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The Last Years of Cholas: The decline and fall of a dynasty


At the beginning of Thirteenth Century the Cholas who had dominated the subcontinent for centuries had become so drained of resources that they simply were not the power they used to be. Militarily, the relentless spirit of the previous centuries still existed to an extent, but because of the lack of resources they were unable to finish off the combinations that had brought them so many victories in the past. The armed forces were the main strength of cholas. From their inscriptions it is evident that they maintained numerous regiments each of which focussed on different kinds of weapons of the day like swords, bows and arrows, maces, pikes, darts, spears and flaming pitches. There was the infantry, the cavalry and the elephant corps. Their strong navy commanded many big ships, that sailed large distances to conquer far off lands like borneo, Java, Sumatra and Vietnam which were thousands of miles away. Most Chola kings, heirs to a tradition that had spanned millenniums were great warriors who had themselves led their armies in the battles and in some cases even lost their lives in pursuit of difficult victories. The subversion and infiltration of their armed forces during the last days of their empire was one of the reasons for its inefficiency and one that led to the decline of the empire. For, by the year 1240 A.D, the once awesome army of cholas had become a much smaller, disorganized and badly managed bunch of disinterested soldiers. Many capable commanders had either switched their loyalties to the rejuvenated pallava chieftains or simply had vanished from the scene.

Corruption played a major role in their decline. For whatever happened in the last five or six decades of 13th century A.D, seeds were sown in late 12th century and early thirteenth century.

It may be interesting to scan through their history from 7th century onwards. During the seventh century A.D, the non-vedic buddist and jain cults, died out as a result of powerful empires like pallavas and cholas banning them and also due their influential clergy losing out to advaitism. During their rise to power in 9th and 10th centuries cholas had fought a lot wars with a host of kingdoms. Many of these wars were savagely cruel and conducted with great impunity, displaying the fiery elegance of cholas. Though None of these had religious motives,none of these were intended to spread chola culture and societal norms, and were mostly imperial expansionist ventures they indirectly resulted in the end of kingdoms which were great patrons and active supporters of Buddhism and Jainism. For example a chola invasion of Srilanka under Raja Raja, was so severe that as the buddhist chronicle mahavamsa notes the cities were utterly destroyed in every manner. Similarly, the defeat of Ganga and northern Chalukya kingdoms of Karnataka by cholas greatly affected Jainism, as these kingdoms were patrons and supporters of the same. Chola invasions of chalukyan territories were especially severe and saw the destruction of the territory entirely. Cholas were inheritors of ancient Indian tradition of kingship and in many ways acted as the custodians of the same. They nurtured a society which was very cosmopolitan and creative. The literature of their period speak of merchant caravans plowing their way through dense forests and of merchant navy ships unloading large amounts of wealth brought from far off lands. Many of their ideals like individualism, democratic self governance, yearly declaration of assets, land survey and taxation systems has no parallels in history and are perfectly implementable even in this age. Though according to an ancient tradition the chola clan owed subservience and servility to Lord Siva at Chidambaram who was their kuladeivam( clan deity), they were also great worshippers of Lord Vishnu and other deities and persecution just because of religious persuasion was unknown throughout their reign.

Late in the 12th century A.D there was a philosopher called Ramanuja born near kanchipuram, who commited heresy by openly criticizing the four fold caste system prevalent from ancient times.

He started a sect called Srivaishnavas,that was supposed to bear servitude to Lord vishnu. That he preached Lord Narayana (Vishnu) to be a deadly rival of Lord Siva should throw some light on his character and motives. He openly recruited persona from all strata of society and preached them to become one group irrespective of class and caste in every sense of word.

He also proposed the scrapping of ritualistic worship at temples undertaken by Brahmins through ages and with supportive documentations, in order to accommodate lower castes into priesthood. His other activities like persuading people to stop worshipping Lord Siva etc clearly signalled conspiracy against the empire which led to his banishment from chola territories. Most of his activities are well documented. Unlike the great nayanmar saints of saivite persuasion or the previous pantheon of vaishnavite alwars who strictly restricted themselves to servitude of god and whose experiences with the almighty was real and natural, Ramanuja’s activities were mostly political. We hear of no divine intervention in his life as we see in lives of great nayanmar and alwar saints. It is anybody’s guess that those who had been at the receiving end with cholas during previous centuries would have joined and supported such movements. His starting of the cult of srivaishnavas led to the formation of populist communities and groups that indulged in subversive activities and periodically rebelled against chola Government. For example, during a war in Gangavadi near mysore state, few of the commanders who had secretly joined Ramanuja’s sect sabotaged the rest of the army which led to cholas facing their first military set back after centuries. During the time of kulothunga III in the early 13th century A.D there was a rebellion by farmers . One of the inscriptions available just after the period of kulothunga III in 1215 A.D speaks of a treaty executed by some chieftains declaring that enemy of one of them would be enemy of all and that they would not deceive the state or the king in any way. This definitely points to troubled times and presence of subversive activities. One might be inclined to drawing parallel to these events in history with the supposed role played by early Christians in toppling the ancient Roman empire.

The advent of Islamic kingdoms in North India during the period created a lot of confusion and communication barriers which indirectly aided the chola enemies. Infact the emergence of Ramanuja itself speaks of beginning of a kind of proxy war. The lack of resources and rebellion left the successive chola rulers of 13th century with too many problems and having to do too much with too less, that ultimately ended their rule in 1279 A.D.
Published: 2007-08-22

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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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