The Chola temples with splendid architecture, sculptures, paintings and bronze casting stand testimony to the achievements of the royal Chola dynasty.
The exquisite art sculptures and intricate carvings on the walls of the temples depict the rich legacy of the Cholas. Owing to the presence of consecutive powerful rulers, ancient temples in southern India have not only escaped destruction at the hands of Muslim invaders but such was their structural constitution that they have stood the test of time.
Three temples, built in Dravidian style of architecture by the kings of Chola dynasty over a period of 250 years at Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram, are few of such ancient temples that still stand tall and are actively keeping the traditions alive.
These temples, enlisted among the cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites, have earned the moniker of ‘Great Living Chola Temples’. Traditional rituals and festivities have kept the history and mythological stories afloat even as the peace and calm of ancient towns become a faded past.
Brihadeshwaram temple or Periya Kovil built by Rajraja I in 1010 AD is the largest and tallest temple in the country. The nickname ‘Big Temple’ has stuck probably because of the same reason. The structure of the temple gives the evidence of artistic expertise of the Chola kingdom.
A mythological story of how Lord Shiva in a bid to settle an altercation between Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma, assumes the form of ‘Lingodbhav’, an incomprehensible column of fire to establish supremacy and quash the ego of other two bickering gods is associated with the temple. Many such stories from the mythology dot the external wall of the temple.
Chola frescoes depicting Shiva in different poses adorn the walls of the temple. It is the first complete granite temple in the world where around 60,000 tons of granite is said to be used. The grandeur and gargantuan scale of Brihadeshwara temple is evident right from the outermost fortified wall with an ornate gopuram gateway. A second gopuram flanked by 15 ft monolith dwarpalas, the guardians of temple, opens in the temple complex. An enormous Nandi bull, 13 ft in height carved out of single stone sits facing the temple, the pyramidal spire of which rises up to an unimaginable 198 feet height.
One is rendered speechless at the sight of 16 storied ‘vimana’ that ends into a 20 ton capstone. Fading frescoes on ceilings and wall also display scenes from Ramayana and Shiv Purana. The uniqueness of the temple lies in its 29 ft Shiv Linga in the inner sanctum, largest of its kind and six feet tall idols of Ashta-Dikpaalas, the guardians of eight cardinal directions.
During the celebration of Mattu Pongal, the stone Nandi is adorned with tons of fresh fruits and vegetables and special yajna dedicated for well-being of cattle is performed.
Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple
Two hours from Thanjavur is Gangaikonda Cholapuram, a town established by Rajendra Chola I to commemorate his victorious march to River Ganga in north. The temple completed in 1035 AD is similar in design to the temple at Thanjavur albeit smaller in proportions. It is renowned for the biggest Shivalingum in the southern part of India.
In the walls of the temple, a strange story surfaces that of a King Banasura who is prevented by the circumstances in reaching the banks of sacred river Ganga. Not the one to give up, Banasura does penance to please the river goddess and requests her to appear in the well. And sure enough miraculously water appears in the well which was later covered by a gateway shaped like a sitting lion.
There are about 50 sculptures, six feet tall in niches of exterior wall of the shrine depicting various forms of Shiva. The sanctum Shiva Linga is 13 feet and the stone nandi is 11 feet, much smaller than those at Brihadeshwara.
Among the smaller shrines in the complex, only the one of Goddess Mahishasur mardini remains in functional condition. Some broken idols find their way on a raised platform reminiscent of opulent art of the times.
With major celebrations of the year held at Thanjavur, this temple indulges in elaborate processions during Shivratri and Thiruvadirai festivals.
The sight of a chariot-shaped mandapam with stone wheels and horses carved in stone leaves the visitors mesmerised. Much smaller in size than the Brihadeshwara and Gangaikondacholapuram, the temple built by Raja Raja II in 1162 has its spire rising up to 80 feet. The temple, however, is a treasure trove of fine intricate sculptures. The concept behind the elaborate design was to provide ‘nitya vinod’ or perpetual entertainment to the visitor.
It definitely lives up to the concept with smallest panel on the wall depicting stories from Ramayana, Shiv Purana and various other mythological stories besides dance postures and floral motifs. The chariot shaped mandapam or entrance portico has 100 pillars with every inch embellished. The ceiling of the mandapam has art on display and eight fierce Yalli, the mythical creatures that combine features of five animals stand guard at the entrance of mandapam.
But surprisingly the inner walls of main shrine are plain and sombre. The logic behind this states that the devotee once inside the sanctum must concentrate on prayers.
Shiva, here is Airavatesvara, the God of Airavat, the only white elephant and Indra’s vehicle. Mythology has it that Airavat once threw away and trampled a garland which the great sage Durvasa gifted him. Enraged, the sage cursed and turned his skin black like the common elephant. It is then that Airavat appeased to Shiva who restored his earlier glory and thus the name for the Lord. Devotees do make it a point to offer special prayers here. Festival of Shivratri draws quite some crowd to the temple.
It is in these temples that one is introduced to different forms of Shiva and stories never heard of.
Words: SHOMA ABHYANKAR