Ancient India

“Fascinating Marvels of Dravidian Architecture – Part 2 (Great Living Chola Temples)”

DSC_0110 - An Illusion of Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikondam.

 “Enlightenment inside, Illusion outside” – A basic concept relating Inner Consciousness with The Divine …

                                                     Before moving on to the next fascinating marvel of Dravidian architecture, you should try to read out the first part of my blog (if not, please click on this link  “Fascinating Marvels of Dravidian Architecture – Part 1 (Mahabalipuram)” ) and then only, one can experience the noticeable transition of dravidian temple architecture from the 7th century Pallava tradition to the 10th century Chola tradition. In this part, you are going to experience the two Chola Marvels of dravidian architecture :

  1. Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram.
  2. Brihadisvara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram (One of the Great Living Chola temples).

Temple architecture in South India reached its pinnacles under the rule of imperial
Cholas (850 – 1250). Early Chola temples however, are not as large as the ambitiously planned Pallava Kailashnatha or the Vaikunthaperumal temples at Kanchipuram. Development in early Chola architecture consists, instead, in perfecting the unique elements of the Dravidian style and combining them harmoniously with new forms in astonishingly diverse ways.

Period of the imperial Cholas (850 CE – 1250 CE) was an age of continuous improvement and refinement of Dravidian art and architecture. Utilized their prodigious wealth earned through their extensive conquests in building long-lasting stone temples and exquisite bronze sculptures. One such architectural marvel is our next location :

“Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram”

DSC_9804 - North gopuram,1000 pillared hall on east and Shivgangai pool of Thillai Nataraja temple, Chidambaram.

In South India, five temples were built for each of the five elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space. These are the Pancha Bhuta Sthalas. Geographically, they are all within the Deccan Plateau – four in Tamil Nadu and one in Andhra Pradesh. The temple for water is in Thiruvanaikaval, fire is Thiruvannamalai, Kalahasti is air and Kanchipuram is earth. The temple for space is in Chidambaram.

Thillai Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is located in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu and it is about 5 kms north of Kollidam river (Kaveri), 65 kms south of Pondicherry and 220 kms south of Chennai. State transport and private companies operate many services connecting it to other major cities. The site is also linked to the Indian Railway network through Chidambaram railway station. So, reaching Chidambaram, from Mahabalipuram was not an issue, as there were state transport buses available from the bypass junction near Mahabalipuram town (in 1.5 km distance). The easiest way is to reach Pondicherry, first (91 kms from Mahabalipuram) and then to Chidambaram.

In ancient times, this town was used to be called ‘Thillai’, following Thillai Vanam (forest), derived from mangrove of Thillai trees that grow here and the nearby Pichaivaram wetlands. And was renamed to Chidambaram, by Chola dynasty, when it was their capital city.The early history of the temple lies hidden in the mists of time. It reached its present form under the patronage of the kings of the Chola dynasty in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. From the aerial view we can see the total surface area of the temple covers 13 hectares or 35 acres. Placing it among the largest temples in the whole of India. It is designed with five concentric Prakaras, or circumambulatory temple courtyards. These are associated with the Five Elements. The innermost Prakara is not visible. It lies within the sanctum with the golden roof, and can only be entered by the Deekshithars (exclusive administrative group of Brahmins). The architecture and the rituals of this temple reflect its history and doctrine.

The word ‘Chidambaram’, refers to the philosophy and doctrine of the temple. ‘Chit’ means consciousness or wisdom. ‘Ambaram’ signifies ether in Sanskrit, but in Tamil the ‘ambalam’ means hall. The name unifies two aspects of the doctrine. Meaning both Hall of Wisdom, as well as the place of the Ether of Consciousness. Temple’s architecture symbolizes the connection between art and spirituality; ie, creativity and divine.

The Nataraja (Lord Siva posing as a Cosmic dancer) form essentially comes from Southern India, particularly from Tamil Nadu. And Nataraja is the family deity of Chola dynasty. Represents the exuberance of creation, the dance of creation which self-created itself from the eternal stillness. Nataraja standing in Chidambaram is very symbolic because what you call as Chidambaram is just absolute stillness. That is what is enshrined in the form of this temple. Main idea of classical arts is to bring this absolute stillness into a human being. Without stillness, true art cannot come… isn’t it ???

History of Chidambaram Nataraja Temple

Where we now find this beautiful and ancient temple, was once an impenetrable forest of Thillai trees, which is a kind of mangrove. This forest gave Chidambaram its first and most ancient name, Thillai. Within this sprawling forest was a lotus pond, and at the southern bank of this pond existed a Svayambhu Linga. A linga is a representation of Lord Siva which unites both the concepts of Form as well as of Formless in itself. In modern terms this formless-form might be called an abstraction.

Svayambhu means ‘self existent’, signifying that the linga was not made by human beings, but came into existence by itself, from nature. To this lotus pond in the Tillai forest, once came two saints, named Vyagrapada and Patanjali. They came from very different backgrounds and from very different directions, but they came for the same reason: to witness Lord Siva’s Cosmic Dance. It had been foretold to them that if they would worship the linga on the bank of the lotus pond in the forest, Lord Siva would come to perform His Dance.

Eventually this great event took place. Nataraja came to perform His Dance on a Thursday, when the moon was in the Asterism Pushan, in the Tamil month of Tai, long before the Christian era. This dance is called the Ananda Tandava or Dance of Bliss. The saints achieved liberation, and on their special request Siva promised to perform His Dance for all time at that place. The story of the origin of the worship of Shiva Nataraja in Chidambaram is told in the Chidambaram Mahatmyam. The Sacred History of Chidambaram, which is part of the Skanda Purana, one of the 18 great Puranas or collections of mythology. From one of the saints, Vyagrapada, which means Tiger Footed, Chidambaram received its second name, Puliyur, meaning ‘City of the Tiger’.

“Chidambaram Mahatmyam or Legend”

DSC_0631 - N side of Cloister - Chidambaram legend - Pathanjali and Vyaghrapatha witnessing Anandathandava of Nataraja.

16th Century Nayaka painting of ‘Chidambaram Legend’ – A shot from the Cloister halls of Brihadeeswara temple complex, Thanjavur.

An interesting story to visualize….. Throughout all of eternity, Lord Vishnu rests on Shesha (Ananthan), the Cosmic Snake, in Vaikundam. Once his weight suddenly seemed to have greatly increased. Shesha asked Vishnu “why are you so much heavier, Lord?” The Lord answered “I have had a vision of Siva doing his Cosmic Dance. I have expanded with happiness at the sight.” Shesha requested Vishnu to tell him all about Siva’s Dance. And Lord told him everything as follows :

“In the forest called Daruvanna, lived a community of Rishis or Seers in a hermitage. Through the performance of rituals they had achieved great knowledge and power, but they had not realized the importance of Divine Grace. Lord Siva requested Lord Vishnu to accompany him to enlighten the Rishis, by showing them human power and knowledge were helpless without intervention of Divine Grace. To accomplish this purpose the two deities applied their power of Maya or Illusion. Siva entered the hermitage of the Rishis as Bhikshatana or a Mendicant. With dazzling beauty, wearing only a mendicant’s sandals, the wives and daughters of the Rishis fell madly in love with him, forgetting everything else, and completely loosing themselves. Vishnu transformed himself into a beautiful woman called Mohini, and an alluring dancer. As soon as the Rishis saw Mohini dance before them, they too lost all sense and rationality and with desire burning in their hearts they followed Mohini around like madmen.

When some of the Rishis realized what was happening they became enraged and started a great magical fire sacrifice against Lord Siva’s Bhikshatana. First they called from the fire – A tiger, but when tiger attacked Lord Siva he laughed, and killed the ferocious animal with his hands, tearing off its skin and wearing it for a loin cloth. Next the Rishis send poisonous snakes, which he draped around his arms and neck, as jewelry. Then Siva prepared to perform his Cosmic Dance. His two other arms appeared and his third eye shone in his forehead. The Rishis called a fierce dwarf (Apasmara Purusha – Murayalayan) from their magical fire, but Siva’s dancing foot simply took him for a pedestal and danced. Finally the Rishis send the fire itself to destroy the Cosmic Dancer, but he just took it on to his left hand. And from the mantras that the Rishis used against him he made his anklets. Then the Lord danced his Tandava or Cosmic Dance. Its full power made the Rishis fall to the ground. It made Lord Vishnu shake, and even Parvati, the goddess consort of Shiva, who joined them to witness her husbands dance, was overcome with fear. But the Lord danced smiling, showing his raised foot. The Rishis understood the Lord’s Divine Grace, and attained realization. They started to dance themselves and all of creation danced with them.”

After Vishnu has told Shesha about his vision of Siva’s Cosmic Dance, he longs for only one thing: to see Siva’s dance himself. Vishnu grants him permission to leave him for a while, so Shesha too will be able to experience the dance. After performed austerities for long ages, Siva appeared before him, and offers him the fulfillment of any wish. Shesha has only one wish: to witness Shiva’s Ananda Tandava.

In fulfillment of Shesha’s wish, Siva announced to him that he will dance at the appropriate and tangible moment on earth in the Sabha in the Thillai forest. This forest is situated on the middle point of the earth, and constituted its heart centre, the Lotus Space. Through it passes the main energy nadi, or vein, of our mother planet. This place is called Chit Ambara, the Ether of Consciousness. Siva told that he, Shesha, would be born on earth from human parents, and that he would be called Patanjali. After growing up, he will travel to Thillai, where he will meet another saint, called Vyagrapada the Tigerfooted. And both will perform tapas and worship, until the appointed time for Siva to perform his Cosmic Dance in the Sabha has arrived.

All these things foretold by Siva to Shesha, come to pass. As Patanjali reached the Thillai forest he found on the southern bank of the lotus pond the saint Vyagrapada, worshipping the Mulasthana Linga and performing austerities. Vyagrapada had come to the Thillai forest following the advice of his father, the Rishi Madhyandina. To worship the Mulasthana Linga he used to gather flowers in the early morning, but however early he collected the flowers, insects had already damaged them. Deeply upset that his worship was not as complete or perfect as he aimed for, he cried to Lord Siva to help him. In answer to his prayer Siva gave him tiger claws for hand and feet, enabling him to find his way through the thick forest at night to gather flowers long before daybreak, before the insects could inflict their damage. From then on both saints did the worship and the austerities together, as they waited for the appointed time for Siva to dance in the Sabha. As that time approached also the 3000 munivars or Thillai Muvayravar (later called Deekshithars) arrived in the forest to await the Lord’s dance.

When that day arrived, it was announced with the sound of drums and conches. A rain of flowers fell from heaven, and in the Sabha appeared a light of a thousand suns and moons. In the middle of this light mass appeared Siva’s form, dancing his Ananda Tandava, and showing his Lotus Foot. His is an un-earthly beauty, while his peaceful smile shines on all. He was together with Parvati, who witnessed his dance. All those present, Devatas, demons and humans rejoiced, almost fainting, and all joined in his dance, dancing themselves. Then Siva offered the two saints to make a wish. They wished that Siva would forever perform his Ananda Tandava or Dance of Bliss in the golden Sabha of Chidambaram, for the entire world to experience. So that any human who desired this could also reach His lifted Lotus Foot and realize liberation. Soon after that, the King Sveta Varman came to the Thillai forest. At that time, he was forced to give up his kingdom after being infected with a skin disease called ‘white spot’, a form of leprosy. Lord Nataraja ordered the two saints Vyagrapada and Patanjali to let the king take a bath in the lotus pond, now called the Shiva Ganga (A sacred pool), that he may be healed. After re-emerging from the water the king’s skin had become golden, his name becoming Hiranya Varman or ‘golden coloured’. And he was taken to the Sabha to see Nataraja’s Ananda Tandava. Overtaken with emotions the king fell on earth and offered his life-long service to the Dancing Siva. He was consecrated by the 3000 munivars, and received from Vyagrapada, signifying his kingship and valor. The king then rebuild beautifully the temple and the city around it. And established the main festivals of the yearly cycle in the temple.

Nataraja Siva and his “dance of bliss” is an ancient Hindu art concept. It is found in various texts such as Tatva Nidhi which describes seven types of dance and their spiritual symbolism, Kashyapa Silpa which describes 18 dance forms with iconographic details and design instructions, as well as Bharata Muni’s ancient treatise on performance arts Natya Shastra which describes 108 dance postures among other things.

Earliest historically verifiable Siva temple at Chidambaram is traceable in inscriptions that date to the rule of Aditya Chola I in early 10th century, and far more during the rule of 10th century Chola King Parantaka I. For them, Lord Nataraja was the kula-nayaka (family guide or deity) and Chidambaram was the capital they built. The copper plate inscriptions of Parantaka I (907-955 CE) describe him as the “be at the lotus feet of Shiva” who built the golden house for Shiva, with Chit-sabha, Hema-sabha, Hiranya-sabha and Kanaka-sabha (all mandapam, pillared pilgrim rest places). He is referred to as “Pon veinda Perumal”, which means “one who covered with gold” the Chit-sabha of Chidambaram. These inscriptions and texts from this period suggest that the significance of the Agama texts and Shaiva Bhakti movement was strengthening within the Chola leadership and thought. They converted many older brick and wooden temples into more lasting temples from cut stone as the building blocks in dozens of places across South India.

The temple, according to inscriptions found in South India and Southeast Asia, was also historic recipient of a precious jewel from the king of Angkor who built the Angkor Wat through Chola king Kulothunga I, who submitted it to the temple in 1114 CE.

Significance of Siva in his “Ananda Tandava” Nataraja aspect: 

Lord Nataraja of Chidambaram

” Lord Nataraja ” of Chidambaram, showing ‘Ananda Tandava or Dance of bliss’ – A pencil drawing from my imagination.

  • The demon (Apasmara) under Lord Nataraja’s feet signifies that ignorance is under His feet.
  • The fire in His hand (power of destruction) means He is the destroyer of evil.
  • The raised hand (Abhaya or Pataka mudra) signifies that He is the savior of all life forms.
  • The arc of fire called Thiruvashi or Prabhavati signifies the cosmos and the perpetual motion of the earth.
  • The drum in His hand signifies the origin of life forms.
  • The lotus pedestal signifies ‘Om’, the sound of the universe.
  • His right eye, left eye and third eye signify the sun, moon and fire/knowledge, respectively.
  • His right earring (makara kundalam) and left earring (sthri kundalam) signify the union of man and woman (right is man, left is woman).
  • The crescent moon in His hair signifies benevolence and beauty.
  • The flowing of river Ganges through His matted hair signifies eternity of life.
  • The dreading of His hair and drape signify the force of His dance.

Invasions in Chidambaram

By late 13th century, in the north, the Indian subcontinent had been conquered by the Delhi Sultanate. Muslim armies had begun raiding central India for plunder. In 1311, the Ala ud Din Khilji’s army general Malik Kafur and his Delhi Sultanate forces went deeper into the Indian peninsula for loot and to establish annual tribute paying Muslim governors. The records left by the court historians of the Delhi Sultanate state that Malik Kafur raided Chidambaram, Srirangam and other Tamil towns, destroyed the temples, and the Chidambaram Siva temple was one of the sources of gold and jewels booty he brought back to Delhi. The temple towns of Tamil Nadu were again targeted for loot in 1320s. However, when the news of another invasion spread in Tamil lands, the community removed them into the Western Ghats or buried numerous sculptures and treasures in the land and concealed chambers underneath temples sites before the Muslim armies reached them. A large number of these were rediscovered in archaeological excavations at the site in and after 1979, including those in Chidambaram. Those who buried the temple artworks followed the Hindu Agama texts such as Marici Samhita and Vimanarcanakalpa that recommend ritually burying precious metal murtis as a means of protection when war and robbery is imminent. Over 200 such items have been recovered, including relevant hordes of copper plate inscriptions.

The islamic invasion in the 14th century, bought an abrupt end to the patronage of Chidambaram. The Delhi Sultan appointed a Governor, who seceded within the few years from the Delhi Sultanate and began the Madurai Sultanate. This Sultanate sought tribute from the temple towns, instead of supporting them. Madurai Sultanate was relatively short-lived, with Vijayanagar empire removing it in late 14th century. Vijayanagara rulers restored, repaired and expanded the temple through the 16th century, along with many other regional temples. These kings themselves went on pilgrimage to Chidambaram, and gifted resources to strengthen its walls and infrastructure. Destruction of Vijayanagara Empire in late 16th century by Bahmini Sultans, an alliance of Sultanates, followed within a few decades by entrance of Portuguese, French and British colonial interests brought geopolitical uncertainties to Chidambaram and other temple towns. The Portuguese were already a major Coromandel Coast trading group by early 17th century, a region to which Chidambaram belonged. The Portuguese began building forts, garrison and churches in Coromandel Coast region after the demise of Vijayanagara, triggering the intervention of the French and the British. By mid 17th century, the temple complex was within the patronage of Nayakas, who repaired the temple and repainted the frescoes on mandapa ceilings. According to British reports, this temple town had to bear the “brunt of several severe onslaughts” between the French and the British colonial forces several times particularly in the 18th century.

Floor Plan of Thillai Nataraja temple, Chidambaram

Chidambaram floor plan

A useful layout while exploring this 35 acre huge temple complex.

First session of Day 2 – Exploring Chidambara Rahasyams (Secrets)

The most imposing feature of Chidambaram Natraja temple, which can be seen soaring above the plain from miles away, are the four temple gateways or gopurams, located in the second wall of enclosure at the cardinal points. They are considered among the earliest examples of such structures and are in their present form dated to the 12th and 13th century. Scholars disagree about the dates of individual gopurams, or about which one was build first. Some consider the west gopuram as oldest, some the east gopuram.In total, the temple has nine major gopuram gateways connecting the various courtyards. Four of these are huge and colorful, visible from afar, a symbolic and convenient landmark for pilgrims. These gateway towers, each have 7 storeys facing the East, South, West and North.The first edition of the four gopuram superstructures were likely built between 1150 and 1300 CE. All gopuras are built of precisely cut large stone blocks all the way to the main cornice. Upon this is a stone, brick and plaster structure with layers of pavilions. Above these talas(storeys) is a Dravidian style barrel vaulted roof, crowned with thirteen kalasa finials. All four are approximately similar in size and 14:10:3 ratio. Truely, a fascinating scene for our eyes….

DSC_9683 - Front view of the Eastern gopura of Thillai Nataraja temple.

” Welcome Scene ” – Lofty Eastern Gopuram of Chidambaram Nataraja temple. (Second constructed gopuram, but the largest one among the four) 140 ft high, 100 ft wide and 30 ft deep…. terrific dimensions!!! Was likely completed in late 12th century by King Sundara Pandyan, of Pandya dynasty.

Between the second half of the 12th century and the early 13th century, the Chola kings added colorful and high gopura stone gateways as easily identifiable landmarks, starting with the western gopura. Thereafter, about mid 13th century, the Pandya dynasty ended the Chola dynasty. The Hindu Pandyas were liberal supporters of Chidambaram temple, along with other Siva and Vishnu temples, just like the Chola. Sundara Pandya added the huge eastern gopura at Chidambaram, beginning the colossal gateway tradition.

DSC_9691 - 7 storey Vimana of the Eastern Gopuram.

Wow… what a scene! – View of the Colossal East Gopuram (Tower).  Anthropomorphic figure panels and about fifty niches with stone sculptures in every gopuram together constitute their artworks. They narrate various scenes of Hindu Puranas which include multiple panels about the legend of Siva-Parvati wedding with Brahma, Vishnu, Saraswati and Lakshmi attending, dancing Ganesha, Siva in his various aspects, Durga in the middle of her war with a demon, Skanda ready for war, seated Nandi, musicians, dancers, farmers, merchants, sadhu in namaste posture, dancing dvarapalas near the vertical center line and others. The eastern gopuram is credited to King Koperunsingan II of Kadava dynasty (1243-1279 AD) as per epigraphical records.

Artists and architects who built these towers may have had a rationale in the relative sequence and position of the artwork with respect to each other and on various levels… How marvelously and perfectly they are sculpted and arranged !….. True geniuses !

DSC_9694 - Dvarapalakas of the Eastern Gopuram.

One of the Dvarapalas in the Eastern gopuram – The position of right hand index finger which is pointing upwards indicates that ‘There is one and only God’ and Upper left hand showing Abhaya mudra (a hand gesture with right hand upraised and open palm signifying protection), which indicates ‘He (the God) is the savior of all forms’ .

The gateways, which are dwarfed in the Pallava, are in late Chola prominent. The dvarpalas (gatekeepers) in Chola temples are fierce men with tridents, bearing tusks
protruding from mouths, rolled eyes and hands always in threatening gestures. These contrast with the benign natural looking single paired arm dvarpalas of the past.

DSC_9695 - Relief showing Shiva and Parvathi on the left wall of Eastern gopuram.

Another image showing Siva and Parvati sitting on a bench with a centrally placed small Bhutagana, a scene found on the front side of eastern tower.

DSC_9686 - Modern era painting on the ceiling of the eastern tower of Thillai Nataraja temple.

Recreated Nayaka painting of 17th century found on the ceiling of Mukha mandapa, situated in front of the eastern gopuram. Actually, this scenes welcomes the devotees to the temple.

Inside walls of passages through all the four gopurams are decorated with the 108 karanas, the dance movements of Siva, from the Natya Shastra, the world’s most ancient treatise on dance, drama and theatre. Besides in Chidambaram these karanas are depicted in only four other temples, all in Tamil Nadu. That’s interesting, isn’t it ?

Eastern gopuram features the 108 reliefs of Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra dance postures (22 cm each in a separate niches)…..

DSC_9700 - 108 Karanas of Bharatamuni's Natyashastra displayed on the inner side of Eastern gopuram.22cm long.DSC_9701 - 108 Karanas of Bharatamuni's Natyashastra displayed on the inner side of Eastern gopuram.DSC_9702 - 108 Karanas of Bharatamuni's Natyashastra displayed on the inner side of Eastern gopuram.DSC_9704 - 108 Karanas of Bharatamuni's Natyashastra displayed on the inner side of Eastern gopuram.

Just look at the ceilings, also … What can you find ???


91 (13×7) squares on the ceiling depicting the figures of various Hindu gods which include Siva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Subrahmanya, Shesha, Indra etc

On the outside of the granite bases of the gopurams are found sculptures of many important as well as less well known deities in niches in a particular order. From the second tier onward, on each of the Gopuram, are seen images of various manifestations of Siva such as Bhikshatana, Kankala (both being ascetic forms), Kalyanasundarar, Somaskandar etc. (bestowers of prosperity). There are no representations of Nataraja on the temple towers, as this image is reserved for the innermost shrine alone….

DSC_9730 - Shaivism related shrine images displayed on the inner side of Eastern Gopuram - Thillai Nataraja temple.

Inner left side of Eastern Gopuram – Various aspects of Siva can be seen. Second from the left is ‘Lingodhbhava’ form of Siva. (Figure of four-armed Siva placed inside a Lingam)

DSC_9729 - A representation of Shaktism - Mahishasuramardhini relief on the inner left side of Eastern gopuram.

Sculpture of ‘Mahishasuramardhini Durga’ in one of the niche, on the left inner side of eastern gopuram. Look at her hands…. where are they gone ??? … How beautifully the demon, Mahisha is sculpted! one can see the fear on his face….

DSC_9718 - Shaivism related shrine images displayed on the inner side of Eastern Gopuram - Thillai Nataraja temple.

Inner right side of Eastern Gopuram – In the niches on top row (from left), Virabhadra, Lord Siva with Parvati, Ganga and Lord Brahma on his legs, Lord Vishnu and finally, Siva with Parvati.

A typical new Chola feature, that is different from the Pallava, is the famed
ornamentation of temple walls. This consists in the use of real deep niches with entablatures. These niches, the Devakushtas (niches to house deities), flanked by demi pilasters, appear on wall surfaces of Chola temples. The decoration, in most finished examples, alternates between the various niche devices of koshtapanjaras and Kumbhapanjaras. Space is narrow in these forms but the decoration is more rounded. The pilasters of these niches are crowned by a curved roof moulding adorned by two kudus with crowning lion heads. The bases of these decorative devices have makara (motif based on the mythical sea monster) and warrior heads.

Moving on to the eastern entrance to the third prakara or courtyard, a Yagam was going on in the nearby pillared mandapa or hall…. you can see the Deekshitars or Thillai muvayravar in this scene…

DSC_9734 - Dhikshitars (Thillai Muvayravar) performing some kind of puja ina mandapa on the eastern side of 3rd prak

A Yaga scene in Chidambaram temple. You can see the three representatives of Deekshiithars in their three life stages. That’s how depend they are, with this temple !!!

Today there are around 360 families of Deekshithars who are conducting the rituals and are also the beneficiaries of the temple. But they are unable to maintain it so many things are going away. All the vegetable dye paintings on the ceiling, which are a thousand years old are almost sixty percent gone. The plaster has fallen off and there is nobody for upkeep. And unknowingly, they have put up concrete structures here and there in this hundred percent stone temple because of which the aesthetics and the dynamics of the temple are badly disturbed.

Coming to the eastern entrance of second prakaram …. two interesting designs caught our attention…. one, on the floor and the other, on the ceiling…

DSC_9725 - A unique design on the eastern side of Outermost prakara - in fron of the entry to 2nd prakara.

A lotus design, made out of granite, found in front of the eastern entrance in second prakaram.

DSC_9726 - Lotus motif design on the ceiling.

Another design of a lotus motif with a bud at its centre, found on the ceiling in front of the eastern entrance. How elegantly they are sculpted, with such perfection !

Reaching near the entrance to inner third prakara, the most disturbing and annoying thing came to my notice. A saddened moment for a photographer …. can you guess it ??? Yeah !  Its about restriction of photography….

DSC_9737 - Entrance to main sanctum (Pon ambalam or Chit sabha) from Eastern side of 3rd prakara.

The Eastern entrance to the third prakaram of Thillai Nataraja temple – Photography is allowed only up to this mark. Beyond this, it is strictly banned. A moment for both happiness and sadness in this journey. For an explorer, this will be the most exciting moment, going in to the world of masterpieces. For a photographer, a saddened moment because of the restriction, that prevails inside.

In any way, the good thing is that you can still explore the world, beyond this, with your magical eyes…. And i can explain it to you, what’s on the other side of this….

What’s Inside….

Main edifices of the temple are the five Sabhas or Halls: the Cit Sabha, Kanaka Sabha, Deva Sabha, Nritta Sabha, and the Raja Sabha. At the centre of the temple is situated the sanctum sanctorum or holy of holiest, called the Chit Sabha or Chit Ambalam. This means the ‘Hall of Wisdom’. It is the main shrine where Lord Nataraja accompanied by his consort Parvati performs His Cosmic Dance, the Ananda Tandava or Dance of Bliss.

The world is the embodiment of the Virat Purusha, the colossal human form. Chidambaram is the centre of this form, the place of the heart, where Siva performs the Cosmic Dance. Chidambaram temple is laid out as a Purusha. For this reason the devotees may approach the central shrine from two sides. As blood flows to and from the heart. The nine stupas or finals topping the golden roof represent the nine orifices of the human body, and also symbolize the nine Matrikas or goddesses. The roof is made of 21.600 tiles, representing inhalations and exhalations of breath. The links and side joints symbolize the connecting veins.

The golden roof is made of 22600 tiles representing the number of breaths of a human being on a day, and fixed with 72,000 golden nails representing the 72,000 visible and invisible nerves of a human body! The roof is having 9 ornamental conic heads (Kalasas), representing the nine gateways or holes in a human body. There are five courtyards, representing five sheaths of a human body, kosas. The four gopurams, together with the golden dome of the central shrine are the five towers which represent the five faces of Shiva, with the Chit Sabha symbolizing the masterful face.

The five main steps at the entrance to the shrine stand between the devotees and the image of Siva, covered in silver – ‘Panchakshara’. They are the five seed words or syllables of the mantra, ‘ Shi Va YA Na Ma ‘. By chanting these syllables, the devotee can cross the ocean of bondage and attain to the Lord. The granite plinth of the shrine is called Parvadam, because it does duty for Mount Kailasa in providing a support for Lord Siva. On all special occasions puja or worship is performed to this plinth. The name, Hall of Consciousness or Hall of Wisdom, refers to the quality of wisdom which pervades the atmosphere, bestowed upon the worshippers by the Dance of the Lord. His boon is the experience of the Cosmic Dance.

A unique feature is that the structure of the actual Sabha is made of wood, which has so far not been botanically classified. It is rectangular in form and here Siva is worshipped in his three aspects:

  • As Form – Nataraja the murti or image of Siva
  • As Formless-form  – The crystal linga called Chandramaulishvara
  • As Formless – The yantra which is the Akasha Linga

From the platform opposite the Sabha one can see the image of the Dancing Siva, situated in the middle of the it. Siva is facing south, unlike most other Hindu deities. This signifies he is the Conqueror of Death, dispelling the fear of death for the humanity.

The Crystal Linga called Chandramaulishvara is Siva as Formless-Form. Crystal Linga was formed from the essence of the crescent moon in Siva’s matted hair, for the purpose of daily worship. This murti is taken from its keeping place at the feet of the Nataraja six times a day, and abhishekam of holy ablution is performed to him in the hall called Kanaka Sabha in front of the Chit Sabha.

Immediately to the proper right of the Nataraja is the Chidambaram Rahasyam, the ‘mystery’ of Chidambaram. Here, behind a silk curtain which is black on the outside and red on the inside, is the Akasha Linga, in the form of a yantra. An abstract geometrical design, on which the deity is invoked. Behind the curtain, before the yantra, hang a few strands of golden vilva leaves. This signifies the act of creation. One moment nothing exists, the next instant the All has been brought into existence. At regular timings the curtain is removed to allow the devotees to worship the Akasha – the Ether which is the vehicle of the Absolute and Consciousness.

The Chit Sabha houses one more unique form of Siva. This is the Ratna Sabha Pati, the Ruby Lord of the Sabha: a replica of the Nataraja murti in ruby form. This murti appeared out of the fire of the sacrifice in response to the devotion of the Deekshithars. Once a day, as part of the 10.00 o’clock morning puja ritual, after the abhishekam of the Crystal Linga, abhishekam is also performed to the Ruby Siva. As conclusion of this ceremony the Ruby Nataraja is placed on the edge of the Parvadam of the Kanaka Sabha and Mangala Arati is offered (burning of camphor on a special plate which is shown both in front and behind the Ruby Nataraja). This brings out the special quality of translucence of this murti, creating a mystical spectacle for the onlookers.

Nobody knows when the worship of Nataraja was established here, or when the Chit Sabha was build. The original wooden structure is doubtless the oldest structure in the temple complex, as the shrine of the Mulasthana Linga is a later construction under the Chola Kings. The Sabha has no features that could help to date it. It is unique and no other structure is known like it anywhere else in Indian architecture. Analysis by the C 14 method (Carbon dating) would be unreliable because it is known to have been regularly renovated during the centuries. But the origins of the temple of Siva’s Nataraja in Chidambaram definitely lie back in prehistoric times.

Immediately in front of the Chit Sabha is the Kanaka Sabha, or Golden hall. Its roof is made of copper, although Kanaka means gold. This is the gold of spiritual treasure: to experience Shiva’s dance from so near. In this Sabha are most of the daily rituals of worship for Nataraja performed. The Yagna of the morning rituals. Rituals with lamps and ritual objects. And the abhishekam of the Crystal Linga and Ruby Nataraja. The public can enter certain areas of the Kanaka Sabha for worship of the Nataraja and the Akasha Linga at specified hours of the day. It is a controversy whether this Sabha was originally constructed together with the Chit Sabha, or some time later.

DSC_9783 - Copper plated roof of Kanaka Sabha viewed from the north.

The copper plated roof of Kanaka Sabha with nine Kalasas or finals.

In the innermost courtyard, at a right angle with the golden Sabha, we find the shrine of Vishnu, as Govinda Raja. Reclining on the Cosmic Snake (Shesha), he is in the yogic state of consciousness, enjoying the vision of Shiva’s dance. The coexistence of the worship of both Vishnu and Shiva within one temple is unique. The worship of Vishnu was established in the earliest times and was originally performed by the Deekshithars themselves. In the later medieval period, with a shifting political situation under pressure of Muslim invasions, there was possibly a discontinuation of the worship for a
long period, after which it re-instated by the king Achyuta Raya (1539) of the Vijayanangara empire. The worship of Vishnu Govinda Raja has since then been in the hands of Vaishnava priests, and was no longer performed by the Deekshithars.

Within the inner courtyard, to the east of the Sabha, we find a small shrine which houses the murtis of both the Creator God Brahma, of the Hindy Trinity, and Chandikeshvara, a deified saint. The presence of Brahma (a deity almost never worshipped) establishes the worship of all three deities of the Hindu Trinity with-in the
one complex.

Next one, we are going to experience is the Nritta Sabha. Here the shrine is in the form of a Ratha or Chariot, pulled by two stone horses. It is situated opposite the Chit Sabha, in the third courtyard. It is the place of the dance contest between Nataraja and the goddess Kali. Siva conquered the goddess, who would not calm down after she destroyed a powerful demon, by lifting his right leg straight up towards the sky. This dance is called the Urdhva Tandava. Then and there Kali suddenly remembered who she really was, the peaceful Parvati, consort of Siva, and she was able to leave her furious mood and returned to her peaceful self. This scene is depicted in the sanctum inside the Sabha. We see here, Siva performing his Urdhva Tandava, his leg lifted straight above his head, Kali calmed down in one corner, both accompanied by Vishnu playing the Talam, the instrument which is used to accompany dance. The chariot form of the Sabha commemorates Siva as Tripurasamhara murti, the Destroyer of the Three Demon Cities. Several divine powers joined together to create Siva’s chariot. Thus the sun and moon became the wheels, the Vedas the horses etc.

After destroying the Three Cities, the Lord descended from His chariot, having landed opposite the Chit Sabha, and ascended into the Sabha to commence His Dance. From this the Nritta Sabha is also called Edir Amabalam or opposite hall. This Sabha has several distinguishing features aside from its shape and its function. Its columns are unique to the chariot hall. They are square, and although carved from the hardest granite they are covered with exquisite miniature relief’s, depicting dancers, musicians and all kinds of mythological figures.

One other feature sets this edifice apart from any other hall within the temple complex and from all other temple halls in India. This Sabha is mysteriously connected to the Sphinx (is a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion). Just under the floor surface of the raised platform which is the body of the Sabha is a belt or pattika, surrounding the whole Sabha. Here we see lions and sphinxes alternating in pairs, girdling the Sabha. Also the pillars of the two pavilions on the western side of the Sabha are supported by four sphinxes which function as caryatids (Draped female figures).

Nritta Sabha is considered by tradition the second oldest building in the complex, without any real indication of its age. It is reported in inscriptions as having been renovated by the Chola King Kulottunga I in the 11th century.

The Deva Sabha can be found in the third prakara or courtyard. The festival deities are kept during the year, and worship is performed for them daily. This is done inside the Sabha, and is not open to the public. The age and history of this Sabha is also hidden in the mists of time. There is some evidence the Deva Sabha was once used as an audience hall by visiting kings of the different governing dynasties of the Cholas, Pandyas and others during the several phases of history. No other information is available.

Altogether, the inside views are so fascinating to the eyes and beyond our imaginaton. Visuals of highly intricated, massive pillars, modern era paintings at the top on ceilings, stunning architecture of the main sabhas (some works have to be related with the Vijayanagara style (14th – 16th century)), thrilling golden roof of Chit-sabha etc are very interesting.                                                                                                                                               Coming to the outside, its time to open the eyes of my camera, and the first scene was this…. The South Gopuram of Chidambaram temple….

DSC_9739 (1)- Southern Gopuram of Thillai Nataraja temple - Built in early 13th CE.

The surviving South Gopuram called the Sokkaseeyan Thirunilai Ezhugopuram was constructed by a Pandya king identified from the presence of the dynasty’s fish emblem sculpted on the ceiling. The Pandyas sculpted two fishes facing each other when they completed gopurams (and left it with one fish, in case it was incomplete).


Other artwork found on the Suthern Gopuram include Chandesha, Ganapati, Vishnu, Sridevi (Lakshmi), several Devis, Brahma, Saraswati, Surya, Chandra, Durga, Indra, Agni, several rishis, Ganga and Yamuna goddesses, Kama and Rati, Budha, the Vedic sages such as Narada, Pantanjali, Somaskanda legend, Ardhanarishvara (half Shiva, half Parvati), Harihara (half Vishnu, half Shiva), several forms of dancing and standing Shiva such as Pashupata, Kiratarjuna and Lingobhava, as well as others.

Near to this Southern gopuram, Mukkuruni Vinayagar temple is located in the southwest corner….

DSC_9754 - Mukkurini Vinayagar temple on the southwest corner of 3rd prakara - Thillai Nataraja temple complex.

Three ‘kurunni’ (a measure) of grains are used to make ‘modaka’ (a dish made of rice flour) for offering to this Ganesha. Hence, he is known as ‘Mukkuruni Pillaiyar or Mukkuruni Vinayagar’.

DSC_9756 - Superstructure of Mukkurini Vinayagar temple - southwest corner.

Superstructure or Vimana of Mukkurini Vinayagar temple – An example of present day temple architecture existing south india with the use of numerous painted frescoes and anthropomorphic figure panels of deities. How many deities can you seen ???

From there, we can see the earliest gopuram of the all four, the one made by the Chola kings, The Western Gopuram of Chidambaram temple….


Artwork found on the Western gopuram include Surya, Ganapati, Vishnu, Sridevi (Lakshmi), Tripurasundari, Brahma, Saraswati, Varuna, Durga, Agni, several rishis, Yamuna goddess, Kama and Rati, Budha, the Vedic sages such as Narada and Agastya, Pantanjali, Somaskanda legend, Ardhanarishvara (half Shiva, half Parvati), Harihara (half Vishnu, half Shiva), several forms of dancing Shiva and others. Similar ones like all others.

DSC_9762 - Lord Subramanyan preparing for war - Displayed on the inner left side of north tower.

The relief showing Skanda (Lord Subrahmanya) sitting on His mount, the Peacock and dressed up for war. Here, Skanda is ten-armed.

DSC_9766 - Ancient Grantha inscriptions found near the northern entrance to 2nd prakaram.

Ancient Sankrit inscriptions in Grantha script, found on the western entrance into the third prakaram or courtyard.

DSC_9771 - Another view of Northern tower from northeast part.

Another view of Western gopuram from northwest corner. Can you guess the number of deities, it has contained in its Vimana?  Oh!  that will be an enormous task …. isn’t it ?

Its a shame, if one mentions Lord Siva without mentioning His loving consort, Goddess Parvathi. Likewise, there is a temple for Goddess Shivakamasundari, consort of Siva, situated on the west side of the Shivaganga tank. A flight of steps leads down into its courtyard. The goddess  is worshipped here as the Jñana Shakti: the energy and power of wisdom. On the frontal portion of the pillared hall, on the ceiling of the right and left wings, the finest eye-capturing fresco paintings of approximately a thousand years old, illustrate the Leelas or Sacred Deeds of Siva.

DSC_9779 - Pillars of Shivakama Sundari Amman temple - West of Shivaganga sacred pool.

Sivakamasundari Amman temple is under maintenance…

The galleries surrounding the temple are decorated with a procession of dancers and musicians, sculptured in relief. This temple was possibly build in the 11th century under the Chola king Kulottunga I.

DSC_9777 - Mural paintings of Shiva Kama Sundari Amman temple.One of the oldest Amman temple in South India.

Inside of Sivakamasundari Amman temple – 17th century paintings of Nayaka period found on the ceilings of its Mukhamandapa.

In the north side of Chidambaram temple, one can see the sacred ‘Sivaganga Pool’ ….      Most of the infamous shots of the Nataraja temple, Chidambaram are really originated from here…. Its time for me to achieve something like that….

DSC_9804 - North gopuram,1000 pillared hall on east and Shivgangai pool of Thillai Nataraja temple, Chidambaram.

Marvellous view of the Sacred Sivaganga Pool or water tank. Its the same Lotus pond, which mentions in the Chidambaram Legend. It is famous for healing the ancient king Sveta Varman of his skin disease. His skin became golden after which he was called Hiranya Varman.
In this tank we find a stone representation of the Linga of Tiruvanaikaval, which represents the Element Water. In the dry season it becomes visible as the water level in the tank is reduced.

DSC_9797 - North gopuram and Shivgangai pool of Thillai Nataraja temple, Chidambaram.

View of the Northern Gopuram with its reflection on the sacred Sivaganga Pool…. Splendid !

DSC_9775 - Superstructure or Vimanas of Northern gopuram (7 Storey).

Close view of the Northern Gopuram – The last built one, among the four gopurams of Chidambaram and was completed by Vijayanagara Empire. Presence of Vaulted – barrel roofs with 13 finals or Kalasas, Kirthimukhas (Swallowing fierce monster faces with huge fangs and gaping mouth) placed at all four cardinal directions. Architecture is similar to the other three major gopurams of Chidambaram.

You can see an elongated massive hall to the east of Sivaganga pool ….     Its name is            Raja Sabha or 1000 Pillared Hall…..

DSC_9807 - 1000 pillared hall on east and Shivgangai pool of Thillai Nataraja temple, Chidambaram.

The Raja Sabha or 1000 Pillar hall – Now, kept closed. This hall can be accessed only, during festival times.

DSC_9788 - 1000 pillared hall - East of Shivagangai sacred pool.

The Raja Sabha is the Thousand Pillar Hall in the second courtyard. It is the architectural representation of the Sahasradara, or Crown Chakra. Which is the seventh spiritual energy point in the astral body. The Nataraja and the goddess Sivakamasundari, his consort, dance here on the 9th and 10th day of the Chariot Festival.

It is first mentioned as the place where the medieval poet Sekkilar premiered his great work on the lives of the 63 Nayanmars or Saiva saints, the Periya Purana, before the Chola king Kulottunga II or III, in the 12th century.


Interesting images of two elephants (not monolithic ones) with their trainers, found on the either sides of Mukhamandapa, placed in front of the Raja Sabha or 1000 pillar hall. It looks like the elephants are trying to pull this enormous Raja Sabha….

DSC_9824 - Image of running elephant with a man displayed at the entrance of 1000 pillared hall.

DSC_9831 - Dancing figures sculpted on the base of 1000 pillared hall.

The base of Raja Sabha is encircled by relief’s of dancers and musicians, as it were participating in a procession.

And there was this last shot from Chidambaram Nataraja temple, dedicated to my fellow companions; Sreejith and Lakshmy….

Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram, August 2018

This Beautiful Shot is dedicated to my loving companions….

Its been four long hours, since we had done our breakfast from one of the nearby vegetarian hotel. I was totally famished at this time…. So, needed a proper lunch to satisfy my stomach. Thankfully, there were free offerings of food, daily, for devotees, from the temple administration. Felt like a boon, granted by the Lord for our efforts. It was a good traditional Brahmin meal and really enjoyed myself, having it.

Time to say goodbye to this infamous Nataraja temple (a unique one in entire South India) and move onto the next destination. Its a place where one gets enlightened, both physically and mentally. A place where Creativity meets the Divine. The Divine grace transforms our consciousness in to a superior level, beyond our imagination. A moment of realization about the ignorance living inside us. And His ‘Dance of Bliss’ can clear this ignorance and bring the eternal happiness.

As mentioned earlier, the next destination on our list was Gangaikonda Cholapuram, situated 45 kms to the southwest of Chidambaram, in the Udayarpalayam taluk of Ariyalur district, Tamil Nadu. The nearest railway station is at Kumbakonam and Ariyalur. But, the simplest way to reach Cholapuram is by road, with the help of state transport and private buses. You need to travel via Kaattumannarkudi or kovil, which is 27 kms from Chidambaram. From there, local buses and auto rickshaws are available at reasonable rates, to cover the final 17 kms. Locally, Gangaikonda Cholapuram is known as Jayakondam (please, remember this). So, lets know more about the Cholapuram temple …..

Brihadisvara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram

Cholas had become the greatest power in South India by 10th century CE. They had reached the borders of the Rashtrakuta kingdom in the north. Rows of temples were built on both the banks of the river Cauvery to mark their growing power. Cholas greatly made use of art to proclaim their power, used temples to make unequivocal statements about their political hegemony. The Great Chola King, Rajaraja I, crowned in 985, carved out an overseas empire by establishing a second capital at Pollonaruva in Sri Lanka. The Brihadeeswara (Big temple of Thanjavur), built by him (995 – 1010) at his capital Thanjavur, though he did not live to see it completed is a product of this success. Temple inscriptions make clear the triumphal nature of the edifice.

Just a couple of years after Rajaraja I built the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur, his proud son Rajendra I (1012 – 1044 AD) became the Chola ruler. Rajendra ruled jointly alongside his father, until the latter’s death in 1016 AD. Having served as a general under his father, Rajendra was an accomplished warrior who led many successful military expeditions. He had his army march northwards, all the way to the Ganga, to bring home pots of holy water from the river. Defeating enemy armies along the way, his men returned victorious, earning Rajendra the title ‘Gangaikondachola’, meaning ‘the Chola who conquered the Ganges’.

He established a new capital city called Gangaikondacholapuram (also called Gangaikondacholeshwaram) about 70 km from Thanjavur, and had a royal temple by the same name built in it. The temple is commonly called the Brihadisvara Temple now (the one we are going to explore). Rajendra also built a lake in the town called Cholagangam to mark his victorious expedition. It was fed by the Cauvery river, and some water from the holy river, Ganga was poured into it as well. Today, people call it Ponneri lake.

DSC_9832 - East facing Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

Front view of the Glorious east facing Brihadisvara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple is the pinnacle of the achievements of Rajendra I, the mighty Chola King, who established his new capital here with the magnificent city and temple dedicated to Lord Siva. The temple is massive and richly carved with sculptures. The architecture has complex carvings on the hard granite stones unlike the customary simple style of the Cholas. The sculptures that adorn the walls and ceilings of Gangaikonda Cholapuram are exquisite.The temple is famed for its bronze sculptures, artwork on its walls, the depiction of Nandi and the scale of its tower. As well as its notability for having been built by Rajendra I, the temple is also noteworthy for its numerous inscriptions, although none of them are his.

History of Brihadisvara temple, Cholapuram

The Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple is smaller yet more refined than the Thanjavur Big temple. Because of its delicate appearance and gentle curve, this temple is often called the feminine version of the one in Thanjavur. The temple was constructed in 1035 AD by Rajendra Chola I. Some experts believe that the temple was built during 1020, during the 6th regnal year, but inscriptions indicate the 20th regnal year, which is 1035 AD. Rajendra wanted to emulate the temple built by his father after his victory in a campaign across India that Chola era texts state covered Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Bengal. After his victory, he demanded that the defeated kingdoms send pots of Ganges River water and pour them into the temple’s well. The well was originally called Cholagangam as it was filled with water from Ganges.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram remained the Chola capital for the next 250 years. Rajendra I built the entire capital with several temples using plans and infrastructure recommended in Tamil Vastu and Agama Sastra texts. These included a Dharma Sasta, Vishnu and other temples. However, these structures were destroyed in the late 13th and 14th centuries except this temple. The other Chola landmarks, clearly shown by soil covered mounds and excavated broken pillar stumps and brick walls, are found over a large area nearby. The earliest inscription that mentions this city by name is dated 1029, while the earliest reference to Rajendra I’s expedition towards the Ganges river in the north is dated 1023. The first gift to the newly built Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple is dated 1035. Rajendra I, must have involved the same craftsmen used by his father and transferred them from Thanjavur. Archaeological excavations have revealed fort walls and palace remains a few kilometers from this temple. It is believed that Kulothunga Chola I, Rajendra’s successor, built fortifications around the city.

The reasons for the city’s destruction are unclear. The Pandyas who defeated the Cholas during the later part of 13th-century “may have razed the city to ground” to avenge their previous defeats. However, it is unclear why other temples were destroyed and this temple was spared, as well as why there are around twenty inscriptions from later Cholas, Pandyas and Vijayanagar Empires indicating various gifts and grants to this temple if they previously razed this place. An alternative theory links the destruction to the raids, plunder and wars, particularly with the invasion of the capital city and the territories, that were earlier a part of the Chola and Madurai Empires, by the armies of the Delhi Sultanate led by the army commander Malik Kafur in 1311, followed by Khusrau Khan in 1314, and Muhammad bin Tughlaq in 1327The period that followed saw many wars from the Delhi Sultanate and they carved out new states such as the nearby Madurai Sultanate (1335–1378). The Vijayanagara Empire defeated the Madurai Sultanate in 1378 and this temple, along with other Chola era temples, then returned to the control of South Indian kings who repaired and restored many of them. The temple was added to the list of Great Living Chola Temples in the year 2004.

According to available evidences, the last Chola, King Rajendra Chola III’s rule did not end due to defeats in war. There are signs of some devastation that hint at some major catastrophe that happened around Gangaikondacholapuram which brought to an end the Chola rule. The temple, unfortunately, was looted several times. It was also used as a garrison and fortified cantonment by the Pandyas and later on by the British as well.

Floor Plan of Brihadisvara temple, Cholapuram

GangaiKondam Brihadisvara floor plan

Though the temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram follows the plan of the great temple of Thanjavur in most details it has an individuality of its own. From the remains it may be seen that it had only one enclosure wall and a gopuram while the Thanjavur temple has two gopurams and enclosures. The prakara follows the Thanjavur lay-out in that it had a two storeyed cloister running all around. Only a part of this has survived in the north. The stones from the other portions were utilized to build the Lower Anaicut across the
Kollidam, during British rule in 18th century. The pillars of cut stone are severely plain throughout as in Thanjavur.

Second session of Day 2 – Exploring the Great Living Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikondam :

                                 Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple of Lord Shiva is really grand and is regarded as the reproduction of Brihadeeswara temple built by Rajaraja Chola, father of Rajendra Chola I. It surpasses the Thanjavur Big temple sculpture as, by the time it was built, Chola sculptors and artisans had perfected the art of temple architecture. It is a tribute to the magnificent architects and artisans.

As one steps in, the great Sri Vimana (superstructure) arrests the visitor’s sight. The Vimana with its recessed corners and upward movement presents a striking contrast to the straight-sided pyramidal tower of Thanjavur but with octagon shape of Dravidian architecture. As it rises to a height of 182 feet (55 m) and is 9m shorter than the Thanjavur tower (as a mark of respect to his father’s masterpiece) with larger plinth, it is often described as the feminine counterpart of the Thanjavur temple.

DSC_0097 - Beautiful creation of Great Chola Kingdom by Rajendra Chola I.

(Welcome Scene) Front view of Brihadisvara temple, Cholapuram – The temple is approached
through the eastern entrance from the road. The entrance is called the
“Mahaduvar” leads to the inner court. This Temple is renowned for having a
four-meter-high Lingam, one of the biggest Sivalingam in South India. Interestingly,
to provide a private worship area for the royal family, the sanctum is
encircled with two walls.

DSC_9882 - Unfinished or ruined Gateway to Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikondam.

Mahaduvar – Entrance tower in east, has only basement portion: the superstructure is completely fallen down. The stones from this ruined gopuram were used for the construction of the lower Anaicut dam across the nearby Kollidam river. On
plan, the whole edifice forms a rectangle approximately 60 feet by 33 feet. Large dvarapalas with 7 ft height, were placed on the outer facade.

A Flag post or Dvaja Sthamba is placed in front of the temple, near the eastern entrance….

DSC_9835 - Gold coloured Flag post or Kodi maram of Choleswaram.

Flag Post or Dvaja Sthamba of Brihadisvara temple – Having a height of 40 ft and is plated with brass, recently. Look at the design works ! they are similar to the art works of modern day flag posts, seen in many other south indian temples.


In this Flag mast, there are four images sculpted in the cardinal directions. The images are, Siva-Parvathi facing east, Nandi facing west, Lord Karthikeya facing north and Lord Ganesha facing south.

In front of the flag mast, one can see a “Couchant Bull” facing west, towards the main sanctum…. Don’t you know his name ?

DSC_9842 - Nandi statue and flag post or Kodi maram of Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikondam. copy

Nandi Statue (Couchant Bull) – The loyal mount of Lord Siva, constructed using bricks and lime, placed in front of the Mahamandapa, which leads to the main sanctum. How massive he is !

DSC_9847 - West facing 15ft (length) Nandi in the front.

This Nandi statue is 15 feet in length, 8 feet in breadth and 11 feet in height. It is not known whether the original one was monolithic. A Bali pitha is found on east of Nandi.

DSC_0073 - Mystical monster face on the torso of Nandi statue - below the neck.

A mythical monster face, found below the neck, on the torso of Nandi statue. Looks like a Chinese art work …. isn’t it ? Can this be identified as an example of ancient cultural exchanges ?

DSC_9875 - Nandi and the Nature - Gangaikondam.

Just look at his face…. How calm and how proud he is !  Guarding his Lord without any inhibition….

The building to the north of Nandi, called Alankara mandapa, and now housing the executive office of the temple was in all probability constructed in the 19th century. On the northeast corner of the temple complex, you can see a circular well adorned with a lion structure at the entrance…. “Simhakeni”

DSC_9861 - South facing Lion well viewd from nearby Nandi.

“Singhamukha Kinaru” (Lion-faced well) – The lion-faced entrance to the well has a flight of steps leading to the water level. An inscription on the sculpture (in the bottom part of left side) in the 19th CE characters records that it was constructed by Zamindar of Udiyarpalaiyam.

DSC_9878 - The Great Cholagangam or Ponneri well with an opening from nearby Lion well.

Huge Circular well situated to the right side of Lion-faced well.  After his victory (Ganges conquest), Rajendra Chola demanded that the defeated kingdoms send pots of Ganges River water and pour them into this temple well.

DSC_9880 - A view of Brihadiswara from northeast corner.

Viewing the Great Sri Vimana from the Lion’s perspective….

The superb architecture of the temple boasts of a 9 storey Vimanam that extends to the height of 185 feet. Not less than 54.86m in height, the temple structure follows the style of
Thanjavur big temple. Whole temple is thrived with rich and intricate carvings that are exclusive to Chola style of artistry. Known to comprise a little northern style, the structure embraces intricate carvings in the Vimanam. The colossal shrine also addresses several significant bronzes of the Chola age.

DSC_9853 - 9 Storey Vimana structure of Choleswaram.55 m high.

Incredible piece of architecture, isn’t it ?  Archeological
Survey of India has renovated the Srivimana and painted it beautifully
after the chemical cleaning. The sight of the Srivimana from this
second entrance is magnificent and beautiful.

The structural difference of this Srivimana with that of Rajaraja-I’s Brihadeeswara temple at Thanjavur is that; this Srivimana is of feminine structure and the Thanjavur Srivimana as masculine in nature. The main difference, that is obvious, is this Srivimana has 8 sided (Octagonal) in structure and Thanjavur Srivimana has 4 sided (Quadragonal) in structure.

DSC_9886 - Shikhara of Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikondam.

Top view of the Sri Vimana -The neck is provided with four niches in the cardinal directions and bulls at the corners. The niches are topped by arch-like embellishment called kirtimukhas. The globular element on the top called Sikhara is according to tradition, made of one stone weighing many stones. But, in fact, it is made of many pieces of cut stones dressed for the purpose, as may be seen from the portion where the plaster has fallen down. The final, stupi is a metal vase (Kalasa) with a lotus-bud design at the top. It is gilded with gold and is said to carry an inscription named after Nallakka-tola-udayar, a Poligar of Udayarpalaiyam. It is not known whether the stupi is the original one and probably gilded by the Poligar or is a new one gifted by him.

DSC_9945 - Nandi,Dvaja Sthamba and eastern Gateway - viewd from the front of Great hall.

Straight line view of Nandi statue, Dvaja Sthamba and Mahaduvar from the eastern entrance to the Mahamandapa… Just notice the architectural perfection… pretty cool, isn’t it ?

The main temple consists of a sanctum tower called Sri Vimana or Sri Koil, a big rectangular mandapa called the mahamandapa with an intervening vestibule called mukhamandapa. The entrances are guarded by big dvarapalas (7 ft high monolithic Gatekeepers) of remarkable beauty….

Just look at the Dvarapalaka figure on left side. The position of his right hand index finger, which is pointing upwards, indicates that ‘There is one and only God’ (Thatva Concept). And now look at his upper left arm, which is showing Abhaya mudra, indicates ‘He (The God) is the savior of all forms’.

The front entrance to the great mandapa is approached by steps from north and south. As the flooring of the mandapa is on a high elevation, the steps rise to a considerable height forming a high platform in the front. It is said that there is a subterranean passage with steps under this platform. Some claim that this passage leads to the royal palace, while others assert that it leads to the river Kollidam. Yet a third tradition says that it leads to an underground treasury wherein invaluable properties belonging to the temple are preserved. None in the living memory has set foot on this passage for fear of darkness, poisonous gas and wasps. It is not unlikely that the empty underground space below the great mandapa and the space between the steps were utilized as store houses.

Beyond this, photography is not allowed, especially inside the Mahamandapa, the ardhamandapa and the main sanctum or Garbhagriha….

DSC_9938 - About 200ft long Great hall and Nandi statue in its front facing main shrine.

Inner view of the elongated Mahamandapa – Photography is banned inside of it.

So let me explain the inside of this structure, The Mahamandapa….

If the original mahamandapa had been preserved, it would have retained the grandeur of its conception and beauty. But as it is, only the portion up to the main base is original. The side walls, the pillars and the ceilings have been reconstructed; probably in the 18th century AD. Obviously the superstructure should have crumbled due to neglect and vegetation. However a part of the original has survived up to the ceiling at the western end. From the surviving portion it may be seen, the roof (prastara) of the mahamandapa was in level with the prastara of the ground floor (adi bhumi) of the main Vimana. Like the walls of the main Vimana, a horizontal cornice divides the outer walls of the mahamandapa into two parts. They carry a series of niches both in the upper and lower courses.

DSC_9943 - Shrines of Rajendra Chola and his wife on the southwest corner of Great hall.

A scene at the southwest corner of the Mahamandapa – Sculptures of King Rajendra Chola I and his consort Queen Tribhuvanamadevi, decorated with crystal ornaments. (This space is closed with metal grills due to security reasons)

As mentioned earlier, the adibhumi of the main Vimana has two floors inside the sandhara passage (the intervening passage), the intervening cornice forming the intermediate floor level. The mahamandapa should have been a two storeyed pavilion, quite fitting with the mahaprasada of the temple. In view of the tall dvarapalas guarding the entrance to the mukhamandapa, the central passage should have had only the upper ceiling without the intermediate flooring. Thus the central passage was flanked by two storeyed structures, resembling the storeyed cloister of the enclosure. It would have presented a most spectacular sight when the deities were taken out in procession through the mahamandapa.

As it stands today the inner side of the mandapa has a central passage, leading from the front to the sanctum flanked by two raised platforms and a passage running around. Two massive dvarapalas are noticed at the western and guarding the entrance to the mukhamandapa. A few sculptures and bronzes receiving regular worship are on the northern platform. The north eastern corner houses an interesting solar altar, now worshipped as Navagraha (nine planets).

Moving on to The Main Sanctum of Gangaikondam Brihadisvara temple…..

The sanctum enshrining the main deity is encased by an inner wall. Between the inner wall and the outer, there is an intervening passage-called sandhara running all around. The two walls are joined at the top by a series of corbelling. They are provided to support the massive super-structure. No painting is noticed in the inner passage. The inner sanctum houses a very big Siva Linga, rising to a height of thirteen feet. It is said to be one of the biggest Siva Linga enshrined in a sanctum in any South Indian temple. The entrance to the sanctum is guarded by massive doorkeepers, dvarapalas. The mandapa immediately preceding the sanctum is approached by steps leading to it from the north and the south sides and also from the great mandapa in the east. The entrances are guarded by big dvarapalas (15 ft high) of astonishing beauty….

DSC_9932 - Pose of right hand index finger denotes God is one and only one - Thatva concept.

Remarkable view of Two Dvaraplas (15 ft high), guarding the northern entrance to the Ardhamandapa, preceding the main sanctum. They are showing the ‘ Thatva concept ‘ of Hinduism. Tiger emblem of Chola dynasty is shown between their legs.

DSC_9965 -Dvarapalas with message 'God is one and only one' - South entrance.

Similar view of Two Dvaraplas (15 ft high), guarding the northern entrance to the Ardhamandapa, preceding the main sanctum. They are showing the ‘ Thatva concept ‘ of Hinduism.

The mandapa is supported by massive plain and square pillars. The eastern walls flanking the opening to the great mandapa carry groups of small sculptures illustrating Shaivite themes. The following are the themes thus represented;

DSC_9942 - reliefs on the wall showing various Shaivism legends.

(On top) The episode of Ravana travelling in his chariot; shaking the Kailasa Mountain; Siva seated with Uma, pressing the mountain with his toe; Ravana’s anguish under the weight of the mountain and finally Siva bestowing boons on Ravana, are depicted in three panels. (On the middle) The second episode on the same wall depicts Vishnu, worshipping Siva with 1008 lotus flowers; finding one short he plucks his own eye and offers it as a flower; Siva bestows grace on Vishnu.

DSC_9935 - opposite to main shrine inside the Ardhamandapa showing various Shaivism legends.

The panels closer to the entrance depict the marriage of Siva with Uma. Uma, the daughter of Himavan, desirous of marrying Siva, undertakes austerities and worships Siva; Siva, after testing her steadfastness as a beautiful youth, marries her; the celestials witness the marriage; Brahma, the creator offers oblation to the sacrificial fire and Vishnu gives Uma in marriage to Siva.

DSC_9939 - opposite to main shrine inside the Ardhamandapa showing various Shaivism legends.

The east wall close to the entrance on the northern side depicts the Kiratarjuna scene; Arjuna the Pandava hero performs austerities to obtain a Pasupata weapon; Siva as a hunter accompanied by Uma as a huntress, tests Arjuna’s devotion; picks up a quarrel with Arjuna over a kill; Arjuna not knowing the personality behind the hunter, enters into a duel with him and is ultimately vanquished; Siva manifesting himself bestows the weapon.

DSC_9937 - reliefs on the wall showing various Shaivism legends.

At the extreme north of the same side are portrayed two episodes, one representing Siva quelling the pride of God of death, in order to protect his devotee, Markhandeya and the other representing Saint Chandikeswara a great devotee of Siva, cutting off the leg of his father, who disturbed his faith and Siva bestowing grace on both father and son.

Though these group sculptures are carefully selected, they are imperfectly finished and lack the beauty and elegance of the sculptures of the main tower.

Coming to the outside from the main sanctum through northern entrance of the Ardhamandapa, you can see, one of the famous scenes sculpted in this Brihadisvara temple complex (near the Dvarapala on the left side wall)….

DSC_9903 - At the north entrance - Shiva garlanding a royal figure (Rajendra I) with Parvati.

Majestically seated Lord Siva’s lower right hand garlands the head of Chandesvara, while the left upper hand holding the end of a flower garland tying it round the head of Chandesvara: upper right hand holds axe (Parasu), while the lower left hand not visible might be holding deer. Chandesvara is piously seated in worshipping (anjali) posture with folded hands. Bhuthaganas are seen behind the God. Devi is seen seated near the God. It is suggested that the King Rajendra himself has carved his own image (his coronation scene) and shown his benevolence to Lord Siva. The art historians regards this sculpture as the masterpiece of this period.

DSC_9915 - Display of Saraswati devi opposite to Shiva garlanding Rajendra I with Parvati.

Facing towards Chandeshanugrahamurthi, on the west wall, is the figure of Saraswathi, the Goddess of Knowledge. She is seen seated on a lotus throne with four arms; holding a rossary of beads and an amrita kalasa in the upper arms and a palm leaf and Chinmudra pose in the lower ones; behind her is shown a prabha, aureole.

Lets explore the northern side of Brihadisvara temple complex…….

DSC_9894 - Northern entrance direct to the Ardhamandapa of Brihadisvara, Gangaikondam.

Splendid view of the Northern entrance to the Ardhamandapa, preceding the main sanctum. Two 15 ft Dvarapalas, Chandeshanugrahamurthi and Goddess Saraswathi are the interesting visuals in here.

DSC_9893 - South facing Chandikesvara temple near the northern entrance.

South facing Chandikesvara Temple (near the northern entrance) – The little temple to the north-east of the central shrine enshrining Chandikesvara, the steward of Siva . It is an all stone temple built on a raised basement, with a storeyed
superstructure. The sanctum is approached by side steps. Inside the sanctum is an image of Chandikesvara, coeval with the temple. The outer walls of this sanctum have niches on all the three sides, carrying sculptures of Chandikesvara. He is the principal subsidiary deity in Siva temples and till about 13th century AD. All transactions relating to the temple were made in his name. Hence a separate shrine is provided for him in the temple complex.

DSC_9896 - Circular griva with Shikhara and Kirtimukhas - Chandikesvara temple.

Superstructure of Chandikesvara temple with a Lotus bud shaped circular Shikhara and A stupi or final (Kalasa) made out of brass at the top. Presence of Kirthimukhas and Nandi at four cardinal directions.

DSC_9892 - East facing Kali temple on the north side - Brihadisvara temple complex.

East facing Mahishasuramardhini Shrine – To the west of the lion-well is a shrine dedicated to the Goddess, Mahishasuramardhini. The shrine is a later structure (probably built in 14 -15th Century) and did not form part of the original layout. It consists of a sanctum preceded by a mandapa. The Goddess installed in the sanctum is similar to a Durga found at Virareddi street, in the same village and is in all likelihood, Chalukyan in origin.

DSC_9906 - Amman temple on the north with a Mukhamandapa.

‘Brihanayaki Amman Temple’ (Northern Kailasa) – To the north of the main temple is a small shrine now housing the Goddess, Brihannayaki, the consort of Lord Gangaikonda Cholesvara. The temple resembles the southern kailasa in every aspect and is called Uttara Kailasa. It has a sanctum, preceded by a front mandapa, provided with side-steps. In front of this is a bigger mandapa (mahamandapa), which is well preserved, unlike its southern counterpart. The Vanni tree seen on the bottom left is the Thalavirutcham or Sthala Vriksha of this temple.

Two gatekeepers flank the entrance. In front of the gatekeepers, in the mahamandapa, are images of Saraswati in the north and Gajalakshmi in the south. One of the Dvarapalas is shown here…..

DSC_9920 - Dvarapalaka of Amman temple at north of Brihadisvara temple.

One of the Dvarapalas inside Brihanayaki Amman temple, flanking the entrance to main sanctum.

DSC_9922 - Northern wall and the Shrines displayed in the niches of Amman temple.

North side of Brihanayaki Amman temple – The niches on the sanctum and the front mandapa carry Ganesha, Nataraja, Bhikshatana, Subrahmanya, Dakshinamurthi, Lingodhbhava, Brahma, Bhairava, Ardhanari, Durga, and Gauriprasada are noticed in order, from the south.

DSC_9923 - Ardhanarishvara with Nandi displayed at north of Amman temple.

“Ardhanareesvara” – A standing figure in tribhanga pose with three arms; two are in the right side and one in the left; the upper right holds a parasu, while the lower right rests on the head of a bull standing beside Him. Left arm holding a flower, Nilotpal and a parrot is seen pecking the pollen. The right side of the head is adorned with a jatamakuta and the left with a kesabandha. A lion pendent ear ring is seen on the right ear while a roll or pendent is seen in the left ear. A parasol above and a fly whisk on the either side are shown. The breast is shown on the left emphasizing the feminine aspect. The left side wears a sari extending up to the knee. Right part wears the tiger skin. Both masculine firmness and feminine tenderness visualized in the same face which is the salient of this sculpture.

DSC_9924 - Brahma or Timurthi concept displayed at the northern wall of Amman temple.

A sculpture of Bearded Brahma – Four armed standing three headed (the fourth head at the back not being visible) and bearded figure of Brahma standing erect position; holding sruk and sruva (sacrificial ladles and spoons for pouring oblations of ghee) in the upper right arm and a rosary of beads in the lower right; a bunch of dharbha grass in the upper left and lower left is placed on His thigh.

It is significant that the mahamandapa of this Amman temple has steps to it, only on the side. In ancient times, steps were always provided on the sides and not in front of the sanctum. The beautiful image of Goddess now enshrined in the sanctum of this temple should be a later installation. Originally the temple should have enshrined a Siva Linga, like the southern Kailasa. Though separate shrines of Goddesses came to be built in the main temples only from the reign of Rajendra I, no Devi-shrine was built originally in this temple, the present one being clearly a later institution.

Back to the details about Great Sri Vimana of Brihadisvara….

According to architectural treatises, basements (upa-pithas) are introduced in temples to increase the height of the main tower; to add to structural stability and to make the temple tower majestic.That these purposes are magnificently fulfilled by the basement of  Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple, may be noticed even by a casual visitor not conversant with architectural principles. Besides the purposes mentioned above, the basement also provides, a space to walk around the tower. In this temple, the basement is ornamented with sculptures of lions and leogriffs with lifted paws.

The main base adhishtana is decorated with well defined courses, consisting of the lotus moulding adaspadma, and the kumuda moulding, topped by a frieze of leogriffs and riders. This constitutes the main base, the top of which forms the flooring level of the inner sanctum. That portion of the structure rising above the main base up-to the roof cornice is called ‘the wall’ (bhitti or kal). It is the principal element that encases the main sanctum and carries on it a number of niches housing various deities. The wall in this temple is divided into two horizontal courses by an intervening cornice. Lower and upper courses have an equal number of niches, on all the three sides except the front

DSC_9900 - Parabolic curve of the Vimana structure - seen from north.

North side of the Sri Vimana, Brihadisvara temple – On the vertical axis the wall surfaces are well defined by intervening recesses forming a rectangle in the centre and squares at the corners. Each is made up of a central niche housing a deity, flanked by a group
of small sculptures which in turn are flanked by pilasters simulating pillars. Thus each niche housing a deity appears as a miniature shrine. The recessed walls in the lower courses carry a vase and pilaster ornamentation,  while on the upper courses, there are small niches housing deities. Thus these are five principal deities in the lower course and nine deities in the upper course on each side.

The sculptures in the lower courses, of the Sri Vimana depict various aspects of Siva and also the subsidiary deities who include Ganesha, Vishnu, Subrahmanya, Durga, Brahma, and Bhairava, supplemented by Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Durga in the niches of the great mandapa. The sculptures were made separately and fitted into the niches. They are flanked by a group of small sculptures, carved in situ, illustrating the theme the niche sculpture seeks to represent. The sculptures on the upper courses represent, besides some aspects of Siva, the guardian deities of the eight quarters.

Lets examine the sculptures on the lower courses (north side of Sri Vimana)…..

DSC_9925 - Kalantaka image - North side of the NW corner of Brihadisvara.

“Kalandhaka” (at the northwest corner)Four armed Siva shown in such a way destroying Kala, God of death, right leg placed on Kala and with the left pressing him down. The upper right arm holds parasu is about to strike, while the lower right holds the trident, the upper left holds a deer (antelope) and the lower left points to Kala. Surya and Chandra are shown at the top and devotees in one side. Another side shown Markhandeya, devotee of Lord Siva worshipping Linga and the God of death, Yama dragging him forcibly with a rope.

DSC_9926 - Display of Durga with lion - north wall of Brihadisvara.

“Durga” (next to Kalandhaka) – The Goddess is standing with eight arms holding discus, arrow, sword and abhaya in right arms and conch, bow, shield in the left arms respectively and the one hand is on her thigh. A buffalo head is shown below (Shape shifting demon, Mahisha) and lion stands behind her.

DSC_9927 - Image of Brahma displayed above pranala of main sanctum - Brihadisvara

“Brahma” (at the center above Komugham) – Four armed standing three headed (the fourth head at the back not being visible) and bearded figure of Brahma standing erect position; holding sruk and sruva (sacrificial ladles and spoons for pouring oblations of ghee) in the upper right arm and a rosary of beads in the lower right; a bunch of dharbha grass in the upper left and a kamandala in lower left; goddess Saraswathi on the right side holds a bunch of palm leaves in her left arm, in the left goddess Savithri is present. In the side walls Surya, Chandra, devas and sages are present.

DSC_9928 - Bhairava - a warrior form of Shiva - north wall of Brihadisvara.

“Bhairava” (next to Brahma) – standing with eight arms in naked position wearing garland of skulls, round eyes, protruded teeth, hair show like a flame, holding trident, parasu, sword and noose in his right arm; fire, kapala, khatwanga and bell in his left arm and a coil of snake shown around his thighs.

DSC_9930 - Sitting image of Shiva on the north wall of main sanctum - Kamantaka.

“Kamantaka” (at the northeast corner, next to Bhairava) – Seated figure of Lord Siva with four arms; right upper arm holds a rossary while the lower arm pointing down. The left upper arm holds a chouri and the lower is placed on thigh. In the right side wall a sage is shown in penance attitude; two devotees are shown below him. On the left side at the top, Manmatha, the God of love is shown aiming an arrow at Siva. Two devotees are shown in the middle; Manmatha and Rathi are seen below the devotees.

The interesting thing is that, one can see ancient inscriptions (Grantha script) imprinted on the basement part below these sculptures. Together, they called ‘ Chola Prasasthi ‘.   Prasasthi is a poetic way of expressing the extol of the king and his various heroic activities. Prasasthi’s start with auspicious saying such as Swasthi Sri etc., they give historical details, name of the king, his title, name of his queen, the regnal year and later on about donations, land details etc.

Time to move on to the Western side of Great Sri Vimana of Brihadisvara….

This basement of Srivimana is 100 feet by 100 feet and the foundation is square in structure and raises 20 feet above the ground level. The courtyard in 566 ft in the length and 318 ft width and has a transept at the west in line with the main sanctum.

DSC_0029 - West side of Great Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

Western side of the Srivimana of Brihadisvara temple – Compared to the Thanjavur Temple, which has straight contours, this temple has a curvilinear contour, slightly concave towards the top. It has divided in to eight zones. The roof cornice consists mainly of three parts: (a) the frieze of dwarfs at the bottom, (b) the cornice forming the outer edge of the ceiling roof proper and, (c) the frieze of leogriffs (a mythical creature) on the top. The cornice is decorated with plain spade-like ornamentation topped by the head of a leogriffs. A row of miniature shrines runs around the tower like a garland, and is called a hara. It consists of square pavilions at the corners, rectangular pavilions in the middle, with nest (nida) ornamentation in between.

Above this rises the main tower, consisting of nine stories including the ground floor. The upper stories of the main tower carry the same type of ornamentation, consisting of square and oblong pavilions except a change; the central wagon-shaped pavilion is flanked by square ones instead of “the nests”, the whole being projected forward than the rest. Now, look at the different sculptures shown in the lower course niches of West side (Sri Vimana)….

DSC_0022 - Shiva and Parvati in amorous pose - Gangadhara on SW corner - West side

“Gangadhara” (at the southwest corner)Four armed standing figure of Siva, embracing and pacifying Parvathi standing side by his side. The upper right arm of Siva receives the falling river Ganga from his matted lock; the lower right moves gently around Parvathi. The upper left arm holds usual attributes of Siva, the deer: the lower left is placed on the thigh. The right arm of the Devi is placed on jer thigh while left is bent. Three rows of miniature sculptures are noticed on the side walls. Surya is shown on the top of the wall right of Siva; Devas are in the middle and two devotees at the bottom. In the left wall Chandra seen at the top, devotees in the middle and Bhagiratha doing penance in the lower part.

DSC_0021 - Lingodhbhava Shiva - West side ,on 1st layer.

“Lingodhbhava” (next to Gangadhara) – Four armed standing figure of Lingodhbhava coming out from the shaft of fire. The upper right arm holds axe and the lower is in the abhaya pose; the left upper holds deer and lower is placed on the thigh. The leg below the ankle is hidden, a garland of flowers is shown around the Linga portion at the top. Vishnu as a boar is shown at the bottom in an outline. Brahma as swan is not represented in the top.

DSC_0023 - Image of Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu) - West side.

“Mahavishnu” (at the centre of west side) – Standing figure of Vishnu with four arms; the upper two arms hold discus in the right and conch in the left respectively, the lower right arm is in the abhaya pose while the left rests on the thigh. Sri devi with two arms present in the right side while on the left Bhu devi is present also with two arms. Surya and Chandra on either side of the top side walls, devas in the middle and sages at the bottom are seen.

DSC_0024 - Image of Mahavishnu diaplayed on the 1st layer of west side.

“Subrahmanya” (next to Mahavishnu) – The Subrahmanya figure is seen in the west wall standing with four arms carrying Sakti and Vajra in the upper arms while the lower right is in abhaya pose and the left in thigh. A Chennavira (the chest belt worn by the heroes) is shown across his chest and the prominent garland of Kanni flower are shown below the crown.

DSC_0025 -Vishnuanugrahamurthi - Shiva sitting with Parvathi - West side of Brhadisvara.

“Vishnuanugrahamurthi” (at the northwest corner) – Siva and Parvathi represented in the seated position on a pedestal. Siva is shown with four arms carrying Parasu (axe), antelope in the upper right and the left arms respectively, while the left arm is placed on his thigh; the right holding Chakra.

DSC_0045 - Ganesha shrine on SW corner - view from west side.

“Ganesha Shrine” situated at the southwest corner of Brihadisvara – To the south-west of the main temple, is a small shrine dedicated to Ganesha. It has a sanctum preceded by a mandapa. The structure could be assigned to the 13th century on stylistic grounds.

It is from the southwest corner that, one gets an infamous view of the Great Srivimana of Gangaikondam Brihadisvara temple…….

DSC_0009 - Great Sri Vimana of Brihadisvara temple,Gangaikondam.

Sri-vimana at Gangaikonda has nine storeys (talas) including those at the lower levels, in contrast to the thirteen storeys at Thanjavur. Each storey has a square-circle-oblong artwork. The upper levels repeat the lower level design in a rhythmic shrinking pattern. The symmetry principles are dutifully embedded in, but the rate of shrinking is not linear with height. The lower storeys shrink faster than the upper storeys. This gives the vimana an uncommon parabolic form. Ganesha shrine is at the left corner and Southern Kailasa at the right corner.

Coming to the Southern side of Sri Vimana of Brihadisvara…..

DSC_9994 - 9 stories of Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikondam.

Southern side of the Sri Vimana, Brihadisvara temple – Sculptures on the upper courses represent, besides some aspects of Siva, the guardian deities of the eight quarters. While on the lower course of the vertical wall, one can see images of Nataraja, Harihara (Half Siva, Half Vishnu), Ardhanareeshvara and Narthana Ganesha.

DSC_9989 - Image of Ganapati on the 1st layer of south side.

“Narthana Ganesha’ (on the southeast corner of south side) – Lord Ganesha in a dancing pose with four arms.

DSC_9997 - Nataraja and Harhara displayed on the 1st layer - South side of SW corner.

“Nataraja (at the southwest corner of south side) and Harihara (next to Nataraja)” – Four armed dancing Siva, holding drum in the upper right arm and showing Abhaya pose bestowing palm on the lower right. The upper left arm carries fire and the lower left is throwing across the body in gajahasta. The matted hair locks are depicted flying on either side. On the right side of the matted hair river Ganga is shown. By the left side of the leg is shown dancing Kali, carrying drum, sword, trident, abhaya, dandhasta in her hands. A three legged figure, probably representing Bhringi is seen on the right. Below the feet is shown the women saint Karaikkal ammayar. She is holding a musical instrument called as Kinkini. Three Ganas are also shown playing symbols and drum. On the west side wall is shown Surya on top. Subrahmanya seated on  peacock is flying; Ganapati moves on his rat. Further down is four armed Nandikesvara playing drum. Chandra is shown on the top of the side wall to east. Two armed Goddess Parvathi is leaning on a bull looking Majestically; she holds lotus in her right arm. Harihara is the combined form of Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu. A trident is shown in upper right arm and a discus is shown in upper left arm.

You can see two other interesting images on side walls of the southern entrance leading to the ardhamandapa of main sanctum (near the 15 ft Dvarapalas on south side)……

DSC_9972 - Kankaladhara with six arms in tribhanga pose - South entrance.

“Kankaladhara” (at the west side wall of southern entrance ) – Lord Siva is standing in a tribhanga pose with six arms, the upper right arm holds a snake, the middle feeds the deer (antelope) and the lower one playing on udukkai or damaru, which is broken. The upper left arm holds a trident across the back with a chowri hanging; the middle one is placed on the head of a dwarf (Bhutha gana) standing by the side and the bottom holding the damaru is broken. Pair of sandals adorn his feet.

DSC_9981 - Kankaladhara with six arms in tribhanga pose - South entrance.

Kankaladhara – On the wall to the right of Siva, Surya on top; Bhutaganas in the middle and wives of sages at the bottom are shown. While on the left side wall, Chandra on top, ganas in the middle and wives of sages at the bottom are present. Makara thorana decorations above this niche carries a bas relief of Uma Maheshvara in the centre.

DSC_9970 - Gajalakshmi - South entrance, opposite to Sundareshan.

‘Lakshmi Devi” (at the east side wall of southern entrance) – Goddess Lakshmi seated on a lotus throne with two arms. Devi holds lotus flowers in her arms; above her are shown two elephants pouring water from pots held in their trunks (Gajalakshmi).

The shrine, south of the main Vimana and called the Southern Kailasa has a sanctum preceded by a mandapa which in turn is fronted by flights of steps from south and north of which the basement alone remains.

DSC_9978 - Kailasanatha Shrine at South - East facing.

“Southern Kailasa or Dakshina Kailasa” – The outer walls of the sanctum and the front mandapa carry niches, housing images. The niches of the sanctum carry Dakshinamurthi in the south and Lingodhbhava in the west, while the niche on the north is empty. The niches on the front mandapa carry; in the south, Ganesha, Nataraja, Bhikshatana, and Subrahmanya and in the north, Gauriprasada, Durga, Ardhanari and Bhairava. The
inner sanctum of the shrine is now in ruins.

A little to the north-east of this temple is a granite basement, probably the ruin of a mandapa. It is now called the Alankara mandapa. To the west of this is a well, probably coeval with the temple.

DSC_9987 - Ruins of a subsidiary shrine opposite to south entrance - Nataraja Mandapa.

Completely ruined Alankar Mandapa in front of the Southern Kailasa.

And here come the final moments of a memorable day of my life….

DSC_9953 - 560ft long and 208ft high Brihadisvara temple - Viewed from Southeast corner.

South side of the Great Living Brihadisvara temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram – How spectacular, it is!  Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) administers the temple as a protected heritage monument. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2004, along with the Brihadeeswara temple at Thanjavur and Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram. These are referred to collectively as the Great Living Chola Temples.

DSC_0112 - Beautiful creation of Great Chola Kingdom by Rajendra Chola I.

Viewing Sunsets are always special. But with a spectacular marvel like Brihadisvara in the scene, it gets incredibly awesome and i can’t even express that feeling in just words. Its something you have to experience with your naked eyes, once in your life time.

Its the moment to remember my companions, who were supporting, without any hesitations, throughout the entire sessions of explorations, happened on this long day….

DSC_0057 - From the foot steps of Northern entrance, Brihadisvara temple.

Sreejith and Lakshmy (Northern entrance to the main sanctum) – Yet another destination successfully covered with their trusts and supports. Really thankful to them !

DSC_0114 - A massive monument viewed from the perspective of nature.

One last shot of this 1000 years old marvel and It has to be something special ! The Great Brihadisvara Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

The symmetry, geometry and symbolism of these temple architectures simply leaves you spell bound. Visualizing the stories of more than 10 centuries, oh! that’s something you can’t just imagine. looking at these marvels, one must appreciate the brilliance of Chola artisans. How skillful, they were! And can say, in every block of stone, there is a story inside and the task of the sculptor is to discover it. Another memorable day of discovering creations, enlightenment by the divine and touching the depths of eternal happiness.

Day 2 – Itinerary

  • First Destination              : Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram.
  • Starting Time                   : Morning 4.30 am.
  • Transportation                : By State transport; Via Pondicherry (91 kms from Mahabalipuram); then to Chidambaram (65 kms from Pondicherry)
  • Travel Time                      : 4 hours in total.
  • Duration of exploration : 4 hours.
  • Second Destination         : Brihadisvara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram.
  • Starting Time                    : Afternoon, 1.30 pm.
  • Transportaion                  : In a private local bus; Via Kattumannarkudi (27 kms from Chidambaram); then to Gangaikondam by auto rickshaw (17 kms)
  • Travel Time                      : 2 hours in total.
  • Duration of exploration : 3 hours.
  • Next Destination              : Brihadeeswara Temple (Big temple), Thanjavur.


Thank you for the patience…

********************************To be continued*************************************















8 replies »

  1. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research on this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such magnificent information being shared freely out there.


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