Chapter 1, Part 12
In the land of the Tamils in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, powerful dynasties once fought against each other for regional supremacy. In the mid-sixth century AD, the Pallavas rose to prominence and ruled much of southern India for more than three centuries until a series of conflict with the Pandyans – another influential Tamil dynasty – weakened their position, and provided a rare opportunity for the Cholas – a second-century BC Tamil dynasty long shadowed by other, more influential dynasties – to reemerge in the mid-ninth century AD.
Not only did the nascent Chola Empire defeat the Pallavas and put the Pandyans under their control, but it also gradually expanded its territory from the empire’s capital in Thanjavur to all four directions through military conquests and political marriages. Ruling the empire at the turn of the second millennium, Rajaraja Chola I is remembered as one of the greatest kings in the empire’s history who successfully held sway a vast territory stretching from Lakshadweep and the Maldives to much of southern India and the island of Lanka. As was the fashion for great kings to commemorate the achievements they made, Rajaraja Chola I built a monumental temple dedicated to Shiva at the heart of Thanjavur.
Brihadeeswarar temple, completed in 1010, was a beacon of the empire’s military prowess as well as cultural and artistic accomplishment. Built to the height of 61 meters, the vimana (tall structure above the main sanctum) is still the highest of its kind in the world, even long after its completion. Inside the sanctum, a massive lingam (a symbol of Shiva), twice as tall as an adult man, resided underneath a towering vimana crowned by an 80-tonne round sikhara. Every aspect of the temple – Rajaraja’s magnum opus – is a testament to his ambition and passion.
At its height, the Chola empire’s influence was not only limited to its dominion, but it also spread across the Indian Ocean to parts of Southeast Asia. Under the rule of Rajendra Chola I, Rajaraja’s successor, the empire conducted military raids beyond its traditional realm, owing to its formidable naval forces.
The Sumatra-based Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya, for centuries the dominant power in maritime Southeast Asia, broke its alliance with Java-based Medang kingdom following the return of Hinduism to the Javanese royal court. As the Chola’s influence grew to the east, and the Khmer empire rapidly expanding its influence to the west and south, Srivijaya found itself in an unfavorable situation where powerful Hindu kingdoms surrounded and gradually encroached its peripheries.
At the time when Rajendra I ruled the Chola empire, Suryavarman I as the king of the Khmer empire had a grand ambition to conquer much of continental Southeast Asia. However there was one obstacle: most of what is today peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand belonged to the Buddhist kingdom of Tambralinga, an ally of Srivijaya. Suryavarman sought help from a fellow Hindu king across the ocean to the east to conquer Tambralinga, strategically located at the main sea trade route between China and India. Threatened by Suryavarman’s ambition, the king of Tambralinga turned to Srivijaya for help, and when the news came to the Chola king, he prepared a surprise attack against Srivijaya.
Instead of taking the usual north route into the Strait of Malacca, where Srivijaya had heavy military presence, the Chola military vessels sailed to the western coast of Sumatra then went southward toward the Sunda strait before launching a surprise attack to Palembang, the capital of Srivijaya. Completely unaware of the hostile forces coming from the south, Palembang fell, and not long afterward so did Srivijayan important ports in both the eastern coast of Sumatra and the western coast of the Malay peninsula. The event marked the decline of the once formidable maritime power of Southeast Asia, further weakening Buddhism in the region.
However, in the valley of Irrawady (Ayeyarwady) river far in the north, a political dynasty was just beginning to consolidate its power. Anawrahta, the local ruler at that time, set a solid foundation for the dynasty that would grow into one of the most eminent Buddhist empires the region has ever seen with impressive legacies that lasted for centuries.
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