Rise of The Cholas (Part 1): Story of King Ellara, Karikala, and Imperial Cholas

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In the context of Indian history, whenever we delve to find those empires and kings that lasted for centuries and had an everlasting impact on our lives, the name of the Cholas remained in the topmost position.

The empire that spanned the region of Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Sumatra, Java, and later Bengal emerged as the paramount power in India and Southeast Asia. The Cholas carved out the strongest navy that India ever witnessed, their style of temple architecture to this day mesmerizes the world and their contribution to the expansion of Hinduism in and around the world still remained unmatched.

map of the Chola empire
South India during the Sangam Age.

Due to these achievements and several other contributions of the Cholas, it is difficult to tell the story of this kingdom in a single article.

Their origin, and expansion under various kings like Karikala, Vijayalaya, Rajaraja I, and others their prosperity in the fields of architecture, literature, and trade cannot be summarized in a single post.

So we will cover their story in part and in this part we will shed lite on the early history of the Cholas.   

Early Cholas of Sangam Age

During the Sangam Age which emerged in the prosperous kingdom of the Pandyas the rule of three powerful kingdoms ruled the Tamil country or southern portion of the Indian subcontinent.

Those three kingdoms were the Chera, The Cholas, and the Pandyas. In our previous article on the Sangam Age, we mentioned some parts of all these kingdoms but here we will strictly focus on the history of the early Cholas and their successor the Imperial Cholas.

The early Cholas which rose to prominence during the Sangam Age and achieved a significant amount of success established themselves at Urayiur i.e. modern-day Trichy.

They had a thriving sea trade and agriculture was the mainstay of their economic prosperity. Two important seaports that traded with European giants like the Greeks and the Romans were Puhar (Kaveripattinam) and Arikamedu.  

King Elara and Karikala

Ellara/Elara was the Chola king who conquered the region of Ceylon and annexed their capital Anuradhapura for almost four decades.

The date of this incident is believed to be from 202 BCE-160 BCE. Furthermore, this is also considered as the earliest evidence of invasion led by an Indian ruler against a foreign land.

King Karikala

Another king who is remembered for his unstoppable exploits was King Karikala Chola. The man who constructed a dam (also called Kallanai) in those days was on the banks of river Kaveri. To this day this dam stands still and reminds the geniuses of Karikala and his workers.

Furthermore, he fought battles against his arch-rivals like the Pandyas, Chera, etc. He is believed to have defeated the confederacy of Pandyas, Cheras, and 11 other rulers in the battle of Venni.

Statue of king Karikala Chola

The Sangam text known as Pattinappalai which tells the details of the Cholas mentions the military prowess of King Karikala. However, after the end of the Sangam age, there are no clear historical sources from which we can tell anything about the Chola history.

From the beginning of the 4th CE to the establishment of the Chola supremacy in Tanjore in the later 9th CE, nothing is much known.

The general view of many historians suggests that the king who came after the reign of Karikala was subdued by the Kalabhras. Later with the rise of Pallavas the Cholas again established themselves but this time as feudatory of the Pallavas.

The early records of the Pallavas, Pandyas, and Chalukyan sources mention the Cholas and their army which suggests that the Cholas might be ruling some territories but were not strong enough. 

Imperial Cholas: Rise of Vijayalaya and Aditya I

So far we have discussed the story of the early Cholas of the Sangam Age. The imperial Cholas which located themselves at modern-day Tanjore are believed to have been related to some extent to the early Cholas of the Sangam Age.

 Vijayalaya Chola
Image of King Vijayalaya Chola

However, due to a lack of evidence and a lack of historical sources, the relation between the early and imperial Cholas of Tanjore to this day remains ambiguous.  

The imperial Cholas emerged as one of the strongest Indian empires of medieval history. A staunch follower of Shaivism and patronized art, literature, culture, and architecture both in India and South East Asia.

Under the banner of imperial Cholas, the region of southern India became prosperous. They also established their hegemony over the sea trade of the Indian Ocean.

The Imperial Cholas conquered the whole of Tamilakam and under the brilliant and gallant leadership of kings like Rajaraja I, and Rajendra I the Cholas took Ceylon, the islands of Lakshadweep, Maldives, Burma, Sumatra, Bengal, Java, etc.

Through their unending conquests, they expanded their supremacy in all possible directions. Furthermore, if we delve deep into Indian history we will find that it was the Cholas that built the strongest navy in Indian history.

The imperial Cholas rose to prominence under Vijayalaya Cholas who initially worked as a feudatory chief under the Pallavas.

The actual date of Vijayalaya Chola is around 850-871 CE. His biggest achievement was the annexation of the region of Tanjore from Muttaraiyar who were the feudatories of the Pandyas of Madurai.

At that time there was an intense rivalry between the Pallavas and the Pandyas. So in order to aid his Pallava overlords Vijayalaya Chola made a bold move of capturing the Tanjore region.

In later years he became successful in taking Uraiyur and lower Kaveri region.

Aditya I the son and successor of King Vijayalaya ruled from 871 to 907 CE. Initially owed allegiance to the Pallavas and took part in the famous battle of Shripurambiyam where the Pallava with the aid of Aditya I defeated the army of the Pandyas.

However, the loyalty of Aditya I didn’t last long, and later he fought and defeated his Pallava overlord Aparjita. This was a turning point in the history of the Imperial Cholas and South India.

After the victory over the Pallavas Aditya, I became the master of Tondaimandalm. But he didn’t stop here and later annexed the regions of Coimbatore and Salem. He also established matrimonial alliances with the Pallavas and as Shavite he built temples dedicated to Shiva.

Due to his strong and aggressive expansionist policy which made the Cholas the master of Tondaimandalam King Aditya I is considered as the real founder of the Imperial Chola dynasty.

However, there were several other kings of the Cholas like the great Rajarja I, Parantaka I, Rajendra I and the list goes on.

Their stories of valor, efficient administration which at the village level was based on the local self-government model or the Panchayati Raj System, management of trade with southeast Asia, expansion of Hinduism in the region of Sumatra, Java, and Indonesia all became possible due to these kings.

We will cover their stories in detail in separate articles.


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