HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksExcerpt: Rajaraja Chola: King of Kings by Kamini Dandapani

Excerpt: Rajaraja Chola: King of Kings by Kamini Dandapani

Many Chola women were actively involved in the life of the towns and villages they lived in, particularly that of the temple. Among the most active temple donors were the royal queens, who gifted extremely generously, particularly to the temples of their home towns. There are some women who stand out for not merely the extravagance of their gift-giving, but also for their impact across multiple spheres of life. They were respected and revered by king and commoner alike. One of the most truly exceptional women from Chola times was Queen Sembiyan Madevi.

This grande-dame of the Chola family, the wife of Gandaraditya, mother of Uttama Chola, the Ruby of the Chola dynasty, Our Lady, Great Queen Sembiyan Madevi was one of the most remarkable women of all time. She was the embodiment of grace and strength and could well be a model for women anywhere, anytime, for how to live a life of dedication and purpose through upheaval and tragedy.

Sembiyan’s father was the chief of Malanadu, a region north of the Kaveri. Her birth family were courtiers called Malavaraiyars — they married into the Chola family for obvious political reasons; they were in a subordinate position of giving their daughters away as brides. She married Parantaka’s son Gandaraditya when he was the crown prince and had the unusual status of being the only (known) wife of an emperor. She was certainly the sole queenly authority. What a contrast to her father-in-law Parantaka, husband to at least eleven queens that we know of through inscriptions! We have seen that marriage alliances were very often made with an eye to creating or strengthening political affiliations and in these exceedingly volatile and precarious times, could be a key factor in matters of state. Thus, she got her only son, Uttama, married to no fewer than 13 wives, casting the net of loyalty and protection far and wide.

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She became the Chola queen in 949, the year her husband became king after his brother, Rajaditya, was brutally killed at the bloody Battle of Takkolam. He ruled for a mere eight years, until 957, after which he vanished from the pages of Chola history. Did he abdicate? Did he die? The answers have not been discovered to this day. An inscription describes him as “the lord who rose and went west”. The west was believed to be the direction of death, and thus this inscription has been interpreted by some to mean that he took his own life.

She was widowed young, when she was only 28 years old. She had a son, Uttama Chola, who was too young to become king at the time of the king’s death. She no longer held the exalted position of queen, as the throne passed on to her husband’s brother Arinjaya (r. 957–61), then to Arinjaya’s son Sundara Chola (r. 958–69). At the best of times, in any place and time in history, this would have been the death knell for any hope of a meaningful life for her. She could have well faded into the shadows and be forgotten about. But she was a remarkable woman and truly came into her own with her son’s accession to the throne. She regained a good measure of status then; she was in her early forties, not young, but certainly still in the prime of life and determined to make a difference. By he time his reign ended, 16 years later, she was a woman of great stature who commanded respect, devotion, love, and admiration.

The first temple inscription of her donation to a temple at Uyyakondan Tirumalai was from the year 941; she was the crown princess then, a girl barely matured into womanhood. She continued building, renovating, and endowing temples throughout her life. One of the last temples she built was one at Tiruvakkarai, during the height of Rajaraja’s reign, in 1001. Metal-casting was another passion of hers and some of the loveliest bronze images from Chola times were made under her patronage. She made lavish grants of land, gold, jewels, and endowments for temple festivals. She was generous with charity and organized meals to feed large groups of the pious and learned.

She was a strong woman who was held in high esteem by her son, daughters-in-law, and her grand-nephew the great Rajaraja — so much so that her orders carried the same weight and authority as his. She commissioned the building of many temples. Among the best known is the Umamaheshwara Temple in Konerirajapuram, one of the ancient Saivite places of worship mentioned in the Tevaram hymns of the Nayanmars. It was built in the very early years of the reign of her son, Uttama Chola, in the early 970s. On the south wall of the central shrine of this temple is an inscription:

…the glorious Sembiyan Madevi, queen of Gandaraditya, constructed in the sacred name of her husband, the glorious Gandaradityadeva, a stone temple to the lord of Tirunallam (which was what Konerirajapuram was called then) when her glorious son the illustrious Madhurantakadeva alias the glorious Uttama Chola was graciously ruling. This is (the image of ) the glorious Gandaradityadeva which was made in this sacred stone temple in the posture of worshipping the sacred feet of the lord of Tirunallam.

Above this inscription is a group of sculptures, of Sembiyan Madevi kneeling in a worshipping posture, along with her husband, Gandaraditya, shown with a simple and elegant headdress and strings of pearls. Behind her are her attendants. On another panel nearby is another sculpture of a person that an inscription informs us is Sattan Gunabattan, the builder of the temple. In recognition for his work, he was awarded the title rajakesari muvendavelan.

10th Century Chola bronze of Nataraja. (Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times)
10th Century Chola bronze of Nataraja. (Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times)

Queen Sembiyan must have made plans for this temple soon after the death of her husband in 957, and put them into action as soon she had the power to, with her son on the throne. She must have visualized a temple that would be a fitting monument to her beloved husband. The temple was the first to have niches all along the walls of the ardhamandapa, or entrance pavilion to the temple, each of which was adorned with sculptures. A beautiful flower garden adorned its grounds. Some of the most exquisite Chola bronzes of all time were commissioned for this temple by Sembiyan Madevi. Two in particular stand out: the goddess Parvati as the consort of Siva as Tripurantaka, the Destroyer of the Three Citadels, all grace and soft curves, on which her sharply etched abundance of jewellery stands out; and Siva as Vrishabhavahana, the Rider of the Bull, a commanding figure, immaculately cast, every detail finished to perfection. It must have been a master craftsman, his skill and genius at its pinnacle, who created these treasures. Sembiyan sought out the best and gave them the opportunity to blossom. One imagines her keenly interested and involved in the workshops that produced the stunning bronzes of her era. Nothing less than sublime beauty and outstanding quality would do for her.

Not content with merely building the temple, Queen Sembiyan paid meticulous attention to ensure that every aspect of running it was documented…

She built many other temples, including in Anangur, Tirukodikaval, Aduturai, Kuttalam, and Vriddhachalam. She was a woman with a mind of her own, a true trailblazer with a vision and sense of purpose that propelled the most important institution of her time, the temple, into new territory. There was no clear style of Chola temples at that point; iconography and many details of ornamentation and layout were very much in a fluid state. Sembiyan Madevi introduced some features that would be replicated across all the temples associated with her in an early efflorescence of a Chola form. Her temples had a style and features that were distinct. In temples built in what has come to be called the Sembiyan style, the number of niche sculptures nestled in the walls of the temples, increased from just a handful to as many as nine, and even sixteen. Here, she incorporated sculptures, including those of the many forms of Siva — as Nataraja, Ardhanareeshwara, as Bhikshasanan (the beggar lord), and as consort of Uma. She must have had a particular fondness for the dancing Lord Nataraja, and every one of the new stone temples she built, as well as those she had rebuilt, had his image carved in stone in a niche on the south wall of the temple’s hall of worship. Others who sponsored and patronized temple building in this period followed suit. This ensured that devotees could view and worship their beloved dancing lord close to home in the towns and villages along the Kaveri, without having to make the journey to Chidambaram…

Author Kamini Dandapani (Courtesy Aleph)
Author Kamini Dandapani (Courtesy Aleph)

She lived up to a ripe old age, through the reigns of five kings: her husband, Gandaraditya, his brother Arinjaya, Sundara Chola, her son Uttama, and Rajaraja. Through it all she was actively involved in her favourite enterprise of commissioning temples and bronze sculptures. Her own portrait in bronze was commissioned too, during her lifetime, probably by her son. This was the first known image of a Chola royal, and its making must have been testament to the inspiration she invoked with her remarkable personality. She was held in high regard by the members of the royal household…

Queen Sembiyan was not merely a pious lady who was active in temple building and administration. Inscriptions reveal a woman with a very practical intelligence too, involved in matters of irrigation and agriculture. An inscription in a Siva temple from the year 998 details the directive she issued to the village assembly and the temple priests with precise instructions about how certain temple lands should be irrigated. In a village, Gandaradita Chaturvedimangalam, named for her husband, she built a large lake spanning over 400 acres. The lake, called Sembiyan Madevi Pereri, filled up with the overflow from a nearby river and provided the water to irrigate nearly two dozen surrounding villages. Sadly, the lake now is weed-choked, and only a fraction of it is of use to the farmers.

Is it any wonder that the greatest of the Chola emperors, Rajaraja, had the highest esteem and affection for her? The two were kindred spirits, after all, and their relationship was one of mutual regard and genuine admiration. Two trailblazers with a vision that went beyond the norms of their time, brilliant administrators who paid meticulous attention to detail, and who were all about breaking and expanding boundaries.

Sembiyan Madevi died in 1001, but her memory lives on…

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