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....

From an inscription (quoted in SI I, II, 3 b, but not numbered separately), partially covered, on the first pillar (counting from the south-west corner) of the western, it appears that an image of Pillaivar Ganapatiyar, who is called in the inscription Parivaralayattup-Pillaiyar (Pillaiyar of the parivara-alaya or sub-shrine) was set up by Rajaraja I before his twenty-ninth year and that it was made of copper and measured 14 viral in height. Was it a processional image, made of copper?

From an inscription on a pillar of the same west wing (SIX, II, 88), we gather that one Kanjan Kondaiyan, a native of Kamadamangalam in Purakkillivur nadu, a subdivision of Pandyakulasani valanadu, and a servant (pani-maganar) of Rajaraja devar and the master (chief) of the rent roll in the department (Tinaikkalam) of taxes levied from endowments (Puravari-tinaikkalatlu-varip-pottaga-nayakan), presented a bell-metal dish (vengalal-laligai)weighing 29 to the Parivaralayattup-Pillaiyar Ganapatiyar.

On a niche of the same west wing is another inscription (SII, II, 89) which refers to gifts to this Ganapati—“yarukku”; the inscription being in the western enclosure, in which the Parivaralayattup-Pillaiyar Ganapatiyar is located, we may presume that the gifts relate to this Pillaiyar.

Mural Paintings in the Rajarajesvaram Temple

The sanctum sanctorum of the Rajarajesvaram temple as mentioned earlier, has a vestibule 1.88 ms (6 feet 2 inches) in width between the two parallel walls of the garbhagriha. In the 30’s of this century, some remarkable paintings were discovered on the inter-facing walls of the vestibule by the late S.K. Govinda-swami (See Journal of the Annamalai, Vol. II, 1933; and J.I.S.O.A., Vol. I, pp. 73 - 80). He however found on close scrutiny that the entire wall surface was covered with paintings belonging to the days of the Nayak rulers of Tanjavur and that in places the painted surface had crumbled, exposing to view exquisite paintings datable in the Chola period. Trying to preserve both the Chola and the Nayak paintings, the Archaeological Survey authorities have done a remarkable job of scientifically cleaning up the exposed portions revealing the excellence of the Chola paintings and at the same time retaining in tact the second layer on which the Nayak paintings are drawn.

The vestibule consists of fifteen chambers made up of four corner chambers, three central chambers and eight intervening chambers, two to each side. The space of the sixteenth chamber is taken up by the entrance to the garbhagriha from the ardhaman-dapa. On each side, the vestibule measures 17.07 ms 156 feet) from end to end. The chambers are nominally separated from one another by door-sills 0.46 m (a foot and a half) in thickness, without, however, any intervening door. All the chambers have recesses which in the ease of the central ones are deep, and in the case of the longer intervening chambers, shallow. The wall surfaces of these recesses and in some cases those of the adjoining jambs have provided the lithic canvas for the Chola paintings, though not all of them have been made use of. For convenience, the chambers have been numbered in the clockwise order as seen in the Ground Plan. Presenting a grand view from the prakara round the srivimana, through the central openings in the outer wall of the garbhagriha, are three giant-size sculptures in the central chambers, one each on the north, west and south faces, with their backs to the inner wall. The one on the southern side (in chamber no. 4) is of Jvarahara-Isvara, with two arms carrying a sword and a trident (?). This deity is generally covered over with a thick layer of chandana kavacham (sandal-wood paste) and local tradition has it that the deity has healing qualities. The sculptures in the western central chamber (no. 8) is described as Sadyojatamurti, wielding the gada, the tanka, the sword and the sula in the arms to the proper right, while on the proper left one arm is flung across the chest in the gajahasta style, two others wield the noose and the shield, the fourth being broken. On the proper left is an image of Parvati; on the proper right is Vishnu playing the drum. The image is presently covered with stucco; this was possibly done during the Nayak period. We have an equally majestic sculpture of a female deity, in the northern central chamber (no. 12) holding an akshamala in the proper right and the lotus in the proper left arm. It could be a representation of the concept of the integration of Parvati and Lakshmi, but this requires to be examined further.

At present, not all the Chola paintings have been exposed, but those exposed so far are found—

(i) on the north wall of chamber number 5,
(ii) on the east wall and jamb of chamber number 7,
(iii) on the east wall and jambs of chamber number 9,
(iv) on the inner jamb facing north in chamber number 10, and
(v) on the south face of chamber number 11.

Chamber No. 5: Dakshinamurti

The painting on the northern side of the chamber depicts a forest scene. Various animals such as lions, tigers, deer, bears, monkeys and reptiles like pythons are shown in their characteristic attitudes and postures. A deer scratching its back-turned face with its hind hoof, and a monkey perched on the top of a tree which is densely foliated enliven the scene. The trees are outlined in black, while the animals have been shown in brown fas in the case of the bear) or yellow (as in the case of the dog). A very natural green gives form and reality to the foliage in the forest. At the lower end of the panel, we discern the bold outline of an enormous figure, which could be identified with Siva as Dakshinamurti seated on a tiger skin in a yogic posture complete with the yogapatta. The outline is brown, the body is reddish yellow and the jewellery is in red, blue and white tints. The background is green. Besides, we have two other figures both in brown outline, the body colours being light red and green, respectively. A standing human figure perhaps represents a hunter in his natural habitat and attire—a kachcham. The representation of Dakshinamurti in this forest scene seems to be a mural replica of the metallic image Rajaraja I presented to the temple before the twenty-ninth year of his reign (SII, II, 59), which has been described in great detail in his grant.

A fine portrait of Rajaraja I and his guru Karuvur Devar occupies the lower left-hand corner showing them in a mood of reverence before Dakshinamurti.

Chamber No. 7: Sundaramurti Nayanar episode

Certain major events in the life of Sundaramurti Nayanar, so vividly depicted in literature as well as in sculpture, both stone and metal, have been sequentially portrayed by allocating a horizontal third of the painted surface to each episode. The lowest layer depicts the marriage of Sundarar being prevented from taking place by Siva in the garb of an old man; the middle section shows Sundarar and Cheraman ascending to Kailasa, and in the uppermost segment is depicted the effulgent scene of Kailasa with the arrival of these two from the Earth.

(i) The marriage scene of Sundarar is characterized by realism and a deep insight into details; the cooking scene for instance is shown with great attention to minutiae; the cooking oven, firewood and cauldron lend a down-to-earth look to the scene; the colour scheme is interesting. Siva in the guise of an old man, fussing about his rights over the brahmana slave, who, he contended, Sundarar was to him, is subtly brought out by

giving him an angry and aggressive look exuding self-confidence, while Sundarar, with his marriage stalled, is delineated as a frightened person in front of the irate old man, who is shown producing a palm leaf, as a document to prove his contention that Sundaramurti and his ancestors were the bond slaves of the old man. The Chola craftsman has obviously got into the spirit of the scene and has vividly brought out the utter consternation in the faces of the persons who had come to attend the wedding.

(ii) The wedding stalled, Sundarar plunges into the service of god and begins his pilgrimage to the temples of the south, that ultimately ends at Tiruvanjaikkalam. There he ascends to Heaven and attains oneness with God. His close associate, the Chera king, Cheraman Perumal, hearing of this event hastens to catch up with Sundarar, for fetching whom the divine elephant Airavata was sent from Heaven. The middle portion of this painting depicts the ascent of Sundarar and Cheraman to Kailasa. Sundarar is riding the elephant Airavata, shown in dark brown outline with white trappings outlined in red and its divine origin is indicated by the trifurcated tusks (shad-danta); Cheraman is shown riding a galloping horse, its outline being in dark brown and the saddlery in white-in-red. A lighter vein is introduced to the proceedings by the Court craftsman, when he shows a figure clinging to the tail of the elephant in the hope of attaining Heaven at least that way. A row of musicians and divine dancers accord ceremonial welcome to the ascetic and the royal guest at the portals of Kailasa. In the northern segment of the wall is a scene showing Cheraman worshipping Lord Siva in a temple in Vanji, the then capital of the Cheras, presently called Tiru-vanjikulam fCranganorc). The surfaces of the wings of the wall, provided by the flanking jambs, have also been painted on in delineating this fast-moving and time-spread theme.

(in) On the top third portion of the wall, the scene of Kailasa is depicted symbolically with Siva and Parvati witnessing a dance by two divine damsels; the scene is complete with the presence of Nandi and the ganas;there is a female figure, akin to the tribal belle, standing at the extreme right reminiscent of the forest scene, where there is an attired male, very much like one of the hunting tribes.

Chamber No. 9: Rajaraja and his three Queens worshipping Lord Nataraja

In this chamber the entire canvas is covered with a panel showing the temple of Nataraja at Chidambaram, the four walls running along the sides of the panel framing it as it were. We are able to derive a clear idea of the gopurams on the four sides as they should have existed in the days of Rajaraja I, i.e., before the present ones came up during the days of the Later Cholas. They are very much like the Rajarajan Tiru-vasal in Rajarajes-varam, with a broad base and a small gopuram. They are found on all the four sides. The wall of enclosure is simple and has no tiruch-churru-maligai; the Chit sabha is shown in magnified dimensions to accommodate the figure of Nataraja which dominates the scene; the dome is similar to what we see now; the Kanaka sabha shown respectfully smaller, accommodates Rajaraja and his three queens; what is noteworthy, among others, is the fine handling of the drapery of the queens who are shown wearing fine quality saris with lines and dots and decorative designs on them. The legs are revealed through the fineness of the diaphanous drapery. (See colour plates)

This panel is indeed a masterpiece of the Chola artist, who was as versatile in handling the human form as in portraying Nature in all her facets. The figure of dancing Nataraja (Adaval-lan) is exquisite in workmanship and enormous in proportions, comparable to the actual size of some of the man-size bronzes of Nataraja cast in this period, with emphasis on poise and balance. The dhatura flower is enchantingly natural, while the cobra wriggles and dangles from the divine body in all its sinuousness and colour; the outline of the shrine of Nataraja is possibly a representation of the Chit sabha at Chidambaram as it existed then.

The panel in the wall opposite to this also belongs to the Chola period but is much damaged and worn out; however rows of dancing figures are discernible, as also a miniature Nataraja (?). A little further up is Rajaraja with his guru Karu-vur Devar.

Chamber No. 10: Rajaraja I and Karuvur Devar

In this chamber, on the inner jamb facing north is a fine representation of Rajaraja I and his guru Karuvur Devar. We have already noted yet another panel where they are shown in the forest scene in the fifth chamber.

Chamber No. 11: Tripurantakar

On the southern surface of the inner wall facing north in chamber no. 11 is perhaps the most graphic and dynamic of all the paintings so far unveiled to us by the hand of man. Nothing delighted the master artists of the Dravidian Court so much as the concept of Siva as Tripurantakar; and the Chola painter drew upon it and gave it a new dimension. The entire canvas here is covered by the enormous figure of Tripurantakar riding a chariot driven by Brahma and accompanied by Karttikeya on his mount the peacock, Ganesa on his mouse and Kali on her lion, with Nandi in front of the chariot. Tripurantakar is shown standing in a fighting (alidha) posture on a pitham in a two-tiered chariot, the two wheels of which are represented as Surya and Chandra, and his eight arms are shown carrying the traditional weapons, the bow and the shield among them; one arm is swung across the body to the opposite side; one hand is shown in the posture of taking an arrow from the quiver; there is another quiver on the base of the chariot as a standby.

The anger in the eyes and the smile on the lips are brought out very subtly and effectively; Siva is shown not as aiming the arrow at the enemy but in the act of pulling out an arrow from the quiver; the consternation among the ganas, who are accompanied by their female companions, shown clinging to them, is patent, and one of the frustrated among them is shown lifting a boulder to throw at Siva; hatred and fear are both brought out in the facial expression of this asura; Asura-guru Sukracharya is shown in a posture of surrender and despair at the right hand corner of the panel; lower down in the panel is shown an asm a carrying Siva (in the form of a linga) (?). This painting is a masterpiece and perhaps the greatest among those which have come down to us and have so far been exposed to view in this temple; in its rhythm, composition and concept of form and dimension, it has no equal in any contemporary painting (or could one add sculpture too?). There is a confluence of emotions and sentiments depicted in this panel, majesty and valour etched in the face and form of Tripurantakar, piteousness and utter despair in the faces and postures of the female demons; wonder in those of the many gods and demi-gods, at the feat of the Lord; and finally a portrayal of the unusual and the grotesque in the shape and form of the ganas. It is no wonder, Rajaraja I or his court painter chose this theme; was not the story of Tripurantakar the theme of Rajaraja’s life itself, of a great warrior, a great benefactor, a king among kings?

On the opposite wall of the same chamber, we have scenes showing Ravana shaking and trying to lift the Kailasa mountain; the ten-headed rakshasa is shown in a fine shade of green and the attempt to lift the mountain is portrayed effectively by a neck bent low and a face showing strain. Parvati is frightened and clings to Siva from whose arms the snake has slid and fallen to lie coiled on the ground. Lower in the same panel are shown the devas and the ganas, some in fright and others in postures of trying to dissipate the efforts of Ravana. The panel has not yet been fully exposed and will turn out to be one of the best paintings of the Tanjavur group.

Chamber No. 13

There are patches of Chola painting peeping out of the exposed patches where the Nayak layer has peeled off; but the theme cannot be clarified unless the superimposed Nayak painting is removed.

The roof over the ground floor vestibule also has paintings which require to be exposed; whatever is visible now relates to a later period. Owing to years of neglect, rain water had seeped through the crevices in the srivimana stones and so the topmost foot or two of the panels have been virtually washed out and are thus lost irretrievably. The sikhara is now being cleaned and the gaps are being plugged and it is to be hoped that whatever of the paintings are left will suffer no further damage. These are perhaps the best set of paintings of the Chola period, in fact, of South India of the Chola and Pandya periods, and should therefore be preserved jealously. One wishes, judging by the exquisite quality of the paintings, that some at least of the secular buildings like the palaces at Tanjavur, Gangaikonda-cholapuram and Palaiyaru could have come down to us, if for nothing else, at least to give us an idea of the mature skill and versatility of the Chola painters.[1] (Colour Plates i-io)

A Unique Monument

The Rajarajesvaram is unique in many respects. It has a well-conceived unitary plan and its execution is perfect. Its plinth—upapitham and adhishthanam—is high and strong and has fine mouldings which give dignity and grandeur to the whole edifice. Stones of excellent texture have been brought from a long distance, and were properly dressed and raised by an artificial inclined plane to the required height. It is a rare feat, considering the limited technology of the age. With great engineering skill, the downward thrust of the heavy stone superstructure has been well distributed. The Linga is huge and it is housed in a doublestoreyed garbhagriha supporting the upper part of the srivimana.

All the members of the structure are well proportioned and there is harmony in their assemblage. The steep upward sweep of the srivimana, resembling Meru, with the needle-like slupi at the top seems to point to the devotee the path to the lap of the Lord of the Universe.[2]

The calligraphy of the inscriptions on the walls of the temple has reached a level of unparalleled excellence. So magnificent and stupendous a structure has been completed in such a short time, and built to last till eternity.

The vimana sculptures continue the sublimity of the earlier Chola period. It is really the “D of Indian temples.

The eleventh century was the grandest period of templebuilding activity in India. It was the age when India witnessed the highest achievements in temple architecture. Among them are those of Khajuraho built by the Ghandelas between A.D. 950 and 1050, the most conspicuous of these being the Khandariya Mahadeva—33.22ms (109 feet) long, 18.29ms (6 ° feet) broad and 35.51ms (116 feet) high; and the Lingaraj of Bhubanesvar in Orissa built about A.D. 1000, with a square base of side 15.55ms (51 feet) and a height of 38.10ms (125 feet). About this time some Hindu and Jain temples were also built at Osia in Rajasthan, and again two Jain temples, in marble, at Mt. Abu. Even among these, the Rajarajesvaram holds the pride of place.

Footnotes and references:


In a very informative article written in 1937, S. Paramesvaran, the then Chemist of the Government Museum at Madras, has dealt with the technical aspects of these paintings, the plaster used for the base, the pigments, the binding medium, the method of execution and other interesting details. (See Technical Studies, Harvard: V 4 (1937), pp. 222-239.)


In the Author’s Preface to the book ‘The Story of Indian Art’, S. K. Bhattacharya (Atma Ram & Sons) observes:

Indians were never an architectonic people: The Buddhist Chaitiyas, Jain and Hindu Temples are all replete with the sculptural quality of the builders. They never aspired towards the heaven like the Gothic Churches of Mediaeval Europe. They arc firmly based on earth, and as such, they belong to our world rather than the world beyond”.

I wonder if this view is correct. The builders of Rajarajesvaram at Tanjavur knew the basic principles of planning and constructing buildings. This temple seems to belong both to this world and the world beyond, with a happy blend of the allied twin arts of Architecture and Sculpture. Indian Vastu and Silpa Sastras describe various kinds of temples with vimanas of many talas (or bhumis) and multi-storeyed gopurams of which there exist, even today, many examples, and the Rajarajesvaram is the grandest of them all (see Plates 32 and 42 of his book). On page 67, he admits: “The great sweep of the pyramidal vimana enclosed by niches gives it a monumental vertical effect and speaks of the techtonic sense of Chola rulers” and thus contradicts himself.

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