Sunday, April 12, 2015

Parikrama: The Great Imperial Expansion

With the annexation of Sri Lanka and the creation of administrative units following the defeat of the Rashrakutas in the Deccan, the Cholas consolidated their holdings. The greatest of the kings in the Middle Chola period was Rajaraja Chola I, an able administrator and military strategist who not only expanded the Empire to its greatest heights but also established administrative control over conquered areas, creating local governments who would report to the King. 

Rajaraja Chola I protected the Godavari districts of the Vengi, which formed the heart of his kingdom, while also ending the reign of the Western Ganga empire entirely and annexing large parts of the Kannda territory. By 996, all of the Chera terriority (modern Kerala) and norther Sri Lanka had been administratively integrated into him empire. In celebration of these great conquests, he commission the construction of the Brihadishvara temple, a massive monument that stands to day in Thanjavur as a shining example of Indian art, engineering and culture. By 1014, he further went on to annex the Maldives and the Lakshadweep islands, the latter remaining with India to this day. 

The Great Son
However, for all the celebrations of Rajaraja Chola I, his son outdid him in every respect. Rajendra Chola I can easily be described as the greatest Chola emperor in the entire history of the dynasty and indeed, one of the greatest military conquerors in India and Indo-China. In the south, he completed the annexation of Sri Lanka by imprisoning the Sinhala King Mahinda V, while in the north, his armies led a successful expedition to the kingdoms of the Ganga, one of the few instances when a southern dynasty conquered parts of northern India. In celebration of waters of the Ganga being made available to his kingdom, he constructed a new capital, Gangaikonda Cholapuram. He defeated the Palas and annexed parts of Bengal as well as Odisha, thus becoming one of the last Hindu emperors of 

But his victories were not limited to the Indian subcontinent. His army invaded the powerful Srivijaya Empire in the Malay peninsula, and he is mentioned in medieval Malay history as Raja Chulan. His successors Virarajendra Chola and Kulothunga Chola I further invaded and annexed parts of southern Thailand and Indonesia and introduced Hinduism there. This continues to have a large impact on the local culture there, despite the subsequent Islamic conquest in later centuries. For example, the national carrier of Indonesia is Garuda Airlines, named after the mythical eagle that tried to save Sita from being kidnapped by Ravan in the Ramayan. 

Local Resistance
But all was not smooth sailing for the Chola empire, despite all its successes. The Chalukyas, now in greatly diminished territory, tried to escape Chola influence through repeated military attacks, all but one of which led to absolute defeat, with just one instance of a successful but temporary occupation of the Vengi territory that used to be the heart of the Chola Empire under Rajaraja Chola I. Virarajendra Chola I successfully defeated the Chalukya King Somesvara II and formed and alliance with Prince Vikramaditya VI. It is telling that all but one of the battles between the Cholas and the Chalukyas was fought on Chalukya territory which, when coupled with the growing influence of the Hoysalas in the northern Kannada territory, effectively saw the Chalukyas becoming a spent force in the region. In fact, in 1190, Chola King Kulothunga Chola II allied with Hoysala emperor Veera Ballala II to finally defeat Chalukya King Somesvara VI to end the Chalukya empire. 

The only local resistance that the Cholas were never fully able to eliminate was from the Pandyas and, to a lesser extent, the Sinhala kings of Lanka. Eventually, this would prove to be their undoing. 

Next: The Later Cholas

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