The 1000th Coronation Year of Rajendra Chola – One of the Greatest Kings of India

Rajendra Chola's Empire
Rajendra Chola's Empire

This article is a tribute to Rajendra Chola – I, the greatest Tamil king and one of the greatest emperors of the world, on the 1000th anniversary of his Coronation of the Chola king.

[box type=”info”]”There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.” — Plato[/box]

Fortunately in our country we had many great philosophers as our kings. These kings despite being great warriors, were also extra-ordinary human beings and left a legacy for the future generations. Ours is a land of Philosopher kings like Janka, Harsha vardhana, Chandragupta II, Raja Raja Chola and so on; in fact one of the greatest philosophers of all time – Buddha, was a prince.

Ever since I was a kid, I have always wanted to learn more about the Cholas, partly because I belonged to same community as that of the Cholas and partly because of the huge temples they built around the river Kaveri. My native place used to be the heart of Chola Empire’s commerce and administration. As a child I have spent hours together in the legendary port of Kaveri Poompatinam (the biggest port of Cholas, majority of which is now submerged under sea).I have spent more time in the Shiva temples built by the Cholas than at home. So, I was always eager to learn about them and when finally I got a chance to read about the Cholas in our history book, I was deeply disappointed. Information about the rule of Raja Raja Chola was restricted to a single paragraph in the huge book. While the book had chapters for every sultan of slave dynasty who came from Afghan and about those plunderers from Turkey, it hardly had anything about the Cholas. That disappointment led to a curiosity, which forced me to research more about the Chola kings. It was hard to find related books at the library, but I some how managed to read books about Raja Raja Chola, and by then, my curiosity about him, became more of an admiration.

The Legacy of Raja Raja – I:

During the second year of my college, a junior and a very close friend of mine, Jefferson Daniel, introduced me to the greatest Tamil novel of all time “Ponnien Selvan” – A semi-fictional biography of Raja Raja Chola. Reading that book  prompted me to get more authentic information about him. Raja Raja Chola conquered the kingdoms of Chera (current Kerala), Vengi, Western Chalukyas (Major part of Karnataka and some parts of Maharastra), Kalinga (orrisa) and Srilanka (Major Part of Sri Lanka). Chola kingdom was one of the strongest, wealthiest and the largest kingdoms of that time. He created the first Navy of India, no Indian Kings before him ever had a Navy. His naval fleet was so powerful, that Chinese envoys, visited Tanjavur to learn about ship construction and naval weaponry. He had close to half a million war prisoners, but instead of putting them in Jail, he gave them two options to go back to their kingdoms or to work for him in constructing the greatest temple of all time. majority of them stayed back and were instrumental in building one of the wonders of world – the Peruvudaiyar Temple (Brahadeeswara Temple). However just expansion of the empire or building temples was not his legacy, his legacy was his administration and his approach towards the citizens. In my opinion his greatest achievement was the implementation of  a working democracy in the state’s administration. The Country was divided in to provinces and the provinces were divided in to villages, and every village was divided in to 30 wards. People selected the representative for their ward through a procedure called as Kudavolai System. Unlike today there were certain restrictions to contest in that election. The contestant should be educated and should be between 35 and 70 years of age. Empowering the people and bringing them in to governance made the kingdom to become on of the most prosperous and happy kingdoms. The administrative powers at the provincial level were completely decentralized. This in my opinion was the true legacy of Raja Raja.

The Coronation of Rajendra Chola – One of Greatest Kings of India:

Exactly 1000 years ago and probably during this part of the year, Raja Raja Chola passed his last breath. That year, 1014 AD was very significant in the history of India, the coronation happened and King Rajendra Chola sat on the Chola throne for the first time. It goes without saying that he inherited a mighty empire from his father, however along with the empire, he also inherited his father’s wars.

Though he was the king of that vast kingdom, the ministers, poets and everyone around sang of his father, Rajaraja Chola, and called him the greatest Chola king. It is so difficult to be the sons of great men, the benchmark is set too high that only very few can live up to the billing. However Rajendra Chola had plans to not only meet the expectations of the people but also to overshadow even his late father’s glory. As an unbiased reader of history one will acknowledge that he surpassed his Father’s legacy by creating a truly global empire. His navy held the Islands of Andaman and Nicobar, controlling the entire Indian ocean. He finished all the wars that he inherited. He destroyed the rebellion of the Pandyas, Kalinga (Orrisa) was completely brought under control. When the Sinhalese King fought for his freedom, Rejendra Chola destroyed that rebellion and brought the entire Sri Lanka under his direct rule. With no more rebellion and with the mighty Chola flag, a pouncing tiger, fluttering right from parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kalinga and Lanka, he set his sights beyond.

Rajendra Chola's  Empire
Rajendra Chola’s Empire

Before starting further conquests, he made sure the economy of the country grows at a rapid pace; he opened up the market and commerce flourished, with Romans, Arabs and the Chinese strolling on the vast streets of Tanjavur and Nagai, selling their merchandise. At the same time the export of the local merchandise grew multifold. There was no discontent or poverty among any sect in the kingdom. The young Chola king , then wanted more. He set his eyes North, and instead of sending just his army he lead the army himself along with the able support of one of great army generals of all time (Araiyan Rajarajan) and captured Odda kingdom. The Palas who ruled the Gangetic plains of Bihar and Bengal, were a formidable opponents. The king Mahipala had a huge army, however after one of the bloodiest wars of that time the Pala kingdom fell and Mahipala laid his crown at Rajendra’s feet. Rajendra erected a small Shiva temple in the banks of Ganges and performed a Pooja there, and got the title ‘Gangaikonda Cholan‘. He brought the water of Ganga back to Tanjavur and later build a huge temple in Gangai Konda Cholapuram. He had plans to build a bigger temple than the Tanjavur temple, but dropped that idea, because he wanted his father’s temple to be the biggest in his kingdom.

GangaiKonda Cholapuram Temple
GangaiKonda Cholapuram Temple

The Cold War Between Mohammad Ghazni and Rajendra Chola:

When Rajendra Chola controlled the entire South and Eastern India, Mohammad Ghazni was repeatedly invading the North and North-West India. Mahmud set out on regular expeditions against India as he vowed to raid India every year (It is a myth that he failed 17 times and won the 18th time. He came, he conquered, he looted and he left the country every-time). He captured and looted Mathura, Kannauj and Meerut, and set his sights on the south of India. South India at that point of time was far wealthier than North India, however he dropped the plans after learning about the might of Rajendra Chola through his spies. Certain historians also feel that the North Indian conquest of Rajendra and his show of strength acted as a major deterrent in preventing the Arabs’ and Afghans’ from attempting to conquer India (The Southern part).

Invasion of the Indonesian Archipelago:

With significant portion of the Indian subcontinent under him he strengthened his Navy and sent it on a expedition to conquer the lands of South-East Asia. His naval technology and capabilities were far advanced than his contemporaries’. Fearing the power of Rajendra Chola, the kings of Burma, Thailand, Indo-China, Malay Penisula and the Indonesian Archipelago accepted the Chola’s as their overloads. The navy won over every kingdom in its path. All the lands around the Bay of Bengal came under Cholas, and the entire Bay of Bengal was addressed as “The Chola Lake“. On the Western side he captured Lakhswadeep and Maldives. So at the height of Rajendra Chola’s power the Chola kingdom was so vast, making it one of the largest empires to ever rule the subcontinent.

Angkor Wat Built by Chola King
Angkor Wat Built by SuryaVarman II of Khmer Dynasty – A Chola Vassal

Rajendra made his men as the kings of several kingdoms in Combodia and the Indonesian Archipelago. SuryaVarma I, a vassal of Rajendra Chola re-established the Khmer kingdom again by taking the help of Rajendra Chola. His successor SuryaVarma II built the largest Hindu Temple in the whole world (Angkor Wat), the artisans from the Chola kingdom aided a great deal in establishing this temple. In return SuryaVarma II continued with  the homage and the fealty to Kulothunga Chola I. The recently excavated towns in Cambodia lay testament to the fact that the town planning of the Cholas was much ahead of their times. The border conflict between Thailand and Combodia for over hundred years is actually over an Ancient Shiva Temple – Preah Vihear Temple.  Rajendra’s vassal, Surya Verma I under the instructions of Rajendra built that temple. Most of these temples had riches beyond imagine, but were looted by the Europeans later.

In Burma a recent excavation revealed two octagonal granite pillars near the Pegu-Thanatpin road. Measuring about 11 and 5 feet, respectively. Researchers identify this to be Jayastambha or Pillars of Victory set up by Rajendra Chola I., who overran Pegu in 1025-1027 A. D. A few years before the conquest of Thaton by Anawrata, King of Pagan. English and foreign historians have a good amount of literature about Rajendra’s conquest of Burma. However the Burmese historians have remained silent until recently. They now accept that Rajendra Cholan conquered most of the Southern Burma between 1025 and 27 A.D.

The Chinese Connection:

The Chinese Kingdoms (Initially the Tang Dynasty and later the Song Dynasty), respected the Cholas a lot and they gave liberal licenses to the Chola people to trade in China. The Chola people back then set up a huge settlement and were the pioneers of trade in China. They built several temples in their locality,  though several got destroyed, a few are still alive. The Chezhiyan temple (called as Chediyan in China), in Quanzhou is still quite popular and the Chinese people worship there every day, claiming it to be very powerful. There is a huge Shiva Lingam in the Bamboo Park in China built around the same period. Some inscriptions in China also describes about the Naval co-operation between the Chinese and the Chola Kingdom.

Chedian Temple
The Chedian Temple, China, Photo Courtesy: Ananth Krishnan, The Hindu

The Legacy of Rajendra Chola:

Rajendra Chola controlled the greatest army that India had seen, while Raja Raja Chola had an army of 900,000 strong men, Rajendra had an army close to 1.5 million men (To put that number in perspective the current Indian army has 1.1 million active personnel) and he had a naval fleet that was unmatched by anyone at that time. However after a couple of centuries his kingdom shrunk and was eventually overthrown. His huge capital city is today reduced to a small village. The only remnants of that great city are the Shiva temple and Lion Well. Fortunately the place is now a world heritage site and the city of one of the greatest kings of India is not completely lost. In addition to those great achievements he also left a lasting legacy, he built temples around the country and allotted agricultural lands and wealth to every temple. People might not know, most of the significant Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Sri Lanka are built by him. Those temples protected the people during natural calamities and droughts for centuries together. Hundreds of those temples that he built has withstood invasions and even after 1000 years they still stand tall and serve the people. The temples he built in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and China are still a testament to the greatness of this land and its people.

The Indian Government named the Naval Training Academy as TS Rajendra, to appreciate the greatness of the Naval fleet of Rajendra. Science, technology, spirituality and fine arts thrived during his rule. Unlike modern day secularism, he was truly secular despite being a strong Shaivite, he built Buddhist temples and Buddhist schools for the benefit of the minority Buddhists who lived in his kingdom.

To me Raja Raja Chola is a hero, but Rajendra Chola is a super star. I just wish those historians who write our history books to give due importance to the Chola Kingdom as well. If the Gupta period was the First Golden Age of India, definitely the Chola empire is the Second Golden Age of India. We call Alexander the Great, (who was eventually defeated), but we fail to acknowledge the greatness of Rajendra who conquered faraway lands and established kingdoms under him, spread philosophy, art and architecture, improved trade and above all was never defeated in a battle. In every aspect, be it ambition, the army size, victories or battle strategies Rajendra was ahead of every great conqueror that includes Alexander. Unlike the tyrant invaders, Rajendra was a great philosopher, and he gave a great deal of importance to administration, education and welfare of all his subjects.

Note: Rajendra Chola’s Birthday is being celebrated in a grand manner in Gangaikonda Cholapuram on 24th and 25th of July, please support it and be a part of it if possible

Edit: The celebration was a grand success as huge number of people and several dignitaries like author Balakumaran participated in the event.

References:

[checklist]

  • Nilakanta Sastri, K. A. (1935). The Cholas, University of Madras, Madras.
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K. A. (1955). A History of South India, OUP, New Delhi.
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K. A. (1955), A History of South India – From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar.
  • Rothermund, Dietmar; Kulke, Hermann (1998). A history of India. New York: Routledge.
  • R. Hall, Kenneth (October 1975). Khmer Commercial Development and Foreign Contacts under Sūryavarman I
  • Śrīnidhiḥ: perspectives in Indian archaeology, art, and culture : Shri K.R. Srinivasan festschrift By K. R. Srinivasan, K. V. Raman
  • Epigraphia Indica, Volume 22 By Devadatta Ramkrishna Bhandarkar, Archaeological Survey of India, India. Dept. of Archaeology, India. Archaeological Survey
  • The Art and Architecture of Angkor Kings
  • Pages 31-32 of his History of Burma
  • Hermann Kulke, K. Kesavapany, Vijay Sakhuja (2009). Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on Chola Naval Expeditions to Southeast Asia. Institute of Southeast Asian, 2009. [/checklist]
  • Sandeep Bekal

    Finally a good article on Rajendra Chola. I think his greatest achievements were two- firstly, militarily, he remained undefeated. Secondly, he was an ideal just king with no poor people in his vast kingdom .

  • vigneshwaran

    My doubt is in spite of being indomitable how did his empire shrink?

    • It is not something unique to this empire. Most dynasties of the world did not last more than 6 generations, and those that lasted beyond 6 generations transformed a great deal or gave in to other forms of administration.

      Even the great dynasties of India like Gupta and Maurya dynasty did not last longer than 250 years. Maurya dynasty lasted just 4 generations and even Mughal dynasty lasted only 6 generations. However the Chola empire lasted for more than 420 years and saw 20 kings, which is phenomenal by any standards.

      • Raja Kishor D

        Vague brains could understand this much only. How many years they ruled is not of much importance. What is important is that what they contributed to the country. Only counting the years of ruling is foolish thing.

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  • Dr Robert Kharsing

    Thank you, Mr Ajithkumar. A great piece of history so elegantly presented. I have travelled through his capital and seen the great Brahadeeswara temple many years back and also Gangaikondan. I had learnt something about this greatest emperor of India at that time but did not know the meaning of Gangaikondan till I read your article. My Meghalaya also must have been a part of his territory. I feel deeply proud of him. You write so well. Please keep writing about other great historical figures of that period, too.

  • Jyoti Prakash Gupta

    Excellent.. Thank you for hard work to bring back these forgotten pages of history back to life.. Looking forward to more such articles from you..

  • Arjun

    Excellent article. We need more articles like these. Many Indians unfortunately does not know the history of other parts of India.No that they don’t want to read and hear but our self hating marxist “eminent historians” did not tell them or wrote about them instead writing about useless sultans and invaders. For Example, How many people outside Andhra know about Gautami Putra Satakarni of Satavahana Empire who defeated the Shakas and Greeks or Musunuri Nayakas of Kakatiya kingdom who defeated the Turks. Similarly, how many people out side Karnataka know about Rashtrakuta Empire, one of the powerful empires in Indian history or How many people outside Assam know about Lachit Borpukhan of Ahom Kingdom who defeated the Mughals. These are our real Indian heroes and their stories need to be told to present generations. Thanks again for this article

    • Very true. The history books of India should be written by people without any vested agenda.

  • Arvind Patel

    We need to invest in reserch in history, rather then just picking up history written by Europeans and Marxist of Indian origin, who were blinded by secular blinkers. I felt proud being an Indian that we had such illustratious ancestors. Maharajadhiraj Rajendra Chola to me is not a Tamilian, I consider him to be a great indian, who was responsible for economic and social empowerment of Indian residing in southern part of country. His 1000 coronation anniversary deserves to be celebrated across the country. It will be approprite to call PM for this celbration which should last for one year and the themem should be Power to People, strengthening of Panchyati Raj in country, which i learnt fro this article is the original Chola concelpt.

  • Kasi Viswanathan

    Thanks Ajith for the article which has sparked an interest in me to know more about the Chola Empire.I agree with the observation of Venkata Murthy. I hope your well researched article helps in appreciating our History.

    I am going to share this with my children and friends.

  • Pravinth

    Thank u for refreshing my memories and made me feel proud

  • rajeshgounder

    Ajith, It is a meaningful article and thanks for writing. At least in our generation let us give the inside of our cultural value and history behind to the world. cheers
    Rajesh

  • Thiru

    Good article as I am learning our past kingdoms to appreciate. You are right, ours don’t have much publicity but that will not make us forget in this digital age.

    Just curious, do you know why Chola just conquered the SEA-Eastern sides but not West-towards Middle East/Arabs/Africa etc since they have Naval power? Just comparing with latter imperialist who travelled everywhere.

    Thanks and keep it up.

    • There was no point in attacking the middle-east or arabia. Why to attack a desert country full of nomads, with no natural resource or wealth. The middle-east rose to prominence only after the discovery of oil and related machinery.

  • Venkata Murthy

    Thank you for the Article on the Cholas. I have always had the impression that our History is under appreciated and overshadowed by the western writers. Good research and weld one.

  • Raj Rajendran

    Dear Ajith,

    I am very thankful for the work you have done in helping people like me learn more about their history and heritage. I am sharing it with my children, so they can understand and appreciate the history and their culture. Thanks again.