The king was the supreme chief of the army; the Chola king also headed the country’s naval forces in addition to that. Inscriptions mention various divisions of the Chola army, named after the various reigning monarchs. The regiments had their duties all spelt out: construction, repair and endowment of temples and worship in them, and the undertaking of other civic responsibilities.
However, not much is known about their military organization, equipment and life. Heroic kings were known to have led their troops to victory in battles even by laying down their lives. There were regiments of archers and swordsmen along with an elephant corps. Military cantonments known as kadagams were there in various parts of the Chola country (as also probably in other kingdoms) where training, regular exercises and periodical reviews were held. Nothing, however, is known about the methods of recruitment or about the strength of the king’s own standing army.
During wars, the standing army together with the forces contributed by the vassals fought together and a general recruitment from the forest and hill tribes as also the traders guild was resorted to. The traditional four groups composing the army were there; they were the hereditary (maula), the mercenary (bhritaka), the guild (srent) and the tribal (atavika). Usually the Kshatriyas made up the hereditary contigent, but such a class was not clearly marked in South India. The Chola inscriptions mention kaikkolar (strong armed people), perhaps the king’s standing army receiving their pay from the treasury, and nattuppadar, the militia similar to the sreni or janapada mentioned by Kautilya, who were employed only for local defence. To the end of the days of Chola power, the army continued to discharge its duties towards the civil community in the same way as in the beginning.
The Cholas were reputed to be in the possession of a strong navy which defeated Sri Vijaya at the time of Chola Rajendra (AD 1025) in addition to conquering the west coast, the Maldives and Ceylon earlier. The naval capability is believed to have been the result of a long development from the Sangam age to the time of the Pallavas, but no concrete details of its evolution are available.
In a period ahead of the times under review, an Arab traveller commented that the ships in the Indian Ocean differed from those in the Mediterranean in that the Indian ships were made of wooden planks held together by coir ropes and not by iron spikes. An Arab writer of nautical manuals of the fifteenth century, Ahmad-ibn-Majid, referred to Chola nautical texts a number of times in his works. Unfortunately, no such Chola text on nautical matters survived. Presumably, it contained geographical information on the Coromandal coast along with matters of maritime interest. As regards the navy of the other South Indian states during this period, there is still less information.
Kesavan Veluthat, however, says that the “huge standing armies of the Cholas with their numerous regiments and their equally huge navy with numberless ships” is the result of an uncritical acceptance of what is written in the prasastis and the faulty impression that the Cholas were a highly centralized imperial power. Some recent writings (e.g., Burton Stein) question the very existence of such a centralized force and state that the local groups of caste and trade raised troops who enjoyed almost complete independence. Kesavan says that while the successes of Rajaraja and Rajendra Chola in overseas expeditions are not denied, the question remains how “navaP was the force.
As regards the standing army, Kesavan says that the vassals and the feudatories also maintained bodyguards like the kings who protected and followed their wards like a shadow. To this group should also be added the specialists like archers, cavalryman, elephant corps and so on, all of whom had a strong personal bond with their master, Records state that their profession was hereditary and was paid for by land tenure instead of a salary. Actually, some of them were named in the inscriptions as state functionaries.