Reign of Rājarāja I

Rājarāja I was the greatest of southern India’s Cōla kings. In addition to creating and administering a great empire, he forged impressive commercial links with Southeast Asia that led to later kings establishing trade with China. He is remembered as a patron of the arts on an unprecedented scale.

Summary of Event

The Cōla Empire marks a high point in the history of south India. The dynasty rose from obscurity with Vijayālaya Vijayālaya (r. c. 850-c. 871), who, initially a local chieftain from the neighborhood of Uraiyur, captured the city of Tanjore around 850. Making Tanjore his capital, he founded what was to become one of India’s richest kingdoms. However, it was the sixth king of the line, Rājarāja I, who transformed a relatively small kingdom into a glorious empire. [kw]Reign of Rājarāja I (c. 985-1014)
[kw]Rājarāja I, Reign of (c. 985-1014)
Rājarāja I
India;c. 985-1014: Reign of Rājarāja I[1320]
Expansion and land acquisition;c. 985-1014: Reign of Rājarāja I[1320]
Government and politics;c. 985-1014: Reign of Rājarāja I[1320]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 985-1014: Reign of Rājarāja I[1320]
Rājarāja I
Rājendracōla Deva I

Prince Arumoḷivarman took the name Rājarāja (king of kings) at his coronation in 985. His thirty-year rule was the formative period of Cōla imperialism. At the time of Rājarāja’s accession, Cōla was still a relatively small state. The king worked to extend the land holdings and to formulate a tightly knit empire efficiently administered and protected by a powerful army and navy. His earliest victory was against the confederation formed by the rulers of the Pāṇḍya kingdom to the south, the Kerala kingdom to the west, and the kingdom located in Sri Lanka. In two ground attacks, his army overran the neighboring kingdoms. In the third assault, a naval attack on the island, he took control over a large portion of northern Sri Lanka. The ancient Sinhalese capital at Anuradhapura was destroyed, and the Cōla king made Polonnaruva the new island capital.

After consolidating his newly acquired territories, Rājarāja I extended his control to the Maldive Islands and initiated diplomatic and economic links with the Sailendra rulers of the Śrivijaya kingdom located on the island of Sumatra. Although Rājarāja had created a formidable empire, he had contenders who vied to take control of his empire. His greatest enemy was the Cālukya king Satyāraya Satyāśraya , who, angered at the Cōla expansion northward into the Cālukya Empire, went to war in 1006. Initially successful, Satyāraya reclaimed the Cālukya eastern capital at Vengi in Andhra Pradesh that had been taken by the Cōlas.

In response, Rājarāja I ordered his son Rājendra to lead an invasion against the Cālukyas Cālukyas[Calukyas];Cōla invasion of[Cola invasion of] . By striking their western territories in Mysore while simultaneously directing a second branch of the Cōla army into central Andhra Pradesh, Rājendra forced Satyāraya to withdraw his troops from Vengi and the surrounding region, thereby ceding control of lands extending southward from modern-day Andhra Pradesh to the tip of the subcontinent to the Cōla king.

Rājarāja was not only an empire builder but also an impressive civil administrator. He devised a centralized administrative network focused on a single authority by breaking down the barriers between the traditional territorial divisions and incorporating them into his imperial administration. His leadership gave such great security to the people that a distinctive Tamil social and cultural life flourished and endured for centuries.

Perhaps in recognition of the successful achievements in the first decade of his rule, Rājarāja constructed an enormous royal temple at his capital, Tanjore, between c. 995 and 1010. Called the Rājarājeśvara initially, it later became known as the Bṛhadīś;vara Temple Bṛhadīśvara Temple[Brhadisvara Temple] . Funding for the enterprise came from the revenue of many villages scattered throughout the empire. A surviving inscription stipulates the amount of revenue from each village; more than forty villages in the twenty-ninth year of Rājarāja were granted to the temple, including five villages in Sri Lanka. The temple, consisting of more than 160,000 cubic feet of granite, was constructed on a monumental scale, exceeding by fivefold or sixfold the dimensions of any temple previously constructed in southern India. It rose in fifteen tiers to nearly 200 feet (60 meters). Of enormous height and elegant, elongated proportions, the temple is characterized by great clarity in design. The original temple was part of a massive complex that included a cloister wall at the periphery, a main temple dedicated to the Hindu god Śiva, a pavilion to Śiva’s bull Nandi, a smaller temple dedicated to the Goddess Caṇḍikeśvara (several additional smaller shrines were constructed in subsequent centuries), and two massive gateways. Most likely, the proud and confident king played an important role in designing a temple with such bold and innovative construction and rich decoration. Religion;Cōlas[Colas]

Rājarāja was actively involved in organizing the daily practices and celebrations of the temple, and the model that he established became standard in south India. Generally larger Hindu temples maintained male and female singers and reciters of sacred texts who praised the deity with long cycles (garlands) of devotional songs. In his temple, Rājarāja appears to have systemized the recitation practices at the Bṛhadīś;vara Temple. For the recitation of the sacred Tiruppadigam at the Bṛhadīś;vara Temple, for example, he appointed forty musicians, including one person for playing a small drum and another for the big drum. Altogether, the temple maintained sixty-seven musicians, both men and women. The male musicians were called gandharva, and the female ones were called gandharvī. Music;Cōlas[Colas]

One important function of the temple was allowing for the continuation and preservation of the arts; essentially it was a repository for the fine arts. In addition to musical performances, dance and theater productions were staged regularly. It is recorded that the play Rājarājeśvara nāṭaka, a production about the king himself, was enacted at the Tanjore temple during an annual festival. Other arts patronized by the temple included sculpting in stone, the bronze casting of images, painting, and jewelry making. Art;Cōlas[Colas] The temple also served as the principal repository of public records. Besides collecting and conserving sacred literature, the temple carefully recorded all its affairs in the inscriptions on its walls. The inscriptions are authentic evidence serving as a primary source of valuable historical data; in addition, the inscriptions are fine examples of calligraphy in the Tamil Grantha script. Literature;Cōlas[Colas]

The temple as an employer played an important role in the socioeconomic life of a large number of people who were maintained to serve the temple in various capacities. Each temple had many servants, male and female, both skilled and unskilled. Skilled positions included the priests, assistants to the priests, scholars, reciters, accountants, superintendents, treasurers, gardeners, artisans, musicians, and dancers. Unskilled servants were used for sweeping, bringing water, looking after the oil lamps, and husking rice for offerings. Ever the generous patron, the king donated 2,928 cows to the Bṛhadīś;vara Temple at Tanjore so that they could supply the temple with the required ghee (clarified butter) necessary for conducting the rituals. The cows were entrusted to sixty-one herders within and outside the city.

When Rājarāja I died in 1014, his son Rājendra, who had directed several of Rājarāja’s victorious campaigns, succeeded to the Cōla throne. Rājendracōla Deva I Rājendracōla Deva I is remembered for his continued expansion of the empire that, at one brief point in time, extended to the mouth of the Ganges River in northern India. He built his own impressive royal temple at his new capital city in the Kaveri Delta, named Gangaikondacōlapuram in honor of his victory. Curious about the world beyond Indian shores, he sent a diplomatic and commercial mission to China in 1016, and as a result, trade between the two empires was established. Rājendra’s father had sustained friendly relationship with the Sailendras Sailendra family of the Śrivijaya kingdom in Southeast Asia. A powerful maritime state, the Sailendras had ruled the Malayan peninsula, Sumatra, Java, and neighboring islands for centuries and thus controlled the seas between India and China. Trade;Cōlas[Colas]

At some point the Sumatran Dynasty must have posed a threat to Cōla trade, perhaps blockading the Cōlas’s contact with China. Whatever the cause, Rājendra dealt with them swiftly, and in 1025, he sent out a great naval expedition against the Sailendras. His forces seized and occupied parts of Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. Having secured the sealanes, the Cōla king sent another diplomatic mission to China in 1033.


Rājarāja I and his son Rājendra were powerful kings who ruled one of India’s most important and richest empires. Their reigns mark the zenith of a great overseas commercial empire as well as the florescence of Tamil culture in southern India. Rājarāja in particular is considered the greatest ruler of southern India. His conquests established the foundation of the mighty Cōla Empire, and his administrative talents set excellent standards for righteous governance that were emulated by later Cōla rulers and also served as a model for kings of subsequent dynasties.

During Cōla suzerainty, the south experienced a time of untold prosperity and cultural richness. All lands south of the Tungabhadra River were united and held as one state for a period of more than two centuries. The apex of the Cōla splendor resulted from the brilliant vision, strategic military judgment, and superior administrative talents of Rājarāja I.

Further Reading

  • Hernault, Fracoise L’. The Brhadesvara Temple. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2002. An excellent work providing a detailed survey of the iconography of Rājarāja I’s great temple in Tanjore. Short bibliography.
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K. A. A History of South India from Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1966. An important and careful reconstruction of the history of Tamil Nadu from earliest times through its last great dynasty. Bibliography.
  • Pichard, Pierre. Tanjavur Brhadisvara: An Architectural Study. Pondicherry: École Française d’Extrěme-Orient, 1995. Provides some historical facts on Rājarāja I and an extensive survey of his great temple complex at Tanjore. Bibliography.
  • Poongothai, Selvi T., and K. D. Thirunavukkarasu. Rājarāja the Great: A Garland of Tributes. Madras, India: Government Museum, 1984. A compilation of quotations by scholars commemorating Rājarāja I one thousand years after his coronation. Partial citations provided after each quotation.