Chola military

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Chola Military
Chola flag.png
Note: The flag is designed without reference for illustrating the Chola Flag
Founded B.C. 300
Disbanded A.D. 1279
Service branches

Chola military

  • Chariot Corps
  • Elephant Corps
  • Cavalry Corps
  • Infantry Corps
  • Auxiliary Forces
  • Other
    • Archers
    • Swordsman
    • Velaikkarappadaigal (Guards regiment)
    • Strike Corps
    • Medical Corps

Chola Navy

  • Kanni (tactical formation)
  • Thalam (self-sustained unit)
  • Mandalam (Task force)
  • Ganam (Fleet-Squadron)
  • Ani (battle group)
  • Pirivu (Fleet)
Commander-in-Chief King/Emperor
Related articles




Senathipathi (Marshal of the Army)
Thalapathi (General)

Anipathi (Colonel)

The Chola military (Tamil: சோழர் படை) was a well-organised and effective fighting force during medieval times. The imperial Cholas of the Vijayalaya dynasty who ruled parts of South India and Lanka between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries CE were dependent on their army and the navy to expand and maintain order in their vast empire.

The King & in later days Emperor was the head of the army and the navy.


Chola inscriptions mention numerous regiments by specific names. Rajaraja Chola I created a powerful standing army and a considerable navy, which achieved even greater success under his son Rajendra Chola I than under himself. The army consisted of the Infantry, Cavalry and Elephant corps. There is no evidence for the traditional Chariot corps found in ancient Hindu literature. There were other specialist infantry such as bowmen (villaligal). At its peak Cholan army is said to have two million soldiers fighting for their Kingdom at many fronts simultaneously.

Chinese geographer Chau Ju-kua, writing in about 1225, gives the following account of the Chola army:

This [Chola] country is at war with the kingdom of the [west] of India. The government owns sixty thousand war elephants, every one seven or eight feet high. When fighting these elephants carry on their backs houses, and these houses are full of soldiers who shoot arrows at long range, and fight with spears at close quarters.[1]

Organisation & administration[edit]

The Army of the Cholas Followed the ancient Indian Tradition of Chaturangabala for organisation and Sadangabala for Administration, the fourfold force and sixfold control. In its shortened form it is called RathaGajaTuraPadai. In it, Ratha is the Chariot, Gajais the Elephant, Tura is the Horses And finally Padai is the Infantry. It is said that an army with a growing proportionate of the said forces y is a balanced and well composed one.
In Addition to the Divisions, there were other attached units in the Chola Army. Those are NadapuThe Commissariat and PayanamThe Admiralty & Logistics. The addition of these new bureaucratic organisation inside the Army is What revolutionised the Chola Army resulting in victories of such a huge scale.[2]

The regiments of the Chola Army had a corporate life of its own and was free to endow benefactions and build temples in its own name. To some of these regiments, the management of certain minor shrines of the temple was entrusted and they were expected to provide for the requirements of the shrine. Others among them took money from the temple on interest, which they agreed to pay in cash. We are not, however, told to what productive purpose they applied this money. At any rate all these transactions show that the king created in them an interest in the temples he built.


Commanding Officer's Rank : SenathipathiMeaning Lord of the Army Modern equivalent Rank  : Marshal of the Army

The 'Standing' Army was organised into multiple Senais. The composition of each senai depended on its deployment/Stationed location and role. Normally, A Chola Senai is the largest Organisational unit. At various times in its existence the army had between 1 and 3 Senais.[3]


Commanding Officer's Rank : Thalapathi – (this rank is the equivalent of the Naval Rank of Kalapathi)
Modern equivalent Rank  : General
The Senai is divided into various Thalams. A Thalam is a self-sustaining army formation with its own Material resources and inventory. A Thalam Usually contains

  • 3 Yanaipadai – Elephant Corps, each with 300-500 elephants,
  • 3 KudhiraipadaiCavalry Corps, each with 500-1000 Horses,
  • 6 KaalaatpadaiInfantry Corps, Each with 2000-3000 Men,
  • 2 ThalpadaiAuxiliary- A mix of Infantry & Cavalry, Each with 1000–2000 Men and 500-1000 Horses. (they Can be used as Rear-Guard Units as well as a guerilla force in time of withdrawal.
  • 2 MarathuvaraniMedical Corps – About 200–300 doctors with horse-drawn carriages and medical provisions.
  • 1 or 2 OosipadaiStrike Corps


Commanding Officer's Rank' : AnipathiMeaning Lord of Group
Modern equivalent Rank  : Colonel
A Thalam is subdivided into various Anis, from a purely numerical point of view an Ani is 1/3 of a Thalam, with

  • 1 Yanaipadai
  • 1 Kudhiraipadai
  • 2 Kaalatpadai
  • 1 Thalpadai


The prominence given to the army from the conquest of the Pandyas down to the last year of the king’s reign is significant, and shows the spirit with which he treated his soldiers. Evidently Rajaraja gave his army its due share in the glory derived from his extensive conquests. The following regiments are mentioned in the Tanjavur inscriptions:

  • Uttama- Chola-terinda-Andalagattalar
  • Perundanattu Anaiyatkal – Elephant corps.
  • Pandita-Chola-Terinda-villigal – Archers
  • Nigarili- Chola terinda-Udanilai-Kudiraichchevagar – Cavalry
  • Mummadi- Chola-terinda-Anaippagar – Elephant corps
  • Vira- Chola-Anukkar
  • Parantaka-Kongavalar – Light Infantry
  • Mummadi- Chola-terinda-parivarattar
  • Keralantaka-terinda-parivarattar
  • Mulaparivara-vitteru alias Jananatha-llterinda-parivarattar
  • Singalantaka-terinda-parivarattar
  • Sirudanattu Vadugakkalavar
  • Valangai-Parambadaigalilar
  • Sirudanattu-Valangai-Velaikkarappadaigal
  • Aragiya- Chola-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Aridurgalanghana-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Chandaparakrama-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Ilaiya-Rajaraja-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Kshatriyasikhamani-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Murtavikramabharana-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Nittavinoda-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Rajakanthirava-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Rajaraja-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Rajavinoda-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Ranamukha-Bhima-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Vikramabharana-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar
  • Keralantaka-vasal-tirumeykappar
  • Anukka-vasal-tirumeykappar – Personal bodyguards
  • Parivarameykappargal – Personal bodyguards
  • Palavagai-Parampadaigalilar
  • Perundanattu-Valangai-Velaikkarappadaigal -

'Velaikkarappadaigal' or 'Velaikkarar' is the equivalent of Guards regiment or King's Regiment; it's a royal suffix give in honour of their loyalty and bravery. Some historians like Stein also propose that they were drawn from ordinary population during the time of war. He suggests that they were more like the National Guard. They are mentioned in the Mahavamsa. According to that account, the Sinhalese kingdom tried to use them as mercenaries and against the Chola empire. They were later silenced and decommissioned when they refused and rebelled.

There are almost seventy names of such regiments have been found in these inscriptions. In most of the foregoing names the first portion appears to be the surnames or titles of the king himself or of his son. That these regiments should have been called after the king or his son shows the attachment, which the Chola king bore towards his army.

It may not be unreasonable to suppose that these royal names were pre-fixed to the designations of these regiments after they had distinguished themselves in some engagement or other. It is worthy of note that there are elephant troops, cavalry and foot soldiers among these regiments.

Top officers took various titles after the different kings such as Rajaraja chola Brahmarajan, Rajarajakesari Muvendavelar, Jayamkondachola Villuparaiyar, Uttamachola Muvendavelar, Manukula Muvendavelar, Nittavinotha Muvendavelar, Atirajendra Muvendavelar, Mummudi chola pallavaraiyar, Viranarayanan Muvendavelan.[4]


The army was stationed throughout the country in the forms of local garrisons and in cantonments called Kadagams. After the troubles in the Pandya country, Kulothunga Chola I stationed his army in a number of military colonies along the main route to the Pandya country from the Chola land. One such colony was found at Kottaru and another at Madavilagam near South Arcot district in Tamil Nadu.[5]


We have no exact information on the methods of recruitment or of the number of permanent troops in the army. In those ancient feudal times, the children of the warriors and soldiers readily joined the army keep with the chivalry spirit and Tamil martial tradition. They were a highly motivated and professionally trained army with very strong martial tradition. Some of the regiments clearly had martial customs and history of their own and the member of such regiments clearly exhibited high discipline, pride and self-esteem.

The presence of military cantonments called Kadagam in Sangam Tamil indicates that there were regular training and military practice as a part of the Tamil martial tradition which were all forcefully banned and taken away by the British. The Palayam system was based on a feudal class structure of warriors, farmers, artisans and merchants where the distinctions between the caste statuses of the constituent classes were strictly enforced. To symbolize this society, the Tamil warriors wore swords in everyday life because the system was maintained by their military prowess. Martial tradition and practice were systematically outlawed by the British. The modern Indian army has a Madras regiment which being the only one unit for the whole of South India.

There were military colonies known as nilai puram. A nilaipuram contained a number of forts. In Keralasinga Valanadu of the North Pandya country, there were five nilaipurams. These were named after the five coronational names of the Pandyas, namely, Sundara, Kulasekhara, Vikrama, Vira, and Parakrama Pandya.

Cruelty in wars[edit]

War was a grim business of fire and sword. Judging from the inscriptions of the Cholas themselves, life was made intolerable for the population living on either side of the Tungabhadra by the bitterness and the regularity of the Chola-Chalukya wars that eventually exhausted both the empires. The evidence from Lanka and the Chalukya countries indicate that, even the common rules of fair fighting and chivalry were often ignored and the non-combatant population was inflicted wanton injury. .

The Chola army collected much booty from these conflicts. The treasure collected must have been enormous and these were distributed by the king to public endowments and institutions.


Main article: Chola Navy

The Chola Navy comprised the naval forces of the Chola Empire along with several other Naval-arms of the country. The Chola navy played a vital role in the expansion of the Chola Empire, including the conquest of the Ceylon islands and Sri Vijaya (present day Indonesia), the spread of Hinduism, Dravidian architecture and Dravidian culture to South east Asia and in curbing the piracy in Southeast Asia in the 900CE.
There is evidence to suggest that even at the time of Parantaka I, there was a considerable navy involved in the numerous invasions of Lanka. Rajendra Chola's naval victories in Srivijaya were a culmination of centuries of naval tradition. All the Tamil kingdoms had some sort of navies in their arsenal.

The Cholas continued the ancient tradition and gave much attention to developing their naval strength. The conquest of Sri Lanka and Maldives and the embassies sent to China show the success of the Chola navy. The Chola Admirals had acted as ambassadors in many South East Asian Kingdoms during this time.

During RajaRaja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I it is said that the Cholan navy to have more than one million naval soldiers.

Many types of ships (including Colandia) & Shipboard weapons were employed in the navy.


  1. ^ The kings themselves used to fight in battlefields riding on such war elephants. There are a few occasions of the king dying in the battlefied on these elephants. Parantaka I's son Rajaditya died at Sripurambayam. The Chola king Rajadhiraja Chola I died on an elephant fighting the Chalukya army at Thakolam The epithet Yanai-mel-thunjiya (who died on an elephant) is attached to these kings in their inscriptions indicating their valour.
  2. ^ The Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 B.C. to the Present", Page 1458–59 by Richard Ernest Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt Dupuy -1986,
  3. ^ Historical Military Heritage of the Tamils By Ca. Vē. Cuppiramaṇiyan̲, Ka.Ta. Tirunāvukkaracu, International Institute of Tamil Studies, Pages 152-156
  4. ^ The Travancore state manual, Volume 1, page 192
  5. ^ South Indian Inscriptions, vol. 3


  • Chau Ju-Kua: his work on the Chinese and Arab trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Trans. by Rukuo Zhao; Friedrich Hirth; William Woodville Rockhill
  • Hermann, Kulke; Rothermund D (2001) [2000]. A History of India. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-32920-5. 
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K.A (1984) [1935]. The CōĻas. Madras: University of Madras. 
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K.A (2002) [1955]. A History of South India. New Delhi: OUP. 
  • Tripathi, Rama Sankar (1967). History of Ancient India. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publications. ISBN 81-208-0018-4.