Rajaraja I: The Great Chola King


By editor - 3.8 2018

The medieval period in India is not romanticized period like its European counterpart, but it is nonetheless important for the development of both modern Indian Society and the Hindu religion. Like Europe at the same time, areas of the Indian subcontinent were ruled by dynastic kings, and one of the most influential and important of them is the Cola Dynasty of the Tamil region. The Cola’s conquered almost the entirety of the South of India, using their military to expand their borders. The Cola Dynasty lasted from the 9th century C.E. to the 14th century C.E. and oversaw a period of religious transformation, particularly in the Hindu tradition. One of the most important leaders of the Dynasty was Rajaraja I (r. 985-1017 C.E.), who was responsible for a great deal of religious change, and was perhaps best known for his temple reforms focused on taking the power away from bhakti temples and placing it in his own sphere of influence (Vasudevan 15).

Collossal Entry Gopura at Rajarajesvara (aka Brhadesvara) Temple in Thanjavur

Like so many other kingships throughout the medieval world, power was passed along within the family lineage. The importance of a ruler having a son was therefore intensified in its importance, and the emphasis placed on having a male heir is still seen today (Kaimal 34). In medieval India, kings were especially emphatic about honouring their lineage and any warrior ancestors from whom they had descended. This was done as a way of legitimizing their own power and status as a great warrior, which was necessary of a king (Kaimal, 35). The early Cola kings were no different in this regard, as they focused on making their family and themselves appear to be great warriors and in many ways godlike (Veluthat 30). However, the Cola’s also began to use religion as a way to legitimize their position by financing the construction of temples and using them as places of worship and administration. Temples in the Hindu tradition were steadily gaining importance throughout the first millennium C.E., as Brahmanical Hinduism based around temple worship gained more and more influence (Vasudevan, 13). This was especially true during the reign of Rajaraja I, who sought to bring the focus of worship to his own royal temples and in turn advance his personal prestige and influence. Rajaraja was known as ‘The Great Cola King’ in part because of his impressive usage of temple construction and administration to consolidate his power, and in part because of his successful military exploits.

Prior to the rule of Rajaraja, the borders of the Cola kingdom were confined strictly within the Tamil region on the Southern portion of the Indian subcontinent. When Rajaraja came to power, he went about conquering territories both to the North and South of the area he first controlled. He was ultimately quite successful in these military exploits, conquering the Telugu and Kannada regions to the North, and the area known as Ilam to the South (Vasudevan 16). As a result, Rajaraja became renowned as a great conqueror and military strategist who earned the complete loyalty of his soldiers, which helped to further secure his authority and respect of his subjects as a warrior king. The military conquests also gave him a large empire over which he tried to implement uniform administration practices (Vasudevan 43). In order to do this, Rajaraja strategically placed armies and military resources throughout the conquered regions and had them enforce his will and laws. However, this was a costly way to administer an empire, and the Cola king schemed new ways to administer his domain peacefully. The solution to the problem was to build and use temples as both a place of worship and as a place where the king could exercise considerable political power in order to better control his subjects and add to his kingdoms wealth (Vasudevan, 16). This in turn led to a resurgence in large scale temple building spearheaded by the central government of Rajaraja. Such building operations not only allowed for Rajaraja to better control his subjects and earn more prestige, but to be the cause of the further entrenchment of Brahmanical Hinduism in Southern India.

During Rajaraja’s reign, the temple became a political and economic centre that functioned in a way similar to a Lordly estate did in Europe at around the same time. Many of the tasks and duties assigned to temples under Rajaraja were similar in nature to those of a Lord to his peasants in a feudal system, though the relationships between priests and commoners were much different. Temples were given land grants by the king or private patrons so they could raise the money needed to run the services they had to provide; this was known as devadana (Vasudevan 62). The temples acted as banks in that they lent money and earned profit on the interest, as well as invested in local business ventures in things such as agriculture and so on. Another duty was to oversee land exchanges and other business transactions. All of these ventures were designed to make the temple money, and since Rajaraja sponsored so many, much of the profit from these royal temples went straight back to the crown. On top of these duties temples already had in the community under Rajaraja, they also acted as his personal tax collectors, with the Great Royal Temples like Rajarajesvaram acting as the feudal-like lord of multiple villages (Vasudevan 62). In this regard Temples played a key role in the day to day affairs and running of the Cola kingdom during the rule of Rajaraja.

Entrance to Rajaraja I’s royal palace, now the Palace Museum in Thanjavur

While temples functioned as the economic and political centres of a given area, they also served their purpose as places of religious worship as well. In the temples, Brahmin priests performed the rituals they were requested of upon payment to those who qualified via their class or jati. This is a relatively obvious function for a religious temple, though what particular god was focused on individual temples was varied. For example, in the very large royal temple of Rajarajesvaram, which was built by Rajaraja, Siva appears to be the most commonly worshipped god (Schwindler 163). Hindu deities appear all over the temple in carvings and sculptures, but Siva is depicted the most and in the most prominent places. This could be partly due to Siva’s high place in the pantheon, but it is equally likely that this was done because of the parallel between Siva being a great warrior and Rajaraja also being a great warrior, or at the least wishing to be portrayed like one (Schwindler 164). At this location, an inscription on a done at the behest of the king recorded all of the individuals in the temple’s employ. In total, there were over seven hundred people on the payroll of the temple; some for religious purposes and others to take care of the temple’s other duties (Vanamamalai 27). It has been thought that this temple was built by Rajaraja in dedication to Siva, using the arts as a means to draw people to the temple (Vanamamalai 27). Siva worship was therefore obviously an important aspect to the rule of Rajaraja, as was the recording of any business transactions in which the temple was involved.

In conclusion, the rule of Rajaraja I was complex and important to the history of India and the Hindu tradition. ‘The Great Cola King’ ushered in an era of prosperity for his kingdom and became a renowned figure in the history of India. He was able to vastly increase the size of his kingdom and give himself an empire by conquering vast areas of lands to the North and South, essentially stretching the Cola’s borders from sea to sea. Rajaraja was able to accomplish this through brilliant military strategy and commanding the complete loyalty of his armies, creating himself into an all important great warrior king like his ancestors before him. He was also a skilled politician and ruled his domain extremely well through both the use of occupational military forces and temples. Temples under Rajaraja were the major centres of the kingdom, responsible for most social, economic and political duties in a given region. This extension of temples as a form of power for the king led to the mass building of royally funded and patronized temples, the most magnificent being Rajarajesvaram. The new temples were used to bring power to the king at the expense of public, or bhakti temples. Siva worship was very important in these new temples, as it drew a comparison between the Siva as a great warrior and Rajaraja as a great warrior king. All in all, the system created by Rajaraja I to administer his kingdom was complex and important to the development of the Hindu tradition in Southern India.


Kaimal, Padma (1996) “Early Cola Kings and “Early Cola Temples”: Art and the Evolution of         Kingship”, Artibus Asiae , Vol. 56, No. 1/2, pp. 33-66.

Schwindler, Gary J. (1987) “Speculations on the Theme of Śiva as Tripurāntaka as It Appears           during the Reign of Rājarāja I in the Tanjore Area ca. A.D. 1000”, Ars Orientalis , Vol.         17, pp. 163-178.

Vanamamalai, N. (19754) “State and Religion in the Chola Empire: Taxation for Thanjavur            Temple’s Music and Dance”, Social Scientist , Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 26-42.

Vasudevan, Geeta (2003) The Royal Temple of Rajaraja : An Instrument of Imperial Cola             Power. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Veluthat, Kesavan (1993) “Religious Symbols in Political Legitimation: The Case of Early             Medieval South India”, Social Scientist , Vol. 21, No. 1/2, pp. 23-33.

Related Readings

Maloney, Clarence (1970) “The Beginnings of Civilization in South India”, The Journal of Asian   Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 603-616.

Sewell, Robert (1883) A sketch of the dynasties of Southern India. Oxford: Government Press.