Imperial Cholas: Art, Architecture and Literature


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Prelims: History of India and the Indian National Movement

Mains: Indian Culture - Salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature and Architecture from ancient to modern times.

Chola Architecture

Chola architecture was a continuation of the Pallava architecture, with some variations. Under the patronage of the Chola rulers, temple architecture reached its zenith

  • Cholas used material of stone instead of bricks due to its greater durability. 
  • Temples built under Aditya and Parantaka contained only three niches in the shrine walls, one on each wall, and two niches in the walls of the ardhamandapa, again one on each wall.
  • The practice of building temples with the patronage of Chola kings and queens was more prevalent. 
  • Devadana was the land gifted to the temples, exempted from tax.




Chola architecture

Features of Chola temples

  • Boundary walls: Chola temples had high boundary walls surrounding the temple. 
  • Vimana: The vimanas rose above the sanctum sanctorum (garbhagriha) of the temple in the form of a stepped pyramid that rises up linearly rather than curved. There was only one vimana on top of the main temple. 
  • Gopurama: The front wall had a high entrance gateway known as gopuram. 
  • Panchayatan style: The temple premise was laid out in panchayatan style with a principal temple and four subsidiary shrines. 
  • Shikhara: The crowning element is shaped like an octagon and is known as shikhara. 
  • Antarala: It is the vestibular tunnel connecting the assembly hall with the garbhagriha
  • Mandap: It is a pillared hall with elaborately carved pillars and a flat roof. 
  • Sculptures: The entrance of the garbhagriha had statues of Dwaarpal, Mithun and Yaksha. 
  • Water tank: The water tank inside the temple enclosure was a unique feature of the Chola style.

Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram

  • Feature: It is dedicated to Lord Shiva, but the Vaishnavite deity, Lord Govindaraja too is worshipped here.
    • Shiva is depicted in dancing form and is seen performing “Ananda Tandava”(dance of delight).
  • Patronage: Parantaka I provided the vimana of the famous Nataraja temple at Chidambaram with a golden roof.

Nageswaraswamy Temple (Tamilnadu)

  • Feature: It is a Shiva temple in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.
    • It allows sunlight inside the temple, right on the sanctum, only during the Tamil month of Chithirai (April/May).
  • Aditya Chola built it during the 9th century.

Rajarajeswara temple (Tanjore, Tamilnadu)

  • It is also known as Periya Kovil, BrihadeeshwaraTemple and Rajarajesvaram. 
  • Patronage: It was built by emperor Raja Raja Chola I and completed in 1010 AD.
  • Features: It is one of the largest temples in India and is an example of Dravidian architecture during the Chola period. 
    • Material: The entire temple structure is made out of granite.
    • Depiction: The fresco paintings and the miniature sculptures of the scenes from Puranas and epics in the temple walls reveal the religious ideology of the Chola rulers. 
  • Significance: It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Great Living Chola Temples”; the other two are the Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Airavatesvara Temples.

Valisvara Temple (Tamilnadu)

  • Feature: It is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, located in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu.
  • Patronage: It was constructed in the early part of the 10th century AD by Raja Raja Chola I.

Gangaikondacholapuram Temple (Tamilnadu)

  • Patronage: Rajendra I built Gangaikondacholapuram Temple in the newly founded city of Gangaikondacholapuram after his successful expedition to the Ganges. 
  • Features: It is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has features similar to the Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur. 
    • There are beautiful stone sculptures in the niches.
      • Some of the stone sculptures on the niches - Nataraja, Dakshinamurthy, Harahari, Lingodbhava, Vishnu, Brahma, Mahishasuramardhini, Gnana Saraswathi, Chandes anugrahamurthi.
  • Significance: It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Great Living Chola Temples”. 

Kampaheswarar Temple (Tamilnadu)

  • Feature: A Shiva temple of Dravidian architecture in the Thanjavur District of Tamil Nadu.
    • Shiva is worshipped as "Kampahareswarar" as he removed the quaking of a king who a Brahmarakshasa was haunting.
  • Patronage: It was built by Kulothunga Chola II.

Airavathesvara Temple Darasuram (Tamilnadu)

  • Feature: A Shiva temple of Dravidian architecture located in the Thanjavur District of Tamil Nadu.
    • It also reverentially displays Vaishnavism and Shaktism traditions of Hinduism, along with the legends associated with Nayanmars.
    • Incidents from the Periyapuranam, in the form of miniatures, are depicted on the base of the temple's garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) wall.
  • Patronage: It was built by Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century CE and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Chudamani Vihara (Nagapattinam, Tamilnadu)

  • Location: It was a Buddhist monastery in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu.
  • Patronage: It was built by Sri Vijayan King Sri Mara Vijayattunga Varman with the patronage of Rajaraja Chola I





Chola Art

Chola art


  • Feature: Chola sculptures adorned the walls and interiors of temples, showcasing the religious and spiritual beliefs of the Chola dynasty.
  • Themes: One of the distinctive features of Chola sculptures is the depiction of deities and mythological figures with dynamic poses and expressive facial features.
  • Sculpture making: Chola period bronzes were created using the lost wax technique. The bronze statue of Nataraja, or dancing Siva, is a masterpiece.
    • They used the Panchaloham for melting, an alloy of bronze.

Nataraja Shiva

  • Shiva is dancing on the figure of a small dwarf. The dwarf symbolises ignorance and the ego of an individual. 
  • The matted and flowing locks of Shiva represent the flow of the river Ganges. 
  • In ornamentation, one ear of Shiva has a male earring while the other has a female. This represents the form of ardhanarishwar
  • A snake is twisted around the arm of Shiva. The snake symbolises the kundalini power, which resides in the human spine in a dormant stage. If aroused, one can attain true consciousness. 
  • The Nataraja is surrounded by a nimbus of glowing lights, symbolising the vast unending cycles of time.


  • Chola Paintings of South India are very significant in art.
  • Medium: Chola paintings were predominantly executed on walls, murals, and wooden panels, often adorning the interiors of temples.
    • The walls of the Chola temples, such as the Tanjore and Gangaikondacholapuram temples, contain numerous icons of large size with fine execution
  • Uniqueness: The Chola paintings paid careful attention to facial expressions and hand gestures. 
    • The painting of Rajaraja Chola I, listening to his preceptor Karuvur Devar is a fine example.
  • Themes: The subjects of Chola paintings often revolved around deities such as Shiva and Vishnu. These paintings portrayed the gods in various forms and manifestations, showcasing their divine attributes, symbolism, and narratives. 

Music and dance

  • Greart patron: The Chola kings, especially Rajaraja Chola I, were great connoisseurs of music and dance.
    • Rajaraja I  was instrumental in bringing back tevaram music to temples.
  • Uniqueness: The representation of Nataraja or Adal Vallan (king of dance) in the form of the idol was the motif of Tamil music, dance and drama with hymns composed by Nayanmars. 
    • Oduvars and Padikam Paduvars: They were appointed to sing in the temples to recite Thirumurai (The Saiva canon). 
    • Vinnappamseivar: They were the singers of hymns. 
  • Musical education: Musicians and dance masters were appointed to train the girls.
    • Theli-cheri-pennugal: They were the dancers. 


  • Coins: Chola's coinage issues were in all three metals, Gold, Silver and Copper.
  • Commemorative coins: 
    • Uttama Chola struck silver with the royal emblem of "Tiger facing two fishes" on the obverse and the Nagari legend "Uttama Chola".
    • The Chola King Raja Raja I coins had the standing king on one side and the seated goddess on the other side, with inscriptions generally in Sanskrit.
    • Rajendra I’s coins had the legend ‘Sri Rajendra’ or ‘Gangaikonda Chola’ inscribed with the emblems of tiger and fish.





Chola Literature

Education was given importance. Besides the temples and mathas as educational centres. Apart from the Vedas and Epics, subjects like mathematics and medicine were taught in these institutions. This resulted in the development of Tamil literature, which peaked during the Chola period.

  • Saiva Siddhanta: It was a highly evolved philosophical system founded during this period.


             Literary work




is the Story of a prince who is the perfect master of all arts


Ramavataram (Kamban Ramayana).

It is the Tamil version of Ramayana based on Valmiki’s Ramayana.


Periyapuranam (Tiruttontarpuranam)

depicts the lives of the sixty-three Nayanars, the canonical poets of Tamil Shaivism.



It describes the Kalinga war fought by Kulotunga I. 



It shows the life of three Chola kings (Vikrama Chola, Kulothunga Chola II and Rajaraja Chola II).



is the story of King Nala and Princess Damayanti. 


Sivagnana Bodham

The foundational text of Saiva Siddhanta philosophy. 



Tamil grammar



Tamil grammar



Tamil grammar



Tamil grammar

Kesava Swami

Nannaranava Samkshevam

Sanskrit work




During the Chola period, numerous inscriptions were made on various surfaces, providing valuable historical and cultural insights into the dynasty's reign. Most of their inscriptions are written in Tamil; some are in Sanskrit and others in Grantham.

  • Temple inscriptions: The Chola dynasty was known for its extensive patronage of temple construction and renovation. 
    • Inscriptions discovered in a Shiva temple located at Visalur village in Koluthur taluk throw much light on the Chola administration in this region.
    • Brihadeshwara Temple is the only temple in India where the king specifically talks in an inscription that he built the temple only with stones (katrali).
  • Uttaramerur inscriptions
    • It speaks about Parantaka I and his victory over Madurai. 
    • It gives details of the process of electing members to various committees that administered the affairs of a Brahmin settlement.
  • Thiruvalangad inscription: It mentions the Chola attack on Vizhinjam. 
  • Cholapuram inscription: It mentions t the retreat of Kulothunga Cholan to Kottattu.
  • The inscription at Ennayiram, Thirumukkudal and Thirubhuvanai provide details of the colleges that existed in these places.


Decline of Cholas

The Chola dynasty was paramount in South India from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. By the end of the twelfth century, local chiefs began to grow in prominence, which weakened the centre. 

  • Weak rulers: Rulers after Kulothunga I were weak and could not maintain the huge empire of Cholas. 
  • Frequent invasions: Invasions of Pandyas weakened the Cholas with fragmented territories.
    • In 1264, the Pandyan ruler, Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan I, sacked the Chola’s capital of Gangaikonda Chozhapuram. 
      • The Chola dynasty ended when King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I defeated the last king Rajendra Chola III in 1279 AD and established the rule by Pandyas.

Kanchipuram was lost to the Telugu Cholas, while the remaining Chola territories were lost to the Pandyan king.




Previous Year Questions (PYQs)



Q) Discuss the main contributions of the Gupta period and the Chola period to Indian heritage and culture. (2022)

Q) Chola architecture represents a high watermark in the evolution of temple architecture. Discuss. (2013)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Q) What is the philosophy of “Saiva Siddhanta”?

Shaiva-Siddhanta posits three universal realities: the individual soul, the Lord (Shiva), and the soul’s bondage within the constraints of existence. These fetters comprise ignorance, karma, and the delusory nature of phenomenal reality. Acts of service and good conduct, structured worship, spiritual discipline, and deep learning free the soul from bondage.


Q) During which Chola ruler, the texts of the Tamil poets Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar were into “Thirumurai”?

During the rule of Rajendra I, the texts of the Tamil poets Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar were into “Thirumurai”.