What’s the first thing that crosses one’s mind when we talk of Thanjavur? Undoubtedly, it has to be ‘CHOLAS’, the mighty dynasty that ruled over present day South and East India and spread its influence as far as South East Asia. Under the great Raja Raja Chola, and later his son Rajendra Chola, the kings of this dynasty conquered and established their rule over parts of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Maldives and Indonesia among others. Reigns of Raja Raja and his son Rajendra is aptly considered the Golden Age. They were patrons of art, architecture, economy, governance and even military. They were contemporaries of Pandyas and Cheras.
Cholas belonged to the Vellalar caste and were of Suryavanshi lineage. They were valorous and had the mighty Tiger as an emblem of their dynasty. Sangam poets flourished under their patronage. They were devout Shaivites and it was customary for every victorious Chola king to build a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva in the place captured by them. Brihadeeswara Temple, built by Raja Raja Chola, is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is a famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides that, Gangaikonda Cholapuram has a famous Shiva Temple built by his son Rajendra Chola I, as a thanks giving to the Lord after Rajendra conquered lands as far away as the banks of the Ganges.
Cholas were Kshatriyas not just by birth but by deeds as well. They were the first ones to recognize the importance of maintaining a navy. Although it was Raja Raja who first built a navy, it was under his successor and son Rajendra Chola that the navy touched glorious heights and set sail beyond waters captured by Raja Raja. It was Raja Raja who conquered Northern Sri Lanka while his son later led an expedition and brought Southern Sri Lanka under the Chola Empire. There have been numerous such conquests by them that spread not only their influence but also their culture in particular and Hinduism in general to places as far away as Indonesia in South East Asia.
Military conquests were just one aspect of their personality. Their taste in music, culture, art and architecture speaks volumes about their religious inclinations and refined tastes. They patronized Shaivite saints, popularly known as Nayanars, and ensured that the texts written by these great saints were collected and compiled so that people may make use of them. Administrative reforms were also carried out by them extensively. Chola bronzes were and still continue to be famous. Chola bronzes of Lord Nataraja were beautiful beyond description and are today among the most valuable Chola artifacts. Like all great dynasties, the descendants were not as powerful and influential; thereby conceding their kingdom to the resurgent Pandyas.
However, the greatness of the Cholas cannot be easily forgotten or written off. They have given the world in general and Hindus in particular; more than one reason to be proud of. Their monuments stand testimony to the heights they achieved and can possibly never be replicated despite the technology we possess. Tiger, a symbol of majesty and power, is aptly their emblem.
Latha Iyer **