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The Great Indian Past

Raja Raja chola

The Last of Mohicans: The story of cholas K.Sethumadhavan

A few clans exhibited the kind of diversity in charactar than the illustrious Cholas of Tamilnadu, by far among the greatest of ancient emperors of India. In war they were bold, daring, ruthless, self confident, self-denying, efficient and tactful. In peace they were just, generous, hospitable, modest and chaste. The cholas certainly followed ancient tradition of adoring virtues like wisdom, honour, courage and valour. They certainly restored Indian culture its ancient values.

Originally an ancient royal dynasty of south, cholas nevertheless went on to build an empire which was evidently the last powerful empire of the orient established and run in accordance with ancient Indian Ideals. Perhaps a few dynasties of past were more regimented in their approach to problems than the cholas. A few dynasties have displayed such majesty. At their peak no doubt they were among the greatest powers on earth. One just needs to scan through the literature of the period to acknowledge their contributions. But despite these remarkable achievements the empire of the cholas during the medieval period is now as obscure as they were as a clan between 5th and 9th century A.D when Pallavas held sway in south India. The names of its great rulers are referred the same way one refers to less known mythological characters. It is sad that this great dynasty which founded a civilization that was undoubtedly the most remarkable one produced by the medieval world finds little and negligible mention in contemporary literature. In these days of self centredness and increasingly shallow thinking, of Pseudo-intellectualism, of being more interested in materialism, of scholars who are essentially priggish and conceitful, unapologetic partisanship and parochialism has resulted in a complete negation of their achievements.

Tanjore, once their splendid capital is now a small, lifeless, remote town in tamilnadu, more well known as rice bowl of south India than the one that had housed such a majestic dynasty . A prominent royal clan, cholas are central to many ancient tamil literary works, which describe them as benevolent, courageous and just. They were scions of ancient solar royal tradition. Many Chola kings took names and titles ‘sibi’ to probably acknowledge their descent from that legendary king who is celebrated as a paragon of justice. Medieval chola kings took titles like ‘parakesarin’ and ‘rajakesarin’ in the order of their coronation remembering their remote ancestors of that same illustrious lineage who according to ancient tradition are supposed to have lived centuries and even millenniums before them.

The chola country is mentioned by Greek chroniclers and merchants, a more detailed description is provided in works of ptolemy a roman trader of 1st century A.D. The recent excavations following tsunami of 2004 has helped throw more light into poompuhar, the capital city of early cholas. Evidently, poompuhar was an important port city in the ancient world. It was a place from which traders set sail to far east. Among the greatest of early chola kings was karikala, who according to various tamil literary sources during first century A.D defeated all his southern neighbours. He is also credited with building efficient irrigational systems and canals. The fact that he was benevolent is brought out by a poem which was written on his death:

He who stormed his enemies’ forts undauntedly, who in the assembly of Brahmins noted for their knowledge of Dharma and purity of life, guided by priests learned in their duties and attended by his noble and virtuous queen, performed the vedic sacrifice in which the tall sacrificial post stood on a bird-like platform, within the sacrificial court surrounded by a high wall with round bastions, he, the great and wise king alas, is no more! Poor indeed is this world, which has lost him. Like the branches of the vengi tree, which stands bare, when their bright foliage has been stripped down by shepherds eager to feed their cattle in the fierce summer, are his fair queens, who have cast off their jewels.

Having held sway for a few hundred years cholas, around 3rd century A.D , unable to reproduce the successes of previous centuries, suddenly lost significance . Many analysts point to the destruction of poompuhar by a tsunami as one of the factors that contributed to the same. Around this time the race of pallavas established themselves in Kanchipuram, which for centuries hence, remained a prime center of learning and trade. Pallavas proved to be very capable and efficient successors to cholas . The town of kanchi is still remarkable for its town planning. From here the pallavas sent successive naval expeditions to occupy far off lands like malaya and Indo-China.

The succeeding centuries saw pallavas establish themselves as the most powerful dynasty in South India and build those marvellous rock cut structures at kancheepuram and mamallapuram. It was only after the decline of the illustrious pallavas that Cholas could re-assert their supremacy in south. It was around 850 A.D when Vijayalaya a chola chieftain was asked by pallavas to free tanjore from a clan of chiefs called muttarayar. As an expression of gratitude for this assistance he was gifted the annexed territory by pallavas. As it turned out to be, it was a day long anticipated by the cholas for a turnaround of their fortunes. The next 50 years saw them eclipsing pallavas and annexing their territories to usher in their own extraordinary era of flambouyance and creativity.


A fair knowledge of sanskrit,tamil and ancient Indian literature like ramayana, mahabharata, puranas etc and of course the great tamil works of sangam age is essential to know about cholas, their period, their history, administration, patronage patterns,military ventures etc. The job of a writer is made more difficult by the fact that there exists no living sample from their glorious civilization using which they can give a graphical description of the period. It is difficult for the scholars to explain to a broad cross section of readers the different terms in inscriptions, their usage, implications and ofcourse their different meanings with respect to situation.

As a dynasty they are among the most ancient ones. They and their military ventures are not to be counted and compared to that of other mercantile royal dyansties whose glory was entirely based on economic and political success. Infact according to a hoary tradition, the clans of cholas, pandyas,cheras and pallavas were among the great ancient royal clans whose able scions could be elevated to kingship through a coronation ceremony conducted at temple halls with vedic chants . The duty of a king is threefold. To uphold truth, to dispense justice and most importantly to punish evil and wicked forces. By conducting the coronation at the divine abode the individual was being recognized as the one who was capable of discharging royal duties with merit.


Like Alexander the great they dreamt of a vast empire and created one. In fact, One of the medieval chola princes is credited with having led a successful expedition , when not even 16. Even in that tender age he had the maturity to analyse situations, build up regiments and plan offensives.This young man who happened to be elder brother of The illustrious Raja Raja did not last long. One wonders at what could have been achieved were he to be alive for longer and had the assistance of his illustrious younger brother.


Being zealous and untiring, they had enhanced the glory of their famed tiger emblem during the hazardous medieval times to limits not previously known. The divine grace of Lord Shiva for whom they erected numerous temples around Chidambaram and Tanjore must have rightly enabled them rule over a vast and prosperous land for a long period of time. The pugnacity displayed by them in battlefields is more symbolically represented by huge, splendid and delightful edifices that they built across the banks of river Cauvery and the inscriptions that lay within. Each of these creations is a masterpiece. They had endowed these temples with enormous wealth of gold and jewellery. This munificence should throw some light on the piety of successive chola princes and princesses and no work on them is complete without noting the same.



The cholas were as much a patron of art and literature as the previous pallavas.Eventhough ruling during the most hazardous time of world history, they aimed at achieving superlative excellence at all fileds and eliminate corruption and inefficiency altogether . Many of their management procedures, judicial reforms and their implementation techniques etc are so clear and effective that even modern day management professionals and consultants could envy them. Some inscriptions describe the operational procedures so very systematically and clearly that it can be fed into a modern digital computer for analysis.Successive rulers raja raja, rajendra et .all initiated reforms in land survey, trade regulation, yearly asset audit and funded construction of irrigational systems, bridges and canals.


The chola governance was based on democratically elected councils, that managed every aspect of infrastructure and also undertook development works regularly. The councils thus elected had a term which was periodically reviewed. The members of the council were not allowed to contest elections more than two times. They were also bound by strict ethical standards and falling short of the same was considered a serious offence. Successive military campaigns brought a lot of yearly tributes and territories. In cast bronze and stone sculptures now found in museums of New york, San fransico and Washington they were unmatched.

Their domination of the subcontinent and far east was total upto the first half of 12th century, after which the vicissitudes of history which eroded the power of many great dynasties including their predecessor pallavas caught up with them. The next fifty years bore no semblance to their imperial years through the 8th , 9th and 10th and 11th centuries. They were as ordinary as four decades of rule by any mediocre dynasty. Though they remained almost invincible in battle fields through the next century, the damage was being done in the social sphere through subversion and intrigue. The cholas' ambitious and regular military ventures of previous centuries,eventhough they were very succesfull in achieving their objectives also lead to a drain of resources both human and material.

Even during the many decades of the 13th century, they made strenuous efforts to take command as we see that last chola prince rajendra inspite of all odds managed to defeat and kill two of the five pandyan kings.But his glory was shortlived and he ultimately perished without any successors in the penultimate decade of 13th century.


It is sad that they have perished and hence lost to the world. This also means that the world will suffer without their charisma forever. The ones like this writer (who might have owed something to them) can now only pen a few words in admiration. It is even more sad that they are forgotten and their achievements ignored by the world. There is not a single book on print on the illustrious chola dynasty. The legacy left behind by them continues to be felt, not in the present social set up of their beloved capital but at its monuments. The Picture of the emperors in royal attire and accoutrements praying inside the temples seeking the blessings of the lord whom they contemplated so much , in order to find the strength that meant more to them than any of the wars they won invincibly during their glorious reign, will continue to dwell in the minds of those wishing to rediscover a fantastic past.

The Author is a management consultant based out of India. Contact him at : Tiger_tom@india.com. On mobile he may be called at 09871026217(India).
Published: 2007-04-15
Author: K.Sethumadhavan

About the author or the publisher
A management professional with eight years experience in telecommunications industry, I have written a lot of articles in subjects related to management and strategic information analysis.

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