Gangaikonda Cholapuram is a town located not too far from Thanjavur. It is surrounded by Gangaikondan lake on the west and river Vadavaru on the east. The lake continues to be the biggest lake in Tamil Nadu even today.
I was visiting from Thanjavur as part of my Chola trail covering the temples at Chidambaram, Thanjavur, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Darasuram, and Trichy. We traveled the roads of Tamil Nadu as we hopped through these temple towns, drank tumblers of filter coffee, and admired the lush landscape all around.
Gangai Konda Rajendra Chola I
The city of Gangaikonda Cholapuram was established by the Chola king Rajendra I, the son of the famous Chola king Rajaraja I. His mother was Chera princess Tribhuvana Madevi. They trace their lineage to the solar dynasty just like Sri Ram of Ayodhya.
Rajendra I ascended the throne in 1016 CE, when the kingdom included present-day Tamil Nadu, Andhra, parts of Karnataka, and Sri Lanka. He ruled till 1054 CE, the year he passed away.
During his reign, he added regions around Tungabhadra, Kerala, Maldives, and Sumatra and took various titles during this time. He also used his naval might to build relationships with kingdoms far off in the sea.
The story goes that the Gangaikonda Cholapuram was so named Rajendra Chola had a victorious march to the sacred Ganga River. He defeated the Bengal kings and brought back Ganga water to sanctify his own land. He even took the title of Gangai Konda Chola for himself and decided to build a city by the same name.
Other titles that he took after his victories include Madhurantaka, Uttama Chola, Vira Chola, Mudikonda Chola, Pandita Chola, and KadaramKonda.
Beginning in 1025 CE, this city was the capital of Cholas for 250 years. This was the time when the whole of South India from the banks of Tungabhadra to Sri Lanka was under Cholas. Most of the Chola kings after Rajendra Chola were crowned here or ruled from here. It fell to Pandyas in the 13th CE.
The city was built as a capital city with two fortification walls going around it. Well-laid-out roads and streets are mentioned in Tamil literature. There used to be a multi-storied royal palace built with burnt bricks, wooden pillars, and granite bases.
A huge lake called Gangai Chola was built along with the city. It is now called Ponneri lake.
Today, only the Gangaikonda Cholapuram Brihadeeshwarar temple survives. Everything else is in complete ruins.
Brihadeeswarar Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Brihadeeswarar temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram was supposed to be the bigger version of the Big Temple in Thanjavur. It was located in the North-East corner of the city, which had the royal palace at the center. There was apparently a Vishnu temple in the west, but it is lost now.
When you reach the temple, it almost seems to be standing alone in the middle of nowhere.
You enter through a narrow passage in the North. What you see immediately is the imposing Vimana or the Shikhara of the temple. It is almost Pyramidical in shape. At 160 feet in height, it is a wee bit smaller than the big temple.
Gopurams and Prakara walls are missing today. In 1836 CE when the region was under the British, they pulled the wall and the gopurams to take stones to build a dam a few miles away. It is believed that the Gopuram here was similar to the Big temple at Thanjavur. It had a plain base with only Dwarpalas places close to them. Unlike other Chola temples that had two Gopurams, this one had only one in the East.
Two images of Dwarapalas have been kept at the entrance. They do create the ambiance of the entrance as it might have been. The side entrances to the sanctum are also flanked by huge Dwarapalas that are approached through a flight of steps, a typical feature of Chola temples.
The main temple is surrounded by a few smaller temples. They are dedicated to Devi, Durga with a lion guarding it, Chandikeshwara, Ganesha, and Nandi. A ruined mandapa called Alankar Mandapa can be seen on the premises.
Niches in the temple have figures of Dakshinamurti, Lingodbhava, Ganesha, Nataraja, Bhikshatana, Kartikeya, Durga, Ardhnarishwara, and Bhairavas.
Main temple consists of Sri Vimana, Mandapa and Mukhmandapa or vestibule.
Scholars identify 9 distinct parts of this Vimana as the following:
- Upa Peetha or Basement
- Adhishtana or Base
- Bhitti or Wall
- Prastara or Roof Cornice
- Hara or miniature shrines
- Tala or Storeys
- Greeva or Neck
- Shikhara or Crown
- Stupi or Finial
The basement is ornamented with lions and mythical creatures. The base has the formation of lotus and lilies. And the main wall is divided into two horizontal bands that carry the niches on three sides of the temple. Vertical recesses divide the wall surface into neat squares. Each of these then becomes the miniature shrine for the deity they house.
Sculptures on the lower band depict various aspects of Shiva along with Ganesa, Vishnu, Subrahmanya, Durga, Brahma, Bhairava, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Durga. The upper band also Shiva dominates with his 11 Rudra forms along with the guardian deities of the eight directions. Rudras are shown with four arms with the upper ones holding Parashu and Mriga while the other two are in Abhaya and Varada Mudra.
The main tower or Shikhara rises nine stories above it. The ornamentation and the shape give it a look of a pyramid with lots of nests. The neck part has niches in four directions with bull figures between them. A crown atop is a huge stone and on top is a metal vase in the shape of a lotus bud. It was probably made of gold.
Inside the temple, a circumambulatory path goes around the garbhgriha both on the ground and first floor. Unlike the big temple, there are no paintings on this path, in this temple.
Garbhgriha has a massive 13 feet tall Shivalinga, believed to be the biggest in South India. The entrance is guarded by two Dwarpalas.
In the Mukha Mandapa, the following episodes of Shiva Purana can be seen:
- Ravana shaking the Kailash Parvat ( You see this at Ellora too)
- Vishnu worshipping Shiva with 1008 flowers and falling short of one
- Shiva Parvati Vivah or wedding
- Kiratarjuna episode where he gives him Pasupati Astra
- Markandeya Rishi Story
- Chandikeshwara Story
Mahamandapa has suffered damages. In its hay days, it would have been a double-storeyed Pavillion. It is approached by steps in the north and south on a raised platform. It is believed that there is a secret passage from beneath the mandapa. According to different versions, it leads to the royal palace or a river, or the temple treasury. It could well have been a storehouse for temple valuables.
The Nandi here is giant. It is not monolithic like the Thanjavur one. As of today, it sits on the open ground instead of a platform or a mandapa. A Bali Peetha can be seen close to it.
A unique feature of this temple is the image of a Lion through whose body a staircase leads to a circular well, called Simhakeni. The waters of the Ganga were put in this well to sanctify it. Water was used for the Abhisheka of the deity.
Brihadeeswarar Temple here has a lovely collection of classic Chola Bronzes. Some of them date back to the times of Rajendra I, which means they are as old as the temple itself. The Chola bronzes include Murtis of
Biggest Temple of Cholas
Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple is one of the biggest built by the Chola dynasty. It is more or less a replica of the temple at Tanjore. It is only one generation younger than that. The thought must have been to build a bigger and mightier temple. To establish or match the perceived grandeur of the new king.
Somehow this temple loses out on the rhythm that the big temple has. As C Sivamurti rightly puts it, this temple looks very masculine compared to the Thanjavur one which is more feminine with its perfect proportions.
The subsidiary shrines also occupy similar places in the temple complex as in Tanjore. The vastness of the temple indicates the life of the times that must have been centered around the temple as was the prestige of the patron king.
The sculptures on the walls depict Shiva in his various avatars known by various names. Bare parts of the walls give an impression of being unfinished and lack finesse compared to the other Chola temples. On the ceiling of one of the pavilions and in a few niches, I could see the traces of paintings, elsewhere time seems to have taken a toll on them.
Being under ASI, temple priests are also appointed by them rather than the traditional priests who would have inherited the position in the temple. The lawns on the premises are well maintained.
The temple is a practicing living temple. It misses the life that you see in Thanjavur around the temple. It made me think if it is really the God present in the temples that make the place come alive or if is it the devotees who make the place come alive with their devotion.
12 full and many fragments of inscriptions have been found at this temple. An initial inscription documents the revenue from allocated villages that were used to maintain and run the temple. They also give insights into the administrative and revenue systems followed during the times of the Cholas.
As per the inscriptions, the name of the temple is Gangaikonda Cholisvaran. For more details on inscriptions, check out this book by Dr. R Nagaswamy.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Brihadeeswarar Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a part of the Great Living Chola Temples along with the Big Temple at Thanjavur and Airateshwara Temple at Darasuram. No wonder, it is one of the major tourist attractions of Tamil Nadu.
- The place is about 75 km from Thanjavur and 100 km from Pondicherry
- You can do it as a day trip from either place, where you have good options for stay and food
- After Pattadakal this is the second world heritage site in India where you do not have any facilities around the monument. Carry your water and some food with you
- You can spend a couple of hours easily at the temple and the surroundings