The Chola Empire

From time to time, when circumstances align just right, a golden age of peace and prosperity is born and a thousand years ago in south India, the Chola Empire was such a society. Once Rajaraja Chola I had created his commercial and military empire he directed his energy and treasury towards building scores of beautiful temple complexes, filling them with the beauty and power of paintings, music, dance…and the extraordinary Chola Bronzes.

Little is known about the Cholas before they became the dominant power in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu, but that changed when a new king took ascended the Chola throne. In the year 848, Vijayalaya led his armies on what was to become one hundred and fifty years of Chola military conquest. His infantry, cavalry, archers and war elephants defeated old rivals to the north, south and west; while later, his son and grandson’s navies secured the eastern seaboard before turning their attentions upon Lanka, the Maldive Islands, Burma, Malaya, Sumatra and the Srivijaya Empire of present-day Indonesia. Rather than foreign territorial expansion, the aim of this expensive aggression was control of seagoing trade. As a result, Chola traders came to dominate trade in the area as surely as Chola navies dominated the seas (note 1). Trade was the source of Chola prosperity, with exports of cotton, spices and gems, and importing and re-exporting luxury goods from as far away as Tang Dynasty China and the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. With the borders secure and trade filing his coffers, Rajaraja Chola I built Brihadisvara Temple, the tallest and grandest temple ever seen in India up to that time in Tanjavur, his capital (note 2).

Chola map

When Rajaraja Chola built Brihadisvara, it was as much a political statement as it was an act of devotion. It reinforced the political principle of divine rule, blurring the line between sovereign and god. Brihadisvara was a symbol of royal prestige, an exercise of power which also rewarded Rajaraja with temple honour (mariyatai) for his role in facilitating worship. Sembiyan Mahadevi, Rajaraja’s aunt and enthusiastic patron of the arts, left dozens of masterpieces in many cities, towns and villages, including magnificent temples in Konerirajapuram, Vriddachalam and Tiruvalangadu. Such ritual gift-giving (dana) was an ancient Hindu tradition and redistributed wealth by encouraging community works such as temples, tanks, gardens and wells. Each temple was endowed with great riches in the form of gold, jewellery, textiles and bronze sculptures as well as meeting the cost of providing food, incense and lamps, ensuring the temple functioned in perpetuity. Ordinary citizens also benefitted from mariyatai as it conferred status, honour and prestige in the community. At its dedication in 1010, Rajaraja gifted twenty-two of its sixty bronze icons, as well as a set of lavish jewellery to adorn each of them. We know this because these endowments were written in stone on the temple walls, as well as an accounting of the other temple expenses such as repairs, dancers (or devadasi), musicians, poets, painters, jewellers and of course, sculptors and bronze-smiths.

Chola drawings

Devadasis on a recently discovered mural inside the Brihadisvara temple.

Chola drawings

Rajaraja the first with his guru.

By the late 13th century the Chola Dynasty had run its course, but its spiritual and artistic legacy lives on through their temples and sacred sculpture. The presence of Hinduism throughout southeast Asia today is due in no small part to Chola seagoing merchants, while the practice of Hinduism itself was given an infusion of fresh Chola ideas, chief among them Bhakti, the belief that anyone could approach God without the necessity of priestly ritual, which to this day is the dominant spiritual practice for Hindus worldwide. For art lovers around the world, of course, the Chola’s greatest gift is their extraordinary bronzes.

After the collapse of the Chola Dynasty, south India was spared the degree of depredation Muslim invaders inflicted upon Hindu temples and art in north India (note 3). When the Mughals arrived in the former Chola homeland in 1311, their touch was relatively light, and they stayed for only a hundred years rather than the thousand years in north India. The brevity of Mughal occupation ensured Vedic Hinduism in south India remained relatively untouched, and its temples remain as they were built a millennia or more ago. Light touch or not the Mughals – based in Madurai – were offended by icons they saw as voluptuously sensual, and many bronzes were looted and melted down into cannon by the invaders. Fortunately for us, however, temple priests of the time secretly buried their icons underground or hid them deep in their vaults. From time to time, a hoard is found, but the pieces are considered unconsecrated; without spiritual value. While a few bronzes are reconsecrated and returned to their temples, most are acquired by museums or private collectors through legal channels – or otherwise.

Note 1 – The Hindu beliefs of Chola traders also found a warm reception throughout southeast Asia and the spread of Hinduism throughout the region was rapid, extensive and long-lasting. Angkor Wat, for instance, in modern-day Cambodia is a Hindu temple.

Note 2 – Brihadisvara has been in constant use since its completion in 1010 and been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Note 3 – Today it’s very hard to find a large Hindu temple in the northern Indian sacred cities of Varanasi or Mathura older than 400 years.

Note 2 – Brihadisvara has been in constant use since its completion in 1010 and in 1987 was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Note 3 – Today it’s difficult to find a large Hindu temple in north India, the former Mughal Empire, older than 400 years.