The Cholas formed one of three ruling families in Tamil-speaking south India during the first two centuries CE. In the mid-ninth century the family came to dominate the region, building an empire that would last more than four hundred years. Based in the fertile Kaveri River delta in the present-day Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Chola Dynasty—at its height in the eleventh century—ruled much of south India and as far as Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands. Diplomatic missions reached Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia, and China.
The Cholas were formidable warriors, expanding their empire with military power, and savvy politicians, making agreements and exchanging gifts with local rulers and asserting authority over new territories without the administrative burdens of direct rule. The family took over new territory using both literal and symbolic measures. The emperor Rajendra (ruled 1012–44), for example, declared dominance over the River Ganga (Ganges)—and by extension, north India—by traveling to the river, filling pots with its water, and then pouring it into a Chola temple tank. The Cholas and their subjects saw such acts as meaningful demonstrations of the family’s authority and connections to other sources of power, both royal and divine.
As avid patrons of the arts, the Cholas also dominated culturally.
The family’s religious life—interwoven with its political and military aspirations—was evidenced by monumental temples and powerful artwork, some still in existence today. Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, active during the tenth century, initiated the building of large stone temples, and her grandson, Rajaraja I (985–1016), was responsible for constructing the largest Hindu temple of its age: the Bhrihadishvara temple (commonly known as the Tanjore temple) in Thanjavur, completed in 1013. Expert bronzework proliferated during Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi’s time, such as an image of Shiva’s consort Parvati (known in south India as Uma) that the scholar Vidya Dehejia has since identified as a stylized portrait of the queen herself. It was also during the queen’s reign that Shiva Nataraja, or Shiva as Lord of the Dance, became an iconic religious image and potent political symbol.
Next: The Age of Temples