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....

Bronze, group 2: Age of Aditya I (a.d. 871-907)

We shall next consider a group of bronzes which could be attributed to the age of Aditya I. In this group the Vishnu (Srinivasa) of Paruttiyur (not Piraiyu-thur, ECB, p. 25) holds the pride of place. The figure is in Samabhanga posture. There are flames on the conch and the discus. The pitambaram is worn in the saundika fashion. The ends of the garment fall in a fine bunch on either side of the legs. He wears kanthis; and the yajnopavita is in three strands. There are curly jathas falling on the nape. There are a median loop in front, bows and tassels on the sides and a clasp in the kati.

Then come the bronzes of Rama, Sita and Krishna of Tiruchcherai (ECB. Pis. 43-46 and 95-96). Barrett assigns Rama to the 10th century and claims that Rama is a bronze of great authority. Sita wears her hair in the form of the loose bun of the Pallavanesvaram and the Metropolitan Museum pieces. This set of Rama is earlier than that of Vadakkuppanaiyur in the Madras Museum. Tiruchcherai Rama has the trellis pattern decoration. It may be that this form of decoration might have had its origin earlier than the age of Sembiyan Mahadevi.

The Kaliya-Krishna (SIB. PI. 44 b) of N.Y. Sastri collection, Adayar may be placed in this group. We may include in this group Uma and Skanda of Pallavanesvaram (SIB. PI. 99), the Somaskanda of Sivapu-ram (BSI. PI. 92) and of Tandantottam (Lalit Kala No. 10) and Subrahmanyar of Kilaiyur (SIB. PI. 45 b).

Nataraja Cult

There is some misconception about the origin of the Nataraja cult and the date of the creation of the sculpture of Nataraja in the ananda tandava form. It is stated: “It was probably during the time of Parantaka 1 that the very first sample in stone of the ananda tandava form of Nataraja was created” (BSI. p. 145, also Roopa Lekha XXVI and XXVII).

The Sri Tatva Nidhi quotes the Karana Agama and describes seven kinds of dance. The first concerns the ananda tandava form. Nataraja has four arms, three eyes and spreading jathas. He is to be decorated with peacock feathers, dundura flower, the crescent and the Gangai, Kama patra, makara kundala, yajnopavita, tiger’s skin ,padasara with kimkinis on the legs, abhaya hastha and damaru. The right leg is to be bent and planted on Apasmara. The left leg in gaja hasta form is turned towards the up-lifted left foot.

In addition, other Tandava forms viz. Sandiya, Uma, Gauri, Kalika, Tripura and Samhara are described.

The Kasyapa Silpa mentions 18 kinds of dance and deals specifically with 9 of them. The first form is elaborately described with iconometric details - four arms, agni, damaru, abhaya hasta (with sarpa valaya) and danda hasta. The jathas may be 5, 6, 7, 9 and 11. The jatha makuta is to be adorned with karoti-ratna-bandam (skull adorned with precious stones). He wears the tiger’s skin and padasara. The ends of the udarabandha are to be attached to the prabha mandala and decorated with three-tongued flames. The left leg is to be placed on Apasmara who is to play with a snake in his left hand and a knife in his right hand. His head is to be turned towards the earth. Uma is to stand on the left.

The second variety has to provide an additional feature - Gangai on the right jatha. Hence this form is called Janhaviyurtam (Nataraja adorned with Gangai).

The fifth variety is to have its right leg lifted up to the right ear (Urdhva-tandava?).

According to other descriptions, Nataraja may stand on either leg, and the planted leg may be placed on Apasmara or rest on the pitha itself.

The Silpa Ratna describes nine kinds of this icon more or less on the same lines.

The Bharata Natya Sastra describes 108 karanas and forms of Tandava poses. These forms are represented in stone sculptures in the round in the second tier of the garbhagriha of the Rajarajesvaram temple at Tanjavur built in the days of Rajaraja I.

The Karana poses are also sculptured with descriptive labels on the east gopuram of the Sarangapani temple at Kumbakonam (late Chola period) and on the two inner sides of the gateway of the east and west gopurams of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram (Later Chola–Vikrama Chola and Kulottunga II).

T. A. Gopinatha Rao has tried to identify some of the Tandava forms—Chaturam, Katisaman, Lalitam, Tala-sampotita etc.

The Tamil epic Silappadikaram mentions a number of dances associated with Siva, Vishnu, Durga, Muruga, and Krishna but their identification is not yet established.

Without attempting the larger question of the origin of the Nataraja-cult and its beginnings, it may be stated that there was a phase of the widespread Hindu revival in the sixth century a.d. We have early sculptures of dancing Siva at Badami, Aihole, Udayagiri (near Nellore), Elephanta and Ellora—the western and northern parts of the ancient Dravida desa.

Chidambaram evolved the ananda tandava form of the Nataraja-cult and so it was its original home. It was the dance of bliss to bestow divine grace on Vyagrapada and Patanjali, a repetition of the original dance of Siva to humble the heretical rishis of the Daruka forest. On this was super-imposed the Kali cult according to which Siva humbled Kali by enacting the Urdhva tandava form of dance originally associated with Tiru-valangadu.

Tirumular of legendary fame and the author of Tirumandiram describes the Ananda-Tillai-Kuttu (stanzas 2749 - 2803). He is to be assigned to the 6th century a.d. Appar and Sambandar (7th century a.d.) have glorified the ecstatic dance of Tillai-Nataraja. It seems that the ananda tandava form of dancing is also known as Nadanta Natanam and Bhujanga trasa. Appar uses the latter expression (Puyangan) in his Devaram hymns of Chidambaram. Therefore it is difficult to accept the theory that this ananda tandava form in stone was created only in the period of Paranta-ka I, three or four centuries after the inauguration and practice of this cult at Chidambaram.

In the Pallava period, we have on a pillar of a cave-temple at Siyamangalam the Bhujanga-trasa form of Nataraja. The left hand is in lola hasta instead of gaja-hasta. There is a dancing Siva image in the second tala of the Dharmaraja Ratha at Mamalla-puram. Siva-Tandava sculptures are found in panels in the temples at Tirukkandiyur and Srinivasanallur. The temple of Vishamangalesvaram at Turaiyur (Tudaiyur) of the days of Aditya I has on a pillar a sculpture of the ananda tandava form of Nataraja. (ECA I, Suppt. PI. 15). The Gomuktesvara temple at Tiruvaduturai of the time of Parantaka I has the sculpture of Nataraja in his ananda tandava form in the centre of the makara torana over the devakoshta of Dakshina-murti. At Pullamangai, there is a base panel of dancing Siva. In temples built or rebuilt by Sembiyan Mahadevi, we have this figure in one of the devakoshtas. The non-availability of such icons in stone at present before the days of Parantaka I should not rule out the possibility of their earlier existence. It should be considered a gap in our knowledge rather than in the art. We have one of Aditya I’s days. There is enough circumstantial evidence for the existence of Nataraja in his ananda tandava form at least from the 6th century a.d., if not earlier.


While on this subject, I would like to dispel another misconception relating to the depiction of Gangai on the jatha of Nataraja. It is held that it was a deliberate innovation introduced by Rajendra Chola I to mark his conquest of the Ganga region. As an expression of gratitude to his family deity, Nataraja of Chidambaram, he is alleged to have ordered, after his grand victory, and to commemorate it, the sculptors of his kingdom to adorn the Nataraja images, produced then and thereafter, with the figure of Gangai on the jatha. Hence Nataraja became Gangai-Poondan (He who wears the Gangai).

This novel theory is devoid of any foundation. We have already stated that according to the Agamas and the Silpa-Sastras, the attachment of Ganga-bhattari was optional. Further, there is epigraphical evidence for the inclusion of Ganga-bhattari on the jatha of the bronze of Adavallan set up by Rajaraja I in his Rajarajesvaram at Tanjavur (Inscription, SII II, no. 42). No doubt, Gangai is now absent in the bronze but the identity of the image is well established. The Gangai was a mere attachment and might have fallen off as a result of the wear and tear in the course of the centuries of its existence.

To the Nataraja bronze at Punjai, Tanjavur district, a gift was made in the 22nd year of Rajaraja I. This bronze has Gangai on the jatha. Hence the theory of Gangai-Poondan is untenable and has to be given up (BSI, p. 258).

To the period of Aditya I, I would assign the following Natarajas:—

1. Okkur - SIB.PI. 22 (a); BSI. Pis. 88-89. and p. 141.
2. Sivapuram - SIB. PI. 84; P.R.S. Lalit Kala No. 5 & BSI. PI. 93.
3. Tandantottam - Lalit Kala No. 10, R Nagaswa-my; BSI. PI. 71.
4. Tiruvarafigulam - SIB. PI. 16.
5. Kilakkadu - ECA I, PL 113.

The Nataraja bronzes in the ananda tandava pose attain their perfection in those created by Rajaraja I and Rajendra I. M. Auguste Rodin, one of the greatest of the world artists of the modern age, has gone into an ecstatic dream over the skill and achievements of the South Indian stapathis in thecreation of this exalted theme.

He describes in glowing terms every part of the divine form; and on looking at the face of Siva, he exclaims,

“In the elegance, there is grace; above the grace there is modelling; all approach very much something which one may call sweet, and then the words fail us!”

In the artistic renaissance of today, the modern stapathis have to remember that they are the heirs of such a rich legacy.

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