Magnificent Shiva temples of India’s Chola empire should be on everyone’s bucket list

The stupi or crowning element of the Brhadiswara temple weighs 80 tonnes and it is believed that an earthen ramp, 6 kilometres long was made to take it up to its position.

By Benoy K. Behl

Under the guidance and direct patronage of the grand Pallava and Chola dynasties, the region of Tamil Nadu in south India saw an increasing sophistication in temple building and art over a thousand years ago.

By the eighth century (1200 years ago), the form of the south Indian temple had fully evolved in Tamil Nadu. At Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram, some of the finest temples ever to be made were created under the Pallavas.

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Further south, under the Pandyas, at Kalugumalai, the Vattuvankovil Temple was hewn out of the hill face. The sculptures on the temple were carved in a naturalistic style. The hard stone was transformed to appear as soft flesh, infused with the breath of life.

In about 850 CE, a Chola chieftain named Vijayalaya took control of Thanjavur and ushered in an era of unsurpassed prosperity in Tamil Nadu. The largest and most impressive temples of south India were made under the Cholas.

At Narthamalai, located on top of a hill (in Tamil, malai means hill), amidst the great beauty of nature, is a ninth-century temple. Though an inscription names it as the Vijayalaya Cholishvara Temple, it may have been made either under Vijayalaya Chola or by the Muttarayas chieftains before his rule.

The temple is dedicated to Shiva and faces west. Dvarapalasare made at the entrance to the hall preceding the sanctum. The sculptural figures stand half-turned in the manner established in the art of the Pallava period. One hand displays the gesture of vismaya or wonder. Indeed, it is a sense of wonder which fills the art of this period. The temples are made with a jewel-like perfection, with carved details of the various parts coming together to form a harmonious whole.

A temple which marks the extraordinary quality of early Chola sculpture is the Brahmapurishvara at Pullamangai. The temples of this period were not very large. The purpose was not to inspire awe through size and grandeur; it was to transport the onlooker to the world of gentleness which can be found within. The grace of the figures and their profoundly peaceful expressions do indeed awaken a sense of the sublime. The figures are fully occupied with the miracle of creation and the sense of stillness which comes from this absorption.

As in all Chola temples, many dwarfish figures of ganas inhabit the walls of the Brahmapurishvara. Shiva’s ganas are those who were most devoted to him.  Through this ardent devotion, they have won the right to be perpetually close to him and are hence depicted in profusion on all Shiva temples of the early Chola period. On the south wall of the ardhamandapa, we see Ganesha, also known as Ganapati, the leader of the ganas, who are made around him.

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Ganas are amongst the finest expressions of Chola art. In Indian art, the entire gamut of emotions in human life is given a place, be it glee, sorrow or mischief. Ganas is seen lost in devotion to their lord. 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. These gentle beings, engaged in playful antics or enraptured as they play musical instruments or dance with elation, mirror the joy of our own devotion.

The Brahmapurishvara presents a tradition that develops further in later Chola temples. The deities are carved in niches on the walls and attendant figures are made in adjoining niches. The same high quality of art and the inward look is seen in the deity and in the attendants. Every part of the temple wall has dressed stones. Small, yet extremely detailed reliefs, adorn sections of the temple, along with the larger sculptures. A favourite motif in Indian art, from north to south, is seen here: a human figure riding on a vyala or leogryph. He is borne by the majestic power of the courage within us.

Mooverkoil (in Tamil, the temple is koil), the two remaining out of the three Shiva temples at Kodambulur, present the perfect balance between the dignified majesty of the spirit and the joy contained in it. The temples are simple, yet exquisitely beautiful. There is a harmonious symmetry to their forms. The individual sculptures made on their walls take us to a world of grace and peace. 

These two temples at Kodambalur have some of the finest sculptures of this period.  It is remarkable to see how something as material as a piece of carved stone can suggest or evoke something that is, in its essence, beyond materiality, which transcends the world of matter. Yet, Indian sculptors, at their greatest, have found ways to suggest these profound spiritual and intellectual ideas, through the human body. They present the essence of grace, which is inherent in all that there is.

One of the noteworthy panels has a relief of Nataraja, where Shiva is shown dancing on the demon of forgetfulness. In Indic belief, our ignorance is the forgetting of the truth, which can so easily be found again within us. These sculptures, which are the outward manifestations of the deity within, do not teach us anything new. They raise us upwards through our response to their beauty and grace. It is believed that each moment of the experience of beauty leaves us just a little richer than before. Each time we are able to see the grace which is ever present, we become more capable of perceiving it again—till finally, we may lose ourselves completely in the divine which pervades all that there is.

Another temple of the early Chola period, of the late ninth or the beginning of the tenth century, 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 Shiva as Dakshinamurti is met on the south wall. Across more than a millennium, the artists strike chords that resonate within us and transport us to a gentle realm, where Shiva 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 us? As with other early Chola temples, the Koranganatha strikes a fine balance. Size and grandeur do not overwhelm the intimate feeling of the temple and its sculpture.  As devotees go around the temple, they perceive the world in its deep essence of beauty and quietude.

Around the temple runs a frieze of miniaturised lions, makaras with open mouths and tiny warriors. These fearless warriors represent the courage within us. The attendant figures appear to step out of their niches to share the treasure of their beauty and grace with us. It is a peace that can fill us so much that there would be no space for the feeling of any worldly pain.

The second half of the tenth century saw many temples being built, during the time of Sembiyan Mahadevi. She 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 tenth century.

The Umamaheshvara Temple at Konerirajapuram has an idealised portrait of Sembiyan Mahadevi, seated in devotion before a Shivalinga. The temples of her time continue to be made on a modest scale and the emphasis was on a very personal devotion to the divine. The temples have been renovated in later times, obscuring much of the original art. However, what survives is exquisite.

It was in this time that the characteristic image of Shiva performing the Ananda Tandava (his cosmic dance, performed with joy) dance was established. The beauty of this form of Shiva, in the dance of cosmic bliss, was deeply moving. A contemporaneous Tamil saint Appar wrote many verses in praise of this form of Shiva.

At the beginning of the eleventh century, there is a dramatic change in the scale and in the emphasis in temple building. Instead of small temples made through the collective devotion of the people, the preceding Pallava period had already seen the direct patronage of temple building by rulers. The tradition of royal patronage went further and led to the making of large and grand temples.

The Brhadiswara, dedicated to ‘the Great Lord Shiva

In the year 1010, Rajaraja Chola completed the tallest and largest temple which had been made in India. The Brhadiswara, dedicated to ‘the Great Lord Shiva’, was made to express his own power and military might as much as the grandeur of the Lord in Thanjavur. Rajaraja had greatly expanded his empire in all directions, including to the island of Sri Lanka. The Brhadiswara (also known as the Rajarajesvara) was made to celebrate his achievements. The temple is five times the size of previous Chola ones and its vimana stands 216 feet tall. Its stupi 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 run the large administration of the temple. We see here the development of the temple as the centre of the cultural activities of the community. As we know from inscriptions, 400 dancers were brought from ninety-one temples all over the empire, to dance in the temple complex. Great entrance gopuras or gateways were made. These paved the way for the later development of gopuras as the predominant architectural feature of Tamil temples.

Numerous inscriptions were made in the Brhadiswara Temple. The base of the temple also has extensive inscriptions. Above these is a deeply carved yali (a mythical lion-like creature) frieze in the tradition of earlier Chola temples. There are two levels of niches made around the vimana or tower. The lower tier mainly contains representations of Shiva, including several in postures of dance.

The upper tier has many images of Shiva 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 military might. The walls of a dark ambulatory around the sanctum have the only large surviving body of Hindu murals of this period. In their vast scale and themes, these express the grandeur of Shiva.

Rajaraja’s 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 had captured the Ganga.

Rajendra I followed the example set by his father and made a temple on a vast scale at his new capital. This was also dedicated to Brhadiswara, the Great Lord Shiva. It is, however, not as tall as the earlier temple. The vimana has an unusual concave shape. Numerous niches made around the vimana house a large number of iconic sculptures. Among the finest is a panel depicting Shiva conferring grace upon his devotee Chandesha. It has been suggested that this image has a double meaning and could also be read as Rajendra I receiving Shiva’s blessings.

The grand scale of later Chola temples is also seen in the Airateshvara Temple at Darasuram, made by King Rajaraja Chola II in the twelfth century. It is a magnificent structure, which brings alive 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 of Konark, in the thirteenth century.    

By the thirteenth century, the power of the Cholas declined. Memories linger still of the four centuries of their rule. This was a flourishing time of a great and sophisticated culture in south India. The finest temples were made. Some of the finest Indian sculpture was also made during this period.

Contributing Author: Benoy K. Behl is a filmmaker, art historian, and photographer who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 44 years. He has taken over 53,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made 145 documentaries which are regularly screened at major cultural institutions worldwide.

His photographic exhibitions have been warmly received in 74 countries around the world. He holds the Limca Book Record for being the most travelled Indian photographer and art historian.  

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