Middle Chola Temples

by S. R. Balasubrahmanyam | 1975 | 141,178 words

This volume of Chola Temples covers Rajaraja I to Kulottunga I in the timeframe A.D. 985-1070. 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....

S.R. Balasubrahmanyam’s third volume entitled “Middle Chola Temples” carries the saga of Chola architecture, sculpture and inscriptional evidence from the reign of the great Rajaraja (a.d. 985-1014) upto the very short reign of Adhi Rajendra (a.d. 1069-70), the son of Vira Rajendra (a.d. 1063-1069) who is the last of the famous royal Chola temple builders of the Middle period. Thereafter followed a short interregnum of political chaos till Kulottunga I (a.d. 1070-1120) came to the throne to revive Chola glory. The author's previous two volumes on Early Chola architecture and sculpture had told the story of the prolific temple-building activities of Aditya I (a.d. 871-907), the real founder of Chola supremacy in the South and that of his successors till Rajaraja ascended the throne. No doubt this is a brilliant period in the history of Chola art and there are several aspects in which it was never surpassed, particularly in the sculptures which adorned these early shrines in their deva-koshlas and other parts of the temple structure. But with Rajaraja the Chola temple underwent a transformation. This did not occur as a fortuitous circumstance. It was conditioned by the greatness of the Chola empire, its expansion from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea, its all-victorious arms, its liberal paternal administration and the religious fervour of the monarch and his subjects. This pinnacle of glory to which the fortunes of the Chola dynasty rose is indissolubly bound with the reign of Rajaraja. Everything about this ruler and his kingdom could truly be described in the superlative and thus it came about in the natural course of events that the greatest of all South Indian temples was conceived, built and consecrated by him. From the beautiful but small temples of Aditya I and Parantaka I to the mighty cathedral shrine of Rajarajeesvaram of Tanjavur is a progression in architectural vision and achievement so far-reaching, and in so limited a space of time, that Rajaraja must in some respects be regarded as the greatest temple builder of the South. And here in this third volume Shri Balasubrahmanyam commences the story of this unique achievement and its continuation into the reign of Rajaraja's son Rajendra and even thereafter. The story is unfolded by the author in its fullest perspective. This architectural achievement is surveyed against the background of the history of the period—political, social and religious. It does not stand in isolation as a technical dissertation on the building of Middle Chola temples but becomes a living drama within which a mighty architectural achievement took place. Without the comprehension of this drama and its ever rising tempo, the true glory of Chola art can never be adequately unfolded or understood. The great temple of Rajaraja is commonly known as the Brihadesvaram though there seems to be no reason why it should not always be referred to by its true name of Rajarajeesvaram, the authenticity of which is vouched for by inscriptional evidence. It is not enough to understand the architectural plan and layout of the Rajarajeesvaram. This temple itself reveals what it meant to its builder, his court, his officers and his people. It is indeed a testament in stone, for the numerous inscriptions beautifully engraved on its walls yield a wealth of detail with regard to the donations made to it and its highly elaborate administration. It symbolizes a religious fervour and ferment which no doubt led to the propagation of such stories as the miraculous finding of the Devaram hymns by Rajaraja. Rajaraja never forgot that the enormous wealth which he had acquired was no less by conquest than by good administration. A unique feature of the temple is the several stalwart figures on the walls holding sword and shield. Shri Sivaramamurti, the well known historian of South Indian art, and myself both firmly believe that the underlying idea of these figures, which may ostensibly be regarded as guardian figures, was to immortalize Rajaraja’s great army commanders who had brought glory to him and the royal house of the Cholas. They remind us of the “Immortals” of the Achaemenid kings in a more distant past. Not only is the Rajarajeesvaram famous for its architecture and sculpture but also for its paintings wherein is seen the last lingering greatness of the Ajanta tradition, though conceived and executed in a different manner. Whether the usually accepted interpretation of certain famous scenes in these paintings such as the one which is regarded as Rajaraja and his queens worshipping at the shrine of Nataraja at Chidambaram and another which is thought to be Rajaraja and his religious mentor Karur Deva is correct or not need not be discussed here. This much seems certain that the inspiration of these paintings was Raj a raja's attachment to the story of the life of the Navanar Sundaramurti and that of his friend Cheraman Perumal. which was later to be immortalized in the Periya Puranam of Sekkilar in the 12th century.

It is indeed sad, as Shri Balasubrahmanyam observes, that hardly any of the bronzes that were gifted to the Rajarajeesvaram temple exist today. The great Nataraja is one exception and another is a well-known Tripurantaka, formerly amongst the temple images and now in the Tanjore Art Gallery. But there is reason to believe that two more of the bronzes gifted to this temple do exits though no longer in the temple itself. Both were originally in the Srinivasa-gopalachari collection. One is the well known “Chola King" who is almost certainly Rajaraja himself, and the other is the “Chola Princess" who may well be his famous sister Kundavai, a great devotee of this shrine and who like the famous Sembiyan Mahadevi, spent her life in religious work and donations. These bronzes have been frequently illustrated.

The might of the Chola empire, great as it was in the reign of Rajaraja, increased even more in the reign of his famous son Rajendra. As if to symbolize this greatness and also the gratitude of the monarch to the God whom both father and son so ardently worshipped and whose blessings had carried the Chola arms to unprecedented military and naval success and the realm to economic prosperity, Rajendra built the great fane of Gangaikondacholapuram. Though certainly not built in any spirit of rivalry to his father’s achievement, it does in fact almost rival that achievement. Here several of the splendid bronzes appear to be contemporary with the founding of the shrine.

Though these two great temples undoubtedly dominate the entire range of Chola architecture and sculpture with which the present publication deals, yet the author has brought to light many other temples—as many as eighty assignable to the period of Rajaraja I and Rajendra I—some hitherto wrongly classified and others not generally known or referred to by other writers. With regard to the Tiruvalisvaram shrine in the Tirunelveli district, not far from the taluk headquarters of Ambasamudram, it is a most interesting temple from the point of view of its many sculptures though it has no devakoshta images as seems to be usual in temples of the Pandyan domain. But it has an inscription of the 1 1th year of Rajaraja and the author ventures to suggest that the temple even if built in the late Parantaka period was completed by Rajaraja. This seems to me not unlikely, having regard to some of its sculptures, but a more intensive study of Pandyan temples is necessary for firmer conclusions.

A number of temples of the period of Rajendra I. other than the famous Gangaikondacholesvaram, are also dealt with both from the point of inscrip-tional evidence and style to establish the period to which they belong. This is not always an easy task, because inscriptions are numerous and the earliest one on a shrine n ed not necessarily belong to the period of its foundation. Reconstructions, renovations and additions further complicate the problem of dating many a shrine. But by far and large it may be said that the material on which the author has based his conclusions is adequate and correctly interpreted with the full consciousness that there are bound to be shrines in each classification on which the last word has yet to be spoken. I his non-dogmatic approach, so essential in a subject so complex as Chola temple chronology, is a most admirable feature of the text.

The author leads the reader to an understanding of his viewpoint without any jarring notes of arbitrary pronouncements. Epigraphy is necessarily the basis of all studies in relation to South Indian temples and Shri Balasubrahman-yam, who is one of the greatest Tamil Epigraphists of our times, has collected and interpreted a vast amount of material which will ever remain the basis on which further studies can be founded. In a sense the great period of Chola temple art ends with Rajendra but what followed can never be neglected, for it is also of high importance. Shri Balasubrahmanyam has realised this and continued his study of the Middle Chola period by taking it upto the time of Adhi-Rajendra (a.d. 1069-70). Thereafter there was political confusion till Kulottunga I stabilized Chola rule once more. From this point, it is hoped the author will continue his great saga and bring it up to the period of Kulottunga III, the builder of the famous Tribhuvanam temple.

This book is easily the richest contribution to South Indian art; what adds to its merit is that it is profusely illustrated, most of the illustrations being published for the first time and some of them of rare quality.

Karl Khandalayala
Editor, Lalit Kala and Chairman,
Lalit Kala Akademi Bombay
10th April 1975

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