Rajadhiraja was Rajendra’s oldest son. He was appointed yuvaraja very early in his father’s reign and spent over quarter of a century as his junior partner. In 1044, when his father died, Rajadhiraja stepped into the role of Chola king. He was the first Chola to be crowned king at Gangaikondacholapuram, which remained the Chola capital till the empire faded away.

Even though he ruled an extensive empire with a large administrative machinery in place, his was a life of constant warfare, and his role was more commander-in-chief than king. He had his hands full keeping together an unwieldy empire that had grown on the backs of an assortment of old ruling clans and chieftains who had never fully reconciled themselves to the role of Chola subordinates.

The Western Chalukyas were the biggest threat to the Cholas at this time; they were led by Ahavamalla Someshwara I. The two kingdoms fought several battles, each side desperately clawing for supremacy.

The battles were brutal and filled with cruel and punitive measures designed to humiliate, disgrace, and crush. In one instance, a high-ranking Chalukya official was dispatched to deliver a hostile message to the Cholas. Two people who accompanied this official were the butt of all manner of crude
insults. One was forced to shave his head, leaving behind five tufts of hair; the other was made to dress like a woman. Dubbed the ‘miserable Ahavamalli and Ahavamalla’ (Queen and King Someshwara) they were sent packing, no doubt to the jeers of the Cholas, along with the high-ranking official.

At a battle fought at Dannada on the banks of the river Krishna, Someshwara’s army faced another humiliating defeat and was forced to retreat. Several leading Chalukya warriors were killed, as were a large number of their elephants. Vast amounts of valuable treasure, horses, and elephants fell into
Chola hands. More Chola victories followed, with the Western Chalukya capital, Kalyanapuram, falling into Chola hands in 1045. Rajadhiraja’s troops destroyed this ancient city and gutted its royal palace. Flushed with triumph, Rajadhiraja anointed himself Vijayarajendra and performed a virabhishekam, an elaborate victory ritual.

Over a century later, some of the spoils of this battle at Kalyanapuram would find their way to the magnificent Airavateshwara Temple built by a later ruler Rajaraja II, at Darasuram. One of them was a door guardian, a dwarapalaka that stood out for being in a style that was distinctly un-Chola-like.

Made of black stone, the four-armed guardian leaned on a heavy club up which a lizard crawled. In his hands were a trident and a snake, and all around the figure was a veritable menagerie of animals. Chalukya objects like these, the spoils of war, might have been kept in Rajadhiraja’s royal palace, or another temple, until Rajaraja II chose to display these war trophies in his temple at Darasuram. Today that dwarapala stands detached from its former home and is displayed at the Thanjavur Art Gallery, an interloper among the plethora of Chola works of art.

However, the Western Chalukyas still retained vestiges of their power, and continued to create trouble in the eastern Vengi region. One of Someshwara’s sons went so far as to call himself
Vengi Puravareshwara (lord of Vengi). His inscriptions continued to appear in Chalukya territories along the Tungabhadra.

All this while, there was unrest and trouble brewing across the water in Ceylon. Rajadhiraja’s father might have proclaimed that he was successful in annexing the whole of Ilamandalam (Ceylon), but the reality was that the years following his attack were filled with insurrections and counter-reprisals on the part of the Ceylonese subjects and their Chola overlords.

The Chola hold over the entire island lasted a mere ten years. Prince Kassapa, the son of the deposed king Mahinda who had been captured by Rajendra and had died in India, had fled into hiding in the southern province of Ruhuna. Here he gave himself a new title: Vikkamabahu I, and ruled the region for severalyears, all the while managing to elude capture by the Cholas.

He poured his efforts into organising a campaign for the liberation and unification of his island but died before his attempts bore fruit. Every ruler that came after was consumed by the burning desire to rid their domain of the Cholas, and the struggle was particularly intense during the rule of Rajadhiraja. For the most part, matters went badly for the rulers of Ceylon, but there were massive losses of lives on both sides.

In 1054, by which time he was quite advanced in years, Rajadhiraja fought his final battle. This was against the Cholas’ long-time foes, the Chalukyas, who were led by their king Someshwara I. What provoked this battle was the Chola invasion, led by Rajadhiraja, of Rattamandalam, the very heartland of the Chalukya kingdom. Following him and leading his southern flank was his brother Rajendra II. The Chola and Chalukya forces met at Koppam, a town near the Tungabhadra River (in modern Karnataka). The battle that was fought there was a hard and bloody one that initially went in Rajadhiraja’s favour.

The tide turned swiftly when in one unguarded moment atop his elephant, Rajadhiraja was felled by a volley of arrows from the enemy camp. The terror of the Deccan died a hero’s death on the battlefield and he came to be known as the ‘king who died on the back of an elephant’.

Panicked and in total disarray, the Chola army beat a terror-stricken retreat. The Chalukyas seemed assured of a resounding victory, but Rajendra II, who had been bringing up the rear, pressed forward, launching a surprise strike on the attacking Chalukyas. Once again, the combat was fierce and brutal. Rajendra II was badly wounded and he lost some of his best soldiers. Undaunted, he fought on, killing several leading warriors on the Chalukya side and eventually, his fearlessness, determination, and doggedness paid off.

The Chalukya army capitulated under the relentless Chola attack. Their king, Someshwara I, fled. It was a brilliant military success for Rajendra II, snatched from the very jaws of disastrous defeat. Kalingattuparani, a 12th-century war poem eulogizing the Chola kings, went so far as to state that with his fierce fighting and victory at Koppam, Rajendra II saved the world. Another war poem (Vikrama Sola Ula) added its own touch of hyperbole, declaring that with the aid of a single elephant, he captured a thousand of the enemy’s elephants at Koppam. At this glorious moment of victory, right on the battlefield, Rajendra II crowned himself the next Chola emperor.

Excerpted with permission from Rajaraja Chola: King of Kings, Kamini Dandapani, Aleph Book Company.