TRAVEL / The lost empire explored: The Cholas once had great power, but the world has forgotten them
  • DEEP in the south of India lie the spectacular remains of one of the
    world's most remarkable and most forgotten civilisations. In its heyday it
    was one of the half-dozen greatest powers on Earth. It controlled half a
    million square miles - more than five times the size of Britain. And under
    its wing literacy and the arts flourished.

    Yet today, 1,000 years later, the Chola Empire is remembered only by a
    handful of specialist historians. If it had been European, or had given its
    name to some still-surviving nation, things might be different. But despite
    400 years of glory, the Chola Empire disappeared from history; a sad fate
    for a civilisation which was among the most remarkable produced by the
    medieval world.

    In some ways, it was the most significant of the dozen or so empires which
    rose and fell during India's long, tumultuous history. It lasted some 460
    years, longer than any of them. The Chola was also the only Asian empire
    (bar the Japanese) to have indulged, albeit briefly, in overseas expansion.
    It conquered Sri Lanka, the Andaman and Nicobar islands and, temporarily,
    parts of south- east Asia - the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali, and the
    southern part of the Malay peninsula.

    Most of these overseas conquests are shrouded in mystery. All that is known
    is that, in 1025, the Chola emperor Rajendra I dispatched an army,
    presumably on a large fleet, across 2,000 miles of ocean to conquer the
    southern half of south-east Asia. The records show that he succeeded and
    received the submission of large numbers of cities. Some historians believe
    that the Cholas then simply sailed back to India, but others suspect that
    Chola power persisted in some form in south- east Asia for two or three

    Certainly, the Chola conquest contributed

    to a long process that had already started and which linked southern India
    and south-east Asia together in terms of trade and religion. The
    Indonesia/Malay region was a pivotal point in trade between China and India
    (and, indeed, the West), and both Java and Bali were largely Hindu.
    Rajendra's conquest was perhaps the first military expression of a more
    general connection which had been developing for centuries.

    Closer to home, in Sri Lanka, the Cholas' overseas expansion is better
    documented - both in text, and in stone. Tourists today can still explore
    the great ruined city of Polonnaruva, founded by the Cholas as a capital
    for their newly conquered island territory.

    But the emperor's armies didn't only head southwards. In the early 11th
    century, Chola forces marched almost 1,000 miles through India to the banks
    of the Ganges. Like the south-east Asian conquest, this epic 'long march'
    is also shrouded in mystery. Whether the emperor's objectives in marching
    an army to the sacred river were political or purely religious is unknown.
    Certainly, the north of India, though temporarily subdued, was not
    incorporated into the empire - although holy Ganges water was carried back
    to a great new capital named in honour of the sacred river, and the ruler
    who had conquered it.

    This capital was called Gangaikondacholapuram - literally 'the City to
    which the Chola emperor brought the Ganges'. At the centre of their new
    metropolis, the Cholas built a magnificent temple and a vast three
    mile-long reservoir symbolically to hold the 'captured' waters of the
    Ganges. Both have survived. Under Chola rule, religion and politics grew
    ever closer together, with the emperor projecting himself as the
    representative, almost a manifestation, of God on Earth. Large temples were
    built, for the first time, as royal establishments. The Cholas probably
    built more temples than any other Indian kingdom or empire. Each temple was
    a masterpiece. Even today, the Chola heartland - along the Kaveri River in
    the state of Tamil Nadu - is full of beautiful, delicately carved temples,
    some the size of tiny chapels, others as big as European cathedrals. In the
    very centre of what was the empire, there are still 40 Chola temples in an
    area half the size of greater London. The most spectacular structure is the
    63m-high pyramid- shaped central shrine in the city of Thanjavur, the Chola
    capital before Gangaikondacholapuram.

    Chola art and architecture were among the finest in the world. Indeed, in
    cast bronze sculpture and hard-stone sculpture, Chola art is unsurpassed.
    Millions of figures, deftly carved in granite, can still be seen on their
    temples, while in museums, in Thanjavur and Madras, visitors can marvel at
    the artistry and craftsmanship of the bronze figurines and statues.

    The Cholas not only nurtured an artistic boom; they also fostered a massive
    expansion in education. Political stability and imperial grants - both to
    the temples which ran education and to the students themselves - led to the
    expansion of local schools and elite colleges for higher castes. The
    education system - which operated from a religious perspective but also
    promoted literacy, mathematics and astronomy - was probably, at least in
    part, responsible for the development of a competent imperial
    administration and broadened international horizons. Some estimates suggest
    that literacy rose to around 20 per cent - perhaps the highest in the
    medieval world.

    An unplanned result of this high level of education was an increase in
    intellectual dissidence. One of the greatest Indian religious thinkers -
    the 11th-century philosopher Ramanuja - was a product of the Chola empire,
    although he was ultimately expelled for his views. In many ways, he can be
    seen as the founder of Hindu monotheism with his belief in a unitary
    personal god, the ultimate font of love and compassion.

    In the 12th century there flourished an even more dissident religious
    movement. The Lingayats professed a sort of cynical humanism which
    questioned the very fundamentals of religion - the authority of India's
    holy books, the Vedas (the equivalent of the Bible), and reincarnation
    itself. Socially, they were also radical, challenging the taboo on widows
    re-marrying, and condemning child marriages. This dissident movement
    derived much support from the lower castes.

    The empire also increased the importance and institutionalisation of local
    government. Each group of five to 10 villages had an elected district
    council, which in turn had endless subcommittees dealing with everything
    from land rights to irrigation, law and order to food storage. Every
    household in a district had the right to vote - and the councils enjoyed
    considerable power. The Chola emperors encouraged their development,
    probably as a counter-balance to the power of local vassal rulers, who owed
    obedience to the empire.

    Although the Cholas ruled for more than four centuries, they did so with a
    remarkable light touch. Local responsibility for local affairs was
    encouraged, and newly conquered local rulers were allowed to keep their
    titles and lands, though under ultimate Chola control.

    The light touch was brought even to waging war. The Cholas exemplified the
    Indian principle of war - the dharma yuddha, literally, the principle of
    the fair fight. Battles were normally pre- arranged and fought in daylight
    on a level field between equal numbers of troops. Defeated princes could
    carry on living and prospering, but had to pay homage and cough up tribute
    for the emperor's treasury and women to act as concubines and courtiers.

    Presiding over this mixture of autocracy and democracy, a cocktail of
    religious orthodoxy and dissidence, and a surge of artistic creativity -
    not to mention their concubines - the Chola emperors considered themselves
    the rulers of the world. They did, of course, look on India as the
    Continent of the Cosmos.

    Yet now they are forgotten, their achievements ignored by the world. There
    is not one book in print on the Chola Empire; nor a travel-company tour to
    most of their extraordinary temples.

    Where to go and what to see

    *** spectacular ** very interesting * interesting

    1 CIDAMBARAM ** Spectacular Chola temple with rich sculpture, a magnificent
    pavilion with 984 pillars, and a shrine to the sun god complete with stone
    chariot wheels. Here, one of the Hindu trinity of gods, Siva, is said to
    have performed his cosmic dance of joy. A delightful story has it that
    Siva's wife, Parvati, challenged him to a dance contest, which took place
    where the temple now stands. Siva won by way of a clever ruse. He contrived
    to drop his earring so that he could pick it up and put it back with his
    toe; his spouse was, however, too modest to raise her leg - and lost.

    2 DARASURAM ** Marvellous temple built by the Chola Emperor Rajaraja II in
    the mid- 12th century. One beautiful pavilion - in imitation of a war
    chariot - has wheels and rearing horses. See also relief portraying the
    lives of the 63 saints of the god Siva.

    3 GANGAIKONDACHOLA- PURAM *** See the magnificent and richly sculpted
    Brihadishvara Temple, built of granite as the centrepiece of a new Chola
    capital in circa AD1025. The main shrine is 160ft (50m) high. The
    three-mile 11th-century Cholaganga reservoir (for sacred water) also

    4 KALIYAPATTI * The 'Place of Stone'. Small temple, c 900.

    5 KILAIYUR * Double shrine, c 900.

    6 KODUMBALUR ** Triple shrine, c 900.

    7 KUMBAKONAM ** Beautiful sculptures of female dancers and musicians, the
    sun god and the god Siva - in the form of a divine young ascetic - adorn
    the Nagesvara Temple, built c 870. According to legend, this riverside
    temple was built where a pot was washed ashore containing the seed of
    creation and the Hindu bible.

    8 MELAKKADAMBUR ** Chola temple, c 1100, with magnificent sculptures of
    mythical animals, dancing women and sages.

    9 NARTTAMALAI ** Constructed c 870, the Vijayalaya Cholesvara Temple is
    said to have been built by the first Chola emperor, Vijayalaya.

    10 PANANGUDI * Chola temple built c 900.

    11 POLONNARUVA (in Sri Lanka) *** Ruins of a great city founded as a new
    capital for the island by the Chola emperor Rajaraja following his conquest
    of Sri Lanka in 993. Visit the many medieval buildings, including two Chola
    temples. Because they are not functioning temples, it is possible to visit
    the sacred innner sanctums, where one can see examples of that most
    important of Hindu symbols, the stone obelisk called the lingam. It
    represents the creativity and fertility of the human phallus and the safety
    and shade of the archetypal tree.

    12 PULLAMANGAI ** One of the most beautiful of all Chola temples, c 910.
    Perfectly preserved, with miniature relief.

    13 SRINIVASANALLUR ** See the 10th-century temple of Koranganatha - the
    Lord of the Monkey. Beautiful sculptures of medieval worshippers in their
    aristocratic clothes.

    14 SRIRANGAM *** This most important temple to the god Vishnu in southern
    India has exquisite carvings of female musicians. It is dedicated to a
    young girl called Andal who became enraptured with Vishnu.

    15 SWAMIMALAI ** Regarded, mythologically, as a sort of divine weapons
    store, this Chola temple is dedicated to the war god Murugan.

    16 THANJAVUR (also spelt Tanjore or Tanjavur) *** Once the capital of the
    Chola empire, this town is home to the greatest of all Chola buildings -
    the Rajarajesvara (or Brihadishvara) temple. Built in AD1010 by the emperor
    Rajaraja the Great, it is 210ft (63m) high - the tallest temple in all
    India. On top of its sumptuously sculpted pyramid-shaped tower is an 80-ton
    cupola, said to be fashioned out of a single block of granite placed there
    with the aid of a four-mile temporary ramp.

    17 TIRUKANDIYUR * Small Chola temple.

    18 TIRUKKATTALAI * The 'temple of the holy command', c 900.

    19 TIRUPPUR * Temple, c 900.

    20 TIRUVAIYARU * By uttering the mystical (and apparently meaningless) word
    ol, the Chola poet Sundarar succeeded in parting the waters, Red Sea style,
    of the Chola heartland's great river, Kaveri, so that he and a visiting
    king could praise the god Siva at the temple of Tiruvaiyaru on the other

    21 TIRUVANNAMALAI ** This temple - with stone sculptures depicting 108
    classical Indian dance poses - was built in the place where Siva turned
    himself into what he claimed was an eternal unending pillar of fire.

    22 TIRUVARUR * The temple is built at the legendary scene of a great Chola
    miracle of death and resurrection. The son of a Chola king - out joyriding,
    as princes will, in one of the royal chariots - ran over and killed a calf.
    A somewhat distraught cow - the calf's mother - complained to the king, who
    was furious and decided to punish his son by killing him. Understandably he
    found this difficult, indeed morally impossible. So, obligingly, the king's
    prime minister carried out the execution. Filled with sadness, both prime
    minister and king committed suicide. But all was not lost, for the god Siva
    decided to resurrect them all.

    23 TIRUVELVIKKUDI * See the temple of Manavalesvara.

    24 TRIBHUVANEM ** See the Kampaharesvara temple, built by the Chola emperor
    Kulottunga III in c 1200.

    25 VIRALUR * See the Bhumisvara temple, c 880.

    26 VISALUR * Small temple.


    The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Institute of Indian Culture) at 4A Castletown
    Road, West Kensington, London W14 9HQ (tel: 071-381 3086/4608) has
    information on Chola culture, including folklore, music and temple dancing
    (the institute puts on performances).


    Architecture and culture: Guide to the Monuments of India, Volume 1 by
    George Michell (Penguin pounds 18.99), invaluable encyclopaedic gazetteer;
    The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent by J Harle (Yale pounds
    16.95), in the Pelican History of Art Series, the best general survey; A
    History of India, Volume 1 by R Thapar (Penguin pounds 6.99); Hindu Art, T
    R Blurton (British Museum Press pounds 14.95); The Hindu Temple by George
    Michell (Chicago pounds 11.95), readable introduction to temple
    architecture; Hindu Myths translated by Wendy O'Flaherty (Penguin pounds
    6.99); Hinduism by K Sen (Penguin pounds 5.99), excellent - and short -

    Guidebooks: India: A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet pounds 13.95) - a
    new edition is due in July; South India (APA Publications/Insight pounds
    11.95); South Asian Handbook (Trade and Travel pounds 18.95), the best
    general guide.

    Travel accounts: No Full Stops in India by Mark Tully (Penguin pounds
    6.99), a recent view of India by the BBC's long-time correspondent; India:
    A Million Mutinies Now by V S Naipaul (Minerva pounds 6.99), the latest of
    Naipaul's excellent personal impressions of India; On A Shoestring to Coorg
    by Dervla Murphy (Arrow pounds 5.99), lively exploration of the South.

    All titles available from good bookshops, and by mail order from Daunt
    Books for Travellers, 83 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE

    (071-224 2295). DK
    “*Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man*” – Nobel
    laureate, Rabindranath Tagore
  • wonderful.
    thanks dear Vijay.
  • It is one of the excellent article in nutshell.Thanks

    Dr k.srinivasan

  • Thanks for the link Vijay

    If I can stop one heart from breaking,I shall not live in vain;
    If I can ease one life the aching,Or cool one pain,
    Or help one fainting robin, Into his nest again,
    I shall not live in vain.
    Emily Dickinson


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