India (1000-1300 CE): Dynasties & Religions

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  • 0:08 India in the Middle Ages
  • 0:58 Chola Empire
  • 3:24 Delhi Sultanate
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the rise and decline of two of the more powerful dynasties that were present in the Indian subcontinent during the Middle Ages.

India in the Middle Ages

By any measurement, India is an enormous country. It's the seventh largest by land area, and the second largest country by population. With over a billion citizens, India encompasses an enormous diversity of cultures, languages, and history. Indeed, the country of India as you and I know it has only been a polity since the 19th century, when British colonials attempted to rule their vast South Asian colonies under a single government, the Raj. And independent India's founding was even more recent: 1947. As such, trying to determine the singular 'history' of a country as diverse as India is sometimes a foolhardy endeavor. In this lesson, we'll explore two of the greatest states of the Indian subcontinent during the Middle Ages that came the closest to ruling the vast territory that makes up today's India.

Chola Empire

One state that controlled vast territory in the South Asian subcontinent was the Chola Dynasty. The Chola had been around for centuries prior to their rise; poetry from as early as 200 C.E. mentions the powerful southern rulers. The Cholas originally ruled territory in Southern India, with a power base in the Kaveri River Valley, which is in the contemporary Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In the mid-9th century, powerful Cholan rulers rose to prominence and began expanding at the expense of their neighbors.

The first of these monarchs, Vijayalaya, began by expanding north into Pallava territory around 850 C.E., while his successors invaded Pandya land to the south. Perhaps the most prolific Cholan ruler was Rajaraja I, who ruled from 985 to 1014 C.E. He expanded Chola's borders even further, moving west and southwest until almost the entire Indian cone was under Cholan rule. He even conquered a portion of Sri Lanka, the entire Maldive Islands, and Lakshadweep, an island west of India that remains an Indian territory to this day. His son expanded Cholan control as far north and east as the Ganges, and as far northwest as the Deccan Plateau. He also conquered coastal land in present-day Malaysia and Indonesia.

With all of this conquering came an enormous amount of wealth. Rajaraja I, for instance, built the enormous Brihadishvara temple in present-day Thanjavur. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the brilliant temple complex still stands today, more than 1,000 years later! The period under Rajaraja I and his son are considered the Chola Empire's cultural golden era, as Cholan literature, drama, philosophy, and the arts flourished because of considerable court patronage and the relative peace of the Cholan homeland.

However, by the turn of the 12th century the Cholas were having trouble holding on to the vast territory they had conquered. Sri Lanka was the first to gain independence, and soon after Hoysala and Malay kings began renouncing their allegiance to the Cholas. Intrigue at the court over issues surrounding the rightful heir to the Pandya throne in the middle of the 12th century further hurt the Cholas' ability to fight back. By the middle of the 13th century, the Chola Empire had been largely dismembered, and the Cholas were even defeated in their traditional homeland by the Pandyas in 1257. The final Chola ruler died in 1279, ending the dynasty.

Delhi Sultanate

At the same time that the Chola Empire was petering out, a new, more northern empire was gaining power. Occupying territory on the other side of the Deccan Plateau in India and much of Central Asia, the sultanate had little to no contact with the declining Chola Empire. The sultanate instead had to contend with more fearsome invaders from abroad, the Mongols. Indeed, the sultanate originally controlled much of present-day Afghanistan and parts of Iran, but they were pushed out by invading Mongol armies in the early 13th century. By the 1220s, the sultanate had permanently relocated their capital to Delhi, instituting the Delhi Sultanate.

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