The heartland of the Cholas was the fertile valley of the Kaveri River.The kingdom of Cholas was founded by Vijayalaya Cholaaround 848 CE. They ruled a significantly larger area at the height of their power from the later half of the 10th century until the beginning of the 13th century. The whole country south of the Tungabhadra river was united and held as one state for more than two centuries. Under Emperor Rajaraja Chola I and his successors Rajendra Chola I, Rajadhiraja Chola, Virarajendra Chola and Kulothunga Chola I the dynasty became a military, economic and cultural power in South and Southeast Asia. The power of the new empire was proclaimed to the eastern world by the expedition to the Ganges in northern India which Rajendra Chola I undertook and by the occupation of cities of the maritime empire of Srivijaya in Southeast Asia, as well as by the repeated embassies to China. The Chola fleet represented the zenith of ancient Indian sea power.

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 Telangana. Rajaraja Chola conquered peninsular South India, annexed parts of which is now Sri Lanka and occupied the islands of the Maldives. Rajendra Chola sent a victorious expedition to North India that touched the Ganges and defeated Mahipala, the Pala ruler of Pataliputra. His army went on to raid what is now Bangladesh. He successfully invaded cities of Srivijaya in Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern Thailand. The Chola dynasty went into decline at the beginning of the 13th century with the rise of the Pandyan dynasty, which ultimately caused their downfall.

Their patronage of Tamil literature and their zeal in the building of temples has resulted in some great works of Tamil literature and architecture. The Chola kings were avid builders and envisioned the temples in their kingdoms not only as places of worship but also as centres of economic activity. The Chola school of art spread to and influenced that of Southeast Asia.

They pioneered a centralised form of government and established a disciplined bureaucracy. During the Imperial Chola period urbanisation increased and there was a tremendous agrarian expansion and well-developed system of water management. During this period the economy and particularly trade flourished because of the emergence of prosperous and well-organised Tamil merchant guilds which controlled long-distance trade.

There were stage productions based on the life of Rajaraja Chola during the 1950s and in 1973 Sivaji Ganesan acted in a screen adaptation of a play titled Rajaraja Cholan. The Cholas are featured in the History of the World board game, produced by Avalon Hill.