Military Wiki
Chola Navy
Battle of kedah.jpg
Depiction of the siege of Kedah, the battle between Beemasenan's Chola naval infantry and the defenders of Kedah fort.
Founded 3rd century CE
Country Chola Empire
Allegiance Chola Dynasty
Branch Naval
Type Naval Force
Size 600-1000 Ships in the peak period.
Part of Chola military
  • War of Pandya Succession (1172)
  • War of Pandya succession (1167)
  • Kalinga Campaighn (1081-83)
  • The second expedition of Sri Vijaya (1025-1028)
  • The first expedition of Sri Vijaya (1022-1025)
  • Anexation of Kamboja (?-996)
  • The invasion of Ceylon/Sri Lanka.(977 - )
  • Skirmishes with Pallava Navy (903-908)
Chakravarthy (Supreme commander)
  • Amarabujangan (12th century)
  • Beemaseenan - The famous admiral of the Siege of the Keadh (late 11th century)
  • Karunaakaran - Admiral/general (late 12th century)

The Chola Navy (Tamil: சோழர் கடற்படை; Cōḻar kadatpadai) comprised the naval forces of the Chola Empire along with several other naval-arms of the country. The Chola navy played a vital role in the expansion of the Chola Empire, including the conquest of the Ceylon islands and naval raids on Sri Vijaya (present-day Indonesia).

The navy grew both in size and status during the Medieval Cholas reign. The Chola Admirals commanded much respect and prestige in the society. The navy commanders also acted as diplomats in some instances. From 900 to 1100, the navy had grown from a small backwater entity to that of a potent power projection and diplomatic symbol in all of Asia, but was gradually reduced in significance when the Cholas fought land battles for subjugating the Chalukyas of Andhra-Kannada area in South India.[1]


Historians divide the Chola Reign into three distinct phases.[citation needed] The first era is the period of Early Cholas .The second phase is of Vijalaya Cholas and the final phase in the empire was the Chalukya Chola period.

The Cholas were at the height of their power from the later half of the 9th century through to the early 13th century.[1] Under Rajaraja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I, the dynasty became a military, economic and cultural power in Asia.[2][3] During the period 1010–1200, the Chola territories stretched from the islands of the Maldives in the south to as far north as the banks of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh.[4] Rajaraja Chola conquered peninsular South India, annexed parts of Sri Lanka and occupied the islands of the Maldives.[3] Rajendra Chola sent a victorious expedition to North India that touched the river Ganges and defeated the Pala ruler of Pataliputra, Mahipala. He also successfully raided kingdoms of Maritime Southeast Asia.[5][6]

Early activity

The earliest Chola kings of whom there is tangible evidence are mentioned in the Sangam literature. Scholars now generally agree that this literature belongs to the first few centuries of the common era.[7] The Sangam literature is full of names of the kings and the princes, and of the poets who extolled them. Despite literature that depicts the life and work of these people, these cannot be worked into connected history.[citation needed]

Ancient navy

The earliest record of Chola naval activity by an external source dates to around the 1st century, the Roman report of Kaveripoompattinam(presently known as Poombuhar) as Haverpoum and a description of how the Trade vessels were escorted by the King's fleet to the estuary as it was a natural harbor in the mouth of the river Kaveri.[8]

Little archeological evidence exists of the maritime activities of this era, except some excavated wooden plaques depicting naval engagements in the vicinity of the old city (See Poompuhar for more details).[citation needed] However, much insight into the naval activities of the Cholas has been gathered from Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. In this work, the unknown merchant describes the activity of escort-ships assigned to the merchant vessels with valuable cargo. These early naval ships had some sort of a rudimentary flame-thrower and or a catapult type weapon.[9]

Colandia, the great ships which was used by Early Cholas.[Clarification needed] By this they sailed to pacific islands from Kaveripatnam(as center).[10] At that time, Pattinathu Pillai is the chief of the Chola's Navy.[11]

Medieval navy

The model of a Chola Era Ship's hull, built by the ASI, based on a wreck 19 miles off the coast of Poombuhar, displayed in a Museum in Tirunelveli


Little is known about the transition period of around three centuries from the end of the Sangam age (c. 300) up to the time when the Pandyas and Pallavas dominated the Tamil country (c. 600). An obscure dynasty, the Kalabhras, invaded the Tamil country, displaced the existing kingdoms and ruled for around three centuries.[citation needed] They were displaced by the Pallavas and the Pandyas in the 6th century.[citation needed]

This period from the 3rd century until 7th century is a blind spot in the maritime tradition of the Cholas.[citation needed] Little is known of the fate of the Cholas during the succeeding three centuries until the accession of Vijayalaya in the second quarter of the 9th century.[citation needed] In the Interregnum, the Cholas were probably reduced to Vassals of Pallavas, though at times they switched sides and allied with Pandyas and tried to dispose their overlords. But, there is no concrete line of kings or court recordings.[citation needed]

However, even during this time the Cholas had maintained a small but potent Naval force based inland in the Kaveri river. During this time they dominated the inland trade in the Kaveri basin and Musuri is their major inland port. Dry-docks built during this period exist to this day.[12]

Imperial navy with blue-water capabilities

Chola's empire and influence at the height of its power (c. 1050) during the reign of Rajendra Chola I.

This phase of the history is the most well documented one, partly due the survival of the edicts and inscriptions from the time along with reliable foreign narratives. This has enabled historians to interpolate various accounts and come up with a clear account of Chola Naval activities of the time.[citation needed]

The Imperial Chola navy took its shape in the aftermath of the resurgence of Chola power, with the rise of Vijalaya dynasty. During the Pallavas rule, the Cholas took control of not only the territories, but the cultural and socio-economic mantle. Thus, the Medieval Cholas inherited the will to dominate trade and control seas from the Pallavas.[citation needed]

The evolution of combat ships and naval-architecture elsewhere played an important part in the development of the Pallava Navy. There were serious efforts in the period of the Pallava king Simavishnu to control the piracy in South East Asia and to establish a Tamil friendly regime in the Malay peninsula. However, this effort was accomplished only three centuries later by the new Naval power of the Cholas.[citation needed]

The three decades of conflict with the Sinhala King Mahinda V came to a swift end, after Raja Raja Chola I's (985-1014) ascent to the throne and his decisive use of the naval flotilla to subdue the Sinhalese.[citation needed]

This period also marked the departure in thinking from the age-old traditions. Rajaraja commissioned various foreigners (Prominently, the Arabs and Chinese) in the naval building program.[13] These effort were continued and the benefits were reaped by his successor, Rajendra Chola I. Rajendra led a successful expedition against the Sri Vijaya kingdom (present day Indonesia) and subdued Sailendra. Though there were friendly exchanges between the Sri Vijaya empire and the Chola Empire in preceding times (including the construction of chudamani Pagoda in Nagapattinam), the raid seems to have been motivated by the commercial interests rather than any political motives.

Trade, commerce and diplomacy

A Chinese flame thrower of the 9th century, Designs like this were incorporated into the Chola Navy

The Cholas excelled in foreign trade and maritime activity, extending their influence overseas to China and Southeast Asia.[14] A fragmentary Tamil inscription found in Sumatra cites the name of a merchant guild Nanadesa Tisaiyayirattu Ainnutruvar (literally, "the five hundred from the four countries and the thousand directions"), a famous merchant guild in the Chola country.[15] The inscription is dated 1088, indicating that there was an active overseas trade during the Chola period.[16]

Towards the end of the 9th century, southern India had developed extensive maritime and commercial activity, especially with the Chinese and Arabs.[15][17] The Cholas, being in possession of parts of both the west and the east coasts of peninsular India, were at the forefront of these ventures.[18][19][20] The Tang dynasty of China, the Srivijaya empire in the Malayan archipelago under the Sailendras, and the Abbasid Kalifat at Baghdad were the main trading partners.[21]

The trade with the Chinese was a very lucrative enterprise, and Trade guilds needed the king's approval and the license from the customs force/department to embark on overseas voyages for trade.[22] The normal trade voyage of those day involved three legs of journey, starting with the Indian goods (mainly spices, cotton and gems) being shipped to China and in the return leg the Chinese goods (silk, incense,iron) were brought back to Chola ports. After some materials were utilized for local consumption, the remaining cargo along with Indian cargo was shipped to the Arabs. Traditionally, this involved transfer of material/cargo to many ships before the ultimate destination was reached.

Combating Piracy in Southeast Asia

The Strategic position of Sri Vijaya and Khamboj (modern day Cambodia) as a midpoint in the trade route between Chinese and Arabian ports was crucial. Up to 5th century, the Arabs traded with Chinese directly using Sri Vijaya as a port of call and replenishment hub. Realizing their potential, the Sri Vijaya empire began to encourage the sea piracy surrounding the area.[23] The benefits were twofold, the loot from piracy was a good bounty and it ensured their sovereignty and cooperation from all the trading parties.[23] Piracy also grew stronger due to a conflict of succession in Sri Vijaya, when two princes fought for the throne and in turn, relied on the loot from the sea-piracy for their civil war.[23]

The pirate menace grew to unprecedented levels. Sea trade with China was virtually impossible without the loss of 1/3 of the convoy for every voyage. Even escorted convoys came under attacks, which was a new factor. Repeated diplomatic missions urged the Sri Vijaya empire to curb the piracy, with little effect. With the rise in piracy, and in the absence of Chinese commodity, the Arabs, on whom the Cholas were dependent of horses for their cavalry corps, began to demand high prices for their trade. This led to a slew of reduction in the Chola army.[24] The Chinese were equally infuriated by the piracy menace, as they too were losing revenue.

The culmination of three century's combined naval traditions of Pallavas and Cholas led to the most known accomplishment of the Chola Navy (or any Indian power for that matter).,[25] Namely the 1st expedition of the Chola navy into the Malay peninsula.

In one particular note, the Cholas went as far as to conquer the Kamboja and gave it to the Sri Vijaya kings (as per their request) to ensure cooperation in the curbing piracy.[citation needed]

Cooperation with the Chinese

Chinese Song Dynasty reports record that an embassy from Chulian (Chola) reached the Chinese court in the year 1077,[16][26][27] and that the king of the Chulien at the time was called Ti-hua-kia-lo.[28] It is possible that these syllables denote "Deva Kulo[tunga]" (Kulothunga Chola I). This embassy was a trading venture and was highly profitable to the visitors, who returned with '81,800 strings of copper coins in exchange for articles of tributes, including glass articles, and spices'.[29]

The close diplomatics tie between the Song dynasty of China and the Medieval Cholas facilitated many technological innovations to travel both ways. The more interesting ones to have reached Chinese shores are:

  • The famous Chola ship-designs employing independent water tight compartments in the hull of a ship.
  • The mariner's compass
  • The continuously shooting Flamethrowers for naval warfare.[30]

Organization and administration

Trade Routes of Southeast Asia around the Srivijaya Empire and Kediri around the 12th and early 13th century.

The Ancient Chola navy was based on trade vessel designs with little more than boarding implements, though this changed throughout the history. The later day navy was a specialized force with specially built ships for each type of combat.

The Imperial Navy of the Medieval Cholas was composed of a multitude of forces in its command. In addition to the regular navy (Kappal-Padai), there were many auxiliary forces that could be used in naval combat. The Chola Navy was an autonomous service unlike many of its contemporaries. The Army depended on the Naval-fleets for transportation and logistics. The navy also had a core of marines. Even saboteurs, who were trained pearl-fishermen were used, to dive and disable enemy vessels by destroying or damaging the rudder.[30]

The Chola Navy could undertake any of the following combat and non-combat missions,

  • Peacetime patrol and interdiction of piracy.
  • Escort trade conveys.
  • Escort friendly vessels.
  • Naval battle close to home ports and at high-seas.
  • Establish a beachhead and or reinforce the army in times of need.
  • Denial of passage for allies of the state's enemies.
  • Sabotage of enemy vessels

This multi-dimensional force enabled the Cholas to achieve the Military, Political and cultural hegemony over their vast dominion.


The king/emperor was the supreme commander of all the military forces including the navy.

The navy is organized mostly on role based squadrons & divisions, containing various types of ships assigned for a specific role and home-ported in an associated base/port. This procedure became necessary, especially after the conquest of Ceylon. Normally, a Ganam (Fleet-Squadron) would (the largest individual unit)be commanded by a Ganathipathy (not to be confused with the elephant headed god Ganapathy).

There were numerous sub-units of operational reasons and organizational reasons or otherwise. Some are presented below,

Unit Name Commander Modern-day equivalent Composition Functions/Duties Notes
Kanni - Wartime/special purpose formation Senior Kalapathy, Normally Kalapathy is the rank of a commanding officer of a Ship (akin to Captain) Not more than five ships of any role. 'Kanni In Tamil means trap.‡1 A tactical formation, it was used to lure enemy combatants to a particular area. Where larger bodies (usually, a Thalam or 2) ships will ambush the enemy. During a strategic deployment, the formation would be used many times before engaging in the main combat to decimate the enemy fleet. Also had a very bad reputation for losses, since high numbers of ships were lost in this role if the friendlies arrival was delayed in unfavorable currents.[31]
Jalathalam or simply Thalam‡2 - A permanent formation. Jalathalathipathy - The lord of Thalam The smallest self-sustained unit in naval formation, consisted 5 main battle vessels, 3 Auxiliaries and 2 Logistics and 1 or 2 Privateers. A Thalam could be used for reconnaissance, patrol or interdiction. Normally, 2-3 Thalam operated in a vicinity on scouting or search & destroy missions. while can search a wide area, can reach to each other's aid in short duration. A fully equipped Chola Thalam is said to have been able to withstand an attack by more than twice its size. This is attributed to the superior range of missile weapons in Chola Inventory.
Mandalam - A semi-permanent formation. Mostly used in battle/Overseas deployment. Mandalathipathy - The lord of Mandalam Roughly equivalent to Task force or Battle groups Composed of 40-50 Ships of various roles. (Mandalam in Tamil and various Indian languages is the word of 48) They can used as an individual combat unit, especially during pincer or break-neck maneuvering in high-seas.
Ganam - A permanent formation Ganathipathy - Literally, Athipathy (lord) of the Ganam, equivalent to modern-day rear-admiral Fleet-Squadron Composed of 100-150 Ships of various roles. (Ganam in Tamil means volume and three). A ganam comprises three Mandalams. A self-reliant unit of the force, only lesser than the Fleet. Had combat, reconnaissance, logistics and resupply/repair units. Normally, this would be the minimum strength/size of the overseas deployment.
Ani Anipathy - lord of an Ani Taskforce or battle group Composed of 3 Ganams (Fleet-division) minimum. Normally consisting of 300-500 ships. Mainly an Expedition order than normal formation. But, during long deployments, they were deployed (only 2 instances of an Ani being deployed in a combat have been documented.)[32]
Pirivu Normally headed by a prince/confidante of the King, title depends on the sea where the fleet is based. For example, The eastern fleet would be named as Keelpirivu-athipathy or Nayagan or Thevan/r, depending on the person. Fleet they functioned much like modern Fleets. There were two to four fleets in the Chola navy during various times. The principle fleet was based in the east. Later on a second fleet was based on Ceylon/Sri Lanka. During and after the Rajendra I, three or four fleets existed. The rise of Chera naval power gave more than a little loss in revenue, prompting the Cholas to station a Fleet permanently in the Malabar and to engage Mercenary navies to support the Chola strategic design.


‡1. Kanni May mean any of the following in Tamil, the application on the meaning is in context of the usage. Virgin/Unmarried Girl, First timer, the Eastern corner/direction. A trap is also called as 'kanni'

2. Thalam being both the name of a tactical formation of the army and navy. Thalapathy meaning the lord of a Thalam, roughly a division, and the rank is comparable to a modern-day colonel.

Rank structure

The Chola navy used a hybrid rank structure. There were dedicated naval ranks as well as army-derived ranks.[33] The Chola Navy used both naval ranks and army-style ranks. While some of the modern-day convention of ranks did apply, for example, the army captain is equal to a lieutenant in the navy and a navy captain is equal to a colonel in the army; others were totally different. So a small comparison is provided for comparison.

  • The supreme commander :Chakravarthy - The emperor
  • The commander-in chief of navy :Jalathipathhi - roughly, the admiral of the navy.
  • The commander of the fleet : Pirivu+ Athipathy or Devar/n or Nayagan - The equivalent of an admiral
  • The commander of the fleet-squadron : Ganathipathy - roughly the equivalent of a rear-admiral
  • The commander of a group : Mandalathipathy#(refer below) - the equivalent of a vice-admiral
  • The commander of the ship : Kalapathy -The equivalent of a captain in modern navies.
  • The officer in-charge of arms in a ship : Kaapu - Roughly the executive officer and weapons officer rolled into one.
  • The officer in-charge of the oarsmen/masts : Seevai - roughly the equivalent of the master chief and engineering officer.
  • The officer in-charge of boarding party (marines) : Eeitimaar - major or captain in marines.

Other naval arms

The auxiliary forces of the Chola Navy In addition to the standing navy of the state, there were other services which had a naval arm of its own. Notable among them are the customs department, militia and the state monopoly of pearl fisheries. In addition to the state services, a small but formidable forces were maintained by various trade-guilds, these guilds are highly regulated and acted as mercenaries and reinforcements in times of need.[34]

Customs and excise

The Customs force, called Sungu (SUNGA ILLAKA) was highly organized and unlike anything in the ancient world. It was under the command of a Director-general like position called Thalai-Thirvai. Thalai - Head, Thirvai - duty (customs). It was highly evolved and had various departments[35] Some are

Department Duties Assets
Thirvai (Customs duty & Exercise) This unit employed some of the brilliant merchants of the time and most were professional economists. They deduced and fixed the percentage of the Customs duty of a commodity for a particular season. (trade-voyages were influenced by ocean currents and hence the price changed accordingly) They normally had boarding officers, boarding crafts and some sea vessels; as most of their duty was inland.
Aaivu (Inspection & enforcement) This unit was the Action arm of the trade law, they inspected ships for contraband, illegal goods, wrong declaring of tonnage, small crimes control and the protection of the Harbors under Chola dominion. These units employed some of the fast assault and boarding vessels of the time and in more than one reported occasion, the navy had sought its help in intercepting rogue vessels.†
Ottru (intelligence corps) They were the intelligence corps of the territorial waters of the Chola dominion. They normally tailed foreign vessels, performed path-finding for larger forces or conveys and gave periodic updates for the kings and the trade-guilds of the happenings in the sea. They operated highly capable vessels which are noted for stealth and speed, rather than brute force and weapons platforms. Most of the ships they operated were privateers and contained no national markings. We have some understandings of their crafts, which seemed to have been equipped with concealable catapults and napalm throwers (not trebuchets like the ones employed by the naval ships.)
Kallarani (pirate squad) Technically, they weren't employed by either the sovereign or the state. But rather, they are pirates themselves who have received the Royal Pardon on the pledge of their support of the Chola Empire. They had been used in more than a few instances to deal with the Arab piracy in the western water. They have also been used as Coast Guard. These mercenaries operated anything that they could capture and composed of multi-national-ethnic corps. Notable among them are the Arabian Amirs, who were highly respected upon their oath of allegiance and their fervor in combat.
Karaipirivu (Coastal defense) They performed duties akin to the modern coast-guard, search & rescue and costal patrols. But mainly they were land-based and scattered along the long coast-line to provide a seaward defense. they operated substantially smaller crafts and occasionally even catamarans . Nevertheless, they were feared by petty crooks and coastal thieves.

Coast guard

In the later years of the 1100[Clarification needed], the navy was constantly battling in many fronts to protect Chola commercial, religious and political interests. So the home ports were literally, undefended. This led to a change in the of outlook Chola naval strategy, the sturdier and larger vessels were repeatedly called to reinforce the high-sea flotilla, leading to the development of a specialized auxiliary force of fast and heavily armed light ships in large numbers. The erstwhile Karaipirivu was the natural choice for this expansion and in time they became an autonomous force vested with the duties of protecting the Chola territorial waters, home ports, patrol of newly captured ports and coastal cities.


The state's dependence on overseas trade for much valued foreign exchange created the powerful Trade-guilds, some of which grew more powerful than the regional governors.[36] And in the increasingly competitive field of international trade, the state faced with difficulties to reinforce and or rescue stranded Merchant ships in high seas, in a timely manner. This led to the establishment of privateer navies. Like its European counterparts, they had no National markings and employed multi-national crews.

But, they were employed by the Trade-guilds rather than the Empire, giving the Traders an edge in the seas. Normally, they performed path-finding, escort and protection duties. but, in more than a few occasions, these forces had been summoned to serve the Empire's interests.

Notable Trade guilds which employed a privateer navy were,

  • Nanadesa Tisaiyayirattu Ainnutruvar - literally, "the five hundred from the four countries and the thousand directions"
  • Maalainattu Thiribuvana Vaanibar kzhulumam - The merchants from the high-country in three worlds (meaning the 3 domiciles of Chinese, Indian and Arabian empires)
  • Maadathu valaingair (or valainzhr)vaanibar Kzhu - The pearl exporters form the Kanchipuram

Vessels and weapons

A Song Dynasty junk ship, 13th century; Chinese ships of the Song period featured hulls with watertight compartments. Some of these vessels are believed to have been employed by the Chola Navy too.[37]

Even before the accounts of the 1st century BCE, there were written accounts of shipbuilding and war-craft at sea. Professor R.C. Majumdar says that there existed a comprehensive book of naval-architecture in India dating back to 2nd century BCE, if not earlier.

During the reign of Raja Raja and his son, there were a complex classification of class of vessels and its utility. Some of the survived classes' name and utility are below.[38]

  • Dharani - The equivalent of modern-day destroyers designed to take combat to high-seas.
  • Loola - The equivalent of modern day corvettes; designed to perform light combat and escort duties.
  • Vajra - The equivalent of a frigate maybe, a fast attack craft lightly armored.
  • Thirisadai - Probably the battle cruisers or battleships of the day, they are reported to be armored heavily and could engage more than 2 targets in combat, and relied on its built rather than speed to survive and attack.[39]

Though all ships of the time employed a small Marine force (for boarding enemy vessels), this class of ship seems to have had a separate cabins and training area for them.[40] This ship also is said to be able to engage in asymmetrical warfare.

Dharani The primary weapons platform with extensive endurance (up to 3 months), they normally engaged in groups and avoided one on one encounters. Probably equivalent to modern day Destroyers.
Lola They were lightly armored, fast attack vessels. Normally performed escort duties. They could not perform frontal assaults. Equivalent to modern day Corvettes.
Vajara They were highly capable fast attack crafts, typically used to reinforce/rescue a stranded fleet. Probably equivalent to modern day Frigates.
Thirisadai The heaviest class known, they had extensive war-fighting capabilities and endurance, with a dedicated marine force of around 400 Marines to board enemy vessels. They are reported to be able to engage three vessels of Dharani class, hence the name Thirisadai, which means, three braids. (Braid was also the time's name for oil-fire.) This class can be attributed/compared to modern Battle cruisers or Battleships.
File:Anchor of an unknown Lola(ship).jpg

This is the Anchor of an Unknown LOLA class Chola ship, excavated by the Indian Navy divers off the coast of Poombuhar.

Apart from class definitions, there are names of Royal Yachts and their architecture. Some of which are,

  • Akramandham - A royal Yacht with the Royal quarters in the stern.
  • Neelamandham - A royal Yacht with extensive facilities for conducting courts and accommodation for hi-officials/ministers.
  • Sarpammugam - these were smaller yachts used in the Rivers (with ornamental snake heads)

In addition to these, we find many names of Ship classes in Purananuru and its application in both inland waters and open oceans. Some of them are,

  • Yanthiram - Hybrid ship employing bot sails and oars or probably Paddle wheels of some type (as Yanthiram is literally translated to mechanical wheel)
  • Kalam - Large vessels with 3 masts which can travel in any direction irrespective of winds.
  • Punai - medium sized vessels that can be used to coastal shipping as well as inland.
  • Patri - Large barge type vessel used to ferrying trade goods.
  • Oodam - Small boat with large oars.
  • Ambi - Medium sized boat with a single mast and oars.
  • Toni - small boat used in rocky terrain.


In the tenure spanning the 700 years of its documented existence, the Chola Navy was involved in confrontations for probably 500 years.[41] There were frequent skirmishes and many pitched battles. Not to mention long campaigns and expeditions. The 5th centuries of conflict between the Pandyas and Cholas for the control of the peninsula gave rise to many legends and folktales. Not to mention the heroes in both sides. The notable campaigns are below[42][43][44]

  • War of Pandya Succession (1172)
  • War of Pandya succession (1167)
  • The destruction of the Bali fleet (1148)
  • Sea battle of the Kalinga Campaighn (1081-1083)
  • The second expedition of Sri Vijaya (1031-1034)
  • The first expedition of Sri Vijaya (1027-1029)
  • The Annexation of Kedah (1024-1025)
  • Annexation of the Kamboja (?-996)
  • The invasion of Ceylon/Sri Lanka.(977-?)
  • Skirmishes with Pallava Navy (903-8)

Recruitment and service

The chola emperors gave a free hand to the admirals in recruiting and training of sailors, engineers, oarsmen and marines. There were no complicated tests and evaluation process. Any citizen or even non citizen could sign up for the naval service. But, one did not end up in the work of his choice. Preference were given to ex-servicemen, their sons and noblemen. But, this attitude changed in later days. And many class of soldiers / sailors distinguished themselves, irrespective of rank and class.

Ports and fleets

The most ancient of ports used by Cholas was Poompuhar. Later on, they used many more ports and even built some new ones. Some of the famous ports are:

  • Arikamedu
  • Poombuhar.
  • Kancheepuram
  • Nagapattinam
  • Kulachal
  • Korkai
  • Kadalur.
  • Thoothukudi

In addition to these sea ports there were many inland ports and dry dock connected by Rivers Kaveri and Thamarabarani which served commercial fleets and in times of war, to facilitate mass production, ships were built inland and ferried through the rivers to the Ocean.

  • Musuri
  • Worayur or Urayur

The fleets were normally named after the dead monarchs and god's name. The most distinguished ones were granted Royal prefixes like Theiva-sovereign's name-fleet name. During the reign of Rajaraja Chola I and Rajendra Chola I, there were 5 fleets, each catering to particular needs. The main fleet was home ported in Nagapatinam. The other fleets were home ported in Kadalur and a small fleet was also based in Kanchipuram.

In addition to the main fleets of war ships, there were two fleets of logistics and transport ships to serve the needs of the army; involved in a bloody war in Ceylon and later in southeast Asia.

In the later years these numbers increased drastically and a several fleets were created anew. During the late 11th century, there were a total of nine battle fleets, based in various dominians across the vast expanses of the Chola empire ranging from the present day Aceh, Ankorwat to the southern reaches of Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

Political, cultural and economic impact

The Grand vision and imperial energy of the Father and son duo Raja Raja Chola I and Rajendra Chola I is undoubtedly the underlying reason for expansion and prosperity. But, this was accomplished by the tireless efforts and pains of the navy. In essence, Raja Raja was the first person in the sub-continent to realize the power projection capabilities of a powerful navy. He and his successors initiated a massive naval buildup and continued supporting it,and they used it more than just wars.

The Chola navy was a potent Diplomatic symbol,It was the carrier of Chola might and prestige. It spread the Dravidian culture, the literary and architectural grandeur. For the sake of comparison, it was just the equivalent of the " Gunboat diplomacy " of the modern day Great powers and super powers.

There is evidence to show that the king of Kambujadesa (modern Cambodia) sent an ornamental chariot to the Chola Emperor, probably to appease him so that his strategic attention does not extend further than the Malay peninsula.

Popular culture

From the Sangam age poems to commemorate the victory of the sovereign of the day to the immortalized Kalinga Campaign of the Kulothunga Chola I in the Kalingattuparani. Parani is a special type of literary work, which; according to the traditions and rules of linguistics of Tamizh can only be composed on a king/general whose forces have killed a thousand elephants in combat.

In modern times, more than a few Romance has been inspired by the Chola Navy, and mostly in Tamil Language and literature.

  • Yavana rani : A historical novel by Sandilyian surrounding the events of the Karikala's Ascendence to throne.
  • Ponniyin selvan : The crowning glory of the Rajaraja is idolized in this Novel surrounding the assassination of his brother and crown prince Aditha Karikalan. More than a passing note is given of the navy and its organization in this Magnum opus by Kalki. Krishnamoorthy.
  • Kadal pura : Another historical novel by sandilyan surrounding the foundation of the Chalukya Chola dynasty in India and the Song Dynasty in china. Sandilyan gives more than a passing evidence to prove that the song-emperor and Kulothunga chola were friends. By far, this work gives the most intricate details of the navies of the day and naval warfare. In this work he describes the various weapons and tactics employed by the Cholas and Chinese navies and their combined efforts to overthrow the Sri Vijaya dynasty.
  • Kanni Maadam : A historical novel by Sandilyan in the time of Rajathiraja Chola. The work describes the Pandyas' civil war .It elaborates the war by proxy, between the sinhalese and cholas. The pallavas are all but gone, they are in the service of both Cholas and pandyas. It features some of the most detailed tactical maneuvering in battlefield. It also highlights the importance of the Naval power and logistics in an overseas campaign.
  • 2010 film : A movie about the searching of exiled Chola prince directed by Selvaraghavan.

Timeline of events

The major events which had direct impact in the development of the Chola Naval capability are listed here, which is in no case comprehensive. But, some of the events had deep impact nevertheless.

Archeological evidence: The dated excavations,

  • 3000 BCE - Dugboats were found in Arikamedu, what is now in Puducherry.[citation needed]
  • 2400 BCE - Highly functional port is in operation in Lothal of what is now Gujarat.[citation needed]
  • 700 BCE - The first mention of the word Yavana in pottery around korkai.(meaning Greeks or Romans)
  • 300 BCE - A load-stone compass with Chinese inscriptions is found off the coast of Kaaveripoompatnam.[citation needed]
  • 100 BCE - A settlement of Tamil/Pakrit speaking merchants founded in Rome.[citation needed]
  • Late 1st century BCE - Roman glass was found in southern coastal regions of Tamilnadu.[citation needed]

Literary references and recordings

  • 356-321 BCE: The Periplus of Niarchus, an officer of Alexander the Great, describes the Persian coast. Niarchus commissioned thirty oared galleys to transport the troops of Alexander the Great from northwest India back to Mesopotamia, via the Persian Gulf and the Tigris, an established commercial route.[45]
  • 334-323 BCE: Eratosthenes, the librarian at Alexandria, drew a map which includes Sri Lanka and the mouth of the Ganges. Which states the exchange of traffic and commodity in the regions.[46]
  • 207-190 BCE: In a puranaanuru song, there is an advice for enterprising soldiers, which when translated literally comes to "He should ride the horse like the Phalavas, Muster the elephant like cherals, and must organize the defense of a fort like the Yavanas, this brings to light the existence of Roman settlements.
  • 1st century BCE : When Vennikkuyithiar mentions about Karikala, he mentions several class of inland vessels by Name some are Kalam, Punai & Patri.


See also

  • Chola dynasty
  • Chola Military
  • Dravidian Architecture


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  2. Kulke and Rothermund, p 115
  3. 3.0 3.1 Keay, p 215
  4. Majumdar, p 407
  5. The kadaram campaign is first mentioned in Rajendra's inscriptions dating from his 14th year. The name of the Srivijaya king was Sangrama Vijayatungavarman. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, The CōĻas, pp 211–220
  6. Meyer, p 73
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  11. 'Mayillai.Seeni. VenkataSwamy', சங்ககால தமிழக வரலாற்றில் சில செய்திகள் (TAMIL BOOK), page-149
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  15. 15.0 15.1 Kulke and Rothermund, p 118
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  17. Kulke and Rothermund, p 12
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  19. Tripathi, p 465
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  29. The Tamil merchants took glassware, camphor, sandalwood, rhinoceros horns, ivory, rose water, asafoetida, spices such as pepper, cloves, etc. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, p 173
  30. 30.0 30.1 Historical Military Heritage of the Tamils By Ca. Vē. Cuppiramaṇiyan̲, Ka.Ta. Tirunāvukkaracu, International Institute of Tamil Studies
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  35. Maritime trade and state development in early Southeast Asia, Kenneth Hallp.34, citing Pattinapalai, a Sangam poem of the 1st century, quoted in K.V. Subrahmanya Aiyer, 'Largest provincial organisations in ancient India', Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 65, 1 (1954-55): 38.,
  36. The Corporate Life in ancient India, By Prof RC Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra. 1920, Madras University Press,
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  41. The Politics of Plunder: The Cholas in Eleventh-Century Ceylon,George W. Spencer,The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3 (May, 1976), pp. 405-419, Summary available online at
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  44. D The Chola Maritime Activities in Early Historical Setting, By: Dr. K.V. Hariharan
  47. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, p 18.
  48. Chopra et al., p 31

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