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Documentary Film Series on Brihadeshwara Temple

Thanjavur attained prominence under the Cholas in the ninth century, Vijayalaya, the first great ruler of the dynasty (850-71), having captured it and made it his capital. The Brihadisvara temple is a symbol of the greatness of the Chola empire under its author, emperor Rajaraja (985-1012), whox splendour it reflects. The long series of epigraphs incised in elegant letters o the plinth all round the gigantic edifice reveals the personality of the emperor.

The Brihadisvara temple is a monumnet dedicated to Siva, whom the emperor established here and named Rajarajesvaram-udayar after himself. As we gather from the inscriptions running throughout the plinth, the king, on the two hundred and seventy-fifth day of the twenty-fifth year of the reign (1010), presented a gold-covered finial to be planted on the top of the vimana of the temple.

The temple is the most ambitious of the architectural enterprises of the Cholas ad is a fitting symbol of the magnificent achievements of Rajaraja. The endowments that he made for this temple were numerous and in this munificence he was joined by not only the members of his family but high officials and noblemen. Several large images in bronze and gold were presented to this temple, and their ornaments, described in detail in the inscriptions, give a vivid picture of the contemporary jewelers' art. Even though most of the images and all the jewels have now disappeared, there are still some exquisite bronzes, representing Nataraja, Tripurantaka, Devi and Ganesa, to give an idea of what great art-treasures were originally housed in the temple. True to his surname, Siocapadasehara, Rajaraja spared nothing for embellishing and endowing the great institution, and in this his sister Kundavai and other members of his family fully associated themselves. The endowments, together with the mention of even small weights and measures, the custom and method of receiving, maintaining and paying amounts or interest on amounts of donation for the regular conduct of special items of worship or for burning a lamp and similar details, give a vivid idea of the economic conditions of the time. Fine arts were encouraged in the service of the temple : the sculptures, the paintings in the dark passages of the sanctum and even the inscriptions in elegant Chola Grantha and Tamil letters give an idea of the great art that flourished under Rajaraja. Dance and Music were greatly cultivated and were equally employed to serve the temple :

every evening it was at once an entertainment and a ritual that the towns-folk, assembled in the mandapa, witnessed and enjoyed during the ceremony of the waving of lights and the chanting of the Veda and Devaram hymns. Cooks, gardeners, flower-gatherers, garland- makers, musicians, drummers, dancers, dance-masters, wood-carvers, sculptors, painters, choir-groups for singing hymns in Sanskrit and Tamil, accountants, watchmen and a host of other officials and servants of the temple - all are referred to in the inscriptions as having been endowed with adequate grants of land. Taking just a single fact, that Rajaraja constructed two long streets (talichcheri) for the accommodation of four hundred dancing women attached to the temple, we can well imagine the lavish scale on which he endowed the temple and its functions.

The annual income from the lands set apart for the temple alone is estimates as one hundred and sixteen thousand kalams of paddy. The emperor's presentations in silver, gold and cash, not to mention various other gifts, form a staggering account of liberality.The temple is constructed of granite, mostly of large blocks, a rock which is not available in the neighbourhood and had therefore to be brought from a distance -itself a colossal task. The plinth of the central shrine is 45-72 square m., the shrine proper 30-48 square m. and the vimana 60-96 m. high.

On the massive plinth, covered throughout with inscriptions, there are niches on there sides in two rows, containing representations of deities such as Siva, Vishnu and Durga. On the southern wall the lower niches contain Ganesa, Vishnu with Sri-devi and Bhu-devi, Lakshmi, a pair of dvara-palas, Vishnvanugraha-murti, Bhikshatana,

Virabhadra, a pair of dvara-palas, Dakshina-murti, Kalantaka and Natesa. In the lowerniches on the west are Hari-Hara, Ardhanarisvara, a pair of dvara-palas and two Chandra sekharas, one with and the other without halo.

On the north, in the lower series, are Ardhanarisvara, Gangadhara, a pair of dvara-palas, Virabhadra (without the usual moustache but with a sword and shield), Alingana-Chandrasekhara (pl. II B), Siva holding a sula (spear), a pair of

dvara-palas, Sarasvati, Mahishamardini and Bhairava. Of these, the first and last four forms in niches are on the front porch of the temple, while all the rest are on the main walls of the vimana. The top series shows a number of Tripurantaks repeated in each niche. In the small circular space of the niche-tops are again carvings of deities like Ganesa, Vrishavahana, Bhikshatana, Narasimha, Varaha, etc.

As we enter the temple from the east, there is a flight of steps leading to a pillared mandapa, which is a later addition, so that originally the dvara-palas on either side and the princely warriors in the niches faced the visitor. Apart from mandapa and the steps leading to it, there are two other flights of steps on the north and south, as also between the front porch and the main shrine on either side. The Nandis on the vimana, seated sideways but with their heads turned to the front, remind us of their counterparts at Mahabalipuram.

The stone constituting the huge sikhara, which is said to weigh 80 tons, is popularly believed to have been raised to its present height by being dragged on an inclined plane, which had its base at a place known as Sarapallam ('elevation from depression'), 6.44km away.

The vast inner courtyard of the temple is about 152'4 x 76'20 m. and is surrounded by a cloister. At the entrance there are two gopuras, widely separated from each other, the first larger but the second better decorated. The carvings on the second gopura, guarded by two monolithic dvara-palas, illustrate Saivite stories like the marriage of Siva and Parvati, Siva protecting Markandeya and Arjuna winning the pasupata weapon.

Beyond the gopuras, in the court facing the central shrine and under the canopy of a mandapa added in recent times, is a huge monolithic Nandi, indeed a fitting vehicle for the colossal linga was called adavallan, 'one who can dance well', and dakshina-meru-vitankan­ -names associated with the deity at Chidambaram, whom the Cholas greatly revered, and, adopted by them for this linga, which is also known, after Rajaraja, as Rajarajesvaram udayar.

The dark passage surrounding the sanctum of the temple contains important specimens of sculptural art. Here there are three colossal sculptures, respectively located in the south, west and north and representing Siva as holding a spear, seated Siva carrying a sword and trident and with fierce mien and Siva with ten arms dancing in the chatura pose as Vishnu plays the drum and Devi sits in padmasana with a lotus-bud and rosary in her hands.he entire wall-space and ceiling of the passage were originally covered with exquisite paintings, most of them now obscured by a coat of painting executed during the Nayaka period in the seventeenth century.

The original paintings, as far as they have been exposed, are mainly on the western side, the entire wall-space is occupied by a huge panel in which Siva as Dakhina-murti is shown seated on tiger-skin in a yogic pose approximating the maharaja-lila with the paryanka-bandha or yoga-patta across his waist and right knee, interestedly watching the dance of two apsaras (celestial nymphs), while Vishnu, dwarf ganas and other celestial musicians play on the drum and other instruments, a few princely figures watch the scene and two saints, Sundaraand Cheraman, hurry to the spot on elephant and horse. Up and further away is depicted a temple (architecturally a typical early Chola one) with Nataraja enshrined in it, outside which are seated princely devotees.

Further down is painted the story of how Siva came down in the form of an old man with a document in his hand to establish his right to carry away Sundara on his marriage-day to his abode at Tiruvennainallur. Still below is a lively scene of women cooking and food being served during the marriage-festivity. Beyond this, on the other side of the wall, is a large figure of Nataraja dancing in the golden hall at Chdambaram with priests and other devotees on one side and a stately prince, obviously Rajaraja, and three of is queens with followers including kanchukis and other attendants carrying rods of office behind them.

On the opposite wall are some charming miniature figures of graceful women. A little further up is Rajaraja with his guru Karuvur Devar. Beyond this, on the wall opposite the northern one and facing the passage, are five heads peeping out of a partially-exposed painting.

The entire northern wall is covered by a gigantic figure of Tripurantaka Siva on a chariot driven by Brahma. Tripurantaka, accompanied by Karttikeya on peacock, Ganesa on mouse and Kali on lion, with Nandi in front of the chariot,

Alidha pose of a warrior with eight arms, carrying weapons and in the act of using a mighty bow to overcome a host of aggressive and fearless demons with their womenfolk clinging to them. This painting is the greatest master piece of the Chola artist, distinguished by its power, grandeur, rhythm and composition and unparalleled by any contemporary paitning or sculpture. This representation of Siva shows the earlier Pallava tradition, as in the Chola period Tripurantaka generally stands in the abhanga and sometimes in the tribhanga pose, with one of his legs planted on the head of either the dwarf Apasmara or a lion.

This great panel portrays several sentiments in one : the heroic sentiment in the expression on Tripurantaka's face and form and in that of the vigorous rakshasas in action ; the emotion of pity in the sorrowful faces of their women clinging to them in despair; the spirit of wonder in the paraphernalia of gods surrounding Siva ; and the sense of the Grotesque in the attitude of the dwarf ganas and of Ganesa hastening on his mouse. The Cholas being great warriors and conquerors, and Rajaraja himself the greatest if them all, it is in the fitness of things that the theme of Tripurantaka, the mighty warrior-god , is glorified here, virtually as the keynote of the Chola power.

The colours in the paintings are soft and subdued, the lines firm and sinewy and the expression vivid and true of life; above all , there is an ease in the charming contours of the figures. They constitute the most valuable document of the painter's art during the days of the early Cholas, and it is interesting to note that all the grace of south Indian classical painting that is seen in the earlier Pallava paitnings at Sittannavasal, Panamalai and Kanchipuram is continued in the present series.

The highest achievement in plastic art in the Chola period is revealed in the fine series of the one hundred and eight dance-poses carved all around the inner walls of the first floor of the temple. They form and invaluable document in the history of Indian art and are the predecessor of the labelled dance-poses on the Chidambaram gopuras, with the important difference that at Thanjavur, Siva himself, the lord of dance (Nataraja), is depicted as the dancer.

The temples of Devi near the Nandi - mandapa and of Subrahmanya are later additions, the former during the time fo Konerinmaikondan, a Pandya of the thirteenth century, and the latter during the Nayaka period in the seventeenth century. The shrine of Ganesa and the mandapa of Nataraja are also very late in date. The temple of Subrahmanya ahs exquisite carvings and is an excellent example of south Indian temple-architecture in the late medieval period.


To understand the architecture of the Chola temples, it is essential to know something of the pre and post - Chola architecture. The Pallava temples of the seventh to the ninth centuries, the earliest in south India, have certain features which differentiate them from the later ones. As Jouveau-Dubreuil has very clearly illustrated, the niche, the pavilion, the pillar ad pilaster-corbel and the horseshoe-shaped windows (kudu), among others, are the most important factors which help in the ascertainment of the dates of the monuments.

A typical niche in the earlier Pallaa rock-cut monuments at Mahabalipuram and in the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram is rather wide, and the makara-torana decoration on the niche-top is flat, the floriated tail of the makara overflowing on the sides ; but in a Chola niche, as in the later Pallava ones, the space is narrower and the decoration on the niche-top more round. The simulated railings for the pavillions on monuments at Mahabalipuram are quite different from their Chola counterparts. The kudu which at the Mahabalipuram monuments has a shovel-headed finial, develops a lion-head in the Chola monuments, and this continues thereafter.

The capital of the pillar and pilaster in the Chola monuments, rectangular with its sides cut off in a slant at 45o, has the central portion projecting. It is from this that the later Vijayanagara lotus corbels develop. It is easily seen that without the central projecting block the Chola corbel is not essentially different from the early Pallava one, where the same angle also occurs in addition to the rounded corbel.

The central shrine in the Pallava structural temples, like the Kailasanatha at Kanchipuram, is prominent and the gopura is quite dwarfish. In the early Chola temples the shrine is magnified, and in the time of Rajaraja and his successors it becomes colossal, as one notices in the temples at Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram, Darasuram and Trubhuvanam. The gopura in the early Chola temples, though larger in size than in the Pallava ones, is still comparatively short, and it is only in the late Chola period that gigantic gopuras come into being and dwarf the central shrine. The earlier Pallava dwara-palas (door-keepers), with a very natural look and mostly with a single pair of armsn, are replaced in the Chola structures by those with a fierce mien and four arms, the ones in the Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram temples being typical examples : they carry the trisula (trident) on their crowns, bear tusks protruding from their mouths and strike terror with their knit eye-brows, rolling eyes and hands always in the tarjani (threatening) and vismaya (wonder) attitudes. In the large Chola temples, long flights of steps from the sides lead to the platform, whence one enters the sanctum ; the balustrade is massive, curls up at the end and is decorated on the exterior. Alternating koshtha-panjaras and kumbha-panjaras from a regular feature of decoration, and the niches are flanked by pilasters crowned on the top by a curved roof-moulding adorned by two kudus with crowning lion-heads. The base of the entire series of these niches has yali-decoration and at corners and intervals there are makara - heads with warriors in action issuing from their mouths. The pavilions are usually two pinjaras flanking a sala (wagon-roof pavilion), the former with a single finial and the latter with three. The kumbha-pinjara itself shows stages of development, and the earlier and simpler ones, which we find in the early Chola temples, cecome more decorative and developed in the later ones. Separate mandapas, which form a regular feature in the late Chola and Vijayanagara temples, with a number of pillars adorning them, are not so prominent in the carly chola structures, though the front of the temple is a long mandapa for different forms of bhoga-worship. A large courtyard and small shrine against the enclosure-wall at the cardinal and inter-cardinal points for the dik-palas (guardians of the directions) form a feature in the early Chola examples.

The following pages describe three of the most important Chola temples, viz., the two Brihadisvara temples, respectively built by Rajaraja I (985 - 1012) and Rajendra (1012-44) at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, and the Airaatesvara temple, built by Virarajendra (1063-69) or Rajaraja II (1150-73) at Darasuram.


The Cholas of Thanjavur (ninth to twelfth centuries) were great conquerors, who were not only paramount in south India but for some time extended their sway as far as the river Ganga in the north and brought Ceylon, a part of Burma, the Malayan peninsula and some islands of south-east Asia under their influence. They were also mighty builders, who erected a large number of temples in their empire, some of them constituting the finest specimens of south Indian architecture. Inheritors of the Pallava tradition, the edifices also reflect the power and genius of their authors.

Karikala, the early Chola emperor of the Sangam age, is lost in legendary grandeur. It was several centuries later that Vijayalaya, in circa 850, established a small kingdom around Thanjavur, which developed into a gigantic empire under his successors. In the time of Aditya and Parantaka, the son and grandson respectively of Vijayalaya, there was a great temple-building activity. Parantaka ruled for forty - eight years. Bearing such heroic titles as virasolan and samara-kesari, he extended his dominions by conquests. As the conqueror of the Pandyas, who ruled further south at Madurai, and of Ceylon, he was styled Maduraiyum Ilamum-konda, i.e. one who captured Madurai and Ceylon. He was a great devotee of Siva in the Chidambaram temple, which he covered with gold. That he was also a great scholar and patron of literature is suggested by his title pandita-vatsala. He had sons who inherited his qualities but were unfortunately short-lived. His eldest son, Rajaditya, while almost defeating the Rashtrauta king, Krishna III, died on the battle-field on his elephant just at the moment of victory. His younger brother was Gandaraditya, whose queen, widowed early with a little child in her arms, was a pious lady, remarkable for her generous practice of building and endowing temples.

This was a weak period in Chola history, when Krishna III asserted his power in Tondai-mandalam, and his son of Gandaraditya being just a babe, Arinjaya, the younger brother of Gandaraditya, ascended the throne. But he soon lost his life on the battle-field in trying to regain the lost territory from the Rashtrakutas. His son, Sundara-Chola, who succeeded him, was a great warrior and a just ruler. Like his grandfather Parantaka, he was a great patron of literature. His last days were clouded by the sad assassination of his war-like eldest son Aditya. His second son, Rajaraja, was then a youth, accomplished and powerful ; but the nobility of Rajaraja was such that even though desired by his subjects, he refused to ascend the throne, as his uncle Uttama-Chola, the son of Gandaraditya, now quite grown up, longed for it. Rajaraja eventually succeeded Uttama-Chola.

Rajaraja I, known as Rajakesari Arumoliarman, ascended the throne in 985 and was probably the greatest of the Chola emperors. His military triumph, organization of the empire, patronage of art and literature and religious tolerance are only partially eclipsed by those of his son Rajendra, who was unparalleled in military genius. As the Chola kingdom had just recovered from the onslaught of the Rashtrakutas, Rajaraja started his reign with military campaigns to strengthen his position. He brought low the Keralas, Pandyas and Simhalas, overcame the western hilly tracts, Mysore and Gangavadi.

He also overcame the Chalukya king Satyasraya, the large treasures captured from whom were utilized in the enrichment of the temple at Thanjavur. As a sagacious conqueror, Rajaraja gave his daughter Kundavai in marriage to Vimaladitya, whose elder brother Saktivraman, the Eastern Chalukya king, was under his protection.

He sent his son Rajendra to Kalinga and established a pillar of victory on the Mahendra hill. With his mighty navy, Rajaraja conquered the Maldives, besides a number of other islands, and crippled the power of the Cheras known for their naval strength. He was a great builder and erected at Thanjavur the magnificent temple known as the Brihadisvara or Rajarajesvara.

Rajaraja was followed by his equally brilliant son Rajendra (1012-44), undoubtedly the greatest ruler of his line, who asserted his power in Ceylon, the Chera and the Pandya countries and Vanavasi and overcame the Chalukya Jayasimha. He then turned his eyes to the north in his desire to bring to his kingdom the waters of the sacred river Ganga by the might of his arm. In less than two years, Rajendra successfully overcame the Eastern Chalukya territory, Kalinga and Dakshina-Kosala and overcame the Pala king Mahipala of east India.

To celebrate his triumph, Rajendra created ' a liquid pillar of victory' (jalamaya-stambha) in his new capital at Gangaikondacholapuram, 'the city of the Chola, the bringer of the Ganga'. In a great irrigation tank, now in ruins, the waters of the Ganga were poured from pots brought by the vassal-kings as the only tribute demanded by the emperor, who then assumed the title of Gangaikondachola, 'the Chola king who brought the Ganga'. As thanksgiving, he erected a large temple in honour of Siva, also known as the Brihadisvara, at his capital.

Rajendra then utilized his mighty navy for attacking and subduing the Sailendra king Sangramavijayotungavaraman of Srivijaya (Sumatra-Java). A number of place-names mentioned in his inscriptions have been understood as connoting places mostly in Malaya, included in the empire of Srivijaya. His conquest of Burman, the islands in the Eastern Archipelago, Ceylon, Laccadives and Maldives clearly proves the efficiency of his unparalleled naval power. His great scholarship and literary attainments earned him the title pandita-Chola. The marriage of his daughter Ammangadevi to his own nephew, the Eastern Chalukya king Rajaraja, shows his diplomatic genius. The child born of this marriage was the great Rajendra-Chola Kulottunga.

Rajendra-Chola succeeded his maternal uncles Rajadhiraja and Virarajendra in 1070 and ruled over a large empire that combined the Chola and Chalukya dominions. He was powerful not only on land but on sea. His power was felt even in distant Kalinga. Vikrama Chola succeeded Rajendra-Chola.

Kulottunga II, the son of Vikrama-Chola, effected elaborate renovations at the temple at Chidambaram. This building activity was sustained in the reign of his son Rajaraja II (1150-73), whose title Raja-Gambhira is recorded in the Mandapa of the Darasuram temple. The growing zeal of the royal house in Saivism is manifest in the stories of the Saiva saints at Darasuram.

Rajaraja's nephew, Rajadhiraja, was followed by Kulottunga III, the last of the great Chola emperors, who, by his power and personality, checked the forces of disruption that had been steadily eating into the vitals of the empire. He was a great builder, and his reign is marked by several additions to the glorious chapter of Chola architecture. His hand is evident not only in the Kampaharesvara temple at Tribhuvanam, the most important monument of his reign, but also at Kanchi, Madurai, Chidambaram, Tiruvarur, Tiruvidaimarudur and Darasuram.