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Chola literature, written in Tamil, is the literature created during the period of Chola reign in South India between the 9th and the 13th centuries CE. The age of the imperial Cholas was the most creative epoch of the history of South India and was the Golden Age of Tamil culture.
With the revival of Chola power in the middle of the 9th century, the avenues for the literature and art broadened. For the first time in history, an imperial state encompassed the entire South India bringing with it the safety and security to the people and provided the opportunity for the people to experience cultures beyond their own. Tamil became a language of the people.
The literature during this period may be classified into religious, secular and political.
During the imperial Chola period the Prabhanda became the dominant form of poetry. The religious canons of Saiva and Vaishnava sects were beginning to be systematically collected and categorised. The Cholas built numerous temples, mainly for their favourite god Siva, and these were celebrated in numerous hymns.
Nambi Andar Nambi, who was a contemporary of Rajaraja Chola I, collected and arranged the books on Saivism into eleven books called Tirumurais. One of these include a short poem by Gandaraditya, who was a Chola king during the early tenth century. The hagiology of Saivism was standardised in Periyapuranam (also known as Tiruttondar Puranam) by Sekkilar, who lived during the reign of Kulothunga Chola II (1133 – 1150 CE). Sekkilar opus became the twelfth book in the Saiva canon.
Religious books on the Vaishnava sect were mostly composed in Sanskrit during this period. The great Vaishnava leader Ramanuja lived during this period. Perhaps due to the animosity of the later Cholas towards the Vaishavites, there was no much literary activity in Tamil from this sect.
One of the best known Tamil works of this period is the Ramavatharam by Kamban who flourished during the reign of Kulottunga III. Ramavatharam is the greatest epic in Tamil Literature, and although the author states that he followed Valmiki, his work is not a mere translation or even an adaptation of the Sanskrit epic. Kamban imports into his narration the colour and landscape of his own time. His description of Kosala is an idealised account of the features of the Chola country.
Of the books on the Buddhist and the Jain faiths, the most noteworthy is the Jivaka-chintamani by the Jain ascetic Thirutakkadevar composed in the tenth century. This is the story of Jivaka, who was equally distinguished in war and peace, and tells the story of his youth during which he indulges in excesses and at his prime realises the hollowness of his existence and renounces everything to become a Jain ascetic.
There were a number of books written on Tamil grammar. Yapperungalam and Yapperungalakkarigai were two works on prosody by the Jain ascetic Amirtasagara. Buddamitra wrote Virasoliyam, another work on Tamil grammar, during the reign of Virarajendra Chola. Virasoliyam attempts to find synthesis between Sanskrit and Tamil grammar. Other grammatical works of this period are Nannul by Pavanandi, Vaccanandi Malai by Neminatha, and the annotations on Purananuru, Purapporun Venbamalai by Aiyanaridanar.
Of the works of a political nature, we find the poetic works on various Chola kings. Jayamkondar wrote Kalingattupparani, a semi-historical account on the two invasion of Kalinga by Kulothunga Chola I. Jayamkondar was a poet-laureate in the Chola court and his work is a fine example of the balance between fact and fiction the poets had to tread. Ottakuttan, a close contemporary of Kambar, wrote three Ulas on Vikrama Chola, Kulothunga Chola II and Rajaraja Chola II
Chola inscription mention the names of some of the literature which are currently not available to us. They were once considered worthy of public recognition, as the authors of these inscriptions assumed the readers would know them by the mere mention of their names. Of these are two works on Rajaraja Chola I, Rajararajesvara natakam and Rajararaja Vijayam. The former of this was a play and was enacted at the great Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur. From the context in the inscriptions we learn that this was not a play on the life of the great king, but on the building of the temple.
There was a book on Kulothunga Chola I called Kulothunga Chola Charitai by Thirunarayana Bhatta. A certain Kamalalaya Bhatta wrote Kannivana Puranam and Pum Puliyur Natakam, works of a popular nature. The poet was awarded some tax free gifts for his works.
It is indeed a tragedy that we are unable to trace these lost works. This is true of most of the extant literature in India, which have been preserved more by chance and accident than by deliberate act of preservation.
- Nilakanta Sastri, K.A. (1935). The CōĻas, University of Madras, Madras (Reprinted 1984).
- Nilakanta Sastri, K.A. (1955). A History of South India, OUP, New Delhi (Reprinted 2002).