Middle Chola Temples

by S. R. Balasubrahmanyam | 1975 | 141,178 words

This volume of Chola Temples covers Rajaraja I to Kulottunga I in the timeframe A.D. 985-1070. The Cholas of Southern India left a remarkable stamp in the history of Indian architecture and sculpture. Besides that, the Chola dynasty was a successful ruling dynasty even conquering overseas regions....

The Cholas were one of the greatest and most gifted of the dynasties which ruled in India; they held sway for a continuous period of about 430 years (a.d. 850 - 1280). In comparison, the Mauryas ruled only for about 137 years (b.c. 322 - 185), and the Guptas for about 223 years (a.d. 320 - 543). The Vijayanagara empire lasted for about 340 years (a.d. 1336 - 1676) with claim to greatness only for the first 200 years thereof, i.e., till a.d. 1565.

Rajaraja I can legitimately claim to have laid the real foundations for the glory and longevity of the Chola empire. He was a great soldier and general like Alexander of Macedon, Julius Caesar and Hannibal. The Cholas had the great good fortune of his being followed by a line of successors equally adept in the arts of war and administration. His son Rajendra I and his grandsons Rajadhiraja I, Rajendradeva II and Virarajendra, who followed him on the throne in that order, each has a claim to be rankde among the greatest generals of their or any other age—a unique record in the history of mankind. The Cholas were no less great in the fields of administration, culture and art. They were the greatest temple builders India has known, and during the period under survey, in particular, their achievements in this field attained unprecedented and unsurpassed heights. Their temples were built not only in their homeland but also in the conquered territories, extending from Sri Lanka in the south to the river basins of the Tungabhadra and the Godavari and even as far as the Mahendra hills (in modern Ganjam district of Orissa) (see Mahendragiri) in the north; in addition, permission was granted to the Sailendra kings of Sri Vijaya and Kadaram for the erection of (Buddhist) temples and viharas at Nagappattinam. A few Jain temples were also built in this period.

Rajaraja I was the son of Sundara Chola alias Parantaka II by his queen Vanavan Mahadevi. The Tiruvalangadu Plates mention that “at the birth of Arulmolidevan (future Rajaraja I), the wives of the serpent Adisesha, who carries the earth on his shoulders, danced for joy on the belief that he (Arulmolidevan) would relieve their husband of the burden of bearing the earth.” (SII, III, 19). He was born under the asterism Satabhishak (Sada-yam in Tamil) in the month of Aippasi (SII, II, 26; also Travan-core Archaeological Series, I, p. 292). In his formative years, he came under the powerful and constructive influence of his great-grand-aunt Sembiyan Mahadevi (the queen of Gandara-ditya and mother of Uttama Chola) and of his own elder sister Kundavai. It was the people’s wish even during his boyhood that he should succeed his father to the Chola throne in order to “dispel the darkness of the Kali age”. But Arulmolidevan (as he was then known) resisted the popular pressure and gracefully let his paternal uncle ascend the throne since the latter greatly coveted it. In this act, Rajaraja I exhibited not only great self-denial but political insight and statesmanship as well. He, however, associated himself with his uncle as heir-apparent and allowed the latter’s son Madhurantaka to wield great influence and political power even after his own accession to the Chola throne.[1]

The Chola kings called themselves alternately Parakesari-varman (Vijayalaya being the first such) and Rajakesarivarman (Aditya I being the first such). Occasionally, embellished forms of these titles were used. There is one inscription of Vijayalaya’s which describes him as “Tanjai-kotta-ko-parakesaripanmar”, i.e., the Parakesari who took (conquered) Tanjavur. Aditya I was generally known only as Rajakesarivarman, but his Tillaisthanam inscription calls him “Tondai-nadu-paavCholan”—the Chola who overran the Tondai (Pallava) country. His son and successor, Parantaka I, was known as “Madiraiyum Ilamum konda Kop-Parakesarivarman”. Rajaraja I made a notable departure from prior practice by introducing in the prasasti part of his inscriptions an up-to-date account of the conquests and other achievements of his reign, so that, as the years go by, we find the prasasti increasing in size. His earliest inscriptions describe him as “Salai-kalam-arutta” or “Kandalur-salai-kalam-arutta”—one who destroyed the (Chera) fleet at Kandalur Salai (on the west coast between Kanya Kumari and Trivandrum) (see Kandalur-salai-kalam-aruttaruli).

From his eighth regnal year, however, his inscriptions begin with the historical introduction of “Tirumagal pola”. The prasastis generally describe his conquests in chronological order, giving particulars of great value for the historian and belying the notion generally prevalent among western historians that Indians had no historical sense.[2] This innovation of his was happily continued and indeed considerably elaborated by his successors and later by the Pandyas as well, and the prasastis of these rulers form perhaps the most valuable source for the reconstruction of the history of the land. While the originals (in copper plates or palm-leaf manuscripts) of grants, royal writs and other documents have been mostly lost in the course of the political convulsions that the country passed through, it is fortunate that copies thereof, so assiduously made and preserved for us by having them engraved on the sacred walls of stone-temples built by them in such large numbers, have come down to us for our knowledge and enlightenment.

According to the prasastis of Rajaraja I, his first important conquest was over the Cheras already referred to, the Chera contemporary being Bhaskara Ravivarman Tiruvadi (a.d. 978 - 1036). He destroyed the Chera fleet at Kandalur Salai and captured Vilijnam and the fort of Udagai (north-west of Nager-koyil in the Kanya Kumari district). He also defeated the Pandya king Amarabhujanga and annexed the Pandyan territory, after which victory he claims to have “destroyed the splendour of the Pandyas.” Certain territories, known as Sitpuli nadu and Pakki nadu, which had been annexed to the Chola kingdom under Parantaka I but were lost to the Rashtrakutas after the battle of Takkolam, were brought back into the Chola dominion by Rajaraja I, as we learn from a Kanchipuram inscription of his sixth regnal year (are 79 of 1921). He next conquered the Vengi country and supported Saktivarman and his brother Vimaladitya of the Eastern Chalukyas against their rivals. Rajaraja’s daughter (the younger), Kundavai, was given in marriage to Vimaladitya by way of fostering close ties between the two dynasties to foil the designs of the Western Chalukyas under Satyasraya on the Eastern Chalukyan kingdom. Gangapadi, Tadigaipadi and Nolambapadi consisting of parts of southern and eastern Karnataka and of the north-western districts of Tamil Nadu (North Arcot, Salem, Dharmapuri etc.) as also portions of Andhra Pradesh (districts of Kurnool, Anantapur etc.) were annexed to the Chola empire. So were Kollam and Kudamalai Nadu (Coorg). The land of the Rashtrakutas, called Irattaipadi-elarai-laksham (Rattapadi—7, 50, 000), which had been already overrun by the Western Chalukyas, was also conquered and added to the Chola empire. Then the kingdom of Kalinga, lying between the Godavari and the Mahanadi rivers, was overrun. Rajaraja I then invaded Ila-mandalain (Sri Lanka) and annexed it. According to the Tiruvalangadu Plates, Rajaraja I “excelled Sri Rama by crossing the sea, not with the aid of a causeway built by monkeys but by using ships and conquering Lanka” (verse 80). By this time, the naval supremacy of the Cholas had been well-established in the Indian Ocean, and his reign culminated with the conquest of the 12,000 islands off the western (Arabian) sea. Thus his kingdom extended from Sri Lanka in the south to the basin of the Tungabhadra in the north and Mahendragiri (The Mahendra mountains) in the north-east.

Rajaraja I seems to have raised and maintained a large standing army. A Western Chalukya inscription at Hottur (in Dharwar district of Karnataka State) avers that the Chola army which fought a bloody battle there under the command of his son Rajendra I against Satyasraya of the Western Chalukyas consisted of nine lakhs of soldiers. The total strength of the standing army must thus have been considerably larger than this figure, when we take into account his engagements in other sectors such as the Pandya country, Malainadu, Vengi and Sri Lanka. The fact that the commanders of the various armies dreaded defeat and the consequent wrath of the king is evident from the endowments made by a large number of them to the Raj‘arajesvaram temple at Tanjavur, seeking divine blessings for averting defeat.

Rajaraja I organised a highly bureaucratic system of administration which aimed at central stability and local autonomy. His revenue administration in particular was noteworthy. By his seventeenth regnal year, he had completed a land survey of his empire; land as small in extent as 1/52,428,800,000 of a veli was measured and assessed to revenue; there was an elaborate cadre of revenue officers such as accountants, ledger-keepers, issuers of royal orders and executors of royal decrees, at all levels—village, district and central. It is a pity that most of the original documents have disappeared and we have to content ourselves with just a few glimpses of the elaborateness and complexity of the revenue organization, as can be gleaned from stone inscriptions and royal copper plate grants such as the Larger Leyden Grant. It is of interest to note that some decades later in England, William I (the Conqueror) organized the land-survey recorded in the Domesday Book. Rajaraja’s survey was as elaborate as that of William I, as evidenced by the detailed descriptions of the lands, boundaries, systems of irrigation, revenues to be collected and revenue-exemptions in respect of lands endowed to Rajarajesvaram and other temples in his vast empire.

Before his accession to the throne, Rajaraja was known as Arulmoli (Devan). His other titles and surnames are: Rajarajan, Kshatriya Sikliamani, Rajendra Simhan, Uyyakkondan, Pandya Kulasani, Keralantakan, Nittavinodan, Rajasrayan, Sivapadasekharan, Jana-nathan, Ravikula Manikkam, Nigarili Cholan, Cholendra Simhan, Chola Marttandan, Raja Marttandan, Telunga-kula-kalan, Kirti Parakraman, Mummadi Solan, Chola Narayanan, Jayangonda Solan, Singalantakan, Taila-kula-kalan and others (are 78 of 1930–31).

Of the many queens of Rajaraja I, the Chief one was Loga Mahadevi alias Danti Sakti Vitanki. Of the others, Vanavan Mahadevi alias Tribhuvana Mahadevi has the distinction of being the mother of Rajendra I. The others were: Chola Mahadevi Trailokya Mahadevi, Panchavan Mahadevi, Abhimanavalli, Lata Mahadevi, Prithvi Mahadevi, Meenavan Mahadevi, Viranarayani and Villavan Mahadevi. Many of them have either built temples of their own or donated bronzes to temples.

The greatest event of the life of Rajaraja I was the building of the Rajarajesvaram at Tanjavur. Some hold that there was an older temple in that place called that of Tanjait-tirut-talik-kulattar mentioned in Appar’s Devaram, the Tiruttandagam, and that it was this temple that Rajaraja I rebuilt as the grandest stone-temple of all times. It may be remembered that he was a close associate and disciple of Sembiyan Mahadevi, who, as we know, rebuilt the Tirunallam temple of the Devaram hymns fame as the Gandaradityam and clearly stated the fact of such conversion in her dedicatory inscription at Konerirajapuram. If the older temple in Tanjavur had indeed been the nucleus of the Rajarajesvaram, Rajaraja would have followed his mentor’s example and explicitly stated that such a conversion had been effected. In the absence of such a statement, it seems inconceivable that the great temple would have been erected on an older foundation.

Some hold that the stones for this temple came from the banks of the Narmada. This view appears rather far-fetched. The quarrying area for the stones used in this temple should have been the same as for the other innumerable temples of the region.

The earliest reference to this temple occurs in the nineteenth regnal year of Rajaraja I. The stupik-kudam (copper pot for the finial) was handed over to the temple authorities on the 275th day of the twenty-fifth year of his reign, and the consecration of the temple should have taken place about that time. Rajaraja I seems to have died in or after his twenty-ninth regnal year; before his death, he ordered the recording on the srivimana of this temple all gifts to the temple made by himself, his elder sister, his queens and other donors; these inscriptions contain, in particular, the fullest and most detailed description of the bronzes gifted by the king and other donors, incorporating such details as height, weight, metal-composition, whether solid or hollow, whether seated or standing, descriptions of the pitha and the prabha, number of hands and (other) adjuncts, attendant deities, and numerous other details baffling the imagination—a record again unique in history.

A fuller account of the temple will be found in the next chapter, which deals with the temples of the time of Rajaraja I.[3]

Rajaraja I was a great king. All the elements were so mixed in him—piety, courage, liberality, gratitude, sweetness, courtesy, wisdom, intelligence, purity, tranquillity, dignity, mercy, forbearance, vision, firmness of purpose, perseverance and devotion to the welfare of all—that Nature might stand up and say, “Here was not only a man, but a supreme leader of men\

The great qualities of the Chola family and their claims to to be leaders of men are brought out in the eulogy of the Court poet in the Larger Leyden Grant.

“As long as the moon-crested deity (i.e. Siva) sports with His Consort on the Kailasa Mountain, as long as Hari (Vishnu) performs meditative sleep (Yoga-nidra) on the serpent-couch on the ocean of milk, and as long as the sole light of all the world dispels the dense darkness of the world, so long may the Chola family protect from danger the circle of the whole earth.” (verse 2)

yāvat kailāsa śaile viharati bhagavān indumaulīśva devyā
yāvat kṣīrāmburāśī harirahi śayane yoganidrāntanoti |
yāvaddhvāntannitāntam vyapanayati ravirva?śavalokaika dīpastāvat
pāyādapāyādayamakhila mahimaṇḍalāncolavaṃśaḥ ||

The Cholas belonged to the Solar race, and to Rajaraja I was attributed the virtue of dispelling the dense darkness of the world and protecting his subjects from danger.

1. Mahendragiri

Mahendragiri is in the modern Ganjam district of Orissa. It lay on the border between the medieval kingdoms of Vengi and Kalinga. On this hill, there is a temple of Gokarnesvara, with shrines for Kunti and Yudhishthirar. There are four undated inscriptions in this place. One of them (ARE 397 of 1896) is the Tamil version, in three fragments, of another in Telugu (ARE 39b of 1896). The texts are fragmentary and no safe deductions could be drawn from them, they describe the setting up of two jayaslambhas (pillars of victory) on Mahendragiri by one Kajendra after he had defeated one Vimaladitya of the Kulutas. Venkayya, and following him, others, identified this Vimaladitya with the Vengi prince Vimaladitya (son of Vishnuvardhana he Eastern Chalukyas) and concluded that he was defeated bv Rajendra Chola in battle and taken prisoner to the Chola court.

Recently, B. Venkatakrishna Rao, in his History of the Eastern Chalukyas of Vengi (written with tottc of chau\ inism), has challenged the usual identification of the victor Rajendra and has postulated that the Mahendragiri battle should be ascribed to the period of Kulottunga I and as part of the Kalinga expedition (a.d. 1093. 96) and that the victor was Rajendra Chola, the Vela-ati viceroy of Vengi and a vassal of Kulottunga I’s. This identification seems far-fetched. My own lew is that the victor at Mahendragiri was indeed Rajendra Chola I and that the vanquished was ima aditya of the Kulutas (ruling to the north of Vengi) and not Vimaladitya of the Eastern a u yas who presumably went to the Chola court of his own free will—and not as a prisoner of war a ter being driven out of Vengi. The last-mentioned figures in an inscription of the twenty-mnt year of Rajaraja I as the donor of eight silver kalasams (finials) weighing 1,148 kalanjus to the oga ahadevi Isvaram built at Tiruvaiyaru by Rajaraja I’s queen of that name. We know that he married Kundavai, daughter of Rajaraja I, and was restored to thc rulership of Vengi wit iola help and ruled for seven years (a.d. 1015 - 22). It is not improbable that Rajendra Chola I subdued a recalcitrant chief at Mahendragiri to secure the borders of Vengi, of which he was the overlord. Another fragmentary inscription (ARE 858 of 1917) in the neighbourhood mentions Rajendra and Madhurantaka (surname of Rajendra I), thus confirming the control of this region by Rajendra I.

As the Chola victory at Mahendragiri is not found included in the description of the Gangetic campaign of Rajendra I’s, it seems likely that it took place independently of and before it, in an effort to re-establish the Chola protege Vimaladitya on the Vengi throne and to help overcome the enemies on his borders. It seems safe to conclude that, at the close of Rajendra I’s reign, Mahendragiri formed part of Vengi and of the Chola empire.

2. Kandalur-salai-kalam-aruttaruli

This achievement claimed by Rajaraja I in his prasasti is usually taken to be a naval victory of the Cholas over the Chera fleet.

But a new interpretation was offered by thc late S. Desikavinayakam Pillai that it might mean that “the scale of feeding in the feeding-house of Kandalur was regulated by the king.” (Kerala Society Papers, 2. pp. 100 ff).

Again, the late T.N. Subrahmanyan, after discussing thc salai, an academy established at 1 arthivasekharapuram by Karunandadakkan, the Ay king of Venadu, concluded that Rajaraja I might have, in the course of his southern expedition, come into conflict with the members of the academy a quasi-educational military' organization and must have used force in getting control over it. Ihis explanation is far-fetched as Tamil kings never interfered in the normal functioning of local bodies except in cases of maladministration, defalcation or gross indiscipline.

further, he examined the use of the expression in a Rajakesarivarman inscription at Kovil Ievarayan-pettai (SII, XIII,no. 250) and advanced the view' that this expression was used in the sense of “having gained a victory by defeating the opponents.” (South Indian Temple Inscriptions, III, Pt.II, 1 - 16).

But he himself admitted that the term kalam might have more than one meaning, and that it might mean ship (note 4, p. 13), as is used in the prasasti of Rajendra I: “alai-kadal-nadwil-pala-kalam-selutti”.

This exploit at Kandalur-salai is claimed by a few later Chola kings also; Rajendra I (ARE 363 of 1917), Rajadhiraja I (SII, III, p. 56) and Kulottunga I. The Kalingattupparani sung by his Court poet on Kulottunga I, eulogises the king thus: “Was it not with his navy that Vilijnam on the sea was destroyed and Salai captured?” (Stanza 378).

Again verse 91 of Kulottunga-Solan-Pillait-Tamily a poem on Kulottunga II, describes that the hero with his army destroyed the fort of Vilijnam (on the west coast) and obtained the entire proceeds of the pearl-oysters at the Salai of Poraiyan (The Cheras). The Salai of Poraiyan will mean only Kandalur-Salai of the Cheras.

So, we will be justified in concluding that the expression “Kandalurch-chalai-Kalam-aruttaruli” means the naval victory of Rajaraja I over the Chera fleet at Kandalur-Salai.

Footnotes and references:


See Appendix on the Tiruvalangadu Copper Plates.


A learned French art critic, Marguerita Marie Deneck, in her recent book, Indian Art, The Colour Library of Art, Hamlyn (Oxford), makes the following observations

“It is difficult to know anything about Indian History, particularly, early history. It is often considered that the Indian mind does not possess an historical sense because it is unused to thinking of the past in terms of sequence and was slow to record chronological history: External events alone allowed scholars to date certain facts accurately.” (italics ours)

South Indian inscriptions—especially those of Rajaraja I and his successors—will disprove this sweeping and erroneous generalisation due to prejudice or ignorance.


From a fragmentary inscription of Rajendra I found in the Pushpavanesvarar temple at Tiruppunturutti (ARE 120 of 1931), we learn that a donation of land was made to a Savarna named Naranan Bhattadittan for the reading of Sri-Rajaraja-vijayam. This must have been a composition in praise of Rajaraja I, recounting his great victories and was evidently different from the Rajarajesvara-natakam, which was staged in the temple at Tanjavur (SII, II, p. 306). We do not know the language of this composition, whether it was Tamil or Sanskrit, nor have we any trace of it now.

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