Varnam had the privilege to interview JK Wicky, director and founder of Ugly Duckling Studios. Wicky has also conducted Clean Thaipusam 2020 and turned it into a huge success. He became well known after the program. 

But what really intrigued the writer was his research on Chola’s dynasty conducted 6 years ago. His journey of discovery into the ancient Chola empire started in Kadaram, now known as Kedah. Yes, you heard me right, Chola dynasty expanded into our shores centuries ago.

As an introduction to those of you who might not be familiar with the Chola empire. Here’s a little bit of history for you. The dynasty started from a small village named Pallipadai. It is located in Parangipettai Block, Cuddalore in the district of Tamil Nadu state, India. It is situated 43 km south of the Cuddalore district Headquarters, 7 km away from Parangipettai, and 224 km from Chennai city.

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The kings of the Chola were not only powerful conquerors and great administrators, but also excellent builders. They were brilliant patrons of art, the most magnificent temples and beautiful bronze artefacts were produced in South India during their rule now known as the Great Living Chola’s Temples. All the temples were built following the Dravidian style but it can be arguable as to what style or concept were the temples built in.

According to Wicky, the temples really resemble Northern Indian architectural style. Normally, the north indian temples excludes the main entrance called Gopuram and is instead adorned by a Mandapam, Moolastanam and the roof of Moolastanam known as Vimana. The Vimana is usually three times higher and bigger than the temple, signalling the temple’s significance.

For instance, the Mahabodhi Temple, considered as one of the most sacred places in Buddhism, is the location of Buddha’s Awakening (Bodhi). It is situated in Bodh Gaya (central Bihar district, northeastern india) on the banks of the Niranjan River. The initial building, later rebuilt, was constructed by the Maurian emperor Ashoka (died c. 238 BCE), one of the most prominent proselytes in Buddhism, in remembrance of  Buddha’s enlightenment.

Who is RajaRaja I?

Rajaraja I who born as Arulmoli Varman, often identified as Rajaraja Cholan (kings of kings), was a Chola emperor (reigned c. 985–1014) mainly remembered for restoring the power of Chola and ensuring its superiority in southern india and the Indian Ocean. Rajaraja, a capable administrator, also built the great temple of Brihadisva in the capital of Chola, Thanjavur. The temple is considered to be the most significant of all the temples of the ancient south indian architectural style.

During his reign, the texts of the Tamil poets Appar, Sambandar, and Sundarar were collected and edited in a compilation called Thirumurai. This initiated a massive land survey and evaluation project in 1000 CE, which led to the restructuring of the country into individual units known as valanadus. Rajaraja died in 1014 CE and his son Rajendra Chola I proceeded with the next throne.

Feature of the Chola’s Empire temple architecture

  • Many of the temples built during the empire were crafted in the walls of the temples.
  • Using carved miniature photos of gods and goddesses.
  • Lord Shiva is the central deity of the temples.
  • The dwarapala, or guardian figures, at the entrance to the mandapa or known as the building, started in the Palava era and became a special characteristic of the Chola temples.
  • Vimanas became a significant element of the temple. They were estimated to have a large scale in the temple during this era.
  • Statues of kings have been built in temples. It also encouraged the worship of the king as Godhead.

List of temples built during Chola’s period.

Source: jagranjosh

There are three famous Chola Temples of the 11th and 12th centuries, the Brihadisvara Temple of Thanjavur, the Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram, and the Airavatesvara Temple of Darasuram. Basically all these 3 temples were built by the grandfather, father and grandson of the Chola empire. 

1Brihadisvara temple, Thanjavur

The temple is identified as Thanjai Periya Kovil (also called Madakkoil), a wide temple constructed on a higher structure comprising natural or man-made mounds. The temple complex is a rectangle with almost two squares, 240.79 meters (790.0 ft) east to west, and 121.92 meters (400.0 ft) north to south.

The quarry that provided the granite for the temple was over 50 miles away. So, how did they move this huge amount of granite 1000 years ago?

There are five major parts in this place, the shrine with the majestic superstructure (Sri Vimana), the Nandi hall in front (Nandi Mandapam) and between them the central community hall (Murka Mandapam), the wide assembly hall (Maha Mandapam), and the pavilion that links the big hall with the shrine (artha mandapam). The temple is made up of 130,000 tons of granite. 

Picture source: Akshaya Muralikumar

The 60-metre tall Vimana is the tallest in south india. The shadow of the temple can still be seen. It is just that the shadow will not exceed the big compound known as Mathilsuvar.  The temple complex includes a wide pillared and covered veranda (Prakara) into its wide courtyard, with a radius of approximately 450 metres (1,480 ft) for rituals. 

After the 11th century, additional structures were constructed to the initial temple, such as a Mandapa in its northeast corner and additional gopurams (gateways) on its perimeters to provide a convenient entrance and exit from various spots.

We would have heard of fantasy stories regarding Periya Kovil, such as 60-feet tall humans built this temple and many more. Of course, as kids, we believed all those tales. But when you’re growing up it has to be either theoretically or scientifically proven. Even, the discovery channel has featured this tale to the audience, a rough estimate on how this temple would have been build those days. 

When we spoke to Wicky, he said that there were probably two possible ways to build this temple. One was probably through the building of a ramp which used trees as a roller alongside with the help of elephants. Another one might be, the sandcastle method. It is actually interestingly quite similar to how we used to build a sandcastle on the beach.

Whichever method that have been used has not been scientifically proven yet,  theoretically the method above does makes sense. It is said that there’s a small river around the temple to hold the sand as water hits at a high pressure, in order for the temple to firmly stand still and not collapse. However, all the conspiracy theories surrounding the temple’s construction would be ended if the researchers came up with the final answer. 

Picture Source: Fly Art Studio

The same concept is seen at the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia where the architect has built a small river around the monument.

Those days, there were no advanced technology, ingenuity prevailed among its architects and construction workers. Their work has resulted in the most grandiose temples the world has ever known.

One actual fact that all of us should know is Arulmozhi Varman is a very humble person. He never claimed that he was the one who built the Periya Kovil. The names of all his workers were carved on the temple’s wall, he wanted it that way, in acknowledging and appreciating the hard work of his laborers.

Picture Source: Akshaya Muralikumar

Rajaraja’s name has been carved on the temple wall.

Picture Source: jkwicky

Another uniqueness of this temple is a giant ball weighing 80 tonnes that is placed on top of this temple. The main reason is to prevent earthquakes. The same technique has been used in Shanghai Tower if you have noticed. The giant ball is much heavier than the entire building structure.

The temple of Brihadisvara followed the traditions of the Hindu temple of south India by embracing architectural and its decorative designs, but its scale significantly exceeded the temples constructed before the 11th century.

Who is Rajendra Chola I?

Rajendra Chola I or Rajendra I (son of Rajaraja) was a Tamil Chola emperor of south india who succeeded his father Rajaraja Chola I on the throne in 1016 CE. During his rule, he spread the influence of the Chola empire to the banks of the Ganga River in North India and the Indian ocean to the west and South East Asia, making the Chola Empire one of India’s most dominant maritime empires.

He beat Mahipala, the Pala King of Gauda in present-day Bengal and Bihar, and to celebrate his triumph he embraced the title of Gangaikondachola, literally the Chola who conquered Ganga (nearby kingdoms) and also founded a new capital city called Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

2Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram

Brihadisvara temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram is a Hindu shrine devoted to Shiva at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Jayamkondam in Tamil Nadu. Built-in 1035 by Rajendra Chola I as part of his new capital, this Chola dynasty period temple is identical in architecture and has a name identical to the older 11th-century Brihadeeswarar temple about 70 kilometres southwest in Thanjavur. 

It opens to the sunrise and is centered on an east-west basis with its sanctum, as well as the mandapas. Including the main shrine, there are a variety of smaller shrines, gopura, and other temples in the temple area, with some, partly destroyed and rebuilt in later centuries. 

The temple is famous for its bronze statues, artwork on its doors, Nandi’s representation, and the tower’s height. There are four daily rituals and many annual festivals, of which Shivarathiri festival is most prominent during the Tamil month of Maasi, Aipassi Pournami during Aipassi, and Thiruvadirai during Margazhi. 

It is one of Tamil Nadu’s most-visited tourist attractions. In 2004, it was established as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO along with the temple of Brihadeeswarar in Thanjavur and the temple of Airavatesvara in Darasuram.

Who is Kulottunga Chola I?

Kulottunga Chola (grandson of Rajaraja) was one of the greatest kings of the Chola Empire to rule in the late 11th century and early 12th century. He was one of the sovereigns who carried the title of Kulottung, literally the exalter of his people. During his early reign, he carried out land surveys and settlements as the basis for taxes.

Due to this matter, he is known as Sungam Thavirthe Cholan (King who eased people’s burden) His documents also point to the strongly structured structure of fiscal and local government. He had diplomatic relations with the northern Indian city of Kanauj, as well as with distant countries such as Cambodia, Sri Vijaya, and China. This character has been portrayed in the Dasavathaaram movie by actor Napoleon.

His court poet was Jayamkondar, who wrote a poem called Kalingattu Parani to commemorate the military successes of Kulottunga Chola. He was a tolerant leader as several land grants were issued to members of the Shudra group who were generals and royal officials during his reign. He founded the overlordship of Chola over the Kedah province of Sri Vijaya in Malaysia. Kulottunga Chola is the only king who can speak Malay as well!

3Airavatesvara temple, Darasuram

The Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram was constructed by Kulottunga Choladeva (1143-1173 CE) and is located in the third position, after the two prominent Thanjavur and GangaikondaCholapuram Chola temples. The Airavateswarar temple is one among a cluster of eighteen medieval era large Hindu temples in the Kumbakonam area, Thanjavur district.

There are many unique sculptures in this temple. Periya Puranam, a poetic account of the lives of the 63 Nayanmars, is depicted in a miniature form through a 17th-century vegetable colour painting. Nowhere else can we see in such detail the life history of Nayanmars. Moreover, the fleet of steps made up of stones in the palipeeda is said to produce musical notes.

The Lord of Death, Yama, once incurred the wrath of a rishi and was cursed to suffer from burning sensation all over his body. Yama is said to have visited this temple and invoked the blessings of Lord Airavateswarar by bathing in the temple tank. Pleased with his prayers, Airavateswarar is said to have liberated Yama from his curse. It is now known as Yama Theertham.

Other important sculptures of the temple are the 108 Devara Othuvars who sang in the temple during the time of Raja Raja II. There are sculptures for river goddesses like Cauvery, Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, and Narmada. While the sculptures of rivers like Cauvery, Yamuna, Godavari are with the human form till the hip level and depicted in the form of water circles below, a sculpture of Ganges in full human form with a vessel of water in one hand and the lotus flower in the other hand.

Some of the interesting and distinctive sculptures that stand out are Arthanareeswarar (half Shiva and half Shakthi) at the Eastern Entrance, Arjuna’s Penance, Agathiyar, and Naga Raja (Snake Lord), and Rathi-Manmatha story on the southern side.

There’s an Amman statue where you can place ornaments by yourself. It is exactly how a normal girl would be dressed up like. The statue has it’s own holes for earrings, nose pins, and many more. Tourists are welcome to adorn the statue with jewelry.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has declared the temple as a world heritage monument. The Archaeological Survey of India is maintaining the temple well. With lush green lawns in front and illumination, the temple has become a tourist spot. A trip to Tamil Nadu is never complete without a visit to its glorious temples built by the great and influential Chola Dynasty.

As time went by, the arts and culture have tremendously improved. You will notice some differences when you visit Tanjai Periyakovil, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, and Airavatesvara temple. Each of them emphasises on its arts and culture. So many detailing works have been done on the statues in Airavatesvara temple.

All these 3 temples are built as a special dedication to Lord Shiva. Chola’s earlier dynasty was loyal and praised only Lord Shiva. They are all known as Shaivism. However, this changed with time. They also honoured those who pray to Lord Shiva, for example the 63 Nayanmars, the saints who promoted Shiva and Shaivism.