Introduction: Templenet focuses this week on the glorious temples attributedto the reign of Raja
Raja Chola and his successors in the Thanjavur Cauvery belt of South India.
Historically speaking, these temples are not as ancient as the 274 odd Saivite temples and the 108 Vaishnavite Shrines sung by the Nayanmars and Alwars of the 7th through the 9th centuries, however they stand out as towering monuments proclaiming the glory of the Chola regime and its committment to the arts and culture.
This issue zeroes in on the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, Gangaikonda Choleeswarar Temple in Gangai Konda Cholapuram, the Airavateeswarar Temple in Darasuram and the Kambahareswarar temple at Tribhuvanam.
Thanjavur: The districts of Thanjavur, Kumbhakonam and Nagappattinam (constituting the erstwhile Thanjauvr district) boast of hundreds of ancient temples. The town of Thanjavur was the seat of the glorious Chola Empire of Tamilnadu, and was later on the seat of the Nayaks and the M
arathas. True to art historian Fergusson, the Chola artists conceived like giants and finished like jewellers.
Chola History: Raja Raja Chola I, was clearly the greatest of the Chola Monarchs. During his reign (985 - 1014 AD) he brought stability to the Chola Kingdom, and restored from obscurity the brilliant Tevaram hymns of the Saivite Nayanmars from obscurity. Raja Raja was a great builder, and the Peruvudaiyar Koyil or the Big Tmeple at Thanjavur was his creation. His son Rajendra Chola (1014 - 1044 AD) was a greater conqueror who marched all the way to the banks of the Ganges. This march was commemorated with a new capital Gangaikonda Cholapuram and another 'Periya Koyil'. Gangai Konda Cholapuram was the capital of the Cholas for about two centuries, although it is nothing more than a village now with this rather well maintained magnificient temple. 35 Kilometers from Thanjavur lies Darasuram, once
known as Rajarajapuram - a part of the Chola's secondary capital of Pazhaiyarai. Here is the Airavateeswarar Temple built by Raja Raja II (1146 - 1173). It was during the reign of Kulottunga III (1178 - 1218) that the Kambahareswarar temple at Tribhuvanam was built.
These four temples under discussion stand out from the others in Tamilnadu in that, it is only in these that the Vimanam towers over the entrance Gopurams. After these four temples, the Cholas went back to their traditional style of building temples with larger Gopurams and smaller central Vimanams. These temples are fitting memorials to the glory of the rulers that built them, as well as monuments of piety and a committment to art and architecture.
Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur: A 107 paragraph long inscription on the walls of the Vimanam records the contributions of Raja Raja Chola and his sister Kundavai to the Thanjavur temple. The temple stands within a fort, whose walls are later additions built in the 16th century. The towering vimanam is about 200 feet in height and is referred to as Dakshina Meru. The octogonal Shikharam rests on a single block of granite weighing 81 tons. It is believed that this block was carried up a specially built ramp built from a site 6 kilometeres away from here. Huge Nandis dot the corners of the Shikharam, and the Kalasam on top by itself is about 3.8 meteres in height. Hundreds of stucco figures bejewel the Vimanam, although it is possible that some of these may have been added on during the Maratha period. The Shivalingam - Peruvudaiyar, Rajarajeswaramudaiyar - is a huge one, set in a two storeyed sanctum, and the walls surrounding the sanctum delight visitors as a storehouse of murals and sculpture.
The long prakaram surrounds the great temple (500 feet/250 feet), and the walls surrounding the prakaram again go back to Raja Raja Cholan's period. The walls house long pillared corridors, which abound in murals, Shiva Lingams and Nandis. The Periya Nayaki temple within the temple is a later addition from the Pandya period, and so is the Subramanyar Temple sung later by the Saint poet Arunagirinathar.
Incidents from the lives of the Nayanmars, several of the 108 Bharata Natyam Dance postures, manifestations of Shiva (Aadalvallaan - Nataraja, Tripurantaka, Dakshinamurthi etc.) are depicted in sculptured panels or in exquisite Chola murals. Both the interior, and the exterior walls of the temple, are replete with images of the kind described above.
The sanctum, the ardhamandapam, the mukhamandapam and the Mahamandapam, although distinct, form a composite unit with an imposing appearance that awes visitors, forcing one to wonder how such timeless architectural feat was executed about a 1000 years ago. Entrances to the Mandapams and the towered entrances to the Prakarams are majestic. The grandeur of the architecture and the sculptural finesse speaks volumes of the skills of the Imperial Cholas.
Inscriptions refer to Shiva as Dakshina Meru Vitankar and Aadavallan. The Nandi, which dates back to the Nayak period, is housed in its own mandapam and it matches up to the grandeur and size of the temple. It is a monolithic Nandi weighing about 25 tonnes, and is about 12 feet high and 20 feet long.