Category Archives: South Indian Kingdoms

Hinduism in Sri Lanka

The origins of Hinduism in Sri Lanka have not been conclusively determined. However, it is known that the development of a multiethnic modern day Sri Lanka, primarily influenced by Buddhist and Hindu religious worldviews, has unfortunately resulted in devastating ethnic and religious conflict. Currently, it is believed that the expansion of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka occurred relatively close to the evolution of the major ethnic group identified as the Sinhalese (Holt 70).  The Sinhalese are thought to have originated from the assimilation of various tribal or aboriginal ethnic communities that occupied Sri Lanka during the early Iron Age, approximately 600 to 500 BCE (Holt 70). However, some scholarly sources state that the Sinhalese may in fact have migrated to and colonized Sri Lanka around 500 BCE (Nubin 95). Despite these variances, it is accepted that the Sinhalese developed sophisticated civilizations with innovative technological advancements such as water tanks, reservoirs and irrigation canals (Nubin 95). Most importantly, the Sinhalese would help establish, spread and safeguard the traditions of Buddhism that would eventually be protected by the governing states of Sri Lanka (Nubin 95).

In regards to the spread of Hinduism from south India to Sri Lanka, the earliest inscriptions and texts from the Pali chronicles (the Mahavamsa) state that the primarily Hindu Tamils occupied Sri Lanka from the early Iron Age onward, directly parallel to the evolution of the Sinhalese (Holt 71). It is important to understand that there is a distinction between Sri Lankan Tamils, considered a native minority, and Indian Tamils, who later immigrated to Sri Lanka or are the descendants of these immigrants (Nubin 146). With their migration, the Indian Tamils brought with them their own Tamil language and spread their Dravidian cultural influences amongst the people of Sri Lanka. Additionally, since Tamil Nadu, India and northern Sri Lanka are closely connected in terms of geography, this physical link has supported the continual spread of Tamils in Sri Lanka (Holt 71). These Tamil immigrants comprised various castes and positions of power in the Hindu societies of south India, and “brought with them a kaleidoscope of religious myths and rites reflective of Hindu worldviews” (Deegalle 39). Archaeological evidence supports this migration model for the spread of Tamil language and culture in Sri Lanka (Holt 71). Eventually, some Tamil traders became elite and their significant influence in northern Sri Lanka allowed Tamil language and Hindu culture to become dominant (Holt 71). However, the Hindu Tamil influence was not as strong in the central and southern regions of Sri Lanka, where most Tamils were assimilated into the majority, Sinhalese Buddhist tradition (Holt 71). Additionally, as the Sinhalese slowly gained control of Sri Lanka, they started to view both Tamil language and culture as invasive and foreign to their native Buddhist traditions (Nubin 146). This tension between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Hindu Tamil minority has resulted in severe conflict throughout the history of Sri Lanka, even up to the past few decades (Mainuddin and Aicher 26).

The peak of these clashes between the Sinhalese and Tamils occurred between the 5th and 9th centuries CE, when the Cola (pronounced Chola) dynasty, a Hindu empire of south India, increasingly pushed towards the Sinhalese-Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka (Nubin 101). Under the rule of Rajaraja the Great (983 – 1014 CE), the Cola Empire, which had already established hegemony over south India, proceeded aggressively to conquer Sri Lanka (De Silva 25). The Cola Empire gained near complete control of the Buddhist Sinhalese kingdom by removing the Sinhalese king at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka and subsequently, Rajaraja’s son Rajendra completed the conquest of the island (De Silva 26). A significant and relatively permanent change created by the Cola Empire, which outlasted its period of rule, was the shifting of the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruva (De Silva 26). The Cola Empire’s primary motive behind shifting the capital farther south was to protect their empire from potential invasion from southern Sinhalese kingdoms (Nubin 102). However, the southern Sinhalese kingdoms would eventually overthrow the Cola Empire, but the crucial shift of the political and religious capital allowed certain aspects of Hinduism established during the Cola rule to be maintained in Sri Lanka (Holt 87).

Importantly, the Cola conquest resulted in significant changes in the religious and cultural dynamics of Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). The rule of the south Indian Tamils of the Cola Empire allowed Hinduism to prosper in Sri Lanka, while Buddhism receded (Nubin 102). A crucial consequence of the Cola conquest was that it allowed Hindu-Brahmanical traditions and religious practices of Saivism to become dominant in Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). Furthermore, various characteristics of Dravidian (south Indian) culture including notions of art, architecture and the Tamil language, collectively had a substantial impact on the religious and cultural structures of Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). Under the Cola Empire, many Siva temples were built in major centers of worship in the Anuradhapura kingdom. These temples in Polonnaruva, Kantalai, Tirukkovil and other cities further assisted in enhancing Hindu Saivite traditions in Sri Lanka (Carter 164). Interestingly, despite the large amount of evidence about Saiva religious practices in Sri Lanka that arises after the Cola conquest, earlier inscriptions from the Mahavamsa indicate that the origins of Saivism in Sri Lanka may date back to the pre-Buddhist period (Carter 162). During this time period of around 400 BCE, the majority of Sri Lankans likely followed religious practices that closely adhered to Hindu Brahmanic and Saivite traditions (Carter 162). Archaeological studies of these religious practices in early Sri Lanka suggest significant phallic (Sivalinga) worship and worship of Saivite deities that closely resemble the principal religious practices of Hindu Tamils at the time (Carter 163).

Once the Sinhalese kingdom regained power approximately a century after the invasion by the Tamil Cola Empire, under King Parakramabahu I, the city of Polonnaruva was transformed into a dynamic center of cultural evolution (Holt 87). Although certain cultural aspects concerning literacy, art and fashion seemed to resemble or evolve from Anuradhapura roots, the city of Polonnaruva allowed for an extensive Hindu community to flourish (Holt 87). Sculptural and archaeological pieces indicate that a significant Hindu Saivite presence was maintained in Polonnaruva (Holt 11). This Hindu community followed Brahmanical traditions that were supported by the matrimonial alliances between Parakramabahu’s royal court and Hindu political elite in south India (Holt 87). Smaller, localized communities of Hindus also continued to thrive and their origins are likely based on Hindu mercenaries that served military interests of south India (Holt 87). Modern day archaeological evidence of religious figures that were worshipped during these times in Sri Lanka indicate a high degree of connection to the practices of Hindu Tamils in south India. Many sculptures depict the Hindu deities Siva, his wife Parvati, and their elephant headed son Ganesa (Holt 87). Importantly, these Hindu deities as well as Skanda (or Murugan) were widely worshipped by the Cola Tamils. These statues also strikingly resemble deities worshipped in south India and are likely derived from the Thanjavur styles of Tamil Nadu (Holt 87).

Modern day, pluralistic Sri Lanka is shaped by four main religions, and primarily two major ethnic groups (Carter 149). Currently, approximately 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 15% are Hindu, 8% are Christian, and 7% are Muslim (Nubin 9). Importantly, we find that many characteristics of Hinduism in India are different from the Hinduism established in Sri Lanka. Among the Hindus of Sri Lanka, Saivism is predominantly practiced, whereas other Hindu sects are essentially absent (Carter 175). One reason for such a lack of diversity in the Hindu communities of Sri Lanka is due to the migration of largely Saivite Tamil Hindus from south India. Furthermore, the historical and geographical events that collectively established Saivism in Sri Lanka have also produced differences from Saivism practiced in Tamil Nadu, India (Carter 175). Specifically, Vaisnavism and Saivism are thought to be contrasting systems in India, whereas in Sri Lanka, Visnu and Siva worship is complementary (Carter 175). Additionally, there are some temples in Sri Lanka devoted to the worship of Visnu even though there is not a significant number of Vaisnavites in Sri Lanka (Carter 175). Despite some of these differences, the established religious practices and traditions of Hindus in Sri Lanka have remained relatively unchanged until recent times. Many components of Hinduism in Sri Lanka including religious, cultural and linguistic factors can also be traced back to Hindu religious and political practices of south India. For example, Brahmin priests, who conduct rituals and ceremonies in social settings and in Hindu temples, do not involve themselves in the politics of public affairs (Carter 149). It is believed that this indifference towards public affairs by Brahmins can be traced back to the construction of Hindu society in India (Carter 149). Conversely, the Buddhist Sangha in Sri Lanka has held a key voice in political issues and has received major support from the state (Carter 149).

Nearly all Sri Lankan Hindus are Saivites and adhere to the Saiva Siddhanta School that was developed during medieval times in Tamil Nadu, India (Carter 150). Specifically, Saiva Siddhanta reveres the Vedas and the texts known as Agamas, whereas in south Indian Saivism, the collection of hymns referred to as Thirumurai and other texts including philosophical treatises comprise the canonical literature (Carter 150). This literature has also influenced Saivism in Sri Lanka, which in the broader sense can be thought of as “a blend of the Vedagama tradition with that of the Saiva Siddhanta” (Carter 150). Hindus in Sri Lanka have also maintained many of the cultural and linguistic characteristics of their Tamil Hindu counterparts in south India. For example, alongside the worship of similar deities, Hindus in Sri Lanka have also constructed temples, sculptures and other architectural monuments by employing south Indian artisans and architects (Carter 150). Additionally, many components of south Indian culture, such as the classical art of Bharata Natyam, have been established and sustained in Hindu communities in Sri Lanka (Carter 150). Sri Lankan Hindus also make pilgrimages to Cidambaram, Madurai, Ramesvaram, as well as other major Saivite centres in south India (Carter 175). Furthermore, many major religious festivals, such as the Kataragama festival celebrating the highly venerated deity Kataragama (or Skanda), occur in Hindu temples built at holy pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka (see Welbon and Yocum 299-304).

Although, possibly countless gods constitute the Hindu pantheon, for Tamil Hindus in both India and Sri Lanka, the gods Visnu and Siva are highly revered (Nubin 162). Visnu is referred to as the all-pervading god or “Blessed Lord,” who is the defender and creator of Dharma (Rodrigues 509). Visnu is usually depicted as a king with his wife, Laksmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune (Nubin 162). One of Visnu’s ten incarnations is Rama, who is the central character in the epic Ramayana. The other most popular incarnation of Visnu is the god Krsna, who is a cowherd and a warrior prince. Krsna appears in the highly important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, where he primarily conveys fundamental teachings regarding devotion and following one’s duties (Nubin 162).  Siva is considered to be the most important Hindu deity for Sri Lankan Hindus (Nubin 162). Siva is referred to as the lord of the yogis or sometimes as Pasupati, “Lord of Animals” (Rodrigues 37). Siva is married to Parvati, the daughter of the mountains, and Siva is often depicted as an ascetic being, covered in ashes, meditating in the jungle with animals surrounding his presence (Nubin 162). For Tamil Hindus, the most powerful and creative expression of Siva is as Nataraja, “Lord of the Dance” (Nubin 163). Large collections of literature and poems dedicated to Siva are held by some Tamil Hindus to be as sacred as the Vedic scriptures (Nubin 163). Although the primary focus for Sri Lankan Hindus is on the worship of Visnu and Siva, the Mahavamsa-Culavamsa (non-canonical narrative on the religious history of Sri Lankan royalty) also references the Hindu deities Brahma, Laksmi, Indra, Kuvera, Skanda, Visvakarman, Brhaspati, and Sarasvati (Deegalle 41). However, since much of the content of the Mahavamsa-Culavamsa is of Buddhist legend, myth, or folktale, searching these texts for connections to Hinduism in Sri Lanka can feel like trying to find information on Taoism by reading Confucian histories (Deegalle 41). Notably, female deities are also important amongst Hindu Tamils of south India and Sri Lanka, and they often receive more devotion by worshippers (Nubin 163). These goddesses are the Sakti, or cosmic energy, that has the ability to be both a creative and destructive force (Nubin 163).  Additionally, many small Hindu villages in Sri Lanka may also have their own local stories or origins based upon the presence of a specific deity. Therefore, they may have built specific temples for worshipping these deities, which usually include Ganesa, Muruga, Vairavar, and Kali (Carter 183).

In the more recent colonial history of Sri Lanka, Hindu religious practices have become less extensive due to the persecution of these religious worldviews by European colonizers, and also due to an increasing Buddhist influence (Carter 165). Specifically, the Portuguese colonizers persecuted Saivites, who in turn responded by fleeing to India. The Saivites that remained in Sri Lanka found themselves struggling to assert their Saiva religious practices, as they were unable to participate in fundamental religious observances such as temple worship (Carter 165). The Dutch imposed similar restrictions, but eventually British rule near the end of the nineteenth century allowed for greater religious freedom for Saivites in Sri Lanka (Carter 165). Nowadays, Sri Lanka faces problems of segregation based on caste (“caste-ism”) and untouchability that continue to be prevalent because of the absence of social reforms in Sri Lanka that are, however, taking place in India to fight the hierarchical division of groups into classes (Carter 155). On the political forefront, the proportional representation that Hindu Tamils enjoyed in the Sri Lankan government was eliminated with the 1949 Indian and Pakistani Residents Act (Mainuddin and Aicher 35). Additionally, the 1978 Constitution enshrined Buddhism with the state, further increasing the political tension between the Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese (Mainuddin and Aicher 37). In the next few years, radical Tamils formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and led an armed combat against the Sri Lankan government during the Sri Lankan Civil War to protect their Tamil statehood (Mainuddin and Aicher 37). Furthermore, the continued warfare by the Hindu Tamil militants against the Sri Lankan government in the 1990s indicates that the separatist self-determination issue is not yet resolved. These constant struggles illustrate the extent to which the heterogeneous society of modern day Sri Lanka continues to sporadically encounter clashes between the revivalist Sinhalese, Buddhist majority, and the separatist Tamil, Hindu minority (Mainuddin and Aicher 28). These struggles will likely resurface in the future as the relatively young sovereign nation of Sri Lanka continues to address conflicting political and religious powers in attempt to define its true national identity.


References and Further Recommended Readings

Bastin, Rohan (2005) “Hindu Temples in the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict – Capture and Excess.” Social Analysis 49: 45-66.

Carter, John R. (ed.) (1979) Religiousness in Sri Lanka. Colombo: Marga Institute.

De Silva, Kingsley M. (1981) A History of Sri Lanka. London: C. Hurst.

Deegalle, Mahinda (ed.) (2006) Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka. New York: Routledge.

Holt, John (ed.) (2011) The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, USA: Duke University Press.

Jayaram, Narayana (ed.) (2004) The Indian Diaspora: Dynamics of Migration. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Kumar, Pratap P. (ed.) (2013) Contemporary Hinduism. Durham, UK: Acumen.

Mainuddin, Rolin G., and Joseph R. Aicher (1997) “Religion and self-determination: A case study of Sri Lanka.” Indian Journal of Asian Affairs 10:26-46.

Nubin, Walter (ed.) (2002) Sri Lanka: Current Issues and Historical Background. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Olson, Carl (2007) The Many Colors of Hinduism: A Thematic-historical Introduction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Schwarz, Walter (1988) The Tamils of Sri Lanka. London: Minority Rights Group.

Welbon, G. R., and G. E. Yocum (eds.) (1982) Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka. Delhi: Manohar.

Wickramasinghe, Nira (2006) Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Cidambaram temples

Cola (or Chola) Dynasty


Dravidian (south Indian) culture



Saiva Siddhanta


Siva Nataraja

Tamil Nadu





Noteworthy Websites Related to Topic


Article written by: Harshil Patel (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Cidambaram Temple

Cidambaram Temple, also known as the Thillai Natarajah Temple is a sixteen hectare temple complex (Smith 4) located in the center of the city of Cidambaram in Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India, and was built and expanded between the 10th and 14th centuries. The official name of the temple is Sabhanayaka (Lord of the Hall) temple (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). This temple venerates Siva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance) in Sanskrit or Thillai Koothan in Tamil (Spencer).

The temple is famous for the veneration a 3 foot tall bronze statue of Siva (Srinivasan 433) in a dancing position and the local myth that inspired the depiction and the worship of Siva in that form in Cidambaram. The statue is meant to be used as an utsava murti (processional image) in festivals (Cush, Robinson, and York 366), but is usually located in an inner gold-roofed sanctum called the Cit-Sabha or Hall of Consciousness (Srinivasan 433, Smith 5). Siva is also represented in the form of a traditional lingam, and in the form of an empty alcove representing akasa (ether, space, or sky) and transcendence (Srinivasan 433). It is said that the Cit-Sabha embodies Siva as well (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Other deities worshipped at the temple include Sivakamasundari, Ganesa, and Visnu among other deities connected with Siva. The depictions of each deity can be found in alcoves and ambulatories around the edges of the temple.

This temple is one of five temples in south India dedicated to Siva which each represent elements and the supposed geographic locations where Siva has appeared and performed miracles. These temples collectively are called the Panca Bhuta Sthalam, (Spencer 233, Isaac 16, Dey 49) and Cidambaram temple represents the element of akasa.


Temple History

The Nataraja temple at Cidambaram was built in the 10th century during the reign of Cola ruler Vira Cola Raja and is among some of the oldest temples in south India (Sullivan 58). Cidambaram temple has been the center for the worship of Siva in a dancing form since the seventh century (Smith 1), however the depiction of Siva as Nataraja was popularized by the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites sometime later (Cush, Robinson, and York 799).

Cola rulers through the 10th to the 13th centuries considered Siva, especially as Nataraja, to be their family deity and sponsored massive expansions of the Cidambaram temple complex and other Saivite temple complexes in south India. Along with the level of temple construction and renovation, they also made efforts to increase the scale and organization of worship at these temples (Davis 16). Vikrama and his military minister Naralokaviran are credited with renovating and adorning the Cidambaram temple, as well as sponsoring and developing services and facilities to encourage patronage and worship such as grand festivals, lit processional walkways, ocean pavilions, etc. with the goal to secure the Cidambaram Nataraja temple as the capital of Saivite worship in south India (Davis 19).

Cidambaram temple is sometimes simply referred to as “the temple”, and the entire city is sometimes referred to as a temple in literature (Spencer 240). Historically in the Saivite temple culture throughout south India, the main keepers and collectors of information were travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), who were advocates of bhakti (devotionalism), and whose Tamil (Sullivan 195) devotional hymns are still sung today (Sullivan 211). However, there were multiple schools of thought in place in the area in medieval times who each would have a variation on thought and their own canon. For example, the accepted canon for Saiva Siddhanta philosophy was the Agamas (Srinivasan 432). Numerous nayanmars are remembered and venerated at the temple, and their poems have been passed down orally through generations. Recently, the process has begun of writing the poems and stories down for posterity. The veneration of priests, saints, and poets at Cidambaram is hierarchical with more well-known figures such as Umapati Sivacarya who wrote the poem Kuncitanghristava or “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515) being remembered and praised more often than lesser saints which included women and Dalits (Spencer 235). The lineages of Saivite saints, priests, and teachers is hard to decipher because of a patchy record and an initiatory re-naming tradition (Davis 9).


Temple Mythology

Cidambaram is considered the center of the universe (Smith 2), as well as the place where Siva first performed the anandatandava, or dance of bliss (Srinivasan 432, Smith 1), in the presence of his consort Sivakamasundari, and three sages who were awaiting his arrival in Cidambaram while worshipping a lingam (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Cidambaram is said to be the sky temple in the series of five temples in south India which represent elemental forms of Siva, the Panca Bhuta Sthalam (Dey 49). Each temple in this collection of temples is said to have a connected story of Siva appearing at that location in the presence of devotees to perform a miracle in a new form. At Cidambaram the miracle was the anandatandava and the form that Siva assumed was that of Nataraja or Lord of Dance (Smith 1). The traditional lingam which would usually stand in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Cit-Sabha, is replaced in this temple by a bronze statue of Siva performing the dance (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). The representation of the figure of Siva performing the anandatandava is steeped in symbolism.

The speed of the dance is said to determine whether it will be creative or destructive, with a slower pace being creative and a faster pace being destructive (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Siva as Nataraja is depicted with 4 hands, each having a specific meaning. The hand raised up in the abhaya-mudra (Cush, Robinson, and York 799) represents refuge, while the downward-pointing hand represents escape from samsara shown by the surrounding ring of fire (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). The other two hands hold a drum used for keeping time while dancing and a ball of fire, which each represent creation and destruction; fire can be creative in a Vedic sense by creating favor from the gods and the drum can be interpreted as destructive by marking the passage of time (Smith 1, Cush, Robinson, and York 160, Sullivan 148). In the 14th century in Cidambaram, the priest Umapati Sivacarya devoted a poem to the depiction of Siva in anandatandava entitled Kuncitanghristava, “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515), the foot on the statue of Siva as Nataraja is said to grant anugraha (blessing) and salvation (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Siva’s other foot steps on a smaller person or demon named Apasmarapurusa in Sanskrit or Muyalaka in Tamil (Nayagam 120) which represents ignorance (Smith 1).


Temple Structure

The style of southern Indian temples is distinct from northern Indian temples. In the southern style, the gopuram (main towers) are raised high above the gates of the temple and set into the walls that encircle the inner sanctuaries, the walls are usually highly decorated and ornate (Sullivan 227). Cidambaram temple is one of the largest in south India, with the gopurams measured at 49 meters high (Sullivan 58).

The walls of the Cidambaram temple have been decorated with depictions of 108 Bharata Natyam (traditional Indian dance) poses (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). This style of classical dance is said to have originated in the surrounding area of Tamil Nadu and especially within Saivite temple culture (Tiruvalluvar 1201), and the temple also boasts a large performing arts hall shaped like a chariot called the Nrtta Sabha (Sullivan 58).

The Cidambaram temple is also set apart by the golden roof of the Cit-Sabha, extensive processional routes, and lamped walkways all added on by Cola rulers (Davis 19). Cit-Sabha, the innermost hall or sanctum of the temple contains three alcoves, the main alcove contains the three foot tall bronze statue of Siva Nataraja, with the other two alcoves containing the stone lingam usually representative of Siva and an empty space representative of Siva as the element akasa (Srinivasan 433). Several shrines to other deities are featured in the temple, most of whom have some connection to Siva in Hindu literature (Sullivan 58). All of the elemental Saivite temples are built in the same southern style but differ in their decorations and size.



The main festival at temples dedicated to Siva is Mahasivaratri (Great Night of Siva) or simply Sivaratri (Sullivan 211). This festival is held yearly on the thirteenth night and fourteenth day in the dark half of Phalguna, the month that takes place in February to March in the Gregorian calendar (Sullivan 130). The festival is widely popular and devotees of many different deities attend. The festival consists of a night vigil at the temple which involves devotional hymns, darsana (auspicious viewing) of images of Siva either in statue or lingam form and highly decorated (Sullivan 130), and puja offerings which include sandalwood paste, flower petals, bilva and bel leaves, milk, curd, ghee, honey, rose water, and vermillion paste (Dwivedi 30, Sullivan 130). A drink made of cannabis, milk, and almonds is also said to be consumed at this festival (Dwivedi 30). The second day of the festival is a celebratory day reserved for feasting rather than solemn worship (Sullivan 130). The Mahasivaratri has many origin stories including Parvati venerating a lingam in Siva’s absence, a hunter accidentally venerating a lingam when out in the wilderness, and the gods Brahma and Visnu finding a pillar of fire which is revealed to be Siva in a different form (Dwivedi 72).

Other festivals include occasional processional temple festivals called mahotsava or brahmotsava in Sanskrit and tiruvila in Tamil. These festivals can last up to two weeks and involve the use of utsava murti (processional images) of deities used in festivals and temple rites (Cush, Robinson, and York 366). The icons are dressed in finery like silk, flowers, and gold ornaments and led down the streets either on the shoulders of followers, or pulled in chariots by devotees holding hemp ropes. There are also animals and musicians involved in these parades, which stop occasionally along the procession to allow people to view the gods and make offerings to them which is seen as very auspicious (Davis 15). Bronze figures and accompanying inscriptions show that this form of festival worship has been taking place in south India since at least the 9th century (Davis 16).

This festival takes place in Cidambaram as well with the obvious addition of the Nataraja statue. Other differences in the Cidambaram mahotsavas are the length and scale of the festival which is always very long, around fifteen days, and features two parades each day with the deities riding on different vahanas (vehicles). This culminates in the ratha-yatra where the deities are paraded on chariots which are much like individual moving shrines (Davis 15). At the beginning of any festival period devoted primarily to Siva, the temple flag is raised with the image of a bull on it which represents Siva’s vahana Nandi (Davis 30). Another practice which sets Cidambaram apart is the practice of applying a black balm to the statues, priests, servants, and lay people in hierarchical order if the festival is venerating Nataraja (Davis 51).


Staff and Important Persons

Important persons connected to the temple include the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites who popularized the veneration of Siva as Nataraja, as well as the other numerous lesser-known philosophical schools which helped inform the literature in medieval south India (Cush, Robinson, and York 799). Also of great importance were the travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), whose Tamil devotional Saivite hymns recorded the mythology and chronology of the area and whose stories were passed down orally and are still told and sung today creating a rich illustration of the history of the area (Sullivan 211). Some of these poets became priests or teachers or gained fame from their writing which creates a useful image of the social landscape of the time.

The temple staff at Cidambaram are called diksitars because they undergo the initiatory process of diksa. This process involves numerous rites to be performed at different prescribed times before the initiate is accepted. The nitya-karman are the daily rites and show Saivite piety if they are done on one’s own behalf (atmartha), this category includes the nityapuja (veneration of a lingam), nityahoma (a small fire sacrifice), and suryapuja (sun worship). Daily rituals need to be completed before other rituals, they are the prerequisites. Naimittikarman, or occasional rites include pavitrosava and damanotsava and they are the prerequisites for the last set of rituals. The last set of rituals, on completion, marks the initiation of a diksitar as part of the Saivite community and released of earthly bondage. These rituals are therefore held in high regard as transformative. The initiate is consecrated as either a sadhakadiksa (mantra-adept), or as an acaryadiksa (priest) through a series of upanayana-like rituals including a mock cremation on the receiving of a special mantra (Davis 7).



Aghorasiva (1157) A Priest’s Guide to the Great Festival. Translation and notes by Richard H. Davis (2010) New York: Oxford University Press.

Cush, Denise, and Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Dey, Nando L. (1979) The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Dwivedi, Anil K. (2007) Encyclopedia of Indian Customs & Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Ferro-Luzzi, Gabriella E. (1996) “Reviewed Work: The Dance of Siva. Religion, Art and Poetry in South India by David Smith” East and West 46:515–17. Accessed February 5, 2016.

Isaac, Eric (1960) “Religion, Landscape, and Space” Landscape 9:14-18.

Nayagam, X.S. Thani (1970). Tamil Culture and Civilization. London: Asia Publishing House.

Smith, David (1996) The Dance of Siva: Religion, Art and Poetry in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, George W. (1970) “The Sacred Geography of the Tamil Shaivite Hymns.” Numen 17:232–44. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.2307/3269705.

Srinivasan, Sharada (2004) “Shiva as ‘cosmic dancer’: On Pallava origins for the Nataraja bronze.” World Archaeology 36:432-450. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.1080/1468936042000282726821.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1997) Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Tiruvalluvar (2000). The Handbook of Tamil Culture and Heritage. Chicago: International Tamil Language Foundation.


Related Topics

  • Bhakti
  • Diksa
  • Bharata Natyam
  • Saivitism
  • Viasnavism
  • Cola Dynasy
  • Tamil Poetry
  • Poet-saints
  • South Indian Architecture
  • Processional Festivals


Related Websites

Article written by: Katherine Christianson (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.




Rajendra Cola I

Rajendra Cola I was a great king who ruled from 1012 to 1044 CE. He presided over the expansive Cola dynasty in Southern India inheriting the kingdom from his father, Rajaraja I. The Cholas had ruled kingdoms of varying sizes in South India from approximately 850 CE (Srivastava 1). However, by 980 CE the Cola dynasty had been in a steady decline for a few decades until Rajaraja I, Rajendra’s father, became king from 985 to 1014 CE (Srivastava 11). Thus, Rajendra was perfectly placed in history to become a great king, as he watched his father return the dynasty to its former glory and learned what was needed from a king to continue expanding his territory.

When discussing Rajendra the logical starting point is then Rajaraja, as much of Rajendra’s success as a king and leader should be attributed to Rajaraja. This is true for many reasons, the most prominent being Rajendra had inherited a kingdom that had already been rescued from oblivion by Rajaraja. Thus, Rajendra’s success was not solely his own. Once Rajaraja was firmly in place as a prominent king he began mentoring Rajendra in warfare and governance. This tutelage continued into the first two years of Rajendra’s rule, as Rajendra and Rajaraja co-ruled until Rajaraja’s death in 1014 CE (Srivastava 24).

There is no known date of birth for Rajendra; his early life is also a bit of a mystery, however his mother is said to be Vanavan Mahadevi, one of Rajaraja’s wives (Srivastava 15). It seems one only starts to see Rajendra’s name appearing once he had been named the crowned prince. It is also known that Rajendra had four wives: Vunavan-Mahadeviyar, Mukkokkilan, Pancavon-Mahadeviyar and Vira-Mahadevi, however the dates of the marriages are also unknown (Srivastava 15).

Before Rajendra became king, his father Rajaraja introduced him to the many responsibilities of ruling. One such example was how Rajaraja insisted that Rajendra participate as an acting member of the government, as Srivastava stated, “Under his [Rajaraja’s] direct supervision and by holding different positions in the government, both civil as well as military, Rajendra got excellent opportunities to shape his personality as the crown-prince” (Srivastava 23). Rajaraja also ensured that Rajendra understood the art of war, by having Rajendra fight in his army (Srivastava 16). Rajaraja’s foresight to include his son, early on, in the day to day managing of the kingdom was an excellent decision. It appears that Rajendra agreed as he utilized the same tutelage with his eldest son, Rajadhiraja, who was the next crown-prince (Srivastava 51). As a matter of fact, Rajendra made use of this technique when it came to the numerous princes, as Professor K.A.N. Sastri is quoted in Srivastava’s book, “By finding suitable occupation for the energies of restless princes of the royal family, he doubtless allayed their discontent, diminished the chances of palace intrigues and revolutions, and at the same time brought new strength to the administration of an over-grown empire which was called upon to face many difficult problems, domestic and foreign” (Srivastava 65). Thus, Rajendra successfully employed the same deterrent his father, Rajaraja, had taught him.


Rajendra presided over a government system that was quite unique for the time period, in some aspects it seemed almost democratic. Rajendra held those he presided over with great respect. In many instances he wished to know public opinion regarding a proposed law that may affect his people and on occasions he was also known to get the approval of the majority of his people before passing laws (Srivastava 74). Rajendra was also dedicated to his people, using government money to build roads and improve irrigation (Srivastava 73). Although, there was one aspect of the government that was quite traditional: members of the government were chosen from high society. However, if a government official wanted to move up in rank the ultimate factor in the decision was the ability of the individual to do the job correctly (Srivastava 66). Given that Rajendra was interested in the opinions of the public and that members of the government were judged on merit, the government appeared to be quite steady. It was probably due to this stability and prosperity that allowed Rajendra to wage wars without worrying about monetary issues.


Rajendra was known as a fierce warrior and king and a brilliant war strategist (Spencer 1976:416). Along with his father, Rajaraja, Rajendra radically altered how raids were accomplished. What was once done in a haphazard manner was transformed by Rajendra and Rajaraja into much more productive, long term invasions (Spencer 1976:409). Once their army had invaded an enemy territory they were to start building camps that acted as a home base, from where they could continue raiding the surrounding area (Spencer 1976:409). A large aspect of Rajendra’s army was an extremely powerful navy which was passed down to him by Rajaraja (Srivastava 42, 68). As Rajendra’s army collected more and more enemy territories, stories started to circulate about how fierce the army was; this caused a few kings in neighbouring areas to send gifts to Rajendra in the hope that a friendship could be formed to ensure their own kingdom’s survival (Srivastava 48). As the distance between the capital city and the outlying communities grew Rajendra had to ensure that he remained in control; this was partially accomplished through the building of temples.


By building temples in outlying areas where Rajendra’s influence may not have been overly prominent he was placing himself in the forefront of the minds of his people. As Kaimal states, “Temple building declared publicly the king’s ability to protect and donate to the deity, it created a lasting visual symbol of the king’s sacred authority,” (Kaimal 1996:55). Another reason for placing temples in the outlying areas was to incorporate any non Cola traditions into Cola traditions, which changed the locals associations with the king (Kaimal 1996:62). Most of these temples also had a specific location where the names of donors would be placed. To ensure that the general public recognized that the the king was a main contributor their names were always placed in a prominent location (Spencer 1969:51).


The Colas were well known as Saivas, worshippers of Siva, because of this most of their temples are dedicated to Siva (Lippe 44). The preferred depiction of Siva installed in most of these temples was the image of Siva as Lord of the Dance, or Siva Nataraja (Lippe 62). This particular depiction of Siva represents the dance that Siva does to destroy the universe. Siva is depicted dancing on the dwarf of ignorance, while a ring of fire encircles him. He usually has four arms in this depiction, one of which is usually holding a drum while another is holding a flame. The goddess Ganga is also shown trapped in Siva’s hair (Kaimal 1999:393). There are many temples with this type of iconography, one such example is the temple that Rajendra built in 1030 CE at Gangaikondacholapuram (Lippe 35). However, Rajendra’s temple is largely abandoned. As it could not compete with the temple his father built in Tanjore.


When it came to temple construction it appears that Rajendra did not take his father’s lead. The temple that Rajaraja built in Tanjore is still in use today due to Rajaraja’s clever use of his subjects. Rajaraja ensured that people all over his dynasty were a part of the temple itself. He conscripted a selection of his subjects who were already working other temples around his territories to work at his temple in Tanjore. This gave many people who lived far from the temple a way to associate themselves with the temple itself, through their neighbours or relatives who were now working in the great temple at Tanjore (Geeta 23). When Rajendra’s temple was finally built instead of using the same technique that his father had used to ensure that the public felt connected to the temple he simply had some of the current workers from his father’s temple moved to his own temple. Which did not have the same effect.


Given all that Rajendra Cola I managed to accomplish during his reign as one of the most prolific kings of Southern India it is easy to understand why Srivastava said, “During his regime the goddess of the Earth, the goddess of Victory in battle and the matchless goddess of Fame became his great queens” (Srivastava 100). Yet, with all that Rajendra is said to have accomplished, almost single handedly the way some of his history is described, it is also understandable why Srivastava said, “Notwithstanding the exaggerations, he is to be reckoned as one of the greatest rulers of India” (Srivastava 101).

















References and Further Recommended Reading


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


Kaimal, Padma (1999) “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon.” The Art Bulletin, Vol.81      (no.3 September), 390-419


Lippe, Aschwin (1971) “Divine Images in Stone and Bronze: South India, Chola Dynasty (c.        850-1280).” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 4, 29-79


Majumdar, R. C. (1961) “The Overseas Expeditions of King Rajendra Cola.” Artibus Asiae, Vol.   24 (no. 3/4), 338-342


Spencer, George W. (1969) “Religious Networks and Royal Influence in Eleventh Century South India.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 12 (January), 42- 56


Spencer, George W. (1976) “The Politics of Plunder: The Cholas in Eleventh-Century Ceylon.”    The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35 (May), 405-419


Srivastava, Balram (1973) Rajendra Chola. India: Thomson Press Limited.


Stein, Burton (1977) “Circulation and the Historical Geography of Tamil Country.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 37 (November), 7-26


Vasudevan, Geeta (2003) The royal temple of Rajaraja : an instrument of imperial Cola power.     New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.



Related Topics for Further Investigation

Cola Dynasty

Rajaraja I



Siva Nataraja




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic



Article written by: Krysti Bouttell-Bonnar (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Rajaraja I

Rajaraja I: The Great Cola King

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
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
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.

Related Research Topics

The Cola Dynasty

The Pallava Dynasty

Rajendra I

Noteworthy Websites

Article written by Greg Blow (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Pandyan Dynasty

The Pandyan Empire started around the 6th century and ended around the 15th century. It extended from the Southern Vellaru river, to the North down to Cape Comorin, and from the Coromandel Coast on the East to the Achchhankovil Pass leading into Southern Kerala, or Travancore. The modern districts of Madurai, Tinnevelly and parts of the Travancore State were parts of the Pandyan Kingdom (Smith 206). The Pandyan dynasty started out ruling from the city of Korkai but in later times they moved to the city of Madurai, which is known as the capital city.

The Pandyan Empire was one of three ancient Tamil states in southern India. The other two states were the Chola and Chera. The three southern states were constantly in turmoil and confrontation, and there were many wars between them. Tamil literature contains indications that the kings of the Pandyan Empire were looked upon as bloodthirsty. The literature contains hints of massacres with cannibal feasts after the battle (Basham 63). The Pandyan dynasty was in power three separate times. The never-ending wars and revolutions did not bring about any development of political organizations. No republics were formed and no free towns were established. All the states continued to be governed by dictatorial kings, each of whom could do what he pleased, so long as he was in power.

The Dravidian religion and social customs differed from those of northern India. Religious ideas from northern India, such as the worship of the Vedic gods and the doctrines of Buddhism and Jainism, were known to the people of the south. Few people followed these religions, most people still worshipped their gods and goddesses and practised their own religious ceremonies (Chander 12). The caste system of Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra was very foreign to the southern states. The Jains of the Pandyan Kingdom suffered great persecution. Kuna Sundra, who was also known as Nedumaran Pandya was particularly tyrannical. He was originally a Jain, however, he converted to Saivism by a Chola queen. Those that refused to follow his example and convert to Saivism were persecuted greatly. Kuna Sundra signalled his change of creed by outrages on the Jains. Tradition claims that eight thousand Jains were impaled. To this day the Hindus of Madurai, where the tragedy took place, commemorate the anniversary of the impalement of the Jains as a festival known as Utsava (Smith 214,215).

The earliest Pandyan coins were square, die-struck, with an elephant on one side and the other side being blank. Between the 7th and 10th centuries the Pandyan coins bore a fish emblem. The fish appears sometimes single, sometimes in pair, and sometimes in conjunction with other symbols like the Chola standing figure or the Chalukyan boar. The inscription on the silver and gold coins is in Sanskrit and most of their copper coins make mention of Tamil legends. (Sastri 1955:16)

Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan was a Pandyan king, who ruled regions of South India between 1250-1268. Under his rule the Pandyan empire rose to the peak of its power (Sastri 1972:195). Jatavarman Sundra Pandyan had many conquests; he participated in wars against the Cheras, Cholas, Hoysalas, Kadavas, and Sri Lanka. He sent an expedition north where he defeated many armies. He was succeeded by Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I in 1268 and died in 1271.

Some chiefs of the Pandyan Empire were even said to have participated in the battle at Kurukshetra, known as the Great War in the Mahabharata (Thapar 233). Some scholars believe that the Great War spoken of in the Mahabarata took place 2000 years later than the date in the Epic. Some scholars believe that the Pandyas took part in this war and they sided with the Pandavas, helping the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas. Other scholars believe this claim to be absurd due to the fact that the Pandavas and Kauravas were in the North and it the Great War only concerned a small area in the South (Smith 31).

Trade occurred between the Egyptians and the Pandyan Empire. We hear of a mission to Augustus from King Pandion, the Pandya king of Madurai in the far south (Smith 143). During the first and second centuries of the Christian era the trade between southern India and the Roman empire was extensive. Korkai and Algankulam are recently excavated sites, thought to have been exchange centres in Pandyan territory. The horse trade was of considerable political importance and a good part of the revenues went towards the purchase of horses for the king and the army. Marco Polo says: “Here are no horses bred; and thus a great part of the wealth of the country is wasted in purchasing horses” (Sastri 1972:192). The Pandyan territory has long been famous for its pearls. Marco Polo, on his visit to the Pandyan territory, said this about the pearls. “In his kingdom they find very fine and great pearls.” The king benefited greatly from the pearl fishery and demanded a tenth of all pearls (Sastri 1972:194).

Marco Polo’s visit to the Pandyan territory gives a great view of what life was like in the territory. He described in great detail what the king’s life was like. The king had a great deal of treasure and all the best pearls in his territory. Marco Polo speaks of the jewelry that the king wears. He says: “…has a necklace entirely of precious stones, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds… fine silk thread  strung with 108 large pearls and rubies… three gold bracelets thickly set with pearls of great value, anklets and toe rings of this such as well… what the king wears is worth more than a city’s ransom…” (Sastri 1972:195-196).

Marco Polo was amazed at the dress of the common people for everybody walked around naked with only loin cloths. He noticed that all the people do this. Men and women, rich and poor, even the king himself. Commoners are also claimed to have spread cow dung on their houses. Dried cow dung is a great plaster for houses and it is also odorless. Another aspect of the common peoples’ lives was the custom of rubbing cow-dung all over their houses. Marco Polo goes on to give great detail of other aspects of common peoples’ everyday social life. He mentions that everyone washes their body two times every day. They only use their right hand when eating, and on no account touch their food with their left hand. Every person drinks from their own drinking vessel and when they drink they don’t let the vessel touch their lips. They have strict laws when it comes to abstaining from wine. If a debtor can’t pay back his creditor and keeps making incomplete promises, and the creditor can draw a circle around the debtor, then the debtor cannot leave that circle until the debt is paid. If he does then he is punished with death (Sastri 1972:197-198).







References and Further Recommended Reading

Basham, A.L. (1968) The Wonder that was India: a Survey of the History and Culture of the Indian Sub-continent Before the Coming of the Muslims. New York: Taplinger Pub. Co.

Chandler, Prakesh (2003) India: Past and Present. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation.

Eaton, Richard (2003) India’s Islamic Traditions, 711-1750. New Delhi: Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Nilakanta Sastri K. A. (1955) A History of South India. India, Oxford University Press.

Nilakanta Sastri K. A. (1972) The Pandyan Kingdom; From the Earliest Times to the Sixteenth Century. Madras: Swathi Publications.

Sewell, Robert (1883) A Sketch of the Dynasties of Southern India. Madras: E. Keys, at the Government Press.

Smith, Vincent (1919) The Oxford History of India: From the Earliest Times to the end of 1911. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press

Thapar, Romila (2002) Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



History of South India


Sangam Literature

Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan

Marco Polo’s visit to Madurai

South Indian Coins

Chola Dynasty

Chera Dynasty


Kuna Sundra

Nedumaran Pandya


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Jeff Redford (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Chola Dynasty

The Chola Dynasty was a Tamil dynasty that flourished from the 9th century through the 13th century. The bhakti period, starting in the 14th century, saw the rise of temples built for principal gods and a decline in Jainism and Buddhism. Not only does the Hindu temple bring communities together with religion, but it also has social, economic and political affects. The Pallava kings were the first to build stone temples in the Tamil country and were defeated by the Chola dynasty in the 8th century. (Vasudevan 10-20).

The Chola empire extended its power over the whole of South India from each coast. In the north, the empire stretched to the Tungabhadra river, and far south, even to include Sri Lanka for a short time. During expansions, the Chola kings established a Tamil culture over the controlled regions and introduced Brahmanical rituals in the temples.

Many kings of the Chola dynasty would build several temples and even rebuilt existing temples in stone. Atitya I (r. 871-907 CE) was one of the earliest conquering kings in the Chola Empire and brought gold back from his conquests of the Kaveri river valley. This gold was used to rebuild a gold shingled roof on the Cit Sabha in Cidambaram, which was then adopted as the family temple for the Chola kings (Younger 16-17). Credit is given to Atitya’s son, Parantaka I (r. 907-55 CE), who was next in line and completed this monumental task of putting the gold on the temple’s roof (Younger 94). This temple complex is known as the Siva Nataraja and is the only Hindu temple that contains Siva in his dancing form (Younger 1).

Citamparam/Chidambaram Temple (Chola Dynasty)

Temples began to receive more financial resources and started to become a redistribution centre of wealth and services. The greatest period for the dynasty began in 985 CE with the rise of Rajaraja I (r. 985-1017 CE) to the throne. Rajaraja I wanted to change the focus of worship from Cidambaram to his own royal temple. Rajaraja’s reign was followed by his son Rajendra I (r.1012-44 CE), who would help complete the conquests of his father. During the reign of Rajaraja I, the great temple, Rajarajesvara, was constructed near the king’s palace in Tanjavur, the new capital of the Chola kingdom. Rajaraja used this temple to help control the empire and as a political tool to demonstrate the power and authority of the Chola kingdom. The temple was built in 1010 CE and is almost 200 feet high. (see Lippe 29-36). These Hindu temples became an institution to unite different regions and cultures.

Cola/Chola Palace Museum (Thanjavur)

When the reign of Rajaraja ended, the empire had no successor and a period of chaos occurred. A Calukyan ruler from Central India seized the throne and took the name Kulottunka I. Under Kulottunka’s reign a general in his army by the name Naralokaviran began a rebuilding program at Cidambaram. This included constructing two gateway towers, an inner wall around the central shrine, expanding the temple of the goddess Sivakamacuntari, adding stairs and porches to the water tank, building of the main outer wall and the addition of other doorways and golden vessels for ritual use (Younger 100). Vikrama (r. 1118-33 CE), Kulottunka’s son wanted to take credit for the construction at Citamparam and in 1118 CE attended the rededication of the temple. Kulottunka II (r. 1133-50 CE) became a strong supporter of Citamparam and did not allow any inscription carvings in the temple (Younger 100-110).

Temples in Southern India host two different types of worship. The everyday worship is carried out by priests who have a defined ritual pattern. The other type of worship is seen during festivals when huge crowds gather in the courtyards and the deities are carried around the streets. The deities leave the temple to be entertained, bathed and honored by their worshipers (Younger 48). In Tirukkovalur, a Vaisnavite temple is at its center and the rest of the town is built around it. The temple was rebuilt and an additional wall was added in the eleventh century (Heitzman 802). A large number of workers were employed including drummers, dancers, and musicians. These workers had an income to support their family but were not granted a high status because their work seemed demeaning (Younger 50).

The Cidambaram temple complex contains four major shrines as well as ten minor shrines. The shrine of Lord Natarajan is at the heart of the temple followed by the shrine to the goddess Sivakamacuntari. The temple of Murukan, the Mulastana temple and the Deva Sabha are the other three major temples in the complex. Priests and assistants are present each day to complete the daily feeding, bathing and pray to for the deities that are found in the major and minor temples (Younger 24-30).

Markali Tiruvaturai is the great festival that occurs in Cidambaram, which corresponds with the winter solstice. This time is considered a dangerous time and Indian astrology considers it inauspicious. The major event occurs during the morning of the tenth day when the deities are taken out of their shrines to be bathed in a ritual procedure involving priests and worshipers. Another event is the daily reading of the Tiruvempavai [hymn of Manikkavacakar] which celebrates the daily bathing that the women and girls do in the morning during the festival month. Before the festival begins, the Ditcitar priests prepare clothes for the deities to wear and perform special prayers to Vinayakan who is responsible for auspicious events. The name of a priest is drawn out of a pot (by a child) and will become the head priest for the festival. During the first day of the festival a flag is raised to signify the beginning of the celebrations. The flag is a forty yard long white cloth that has a picture of an ox and a trident. A procession with the head priest riding an elephant and the temple musicians playing behind him occurs through the corridors to the priest home. Worshipers in the streets bow to him and place garlands around his head. The temple musicians then participate in a preparation ceremony as the head priest brings out a special brass drum from the sanctum that was donated by the bull, Nandi, who is Siva’s vehicle and gate keeper. A drummer is selected to perform a special concert with an unusual beat that is connected with this sacred drum. To finish the day, a concert is put on for the five deities who are brought out from the temple. After the concert the priests chant to the nine gods for protection during the festival. The middle days of the festival have similar structure with processions in the morning and evening with a different theme each day. A third procession is placed in on the eighth day in which the beggar form of Siva is worshipped (Younger 54-74).

When the deities are brought out of their temples, there are three major events that occur. The chariot pull, the bathing ritual and the Royal Audience on the tenth day. During the chariot pull, worshipers pull the statues of the deities down the streets. Because of poorly constructed chariots and muddy roads, these chariots can sometime get stuck in the streets. The holiest moment occurs on the tenth day at 4 A.M. when the Dancing God and goddess images are bathed with water, milk, curd, honey, sugarcane juice, lemon water and coconut water by the head priest. Mantras are spoken as each of the liquids is poured on the images, with Lord Natarajan being bathed first. The images are then covered with garlands and perfumes after which they are bathed using apple juice, grape juice and rose water. The most auspicious moment occurs when water brought from the Ganges River and is poured over the statues. The final bath occurs in sandal paste water, composed of ground up sandalwood, and afterwards worshipers try to receive a drop of the precious liquids the priests begin to hand out (Younger 54-74).

The Royal Audience is the event which brings the festival to a close. Worshipers line up for a blessing but many are turned away. People are selected to help push the images of the deities back into their shrines (Younger 60-70).

The Citamparam temple became a showcase of the Chola kings and their imperial status. Though Rajaraja I and Rajendra I tried to develop their own temples away from Citamparam, the later Chola kings spent much of their time at the Citamparam temple complex (Younger 233-35).




Heitzman, James (1987) “Temple Urbanism in Medieval South India”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 791-826.

Kaimal, Padma (1996) “Early Cola Kings and Early Cola Temples: Art and the Evolution of Kingship”, Artibus Asiae, Vol. 56, pp. 33-66.

Lippe, Aschwin (1971) “Divine Images in Stone and Bronze: South India, Chola Dynasty (c. 850-1280)”, Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 4, pp. 29-79.

Vasudevan, Geeta (2003) The Royal Temple of Rajaraja. New Delhi: D.K. Fine Art Press.

Younger, Paul (1995) The Home of Dancing Sivan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Atitya I



Kulottunka I

Kulottunka II

Markali Tiruvaturai



Parantaka I

Rajendra I

Rajaraja I


Sivan Natarajan








Article written by: Matthew Miller (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Hoysala Dynasty

The Hoysala dynasty ruled in southern India from the 11th to 14th Century and were located in southern India in the southern part of Karnataka (Kulke et. al. 113).  The Hoysalas are believed to have come from a hilly region in this area.   Their empire reached its peak of power early on and slowly declined until it’s eventually disappearance into history leaving only temples that were constructed under their reign.

The Hoysala begin as a vassal state of a larger kingdom called the Calukya.  They eventually gained their own independence through military might.  They had a relatively fast rise to power because the area was politically unstable.  This was because none of the kingdoms had any huge advantage over the other, creating a balance of power that could easily shift back and forth (Kulke et. al. 114).  This lead to a situation where a great deal of small kingdoms didn’t last for long periods of time intermingled with a few large ones that would assimilate the smaller kingdoms.  Nrpakama was the first of the Hoysala kings with his capital in Sosavur (Yaguchi 184).  Nrpakama’s capital was located in an area that is believed to be where the Hoysala dynasty originated.  The Hoysala kingdom was located between two large powers at the time, the Calukya and the Cola.  The area that became the Hoysala kingdom had been a buffer area between these two large kingdoms in the past (Foekema 13). This made it so the Hoysala had to choose sides and became a feudatory of the Calukya (Foekema 14).  The Calukya allowed the Hoysala to grow over time allowing them to become a medium sized kingdom creating the Calukyas own demise.  There is little certainty as to when Nrpakama took the throne or when he passed it on to his son Vinayadita.  This uncertainty can be attributed to their relative size and how unimportant they were during this time.  They are only vaguely mentioned in an epigraph with no specifics.  Vinayadita succeeded at expanding his power very successfully during his reign and moved the capital to Dorasamudra (Ramanathan 326).  The Hoysala were very prosperous under the Calukya, but knew that this prosperity could not continue with their desire to expand.  The Calukya would not give them free reign forever and allow a potential enemy to develop.  The Hoysala were always just a buffer state to help protect the Calukya from the Cola kingdom in the south.

Exquisite and profuse sculptures adorn the Hoysalesvara Temple at Halebidu in Karnataka
Exquisite and profuse sculptures adorn the Hoysalesvara Temple at Halebidu in Karnataka

Ballala I was the first to not continue his loyalty to the Calukya emperor instead building up military power (Yaguchi 184).  This occurred largely because the Calukya became engaged with the Cola dynasty and kingdoms to the north of them.  This made it so the Calukya Kingdom was unable to respond to the Hoysala’s rebellion.  The Hoysala Dynasty had reached a point where it was large enough to fend for itself in this war torn area.  In 1106 AD, Ballala I began to rule in his own name instead of the Calukya emperor (Rice 528).   Ballala I however died and was succeeded by his younger brother, Visnuvardhana in 1108 BCE, who continued with his brother’s cause of expanding the Hoysala kingdom (Yaguchi 184).  It took Visnuvardhana 25 years, but by that time he had taken suzerainty of the Calukya emperor and created a new capital (Yaguchi 184).  The Calukya became embroiled in a series of wars with neighbouring kingdoms giving the Hoysala kingdom the chance it needed (Yaguchi 184).  To attain Hoysala independence a series of brutal wars were fought in which the Hoysala had become renowned for their ferocity (Foekema 14).   Most of the territory of the Calukya was eventually taken by another kingdom, but Hoysala secured its independence.  Visnuvardhana crushed the Cola forces taking claim over some of their lands that were bordering his kingdom.  The Hoysala’s, at this point, destroyed their two largest enemies, making them the dominant power in their area for the time.

Visnuvardhana became increasingly interested in construction projects throughout his empire, creating edifices for Visnu after he had converted Vaisnavism of the Srivaisnava sect (Yaguchi 184).  This construction continued under his son Narasimha I, the next king  in the Hoysala dynasty. Since he focused so heavily on construction Narasimha I lost territory in the northern area of his kingdom (Yaguchi 184).  Ballala II was the next in line, taking the throne in 1173 AD, pushing the Hoysala dynasty to the height of its powers (Yaguchi 184).  He gained a great deal of territory especially in the southern Tamil region.

Narasimha II took the throne in 1220 AD from his father Ballala II.  He became more involved in the Tamil region because of his marriage to a Cola princess (Yaguchi 184).  The Hoysala reached its pinnacle during his rule, even assimilating what was left of the Cola kingdom.  He managed to gain the Cola kingdom while losing territory in the north caused by a rebellion of a vassal state that even attacked his capital.  After this point the Holysala dynasty began its decline until its eventual disappearance into history.

The Hoysala’s power began a steep of decline when it was difficult for one king to rule their kingdom effectively.  A second capital was created in the Tamil region and the capitals were ruled by two step brothers, Narasimha III and Ramanatha.  The brothers had conflicting interests and began to fight amongst themselves.  This allowed outside forces to attack the Hoysala with less fear of a unified response.  Eventually the Hoysala kingdom was repeatedly invaded by foreign forces. These invasions continued the decline of the Hoysala kingdom.  This began with the Seunas, a kingdom from the North of the Hoysala invading Narasimha III territory several times (Yaguchi 184).  It was eventually realized that if the Hoysala were to survive they would have to unite again and become a unified kingdom.

The kingdom was eventually reintegrated under Ballala III, but it was too little too late.  This new unity came as the Muslim empire pushed south trying to convert people to Islam and take control of their land.  The Muslims originally only wanted tribute, but that didn’t last as they tried to achieve political control.  Ballala III realized that there was no chance of defeating the Islamic empire due to their sheer size.  Kingdoms that were larger than his own were wiped out by the huge Muslim forces.  Ballala III chose instead to accept Muslim lordship in order to survive (Foekema 16).  The Hoysala continued to prosper under the Muslims, but that didn’t last because of their desire to be free of the Islamic rule.  The Hoysala rulers knew that if they were to stay under Muslim rule there would be huge changes to their culture and religious beliefs.  The Hoysala participated in a revolt in southern India against the Muslims.  Ballala III died during the fighting and his territory became part of a Hindu kingdom that encompasses south India.  Their land was swallowed up by a growing Hindu kingdom concerned about protecting their religious beliefs.   Ballala III’s son Ballala IV was not given an opportunity to rule the Hoysala kingdom, putting an end to two hundred years of Hoysala rule (Foekema 16).  The Hindus managed to fend off the Muslims creating for the first time, a large Hindu kingdom in the south called the Vijayanagara Empire (Foekema 16).  Ballala IV’s kingdom became a part of this empire to help ensure that the Hoysala were not ruled again by the Islamic empire.  This was the end of the Hoysala dynasty and the beginning of the Vijayanagara kingdom.

The Hoysala developed a political system with governances similar to modern systems (Pollock 263).  The Hoysala centralized their power unifying their emperor at a time when tribal alliances were the only thing holding many nearby kingdoms together.  A great deal of their success comes from their ferocity in battle which is represented in their crest with a royal warrior stabbing a lion.

Under the Hoysala rule there was a great development in poetry and art.  The prosperity that they gained from their kingdom was put into building of temples, which had been a tradition.  This tradition of building temples is known as Dravida and originated sometime in the 6th or 7th century (Foekema 11).  Very few of these temples were actually commissioned by the dynasty itself, but largely due to the peace that they created in their kingdom.   Due to the peace created in the kingdom many small communities built their own temples.   Their temples were not different than those from neighbouring kingdoms, what was special was the consistence of them, with them being far more of the temples located in this area.  There were no more of their temples built after their fall.  Instead temples being built were constructed in a new style from elsewhere in India, similar to the ones found in Tamil Nadu (Foekema 12).  Due to the assimilation of the Hoysala Kingdom rather than a destructive invasion the temples have been left standing. Their temples have become a major tourist and pilgrimage attraction in south India and will continue for future generations.

It took 100 years for the Hoysala dynasty to gain independence and another 100 to reach the peak of their power.  It then took 150 years for their decline and eventual disappearance into a far larger kingdom.  The Hoysala were not completely destroyed, only assimilated into an empire that covered a range that had never been seen in south India.  This ensured that what had been created under the Hoysala rule survived to the modern day.  The architectural legacy of the Hoysala Kingdom enhances the mosaic of modern India.

References and Related Reading

Yaguchi (2005) “On the Spatial Units of the Hoysala Temples A Study of Spatial Composition             of the Hoysala Temples.” Gifu Shiritsu Joshi Tanki Daigaku Kenkyu Kiyo 54 Pp. 183-189

Rice (1915) “The Hoysala King Bitti-Deva Vishnuvardhana.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic        Society of Great Britain and Ireland Pp. 527-531

Kulke and Rothermund (2004) A History of India. 4th edition. New York: MPG Books Ltd

Pollock and Sheldon (2004) “The Transformation of Cultural-Power in Indo-Europe, 1000-1300.” Medieval Encounters 10(1-3) Pp 247- 278.

Ramanathan (1969) “The Possible Origins of a Closed Community” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 32(2) Pp 323-343

Foekema (1996) A complete guide to Hoysala Temples. New Delhi, Shakti Malik

Related Research Topics

Hoysala Temples, Cola Dynasty, Calukya Dynasty, South India temples, South India history, formation of Vijayanagara kingdom

Related Websites

Article written by: Doug Sedgwick (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.