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....

Chapter XII - Style

On the question of style, there is a lot of erroneous views. Burgess, Fergusson and Dubreuil are pioneers who laid the foundations of Dravidian Archaeology. Their methods were systematic and scientific, and their conclusions are sound upto the extent original sources of art history were then available to them. Their successors in the field, instead of following their methods, simply, even blindly, echoed their views though outdated by the progress and enlargement of the frontiers of our knowledge during the course of more than half a century. Without a full survey and careful study of dated monuments and dated sculptures, no satisfactory results would be possible.

Dubreuil divided Dravidian style into five main periods, and his generalisations were too sweeping. He enunciated the first three phases as follows:

(1) The Pallava phase (a.d. 600-850). It was characterised by rock-sculptures. The Bahur temple was wrongly included in this group. It seems to be a foundation of the period of the Rashtrakuta king Krishna III (10th century a.d.).

(2) The Chola phase (a.d. 850-1100). It was (he held) a period of grand vimanas. In this group were included the Koranganatha temple at Srinivasanallur (which he and others attributed, owing to inadequate appreciation of evidence, to Parantaka I) and the Rajarajesvaram at Tanjavur.

(3) The third was the Pandyan phase which according to him extended from a.d. 1100 to 1350; he characterised it as the period of grand gopurams. He included m this group the east gopuram in the third wall of enclosure of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram, the small western gopuram in the second wall of enclosure of the Jambukesvara temple at Tiruvanikka (which he dated to a.d. 1251), the main eastern gopuram of the Sarangapani temple at Kumbakonam and the Ballala (Hoysala) gopuram at Tiruvannamalai.

He added:

“The monuments belonging to the Pandyan style are very rare. They are all gopurams.... The east gopuram of Chidambaram is the best example of Architecture of the Pandyan epoch. The date of its erection is undoubted since it bears an inscription of Sundara Pandya. This style is found in a large number of monuments of this epoch.”

Percy Brown (Indian Architecture, pp. 107-108), Nilakanta Sastri (The Colas, 2nd edition, p.176) and S.K. Sarasvati (History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol. V, p. 622) merely echo the views of Dubreuil. The latest is Shanti Swarup (5000 years of Arts and Crafts in India and Pakistan, p. 87).

The Chola supremacy lasted in South India till a.d. 1250. Jatavarman Sundara Pandya I (acc. a.d. 1251) conquered the Chola country and extended his sway as far as Nellore. The effective Pandya rule over the Chola country lasted at the most half a century. Sundara Pandya I no doubt made liberal gifts to temples at Srirangam, Jambukesvaram, Chidambaram and Kanchipuram. In the Chola (including the Pallava) country only two temples could be attributed to him. These are the Vishnu temple of Viranarayana Perumal at Kattumannargudi near Chidambaram—an old foundation of the time of Parantaka I which was rebuilt of stone—and a new big temple, the Bhaktavatsala temple (enclosing the original Sri Mulasthana Peruma-nadigal temple in the northern prakara at the foot of the hill) at Tirukkalukkunram. The gateway portion of the east gopuram at Chidambaram was built in the later Chola period (Kulottunga II). None of the gopurams attributed to Sundara Pandya could be sustained as such on the evidence available. In case of these monuments, the developments in style should be considered as the natural evolution of the Chola style already in its full swing in the Chola empire. It is not possible to sustain the theory of a Pandyan phase of Dravidian style in the Chola country between a.d. 1100 and 1350 (See Four Chola Temples, pp. 34-37).

About this time, Srirangam, Jambukesvaram, Sama-yavaram and Kannanurkoppam and the neighbouring regions came under the rule of the Hoysalas of Dvara-samudra, some of the chief features of whose style could be seen in a few monuments erected by them in this region.

Fergusson held that the temple of Parvati (Sivakami Amman) in the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram was added “most probably in the 14th or 15th century, and to that age the great gopurams and the second enclosures also belong.” The Amman temple and the second wall of enclosure of the Nataraja temple were the work of the later Cholas—Kulottunga I and Vikrama Chola.

The Nritta Sabha was believed to be “the oldest thing now existing here”. It rests on a stylobate, provided at the sides with wheels and horses, the whole representing a car. Though its date is not stated, he describes another similar structure the Pandya Naya-kam, a shrine dedicated to Subrahmanya and about it, Burgess states:—

“We cannot feel sure of its age. From the position, however, and the character of its ornamentation, there seems little doubt that it belongs to the end of the 17th and the first half of the 18th century. From its style, however, I would be inclined to ascribe it the earlier date.”

The ratha feature of monuments is known as early as the days of Kulottunga I. The Melakkadambur temple was rebuilt of stone in or before the 43rd year of Kulottunga I (12th century a.d., Four Chola Temples, pp. 47-59). And the prasasti of his successor Vikrama Chola claims among other works the erection of a Tirutterk-koyil (car or ratha form of vimana or shrine) in the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram and this should refer only to this Sabha enclosed by the second wall of enclosure named Vikrama cholan Tirumaligai.

The Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India for 1908-9 mentions that “the high towers of most of the famous temples of the South must have been built in the time of Krishna Raja as also the picturesque and extensive additions known generally as the hundred-pillared and thousand-pillared manda-pas. We frequently hear of Rayar-gopuram which means the tower of Rayar (i.e. perhaps Krishna Raya). It is not possible at this stage of epigraphical research to say how many temples were benefited thus by Krishna Raya’s charities. It may be presumed that his liberal hand was practically extended to the whole of the empire.”[1]

Fergusson and Burgess held that the thousand-pillared hall at Chidambaram could be attributed to the period between a.d. 1595 and 1685.

We have evidence to prove that these additions were the work of the Later Cholas (a.d. 1070-1270). The first two walls of enclosure of the Nataraja temple called Kulottunga Solan Tirumaligai and Vikrama Solan Tirumaligai, the Amman shrine (Tirukkamak-kottam Udaiya Nachiyar) and the hundred-pillared hall were the works of Kulottunga I and Vikrama Chola and their minister Naralokaviran. Of the four seven-storeyed gopurams (gopuram), the western was built by Vikrama Chola and Kulottunga II, the gateways of the northern and the eastern by the latter, and the southern gopuram by Pallava Kopperunjingan. These four gopurams in the third wall of enclosure named Rajakkal Tambiran maligai, after a surname of Kulottunga III should therefore be considered as the achievements of the Later Cholas. The thousand-pillared hall must have existed even in the days of Kulottunga II, as Sekkilar’s yapuranam was expounded here. The gateway portions of the east and north gopurams were built in the days of Kulottunga II. Only the brick super-structure was rebuilt by the Vijayanagar rulers in respect of the north gopuram (Four Chola Temples, p. 35; also J.C. Harle’s Temple Gateways in South India, pp. 58-63 and pp. 67-69).

The outer eastern gopuram and the vimana of the Tribhuvanam temple belong to one period and was the creation of one king Kulottunga III alias Tribhu-vanavira-devar. It is pointed out that the ribbed kapota found in this gopuram is “unknown at such an early period.” So doubt is cast as to the possibility of the vimana and the gopuram having been erected in the same reign. But the ribbed kapota and kumudam are found as early as the 12th century a.d. (43rd year of Kulottunga I) in the Amritaghatesvara temple at Melakkadambur (see J.C. Harle’s Temple Gateways in South India, p. 25 and note 5: Also my Four Chola Temples, Pis. 38^10).

The study of dated sculptures has only just begun. Some deny the existence of Pallava bronzes at all. Even those who admit its existence find it difficult to define clearly the features of that style. It defies definition.

At one time, the disposition of the yajnopavita on the right fore-arm was considered a distinct Pallava feature (See Editor’s note p. 10 ‘Rare Bronzes from the Kongu country’, Lalit Kala No. 9); but we know for certain that this feature is also found in Chola sculptures till the middle of the 10th century a.d. Then there is the reliance on the form, position, decoration with flames and the manner of holding, with the fingers, the conch and discus. Even here, a clear definition or conclusive postulation is not practicable.

The form of the makuta, the presence of the vaji-bandha and the skandamala, the form of the keyuras and the valayas, the hara and the lion-clasp are all attributed to certain periods but they are not conclusive. We must rely on the totality of the impression after weighing all the factors.

The critical study of dated stone sculptures, of dated bronzes, and their comparative study have to be taken up only after a fairly satisfactory survey and scientific study of monuments and sculptures has been done. Allowance has to be made for the display of the individual natural skill of the sthapathi, the workshop to which he belongs, the patronage he receives and the regional idioms and the influences of foregin art-centres. All these should be considered before any satisfactory definition of style could be postulated.

Benjamin Rowland has given us a working definition of style:

“By style is meant those peculiarities of outward visual appearance and structure in a work of architecture, sculpture, or painting conditioned by reason for, and the manner of, its creation, that makes it typical—indeed inevitable—for a definite moment in history”.

Such a clearly defined style is in the making.

Footnotes and references:


An inscription in Tiruvannamalai (A.R. 574 of 1905, SIL VIII. no. 165) mentions that Krishnadeva Raya of Vijayanagar built a hundred-pillared mandapa at Kalahasti and a thousand-pillared mandapa at Tiruvannamalai. Without evidence, it is incorrect to attribute to him all such mandapas in South India.

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