The Chola Empire was one of the largest maritime empires in history, an empire that united all of India south of the Tungabhadra river and colonized lands as far as Indonesia and the Maldives, introducing Hinduism to those lands, which continues to have an impact to this day. Yet, despite this massive empire, very little is known about how this ancient empire started. The best sources are Mauryan inscriptions and the Tamil Sangam literature.
The Three Crowned Kings
Southern India, particularly what is today Tamil Nadu, was primarily ruled by three dynasties: the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas, collectively called the Three Crowned Kings. Of these, it was the Chola Empire that represented the peak of these southern Empires. But the Chola Empire itself was created and lost in stages. Broadly, these are the early Cholas, who primarily consolidated their homeland in and around the fertile plains of the Kaveri river; the middle Cholas who vastly expanded their territory, defeating the Palas on the plains of the Ganga in Pataliputra (Patna) as well as the Srivijaya Empire in South-East Asia, annexing vast and diverse lands including parts of Bengal in the process; and the later Cholas, who lost territory in slow increments until the entire dynasty strangely vanished from history. Indeed, the history of the Chola Empire is full of fascinating holes that only our guesses can attempt to fill.
The Sangam Age
Tamil Sangam literature is an exceptionally useful source of historical information, although it is also a difficult source to use because there is no way to verify its claims. Sangam literature was meant to be a work of art, first and foremost, and not history; therefore, segregating the fact from the fiction is not easy. The literature speaks of mythical Chola kings with their capital at Urayur (modern Trichy).
After the Sangam Age however, it is generally accepted that two dynasties held sway over southern India: the Pallavas and the Pandyas. They gained and lost territory over centuries but in general held control, except for a period when an obscure dynasty invaded and tool control. It was in c. 850-870 when the first Chola emperor Vijayalaya reigned. This king started off as a dependent of the Pallava dynasty, when he saw an opportunity to seize power during a period of struggle between the Pallavas and the Pandyas. In midst of struggle, he seized Thanjavur and made it the capital of a new Chola Empire.
Following the conquest of Thanjavur, the second Chola Emperor Aditya I (c. 870-907), consolidated his empire and defeated the Pallava Dynasty in territories held by them, unseating them but not entire removing them from power. In 885, he defeated the Pandyans in their capital Madurai, establishing the Cholas as the sole Tamil power in South India. This was a dramatic change from less than a century ago, when the Cholas were non-existent.
But the Cholas continued to win territory in southern India. Aditya I invaded and occupied parts of the Kannada territory. To consolidate his gains in the Kannada regions, he held marital ties with the Western Ganga dynasty in the modern region of Mysore. By this time however, the Western Ganga dynasty had allied with the Rashtrakutas in the Deccan, temporarily halting Aditya Chola's conquest.
The next wave of expansion came with through his son, Parantaka Chola I, who conquered and annexed Sri Lanka, radically expanding the empire. With this new acquisition, the Chola Empire prospered. Parantaka Chola II used that power to build a massive military force to conquer the Rashtrakuta Empire and annex territory up to Bhatkal in modern Karnataka.
Thus, by the end of the first half of the 10th Century, the Cholas has radically transformed the southern part of India and Sri Lanka, establishing themselves as a great power. It was in the next century however, that the real expansion took place.
Next: The Middle Cholas