Inscriptions during the Chola Era

  • This article, by students of Chettinad Hari Shree Vidyalayam, a leading Chennai school focuses on inscriptions from different temples and insightful glimpses into history that they offer.

This long read piece is split into Abstract, Introduction, How they came to power, Extent of the dynasty, Architecture, Inscriptions and Conclusion.   

1. Abstract

Among the dynasties that ruled in India, Cholas/Cōḻarkaḷ /Cōḻarkaḷ played an important role in the history of south India. The Cholas established their history in form of inscriptions, which are recorded on rocks and temples. Unlike many other contemporary civilisations, Cholas placed utmost importance on recording their accomplishments, which help us understand our history.

To read this article in PDF format click on PDF. The authors of this article are Student group, Chettinad Harishree Vidyalayam, Chennai.

The empire is most exciting to deal with, (and what is going to be dealt with here) as it has overshadowed other empires in terms of achievements, success and their contribution towards architecture, especially, building temples.

We will be concentrating on the later Cholas, who built number of temples during their reign. From these inscriptions we can infer how the later Cholas came into power, their lifestyles, the people’s lifestyles and well-defined, centralised idea about how their empire was. We also get to know about their culture, which has always remained as an integral part of our life.

Among the temples they built, the Brihadeshwara is one of the most prominent temples.

We will concentrate on inscriptions from different temples, what they convey, and the language in which it was written.

2. Introduction

The Cholas are remembered as one of the longest ruling dynasties in South India. They are one of the famous kingdoms alongside of Pandyas/Pāṇṭiyarka and Cheras/Cērar. They contributed extensively to the field of art and architecture through the magnificent temples they built.

The reign of the Cholas was said to have begun in the 9th century when they defeated the Pallavas. They were divided as early Cholas and later Cholas - the ones who grew into power during the onset of the Sangam literature and later during the medieval period which saw the absolute development of the Chola power.

Development of the dynasty took place when kings like Aditya I and Parantaka I ruled. Kings like Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola further expanded the kingdom into the Tamil region. Later Kulothunga Chola/Kulōttuka Coar took over Kalinga/Kalikā to establish a strong rule. This magnificence lasted until the arrival of the Pandyas/Pāṇṭiyarka in the early 13th century. Source-accessed on 7/11/2019            

The Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas and many older dynasties that ruled in the past were adept at many skills. Many of their great kings were able to make sure their respective empires were sustained throughout their lifetimes and also kept enemies at bay.

Ironically, we find some herculean tasks that they managed to perform without advanced technology, while we have all the resources today to easily accomplish our tasks. Among those tasks at which these respective empires were adept in, was making sure that their lifestyles, monuments and achievements remain preserved for many centuries. Their temple inscriptions contain an incredible amount of detail about their history, administration and socio-economic structure.

3. How they came to power

The founder of the Chola Empire was Vijayalaya/Vijayālayac, who was the major enemy of the Pallavas of Kanchi. He captured Tanjore in 850 A.D. and built a temple for goddess Durga in Tanjore to mark their victory. His successor, Aditya I, helped the Pallava king Aparajita against the Pandyas, but soon defeated him and annexed the whole of the Pallava kingdom.

By the end of the ninth century, the Cholas had defeated the Pallavas completely and weakened the Pandyas capturing the Tamil country Tondaimandalam and including it under their domination. He then became a sovereign ruler. Source-accessed on 21/12/2019

Parantaka I was one of the most prominent rulers of the Chola Dynasty. He ruled for almost half a century. His reign is recognised by the conquest of the Pandya territory and capital Madurai. Thus, he assumed the title ‘Maduraikonda’ - the one who captured Madurai.

The campaign against the Pandyas brought him closer to Sri Lanka, as the Pandyan ruler at that time Maravarman Rajasimha II sought aid from Ceylon ruler Kassapa V. These continuous hostilities lasted for several decades. Parantaka I was successfully able to resist the invasions till he was defeated by the Rashtrakutas, who succeeded in occupying the northern half of the Chola Empire. Source-accessed on 21/12/2019

4. Extent of the Dynasty

By 1044, Rajendra Chola had pushed the borders north to the Ganges River (Ganga), conquering the rulers of Bihar and Bengal, and he had also taken coastal Myanmar (Burma), the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and key ports in the Indonesian archipelago and Malay Peninsula. 

It was the first true maritime empire based in India. 

The Chola Empire under Rajendra even exacted tribute from Siam (Thailand) and Cambodia. Cultural and artistic influences flowed in both directions, between Indo-China and the Indian mainland. The Chola Empire left a rich legacy in the Tamil country. Cultural properties also found their way into the Southeast Asian artistic lexicon, influencing religious art and literature from Cambodia to Java. Source (Szczepanski, Kallie. "History of India's Chola Empire."Thought Co, Jul. 3, 2019, -accessed on 24/12/2019.

Map shows Chola interaction with S.E. Asia.

5. Key Features of Chola Architecture

The Dvarapalas, or guardian figures, at the entrance to the Mandapam, or hall which started from the Pallava period became a unique feature of the Cholas. Source-accessed on 23.12.2019

The base of their temples include figures such as, Yazhi/ Yaali which is part lion, part elephant, goat, horse, etc.


Major Architectural Contribution

1.    Founder of Chola Dynasty Vijayalaya built the Vijayalaya Cholisvara Temple at Tanjore

2.    Parantaka I/Parāntaka I/Parāntaka Chola built the Koranganatha Temple, Srinivasanallur at Trichy

3.     Brihadeshwara/Bṛihádīśvara Temple by Raja Raja Chola I at Tanjore

4.     Brihadeshwara/Bṛihádīśvara Temple by Rajendra Chola I at Gangaikonda Cholapuram 

5.    Airavateswara temple at Darasuram, near Kumbakonam by Raja Raja Chola II

6.    Moovar temple near Pudukottai by a 10th century Chola general Boothi Vikramakesari.

Brihadesvara Mandir. 

Entrance to Airavateswara Mandir. 

Nandi, Gangaikondacholapurm Mandir. 3 pics by S Nayyar. 


Most of their inscriptions are written in Tamil, some are in Sanskrit and others in Grantham. The inscriptions are readable and their script is decipherable even centuries later, which could only be possible if the languages were passed down from centuries or, if the language and every aspect required to learn the language was also inscribed on walls or stones of a temple. The latter seems to be the more likely the case.

6. Major Inference from their inscriptions  

1. Contributions

Uttaramerur inscriptions speak about Parantaka I and his victory over Madurai. They also speak about gifts of land made by two individuals, one from a temple musician and the other from a trader.

Another inscription of Rajakesari (Sundara Chola or Rajaraja I) throws light on the gift made by Nakkan Paavai alias Vallanaipaka Thalaikkoli, who considered herself as the daughter of the presiding deity of the temple. A piece of land was purchased out of the 7 kalanju of gold she had gifted and the produce was used to light a day-lamp in the temple.

Thalaikkoli’ was the highest distinction conferred on highly skilled temple dancers. It is equally interesting to note that three dancers of this temple were taken into the fold of the famous Thalichcheri Pendukal settled at the residential quarters of Rajarajisvaram at Thanjavur during the rule of the great king Rajaraja I. A fragmentary inscription of 9th century CE and another one, in which the name of the king is lost, record endowments made for lighting of a lamp at the temple. Source-accessed 18/12/2019

The Thiruvotriyur temple inscriptions refer to an endowment given by Maran Parameswaran. On his return from Andhra Pradesh after winning a battle against a Chalukya king, capturing Seetpuli and Nellore, he donated a perpetually burning lamp and lands to the Adigramam temple. The commander-in-chief was awarded the title ‘Sembian Chola Varaiyan’ by the Chola King.

In the inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola in the Big Temple, it has been stated that one of the recipients of the 48 cows as endowment in return for supply of ghee for lighting lamps in the temple, is named as “Rajaraja Valanattu Poyyil Kutrathu Sirukulathur Puliyan Chootri.”

The inscriptions in the Sankaranathar temple belong to the same Chola period. An officer by name Madhuranthaka Pallavarayan donated 428 Sri Lankan coins as loan to the Sirukulathur Sabaiyar. In return, the villagers had to maintain the irrigation tank of the village every year. Source-accessed 13/12/2019

2. Wars fought

Attacks on south Kerala regions are mentioned in the inscriptions discovered from the temples at Cholapuram, Kanyakumari, Darsanam Koppu, Thirunanthikarai and Sucheendram. The Thirallaisthanam inscription reveals the friendship between Aditya I and Sthanuravi.

Rajendra Chola's (AD 1012-1044) Thiruvalangad inscription has mentioned about the Chola attack on Vizhinjam. The Cholapuram inscription is about the retreat of Kulothunga Cholan to Kottattu. Source-accessed 13/12/2019

3. Divisions

Siva temple at Visalur village near Keeranur in Kulathur taluk was an early Chola edifice, attributed to the period of Parantaka I.

Some inscriptions throw light on the Chola administration.

The Chola Empire was divided into Mandalams (zones) and Valanadus (a group of villages). Visalur was situated in the Jayasingakulakala Valanadu in Mel Sengilinadu as learnt through the inscription of Raja Raja I in the year 997 AD. This inscription describes the large extent of land gifted by villagers, its measurement, boundaries, quantum of paddy to be used in each ritual and puja and festivals to be celebrated. Source-accessed 13/12/2019

4. Brihadeshwara Temple 

It is a temple dedicated to lord Shiva and is a huge temple. According to Dr. R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, it is the only temple in India where the king specifically talks in an inscription that he built the temple only with stones and that the king uses the word “katrali”– kal and thali in Tamil mean a temple built of stone.

This epic inscription, running into 107 paragraphs, describes how Rajaraja Chola, seated in the royal bathing hall on the eastern side of his palace, ordered that it be inscribed on the base of the temple's Vimana, how he followed through with his temple plan, a list of the gifts that he, his sister (“em akkan”) Kundavai, his queens and others gave the temple, and so on. Source-accessed on 23/10/2019

The inscriptions in the temple encompass all activities of Rajaraja Chola's kingdom – the administrative machinery, economic transactions, survey of lands, irrigation system, taxation, accounting, organisation of a huge army, rituals, music, dance, the king's fondness for Tamil and Sanskrit literature, and so on. They also show that he had defined and classified the duties, responsibilities, qualifications and service tenure of each functionary of the temple. 

The inscriptions provide interesting information on drummers, tailors, physicians, surgeons, carriers of flags and parasols during festivals, torch-bearers, cleaners and sweepers. The temple had singers of Tamil hymns (called “Devaram”) and Sanskrit hymns, and a large number of vocal and instrumental musicians.

It had on its rolls 400 accomplished danseuses called “talippendir” to perform dances during daily temple rituals and in festival processions. Source Nagaswamy.R. Bṛhadīśvara Temple: Form and Meaning, Aryan Books International, India 2010 -accessed on 22/12/2019

Inscription of Raja Raja I. 

5. Thiruchendurai Temple

This temple is situated on the Trichy-Karur highway. It was built by Poodhi Aditha Pidari, queen of Arinchaya Chola.

One inscription shows the vows taken by two bodyguards of a local feudal ruler, Mikaman. It was considered a sin to live after the death of their benefactor. So, once they take up the job of bodyguard they used to take vows in front of the God declaring that they will not live after the demise of their Lord.

The second Inscription engraved talks about the royal order of the king remitting certain taxes on the lands of both Siva and Vishnu Temples of the Cholamandalam. Source-accessed 24/12/2019. These were deciphered by R. Kalaikkovan, Director of Dr. M. Rajamanikkanar Centre for Historical Research.

Inscriptions at Tiruchendur.


We chose to research on the Cholas because of their lifestyles, achievements and due to the fact that they were able to hold their dominions for 400 years amongst rival kings such as the Pandyas, who had equal amounts of prestige and power. They have left behind temples which hold a myriad of inscriptions and give great insights into our culture and heritage, enabling us to observe our strong cultural roots in which many meaningful practices, thoughts and ideas are present.

The inscriptions talk about their victories and losses and list the achievements of each individual king, which may be lengthy or short, in parts of inscriptions known as that king’s meikirthi.

A primary source of such bounties of inscriptions is an architectural marvel of the Cholas that has stood for about 1,000 years, the Brihadeshwara Temple, whose inscriptions talk about the impact the temple has had on the community, the other uses of the temple, gifts and donations made by the Chola kings to the temple, shares of land which were donated to the people who contributed to the construction of the temple, among many more details, which can be uncovered in the inscriptions that are too long to list. We get to know about the contraptions used during the time when the temple was built and after.

This research project has helped us gain valuable insights about our culture, history and heritage. 

This project was done by the Grade 9 students of Chettinad Hari Shree Vidyalayam, Chennai. The group consisted of Abhinav. S, Krtin Narayanan, Ganeshkumar Rajaraman, Kishor Sreenivasan, Nachiappan N, Sai Arjun, Adhithya Viswanathan, Abhinandan.

Readers are requested to kindly consider the following

1. These papers are submitted by students of Grade 9 (age group: 14-15 years). Their efforts may not be comparable with professional research work and rigour.

2. This is the first time that these students have attempted studies on these topics with comparatively limited access to reference materials and resources, as compared to professional and advanced research initiatives.

3. Two key limitations faced by the students include: 

i) Working primarily within the school premises, with no opportunity for field-research or interviews with domain experts

ii) Time limitations, given academic commitments.

4. Citations and sources of references have been included in the reports. However, in case any source or citation has been missed out, the same is purely inadvertent, accidental or due to ignorance.

Note from the project facilitaors  

'UTSAV' is an initiative by one of Chennai's leading schools, Chettinad Hari Shree Vidyalayam (, aimed at developing awareness, interest and orientation for Indic wisdom, knowledge, history and philosophy, among students. As part of this programme, students of Grades 9 and 11 participated in a curated research project, wherein 30 papers were submitted on various topics chosen by the students themselves, based on a broad canvas of choices and content support provided to them by the project facilitators. We would like to applaud all the students for their enthusiastic participation in this prototypical initiative and for setting the bar very high.

NANDRI to all students. Suggestions and Feedback welcome.  

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