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The Chola – Society and its Structure

Society and its Structure

  • In the predominantly agrarian society prevailing during the Chola period, landholding was the prime determinant of social status and hierarchy.
  • The Brahmin landholders called brahmadeya-kilavars at the top brahmadeya settlements with tax exemption were created, displacing (kudi neekki) the local peasants.
  • Temples were gifted land known as devadana, which were exempted from tax, as in brahmadeyams.
  • The temples became the hub of several activities during this period.
  • The landholders of vellanvagai villages were placed next in the social hierarchy.
  • Ulukudi (tenants) could not own land but had to cultivate the lands of Brahmins and holders of vellanvagai villages.
  • While landholders retained melvaram (major share in harvest), the ulukudi got kizh varam (lower share).
  • Labourers (paniceymakkal) and slaves (adimaigal) stayed at the bottom of social hierarchy.
  • Outside the world of agrarian society were the armed men, artisans and traders.
  • There are documents that make mention of cattle-keepers who apparently constituted a considerable section of the population.
  • There certainly were tribals and forest-dwellers, about whom our knowledge is scanty.


  • Puranic Hinduism, represented by the worship of Siva, Vishnu and associated deities, had become popular by the time of the Cholas.
  • A large number of temples dedicated to these deities were built.
  • The temples were provided vast areas of land and a considerable section of population came under their influence.
  • Chola rulers were ardent Saivites.
  • Parantaka I (907–953) and Uttama Chola (970–985) made provisions and gifted the lands to promote religion.
  • In a fresco painting in which Rajaraja I is portrayed with his wives worshiping Lord Siva in Thanjavur Brihadishvarar temple.
  • One of the titles of Rajaraja I is Siva Pada Sekaran, i.e. one who clutches the foot of Lord Siva.
  • Siva was the preeminent god for the Cholas and he was represented in two forms.
  • The iconic form of Siva was Lingodhbhava, and the Nataraja idol was the human form.
  • A trace of the locations of temple centres in Kavery delta could provide us the map of an agrarianpolitical geography spatially and temporally.
  • The repeated representation of Tripurantaka (the destroyer of three mythical cities of asura) form of Siva in sculpture and painting gave him a warrior aspect and helped in gaining legitimacy for the ruler.
  • The representation of Nataraja or Adal Vallan (king of dance) in the form of idol was the motif of Tamil music, dance and drama with hymns composed by Nayanmars, the Saiva saints.
  • These hymns sang the praise of Siva and extolled the deeds of god.
  • They held great appeal to the devotees from different social sections.
  • The Saiva canon, the Thirumurai, was codified after it was recovered by Nambi Andar Nambi.
  • Oduvars and Padikam Paduvars were appointed to sing in the temples to recite Thirumurai daily in the temple premises.
  • The singers of hymns were known as vinnappamseivar.
  • The players of percussion instruments also were appointed.
  • Girls were dedicated for the service of god.
  • Musicians and dance masters also were appointed to train them.
  • A highly evolved philosophical system called Saiva Siddhanta was founded during this period.
  • The foundational text of this philosophy, Sivagnana Bodham, was composed by Meikandar.
  • Fourteen texts, collectively called Saiva Siddhantha Sastram, form the core of this philosophy.
  • In later times, many Saiva monasteries emerged and expounded this philosophy.
  • The devotion of Chola rulers to Saivism became a strong passion in due course of time.
  • Kulothunga II, for instance, exhibited such a trait.
  • The theological tussle was fierce between state religion, Saivism, and Vaishnavism so much so that Vaishnavism was sidelined to the extent of its apostle Sri Ramanujar leaving the Chola country for Melkote in Karnataka.

Builders of Temples

  • The Cholas built and patronised innumerable temples.
  • The royal temples in Thanjavur, Gangaikonda Chozhapuram and Darasuram are the repositories of architecture, sculpture, paintings and iconography of the Chola arts.
  • The temples became the hub of social, economic, cultural and political activities.
  • The paraphernalia of the temples including temple officials, dancers, musicians, singers, players of musical instruments and their masers headed by the priests worshipping the gods reflect the royal court.
  • In the initial stages, architecturally, the Chola temples are simple and modest.
  • Sepulchral temples (pallip-padai) also were built where the kings were buried.

Temple as a Social Institution

  • Chola temples became the arena of social celebrations and functioned as social institutions.
  • They became the hub of societal space in organising social, political, economic and cultural activities.
  • The prime temple officials were koyirramar, koyilkanakku (temple accountant), deva-kanmi (agent of god), srivaisnavar, cantesar (temple manager) and others.
  • They promoted the development of learning, dance, music, painting and drama.
  • A play called Rajarajanatakam, based on the life of Rajaraja I, was performed in the Thanjavur temple.
  • The festivals of Chithirai Tiruvizha, Kartigai and Aippasivizha were celebrated.
  • It is said that singing hymns in temple premises promoted oral literacy.
  • Traditional dance items like kudak-kuthu and sakkaik-kuthu were portrayed in the form of sculptures and paintings in the temples in Kilapalivur, Tiruvorriyur.
  • Nirutya and karna poses are shown in sculptural forms in the Thanjavur big temple.
  • Traditional Tamil musical instruments also were portrayed in this way.
  • The pastoral group, as a mark of devotion, donated livestock of specified number to the temples so as to maintain the perpetual lamp to be lit in the temple.
  • To record their gift, their names were engraved in the inscriptions of royal temple.
  • Thus, they earned royal affinity.
  • The oil pressers called Sankarapadiyar supplied oil to the temple and became part of the functionaries of the temples.
  • In times of famine, some of them sold themselves to the temple as servants.
  • Temples functioned as banks by advancing loans and by purchasing and receiving endowments and donations.
  • They also became educational centres as training was imparted in Vedas, music and the arts.
  • Sculpture and metal work too were promoted.
  • Temple accounts were audited and the auditor was called koyilkanakku.

Gangaikonda Chozhapuram

  • In commemoration of his victory in North India, Rajendra I built Gangaikonda Chozhapuram on the model of Brihadisvarar temple in Thanjavur.
  • He built an irrigation tank called Chola-gangam near the capital called Jalastambha (water-pillar).
  • It became the coronation centre, which was a Chola landmark.
  • The sculptures of Ardhanariswarar, Durga, Vishnu, Surya, Chandesa anugrahamurty are the best pieces of the idols of gods placed in the niches of the outer wall of sanctum.

Darasuram Temple

  • Darasuram Temple, built by Rajaraja II (1146–1172), is yet another important contribution of the Cholas to temple architecture.
  • Incidents from the Periyapuranam, in the form of miniatures, are depicted on the base of the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) wall of the temple.

Brihadishvarar Temple

The Grand Temple of Thanjavur, known as Rajarajisvaram and Brihadishvarar Temple, stands as an outstanding example of Chola architecture, painting, sculpture and iconography. This temple greatly legitimised Rajaraja’s polity. The sanctum with a vimana of 190 feet is capped with a stone weighing 80 tons. The figures of Lakshmi, Vishnu, Ardhanarisvara and Bikshadana, a mendicant form of Siva, on the outer walls of the sanctum are some unique features. 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. Dancing girls, musicians and music masters were selected from different settlements cutting across the nadu divisions and were attached to this temple. Singers had been appointed to recite the bhakti hymns in the temple premises.

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