Category Archives: A. The History of India

Siva Nataraja Bronzes (Origins)

Shiva (Siva) Nataraja: Re-examining the Origins of Nataraja Bronzes

Bronze masterpiece of Siva Nataraja (King of the Dance). 11th century CE, Government Museum, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

One of the most recognizable Hindu icons, both inside and outside India, is the standardized depiction of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva king of dance) seen in places as far apart as Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu and the CERN nuclear research center in Geneva, Switzerland. This particular standardization of Shiva Nataraja seems to have arisen under the rule of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, as the first fully three dimensional stone carvings in this style appeared during her reign, though questions have been raised about earlier origins (Srinivasan, 434). This standardized form is distinctive and easily recognizable in several ways. First, this particular style of Shiva Nataraja is distinct from not only depictions of other deities, but also other depictions of Shiva as cosmic dancer, by the raised left leg held high across the body at the level of the hip with the foot at knee level (Srinivasan, 433). The supporting right leg, and indeed all the limbs save the lower left arm, are deeply bent giving an appearance of movement paused in a single frame (Kaimal, 392-3). Though held straight, the left arm does faintly bend at the wrist and the hand is held in a relaxed gesture known as gajahasta or “elephant hand” (Kaimal, 393). His lower right hand is held, just above the wrist of the lower left, in abhayamudra, a gesture of fearlessness seen frequently in Indian and Indian-influenced art (Kaimal, 393). The two upper arms hold a damaru drum (right) and a flame (left) (Srinivasan, 433). The foot of the supporting right leg rests on a dwaf, Apasmara, the demon of ignorance (Srinivasan, 433). Finally, in the bronzes, though not in the stone depictions commissioned by queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, Shiva is surrounded by a ring of flames (Srinivasan, 433). The popularity of this image has far outlasted the Chola dynasty, and inspired many speculative interpretations of the iconography present.

Detail of a Siva Nataraja or Natesa (Lord of the Dance) image, with his four arms holding the drum and fire, and displaying the fear-not (abhaya) mudra and the gajahasta (elephant hand) mudra.

Origin of the Image

It is generally accepted that the style of bronze Nataraja we see today originated, or at least rose to prominence, during the reign of queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the Chola dynasty during the tenth century (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi was a great patroness of the arts, she commissioned numerous pieces of art and even engaged in the refurbishment of several brick temples, rebuilding them in stone (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi made the job of archeologists in our own time somewhat easier by re-inscribing previous information about donations and patrons in the temples she refurbished, providing a rich historical record (Dehejia, 209). Notable in regard to the Nataraja image is that it seems to have appeared first in bronzes and stone carvings during her refurbishments (Dehejia, 209). While the similarity of these Nataraja images to present depictions in this style is undeniable, the peculiar raised foot and four armed form being present, doubts have been raised recently about a definitively Chola origin (Srinivasan, 432).

There are certainly examples of images and sculptures which could have contributed to the present Nataraja image exemplified at sites like Chidambaram and CERN, so a pre-Chola origin is not out of the question. One of the earliest possible ancestors of the Chola-era Nataraja is a stone figure from the Harappan civilization, which shares the raised leg posture with the Chola-Nataraja (Dehejia, 32). Granted, a single oddity from a civilization that died thousands of years before the Chola rose is a tenuous connection at best, but Srinivasan points to numerous other examples which may indicate a continuous line of artistic evolution culminating in the Nataraja images we see today.

One of Srinivasan’s suggested precursors is a Satavahana statue, of Shiva as Lakulisa the ascetic, from Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India, the statue is dated to around the first or second century B.C.E. (Srinivasan, 434). What is remarkable about this statue is that, already as early as the first or second century B.C.E., we see the theme of Shiva trampling a dwarf which appears not only in Chola-era Nataraja images but in Pallava depictions as well (Srinivasan, 434).

The Pallava dynasty, in fact, is where Srinivasan asserts that the image of Shiva Nataraja we are familiar with today rose to prominence. Prior to the Chola overthrow of their dynasty around 850 C.E., the Pallavas ruled in the Tamil regions of south India from about 550 C.E., themselves having risen from the older Andhra dynasty (Srinivasan, 434-5). When the Pallava king Mahendravarman Pallavan converted from Jainism to Shaivism a burst of Hindu art in stone was produced (Srinivasan, 435). We can surmise that these stone icons were probably a distinctly Pallava innovation in the Tamil region by inscriptions at Mamallapuram praising Mahendravarman for building in “neither brick, nor timber, nor mortar.” (Srinivasan, 435).

What is interesting about these Pallavan stone icons is that the depictions of Nataraja among them show the four-armed Shiva with the raised leg and dwarf, of which there are no prior examples outside the Tamil region in stone or metal (Srinivasan, 435). Examples of Shiva Nataraja from outside the Pallava-controlled Tamil region show Shiva in the chatura tandava posture with both feet touching the ground and knees splayed outward, as opposed to the bhujangatrasita karana posture in which one leg is raised at hip level across the body which we see in the Chola bronzes (Srinivasan, 435). In addition, the dwarf is not present in any of these chatura tandava examples (srinivasan, 435). The number of arms also differs from the four-armed depictions seen in the Pallava and Chola examples, we see eight arms in Gupta examples from the Sirpur region of central India dating to the fifth century, and sixteen arms in a Chalukyan example from Badami in south-west India dated to the sixth century (Srinivasan, 435).

The earliest clear approximation of the Chola style Nataraja we see is on a Pallava pilaster from a cave temple at Siyamangalam, dated to the seventh century (Srinivasan, 436). This icon stands in the bhujangatrasita karana posture, although with the right leg raised, his lower right hand is in abhaya mudra with his upper right hand holding a lamp or bowl with a flame (Srinivasan, 435-6). This statue does differ additionally from the Chola examples in that its lower left arm extends out away from the body rather than across the body, though it retains the gajahasta gesture (Srinivasan, 435-6). Furthermore, the upper left hand holds an ax and the dwarf is not present under the foot of the supporting leg (Srinivasan, 435-6). This is paralleled in an eighth century cave painting from Ellora in Maharashtra, attributed to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, as well another Pallava stone icon in the Tirukkadaimudi Mahadeva temple in Tirucchinampundi (Srinivasan, 436).

While evidence seems to suggest that, in the cave temples constructed by Mahendravarman stucco and wood images are most likely to have been the norm, a seventh century verse by the poet Appar mentions Shiva’s “sweet golden foot raised in dance”, so we can not rule out bronze processional icons (Srinivasan, 436). In addition, the mention of Shiva holding a drum in the image worshipped at Tillai (now Chidambaram) from the same seventh century verses by Appar seems to indicate that this aspect of the standardized Nataraja icon was already incorporated during the Pallava dynasty (Srinivasan, 436).

Hindu bronzes have not often been attributed to the Pallavas, due largely to a lack of inscriptions on the bronzes themselves, however there is no definite way to date solid metal artifacts with any known method (Srinivasan, 436-8). What we can do, however, is group metal artifacts by shared ore sources based on lead isotope content (Srinivasan, 437). There are some metal artifacts which have been attributed to the Pallavas, for instance a bronze of Shiva dancing in the urdhvajanu pose found in Kuram (Srinivasan, 440). This bronze is attributable to the Pallavas in part because of the forward facing dwarf, as opposed to the sideways facing dwarf in the Chola Natarajas, in addition it shares a metallurgical profile with other artifacts from the reign of Paramesvaravarman Pallavan I (Srinivasan, 440).

This Pallava metallugical profile becomes interesting in regard to two Nataraja bronzes previously attributed to the Chola dynasty, which share the lead isotope content of the Pallava bronzes and the left legged bhujangatrasita karana posture and four armed form of the Chola bronzes, with the hands of each arm bearing the same gestures and implements (Srinivasan, 440). The first, from Kunniyur, differs from Chola images in that it lacks the flying locks of hair found in the Chola bronzes, though the ring of fire is surprisingly present, a date around 850 C.E. is suggested (Srinivasan, 440-1). The second, a small bronze from the British Museum, differs in several ways; the raised leg does not cross the body, the dwarf faces forward, and both the flying locks and circle of flame are not present (Srinivasan, 440-1). This second bronze has been dated to around 800 C.E., making it the oldest known Pallava bronze of Shiva Nataraja (Srinivasana, 440-1). This may indicate that the ring of flame was the latest addition to the Nataraja icon.

It may be that these two Pallava images show an evolution from wood carvings of Shiva Nataraja due to their compactness and lack of flowing locks, both indicative of the limits of wood’s tensile strength, we see these same limits in modern wood carvings of Nataraja (Srinivasan, 440). This may explain the increasingly flared out and circular nature of the icon in Chola times as the tensile strength of bronze was understood to allow for these stylistic changes.

These issues of tensile strength may also indicate that properly three dimensional stone carvings of this style of Nataraja came later than the bronzes and were, in fact, modelled on pre-existing bronzes. We see the emergence of three dimensional stone Natarajas in this style during the reign of Sembiyan Mahadevi, and these images bear the signs of a struggle to represent the style found in the bronzes in a medium with lesser tensile strength (Srinivasan, 441). For instance, in the stone Nataraja from Manavalesvarar temple at Tiruvelvikudi, we see a strut disguised as clothing supporting the lifted leg and crossed left arm to allow for a more expansive image which would make more sense in a bronze casting (Srinivasan, 441-2). The lifted leg of an eleventh century Chola sculpture at the Gangaikondachalapuram temple is propped up by a rough basal strut, while in several other examples the lifted leg is completely broken off (Srinivasan, 442). These struts may even have been inspired by the runners which facilitate lost-wax casting, though they are usually removed from the finished product (Srinivasan, 442). All of this seems to indicate that the style of Nataraja statue attributed to the Chola dynasty was already well developed as such, and likely in bronze, during the Pallava dynasty.

Iconographic Interpretation

An influential, and enduring, interpretation of the Nataraja icon was offered close to one hundred years ago by Ananda Coomaraswamy in “the Dance of Shiva” (Kaimal, 390). While Coomaraswamy’s interpretation is certainly compelling, and likely responsible for the popularity of the Nataraja icon in the west and its interpretation by Western scholars for the last hundred or so years, there is some reason to doubt its accuracy in reflecting the way that the Pallavas and Cholas interpreted this icon when they developed it (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal offers three fairly compelling reasons for questioning Coomaraswamy’s interpretation. First, the question of if it is even possible to properly recover the original meaning of these objects, given the fragmentary evidence from medieval India (Kaimal, 391). Second, Kaimal questions whether a single interpretation is sufficient, noting that objects of art take on different meanings during different times and in fact live multiple symbolic ‘lives’ (Kaimal, 391). Finally, Kaimal draws attention to the fact that Coomaraswamy based his interpretation on texts written several centuries after this style of Nataraja rose to prominence (Kaimal, 391). On this last point, Kaimal also reminds us that there is no simple equivalence between text and sculpture, both mediums have their own “spheres of eloquence” which do not always overlap entirely (Kaimal, 391).

Kaimal is cautious not to completely reject Coomaraswamy’s interpretation however, as it does reflect the significance of the icon to devotees in the thirteenth century and later (Kaimal, 392). While elements of the thirteenth century interpretation could have, and in all likelihood did, derive from earlier interpretations, Kaimal offers three different interpretations which may reflect the meaning of this icon for devotees in the tenth century and possibly earlier (Kaimal, 392). The first interpretation, that Nataraja was used as a kind of emblem of the Chola dynasty is certainly compelling and well argued by Kaimal. Though, while it could serve as the subject of a book in its own right, this interpretation does not tell us much about the symbols within the icon or their origin, which are the primary foci of this paper.

Kaimal’s second interpretation deals with the origin, or synthesis, of this Nataraja icon in Chidambaram (previously Tillai). When Appar wrote about Tillai in the seventh century, it was already an ancient and well established center of many sects, including sects devoted to Vinshnu and the goddess (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal points to earlier interpretations of Nataraja from Tillai which see the tandavam as a dance much more associated with Shiva’s destructive aspects than with the lofty philosophical interpretation of Coomaraswamy (Kaimal, 401).

Many of the less obvious symbols built into the Tamil Nataraja sculptures do indeed point to an association with the destructive aspects of the creative cycle, and many of these symbols appear on depictions of other wrathful aspects of Shiva all over India (Kaimal, 401). For instance, the skull often present in the hair of Nataraja icons and the serpents which encircle his limbs often receive special emphasis in images of Shiva’s destructive aspects, such as the ‘enraged’ face on the giant three-faced Shiva at Elephanta (Kaimal, 402). These often indicate Shiva as Aghora, associated with cremation grounds and destructive ecstasy, as well as drawing an association with similarly adorned goddesses such as Kali, Chamunda, and Nishumbhasudani (Kaimal, 401). These wrathful goddesses also share the characteristics of deeply bent supporting legs and multiple arms splaying out in an explosive and energetic fashion (Kaimal, 402). That these symbols were present in earlier forms of Shiva and other gods/goddesses may indicate that they were redeployed to allow this icon to participate in a symbolic conversation which was already ongoing, and this interpretation would fit nicely with a gradual evolution of the form from the Pallava dynasty through the Chola standardization (Kaimal, 404).

The association with goddesses is interesting in regard to another possible origin of the icon. One of the origin myths laid down in the Chidambaramahatmya, a tenth century text reflecting the Sanskritization of the Tamil cult at Tillai into a pan-Indic cult, tells of a dance competition in which the goddess already resident at Tillai, Tillai Amman, resented Shiva’s encroachment and challenged him to a dance competition (Kaimal, 407). Shiva won the competition by taking a raised leg posture, which modesty prevented the virginal goddess from copying (Kaimal, 407). This loss split the goddess in two, the wrathful virginal aspect retreated to a shrine outside the temple walls, while her benign aspect became Shiva’s wife and remained in the temple where her worship continued. This may reflect an earlier tradition being replaced by, or syncretized into, a more pan-Indic cult rooted in Upanishadic Hinduism rather than the local Tamil culture. This Sanskritization of a local cult may reflect political or social changes brought about as a result of empires growing larger and larger which had to unify disparate belief systems without abolishing them.

Another myth, also presented in the Chidambaramahatmya support the hypothesis that symbols present in the Nataraja icon derive from earlier cults which where absorbed in, and Sanskritized by, the Nataraja cult. The “Pine Forest myth” relates the story of Shiva visiting several sages who were living in a pine forest to punish them for their devotional inadequacies (Kaimal, 406). Shiva arrives in the form of a nude and mirthful ascetic, Bhikshatana, who was sexually irresistible to the wives of the sages, he was accompanied by Vishnu in his female form, Mohini, who proved distracting to the sages themselves (Kaimal, 406). When the sages realized their humiliation they became infuriated and attacked Shiva with various objects which he incorporated into his dance (Kaimal, 406). After incorporating the objects hurled at him by the sages, Shiva’s dance intensified until it encompassed all of creation (Kaimal, 406). As the sages saw this dance they became enlightened by the cosmic proportions of Shiva’s true form and instituted the worship of Shiva in an aniconic form as the linga, which we see carried on at Chidambaram today (Kaimal, 406).

It is the particular items thrown at Shiva, and their incorporation into his dance, which interest us here. The items were: a skull, which Shiva wears in his hair; serpents, which adorn Shiva’s limbs and hair; a dwarf, which he tramples underfoot; a tiger, to which are attributed the shredded appearance of Shiva’s flowing garment; and the fire and drum which we see in Shiva’s two upper arms as well as the flaming ring within which he dances (Kaimal, 406). It certainly is not out of the question to see this legend as a possible reference to earlier Tamil cults, represented by the items, being displaced by and absorbed into the cult of Shiva as a pan-Indic god. This interpretation would further support the idea of a unification of disparate local cults as the empire grew to incorporate, and accommodate, more cultural groups. This is by no means the last word on the origins of the Nataraja icon, but it may indicate that a reappraisal is in order.

Works Cited

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. Phaidon, 2011, London.

Kaimal, Padma. “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon” in The Art Bulletin, 81, 3. College Art Association, 2009, New York.

Srinivasan, Sharada. “Cosmic Dancer: On Pallava Origins for the Nataraja Bronze” in World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3. Taylor & Francis, 2004, Abingdon.

Article written by Logan Page (Dec. 2018), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kingdom of Mysore

The Kingdom of Mysore was an independent state until the British colonized it. Their original boundary made up most of South-western India from the late 1300’s to 1700’s, and was the largest state of its kind in India. Although it originated as a “principality of the great southern Hindu empire of Vijayanagar” it was eventually able to establish its sovereignty (Mahadavaswamy and Kumar 3). The Kingdom’s capital city Mysore was of great importance due to the Maharajas residing in the palace there. The Wodeyars founded it, although many other families held sway in parts of the kingdom, the Wodeyars ruled for many centuries. Mysore was eventually dissolved into what is now modern day India by colonial Britain (Ikegame 2).

The Mysore Kingdom consisted of nine specific districts: “Mysore, Bangalore, Shimoga, Mandya, Chitradurga, Tumkur, Chickmagalur, Hassan and Kolar” (Mahadavaswamy and Kumar 1). Of these nine districts, the capital city of Mysore remained the cultural capital due to the presence of the Maharajas, despite Bangalore surpassing the capital city in population in the 1800’s (Ikegame 20). Mysore remained the capital city of the state until 1610 when the capital was moved to Srirangapattana, under the rule of Raja Wodeyar I. This strategic move was an attempt demonstrate his power over lands that had once belonged to another kingdom (Ikegame 20). Due to the size of the princely state, there was an increased demand for social and political services (Mahadavaswamy and Kumar 1). This demand resulted in the establishment of a representative assembly, which would become the first of its kind in India. (Mahadavaswamy and Kumar 3). Later on, educational and health facilities, as well as effective administration, trained manpower, and more entrepreneurship were created and established under the rule of Shri Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV (Mahadavaswamy and Kumar 3). As the Kingdom of Mysore grew, so too did the demands for services and modernization of the districts, resulting in a liberalized, modern society. This benefited the capital greatly when the British took over, as it became a model state due to industrialization and other modernization efforts (Ikegame 17).

The first Maharajas of Mysore ruled the kingdom as vassals of the great state of Vijayanagar until its decline in the mid-1500’s (Nilakanta 253). As Vijayanagar started to decline, the Maharajas of Mysore began to gain power through the acquisition of land (Ramachandriah 28). Maharaja Raja Wodeyar I, is best remembered for gaining control of Srirangapatna from the Vijayanagar governor during the battle of Talikota (1565), and by the time Maharaja Narasaraja Wodeyar took the throne in 1637, Mysore had succeeded in its efforts to become an independent state (Kamath 228).

Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan temporarily destroyed the Wodeyar regime in the late 1800’s. In order to do so, they destroyed massive parts of Mysore City and overthrew the Wodeyars through many years of warfare (Hasan 8). These wars are called the Anglo-Mysore wars; during this time, the kingdom split up into different factions, the Nizams and Marathas, who sided with the British originally but were swayed by Hyder and Tipu’s gifts of Jewels and elephants (Hasan 9). Eventually, after the death of Tipu Sultan, the lands returned to the control of the Wodeyar family, although the British who technically had control over the state arranged this (Ikegame 17).

The late 1700’s brought about the end of the Wodeyar regime, with the signing of the treaty to dissolve Mysore into India (Ikegame 17). This treaty benefitted the East India Company (Britain) far more than the former state; the treaty forced the former state to pay large subsidies and ensured the superiority of the British regime (Ikegame 17). Due to these conditions, the Mysore political leaders were left with very little control over the territory, this eventually lead to an uprising in 1857, which resulted in power being restored to the Maharajas in 1881 (Ikegame 18). However, this was mostly a farce as the power relationship between Britain and the former Kingdom of Mysore remained more or less unchanged (Ikegame 18). Although the British moved the state capital back from Srirangapattana to Mysore City, Mysore City was relegated in power much like the rest of the Kingdom. Despite its status as the state capital, all administrative and political work was done in Bangalore city after 1831 (Ikegame 18). Dissolving the Kingdom of Mysore into Colonial India resulted in a decline of local political power, but the state itself continued to modernize and flourish under British occupation.

Religion in pre-colonial and post-colonial Mysore closely resembled that of traditional Hinduism, although there were a few differences. The British, in their effort to separate the church and the state, diminished the power of the Maharaja; in doing so, the Maharaja’s role as a religious leader who protects the Dharma of the Kingdom became ambiguous (Ikegame 23). In pre-colonial times, the king would have been considered an important religious figure. The temples in surrounding Mysore Palace reflect this by facing the palace rather than east which was traditional; this composition demonstrates the importance of the king in Mysore not only as a political leader, but as a religious one as well (Ikegame 15). However, the dissolution of this practice brought many temples under control of British leaders, rather than under the control of the palace, though this had limited success. This limited success is attributed to officials who were placed in charge of the institutions regularly deferring judgment to religious officials (Ikegame 27). Despite Britain’s best efforts, Mysore successfully resisted and was able to keep much of their religious traditions.

The Kingdom of Mysore was a modern flourishing state in its heyday; this allowed it to integrate better with the British model of liberalization and modernization. However, the State resisted the religious changes the British had attempted and was able to remain relatively traditional. The city of Mysore still exists in India today and is a major tourist attraction due to the number of temples, palaces, and other cultural sites.


Hasan, Mohibbul (2005) History of Tipu Sultan. Delhi: Aakar Books.

Ikegame, Aya (2007) “The Capital of Rajadharma: Modern Space and Religion in Colonial Mysore.” International Journal of Asian Studies 4 #1(January): 15-44.

Kamath, Suryanath U. (2001) A concise history of Karnataka: from pre-historic times to the present. Bangalore: Jupiter books.

Mahadavaswamy, D, and Kumar R. (2016) Socio-economic Development in Princely State of Mysore: Historical Perspective. Mysore: University of Mysore.

Nilakanta, K.A. (2002) A history of South India from prehistoric times to the fall of Vijayanagar. New Delhi: Oxford.

Ramachandriah, N.S. (1962) India the Land and People: Mysore. New Delhi: National Book Trust.

Related Readings

Satyanarayana, A (1996) History of the Wodeyars of Mysore, 1610-1748. Karnataka, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums.

Stein, Burton (2016) “Notes On ‘Peasant Insurgency’ in Colonial Mysore: Event and Process.” South Asia Research 5 #1(May): 11 – 27.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (2016) “Warfare and state finance in Wodeyar Mysore, 1724-25: A missionary perspective.” The Indian Economic and History Review 26 #2 (May): 203 – 233.

Related Websites

Related Topics for Further Study

Mysore Palace

Temple sects residing around Mysore Palace

Hyder Ali

Tipu Sultan



East India Company

Raja Wodeyar I

Raja Wodeyar II

Shri Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV

Bangalore city

Article written by: Kassidy Doucette (March 2017) who is solely responsible for this content

The Marathas (and their social mobility)

Hinduism is composed of a caste, jati, system and class, varna, system (Rodrigues 132). According to Hindu myth, the four main varnas, compromising the brahmin or “priestly” class, the ksatriya or “warrior” class, the vaisya or “commoners” class, and the sudra or “servant” class (Rodrigues 146), originated from the body parts of a mythical deity, Purusa (Macdonell 240). The Brahmins were and continue to be regarded as the purest class in Hindu society, originating from the head of Purusa. The Ksatriya class is said to originate from the torso and arms of Purusa as they are expected to protect people and bear arms. Thirdly, members belonging to Vaisya originated from his legs and lower body. They are responsible for tending to land or cattle and trading goods or money. The Sudra class originated from Purusa’s feet as they were the most impure members of society. Jati means “birth group” and provided Hindus with a more explicit rank or status in society (Macdonell 238). One’s jati refers to their occupation and dictates their dietary habits, ritual allowances, and interactions with members of other castes (Macdonell 231). Members or groups within a caste claim varna status and these claims are dependent upon their states of ritual purity (Rodrigues 83).

Upward mobility and social reform was extremely rare in Hinduism. The caste and class system was very rigid, and ritual purity in pre-colonial India was held in the highest regards. However, one group that achieved upward mobility in the varna system was the people of the Maratha jati. Originally, members of the commoners or servant classes, they were eligible to achieve Ksatriya or warrior status through their military efforts against the Mughal Empire in the late 17th centuries under the rule of the rebellion Shivaji (Deshpande 6).

The Maratha jati was a military caste situated in southern India. The majority of the group was mainly derived from kunbis origin; atribe” or caste that was and continues to be generally associated with the Sudra varna as “peasant cultivators” of the Western region in Maharashtra (Russell 199). The two other “tribes” that constituted the Maratha caste included the dhangar or “shepard” and the coala or “cow-herder” (Russell 201) both of which also claimed Sudra status.  

It is also likely that the Maratha caste is derived from a military origin from various castes throughout Marathashtra. Many of the chief families claim to have rajput origin, a warrior caste located in Northern India. Their name is derived from the word rajaputra meaning “son of gods” (Russell 199). Shivaji, a noble ruler of the Maratha caste in, also claimed rajputs origin as he was the ideal Hindu ruler (Gordon 1). Born somewhere between the years of 1627-1630 C.E. (Abbott 159), Shivaji, has become a glorified icon in Hinduism. He was a Hindu king who instituted the Maratha kingdom and revived the Hindu religion in India (Laine 302).  Shivaji has become popular through the stories and myths about his ability to lead a Maratha uprising and establish a Maratha kingdom in the midst of the era of the Mughal Empire. Thus, the Marathas were agents of the Mughal Empire’s ultimate defeat towards the end of the century.

The military engagement between the Mughal and Maratha Kingdoms began with a feud between the Maratha warrior Shiavji and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 along with the fall of his empire (Pearson 221). Their feud was instigated long before the decline of the Mughal kingdom when Aurangzeb constantly invaded the northern Pune district in Marathashtra (Gordon 59). His father, Shahji, gave Shivaji his first position in his career as a jagirdar, owner or lord of a feudal land grant (Laine 302). Shahji was among the army at Bijapur, a region of Muslim power, and became a successful solider under the direction of many Muslim rulers, including Adil Shah (Laine 302). When Shahji died, he sent his son to Pune where he learned to become a central political and military figure, establishing control over much of Maharashtra (Laine 303).

The revival of Hinduism and the start of the social mobility for the Marathas began when Shivaji proclaimed himself as a member of the Ksatriya class. His Vedic coronation in 1674 (Laine 303) was protested by many Maharashtrian Brahmins as they questioned the legitimacy of his lineage in the Hindu culture (Deshpande 6). Despite his grandfather’s, father’s, and half-brother’s Muslim sponsorship, Shivaji became invested in identifying as a Hindu, and later became known for his role as a “defender of dharma” (Laine 306).

Once Shivaji grew older, he became the primary candidate for coordinating the Maratha-Mughal war. The Mughals had captured many of the Maratha forts during their crusade of Maharashtra and, after a period of peace, Shivaji launched several successful attacks in order to retrieve the lost forts (Gordon 79). The most renowned legend of the great Hindu ruler, however, was when he confronted Afzal Khan. Afzal Khan was a Bijapur general for the Muslims who was sent to defeat the Maratha uprising in which Shivaji was credited (Laine 306). They had negotiated a meeting but whilst on his journey to meet Shivaji, Afzal Khan harassed many communities along the way and destroyed idols and buildings, including the temple of the goddess Bhavani (Laine 306). Upon arrival, Afzal Khan attempted to murder Shivaji but was unsuccessful. Instead, Shivaji slew his opponent using a sword given to him by the allied goddess (Bendrey 1143). That sword, to this day, is in an unknown location. Other accounts of the story say that it was a prejudiced attack, stating that Shivaji had prepared for the murder of his opponent, arriving to their arranged meeting with weapons while Afzal Khan did not (Beveridge 184). In either case, it seems safe to say that neither challenger arrived without the idea of defeating the other.

Another great story of Shivaji is told through the Maratha defense against the Mughal invasion at the fort of Simhagad in 1670 (Laine 307). Here, the Marathas under Shivaji’s reign were able to gain control over the fort. In contrast with the Mughal captain Udebhan, who is often portrayed with demonic characteristics of cruelty and lust, Shivaji is portrayed as an “epic hero.” Some, even suggest he is an incarnation of Rama himself (Laine 307), though it does not seem to be widely accepted. He is more often equated with Arjuna or even Bhima (Laine 307), both characters in the Mahabharata epic.

Following Shivaji’s death in 1680 (Pearson 226), Sambhaji took over the Maratha’s military. During his reign, the Mughals were able to conquer the kingdom of Golconda in 1687, an overdue goal Aurangzeb had set for himself (Richards 241). A long battle ensued between the Mughal and Maratha empires at Hyderabad Karnatik, as the Marathas attacked the capital in Kancipuram (Richards 24). However, the Marathas were driven out of Karnatik two months later.  Up until 1690, both the Mughal and Maratha forces suffered military setbacks, and both were equally ineffective at striking against each other during this time. Shambhaji was captured and killed by the Mughals around 1689, leaving his brother, Rajaram, in control (Richards 244). However, the Mughal Empire regained full control over Hyderabad Karnatik, forcing the Marathas to rethink their strategy.

By 1692, Karnatik became the centre of military affairs between the two enemies (Richards 247). The siege of Jinji, a previously Maratha territory, took several years resulting in major losses for the Mughal army (Richards 2). During the intervals of Maratha raids, Aurangzeb’s generals collected whatever revenue they could find since the war was of his main concern (Richards 250). The Marathas, between the years of 1704 to 1707, were ruthless in their warfare against the Mughals as some of their greatest battles and victories occurred during this time (Richards 252). These crusades also concluded the twenty-one year struggle between the two empires. Aurangzeb, unable to defeat the Marathas armies with brawn instead resorted to bribery, paying his enemies in rupees and jagir (Richards 252-253), or land revenue (Pearson 221). The Mughal armies soon grew weak as the empire was unable to support their military due to loss of land and money. As a result of this financial deprivation, Mughal military performance continued to decline which lead to the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the Maratha kingdom in Maharashtra in 1707 (Pearson 221).

The Marathas caste, formerly situated under the Sudras varna, came to claim Ksatriya status due to a series of events encompassing Shivaji’s coronation and their military persistence against the Mughal Kingdom in the late 17th century. In present day, Maratha caste members live in deprivation, and some even in poverty, yet they continue to claim aristocratic status (Russell 205). Along with those who claim kunbis origin, the Marathas remain tied to the Ksatriya varna, (Deshpande 5), but they do not possess the resources or methods to conserve it easily. Some have trouble electing peace over warfare and instead produce a shallow and external façade of extravagance and glamour under their upper-class status (Russell 205-206). The Maratha caste prospered during their two to three centuries of constant warfare against Aurangzeb and the Mughal Empire (Russell 205-206). During this time they succeeded in becoming an extremely wealthy and powerful caste – a trademark of their name that Maratha members continue to identify with today.


References and Further Recommended Readings:

Abbott, Justin (1930) “The 300th Anniversary of the Birth of the Maratha King Shivaji.” Journal of the Oriental American Society, Vol. 50: 159-163.

Bendrey, V. S. (1938) “The Bhavani Sword of Shivaji the Great.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 86, No. 4482: 1142-1144.

Beveridge, H. (1917) Review of Shivajī the Marātha; His Life and Times by H. J. Rawlinson. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 183–185.

Deshpande, Prachi (2003) Caste as Maratha: Social Categories, Colonial Policy and Identity in Early Twentieth Century Maharashtra. Colorado: Colorado State University.

Gatson, Anne-Marie (2003) “Dance and Hinduism: A personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 75-86.

Gordon, Stewart (1993) The New Cambridge History of India: The Marathas 1600-1818. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Laine, James (1999) “The dharma of Islam and the din of Hinduism: Hindus and Muslims in the age of Sivaji.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3: 299-318.

Macdonell, A.A. (1914) “The Early History of Caste.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 2: 230-244.

Pearson, M. N. (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2: 221-235.

Richards, J. F. (1975) “The Hyderabad Karnatik, 1687-1707.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2: 241-260.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003) “Divine times: Goddess worship in Banaras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 131-145.

Russell, Robert Vane (1916) The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces in India. London: Macmillan and Co.

Sax, William (2003) “A Himalayan exorcism.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 146-157.


Related Websites:


Related Topics:

Class/Caste System in India

Maharashtra during the late 17th Century







Mughal Empire

Maratha Empire

Afzal Khan

Hyderabad Karnatik






Article written by: Lauryn Zerr (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Pattadakal Temples

In the Indian state of Karnataka lies the sacred village of Pattadakal, or Kisuvolal as it used to be called, and its 10 temples, constructed from the 6th to the 9th century. Pattadakal was once the place of anointment for the early Chalukya kings of Badami, and it served as their secondary capital. The Malaprabha river flows north near the old city (Annigeri 2). The people of India believe that rivers that flow north are sacred due to the fact that they are rare as most rivers in India flow to the east or the west. The surrounding mountains provided an abundant amount of sandstone to build the temples, and there are several lingas around the village that give a sense that it used to be a large place for Siva worship. Pattadakal is a marvellous masterpiece where the architectural styles of North and South India are blended (Annigeri 6). The influence between the mixing of the northern and southern styles resulted in a different adaptation of ideas. Unfortunately, tracing the development of the northern style is quite difficult as a large quantity of Nagara style temples were destroyed during periods of warfare. They are still distinguished by the tall, convex shape of the tower above the hall of the temples (Dallapiccola 1) . Architects such as Gunda and Revadi Ovajja graced Pattadakal with the construction of temples and sculptors such as Chengamma, Pullappan and Deva-arya decorated the temples with their magnificent sculptures (Annigeri 6).

The biggest of the temples at Pattadakal is the Virupaksha Temple (formerly known as Lokesvara). It was constructed between 733 and 745 CE by queen Lokamahadevi to celebrate the three victories of her husband and early Chalukya ruler, Vikramaditya II, over his rival, the Pallavas of Kanchipuram (Kadambi 266). Along with commemorating his victories, the temple also shows a sense of rajadharma (duties and obligations of a king) and moksadharma (liberation of the soul). The Virupaksha temple was modelled after the Kailasanatha temple (formerly known as the Rajasimhesvara temple) at Kanchi, the town that the king had just conquered. The Virupaksha temple was built by the architect Gunda along with others, such as Sarvasiddhi Achari and Baladeva in a Dravidian (South) style of architecture. The Virupaksha Temple has a nandi mantapa (open pavilion with roof) which Cummings argues is a shrine to the queen (as stated in Kadambi 267). Inside this pavilion resides a sculpture of Nandi (bull) in black stone (Annigeri 14). Her assumptions are proven by the two royal portraits on the temple. One of Lokamahadevi, which shows her standing on a lion throne while holding an elephant-staff in her left hand. The other picture is of the other wife of the king, Trailokyamahadevi. Coincidentally, these two queens were also sisters (Kadambi 267). The pillars of the great hall are covered in episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata (Annigeri 15). On the outer wall to the south, there are sculptures of Ravana killing Jatayu and Siva seated in Kailasa. On the north porch, there is an eight-armed Siva who is dancing on the demon Apasmarapurusha (Annigeri 20). Covering the rest of the outer walls are sculptures of Siva, Lakulisa, Nataraja, Lingodbhavamurti, Visnu with a conch and fruit, and more (Annigeri 20). On the ceiling of the eastern porch you can see the god Surya standing in a horse-drawn chariot, with seven horses and a lotus flower in each hand (Annigeri 15). In the shrine is the linga of Virupaksha that was worshipped (Annigeri 18).

Almost simultaneously, the Mallikarjuna temple (formerly known as Trailokesvara) was built in around 740 CE by his younger queen Trailokyamahadevi, who was also the sister of the main queen (Annigeri 25).  It was built to celebrate the victories against Kanchi, just like her sister’s temple. The two temples are very close in architecture and some of the sculptures are in identical locations on the temple (Annigeri 25). There are two Saiva Dvaraplas at the entrance to the hall and  an image of Visnu riding Garuda is on the door frame. Even with the depiction of Visnu, it can still be concluded that the temple is dedicated to Siva (Annigeri 26). The stories that are told along the walls are that of the domestic life, clothing and religious practices of the early Chalukyan era. The great victories of Krsna are depicted along the pillars of the great hall. These include Krsna holding up a mountain, killing the demons Kesi, who was in the form of a horse, and killing Kharasura who was in the disguise as a donkey (Annigeri 28). In the shrine lies a linga with a large lotus flower carved in the wall over the linga, and sculptures of Siva and Parvati all over the ceiling of the shrine (Annigeri 30).

The temple of Sangamesvara (originally known as Vijayesvara) was built by King Vijayaditya to praise the god Vijayesvara (Siva) (Annigeri 34).  There is no date on the inscription but since the King Vijayaditya reigned from 696-733 CE, we can assume it was built during that time period (Bolar 38). On the pillars in the hall are several inscriptions relating to the building of the temple. The first one speaks of how “peggade-Poleyachchi of Mahadevigeri gave 51 gadyanas for the making of this pillar” (Bolar 38). The second one explains that the pillar was donated by an individual named “Vidyasiva” (Bolar 38). The third pillar  tells how “a courtesan of this temple named Chalabbe, donated 3 pillars to the temple” (Bolar 38). The fourth pillar says that Motibodamma donated two pillars sculpted by the sculptor Paka (Bolar 38). There is an inscribed slab standing in the hall belonging to King Kirtivarma II of the Calukyas of Badami dated 754 CE which states that Jnanasivacarya granted land as a provision “for the studies of those who attend the rites of the god” (Bolar 101). The architecture of the temple is quite plain and does not have any of the great sculptures on its walls. There are big sculptures of Visnu, Varaha, Siva with Nandi and Gajasurantaka on the outside of the walls that were never finished due to some unforeseen reason (Annigeri 34). What the temple lacks in design, it makes up for in size as it has three shrines, a walkway around the main shrine and the great hall. What was once worshiped in the shrine is now a broken linga (Annigeri 34).

The Kasivisvesvara Temple was built in the Nagara (northern) style of architecture using sand-stone blocks in the 8th century CE (Annigeri 31). Interestingly enough, there happens to be miniature temples sculpted into the outer wall in a Dravidian or South Indian style of architecture in an attempt to combine the two types of work (Annigeri 32). The temple is divided into two different parts, the hall or mantapa, and the shrine and the ante-chamber or sukanasi. In the shrine there is a black stone linga in the centre (Annigeri 32). On the ceiling of the mantapa is depicted Siva, Parvati with a child in her arms, Nandi, four hybrid creatures, swans and dwarfish garland carriers (Annigeri 33). On the pillars, many stories from the Bhagavata and Sivapuranas are told. One of these such stories is the wedding scene of Siva and Parvati, where other gods have attended (Annigeri 33).

To the left and a few yards away, lies the Galaganatha Temple with its very tall structure. Having been built in the North Indian style (Nagara) in the 8th century CE, it is quite different from the Virupaksha, Mallikarjuna and Sangamesvara which are all built in the South Indian style (Dravidian) (Annigeri 37). In the shrine is a linga in black stone and a sculpture of Nataraja on the door. With age, the wall to the south has been destroyed, but it was possible to conclude their method of constructing walls, which was to lay them on each other without any cementing agent (Annigeri 38). Perhaps the most beautiful thing about this temple is the sculpture of Siva as Andhakasura. The sculpture has eight hands, one with a sword, one with a trident in the body of a demon, one with a shield, and another with a trident, and the rest placed in different poses (Annigeri 39).

The Jambulinga Temple is very small now and has no ceiling. There was once a bigger hall, but it is now in ruins. There once was sculpture of Siva and Visnu, but time has worn them down. It seems to have been built around the same time as the Galaganatha Temple (Annigeri 39).

The Chandrasekhara Temple is quite plain and has been dated to around 750 CE (Annigeri 37). It has a preserved Dvarapalas on the side of the door with a visible trident-like decoration behind his head.

The Kadasiddhesvara Temple has seen better days. It is almost impossible to determine to which god or goddess the temple was dedicated. The only evidence we have is Harihara with four hands carrying an axe, a conch and cloth on the outer wall and, an image of Siva with a serpent and a trident and Parvati and Nandi on the door frame (Annigeri 40). Again, the hall has no roof and there is a Dvarapala who stands on both sides of the door. The other gods depicted around the temple are Brahma, Visnu, Ganga, Yamuna and Ardhanarisvara (Annigeri 40).

The temple of Papanatha is situated only a few yards from the river Malaprabha. It is accepted that it was constructed at around 680 CE (Annigeri 41). This temple does not reflect the advanced architecture of the Virupaksha temple and has very weird proportions. The temple is 90ft. in length but has a very short vertical structure. The improper spacing in the temple has convinced scholars that the temple was built in the early stages of the art of temple building. Contrary to that, the inscription states that the same sculptors that worked on the Virupaksha temple worked on Papanatha, so we are led to believe that the temple could not have been built more than 30-40 years before Virupaksha (Annigeri 41). The temple was not originally dedicated to Siva this time, but dedicated to Visnu or Surya. Scholars have come to his conclusion because there is a image of Surya on the west outer wall, and the image of Nandi was placed in the hall at a later date, after the temple was constructed. But there are some scholars who say that the temple was still dedicated to Siva from the start (Annigeri 42). Even though the temple is one of the oldest, it is still decorated with images of couples and gods and stories of the ages.

The Old Jain Temple, built in the 9th century CE, consists of a second shrine on top of the main shrine that houses two Jaina sculptures. The temple is very simple with a few exceptions like the makaratorana on the doorframe of the shrine door (Annigeri 47). There is a single inscription on a pillar that tells the story of how Jnanasivacharya came from his home in the north of India to live in the Sangamesvara temple. This illustrates the religious ties between North India and Karnataka during the period of the Calukyas of Badami (Annigeri 48).

The temples at Pattadakal, depict a wide assortment of deities in the Hindu pantheon. The site at Pattadakal shows a great amount of history in its walls and tells a great story that has been solidified with the hard work of the architects and sculptors that made the temples possible. The combination of the Dravidian and the Nagara style of architecture is distinctive. Present generations can view the style advancements in temple building as they developed from the oldest temple to the newest. In 1987, Pattadakal was included in the list of World Heritage Sites. Today, for a small entrance fee, an individual can enter the grounds of the temples to look around or to give worship to the deities. The temples have become a very popular tourist destination.



Annigeri, A. (1961) A Guide to the Pattadakal Temples. Dharwad: Kannada Research Institute.

Bolar, Varija (2010) Temples of Karnataka: An Epigraphical Study (from the earliest to 1050 A.D.). New Delhi: Roadworthy Publications (P) Ltd.

Dallapiccola, Anna (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson.

Kadambi, Hemanth (2015) “Cathleen Cummings, “Decoding a Hindu Temple: Royalty and Religion in the Iconographic Program of the Virupaksha Temple”, Pattadakal”. South Asian Studies, Vol. 31, No.2: 266-268.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The caves of Badami

Temples of Aihole

The Calukyas of Badami

Temples at Mahakuta


Websites Related to the Temples of Pattadakal


Article written by: Rebecca Scott (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

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.




The Mehrangrah Fortress and its Hindu Connections

Mehrangrah Fortress is one of the largest forts in India covering an area of five square kilometers. Rudyard Kipling described it as being “the creation of angels, fairies and giants”(Bindu 76). This fort recently gained international recognition appearing in Hollywood’s Dark Knight Rises. Located in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, it was built to replace the former fortress of the Rathore dynasty in Mandore, located six miles to the north of Jodhpur. The fortress at Mandore was the capital of Rao Chundra (r. 1384-1428), the grandfather of Rao Jodha, who received the land as part of a dowry. Rao Chundra was the 12th Rathore ruler to oversee the land of Marwar. By the Fifteenth century the fort at Mandore was no longer considered a viable defensive fortress and so the leader of the Rathore clan at the time, Rao Jodha, started construction on the fortress. It was from within the Mehrangrah fortress that Rao’s descendants ruled over the largest of the Rajput kingdoms.

Rao Jodha, one of the 24 sons of Ranmal, set the foundations on May 12, 1459 on a hill Bhakurcheeria, the Mountain of Birds, or Cheeriatunk, the Bird’s Beak. Living in the area at the time was a hermit named Cheeria Nathji, the Lord of the Birds (Bindu 76). The Hermit cursed the citadel to be forever scarce of water. To try to bring good fortune to the fort, Rao Jodha had a man named Rajiya Bambi buried alive in the foundations in exchange for his family’s protection by the Rathores. The Bambi family still lives in Raj Bagh, the land that was given to them by Jodha. It is also said that as many as three other men were buried in the foundations, one in each corner of the fortress, but this is not yet confirmed by historical texts. The Mehrangrah fortress continued to be the home of the Maharaja of Jodhpur until 1943 when he moved to the newly constructed Umaid Bhawan Palace (Sharma 145).

The Rathores are the ruling clan of Jodhpur. The Rathore clan can be further broken down into sub clans such as the Champawat, the Rajput aristocrat’s lineage of Jaipur, Rajasthan (Rudolph 719). Much of the Rajput lineage is known to this day thanks to a diary written, in English, by Thakur Amar Singh. The diary was written from 1898 to 1942 and contains eighty-seven volumes. Each of these volumes in turn has, on average, 900 manuscript pages. The Rathores are part of the Suryavanshi or solar dynasty lineage that are said to descend from Surya (Rani 113). The Suryavanshi also claim to descend from Rama, supposedly another member of Suryavanshi (Ward 164). It is said that the Rathores settled in this area of Marwar to protect the Brahmin priests from cattle-rustling local tribes. There is some doubt to the legitimacy of this information but it is known that protection of the Brahmins was one of the duties of the Rajputs (Welch 333). Perhaps the most famous Rathore is Durgadas (1638-1718) who at one point recaptured Jodhpur from the Mughals. He is also said to have protected Ajith Singh as an infant. He is known for his loyalty, chivalry and courage in his rebellion against the Mughals (Dodwell 303).

Between the years of 1581 and 1672, there were a total of four successive leaders of Marwar who became a type of feudal chiefs for the Mughal Empire of the time. The Mughals or Mogals were Muslims whose leaders were descendants of Genghis Kahn. The Mughals made alliances with much of the warrior nobles, instead of fighting them, which allowed them to gain an empire that stretched over most of modern day Pakistan and India (Robinson 26). There was a brief period that the fort fell under the direct control of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. After the death of Jaswant Singh there was no direct successor as he had no children but two pregnant wives (Sharma 144). After the death of Aurangzeb, the throne of Marwar once again fell to an Indian Ruler, Jaswant Singh’s son Ajith Singh (Sharma 144).

The new Fort was named Mirihgarh from Sanskrit “Mirih” meaning sun and “Garh” meaning fort. This name has become Mehrangrah because of changes in pronunciation over the centuries. The “Sun Fort” is based on a belief in the Rathores clan’s mystic origins from the sun god Surya. A legend exists that among the people buried in the foundation of the fortress was a Brahmin named Mehran and that the name originated from this priest (Bindu 77). This legend is considerably less likely to explain the origin of the name compared to the idea that the name originated from the Sun fortress (Bindu 77).

Although construction on the fort began in 1459 only a small portion of the known fortress was actually constructed during Rao Jodha’s rule. The fortress was slowly added to for the next 500 years. One of the main results of such a long-term building project, in this case, is the visible change in architecture techniques used over the second half of the 2nd millennium, up to the 19th century, in Rajasthan. Although later rulers often modernized older buildings to match changing needs of the times, there is a noticeable transition of age from one building to another. The major portion of the modern citadel was added during the periods of Maharaja Jaswant Singh (1638-1678) and Ajit Singh (Bindu 76).

There exists a circular path that leads to the palace. It is along this path that the seven gates of Mehrangrah can be found. The first of these gates is Fateh Pol or Victory gate and the final gate being Loha Pol or the Lion Gate. It is outside the Loha Pol that the handprints of women who committed Sati in the wall (Bindu 78). These women were the royal wives and concubines of Maharaja Man Singh who threw themselves on his funeral pyre in 1843 (Sharma 145). The Fetah Pol is heavy spiked gate, built to commemorate the reclaiming of the fort by Ajith in 1707. The next gates include the smaller Gopal Gate and the Bhairon gate that contains large guardrooms. Man Singh built the Jaya Pol after his victory in the war with Jaipur and Bikaner. Rao Maldeo built the Lakhna Pol or Dedh Kangra Pol in the 16th Century. This gate was the one that suffered most of the attack launched by the Jaipur Army in 1807, and in consequence to that it still contains cannon ball hit marks. Another gate is the Amrit Pol which is close to the original entrance of the fort built in 1459. The original entrance was a boulder with a hole small enough that a couple logs could provide a makeshift barrier.

Inside the fortress itself are two temples. The first temple is the Nagnechiji temple, which is located at the edge of the fort complex. This temple contains the Nagnechiji idol, which was brought to the region of Marwar by Rao Dhuhad in the 14th Century, and is the family temple of the Rathores (Ward 165). The other temple inside the fortress is the Chamunda Devi Temple devoted to the goddess Durga. The temple contains an idol of Durga brought to Marwar by Roa Jodha in 1459. Unfortunately an accidental gunpowder explosion in the fort caused the temple and idol to be destroyed in the year 1857. After the temple was again reconstructed by Takhat Singh (1843-73). The Goddess Durga is a warrior goddess known for the killing of demons to maintain the cosmic order. Unlike the other warrior goddess, Kali, Durga conforms to the Brahmanical ideas of womanhood (Foulston 31). In the city of Jodhpur is the Jaswant Thada Cenotaph built in 1899. This building is treated like a temple of Jaswant Singh, and his wives that committed Sati, as Jaswant Singh (r. 1873-95) is treated like a god. He is thought to have possessed unique healing powers throughout his life (Ward 172).


References and Further Recommended Reading

Dodwell, H. H. (1929) The Cambridge History of India: British India 1497-1858. Cambridge: CUP Archive.

Foulston, Lynn, Abbott, Stuart (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Sussex: Sussex Academic Press.

Manchanda, Bindu (2006) Forts and Palaces of India: Sentinels of History. p. 77-82. New Delhi: Roli Books.

Rani, Kayita (2007) Royal Rajasthan. p. 112-118. New Holland: New Holland Publishers.

Robinson, F. (2007) The Mughal Dynasties. 57(6), p. 22-29. London: History Today.

Sharma, Anu (2011) Famous Monuments of India. Pinnicle Technology. Delhi: Prashant Publications.

Tillotson, Giles (2011) Mehrangarh: Jodhpur Fort & Palace Museum. Jodhpur: Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Ward, Philip (1989) Northern India, Rajasthan, Agra, Delhi: A Travel Guide. New Orleans: Pelican Publishing.

Welch, Stuart (1985) India: art and culture, 1300-1900. p. 333-335. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Related Topics for further Investigation


Jaswant Singh



Feudal system in India

Thakur Amar Singh’s Journal





Jaisalmer Fort



Noteworthy Websites Related to Topic


Article Written by Ryan Kung (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content

Maratha Kingdom Founder: Shivaji Bhosale

Shivaji Bhosale was the founder of the Maratha Kingdom in the 17th century (Vartak 1126). He began as a local chieftain in western India and eventually engaged in hostile relations and battles with the reigning Muslim rulers of India at that time; eventually he established an independent Hindu kingdom in the Deccan (Satar 167). Shivaji was born in April of 1627; his father was named Shahaji and was of the jagidar caste, a middle level gentry (Jasper 2). His mother, Jijabai, was abandoned by her husband during her pregnancy with Shivaji. Shivaji’s family has claims to royal lineages. One of these, King Porus, has been contested as there is a lack of evidence to confirm it (Kincaid 25). The descent through the Ranas of Udaipur, however, is much sounder. The name of Bhosale was said to have been connected to a fief of Bhosavat in Udaipur (Kincaid 25). Once out of this territory, the Bhosales came to the Maharashtra region, where they hired out as mercenaries to Mussulman princes (Kincaid 26). At the time of his birth, all of India was under Muslim rule and to gain support from the local population personal favors and mercenary gains were offered (Ahluwalia 141). Hindus were persecuted for their religion and many temples and sacred sites were destroyed or badly vandalized; the building of temples was completely forbidden (Ahluwalia 141). Throughout Shivaji’s childhood, he developed a close relationship with his mother. She was a motivating factor for him in his fight against the Muslims (Rai 59).

Debate arises regarding Shivaji’s education, with some claiming he was illiterate and others that he was quite educated and had knowledge of Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit languages (Rai 62). However, Shivaji’s earliest experiences of education and learning came from his mother, Jijabai. She was said to be a woman of great courage and earnestness and these qualities were passed onto Shivaji (Takakhav 70). Shivaji, historical records indicate, possessed both charisma and immense courage (Satar 167). In 1637 Dadaji Kondadev came to be in charge of Shivaji’s official education: an education that centered on military training, intellectual discipline, and even finance (Takakhav 76). It was said that Dadaji had such a strict sense of self that he nearly had his own arm cut off when he realized that he had unconsciously taken a mango belonging to his master (Rai 65). It is believed that the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, had a profound effect upon Shivaji’s mind and motivations (Rai 64). A document dating to 1645 was found bearing the seal of Shivaji, and within in it was the clear desire for founding an independent Hindu state (Kulkarni 20). This is what scholars attribute to evidence that Shivaji was attempting to develop swaraj, meaning self-government (Kulkarni 24). All the actions carried out by him were to further this goal.

Depiction of Shivaji Bhonsle in Brhadesvara Temple in Thanjavur
Depiction of Shivaji Bhonsle in Brhadesvara Temple in Thanjavur

When Shivaji finally embarked upon his journey to overthrow the Muslim rulers they were at the height of their power and the country was in an ideal state for the introduction of a new era (Rai 72). The political career of Shivaji began with the acquirement of Poona Jagir from his father (Kulkarni 20). Shivaji began preparations for the realization of his goal by inspecting his new holdings of Jagir and creating a group of loyal supporters and friends (Takakhav 91). The recipients of Shivaji’s initial aggression would be the Adilshahi Sultanate of the Bijapur government. The fort of Torna was taken by Shivaji in 1646 after he convinced the governor to allow him through the gates (Rai 75). This victory was enhanced by the treasure that was found hidden in the fort. With this treasure he persuaded the ministers of Bijapur to join his cause and he also acquired a great deal of weapons (Rai 76). The fort of Purandar was also taken and would prove to be essential in the establishment of Shivaji’s empire (Rai 78). Through the acquisition of these strategically important forts, Shivaji brought under his rule the entire territory of Chakan to the Nira (Takakhav 105). At this point in time Shivaji was also the ruler of the southern Konkan. A woman was sent to Shivaji by one of his followers and she was the daughter of Mulana Ahmed, ruler of the northern Konkan. Rather than keep her, Shivaji reportedly cited the story of Ravana from the Ramayana and the perils of being brought low through other people’s women and she was sent back to her family (Rai 80).

Eventually, Shivaji became too much of a threat and the Empire decided to put a stop to his rebellious actions. The queen mother, Bari Sahiba, gave the order to have Shivaji destroyed by force (Rai 96). There were none within her court that were willing to offer their service to this task, as Shivaji’s exploits up until this time led the men to hesitate engaging in an encounter with him (Takakhav 151). However there was one among them who volunteered for the chance to be a hero. The man to take up this task was named Afzal Khan. Khan worked in the royal kitchen and was said to have had been of great stature and power (Rai 96). The plan was to befriend Shivaji by giving him false hope for the possibility of a Sultan’s pardon (Takakhav 152). However, Shivaji had scouts in the area who alerted him to the true intentions of Afzal Khan and that he had an entire army with him (Takakhav 153). The actual encounter between the two men has been variously described. Some have said that they traded insults regarding one another’s ancestry, others that there were no such words but that each man was prepared for deceit by the other (Rai 101). The end result being that Afzal was killed and had his head removed. Shivaji then retaliated with a quick assault on the fort of Pratapgad and thousands of Bijapuri soldiers were killed (Rai 102). When this news reached the Sultan and queen mother, they were shocked and mourned the loss of Afzal Khan and the many troops; after which the capital city was on alert for any possibility that Shivaji may try to enter the city (Takakhav 177).

Following the death of Afzal Khan, Shivaji took action against a number of forts under control by the Bijapur government; this would lead to a final confrontation between the two. The Sultan led his own army out on a campaign to wrest control back from Shivaji as well as to destroy him (Takakhav197). Shivaji knew that he could not face the Sultan with the full force of the latter’s army so he intended to let the Sultan wear his army down through the recapturing of smaller forts. When the royal army was lesser in strength, then Shivaji intended to push them back once and for all (Takakhav 194). Eventually the chief vizier of the Bijapur court entered into negotiations with Shivaji, the result of this being a treaty that allowed him to keep all of the conquests he had previously made under his control (Takakhav 202). The exhaustion of the Sultan’s military left him no choice but to accept these conditions as well as recognizing an independent Maratha state, paying tribute to Shivaji, and entering into a defensive alliance with him (Takakhav 202).

The Mughal Empire had been pushed into the Deccan territory after the collapse of the Nizam Shahi dynasty and as a result, they had hostile encounters with Shivaji as well (Laine 25). A Mughal nobleman by the name of Shaista Khan was sent by the Mughal ruler, Aurangzib, to put a stop to Shivaji, just like Afzal Khan four years prior. Shaista Khan, however, did not lose his life. He was instead sent away in disgrace to Bengal after Shivaji found him cowering amongst the women of his harem (Laine 25). After this encounter, in 1664, Shivaji led an attack on the port city of Surat. Based on the value of goods that were traveling in and out of Surat, the city was of considerable economic importance to the Mughal Empire (Pearson 227). Surat also had significant religious importance for Muslims, as it was the port by which ships left for the Red Sea, carrying pilgrims to Mecca to perform the hajj (Pearson 228). The city was sacked and neither the Viceroy nor the officials did anything to prevent its occurrence, despite the fact that they outnumbered Shivaji’s troops 2 to 1 (Pearson 228). It was estimated that ten million rupees were plundered by Shivaji and his men. The significance of this attack laid in the fact that Shivaji was not immediately punished for his actions by the empire; he was the first rebel in Mughal controlled India to accomplish this (Pearson 228). This, combined with the ineffectiveness of the city’s officials at defending the city, had a negative impact upon Mughal prestige (Pearson 228). Aurangzib was forced to respond to these threats and General Jai Singh was sent to curb Shivaji in 1665. The result was a partial defeat of Shivaji and the creation of the treaty of Purandar, in which a significant amount of Shivaji’s forts and revenue were ceded to the Mughals (Pearson 229). Due to political restraints, Aurangzib was unable to offer a solution that would allow Shivaji to maintain freedom of action in the Deccan (Pearson 229). On May 12 1966 Shivaji was arrested by the Mughal government while in Agra at the request of Aurangzib; apparently, he had been offended when placed behind mansabdars at the court (Pearson 230). His escape a few months later in July was seen as nullifying the empire’s partial victory over Shivaji after the Surat attack and once again accelerated the decline of the Mughal Empire (Pearson 230). By the year 1667, Shivaji had developed a good diplomatic relationship with the Viceroy of the Deccan and a peace existed between the two until 1670 when hostilities once again began. The battle at the fort of Kondana is one of the most well-known. The fort was not taken personally by Shivaji, but by an old comrade of his: Tanaji. Twelve thousand men accompanied Tanaji to the fort, but only fifty were able to enter after the ropes used for climbing the walls broke. Tanaji was killed inside by Ude Bhan. Nevertheless, this small group of men was able to overpower the fort and let the remaining twelve thousand men inside the gates. Shivaji’s banner was hung and canons fired to make him aware of their victory (Rai 158). It was the battle of Salheri in 1672 that was the most decisive and indicative of victory over the Mughals that the Marathas had had (Takakhav 329). Many of the Muslim prisoners taken during this battle even decided to stay with Shivaji once they were healed, swearing allegiance to him (Takakhav 330).

In 1674 at Rajgarh, Shivaji became king after crowning himself (Chandra 325). He effectively became the most powerful of the Maratha chiefs and, to strengthen his place within the social structure, he married into many prominent families (Chandra 124). By some he was still viewed as an upstart and so a special ceremony took place and there a priest officially declared Shivaji to be a high class kshatriya (Chandra 125). Shivaji’s administration showed a high level of organization. The country was effectively divided into different levels of administration with officers in charge of land revenues within his said boundary (Rai 216). This land revenue involved surveying of the territory, maintaining proper land records and assessing the fertility of the soil (Rai 216). Local panchaytas were in charge of administering justice and, for the most part, maintained local autonomy, although anyone dissatisfied with a judgment could make an appeal to the king (Rai 218). The Vedas received a revival under Shivaji and an institution of Hindu learning and patronage was emphasized. There was also attention paid to the needs of other religions: Islam’s holy shrines received subsistence and grants from the Maratha government (Rai 219). Much of his work in the Maratha state continued to be opposed by fellow Maratha nobles (Chittins 79). By the time of Shivaji’s death in 1680 he controlled an area of 50,000 square miles of the Indian subcontinent (Pearson 227). There were complications in regards to Shivaji’s legitimate successor, with his sons and brothers vying for the position, but once they were settled, his principality became the key foundation for a confederacy that eventually came to challenge even the British Empire (Satar 167).

In the years following the death of Shivaji, especially in the 18th century, he came to be regarded as the ideal Hindu leader, perhaps a divine figure influenced by Bhawani, the goddess of good deeds (Burman 1228). Comparisons were even made with Arjuna, the hero of the Mahabharata, whose exploits and encounters were legend (Satar 168). Especially throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Shivaji became a motivating symbol for the formation of Hindu identities and nationalism (Vartak 1126). He was the mold in which resistance and resurgence could be represented (Vartak 1132). The influence of Shivaji was especially evident in the resistance against Muslim domination and the emancipation of India from the British (Burman 1228). Bal Gangadhar Tilak was the leader of the Extremist party and he is responsible for reviving Shivaji’s memory as an object of inspiration and motivation for all Hindus (Aluwalia 15). This led to the establishment of a Shivaji festival, which was used to promote a sense of nationalism and patriotism against the greatest nation in the world at that time, the British (Aluwalia 15). The legacy left by Shivaji can be felt even today in India, 400 years since he ruled. He is especially relevant in Maharashtra where he is considered the most important of heroes and the founder of an exclusive Marathi identity (Satar 167). His image is used in political realms by the Shiv Sena party, where it has become their cultural territory for representing Maharashtrian propaganda (Vartak 1133). A quote by Jawaharlal Nehru can best sum up Shivaji’s influence and relevance in India, “Shivaji did not belong only to Maharashtra; he belonged to the whole Indian nation….Shri Shivaji is a symbol of many virtues, especially love of country,” (Laine 7).


References and Further Recommended Reading

Ahluwalia, B.K., Ahluwalia, Shashi (1984) Shivaji and Indian Nationalism. New Delhi: Cultural Publishing House.

Burman, Roy J.J (2001) “Shivaji’s Myth and Maharashtra’s Syncretic Traditions.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 14/15 (April): 1226-1234.

Chandra, Satish (1999) Medieval Indian: From Sultanate to the Mughals. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications PVT LTD.

Chitins, K.N. (2003) Medieval Indian History. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors.

Jasper, Daniel (2003) “Commemorating the Golden Age of Shivaji in Maharashtra.” Journal of Political and Military Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 2 (December): 215-230.

Kincaid, David (1986) Shivaji: Founder of the Maratha Empire. New Delhi: Discovery Publishing House.

Kulkarni, A.R. (1969) Maharashtra in the Age of Shivaji. Budhawar Poona: R.J. Deshmukh Deshmukh & Co.

Laine, James (2003) Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pearson, M.N (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (February): 221-235.

Rai, Lala Lajpat (1980) Shivaji: The Great Patriot. New Delhi: Metropolitan Book Co. Pvt. Ltd.

Satar, Arshia (2006) Rev. of Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, by James Laine. History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 2 (November): 167-169.

Takakhav, N.S. (1985) Life of Shivaji. New Delhi: Sunita Publications.

Vartak, Malavika (1999) “Shivaji Maharaj: Growth of a Symbol.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, No. 19 (May): 1126-1134.

Related Websites


Related Topics



Mughal Empire

Indian Nationalism


Jagidar Caste

Marathi Identity




Shiv Sena Political Party

[Article written entirely by: Jessica Nish (April 2013) 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.