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Glimpses of Medieval Cholas

Post 1: The medieval Cholas were initially opportunistic feudatories in the Pallava-Pandya frontier zone along the lower Kaveri basin. Though they took on the “Chola” dynastic name, it is not clear how this family is related to Sangam-era Cholas, the most famous of whom was Karikala Chola. There is almost no contemporary historical data on the Cholas from the end of the Sangam period (c. 5th/ 6th century CE) to the mid-9th century. Vijayalaya (855-871) was the first notable ruler of this family in medieval times and his capture of Thanjavur marked the acme of his political career. To commemorate his victory, he erected a temple for Nisumbhasudani, the war goddess for the Cholas, in Thanjavur. This stone building, now covered in modern paint and concrete, is often cited as the temple built by Vijayalaya, While it houses a 9th century image of a multi-armed goddess, there is no other evidence to prove that this is Vijayalaya’s temple. The Tiruvalangadu copper-plate inscription which relays this information on Vijayalaya does not specify where he built his temple.  Additionally, the simple architectural form of this temple, which has been heavily modified, does not suggest royal patronage. While this structure may not be Vijayalaya's temple, it may well date from his reign.


Balasubrahmanyam, S. R. (1966). Early Chola Art (Vol. 1). Bombay: Asia Publishing House.

Schmid, C. (2020). Les «rois anciens» du pays tamoul. Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient, 106, 109-156.

Kaimal, P. (1996). Early Cōḻa Kings and" Early Cōḻa Temples": Art and the Evolution of Kingship. Artibus Asiae, 33-66.


Nisumbhasudani temple, Thanjavur, mid-late 9th century CE.

Post 2: The Kizhkottam of Kumbakonam, better known as the Nagesvara temple today, contains some of the finest early 10th century (c. 910 CE) Chola sculptures. It is also significant from a historical viewpoint as the walls are covered with dedicatory inscriptions which give us a sense of political and social life in the 10th century. Of particular interest are three sculptures which have been identified by art historians such as  R.K.K. Rajarajan as representing the first three Chola kings, namely Vijayalaya (855-871), Aditya (871-905) and Parantaka (905-955). All three figures feature aristocratic hairdos, diaphanous clothing, regal postures and, in the case of one, a sword. While there is no inscription identifying these figures, the high quality of the temple’s sculpture and the profile of its donors suggest a royal association.


Rajarajan, R. K. K. (2008). Identification of Portrait Sculptures on the" Pāda" of the Nāgeśvara Temple at Kuṃbhakoṇam. East and West, 58(1/4), 405-414.


Vijayalaya (855-871)


Aditya (871-905)


Parantaka (905-955)

Post 3: Despite Thanjavur’s importance to the Cholas, the urban conglomeration of Kumbakonam-Pazhaiyarai (modern Kumbakonam and neighbouring villages) was the most stable capital of the Chola empire. While the king may have resided in various palaces around the country, inscriptional data demonstrates that the administration, military and members of the royal family largely lived in and around Kumbakonam-Pazhaiyarai. By the 12th century, one hears less and less of Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, the capitals of Rajaraja and Rajendra Chola respectively. Covering over 10,000 hectares by this period, Kumbakonam-Pazhaiyarai was among the largest cities in India. All the royal temples of the 12th century Chola kings were built in and around Kumbakonam-Pazhaiyarai. After the collapse of the empire in the early 13th century, Pazhaiyarai dissolved into a collection of villages while Kumbakonam flourishes as a major town to present day. Owing to the large number of temples at Pazhaiyarai, it was also called Ayirattali or “Thousand Temples”. Even today, there are many temples in the Pazhaiyarai region which contain remnants of the Chola era. The temple pictured here is the 12th century Somanatha temple in Pazhaiyarai.


Ayyar, V. Āyirattali - A Cola Capital, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 9 (1946), 160-165

பாலசுப்பிரமணியன், கு. (1992). நந்திபுரம். சென்னை: இன்டாக் நிறுவனப் பதிப்பு.

Champakalakshmi, R. (1978). Kudamukku-Palaiyarai, The Twin City of the Colas. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 39, 168-179.


Gopuram base of the Somanatha temple, Pazhaiyarai, 12th century


Staircase in the form of a war elephant, Somanatha temple in Pazhaiyarai, 12th century

Post 4: Dance was an essential part of temple ritual in pre-modern India. Chola temples were no exception. Royal temples were lavishly endowed to support hundreds of dancers. The Rajarajesvaram, Rajaraja I’s royal temple, in Thanjavur employed some 400 dancers, all of whom are named in inscriptions. By the 12th century, images of dancers in specific dance postures (karana) were common in Chola temples. These images function as a sort of visual encyclopaedia of medieval dance. Prior to the 12th century, there was no systematic attempt at representing a comprehensive range of dance postures in temple sculpture even though dancers and dancing gods were depicted individually or in small groups. At the Sarangapani temple of Kumbakonam, both the lower moulding of the main shrine and the east gopuram feature late Chola (12th - early 13th century) sculptural panels of dancers in a dizzying variety of postures and gestures.


Michell, G. (2012). Chola and Neo-Chola temple architecture in and around Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. In Hegewald, J. A., and Mitra, S. K. (eds.). Re-Use-The Art and Politics of Integration and Anxiety. Delhi: Sage Publications, 86-106.

Vatsyayan, K. (1982). Dance sculpture in Sarangapani temple. Madras: Saher publications.


Dancers on the lower moulding of the Sarangapani temple’s main shrine, Kumbakonam, 12th/ early 13th century,


Another view of dancers on the lower moulding of the Sarangapani temple’s main shrine, 12th/ early 13th century, Kumbakonam

Post 5: The Tribhuvanaviresvaram or Kampaharesvara temple in Tirubuvanam (near Kumbakonam) is the last great royal temple of the Chola dynasty. The modern settlement and the temple are named after the Chola king’s title of Tribhuvanavira which translates as “Victor of the Three Worlds”. This name celebrates both the god Siva as vanquisher of the three forts of the ogres (Tripurantaka) and the temple’s builder, the Chola king Kulottunga III (1178 - 1218), who claimed victory over the Pandya province, Kerala and Sri Lanka. Kulottunga III was the last Chola king who held significant political power. While he managed to stem the growing tide of centrifugal forces throughout his long reign, a Pandya invasion towards the end of his reign (1216-17) crippled Chola power. It is perhaps fitting that the last significant building of the Chola empire harkens back to Rajaraja I’s temple in Thanjavur (1010 CE) whose construction signalled the revived political fortunes of the Cholas.


Sarkar, H. (1974). The Kampaharesvara Temple at Tribhuvanam. Madras: Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu.


Tribhuvanaviresvaram or Kampaharesvara temple in Tirubuvanam, c. 1200-1212


Brhadisvara temple of Rajaraja I, Thanjavur, 1010 CE

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