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....

The village of Mannarkoyil is at a distance of about 6.50 kms (four miles) north of Ambasamudram the headquarters of the taluk of the same name in Tirunelveli district. There is a huge Vishnu temple here, currently called the Rajagopalasvamin temple. During the period of Chola rule over this part of the country, however, it bore the name of Rajendrasola Vinnagaram (after Rajendra I). The principal deity is called Vedanarayanar, and the consorts Vedavalli and Bhuvanavalli. The utsava-murti is known as Rajagopalasvamin, whence the temple derives its present name.

Gopalasvamin temple (Rajendrasola Vinnagaram)

As many as nine inscriptions have been recorded from the walls of the central shrine of this temple (ARE 106 to 114 of 1905). Five of these relate to the Chola viceroy in the Pandya country named Jatavarman Sundara Chola-Pandya, a son of Rajendra I; four of them are of his fourth, thirteenth, fourteenth and sixteenth years, and the date of the fifth one is lost. In the fourth year record itself, the temple is referred to as Rajendrasola Vinnagar. In the other records, as well as in one of a Mara-varman Vikrama Chola-Pandya, two Chera princes, Rajaraja deva and Rajasimha, are mentioned. These two princes probably owed allegiance to the Imperial Cholas, confirming the claims of Rajaraja I and Rajendra I to having conquered the Chera country. Yet again, in an inscription of the twenty-fourth year of Rajendra I (ARE 112 of 1905), the temple is called Rajendrasola Vinnagar, and is stated to have been built by Rajasimha, the Chera feudatory, and named after the overlord: the king makes a grant of land to the temple to take effect from that year (a.d. 1036), also referred to as the fifteenth year of the Chola-Pandya viceroy; this fixes the date of accession of the latter (to this viceroyalty) at a.d. 1021. Thus this temple is a foundation of the days of Rajendra I and must have been completed in or before the fourth year of this viceroy, namely, a.d. 1025.

The temple, which dominates the neighbouring landscape, has an extensive campus and has many fine features. The main shrine, whose srivimana is tri-tala, consists of a garbhagriha, an ardhamandapa, a mahamandapa and a mukhamandapa with a wide courtyard providing a circumambulatory passage. There are two walls of enclosure and, on the eastern wing of each there is a gopuram. The garbhagriha and the ardhamandapa (of the ground floor) constitute a unitary block, measuring on the outside 13-50 ms in length ad 12-32 ms in breadth (making almost a square), and 4-46 ms in height. The garbhagriha (of the adi-tala) is of the sandhara type: double-walled, with a narrow passage going all around the cella of the garbhagriha (the inner and outer walls being called respectively antara-bhitti and bahya-bhitti), similar to what we fine at the Rajarajesvaram in Tanjavur. The devakoshtas of the outer wall of the garbhagriha are bereft of sculptures, unlike what we find in the Pallava and Chola country, but a common feature in the Pandya country.

In the garbhagriha (of the adi-tala), there are standing images of (Vishnu as) Vedanarayanar in the centre, with His Consorts Vedavalli and Bhuvanavalli, one on either side, close to the rear wall. The Lord has the sankha and the chakra in His upper left and right arms, the lower right arm in the abhaya pose, and the lower left arm resting on a mace; the image is 1.98 ms high, reckoning without the padma-pitham. All the three images are said to be covered with stucco (though made of stone); consequently, no abhishekas are performed for them. On the rear wall, back of these images, there are painted replicas of these images (with the same insignia and poses of the hands); on the southern and northern walls of the sanctum, there are paintings of Brahma and of Siva on Mount Kailasa, respectively. In front of the above images are placed the processional metal images of Vedanarayanar and consorts (these receive abhishekas).

The ardhamandapa is supported by eight pillars and on its north wall, there is a window consisting of 16 square openings.

There are counterparts in the two upper talas for the garbhagriha and the ardhamandapa of the adi-tala, which we shall call by the same names. The second tala is reached by a narrow flight of stairs abutting on, and outside, the southern side of the common outer wall of the garbhagriha and which takes us to the ardhamandapa of that tala and thence to the garbhagriha thereof. There are seated stucco images of Vishnu and His consorts, Bhudevi and Sridevi, on either side of Him, and icons of Markandeya and Bhrigu-rishi, one on either side of the triad and facing each other, in the garbhagriha of this tala, and painted replicas of these images on the rear wall thereof. Paintings of Brahma, and of Siva on Mount Kailasa adorn the southern and northern walls (inner surfaces) of the garbhagriha, respectively.

The (presumably) brick and mortar roof of the garbhagriha (of this tala) is supported by wooden beams; the wooden roof of the ardhamandapa is supported by pillars, two of stone and the rest of wood, and the wood elements are all beautifully carved and painted.

Another narrow flight of steps, on the east side of the second tala, leads to the third tala. The garbhagriha of this (the third) tala houses an image of Vishnu as Anantasayana, and images of Sridevi, Bhudevi and of the (same) rishis; there is a painted replica of this set of images on the west wall of the chamber, and paintings of Brahma, and of Siva as Tripurantakar on the southern and northern walls, respectively. The ardhamandapa roof is (again) of wood, with the pillars (also of wood), beams and rafters beautifully carved; it is flat in the middle and slopes downwards at the sides to permit the tapering off of the sikhara on top.

The superstructure over the third tala, consisting of the griva and a sala-t ype (barrel-roofed) sikhara crowned by three stupis, is of brick and mortar. There are salas on the south, west and north faces of the third tala, whose koshtas contain images of Yoga Dakshinamurti, Narasimha and Brahma, respectively. The same images are repeated in the griva-koshtas as well. There are no images on the east faces of the sikhara and There are garuda figures in the four corners of the sikhara.

The mahamandapa, a later addition, projects 19.81 ms (65') forward from the ardhamandapa. It serves also as a snapana-mandapa. It is supported by eighteen beautifully carved pillars, five in each flank, two each at the east and west edges, and four in the four corners at an angle to the rest, the whole structure having a compact appearance.

The ardhamandapa houses a fine set of three bronzes, namely, the processional deities. They are, from left to right, Sridevi, Vedanarayanar and Bhudevi. Without the pedestal, the main image measures 57-15 cms (22.5") in height, the pedestal itself being 17.78 cms (7") high; the corresponding figures for either devi image are: 43.18 cms (17") and 13.97 cms (5.5"), respectively. The Vedanarayana image holds the chakra and sankha in the two upper hands, and the lower arms are held in the varada and abhaya poses. He wears the upavita, the channavira and the skandamala besides a variety of other ornaments; each of the consorts holds a flower (lotus or in one hand, the other hand being held in the kati-avalambita pose.

In the north-western comer, there are the following bronzes:

  1. Sudarsanam,
  2. Navanita Krishna, seated on a snako-pitham with three coils and five hoods, and with a ball ofbutterinhis hand, (iii) Narttana Krishna,
  3. Sita,
  4. Rama with bow and arrow,
  5. and Lakshmana with bow only.

Again, in the same comer of the same hall, adjoining the wall, there is a set of bronzes of the Alvars, forming an impressive array indeed. They are:

  1. Vishvaksena, seated, with two hands holding the sankha and the, and the other two arms held in the abhaya and varada poses,
  2. Poigai Alvar,
  3. Bhutattalvar,
  4. Pey Alvar,
  5. Tirumalisai Alvar,
  6. Kulasekhara Alvar,
  7. Madhura Kavi,
  8. Tondaradippodi Alvar,
  9. Tirup-pan Alvar,
  10. Tirumangai Alvar,
  11. Peri-yalvar (with hair knotted up near the forehead and holding a flower-basket in his hand),
  12. Udaiyavar or Ramanuja, with the tri-dandam,
  13. and Manavalamuni (without the tri-dandam).

In the mukhamandapa, there is a fine set of tall icons of Rama, Lakshmana, Sita and Hanuman, said to have been recovered some time back from a neighbouring well.

The mahamandapa contains some bronzes as well, namely, of the processional deities (under worship): Rajagopalasvamin, Andal and Garuda, all on a manjam (high platform). The image of Rajagopalasvamin[1] measures 86.36 cms (2' 10") including the pitham. Andal holds her right arm in the kati-avalambita pose, while her left hand holds a nilotpala flower. She has an elegant top knot of hair in the usual Andal style, to the side of the head. This image measures 63.50 cms (2' 1") with the Garuda holds his arms in the anjali pose and has a snake draped over his arms, which are adorned with among others.

This image is 69.85 cms (2' 3½") high.

To one side of the mahamandapa is a fine sesha-vahana (processional serpent-couch), made entirely of cast-copper, which measures 1.22 ms (4') on the outside from end to end, and 0.86 m (2' 10") on the inner side of the aureola; the snake-coil is about 1.03 ms (3' 4½") high, while the hood portion measures 0.56 m (22") from end to end; there are seven hoods.

Kulasekhara Alvar shrine: To the north of the main shrine and in the same compound, is a Pandyan shrine dedicated to Kulasekhara Alvar, one of the Vaishnava saints. It was set up before the fourteenth year of Maravarman Sundara Pandya Deva, in the first quarter of the thirteenth century. Itls a small, compact structure, with the garbhagriha measuring 4.19 ms (13' 9") square, and the antarala projecting 2.87 ms (9' 5") forward; the two are surrounded by a tiruch-churru-maligai. The shrine faces south; it is an eka-tala structure with a griva and an octagonal, curvilinear sikhara. The garbhagriha walls have only token niches, with no sculptures in them.

In his Aspects of Temple Architecture (p.119), K.V. Soundara-rajan refers to this temple (the Gopalasvamin temple) as a structural temple of the Pandya-Chola period and of a mixed style, and ascribes it to the tenth century a. d. There seems to be little evidence for the last conclusion of his. We have adduced epigraphical evidence above to support the conclusion that the temple is definitely of the period of Rajendra I, and hence of the first quarter of the eleventh century a. d. (1025).

During the period of the Imperial Chola sway over the Pandya country, the Chola viceroys (who were called Chola-Pandyas) and the Chola feudatories built a number of temples in the Pandya country and embellished them with a number of stone and metal sculptures. Examples of such temples are the Somana-thesvara temple at Attur, the Kailasanathar temple at Brahma-desam, the Tiruvalisvaram temple, the Kailasapati temple at Gangaikondan, the PalHkondar temple at Tirunelveli, and of course the present temple. These structures and icons have certain distinct features. The most noticeable, characteristic architectural feature is the shallowness of the devakoshtas on the garbhagriha and ardhamandapa walls and the absence of any images in them. The metals have oval and angular faces, contrasting with the rounded and full faces of the icons in the Chola country; they have heavy and bulbous (bun-like) hairdo, and the ridges of the noses are exceedingly thin, giving the impression of very sharp and pointed noses. These features are so characteristic of the temples of this region that we may postulate a “Chola-Pandya idiom” in the Dravidian style of temple architecture and sculpture in this period (Pls 325 to 329).

Footnotes and references:


‘According to local version, the right arm is in the Mokshahasta pose and the left is in the Bhogahasta pose’.

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