|THE GREAT CHOLA TEMPLES of the
Tamil Nadu, a south Indian state, literally means the country of the Tamils. Tamils, like other people who speak Dravidian languages, which are completely different from the Sanskrit spoken by the northern Indian Aryans, are referred to as Dravidian people. India is divided into local states based on the common language spoken in each area. Dravidian people live in the states of Andhra Pradesh of the Telugu language, Karnataka of the Kannada language, Tamil Nadu of the Tamil language, and Kerala of the Malayalam language; those four states are usually referred to as South India as a whole.
The South Indian Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur,
When the Brihadishvara Temple dedicated to Shiva was completed in the capital of the Chola Empire in the early 11th century, its priests went around the country to seek unmarried pretty girls to make them eDevadasies,f which means eGodfs servants.f They belonged to the temple with the role of dedicating dances to the main god Shiva, for the purpose of which they had to be virgin and come from a good family, for they would hold the matrimonial ceremony with the God after finishing their education. These selected Devadasies entered this great temple before puberty, mastered dancing, and entertained the God by singing and dancing every evening, revering their future husband.
The wall paintings, from the age of the foundation of the temple, discovered in the 1930fs at the Vimana of the Brihadishvara Temple, depict Apsaras (celestial nymphs) dancing in the heavens with Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. The famous dance of eBharata Natyamf performed by Devadasies, just as in these well preserved wall paintings, is now danced not only in the Tamil region but also all over India.
It is at the Pradaksina-Patha surrounding the Vimana that these paintings were found. A pradaksina-patha is a circumambulatory passageway around a sacred image or building in which people walk while reciting Sutras in a clockwise direction. The walls and ceilings were covered with paintings in the Nayaka Dynasties in the 17th century over the top of far older paintings from the 11th century, which have now emerged to be seen again.
On the south wall of the Pradaksina-Patha Shiva is depicted preaching under a sacred tree, on the north wall Shiva is shown exterminating demons residing in three cities, and on the west wall is Shiva welcomes a saint on Mt. Kailasa in the Himalayas. In one scene, Shiva with eight arms is on a chariot being lead by the god of creation, Brahma, and in another scene, he practices yoga on a tiger skin, wearing a serpent on his neck and upper arm. There is also a drawing of Rajaraja I standing with his Guru (teacher) Karuvur Thevar.
The Brihadishvara Temple was completed in around 1010 in the southeastern part of the new capital Thanjavur constructed in the basin of the Kaveri (Cauvery) River by the king of the Chola Dynasty, Rajaraja I (r. 985-1014). It has also been called Rajarajeshvara Temple after the kingfs name. It is one of the two greatest templesfrom the age of the Chola Dynasty together with the Rajendra-Cholishvara Temple built in the next new capital, Gangaikondacholapuram, which was constructed by his successor Rajendra I. Those constructions were prodigious national projects showing the Chola Empirefs hegemony in south India.
The delta area on the pivot of Thanjavur was a fertile granary since ancient times, called the egarden of south India.f The successive Hindu kings erected a lot of temples in this area, the largest among which is the Brihadishvara Temple. Rajaraja I was the restorer of the weakened Chola Dynasty, extending his power from south India to Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean, and even to the Laccadive Islands in the Arabian Sea.
Plan of the Brihadishvara Temple, Thanjavur
(From "The History of Architecture in India" by Ch. Tadgell)
It is said that the Brihadishvara Temple was erected in only seven years. Its precincts are surrounded with cloisters covering an area of 120m by 240m and is also surrounded outside with heavy brick walls for an area of 350m square including a large tank (reservoir).
The second Gopura on the line of the cloisters is 24m in both width and height, lower than the first Gopura, but its sculptures are larger, with a pair of Dvarapalas (guardian figures) on both sides of the doorway.
This Brihadishvara Temple made of granite and brick is the greatest work of the Dravidian (northern) style in its grand scale and high degree of perfection, alongside of the great temple in Gangaikondacholapuram. The development of stone temples in the southern Indian style, having started at the small temples at Mahabalipuram, reached their summit here. It became the model of the temples to be built in south India and Southeast Asia in the period of the Chola Dynasty.
However, after the end of the Chola Dynasty in the 13th century, temple style would change dramatically. Huge Vimanas would not be built anymore, rather temple precincts would be expanded, surrounding the temple in fold upon fold, and constructing only Gopuras in a colossal scale on the four sides. The outer Gopuras would be erected higher, and would eventually attain more than 60m. The relationship of height between the main shrine and its gates would be completely reversed. From this point too, the Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur is the best representative of orthodox south Indian temple architecture.
In Hindu society, a temple fills a central role socially and culturally, symbolising the images of a mountain, in which dwells divinity, and a motherfs womb that produces life. The especially venerated sacred mountains are Mt. Kailasa, the abode of Shiva, and legendary mountain Meru, the center of the cosmos. A temple, where gods visit the human world, is the representation on the earth of a sacred mountain, a place for people to meet gods, and also the center of all nature.
On the top of a Vimana soaring in a pyramidal shape is set a hemispherical crown stone forming a boundary between the human world and the celestial world. It is referred to as a Shikhara (mountain summit) in southern India, while in northern India, the term Shikhara refers to the entire tower over the sanctuary including the crown stone.
The cave-like Garbhagriha (sanctuary) inside the Vimana symbolizes a motherfs uterus, from the word eGarbha,f meaning womb. In the sanctuary of a temple dedicated to Shiva, a Linga is enshrined instead of a statue of the god.
The plan of the Brihadishwar Templefs Vimana is about 25m square with a pyramidal tower of 13 steps above the sanctuary. The tower soars up steeply without grand horizontal articulations despite being a southern style temple. The outline of this stepped type tower is quite rectilinear.
The vertical walls under the pyramidal tower are divided into two stories. Pilasters and niches, typical of the southern style, give a complicated artistic pattern to the extensive walls. There is a window in the center of the four sides, surmounted with a shrine-like roof, showing the existence of the Garbhagriha inside.
On the base of the whole temple, an imaginary animal resembling a lion, called a eYali,f is carved repeatedly and continuously in line. There is sporadically a monstrous crocodile-like animal, called a eMakara,f from the mouth of which emerge warriors of the Chola Dynasty.
A lot of inscriptions were carved on the basal stones of the Brihadishvara Temple, not only praising the achievement of its builder, Rajaraja I, but also depicting the society of the temple city, Thanjavur.
Thus, many buildings were added in the temple precincts. The shrine of Devi, spouse of Shiva, was constructed at a right angle to the main axis in the 13th century and the shrine of Subrahmanya with fine granite carvings was built in the 17th century on the right behind the Vimana. There was also a temple library for around 20,000 Sanskrit manuscripts near the Ganesha Shrine.
70km north of Thanjavur
At the lonely town of Gangaikondacholapuram, 35km north of Kumbakonam, a magnificent temple, out of all scale with such a small town, soars in its extensive precincts. This place was once chosen as the new capital of the Chola Empire by Rajendra I (r. 1012-44) and its long name, Gangaikondacholapuram, means ethe city of the Chola Dynasty that conquered the territory of the sacred Gangesf.
Emulating the Brihadishvara Temple of Thanjavur that his father, king Rajaraja I, had constructed in the former capital, he built a great temple here under the same name, and it was also called Rajendrachorishvara Temple after his name. Notwithstanding the inferiority of its height to the former temple (55m versus 60m), the degree of its architectural beauty and completeness can be said to be paramount.
The Brihadishvara Temple in Gangaicondacholapuram
Its plan is simple; the square Garbhagriha (sanctum) is surrounded with a circumambulatory way, in front of which the huge Mandapa stretches through the Antarala (antechamber). Besides the main entrance at the Mandapafs frontage, there is a sub-entrance on both sides of the Antarala just the same as in the temple of Thanjavur.
A wall of the Brihadishvara Temple and a small Kailasa Temple
40km northeast of Thanjavur
This is one of the masterpieces of Chola temple only two kilometers from Kumbakonam. Since it was constructed by Rajaraja II (r. 1146-73), it was initially called Rajarajeshvara Temple like the temple in Thanjavur.
The temple was elaborately and intricately carved over its entire surface. However, in spite of being the third great temple among those built by the Cholas, the height of its Vimana is only 25m, not even half the height of the Thanjavur temple.
The Gopura, Vimana, and a wall of the Airavateshvara Temple
Like in Thanjavur, the compound of the Airavateshvara Temple is entirely encircled with cloisters. It is strange that there are no entrance steps at the front of the Mandapa but a part protruding on the left from the Mandapa, functions as the main entrance with steps. Moreover this part forms a chariot-like pavilion with stone wheels drawn by horses and elephants. In and around the 13th century it was the fashion to make temples in the style of a chariot or festival car as if they were going around the heavens, the largest of which is seen in the case of the Surya temple in Konarak.
The entrance and interior of the Airavateshvara Temple
The subsequent and last great Chola temple is the Kampahareshvara Temple of Tribhuvnam (the early 13th century), which is on the top of this page. Its Vimana is more than 10m higher than that of Darasuram.
(In "UNESCO World Heritage" vol. 5. 1997, Kodan-sha )