas (2022). Rajaraja soon realised that his rivals, the Cheras who were in control of the Malabar coast, were receiving more and more traders from across the seas, especially from the prosperous Fatimid Egypt.

Kanisetti, in his book, describes in vivid detail how the young Rajaraja I moved to seize the riches of the region by attacking the great port of Kandalur. Under his orders, what was possibly southern India’s largest collection of ships at the time, was burned down. “Masts must have collapsed, teak wood cracked and slipped under the roiling waves, probably to the cheers of thousands of Chola soldiers as they ransacked the populace and held back weeping merchants at spear-point,” writes Kanisetti. “Rajaraja I had seized a colossal loot and established himself and the Cholas as one of the rising powers of the southern tip of the subcontinent. Trade would only be allowed to flow if merchants reached an accommodation with the Cholas, it seemed.”

Over the next decade, Rajaraja Chola established himself as one of the most astute political and military strategists that southern India had ever seen. By the close of the 10th century, he had overrun almost all of the Pandya territories and appointed his own governors there. He then moved to Sri Lanka, ransacking some of the greatest of Buddhist viharas and establishing the presence of the Cholas through the building of Shiva temples.

The expansion of the Chola empire continued under Rajaraja Chola’s son, Rajendra Chola, also known as Rajendra the Great or Gangaikonda Chola (the Chola who conquered Ganga). He built the Chola capital at Gangaikondacholapuram (close to present day Tiruchirapalli) to commemorate his victory over the Pala dynasty in present day Bengal in 1025 CE. He then erected a gigantic Shiva temple in it as a mark of thanks giving to the lord.

ponniyin selvan, ponnyin selvan kalki, ponniyin selvan book, ponniyin selvan trailer, mani ratnam, mani ratnam new film, cholas, chola history, chola history film, chola temples, chola temples in southeast asia, cholas in soitheast asia, films news, entertainment news, tamil movies, tamil cinema news, indian express Gangaikondacholapuram built by Rajendra Chola as the capital of the Chola Empire in the beginning of the 11th century CE. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rajendra became one of the only Indian monarchs to conquer territory outside the Indian subcontinent. In 1025 CE, he sent a naval expedition to Indochina, the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia. His expansion to Southeast Asia was crucial in establishing trade and cultural links with the region. In particular, the patronage of the arts under the Cholas, found their imprint in Southeast Asian cultures.

“The Brahmanical sculptures in peninsular Siam (modern day Thailand) from the ninth to the eleventh centuries were dominated by the influence of Chola art, especially the stone sculptures on Pranarai Hill at Takuapa,” writes Devare. She points to the existence of Tamil inscriptions between Burma and Sumatra written in the Grantha script, which was a common script between Sanskrit and Tamil. Most of them belong to the Chola period of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Srinivasan says “Chola motifs that travelled to southeast Asia include the sculpture of the Tamil woman saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar, playing cymbals in the Khmer Banteay Srei temple in Cambodia, and a medieval Thai Chola-inspired Nataraja bronze in Bangkok Museum.

Influence of the Cholas can be seen in language and society of large parts of Southeast Asia as well. The deification of kings in Cambodia and Thailand as incarnations of Brahmanical Gods, for instance, is a most evident imprint of the Cholas.

The medieval Chola empire began to decline from 1070 CE, after the death of Virarajendra Chola, the son of Rajendra Chola. A period of chaos prevailed, which ended with the emergence of the Later Cholas, a dynasty that was the product of alliances between the Cholas and the Eastern Chalukyas.

The magnificent art and architecture left behind by the Cholas

The wealth and prominence attained by the Cholas is best visible today in the large volume of unique art and architectural feats left behind by them. The gigantic Brihadeshwara Temple in Thanjavur is perhaps one of the finest examples of the Cholas’ artistic brilliance. Kanisetti explains how the temple contained about 40 times as much stone as the average Chola temple and that “its construction is a testament to the scale of the resources Rajaraja was able to mobilise.”

ponniyin selvan, ponnyin selvan kalki, ponniyin selvan book, ponniyin selvan trailer, mani ratnam, mani ratnam new film, cholas, chola history, chola history film, chola temples, chola temples in southeast asia, cholas in soitheast asia, films news, entertainment news, tamil movies, tamil cinema news, indian express The gopuram of the Brihadeshwara Temple (Wikimedia Commons)

From the 10th century onward, the Cholas more prominently started making structural temples. “Under the Chalukyas you had the basic design of the structural temples coming in and under the Pallavas the rock cut temple art emerged. But it is the scale of temple building activities under the Cholas that mark them out,” explains Srinivasan. “For instance, the pyramidal vimana of the Brihadeshwara temple of 66 metres is one of the tallest buildings in antiquity,” she adds. “Then there is the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple with its catenary shaped vimana which is also a unique engineering marvel.”

Inscriptional evidence in Chola art also points to the prominent role played by royal women and dancers in patronage for art and architecture. One of the most celebrated patrons was the widowed queen of Gandaraditya Chola, Sembiyan Mahadevi. An avid temple builder, she is well known for her contributions to temples such as Umamaheshvar Temple at Konerirajapuram, Tirukkurangaduturai Temple at Aduturai, Tirukkotisvarar Temple at Tirukkodikkaval among others. She also founded the village, Sembiyan Mahadevi, named after her, near Nagapattinam in Thanjavur district.

Author Balasubramanyam Venkatraman, in his book Temple art under the Chola queens, writes that the more significant contributions of Sembiyan Mahadevi were some of the most fascinating bronzes cast at her instance. “She set up a tradition of metal casting that became a matter of pride with her grand-nephew Rajaraja I, in whose time the ateliers of the kingdom brought out innumerable bronzes of unsurpassed quality and grandeur,” he writes. Srinivasan notes that “it is under Sembiyan Mahadevi that the celebrated Nataraja icons in bronze and stone are more prominently displayed in temples.” Then there was Kundavai, the sister of Rajaraja I and his principal queen, Lokamahadevi, who added considerably to Chola art.

ponniyin selvan, ponnyin selvan kalki, ponniyin selvan book, ponniyin selvan trailer, mani ratnam, mani ratnam new film, cholas, chola history, chola history film, chola temples, chola temples in southeast asia, cholas in soitheast asia, films news, entertainment news, tamil movies, tamil cinema news, indian express A 10th century Chola dynasty Nataraja bronze (Wikimedia Commons)

The large volume of inscriptions left behind by the Cholas on their architecture have lent themselves to extensive history writing about their rule. The walls of the new temples, their pillars and plinths were usually covered with inscriptions over time. Some inscriptions are found engraved on rocks and boulders not forming parts of the temples. “We are expressly told that before older structures were pulled down for rebuilding a shrine, the inscriptions on the walls were, in many cases, copied out in books and re-engraved later on the walls of the new structure,” writes Sastri.

“There was a great sense of historicity among the Cholas,” says Srinivasan. Apart from re-engraving older inscriptions, there were also conscious efforts at memoralisation. Srinivasan points to the example of the temple built by Sembiyan Mahadevi in Konerirajapuram. “She built a plaque there dedicated to her husband Gandaraditya Chola, showing him and her worshiping the lingam,” she says.

“Similar efforts at commemoration were also extended to the ordinary people. For instance, there exists a rare piece of bronze dedicated to one of the craftsmen who built the walls of the Brihadeshwara temple,” she adds.

Over centuries, the popular appeal of the Cholas has been ensured by the continued reproduction of their art pieces, which made their way to the homes of art collectors and enthusiasts as decorative pieces. “There is outside of Tanjore and Kumbakonam and particularly in the village Swamimalai, the hereditary crafts communities who have been making these icons through generations. They use the technique called the lost wax casting process which is also mentioned in the ancient art texts,” explains Srinivasan. There is also Poompuhar, which is a government run icon making emporia that employs people from all communities. “This is a great example of democratisation of crafts which has ensured that they no longer just have to be concentrated in temples, and that there is a wider circulation of artworks and also a wider workforce.”

Ponniyin Selvan and the writing of Chola history

As experts suggest, among the many strands of South Indian history, the Cholas have been written about most extensively. This has to do with the enormous number of inscriptions and monuments left behind by them, more than what any other dynasty had created. It is also important to remember that Madras in the colonial period was a major centre for studies about medieval South India. Apart from the fact that the Cholas stood out in these explorations by virtue of the material culture left behind by them, they also engaged in the unprecedented act of attacking Indonesia and various parts of Srivijaya.

“This knowledge was being rediscovered at a time when India was under colonial rule and there was a political urge among Indians to show that we in fact had an empire of our own even before the British came here,” Kanisetti tells indianexpress.com. So the Chola conquests were represented as “colonisation”.

“The great Tamil historian Nilakantha Sastri wrote about how there were multiple waves of Hindu “colonisation” of Southeast Asia. This was inaccurate. As archaeological evidence has shown, South East Asia participated in a global culture which had Sanskrit elements,” Kanisetti adds.

Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan written in the post independence nationalist era of the 1950s was significant both in the writing of Indian history and in the glorification of Tamil nationalism. It was a historical fiction in serialised form in the Tamil magazine ‘Kalki’ that told the story of the early days of Rajaraja I.
“This was written at a time just after Independence when there were several debates happening in Tamil Nadu about Tamil culture and Tamil Nadu’s place in the union,” explains Kanisetti. “Kalki was also a freedom fighter and one can imagine that many of the South Indian freedom fighters who fought so hard for Independence, suddenly found themselves in a new country that was only interested in Hindi rather than any of their regional languages. It was important for writers like Kalki to push back and find Tamil dynasties to be proud of and write about them,” he adds.

Through Ponniyin Selvan, Kalki tried to give young Tamil readers a utopian vision of a Tamil past that all of his readers could be proud of. To this date, his novel continues to have a widespread cultural influence and a cult following among Tamils of all ages.

Film historian S. Theodore Bhaskaran, however, believes that Ponniyin Selvan didn’t really have any significance in the writing of Tamil history, but had commercial appeal. “It was an adventure story consisting of kings, wars, conspiracies and the like, with Rajaraja I in the centre,” says Bhaskaran.

Bhaskaran points out to the fact that in the days before and after Independence, the glorification of Tamil history and culture was a task that was being carried out by the DMK and Kalki, a Congressman and a staunch disciple of C. Rajagopalachari from the opposing camp. “If he were to live now, Kalki would be seen as a right winger. He was critical of the Buddhists who were opposed to Hinduism,” says Bhaskaran.

Kalki’s interpretation of Chola history though has been criticised for whitewashing the medieval empire of all kinds of malpractices. “He made the dynasty out to be completely moral and noble individuals who don’t do any of the things that the Cholas themselves say they do in their inscriptions,” says Kanisetti. “For instance, in the first part of Ponniyin Selvan that talks about the Cholas being at war in Sri Lanka and how Rajaraja Chola said that he would not want to attack any of the places visited by common people like the stupas, viharas and the like. However, their own inscriptions talk about burning cities and brutally sacking various places. Many of the Sinhala sources also mention about Rajaraja Chola’s army tearing apart stupas and looting things from within,” he adds.

Kanisetti also points out that one needs to remember that the ancient and medieval Tamil people were not a homogeneous group, and views of them varied within South India. “So for instance, someone in modern day Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka is not going to see the Cholas as heroes since they came and conquered them, and quite brutally, as sources would suggest.”

Further reading:

Nilakanta Sastri, The Cholas, University of Madras, 1955

Noboru Karashima (ed.), A concise history of South India: Issues and InterpretationsOxford University Press, 2014

Hema Devare, Cultural Implications of the Chola Maritime Fabric Trade with Southeast Asia in Herman Kulke, K. Kesavapany, Vijay Sakhuja (ed.) Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval expeditions to Southeast AsiaInstitute of Southeast Asia Studies, 2009

Anirudh Kanisetti, Lords of the Deccan: Southern India from the Chalukyas to the CholasJuggernaut Books, 2022

Balasubramanyam Venkatraman, Temple Art under the Chola QueensThompson Press (India), 1976

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