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Rajaraja Chola, king from 985 - 1012 AD

Rajaraja Chola, king from 985 – 1012 AD

Collapse of the Guptan Empire

Like the Roman Empire, the Guptan empire fell apart in the 500s AD. After that, India had a lot of kings ruling a lot of small kingdoms. In northern India, King Harsha ruled one of the small kingdoms. But after he died in the 600s AD, his kingdom fell apart into three even smaller ones. Most of southern India was divided among three kingdoms: the Chola, the Chera, and the Pandyas.

The Silk Road made India rich

There were a lot of wars among these small kingdoms. But there was also a lot of great architecture and art during this time. The great university at Nalanda went on teaching students from all over Asia. India was part of the great Silk Road economy of the Middle Ages. So the Indian kingdoms were busy making and selling cotton clothglass beads, high quality steelcinnamonblack pepper, pearlssalt, and sugar.

Beads from Arikamedu

Beads from Arikamedu

Traders took these products as far as Southeast Asia, ChinaRussiaEurope, and all over Africa. In return, the Indian kingdoms got rich on imported gold and silver. They bought horsesknotted wool carpets, and paper from Central Asiasilk and porcelain from Chinaglass from West Asia, furs from Europe, and ivory from East Africa.

The Islamic conquests

As the Arabs expanded their empire and took over Iran from the Sassanians, they also conquered north-western India (what is now Pakistan). Pakistan was under Muslim rule by the early 700s AD. Many people living there converted from BuddhismChristianity, or Hinduism to Islam.

Rajput kingdom

By about 800 AD, though, some small kingdoms in northern India began to gradually get more power. Their kings came from a group of people called the Rajputs. So historians call their kingdoms the Rajput kingdoms. The Rajputs spent a lot of their time fighting off the Abbasid armies. They were trying to get past the Indus Valley to Delhi. Around 1000 AD, the Ghaznavids succeeded in repeatedly raiding and plundering northern India, but they didn’t rule it.

Airavetesavara temple to Shiva in southern India (1100s AD)

Airavetesavara temple to Shiva in southern India (1100s AD)

Chola kingdom

Also about 800 AD, the Chola kings began to conquer more and more of south India. They established a stronger kingdom than any in medieval northern India, with a professional army and navy. In 925, the Chola king Parantaka conquered Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was a large island off the coast of India with strong steel-making and pearl-fishing industries. By 1000 AD, the Cholas controlled all of southern India.

Pandyan Empire

Soon after that, with the Rajput kingdoms collapsing, the Cholas reached the Ganges River in northern India. The Chola kings and their trading ships also ruled or held power over a lot of Southeast Asia: Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. With all their money, the Chola kings built many great stone temples. But by the 1200s AD, the Chola kingdom lost power. Their old enemies the Pandyas came back and conquered them, establishing the Pandyan Empire.

Learn by doing: tasting cinnamon
The Pandyas
Delhi Sultanate

Bibliography and further reading about medieval India:

Chola architecture
Delhi Sultanate
The Pandyas in South India
More about Ancient India home