Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur; Temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram;
and Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram] (1987, 2004), Tamil Nadu
Date of Inscription: 1987; Extension: 2004
The celebrated Saiva temple at Thanjavur, appropriately called Brihadisvara and Daksinameru, is the grandest creation of the Chola emperor Rajaraja (AD 985-1012). It was inaugurated by the king himself in his 19th regnal year (AD 1009-10) and named it after himself as Rajesvara Peruvudaiyar. Architecturally, it is the most ambitious structural temple built of granite. It has been regarded as a ‘landmark in the evolution of building art in south India’ and its vimana as a ‘touchstone of Indian architecture as a whole’. The temple is within a spacious inner prakara of 240.9 m long (east-west) and 122 m broad (north-south), with a gopura at the east and three other ordinary torana entrances one at each lateral sides and the third at rear. The prakara is surrounded by a double-storeyed malika with parivaralayas. The temple with its massive proportions and simplicity of design provided inspiration for future designs in constructions not only in south India but also in south-east Asia.
The sikhara, a cupolic dome, is octagonal and rests on a single block of granite, a square of 7.8 m weighing 80 tons. The majestic upapitha and adhishthana are common to all the axially placed entities like the ardha-maha and mukha-mandapas and linked to the main sanctum but approached through a north-south transept across the ardha-mandapa which is marked by lofty sopanas. The moulded plinth is extensively engraved with inscriptions by its royal builder who refers to his many endowments, pious acts and organisational events connected to the temple. The brihad-linga within the sanctum is 8.7 m high. Life-size iconographic representations on the wall niches and inner passages include Durga, Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Bhikshatana, Virabhadra, Kalantaka, Natesa, Ardhanarisvara and Alingana forms of Siva. The mural paintings on the walls of the lower ambulatory inside are finest examples of Chola and later periods which depict the contemporaneous scenes with legendary ones.
Sarfoji, a local Maratha ruler, rebuilt the Ganapati shrine. The celebrated Thanjavur School of paintings of the Nayakas is largely superimposed over the Chola murals. The temple is rich in iconography as well as inscriptions which provide an account of events showing achievements, financial arrangements, donations and bearing an impression of contemporary society.
Two great Chola Temples of the 11th and 12th centuries have been added to the 11th century Brihadisvara temple of Thanjavur, inscribed in 1987. The Great Living Chola Temples were built by kings of the Chola Empire, which stretched over all of South India and the neighbouring islands. The site now includes the three great 11th and 12th century Chola Temples: the Brihadisvara temple of Thanjavur, the Temple of Gangaikondacholapuram and the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram.
The Temple of Gangaikondacholapuram, built by Rajendra I, was completed in 1035. Its 53-m vimana (sanctum tower) has recessed corners and a graceful upward curving movement, contrasting with the straight and severe tower at Thanjavur. It has six pairs of massive, monolithic dvarapalas statues guarding the entrances and bronzes of remarkable beauty inside. The Airavatesvara temple complex at Darasuram, built by Rajaraja II, features a 24-m vimana and a stone image of Shiva. The temples testify to the Cholas brilliant achievements in architecture, sculpture, painting, and bronze casting.
Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikondacholapuram, Dist. Perambalur
Rajendra I (AD 1012-1044), the illustrious son of the great Chola king Rajaraja I (AD 985-1014) chose this location to build a new a great capital city for the Chola Empire most probably during the first quarter of 11th century in order to commemorate his conquest over northern territories. Nonetheless, he not only built a city, now in ruins and excavated partially but also a great temple for Siva. The Brihadisvara at Tanjavur had influenced this temple in many ways like the vast conception of the lay out and massive proportion of the elevation.
The lay out – the sanctum with its axial units, the Chandikesvara shrine, the cloister mandapa with the subsidiary shrines and a gopura is similar to Tanjavur. The location of two smaller shrines – The South and North Kailasa (now the Amman shrine) are different. But the architect of this edifice has shown remarkable intelligence to correct some of the shortcomings in the design of the Brihadisvara at Tanjavur like the provision for erecting a wooden scaffolding in the masonry of the sanctum, the pleasing elevation by appropriately changing and placing the hara elements etc.
The inscription recording accurately the donations to the God of the temple is missing here. In fact, there is no inscription of Rajendra himself. The earliest inscription is that of his son, but recording the donations of his father.
The temple has sculptures of exceptional quality like the dancing Ganesa, Ardhanari, Dakshinamurthi, Harihara, Adavallan (Nataraja) (on south wall niches), Gangadhara, Lingodhbhava, Vishnu, Subrahmanya, Vishnu-anugrahmurthi (west wall), Kalanthakamurthi, Durga, Brahma, Bairava, Kamantaka (north wall). But the most outstanding sculptures are found in the niches by the side of the northern entrance steps to the sanctum. They are the Chandesanugrahamurti and Sarasvati. The bronzes of Bhogasakti and Subrahmanya are masterpieces of Chola metal icons. The Saurapitha (Solar altar), the lotus altar with eight deities is considered auspicious.
A British officer in 19th century considered this temple as the best source for stones for the construction of a weir across the river Kollidam and therefore ordered its demolition. But the temple was not demolished due to protest by the locals.
Airavatesvara temple, Darasuram, Dist. Tanjavur
Built by the Chola king Rajaraja II (AD 1143-1173), this temple is a gem of Chola architecture. Though much smaller in size when compared to the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, this temple is different as it is highly ornate in execution. The temple consists of a sanctum without a circumambulatory path and axial mandapas. The front mandapa known in the inscriptions as Rajagambhiran tirumandapam, is unique as it was conceptualised as a chariot with wheels. The pillars of this mandapa are highly ornate. The elevation of all the units is elegant with sculptures dominating the architecture.
A number of sculptures from this temple like the full set of Bhikshatana with rishi patnis is various moods, are now preserved in the Tanjavur Art Gallery. They are the masterpieces of Chola art. Remaining ones like Nagaraja, Agastya, dancing Martanda Bhairava, Sarabhamurti, Ganesa etc., are equally gracious. The labelled miniature friezes extolling the events that happened to the 63 nayanmars (Saiva saints) are noteworthy and reflect the deep roots of Saivism in this region. In fact, the king made donation for the singing of hymns from Thevaram, the Saivite sacred book in Tamil, in this temple.
The construction of a separate temple for Devi, slightly later than the main temple, indicates the emergence of Amman shrine as an essential component of the south Indian temple complex.