Chola marvels

Published : Mar 28, 2008 00:00 IST

In the Tamil country, the Cholas built South Indias largest and most impressive temples.

THE beginning of the medieval period saw changes in spiritual practice all over India. In ancient times, kings had not directly patronised the monuments of any faith, even those of deities whom they personally worshipped. As can be seen from inscriptions, they only gave indirect support, through the revenues of villages, to establishments of all faiths. It was guilds of artists who created these monuments, and large numbers of laypersons and monks donated the required funds. Inscriptions at Nagarjunakonda show that, by the 3rd century A.D., queens and other members of royal families had begun to support the monuments of different faiths directly. In the 7th and 8th centuries, beginning with the Pallavas in South India, kings began to patronise personally the making of temples.

The search for enlightenment had earlier been a very personal striving of individual discipline. Then, it gradually became an organised intellectual endeavour. In eastern India, with the support of Buddhist and Brahmanical kings, vast monastic universities came up in the Gupta and Pala periods. Besides gentleness and compassion, which were the underlying themes of the ancient art, the focus now came on the dynamism of the intellect, which analyses the various qualities that lead one to nirvana, or moksha. In the meantime, under the guidance and direct patronage of the grand Pallavas and Cholas, the region that is now part of Tamil Nadu saw increasing sophistication in temple building and art.

By the 8th century, the form of the South Indian temple had fully evolved in Tamil Nadu. At Kancheepuram and Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), some of the finest temples ever to be made were created under the Pallavas. Further south, at Kalugumalai, under the Pandyas, the Vattuvankovil temple was hewn out of a hill face. The sculptures on the temple were carved in fine detail in a naturalistic style. The hard stone was transformed to appear as soft flesh with the breath of life within.

Around A.D. 850, a Chola chieftain named Vijayalaya took control of Thanjavur and ushered in an era of unsurpassed prosperity and grandeur in the region that is now part of Tamil Nadu. The largest and most impressive temples of South India were made under the Cholas.

At Narthamalai, located on top of a hill amidst the great beauty of nature, is a 9th century temple. An inscription names it the Vijayalaya Cholisvara temple. It may have been made under Vijayalaya Chola or by the Muttarayar chieftains, before his rule. The temple is dedicated to Siva and faces west.

There are dvarapalas, or guardian figures, at the entrance to the mandapa, or hall. They stand half-turned in the manner established in the Pallava period. One hand displays the gesture of vismaya, or wonder. Indeed, the art of this period is filled with a sense of wonder. The temples are made with a jewel-like perfection. The beauty of the temple itself and of every sculpture on it serves to take one away from mundane concerns to a world filled with a sense of the wonder of all creation.

The Brahmapurisvara temple at Pullamangai characterises the extraordinary quality of early Chola sculpture. The temples of this period were not very large. The purpose was not to inspire awe through size and grandeur but to take one to the world of gentleness that can be found within one. The grace of the figures and their profoundly peaceful expressions awaken in one a sense of the sublime. The figures are fully occupied with the miracle of creation and the sense of stillness that comes from this absorption.

As in all Chola temples, many ganas inhabit the walls of the Brahmapurisvara temple. Sivas ganas are those persons who were most devoted to him and who won the right to be perpetually close to him.

Ganas are some of the finest expressions of Chola art. In Indian art, the entire range of emotions and human life is given a place, be it glee, sorrow or mischief. Ganas are seen lost in devotion to Siva. One can relate most easily to them as they play their musical instruments or dance with elation. When beings are so enraptured, can they be troubled at all by petty, material concerns? The temple presents the path towards a bliss that knows no end.

On the south wall of the mandapa, one can see Ganesha, also known as Ganapati, the leader of the ganas, who are made around him.

One can see in the Brahmapurisvara temple a tradition that developed in Chola temples. The deities are made in niches on the walls and attendant figures are made in other niches next to them. The same high quality of art and gentle expressions are seen on the deities and the attendants.

Every part of the temple wall is dressed. Along with the larger sculptures, small, yet extremely detailed, reliefs adorn sections of the temple. A favourite motif in Indian art, from north to south, is seen here. It is the human figure riding a yali, or leogryph. He is borne by the majestic power of the courage within us.

At Kodambulur, Mooverkoil had three Siva temples, of which two remain. Theses strike a perfect balance between the dignified majesty of the spirit and the joy contained in it.

The temple is an embodiment of the divine in each person. In the garbha-griha, or womb chamber, one is to meditate upon the Linga. Here, one is born again in the knowledge of the formless eternal. Through niches in the walls of the temple, the deity is made visible to the devotee in different forms. Through these images, the divine is given a personality that the worshipper can relate to. The divine is made in human form, yet always filled with a luminosity, which awakens the finest feelings within one.

These two temples have some of the finest sculptures found anywhere. It is remarkable to see how something as solid as a piece of carved stone can suggest or evoke something that is, in essence, beyond materiality, that transcends materiality. Indian sculptors, at their greatest, found ways to suggest these profound spiritual and intellectual ideas through the human body and through their artistic genius. They presented the essence of the grace that is inherent in all that there is.

As Nataraja, Siva is made dancing on the demon of forgetfulness. In Indic belief, ones ignorance is the forgetting of the Truth that can so easily be found again within one. The sculptures, which are the outward manifestations of the deity within, do not teach one anything new. They raise one upwards through ones response to their beauty and grace.

It is believed in Indic philosophy that the aesthetic experience is akin to Brahmananda, or the final bliss of salvation itself. It is in that moment, that the veils of illusion are lifted and one can see the grace that is in all of creation.

It is also believed that each moment of the experience of beauty leaves one just a little richer than before. Each time one is able to see the grace that is ever present, one becomes more capable of perceiving it again until, finally, one may lose oneself completely in the divine, which pervades all that there is.

Another temple of the early Chola period, of the late 9th century or the beginning of the 10th, is the Koranganatha temple at Srinivasanallur. The Chola temples of this time have some of the finest sculptures ever made in India.

A benign and peaceful Siva as Dakshinamurti is met on the south wall of the tower. It is a view of the world the artist shares with one, which is filled with the harmony of the natural order. There is none of the turmoil and ceaseless confusion created by ones egos and material desires. Across more than a millennium, the artists strike chords that resonate within one and transport one to a gentle realm where Siva has placed his foot firmly on the demon of forgetfulness. All the creatures of the world, big and small, are filled with the same divinity. Can there be a better aim than to lose oneself in the adoration of divinity, in the appreciation of the glory around one?

As with other early Chola temples, the Koranganatha temple strikes a fine balance. Size and grandeur do not overwhelm the intimate feeling of the temple and its sculpture. As the devotee goes around the temple, he perceives the world in its deep essence of beauty and quietude.

Delightful miniaturised scenes present the joy of life. Around the temple runs a frieze of lions and makaras, or fierce composite creatures with crocodile mouths. These represent the nobility of the courage within one.

The attendant figures appear to step out of their niches to share the treasure of their beauty and grace with one. It is a peace that can fill one so much that there will be no space for the feeling of any worldly pain.

The second half of the 10th century is called the Sembiyan Mahadevi period of Chola art. Sembiyan Mahadevi was the queen of Gandaraditya Chola, who died early. She went on to become a great patron of art, and her influence was predominant until the early part of the reign of Rajaraja Chola, at the end of the 10th century.

The Umamahesvara temple at Konerirajapuram has an idealised portrait showing Sembiyan Mahadevi seated in devotion before a Siva Linga. The temples of her time were still made on a modest scale, and the emphasis was on personal devotion to the divine. Renovation of the temples in later times obscured much of the original art. However, what survives is exquisite.

It was at this time that the characteristic image of Siva performing the Ananda Tandava dance was established. The beauty of this form of Siva, in the dance of cosmic bliss, was found deeply moving. A contemporaneous Tamil saint Appar wrote many verses in praise of this form of Siva.

At the beginning of the 11th century, there was a dramatic change in the scale and emphasis of temple building. The art of ancient India had been patronised by people. By the 8th century, kings had directly begun to patronise temples and their art. Under the Pallavas, portraits of kings began to appear.

In the year 1010, Rajaraja Chola completed the tallest and largest temple that has ever been made in India. The Brihadisvara temple, dedicated to the great Lord Siva was made to express his own power and military might as much as the grandeur of Siva.

Rajaraja had greatly expanded his empire in all directions, including to the island of Sri Lanka. The temple was made to celebrate his achievements. The temple is five times the size of previous Chola ones and its vimana, or tower, stands 216 feet (65.8 metres) tall. Its monolithic cupola, or crowning element, weighs 80 tonnes, and it is believed that an earthen ramp 6 kilometres long was made to take it up to its position.

Rajaraja gave generous endowments of land and finances to the large administration that ran the temple. One can see here the beginnings of the temple being a centre of cultural activities of a community. Four hundred dancers were brought from 91 temples all over the empire to dance in the temple complex. Great entrance gopurams were made. These paved the way for the later development of entrance gateways as the predominant architectural feature of Tamil temples. However, the dvarapalas here lack the sense of spontaneous movement seen in earlier Chola and Pallava art.

The base of the temple has extensive inscriptions. Above these is a deeply carved yali frieze, in the tradition of earlier Chola temples. There are two levels of niches made around the vimana. The lower tier mainly contains representations of Siva and also several dancing icons. The upper tier presents many images of Siva as Tripurantaka, the form in which he destroys the forts of three demons with a single arrow. This image may have been favoured by Rajaraja as a symbol of his own military might.

The figures are less naturalistic in their poses and expressions. The projection of grandeur and the scale of the temple appear to have overtaken personal feeling and the importance of the sculpture.

The only large surviving body of Brahmanical murals of this period can be seen on the walls of a dark ambulatory around the sanctum. In their vast scale and in their themes, these murals express the grandeur of Siva.

Rajarajas son Rajendra I extended the Chola empire even further. He also made the first victorious campaign of a southern ruler into North India. Holy water was brought back from the river Ganga and a new capital was founded near Thanjavur. It was named Gangaikondacholapuram, the city of the Chola who captured the Ganga.

He followed the example set by his father and made a temple on a vast scale in his new capital. This was also dedicated to Brihadisvara. It is, however, not as tall as the earlier temple. The vimana has an unusual concave shape. Numerous niches made around it house a large number of iconic sculptures. Among the finest is one of Siva conferring grace on Chandesha, a great devotee of his. It has been suggested that this depiction has a double meaning, relating to Sivas blessings to Rajendra I.

The grand scale of later Chola temples is also seen in the Airatesvara temple made by King Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century at Darasuram. It is a magnificent structure, which brings to life a period of regal splendour. A mandapa is made in the style of a ratha, or chariot. Wheels are made on the sides to draw the ratha forward. This is a concept that was later expanded gloriously in the Sun temple at Konarak, of the 13th century.

By the 13th century, the power of the Cholas had declined. Evidence still lingers of the four centuries of their rule. This was a time when a great and sophisticated culture flourished in the region that is now a part of Tamil Nadu. The finest temples were made. Sculpture that took the devotee to the deepest realms of the peace to be found within was created.

From the ancient period when art was sponsored by the people, the time had come when devoted kings directly sponsored and guided the making of temples.

A sophistication had come into the art, which reflected the rarefied atmosphere of the imperial court. In time, grandeur and size began to overtake the earlier focus of the art, which had been on the deeply moving personal experience of the viewer. Later Chola temples became vast structures that proclaimed the power and majesty of the rulers as well as the deity.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment