Before we start writing about the Great Living Chola temples, we will like to say that Chola dynasty stands out among other dynasties of not only South India but also the whole of India in many aspects such as courage, leadership, naval strength, standing army, etc.
Of all the elements, the jaw-dropping architecture remains perceptible to our naked eyes even to this day. The architecture overwhelms our senses and certainly make us wonder “how advanced and how meticulous we are in our lives?”
It is to be noted that there are several other temples built by Cholas which are magnificent but here we included only three temples of the Cholas, which are popularly called Great Living Chola temples.
These three temples are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Brihadisvarar temple was recognized by UNESCO in the year 1987.
Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavateswara temples were added to the Great Living Chola temples in the year 2004. These temples stood the test of time and yet mesmerizes us without fail.
The precision and simplicity of each of the temple can only be experienced, not read! There is no harm in learning about the magnificent temples of a fantastic dynasty called the Chola dynasty. So, let’s begin.
Great Living Chola Temples: Brihadisvara Temple
Brihadisvara temple is an architectural marvel of the Chola dynasty. It was constructed by Raja Raja Chola I. The construction was completed in the year 1010 CE. Raja Raja Chola I inaugurated it in his 14th regnal year (he was 25 years old then).
This temple was originally called RajaRajeswara temple and Peruvudaiyar temple. Construction of this temple is considered as the “landmark in the evolution of building art in the whole of south India” and the construction of vimana as “hallmark of the architecture of India.”
It was Marathas who named this temple as Brihadisvara temple which means “Temple of Great God.” They made a lot of renovations and built many additional temples and gopurams to the main temple complex. It took only five to seven years to complete the whole temple! The temple is constructed using only granite, and the wall surrounding the temple complex was made up of bricks.
In south India, the usage of only granite for temple construction started with Mahabalipuram. It reached its zenith during the times of Chola. Characteristic of Chola and orthodox south Indian temple construction was smaller gopuram (temple gateways) and larger vimana and main temple. In later phases, this tradition was completely reversed.
Just like Gangaikondacholapuram temple (described below), this temple follows Vastu and Agama Sastras. It follows symmetry. The temple was destroyed by Islamic rulers and other Hindu kings.
The temple complex was repaired and had new additions when some other Hindu kings controlled the region. Temples of Goddess Parvati, Lord Murugan and Nandi, were added during the reign of Nayakas. Dakshinamurti temple was built later.
During the Marathas rule, they renovated many temples and pasted murals over the original paintings. Other kingdoms which contributed to this great temple are Pandyas, Vijayanagara empire, etc. These kingdoms and kings followed the same pattern as the Cholas in constructing the other temples.
The temple is built on a mound of 16 feet or 5 meters. This type of temple is usually called Perunkoil or Madakkoil. The temple is built on two squares stacked to form a rectangle.
The measurements of the area of the temple are 241 meters east-west and 122 meters north-south. The sanctum sanctorum with Sri-vimana, mahamandapam, ardhamandapam, mukhamandapam, and Nandi hall are present in this area.
The courtyard is surrounded with two layers of walls. The outer layer was built by French forces in 1777 not for repairing or renovative purposes, but they used the temple and its premises as an arsenal. Before this wall was built, there was a moat around it. The moat was covered, and the outer wall was raised around the moat.
The temple faces the east side. The gateways are also on the east side. The first gateway is called Keralantakan tiruvasal (Keralantakan is the surname of Raja Raja Chola I).
Architecturally it is simple. The inner gateway is called Rajarajan tiruvasal. It has more intricate and rich carvings. There is another gateway which is called Thiru-Anukkan. All these gateways are guarded by the dwarapalakas or gatekeepers.
Dwarapalakas’ statues also showcase the precision and perfection of architects. Seven of the several dwarapalakas were as big as 18 feet by 8 feet in measurements. All of the statues are monoliths. Inside the inner gateway lies the courtyard. The temples are arranged in the axis of cardinal directions (North, East, South, and West).
Around the main shrine and Nandi hall are other small temples dedicated to Lord Shiva’s consort, Parvati (added by Pandyas), their sons – Lord Ganesha (renovated by Marathas) and Lord Murugan (added by Vijayanagara empire), his vehicle – Nandi, Chandesvara, Nataraja, and Karuvur Deva (guru of Raja Raja Chola I). The statue of Nandi is made up of monolithic rock and weighs an astonishing 25 tons. It is nearly 2.5 meters in width, 2 meters in height and 6 meters in length.
The main temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The whole temple is full of carvings, sculptures of Puranas, folklore, and paintings of all the sects of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) viz. Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism, etc. Lord Shiva is in the form of Lingam which is a massive 3.6 meters in height.
It is usually considered as the grandest Shiva Lingam in existence. Lord Shiva is often known as Adavallan (one who dances well) and Dakshina-Meru Vitankar. Both these names are referred to the Shiva Lingam of Chidambaram temple as well. Raja Raja Chola I called the Lord as RajaRajeswaramudaiyar, i.e., Lord of Rajarajeswaram.
The tower above the sanctum sanctorum is called Dakshina Meru. It is named after Lord Shiva’s adobe, Uttara-Meru, at Kailash. At the base of the temple, an imaginary animal was carved continuously in line. The imaginary animal resembled a lion called Yali.
A crocodile was also carved out at irregular intervals. The crocodile was known as Makara (it was believed that the warriors of Chola dynasty emerged from the mouth of Makara).
The most striking feature of the temple is the Sri-Vimana. It is nearly 61 meters in height (gopuram is just half of it) or 216 feet high. It consists of 14 stories. It contains pillar-like structures and carvings of various Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu religion. Above the vimana is the shikhara which is octagonal. Above this shikhara is the Kalasa.
The shikhara is nearly 80 tons and is generally believed that it was conveyed to the top with the help of an inclined plane which started from four miles north-east to the city of Tanjavur. There is a popular myth related to this temple that the shadow of vimana doesn’t fall on the ground, but it is built in such a way that the shadow falls on itself. But according to this website, there are photos which prove that the shadow of Sri-vimana falls on the ground and not on itself.
The sculptures of the temple are covered or painted by mortar to preserve the actual granite structures. Sculptures of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati are seen in their various avatars like Durga, Dakshinamurthy, Lingothbavar, Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati in standing pose, etc. Other sculptures include the incidents that happened in the lives of Nayanars, 81 poses of Bharatanatyam dance (it consists of 108 dance poses), etc.
Apart from the sculptures, there are numerous murals (some were added later), frescoes, stuccos, etc. which bejewel the whole temple complex in general and the main shrine in particular.
Several inscriptions can be seen to this day. They were written in Tamil and Granthi scripts. The common language used was Sanskrit and Tamil.
The inscriptions are of many kings and not just Raja Raja Chola I. There is one inscription which lists the employees, devadasis, priests, donations given to the temple and services (free meals for everyone who visited the temple) provided by the temple. Wall paintings were made of natural colors, and though they appear faded now, they are still recognizable.
To commemorate the 1000th anniversary in the year 2010, Government of India issued a postal stamp on Brihadisvara temple. It has a denomination of INR 5.
Great Living Chola Temples: Gangaikondacholapuram Temple
Gangaikondacholapuram temple is also known as the Brihadisvara temple or Gangaikondacholeesvaram temple. The main deity of the temple is Lord Shiva. It is situated in Gangaikondacholapuram town in Ariyalur district of the south Indian state, Tamil Nadu. Gangaikondacholapuram was the capital city of the Cholas when Rajendra Chola I was ruling the empire. The construction of the temple ended in 1035 CE (Common Era). The whole temple covers an area of 6 acres of land.
Do you know why Rajendra Chola I built this temple in the first place? He was one of the finest kings of Indian history. He led expeditions after expeditions and never lost a single battle. He invaded present-day West Bengal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, etc. When he conquered parts of Pala kingdom of present-day West Bengal and Chandra kingdom or present-day Bangladesh, he wanted to celebrate the victory. He then constructed the town called Gangaikondacholapuram, and the temple Gangaikondacholapuram temple.
After the construction, he ordered the defeated kingdoms to bring pots filled with Ganga water and pour the water in the well of the Gangaikondacholapuram temple. The well was known as Cholagangam. He even gave the title “Gangaikondan” to himself. The meaning of the word Gangaikondan is the one who conquered the River Ganga.
It is not the only temple built by Rajendra Chola I. There were several other shrines (dedicated to different deities) present surrounding the main temple. However, most of those temples were destroyed, and ruins of them lay in the courtyard of the temple. Fortunately for us, this magnanimous temple was left unharmed. The reason why this temple was left by either the Pandyas or the Muslim sultans is still unfathomable.
This temple is similar to the Brihadisvara temple (in Tanjore) which was constructed by his father, Raja Raja Chola I. But it is smaller and refined than the Tanjore counterpart. Both the temples boast a large courtyard, small gopuram and most of the mandapas are aligned in the east-west axis, and some are aligned in a north-south axis.
The temple the follows Dravidian style of architecture. Characteristic of the Dravidian style of architecture is their square plan of the temple. The courtyard of the temple is on two squares which are next to each other. The mandapas, garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum), other structures follow geometric symmetry. The temples were constructed following the rules present in the texts of Tamil vastu and Agama Sastra.
The entrance to the temple is named as Mahaduvar. The first structure to greet our eyes is the vimana or the temple tower. It is massive. It has a height of 182 feet or 55 meters and is 3 meters or nearly 10 feet less than the Thanjavur temple. As it is smaller than the Thanjavur temple, it is considered as the feminine complement of the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur. Gangaikondacholapuram temple is octagonal and has a curvilinear outline and is concave upwards.
On the north side, there are two temples – one for the Goddess Brhannayaki (this area was called Northern Kailasa), the other for Chandikesvara – one of the 63 Nayanars. Nayanars were saints of Saiva cult (the temple is present near the stairs of the main temple). On the north-east side, there is a temple dedicated to Goddess Durga, the consort of Lord Shiva. There is a ‘well’ called Simhakeni, with a statue of a lion guarding the well. Towards the north-east, there is a mandapa as well.
There is a statue of Nandi, towards the eastern side (the vehicle of Lord Shiva) which faces the sanctum sanctorum. Nandi measures 15 feet in length, 11 feet in height and 8 feet in breadth. There is a gopuram which is partly ruined in the east. To the west, there is Mahishasuramardhini temple dedicated to Goddess Mahishasuramardhini. The southern side of the vimana is called as Southern Kailasa. Towards the south-west of the vimana, there is a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha.
The temple as of today is surrounded by five temples and a lion well (recent additions). Navagrahas (nine planets) are carved out of the monolithic rock. These temples were arranged in such a way that it looked like a garland around the main temple. Hence, these temples were referred to as hara (garland).
The temple walls are adorned with beautiful, exquisite and elaborate carvings which are usually simple in other significant temples of the Chola dynasty. Though the Cholas were staunch Saivaites, the temples had sculptures of Vishnu (the preserver), Shakti (nature) cults along with Saiva cult.
Vimana of this temple has nine stories. Symmetry is followed. Upper stories have smaller carvings, but the decrease in size is more in lower levels than in the high levels. This gives a typical parabolic form to the vimana. Above the vimana, there is kalasa. Above the kalasa, there is a lotus bud.
The temple has gigantic dwarapalakas (doorkeepers) as well. The lower stages or stories have multiple carvings of Goddess Saraswati, Nataraja, and Shiva, along with Parvati garlanding a devotee which are simply amazing. The devotee (to whom Shiva is shown crowning a garland) is usually considered as Rajendra Chola I himself. This is mostly “the divine sanction” to the king, which was prevalent during those times.
The well, Simhakeni, has a lion-faced entrance (Simhamukha kinaru). There are many tales about the well. One of them is – there was a demon named Banasuran who ruled that area. He wanted to take a bath in River Ganges and hence prayed to her to enter the well. The water of the well is used for religious rituals of the temple.
Gopuram was destroyed, and the material of gopuram was used for the construction of a dam. The other temples have two gopurams, but this temple has only one. It was present towards the east. The mandapas and inner walls of sanctum sanctorum depicted many stories of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati.
The temple’s most prominent feature is the presence of 4 feet tall Shiva lingam, which is the tallest in the whole of South India. The sanctum sanctorum was surrounded by two walls to allow private worship for the royal family.
Great Living Chola Temples: Airavatesvara Temple
Airavatesvara temple is present in Darasuram town, near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. This temple was constructed during the period of Raja Raja Chola II, son of Kulothunga II of the later Cholas. Just like Gangaikondacholapuram temple, this temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. However, there are carvings and sculptures of deities of Vaishnavism, Shaktism and other saints of Bhakti movement. The temple has a chariot structure.
The temple has a water tank which was connected to River Cauvery so that Cauvery’s waters can be brought to the well. According to the local folklore, Indra’s vehicle, Airavata, took a dip in this water tank and became clean and white as snow. This legend is carved out in the sanctum sanctorum. This is how the temple got its name. Another possible reason may be that the temple showed the continuation of the tradition of the architecture of later Cholas which was to build temples in the form of elephants driving chariots.
This temple also follows the Dravidian style of architecture. It has a square plan structure. The construction of the temple was accomplished in 1166 CE. It is smaller than Brihadisvara temple and Gangaikondacholapuram temple. However, it is more ornate and attractive in its architecture. The sanctum sanctorum doesn’t have any circumambulatory path and inner mandapas.
The temple looks like a chariot because of the front mandapa which was referred to as Rajagambhiram tirumandapam in the inscriptions. The pillars of this mandapa are decorated with astounding sculptures.
The Devi’s temple was constructed a little later than the main temple. It marks the emergence of separate Devi temple in south Indian temple complex. Airavatesvara temple complex is considered as the masterpiece of the later Cholas. One of the exciting aspects of this complex is that there are musical stairs called the Saptasvaras present near the temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha.
The temple complex was more magnificent than what we see today. It had seven courts and seven streets, out of which only one court of the main temple remains unharmed. Like Gangaikondacholapuram temple, this temple also had to suffer the wrath of other kingdoms and was destroyed to a great extent (barring the main temple). And yet again, like Gangaikondacholapuram temple, the reason for destroying other temples but leaving the main temple unharmed is not known till date. Many other kingdoms/empires like Chalukyas, Vijayanagara, etc. repaired and tried to restore the glory of these temples.