The Glorious Temples of the Chola Empire

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Southern India is well-known for its temples and their shining examples of architecture. The Chola empire that ruled the South from 9th to 13th century constructed some of the most magnificent temples in the country. Today, in this article, we will be discussing some such glorious living Chola temples and reading about their architectural designs. We will also be discussing what the Indian government or the Archaeological Survey of India is doing to preserve these precious monuments. By the time you will come to the final thought, you will get to know the significance of these glorious temples of the past.

So, without any delay, let us start our reading adventure!

What are the Great Living Temples of the Chola Dynasty?

There are mainly three glorious temples of the Chola dynasty. They are:

  • Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur
  • Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram
  • Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram

Land donations were granted to the temple to feed pilgrims and priests, carry out elaborate rituals and celebrate festivals. The location of these living Chola temples are in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The location of Thanjavur is approximately 350 kms southwest of Chennai.  Gangaikondacholisvaram and Darasuram are located 70 kms and 40 kms to its northeast respectively.

Let us get to know about each of these Chola temples in detail:

Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur

  • Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur is one of the largest and the oldest Hindu temples in South India. It is located at Thanjavur.
  • The temple is a masterpiece of Tamil architecture.
  • The Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur is dedicated to Hindu lord Shiva. However, the gopura, sculptures, frescoes, inscriptions also denote Shaktism and Vaishnavism apart from Shaivism.
  • The temple was constructed by Raja Raja Chola 1 between 1003 and 1010 A.D.
  • It is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
  • The temple was also used as a watchtower during war times.
  • The Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur is a major tourist hotspot drawing people from all over the country.

The Architecture of the Brihadisvara Temple (Thanjavur) of the Cholas

  • The vimanam above the shrine is made of granite and is the tallest tower in South India.
  • The collonaded prakara (corridor) is massive and the Shiva linga within the temple is the largest in India.
  • One interesting fact about the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur is that the pillars produce different acoustics when they are tapped.
  • There is a brass Nataraja that was sculpted in the 11th century (the dancing form of Lord Shiva) and shrines for Amman, Nandi, Ganesha, Dakshinamurti, Varahi etc.
  • Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur was surrounded by a moat in the 11th century and is surrounded by fortified walls that were built after the 16th century.
  • The structures of the temple were damaged and later new constructions like the mandapam and monuments were added to the existing ones.
  • It seems like when the sun at its pinnacle, the Brihadisvara Temple (Thanjavur) casts no shadow. However, the shadows are cast towards the periphery that gets covered up by trees.

Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram

  • The Brihadisvara Temple located at Gangaikondacholisvaramis is also known as the Gangaikondacholisvaram temple.
  • Similar to the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram is dedicated to Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and other deities like Vishnu, Surya, Harihara, Ardhanishvara etc.
  • The temple was built by Rajendra Chola I in the year 1035 as a part of his new capital.
  • It is well-known for its bronze sculptures, wall artworks, and the Nandi.

The Architecture of the Brihadisvara Temple of the Cholas

  • The architecture of the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur and the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram are similar to one another.
  • It has a pyramidal vimanam that is 53 m, collonaded prakara, main shrine, smaller shrines and gopura that were partially damaged or later reconstructed.

Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram

  • The location of the Chola temple, Airavatesvara Temple is at Darasuram, Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu.
  • It is one of the 18 medieval Hindu temples of the region.
  • The temple is named after the White Elephant of Indra, Airavata.
  • It was built by Rajaraja II, a descendant of Rajaraja I around 1150 AD and was completed in 1166 AD.
  • The vimana or sanctum tower is 53m in height and has a curving movement unlike the straight vimanam of the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur.

The Architecture of the Airavatesvara Temple of the Cholas

  • The architecture and workmanship of the Airavatesvara Temple of the Cholas is a finer and magnificent one.
  • The temple comprises of a chariot structure where several Puranic and Vedic deities like Indra, Agni, Surya, Saraswati, Ganga etc are carved intricately.
  • Similar to the previous two temples, Airavatesvara displays depictions of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and legends of the Nayanars or the 63 Tamil Hindu saints of Shiva.
  • The Rajagambhira Thirumandapam is the only surviving royal courtyard out of the seven that were built. It is a grand piece of architecture hewn out of stone and comprises of intricately carved pillars, long granite steps, and elegant chariots drawn by horses.
  • The main temple and the associated shrines are the complete architecture that exists today. The gopuram and the other parts of the temple are in ruins.

What is the Importance of Chola Temples?

One thing is certain from the Chola temples that the Chola kings were not only able administrators or rulers but also great builders. Typically, a temple mainly serves as a place of worship and charity activities but the Chola temples were more than that. They had immense significance be it economically, culturally, socially or educationally. Let us understand the importance of Chola temples through these points:

  • The Chola temples were centres of economic activity for their kingdoms as they provided employment to people.
  • These places of worship were also used for congregations.
  • Festivals were celebrated and every form of art like dance, music were performed in these Chola temples.
  • As already mentioned, the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur also played an important role during wars by functioning like a watchtower.
  • The temples were a medium for charity practices. The poor and the downtrodden were often fed within the temple premises.

What are the Actions of the ASI to Preserve the Chola Temples?

The ASI and the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act is overlooking the maintenance of these Chola temples. As a result, care is taken to preserve the physical structure of the monuments and avoiding damage of any kind or measure. It is because of proper monitoring and maintenance of these Chola temples that the tourists love exploring these places. Several tourist amenities are also introduced to provide them with a fulfilling experience.

List of Other Chola Temples

  • Vijayala-Cholesvaram
  • Ayikudi Balasubramanya Swami Temple
  • Koran Ganatha
  • Rajarajeshwar
  • Tiruvalisvaram
  • Vaidyanath
  • Muvar Koil
  • Uttarakailash
  • Naveswara
  • Gangaikondachola-puram
  • Kampahareswara

Final Thought!

The Chola temples have a lot of mystery associated with them. Their architecture is not the only one to marvel at but the way the temples were built leaves people in absolute awe. These glorious temples of the Chola empire were built in the past but continues to be significant till date. No wonder why these magnificent piece of architecture finds itself in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Tourists who have visited these shrines feel like retravelling to the place because of their immense grandeur. Truly, the Chola temples are a historical legacy that has been giften to us by the Cholas since time immemorial.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Which is the famous temple of Chola?

The main living temples built by the Cholas are the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram.

What are the temples built by Chola?

Some of the temples built by Cholas are:

  • Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur
  • Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram
  • Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram.
  • Rajarajeshwar
  • Tiruvalisvaram
  • Vaidyanath
  • Muvar Koil

Where is the Chola temples situated?

The location of these living Chola temples are in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Do Cholas still exist?

The last Chola king, Rajendra Chola III might have survived in obscure conditions in Pazhayarai until 1279, after which no Chola inscriptions were deciphered.

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