The Chola Pass & Chola Range in Sikkim – Why named ‘Chola’?

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

Behind the ‘why’ lies great ancient history dating back to 4th century B.C. which links the snow-clad Himalayas to the paddy-clad Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu. The name ‘Chola’ is after Tamil Nadu’s ‘Chola’ dynasty Emperor Karikalan. More than 2000 kms separate these two places and it is also going back to more than 2000 years of history, during Lord Buddha’s life time. Unbelievable! But the Chola Range and Chola Pass stand as rock-solid proof for Karikalan’s achievements.

In Tibetan language, La means Pass. But this is Chola Pass, not Cho La Pass as erroneously written; ‘Chola’ La, if you like. It is to be noted that the mountain range is called Chola Range, not Cho La range. Note my point, My Lord! It is said that the single word ‘chola’ exists neither in North Indian languages, Tibetan nor in Chinese, nor has it any assigned meaning. In fact, ‘Chozha’ is the right word, not Chola. The Tamil letter zha (?) is a tongue-twister, unique to Tamil. Again, it is actually Tamizh, not the Anglicized Tamil. There is no equivalent alphabet for this (?) in English. The alphabet, therefore, rightfully finds a place in the name of the language itself.

According to the Imperial Gazetteer of India Vol. 10, page 327 New edition 1908, earlier edition 1885 – “The Chola Pass is in the Chola Range of Eastern Himalayas, 14,500 ft. above the sea, situated in 27º 25’ N and 88º 49’ E, leading from Sikkim State to the Chumbi Valley in Tibet. The Chola range, which is loftier than the Singalila, leaves the main chain at Dongkya Mountain.” In the map of Sikkim (, Chola Pass is clearly marked. Also Jelap La but not the now-famous Natu La pass. Despite my Himalayan efforts I couldn’t download this map. Nathu La is itself situated in the Eastern Chola Range. Most of the passes that help cross Himalayas are closed for almost nine months but Chola Pass is open for six months, says the gazetteer of 1909.

Though I spent a pretty long 5 ½ years in Sikkim (1983-88) I never knew this interesting geographical titbit; in fact, Cho La is mentioned in a Sikkim map of a 1979 tourism folder which I got in Madras (now Chennai) in 1983 when the news of my transfer from Cuttack (Orissa / Odisha) reached me. It is a shame, because I hail from the very same Cauvery delta that formed the core of the Chola Empire. But with separated words Cho La (as in Natu La, Jelep La) in the map, nothing struck me unusual.

Sikkim Tourism describes the Chola range as dividing Sikkim from Tibet in the Northeast and Bhutan in the Southeast, while the website of Sikkim Biodiversity Board also says the same point -  the Chola range and the Chumbi Valley surround Sikkim on the Bhutan-Tibet side. According to Maps of there is also a Chola Mu Lake on a plateau on the Indo-Tibetan border, a haven for migratory birds. Chola Pass finds a place as one of the dangerous roads ( - The road, only 4x4, is extreme with lots of hairpin turns. It is some 5 miles to the north-west of Natula at 4593 m (15069 ft.) height.

On October 1, 1967 the Chinese troops tried to claim Chola Pass leading to a one-day bloody clash in which the Indian troops drove the Chinese away after inflicting heavy loss of life to them.

Now, let us see about Karikalan, the Chola Emperor, after whom these two are named. The name Karikalan itself is intriguing; it means ‘of charred leg’; if the fire was due to an accident or set by his enemies, it is not clear, but it was before he ascended the throne at a very young age. Though young, he was very wise; a judgement given by him in a very peculiar case is cited to his wisdom. He expanded his empire across the seas and mountains, and also maritime trade. A stone dam constructed by him across Cauvery stands even to this day, after 2000 years and more! The British named it the Grand Anaicut / Dam.  The battle of Venni, a landmark, established him as the mighty ruler, defeating Pandya and Chera, the other two Tamil kings, and other chieftains who came to help these two. Therefore, by all accounts, Karikalan is the most celebrated of the early monarchs of the Tamil kingdom.

Kariakalan’s northern expedition was around when Lord Buddha attained parinirvana. Avanti, Kosal, Magadh and Vachira (Vajra/Vajji?) were the four northern kingdoms that were then fighting to win over the vast and rich Gangetic plains. Of these, the Magadh and Kosal came to peace with royal marital relationship. On the other side, Magadh and Vajra were battling for supremacy for as many as 16 years!

The kingdom of Avanti, the western gateway of South India, was in cordial relationship with the Chola kingdom for quite a long period. Karikalan’s winning war with the Magadh king (Ajatashatru?) must have taken place between 480 and 475 B.C. where he is gifted the ‘patti mandap’. So, the Vajra kingdom extends a warm welcome to him who is invading like a tempest and presents him the royal court symbol of ‘Pearl Mandap’. On his return from northern expedition, the friendly Avanti king, glad that the Chola Emperor had defeated Avanti’s enemy the Magadh, invites Karikalan to Ujjain, the capital, and presents him the arched toran gateway. These three were rarest of rare royal gifts, made of gold and gems. There are references in poetries that Karikalan got the toran gateway installed in his capital Uriayur.

It was during this expedition that Karikalan had inscribed the Chola dynasty’s royal symbol of Tiger in the mighty Himalayas. He was magnanimous to inscribe the royal symbol of the other two Tamil kings also whom he had defeated earlier - the Chera dynasty’s Bow & Arrow and the Pandya’s Fish – in the Himalayas. This is mentioned in the Tamil epic ‘Silapathikaram’ and in poetries of that era. It is to honour Karikala Chola’s expedition up to Vajra Desh and to the Himalayas that the mountain range is named ‘Chola Range’ and the Pass is called ‘Chola Pass’ from time immemorial. Wish an archaeological exploration would be undertaken to discover this historic Himalayan inscription. I am ready to head it!

A notable point is that the original name of Darjeeling is Dorjeling (Dorje = ‘Vajra’) (Ling = ‘place/spot’ where the Vajra fell). So could the Vajra Desh of B.C. era be Dorjeling and the adjoining Sikkim & Tibet?

But in the CBSE syllabus one never finds much about the South or for that matter anything other than north India which was repeatedly being invaded and ruled by even a slave dynasty.

 Written by: 

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

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