8 Greatest Cultural Achievements Of the Chola Dynasty’s 1500-Year Rule

Brihadeshwara temple and Nataraja

Whether it was art, culture, architecture or literature, the Chola Dynasty, among the longest-ruling in world history, gave several monumental contributions during their rule.

While looking back at history, it’s rather evident that our social, economic, and cultural configurations evolved through the ancient civilisations and dynasties that once ruled the land. 

There were several mighty empires that reigned over India during the Ancient Ages. Through their rise and fall, they left their footprints in the sands of time in different ways.

Among the very many empires, it was the Cholas who ruled for more than 1,500 years, making them among the longest-ruling dynasties in world history. Be it arts, culture, literature, or architecture, there was no stone left unturned by the Cholas who reigned until the 13th century.

Being among the greatest dynasties to rule Southern India, the contributions of the Cholas to Tamil culture and Indian history alike are nothing but remarkable.

1. Brihadeshwara Temple, Thanjavur

Brihadeshwara Temple
A view of the Brihadeshwara temple in Thanjavur. (Photo credit: Twitter)

The renowned Brihadeshwara Temple, also known as Thanjai Periya Kovil or Peruvudaiyar Kovil, is considered one of the finest architectural specimens of India. The Dravidian-style temple, located on the banks of river Kaveri in the Thanjavur, is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Built between 1003 and 1010 CE by the great Chola emperor Rajaraja I, this temple reflects the dynasty’s culture, style, and grandeur. The architecture of the temple exudes brilliance in its craftsmanship and intricate detailing, which make it a remarkable feat for over a millennium ago. 

According to the inscriptions in the temple, it was designed by Kunjara Mallan Raja Rama Perunthachan.

Considered one of the largest Hindu temples, the Brihadeshwara Temple is a UNESCO heritage site and is hailed as the Great Living Chola Temple.

2. Dancing figure of Shiva

The bronze dancing figure of Shiva or Nataraja
The bronze dancing figure of Shiva or Nataraja (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

The world-famous dancing figure of Shiva or Nataraja is believed to have fully developed during the medieval era in South India under the patronage of the Chola dynasty

They were staunch devotees of Lord Shiva and most of their temples were dedicated to their favourite deity and were depicted in several divine roles. The most popular among them was the dancing form of Shiva or the Shiva Nataraja, which eventually turned into a symbol of Chola power.

This beautiful bronze sculpture dates back to the 12th century and is currently on display at the National Museum in New Delhi among the Chola bronzes.

3. Chola bronze casting

The period when Cholas reigned is also characterised as a time when art was given much importance and reached new heights. 

Along with temple architecture, they were noted for their sculptures, especially those made with bronze.

The Chola bronzes were made using a technique known as the lost-wax casting technique or Cire Perdue, which ensured that each sculpture was the only one of its kind. 

Believed to have originated around 5,000 years ago, it involves pouring hot metal into a wax model, which is “lost” during the process. This technique became popular during the Chola period, which made magnificent pieces, among them being the Nataraja sculpture. 

4. Kamba Ramayanam and Periyapuranam

Kamban and Sekkizhar
Tamil poets Kambar (left) and Sekkizhar (right) (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

The Chola kings promoted literature and gave patronage to Tamil scholars and writers. The period was known as the devotional period of literature as most of the works dealt with religion. Several great Tamil poets like Kalladanar, Kambar, Pugalandhi, Ottakoothar, Sekkizhar, Avvaiyar, and Thirutakkadevar lived during the Chola period.

Among the several works, Periyapuranam by Sekkizhar and Kamba Ramayanam by Kambar are considered two of the greatest works of the period. 

Periyapuranam is a Tamil poetic account depicting the lives of the sixty-three Nayanars, the canonical poets of Tamil Shaivism and Kamba Ramayanam is a version of Ramayana written based on Valmiki’s Ramayana.

5. Chola Temple Jewellery

The temple jewellery is believed to have originated around the 9th century in the Chola empire. 

As the name suggests, it was adorned on the idols of gods and goddesses, and also worn by the royals. It is believed that temple dancers and devotees began to wear inexpensive replicas of the jewellery in the same designs, thus popularising it.

These chunky artful pieces of gold jewellery are characterised by depictions of gods and goddesses to celebrate and show reverence to their idols.

6. Gangaikondacholapuram temple

A view of Gangaikondacholapuram temple at Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu.
A view of Gangaikondacholapuram temple at Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu. (Photo credit: Twitter)

The Gangaikondacholapuram temple was constructed during the reign of Rajendra I between AD 1023 and 1036 in the Ariyalur region of Tamil Nadu. The temple is named after the village — Gangaikonda Cholapuram — which served as the capital for around 250 years.

The stone temple, which showcases a beautiful display of Chola art and architecture, is considered a living history of the dynasty since the reign of Rajendra Chola. 

Also, several sculptures brought from states like Andhra, Karnataka, and Bengal as war trophies have been preserved within the temple. Among them, the Chandesa Anugraha Murthy and Saraswathy are the most beautiful sculptures of the temple.

7. Kanjeevaram silk sarees

The famed Kanjeevaram silk sarees are known for their rich and vivid colours, as well as designs inspired by temples, displaying elaborate zari work. 

It is named after the town where it is crafted — the city of Kancheepuram, which has lived under the rule of several empires, from the Pallavas to the British.

Historians say the great Chola king Rajaraja I invited weavers from Saurashtra to come and settle in Kanchipuram and establish looms. But it only remained a local, specialised craft before transitioning into a thriving industry during the reign of Krishna Deva Raya, the ruler of the Vijayanagara Empire.

8. Airavatesvara Temple, Kumbakonam

A view of Airavatesvara temple in Kumbakonam in Thanjavur.
A view of Airavatesvara temple in Kumbakonam in Thanjavur. (Photo credit: Twitter)

Situated in Kumbakonam in Thanjavur, the Airavatesvara temple was built by Chola emperor Rajendra II during the 12th century. The temple is dedicated to Shiva in the form of Airavata, the white elephant of Indra, the king of heaven.

Similar to the Gangaikondacholapuram temple, Airavatesvara is a gallery of art and architecture with intricate stone carvings. Though small when compared to the Brihadeswara temple or the Gangaikondacholapuram temple, it is exquisite due to this level of detailing.

Edited by Divya Sethu

Sources:
UNESCO
Brihadeshwara Temple: A structure conceived with grace and Magnificence, published by The Decor Journal on 19 March 2022.
Nataraja: The Lord of Dance, published by The Heritage Lab on 5 August 2016.
Everything you need to know about temple jewellery, from its history to its evolution, by Hasina Khatib; published by Vogue India on 17 September 2019.
Kanjivaram: The Romance of Silk’, by Leora Pezarkar; published by Live History India on 20 August 2017.

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