Early Chola Temples

by S. R. Balasubrahmanyam | 1960 | 105,501 words

This volume of Chola Temples covers Parantaka I to Rajaraja I in the timeframe A.D. 907-985. The Cholas of Southern India left a remarkable stamp in the history of Indian architecture and sculpture. Besides that, the Chola dynasty was a successful ruling dynasty even conquering overseas regions....

Part I, Stone


Indian sculpture is valued both as an object of worship and as a work of art. More than half a century ago, there was lack of appreciation of Indian art among western scholars. In reply to the view expressed in a paper read before the Royal Society of Arts by Sir George Birdwood—one who had a lot of sympathy with Indian life and things Indian—thirteen distinguished English artists, critics and students of art pointed out through a public protest (The Times, 28th February, 1910) that “they find in the best art of India a lofty and adequate expression of the religious emotions of the people and of their deepest thoughts on the subject of the Divine..., that the existence of a distinct, a potent, and a living tradition of art is a possession of priceless value to the Indian people, and which they and all who advance and respect their achievements in this field, ought to guard with the utmost reverence and love.” The pioneering works of A.K. Coomaraswamy and E. B. Havell further stimulated the growing interest in and appreciation of Indian Art in the western world.

The existence of a large number of temples and cult-objects in them for worship during the Sangam age is traced at length in chapter two of my Eary Chola Art Part I. But, unfortunately, we have no evidence to assert that those original objects of worship have survived to this day.


The Pallavas should be considered as a power who enriched that tradition by incorporating foreign influences from other equally vital centres of Dravidian art at Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Badami and Vengi.[1]

The Gangadhara panel in the upper cave at Tiruchy is a fine piece of art of the days of Pallava Mahendra-varman I (7th century a.d.). At Mamallapuram, we have a large number of picture-galleries. The icons and portraits on the Dharmaraja and the Arjuna rathas, the two sets of royal portraits in the Adi-Varaha cave temple, the spirited battle scene in the Mahisha-suramardini cave, Yaraha uplifting Bhudevi in the Varaha cave, the pastoral life depicted in the Govardhana cave, and above all, the devas, men and animals (elephants, lions, monkeys and cats in different moods, postures and activities) sculptured in the ‘Fresco in stone’, the Ganga-avatarana panel (Arjuna’spenance?)—these are among the grandest in art.


This great tradition is carried on to further heights of glory by the Cholas. The continuity of this movement is as much astonishing and wonderful as it is varied and widely distributed.

In spite of this rich legacy, it is surprising that so learned, assiduous and devoted a scholar as V.A. Smith makes the following observations (History of Fine Art in India and Ceylon—3rd edition p. 119):—

“But excepting certain Chola statuary of the eleventh century, which is pre-eminently excellent, the southern figure sculpture does not often attain high quality. In quantity, it is enormous, the gigantic temples and halls characteristic of the Dravidian kingdoms being commonly over-loaded with sculptured ornament in every member. Mythological subjects from the Puranas and Tantras are the favourite, and the tendency is to treat the conception of a luxuriant mythology with exuberant fancy. The result too often is merely grotesque, and very few of the individual images can claim to be beautiful. The sculpture of the south is really the successor of its mediaeval art of the north. The figure sculpture is purely iconographical and executed exactly according to literary canon.”

About the sculptures of the Cave Temples of Badami, Y.A. Smith has remarked that they “hardly deserve the name of works of art”. No wonder the editor of the second edition of the ‘History of Fine Art in India and Ceylon’, K. de B. Codrington was constrained to admit that V.A. Smith’s “attitude to Brahmanical Indian art was not sympathetic.”

This severe and undeserved observation would not have been made if only V.A. Smith had in his days a survey of the Early Chola temples presented in this series.


The earliest Chola sculpture is the icon of Nisumbha-sudani (ECA. I, p.43, PI.8), a broken image of perhaps the original temple of Nisumbhasudani built at Tanja-vur by Vijayalaya Chola himself. It is a fine spirited image. Next, we have the Saptamatrika group of the original parivara-alaya, and the Nrsimha and Vina-dhara images (vimana-devatas) of the Vijayalaya cholisvaram at Narttamalai (ECA I, Pis. 13b to 17b).

Aditya I

Next in importance are the sculptures of the twin shrines of the temple of Avani Kandarpa Isvaragriham at Kilaiyur: Siva (Dakshinamurti, ECA I, PI. 57), Subrahmanya (standing, ECA I, PI. 58), Subrahmanya (seated, ECA I, PL 60) and Vinadhara Dakshinamurti (ECA I, PI. 53) deserve mention. These along with Vina-dhara-Dakshinamurti of Lalgudy (ECA I, PI. 42) and of Tudaiyur (Suppt. to ECA I, PI. 11), Brahma (ECA I, PI. 47), Dakshinamurti (ECA I, PI. 48) and some of the unidentified sculptures of the Koranganatha temple at Srinivasanallur are some of the best productions of this age. In the sublimity of expression, the delicacy of chiselling and elegant ornamentation, they have their counterpart in the Nagesvara temple at Kumba-konam. The Nagesvara Ardhanari has a fitting companion in the similar figure at Tiruchchennampundi (ECA I, PI. 2b.)

Brahma in the round at Tirukkandiyur (ECA I, PI. 77b) is a good specimen of a grand theme. We have his companion at Sendalai, in the Tanjavur Art Gallery (from Karandai) and in front of the compound of the Collector’s Office at Tanjavur.

Nalur-Mayanam can boast of a good Surya (parivara-alaya-devata, now in a Bombay museum) and a Lingodbhavar (devak—ECA I, PI. 86a and b). The Subrahmanyar of Koyiladi (ECA I, PI. 76c), and that in the eastern devakoshta at Kiliyanur (ECA I, PI. 88b) are good specimens of their class. The Harihara sculpture (western devakoshta, ECA I, PI. 66) of the Adityesvaram at Tiruverumbur is a rare figure. The Vishamangalesvara (Sri Kadambatturai Mahadevar) temple at Turaiyur has a unique combination of devakoshta figures, Sarasvati, Vinadhara Dakshinamurti (standing), Siva- Uma-Alinginamurti—a rare specimen—Brahma and Durga. On a pillar in the western side we have a sculpture of Nataraja in the ananda tandava pose (vide my article in the American Academy of Benares—Transactions of the Seminar on Indian Temple Architecture, Varanasi). The devakoshta images of the Tiru-vural Mahadevar temple at Takkolam—Ganesa (ECA I, PI. 91), Vishnu (ECA1, PI. 92), Dakshinamurti (ECA I, PI. 93), Brahma (ECA I, PI. 94) and th palas (ECA I, Pis. 95 and 96) represent the sculptured achievements of the sthapath during the closing period of the reign of Aditya I in Tondaimandalam, far from the heartland of the traditional Chola desa. Perhaps the last phase of sculptural attainment in Aditya I’s age can be seen in the figures of the Tirumulasthanattup-perumanadigal at Tirukka-lukkunram (ECA I, Pis. 102 (b) and 103 (a), (b) and (c)).

Parantaka I

The noblest artistic expression of Parantaka I’s time is found in the devakoshta sculptures of the Brahmapurisvara temple at Pullamangai; Ganapati, Durga, Lingodbhavar, and Brahma (Dakshinamurti is inaccessible) are gems of art (J.C. Harle’s Pullamangai, no. 4, Heritage of India series, Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, Bombay: Pis. 32-42 also).

To these should be added those of the Tiruvalan-durai-Mahadevar temple at Kilappaluvur (Pis. 12-18) and the three devakoshta sculptures of the Kadamba-vanesvara temple at Erumbur viz. Dakshinamurti, Siva-Yogi (Arunachalesvara) and Brahma (Pis. 73, 75 and 76) and those of the Gomuktisvara temple at Tiruvaduturai completed before the 39th regnal year of Parantaka I (Pis. 44-48).

Valuable contributions to stone art were made by Parantaka Fs crown-prince Rajaditya, and his Chera general Vellan Kumaran who built the temples at Gramam and Tirunavalur.

Naltunai Isvaram at Punjai (Pis. 135-141) and the Muvarkoyil at Kodumbalur (Pis. 96-102) which come next in chronological order have to be assigned to the period of Sundara Chola and Aditya II. The sculptures of Pullamangai are slender and elegant resembling those of the Nagesvara temple at Kumbakonam, whereas those of Erumbur are heavy and well-built, similar to those of Punjai.

The Muvarkoyil at Kodumbalur however stands apart, and has intrigued students of art for nearly half a century. There is greater resemblance between the sculptures of Pullamangai and Kodumbalur. Viewed from the basic facts of history and Paleography, Bhuti Vikrama Kesari the builder of the Muvarkoyil, has to be assigned to the latter half of the tenth century a.d. Barrett calls it “a late lingering of (his) phase I style of art out of the main stream of development near the Chola court”. Gangadhara, Kalarimurti, Gaja-samharamurti and Ardhanarisvara reveal an attractive conception of life and beauty, delightful delineation and charming flexion.

It seems reasonable to assume that there were in this period more than one school of art following different traditions. The temples of Nagesvarasvamin (at Kumbakonam) the Koranganathar temple at Sri-nivasanallur, the Brahmapurisvara temple at Pullamangai and the Muvarkoyil at Kodumbalur may form one group; and those of the Kadambavanesvara at Erumbur, the Naltunai Isvaram at Punjai and the Karkotaka Isvaram at Kamarasavalli (Pis. 104-128) another group.

Uttama Chola

The last phase of the Early Chola period is represented by the stone-sculptures of the period of Uttama Chola when under the inspiration and guidance of his queen-mother Sembiyan Mahadevi, great encouragement was given to temple-building and to the art of sculpture. Now metal images received greater attention and patronage with the result that stone-images became stereotyped and lost much of their individuality and originality of the earlier period.

Footnotes and references:


Based on the authority of the Brihatsamhita of Varahamihira (6th century a.d.) and the Kamikagama, I use the term Dravidian, not confined solely to the region of the modem Tamilnadu, but in the original sense embracing the area of the ancient Tamils which included the region under the supremacy of the Chalukyas, both western and eastern, the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Cheras and other minor powers ruling over the land south of the Krishna.

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