The Chola temples

in Overview
Published on: 26 May 2016

Crispin Branfoot

Dr. Crispin Branfoot is Senior Lecturer in South Asian Art and Archaeology, SOAS, University of London.

The Great Chola Temples: Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram

On 22nd April 1010, the 25th regnal year of the Chola king Arunmolivarman—better known by his title Rajaraja, ‘the King of Kings’—installed a gold-plated pot-finial on the summit of a monumental new temple in the city of Thanjavur, consecrating one of the grandest temples ever built in India. By Rajaraja’s reign (985–1014), the Chola kings had come to be the rulers of one of the foremost of India’s temple-building polities from their power-base in the Kaveri delta region of central Tamilnadu. The period from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries in southern India is regarded as one of the most creative and formative periods of Tamil culture, inspiring some of the finest literary and artistic achievements. Over the height of the Chola dynasty’s power in southern India, at least 300 stone temples were built, among which the great temples at Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram are often considered their finest artistic achievements for the monumentality of conception, architectural grandeur, powerful sculpture and fine painting.



Thanjavur lies at the head of the Kaveri delta from where various tributaries provide the low-lying lands of central Tamilnadu with a near constant supply of water that has enabled intensive rice agriculture and supported a dense population for over a thousand years. The city became a Chola settlement from c. 850, but was a major political centre only from Rajaraja’s reign with the foundation of this monumental new temple and surrounding royal centre. This coincided with the height of the Chola Empire, with expansionist conquests under Rajaraja and his son and successor Rajendra (1014–44) to the whole of south India and overseas to northern Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even Sumatra.


Temples have been built in stone in the Tamil region since the sixth-seventh centuries, both rock-cut monuments excavated from the living rock and structural ones. The earliest monuments are to be found both to the north and the south of the Kaveri region: the temples at the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram and their coastal port of Mamallapuram, and the monuments in the southern Pandyan region around Madurai and Pudukkottai. Temples in both brick and stone had been built in the central Kaveri region dominated by the Cholas since at least the ninth century. Though beautifully sculpted and elegantly proportioned, most were on quite a modest scale. A number were located on the numerous sacred sites celebrated by the Shaiva nayanmar and the Vaishnava alvars, the wandering poet-saints who sang their praises of Shiva and Vishnu in localised forms in passionate, poetic devotion song in the Tamil vernacular. In terms of its scale and grandeur, the temple founded by Rajaraja in Thanjavur marked a major change in the conception of the Hindu temple in south India. Its explicitly royal character also established a model followed by the great Chola temples at Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram.


The Rajarajeshvara temple is set within a large rectangular enclosure, measuring 241 by 121m, nearly a perfectly proportioned double square. Entered through two monumental pyramidal gateways (gopuras) this huge enclosure is aligned on an east-west axis. The 18-degree deviation south from exact east may be explained by the careful alignment of the temple with the rising sun on the day of the temple’s foundation. At the exact centre of the rear square of the enclosure is placed the monumental tower or vimana that rises above the main shrine containing the massive linga of Shiva in his form as Rajarajeshvara, ‘the Lord of Rajaraja’. The vimana is slightly under 60 metres in height, almost exactly half the courtyard’s width, further demonstrating the precision with which this temple was built.


Photograph: Inner view of Vimana in Brihadishvara (photo by Debashish Banerjee)


The temples built in the Kaveri region in the preceding 150 years had rarely exceeded around 10 metres in height. A few of the largest temples built under the Pallava dynasty in the eighth century in northern Tamilnadu had reached a height of 22 metres. In the 11th century temples were being built on an unprecedented and magnificent scale across south Asia: at Modhera in western India, at Khajuraho in the north and in Bhubaneshwar in Orissa. No south Indian temple would ever aspire to such a monumental single-towered shrine as at Thanjavur and its royal successor temples, and the dramatic mastery of stone corbelling to create such a temple is one of the great technical achievements of the Chola architects.


Thanjavur’s vimana is built on a massive square plan with an internal circumambulatory passage around the garbhagriha, the sanctum containing the huge linga. It is built in the Tamil Dravida language (or style) of architecture, characterised by the stepped pyramidal form of the main tower, the vimana in south Indian terminology. This is in contrast to the Nagara language used in north India in the same period. Thanjavur’s vimana is raised on a monumental base, with a two-storey wall supporting the sweeping elevation of the 14 tiers of the stone superstructure. On the summit is the pot-finial (stupi) installed in April 1010 that marked the consecration of the temple and the start of its ritual life. The capping stone is composed of several pieces and not a monolith, as is often stated. Only four temples in the Kaveri region built before Thanjavur in the 10th century, such as at Pullamangai, had three-storeyed vimanas when the norm was only one or two. No temple built after Thanjavur had as many, for Gangaikondacholapuram has nine, though this temple’s vimana was only slightly lower at 51 metres high, and Darasuram has only five.


Before the vimana is a small chamber with doorways leading to huge staircases on each side. Attached to this is the long rectangular, enclosed columned hall (mahamandapa)—that remained unfinished in the 11th century—to accommodate large numbers of worshippers approaching Shiva. Just before the entrance to the mahamandapa is a huge image of the kneeling Nandi or Rishabha, the bull-mount of Shiva. The present massive image and the columned pavilion above it were additions of the 16th century; the Chola-period Nandi has been placed by the southern enclosure wall.


This huge temple is built almost entirely of stone, hard granite laid in horizontal courses with no mortar. A striking feature of the temples built in the Kaveri region is that so much stone has been procured in a riverine land with no local sources. Among the remarkable technical accomplishments at both Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram is the volume of stone quarried from upstream near Tiruccirappalli and transported by water to the two temples, 45 km and 95 km respectively. It has been estimated that around 130,000 tons or 50,000 cubic metres of granite was required for the complete temple at Thanjavur, around 40 times the quantity of stone needed for the smaller shrines built in this period. Between 985 and 1044 under Rajaraja and his son and successor Rajendra (1012–44), around 80 temples were built. The volume of stone required for the two great temples was equivalent to around 80 normal temples; approximately 50% of the total effort in this period went on building these two temples. Furthermore they account for about 20% of all Chola-period architectural activity between 850 and 1250 when around 300 temples were built in Tamilnadu.


       One of the Karanas in Brihadishvara (photo by Kevin Kuriakose)

Though now containing several smaller additional shrines, when the Rajarajeshvara temple at Thanjavur was built it consisted of only the massive main temple and the small shrine to Chandeshvara, the guardian of Shiva’s temples, on its north side. The monumentality of the temple is enhanced by being set within such a very large and open courtyard. This huge open enclosure is entered through two gopuras, all built in stone. Gopuras had been built earlier, and their genesis can be traced to the barrel-vaulted roofed shrines at the cardinal directions around the some Pallava temples at Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram. The Rajarajeshvara temple at Thanjavur establishes not only their importance within a temple on a massive scale, but also the principle that the tallest ones are those furthest from the main shrine and placed upon the same axis. The outer gopura suggests that a second enclosure was planned around the inner courtyard, though not completed. From the 12th century the Tamil temple was increasingly built as a complex of structures with numerous massive gopuras, in one, two or even all four sides, in a series of concentric enclosure walls dwarfing the modest vimanas over the main shrine at the sacred heart of the temple.


The name of Shiva at Thanjavur is Rajarajeshvara, the ‘Lord of Rajaraja’ thus emphasising the intimate connection between the deity and king. Shiva is also named the ‘Lord of the Southern World-Mountain’ (Dakshinameruvitankar), for Rajaraja had offered him a new home in the South. In the 16th century the deity came to be known as Peruvudaiyar, ‘the Great Lord’ hence the Sanskrit name Brihadishvara. So much is known about the circumstances of Rajaraja’s temple foundation as a result of the detailed inscriptions written all around the temple’s base and walls. These declare the king’s conquests over the kings of Kerala, the Pandyans of Madurai and in Sri Lanka, but in greater volume record a wealth of detail from the time of the temple’s establishment and later donations of gold, silver, jewellery and metal images of deities, and tax revenues to support the temple’s ritual life. The temple had over 800 employees, including 400 temple dancers to entertain Shiva and 50 musicians to regularly recite the tevaram, the hymns of praise composed by the Tamil Shaiva poet-saints. Across southern India and Sri Lanka, 369 settlements were connected with Thanjavur as endowments for the maintenance of worship, a wide-ranging transactional network that focused both resources and political culture on the city and the surrounding region.


Though few of the bronze sculpture donated to the temple at the time of its foundation have survived, the temple is ornamented with a rich array of stone sculpture. The monumental 3.95 metre-high linga at the ritual heart of the temple is a vast, smooth monolith. In earlier temples in the Kaveri region, the exterior walls were animated by the inclusion of up to nine niches on the walls of the vimana and the adjoining mandapa, containing images of Shiva’s manifestations and related deities. At Thanjavur the whole iconographic programme became much richer with three large images of Shiva on the exterior walls of the garbhagriha within the circumambulatory passage, and a far greater number of niches for sculpted images on the exterior walls than ever before. The range of Shaiva deities exhibited includes Shiva as the dancing Nataraja, as the ‘Lord who is half-woman’, Ardhanarishvara and a striking thirty-four images of Tripurantaka, Shiva as the Destroyer of the Demon of the Three Cities. Few wall-paintings before the sixteenth century have survived in south India, and so Thanjavur is renowned for the 11th-century murals within the circumambulatory passage found in 1931 beneath later, Nayaka-period paintings of the 17th century. Among these 11th-century paintings are scenes with Rajaraja and his three wives worshipping before Nataraja at Chidambaram, Dakshinamurti and the Shaiva poet-saint Sundarar.


Gangaikondacholapuram Temple (photo by Debashish Banerjee)


During the reign of Rajaraja’s son and successor, Rajendra, the Chola Empire’s geographical claims over India expanded further. To celebrate his conquest of the cardinal directions, Rajendra built a new capital city and royal temple 55 km northwest of Thanjavur on an arid site north of the river Kaveri. This was named Gangaikondacholapuram, the ‘City of the Chola who conquered the Ganges’. Alongside a five-km artificial lake that was fed by a branch of the river Kaveri and included water from the sacred river Ganges, brought from the northern conquests, was a monumental stone temple on a similar scale to that at Thanjavur and a new fortified city on a rectilinear plan. The symbolic conquest of the universe was made evident by the relocation of Mount Kailasa in the Chola lands, with two shrines named Northern and Southern Kailasa on either side of the main temple to Shiva as Rajendracholishvara, the ‘Lord of the Chola Rajendra’ completed by 1135.


Nataraja in Gangaikondacholapuram (photo by Debashish Banerjee)


In contrast to Rajaraja’s temple at Thanjavur, the temple at Gangaikondacholapuram was largely a complete conception on its foundation with fewer later additions. The inclusion of the two shrines to Northern and Southern Kailasa determined the projections in the rectangular enclosure plan, though the single east gopura was never finished. The northern Kailasa shrine was dedicated to Shiva’s goddess-consort by the 16th century.


          Airavateshvara Temple (photo by Debashish Banerjee)


The third of the great royal Chola temples is the Airavateshvara at Darasuram near Kumbakonam in the Kaveri delta heartland of Tamil culture. Like Thanjavur, it was dedicated to Shiva as Rajarajeshvara and was completed by 1167. It was built under the patronage of Rajaraja II (r. 1146–73), whose capital was at nearby Palaiyarai. The main temple’s vimana is a more modest 24 metres in height and is preceded by a series of mandapas entered on the south side by the stairs with stone wheels and rearing horses, the mandapa being modelled on a temple-chariot (ratha). The temple is placed within a 64-by-104–metre enclosure entered from the east through a single gopura. A separate goddess shrine to Devanayaki in its own 28-by-66–metre enclosure was built later in Kulottunga III’s reign (r. 1178–1218), when a further monumental royal temple was built at nearby Tribhuvanam. This is among the earliest separate goddess shrines (tirukkamakkottam) built, a standard feature of Tamil temples from this date. A second unfinished gopura in line with the Airavateshvara temple would have been the entrance to a large second prakara intended to enclose both temples.


Darasuram is striking for the exceptional volume and quality of the sculpture, some now removed to the Thanjavur Art Gallery, including Shiva as Gajasamhara, the slayer of the elephant-demon, and Shiva with a group of rishis. On the temple itself, Darasuram is among the first to include a frieze of the complete series of all 63 of the Tamil Shaiva poet-saints or Nayanmar, whose poetry had been incorporated into temple liturgy. The poet Cekkilar had composed his narrative of their lives, the Periya Puranam, in this period in the reign of Kulottunga II (c.1133–50).


Though labelled ‘living’ temples today, the afterlives of all three temples demonstrate a discontinuous pattern of ritual and building activity into the present. Although largely built in the early 11th century, Rajaraja’s royal temple at Thanjavur continued to be an active religious site in the subsequent centuries as some inscriptions and the addition of further buildings indicate. In the 13th century at around the time of the Pandyan conquest of the Kaveri region and the defeat of the Cholas, in a pattern followed across the Tamil country a separate goddess shrine was included within the enclosure. As an important political centre under the Nayakas and later the Marathas from the 16th through the mid-19th century, further shrines were added to the Thanjavur temple alongside the monumental vimana: the Skanda (Subramanya) shrine in the late 16th century together with the new Nandi, and the small Ganapati (Ganesha) shrine in the early nineteenth century when Thanjavur once again became a royal temple under Serfoji II (r.1799–1832). In the eighteenth century the temple was fortified by the Marathas, and fought over by the British and French during the Carnatic Wars. The British occupation of the temple in the late 18th century led to the temporary cessation of ritual activity. Despite these additions, there was no radical transformation of the basic form and layout of Rajaraja’s early eleventh century temple.


More has been written about these three temples, especially Thanjavur, than any others built in Tamilnadu and yet hundreds of stone temples built between the ninth and the thirteenth century have survived in the Kaveri region. Sometimes said to mark the culmination of Tamil temple architecture, the monumental towers at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram are in many ways aberrations in the development of the Tamil temple. From the 11th century, the south Indian temple increasingly came to be characterised by the monumental pyramidal gateways (gopura) that rise ever higher towards the outermost walls with a modest shrine at the ritual heart. But it is their royal patronage, their monumental singularity and the exquisite sculpture that make the temples at Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram so appealing.