As a traveller, I am always interested in visiting places. The first inclination to visit a site germinates from the way a place or monument is named. So I was in the state of Tamil Nadu on work-related commitments for an extended duration. This presented me with the opportunity to visit the world-renowned Great Living Chola Temples.
The Chola dynasty was one of the longest-ruling regimes in India. It was Raja Raja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I who built the Chola empire conquering vast swathes of the Indian Subcontinent.
The Cholas were not only mighty conquerors and great administrators but also amazing builders. Being patrons of art, they were instrumental in the construction of various temples, the living proof of them is what is now known as the “Great Living Chola Temples” built at Thanjavur, Darasuram and Gangaikonda. These temples of Southern Indian portray the creative achievement of the Dravidian style of temple construction.
What is Dravidian style of Temple Construction?
So I wanted to know and understand a bit more of what exactly is the Dravidian style of construction and, this is what I understood…
The Dravidian style of architecture was one of three primary forms mentioned as far back in time as the Vaastu Shastra. It consists of temples built with pyramid styled towers with granite being one of the primary construction material.
The Great Chola Temples were designed not only as religious places of worship but also as epicenters for learning, festivals, cultural events and sometimes a bit of commerce as well
The temples lay great emphasis on fine art as well as carvings which I saw in almost every temple in the South. There is hardly any space left. There is elegance as well as opulence. These temples follow the principles of axial and symmetrical geometry throughout and is it visible if one pauses and notices.
Brihadisvra temple at Gangaikondacholapuram
Gangaikonda, “The town of the Chola who took over the Ganga“, was the capital of the Chola Empire in the years gone past.
Rajendra I, son of Raja Raja Chola I was a highly skilled warrior who carried forward the Chola empire with his numerous war campaigns. When he became the ruler, he chose Gangaikonda as his new capital and constructed a magnificent temple out there on the lines of Brihadisvra temple built by his father at Thanjavur.
This temple built in the 11th century was to commemorate his victories in the Northern Territories(kingdoms situated on the banks of the Ganges). It is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is also described at the feminine counterpart of the temple at Thanjavur and is similar in design and construction.
The temple houses a 4 mt high Shiva Lingam, tallest amongst all Chola Temples. The Navagraha deities too are represented on a massive scale-out here. On copper plates, temple walls, meticulous accounts of the Cholas are inscribed.
The temple took nine years for completion. There is a Nine storey Vimana or tower upon the inner sanctum. The dancing figure of Lord Nataraja, peaceful Goddess Lakshmi and the image of Lord Shiva as Ardhanareswara are some of the high points of this temple.
The temple has a large garden all around and numerous small shrines spread out. It is indeed a peaceful place to visit. There is a small eatery just outside the temple premises where one gets to eat a sumptuous lunch of regional cuisine in rustic local surroundings and customs.
Brihadisvra temple at Thanjavur
The epitome of the magnificent Chola temples, Brihadisvra temple at Thanjavur is a must-visit if one is interested in temple architecture of India. Raja Chola I ordered the construction of the temple. He was the greatest king of the Cholan Empire. History says he never lost a single battle in the entire life.
To epitomise the Cholan might, he earmarked on the construction of the RajaRajeswara temple which later came to be known as the Brihadisvira Temple. 1,30,000 tonnes of granite is used in the structure. There is a 13-storey tower (Vimana) enthroned upon the inner sanctum which has a bulb-shaped monolith at the very apex.
The temple was made to come alive with numerous paintings using natural colours which can still be seen. Lord Shiva, is the presiding deity and this is one of the largest temples built in South Asia. Constructed entirely of granite, it has an intricately sculptured corridor leading to the main sanctum. Lifesize sculptures adorn the precincts dedicated to Saraswathi, Veerbhadra, Ganesh as well as various other deities.
What amazed me was the sight of the Vimana rising over in 13 levels and finally topped with a single dome-shaped structure (Kalash) which rested on a single granite block weighing close to 80 tones (01 tone =1000 kgs).
My guide did inform me that the entire hollow tower is made with interlocking stones and no binding material used. The whole premise is dotted with various artefacts and smaller shrines all intricately sculptured and carved.
The statue of Lord Nandi, the sacred bull carved out of a single rock 16 feet long and 13 feet high beckons all those who visit the temple.
Everything out here is on a grand scale and reflected the confidence of the architects and designer. The design of temple was to display the vision and might of Chola empire and for religious ceremonies and cultural events.
Every fort built by the Cholas; their town and villages have obliterated over time, but the magnificent temples still stand tall strong and mighty. They reflect the era of glory which had been reached once upon a time by those are no longer present.
- Travel by road, nearest hub is Thanjavur as well as Tiruchirapalli.
- Thanjavur can be reached from Chennai by Road as well as Train.
- Stay should be planned at Thanjavur and Kumbakonam. Lots of medium budget options. Look in Booking.com to suit personal preferences.
- There is intermittent bus service between Thanjavur and Gangaikonda. Go to New Bus Stand, Thanjavur to avail these services.
- One can hire a cab, same available outside the bus stand itself. However, this would be expensive.
- Best bet is to take a bus from Thanjavur till Kumbakonam and thereafter hire a cab for Kumbakonam-Gangaikonda and back ( distance is 40 km one way )
- This is a medium budget destination, so should be easy on the pocket.
- Explore the local cuisine, easy on the budget as well as an opportunity to try something new.
- Temples are closed in afternoons hence plan accordingly.
- Visit the Brihadisvira Temple ( Big Temple) @Thanjavur first as it draws huge crowds. Reach early in morning.
- A picnic hamper would be a great idea to sit in the garden at Gangaikonda.
- Visiting months – avoid summer.
- Definitely try “six-degree filter coffee” of this region.
- No specific dress code but be sensible in what one wears.
- Use services of a local guide at the Big Temple.