Like many great civilisations, the roots of the Chola, a Tamil Hindu dynasty in southern India, are hidden in the temporal mists of uncertainty and mystery. It is also known that they were influential from at least the 3rd century CE, emerging as a vassal state of the Pallava dynasty in the 9th century, retaining influence over Tanjavur (in the modern state of Tamil Nadu) with respectful devotion to Pallava authority. Around the middle of the 9th century, the situation changed, and the Cholas began to exert their authority, claiming Tanjavur, which became the capital city for the duration of their subsequent political rule in the region.
During the Cholas' reign, the society and culture underwent massive changes. The temple was the focal point for all social and religious gatherings during this time period. The surroundings of this region became a school for the people, where students were taught the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Vedas. This was also a safe haven during times of war and political upheaval. There were several gods and goddesses worshipped, with Shiva being a popular source of strength for the faithful.
The Pallava dynasty's temple-building traditions were carried on by the Cholas, who made substantial contributions to Dravidian temple design.
Prior to Chola supremacy, the Pallavas had built a number of impressive temples. To establish Chola dynastic legitimacy, the Chola kings sought to emulate and surpass these architectural achievements, most notably under Rajaraja Chola (r. 985-1014), who built the massive Brihadeshwara temple at Tanjavur, and his son Rajendra Chola I (r. 1012-1044), who built the monumental Gangaikondacholisvaram. Rajendra Chola II's Airavatesvara Temple in Darusaram, a much smaller but no less beautiful structure (r. 1143–1173).
Shiva is worshipped in all three temples. They patronised Nayanars. Chola rulers were ardent Saivite. Shiva was the preeminent god for the Cholas and he was represented in two forms. Siva's most well-known form was Lingodhbhava, and his human form was the Nataraja idol. During this time, a philosophy called Saiva Siddhanta was founded that was very evolved.
Thanjavur: The Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur is known from inscriptions as Dakshina Meru, inaugurated by Raja Raja. The huge building has a square shape and is surrounded by a massive perimeter wall (prakara) with shrines dedicated to the deities of directions (ashatadikpalas) and a main entrance with a tower (gopuram), an entrance porch, two adjoining prayer halls (mandapas), vestibule (antarala), and inner sanctum (garbhagriha) with many sculptures of Shiva.
Gangaikondacholisvaram: At Gangaikondacholisvaram, the Brihadisvara temple built by Rajendra Chola I. Its three entrances are guarded by pairs of monumental guardian deities (dwarapalas), and the complex features many elaborate stone sculptures depicting Shiva in his various manifestations and other prominent figures, as at Tanjavur.
Darasuram: At Darasuram, the third of the great royal Chola temples dedicated to Shiva, the Airavatesvara, was completed by Rajendra Chola II. The inner sanctum is not encircled by a circumambulatory path, unlike its predecessors. The front pillared hall, called the agra mandapa, is interesting because it was designed to look like a horse-drawn chariot, which was inspired by Pallava architecture. Its columns are decorated with scenes from the epics and Puranas, such as the burning of Manmatha, Parvati doing penance, Shiva's marriage, the birth of Skanda/Kumara, Shiva's fights with the asuras, and other stories. Gaja-yalis with curled trunks and tails are shown at the base of the outer pillars of the agra mandapa. This part of the temple also shows a lot of other things. At the base of the main temple is a frieze of stone panels with inscriptions about the 63 Nayanars (Shiva saints) and their stories. Some of these panels also show women doing yoga and other scenes from everyday life. This temple also features a separate impressive Amman shrine, the Periya Nayaki, dedicated to Devi.
Many of the splendid sculptures that survive were cast in bronze, Chola bronzes were made using the lost-wax casting technique that is still practised today in India.
Shiva is standing in a dramatic pose with his right leg nearly bent in a right angle and resting on the small demonic figure of Mushalagan. His left leg is raised gracefully above, holding fire (which represents destruction) in his left rear hand and a damaru drum (which represents creation) in his right rear hand. He is standing near a rearing cobra, with his right front hand making the abhaya (protection) sign and his left front hand making the same sign. Nataraja is the ruler of the universe. His dance, called the ananda tandava, spreads out his matted hair in a way that looks like the universe is moving back and forth.
The Golden Age
The Tamil country reached new heights of excellence in art, religion, and literature under the Cholas. The Chola period marked the culmination of movements that had begun earlier under the Pallavas in all of these spheres. Monumental architecture in the form of majestic temples and stone and bronze sculpture reached a level of finesse never before seen in India.
Cholas were fervent supporters of art, literature and drama; the administration was seen spending on the construction of temples and complexes with statues and paintings. The king maintained the supreme authority, able to make all of the major decisions and oversee the administration of the kingdom.
A significant period in mediaeval history was marked by the Cholas' reign, which saw a cultural boom and a rise in civilization's significance. In addition to being a time of tremendous growth, it is also a moment to reflect on and learn from in the future.