Later Chola Temples

by S. R. Balasubrahmanyam | 1979 | 143,852 words

This volume of Chola Temples covers Kulottunga I to Rajendra III in the timeframe A.D. 1070-1280. 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....

The village of Palayarai in the heart of the fertile delta of the Kaveri was once the celebrated secondary capital of the Pallavas and later of the Cholas. Known as Nandivarma- or Nandipanma-or merely Nandi- puram under the Pallavas, it was the political centre of their hold over Chola mandalam till the rise of the Muttaraiyars and the line of Kochchenganan, Orriyuran, and Vijayalaya. It went into temporary eclipse in the Early Chola period but during the Middle Chola period resumed its importance. In this capital many a Chola monarch got himself anointed. It is referred to in a record of Kundavai Pirattiyar,' the sister of Rajaraja I, as the home of her nephew, Rajendra I. It is noticed from a number of grants of the early years of Kulottunga I, including the Tirukkalar copper plate grant that during the Middle Chola period, Palayarai was known by the name of Ahavamalla-kula-kala-puram, evidently so christened to commemorate Chola victory over the Western Chalukyan ruler, Ahavamalla[1]. But its importance grew considerably during the Later Chola period when many of the ruling monarchs made it their hoifte for long stretches of time. Vikrama Chola would appear to have resided here in preference to the Chola capital and to have built a palace for himself at Palayarai that went under the name of Vikramasolapuram. One hears less and less of Tanjavur or Gangaikondasolapuram; and the area between the Kaveri near Kumbakonam and the (later) Tirumalairajan channel became the cradle of Tamil culture and literature and the focal point of temple building activity. Pattisvaram, Ramanathankoyil[2], Tiruchchattimurram, Darasuram, Mulaiyur, Udaiyalur, Kurikkai, Kumbakonam and Tribhuvanam are not more than three or four kilometres from this village. Today it is in utter ruins and bears no relation to the greatness it enjoyed during the heyday of the Later Cholas.

It is about 11 km. south-east of Kumbakonam (along the road) and is approached via Darasuram, Pattisvaram and Mulaiyur; Tirumalai-rajan river (canal) lies to its immediate north and is crossed by a temporary bamboo bridge.

Somanathar (or Somalingar) temple

A mere cursory look at this temple will immediately place it among the great temples of the Later Cholas; it shares many of the characteristics of Vikramasolisvaram at Tukkachchi, Rajarajesvaram at Darasuram, and Tribhuvanesvaram at Tribhuvanam. With no inscriptional material on its walls to give us a clue to its age (none belonging to the Later Chola period), one has to indulge in some amount of speculation in dating it; but one would seem almost to be sure to put it as a Vikrama Cholan ihonument which presumably got embellished or completed by Rajaraja II. In any case, it would definitely be a monument built during a.d. 1130—1160, some additions and accretions taking place in the subsequent periods.

The temple has two walls of enclosure. The outer one is in ruins with only the gopuram at the eastern side remaining. Even that which should have been a grand seven-tiered gopuram comparable to those of Chidambaram, Tribhuvanam and Tiruvalur is in a bad shape, all the upper tiers having collapsed. Portions of the first tier remain to give us an idea of the architectural features of the superstructure. The solid all-stone gopura-vasal (the dvara, that is the base) is in two tiers, as at the above-mentioned places, and bears a close resemblance to, and is almost identical with, the eastern gopuram of the outer-most prakara (third wall of enclosure) at Tiruvalur. The pilasters, the niches and the entablatures over them, which now take the form of salas in lieu of makara-toranas of an earlier period, and more than these, the majestic vyalas of graceful form alternating with the niches, point to the unequivocal conclusion that this gopuram and the non-extant wall of enclosure must have been the contributions of Kulottunga III. The dance panels, depicting the karanas of Bharata’s Natya Sastra, strung like a festoon down the flanking wall-faces of the entrance through the gopuram, bear the same architectural and iconic features as are noticed at Chidambaram, Darasuram and Tribhuvanam. The Later Cholas took the cue for their gopurams from the grand vimana of the Rajarajesvaram at Tanjavur and the Gangaikondasolisvaram at Gangaikondasolapuram and adapted the technique to suit their plans of manifold expansion of existing campuses of earlier temples. By and large, the srivimana receives diminishing importance, the gopuram getting increasing attention. The gopurams of Kulottunga III would have for us less of iconographic significance, the heyday of iconic display on the gopurams being left behind with the end of Rajaraja II’s rule. Inscribed icons as at the western gopuram or the inscribed karanas (defined from the slokas of the Natya Sastra) of the classical dance form as found in the eastern as well as the western gopurams of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram would almost fix their period as of Rajaraja II’s. The main Darasuram gopuram falls into this group.

The inner wall of enclosure with the gopuram at the eastern entrance through it is, however, part and parcel of the Somanathar temple. The inner campus measures 20 m. north-south and 78 m. east-west. The temple faces east and has only one approach through the eastern wall. The madil has a tiruch-churru-maligai 4.30 m. in width along the lengthwise walls and 5.30 m. along the breadthwise walls. The main shrine consists of a garbhagriha 10 m. square, an ardhamandapa 5.16 m. By 4.37 mi'. inside with uneven external dimensions caused by the new structural in-novations that came into being from the Vikramasolisvaram days. The structure is seen to lose the axial balance that characterised the temples of the days of the Middle Cholas; in fact it would be true to say that structural asymmetry was brought about even by Rajendra I as noticed at Kulambandal. The northern wall is flattened out into one continuous straight wall surface with decorative niches evenly placed along the entire length; the southern wall evolves its undulations and embellishments, almost as if to attract the pilgrim to the temple who begins his circum-ambulation in a j bradakshina fashion commencing with the southern prakara; and only when he has worshipped the lord does he wend his way through the western and finally the northern prakara before exiting through the eastern gateway. A look at the temple plan would emphasise this asymmetry. Measured on the northern side, the temple is 42.60 m. long, the garbhagriha and the ardhamandapa wall portions measuring 16.25 m. and the remaining chambers measuring 26.35 m. externally. There are ten niches on the northern wall covering the mahamandapa and the mandapa, evenly spaced out (with an intervening distance of 2.64 m.); corresponding to them on the southern face, wherever a niche could be accommodated, we find one and in other places, other architectural innovations like the sopana and the platform with an entrance to the mukhamandapa make their appearance. The other important feature is the ratha-mandapa (or the chariot hall) with horses and wheels, south of the mahamandapa.

The srivimana is tri-tala with katas and salas in the haras and a circular dome (sikhara) on top. Like Vikramasolisvaram at Tukkachchi, the superstructure of this temple is of brick.

In terms of style evolution, we could place this temple midway between Vikramasolisvaram mentioned above and Rajarajesvaram at Darasuram. If one were not conscious of the fact that Kulottunga II concentrated much attention on the Chidambaram temple, one could say that this was a temple of the period of Kulottunga II. The only inscription found here (ARE 254 of 1927) states that the big mandapa and the sopana (flight of steps/ were constructed by Vanadarayan Narasingadevan of Poruvanur in Saka 1375 (a.d. 1453). We must recollect that Palayarai was sacked by the Pandyas after the defeat of Kulot-tunga III in the closing years of his reign and much of the damage to the temple here and the strange absence of almost all the niche icons would be ascribable to this sack. Evidently Palayarai remained an abandoned city for a long time. The renovation referred to is possibly of the mahamandapa and the ratha-mandapa and its steps.

The noteworthy feature of the niche figures is the presence of Ardhanarisvara in the rear niche of the a departure from Later Chola style Lingodbhavar noticed at Darasuram as well as at Tribhuvanam. Ardhanarisvara as the rear-niche figure occurs again in the Siva temple at Mulaiyur, close by.

The Amman shrine dedicated to Somanayaki is attributable to Kulottunga III, on stylistic grounds.

Footnotes and references:


this period, the nearby Ayirattali bore the names of Mudikondasoia-puram, Pandiyanai-ven-kanda-sola-puram etc. Mudikondasola was a title of Rajendra I.


The Panchavan Madevisvaram temple here is described as being in Palayarai* in contemporary inscriptions.

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