The UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar temple in TamilNadu, India, is a result of triumph, aspiration, and dream of one of the widely acclaimed and successful Chola emperor – Rajendra Chola.
Everything about the wonderful Brihadeeswarar temple site (often termed as Gangaikondacholapuram temple) is as grand and magnificent as the historical milestones of the emperor.
Personally, I consider it the most elegant of the three ‘Great Living Chola Temples’ dotting the Indian state of TamilNadu.
Come, be a part of this family trip that we had taken to Gangaikondacholapuram — the once glorious capital of the Cholas, as I share some stories and secrets that surround this place, the mystery behind the disappearance of the Chola capital, the must-see Chola sculptures at Brihadeeswarar temple and more. Yes! The same Cholas around whom the magnum opus Tamil historical fiction “PonniyinSelvan” by Kalki is penned, and its namesake recent Indian movie directed by ManiRatnam is bringing in the masses back to the cinemas.
Trip to Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar temple
Our family trip to Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar temple in Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu was decided after a lot of scramble on the ‘must-visit-places nearby Chidambaram’, that could be covered without an overnight stay, as we had to leave for Madurai soon.
By the time we embarked on this journey after zeroing on the place, we were just a couple of hours from dawn and a few kilometres away from my paternal ancestral village. This in itself was a pointer to an exciting trip ahead, because most of our memorable family trips have proved to be cliff-hangers!
A drive from a village across the famed river Kollidam and along the banks of the once-mighty river by the same name took me back to the imagery created by the great Tamizh novelist Kalki in his historical novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan’(an absolute delightful English translation of the same series written by Pavitra Srinivasan is available online on Amazon).
To realize that I was actually trudging the paths in the great Chola empire on which my ancestors once dwelled and worked, was indeed a goose-bump moment!
Fond memories of our ancestral land at Gangaikondacholapuram
We drove amidst the lush greenery of agricultural lands fed by the canals of Kollidam river on the surprisingly smooth as butter roads. I did not expect the TamilNadu roads and highways to be in good condition. Blame it on being judgemental!
As appa (dad in Tamizh language) recollected and reminisced his simple and frugal childhood days- of spending time around the Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar temple on festive occasions; walking and cycling all the way to Thanjavur with cousins; of the canals, rivers, and old dams that used to brim with water during monsoons, and how they had to trudge miles and miles just to get onto the other side of the riverbank in the absence of bridges almost 5 decades back; I felt as if I was sitting inside a time machine and transported to a bygone era.
And to add to these stories, my uncle pitched in with the political changes happening over the years across these lands. A perfect way to spend my travel time!
This is what I love about family travels. Travelling becomes all the more interesting with tidbits, story-telling sessions by near and dear ones, the debates and discussions ranging from food to history, and from politics to spiritual topics. And, of course, conversations around Mani Ratnam movies.
I expected this famous temple to be buzzing with people. However, there was hardly any crowd around the temple area at Gangaikondacholapuram which was surprising. But then, I was wrong. You will come to know why, as you read…
Brihadeeswarar Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram – First glimpse
As I entered the main gate and caught a glimpse of the Vimana of the Brihadeeswara(r) temple, I was dumbfounded by its sheer elegance and symmetry. This was practically the first of the Great Living Chola Temples that I was visiting.
The orangish hue of the setting sun delicately reflected on the stones of the temple, made it glow like a jewel against the cloudless blue skies and well-manicured green lawn.
The tint of orange kept varying as dusk neared. From a glittering yellowish orange to dim orangish pink in a span of an hour was the colour range. I wondered, how this bijou of a temple escaped my travels in all these years!
If the famed UNESCO Heritage Site of Brihadiswara Temple aka Big Temple at Thanjavur is all about mammoth proportions, and the UNESCO Heritage Site of Darasuram near Kumbakonam is about the underrated yet exquisite micro-carvings and sculptures, then the Brihadeeswarar temple at Gangaikondacholapuram is all about elegance and poetry in stone, befitting of its UNESCO heritage tag!
The case of two Brihadeeswarar temples
Did I mention two Brihadeeswara temples, one at Thanjavur and another at Gangaikondacholapuram? Oh yes, you read it right.
The temple at Gangaikondacholapuram is almost a replica of the famed Big Temple or Brihadiswara Temple at Thanjavur and shares the same name too. Wondering about the shared moniker?
Well, read the below snippet on the history of this Gangaikondacholapuram temple to know more.
Rajendra Chola – the king who conquered almost the whole of South-East Asia
Rajendra Chola or Madhuraanthangan (his original name) occupies an important place in the history of India. He is the son of the great visionary and fearless Raja Raja Chola (ArulMozhi Varman) who was instrumental in reviving Sangam literature, art, and architecture and saw to the construction of the Brihadeeswara temple or the Big temple of Thanjavur.
Rajendra Chola supposedly had a fleet of over 1000 ships, crossed the seas using ancient Indian maritime knowledge, conquered lands that are now Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia islands of Sumatra, Java, and to an extent south of Thailand and was the first one to establish a proper trade network with other neighbouring countries of India.
Yet, this emperor and the dynasty that ruled for over 400 years is almost largely forgotten.
The meaning of Gangaikondacholapuram
I do know that Gangaikondacholapuram is quite a mouthful. However, it’s a combination of four Tamizh words with different meanings that collectively stand for the ‘City of the Chola who conquered the Ganges’. As in Gangai – the revered river Ganges, Konda – who conquered, Chola – Chozha dynasty, Puram -City.
The Lost City of Gangaikondacholapuram – the capital of the Cholas
As seen in the map above, Rajendra Chola had conquered many kingdoms in South India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Malaysia, Cambodia, and others at the beginning of the 11th century CE and shifted his capital from Thanjavur to Gangaikondacholapuram after almost a decade of ascending his throne in 1014 CE.
The new capital was built around fifty-five kilometers northwest of Thanjavur, on an arid site north of river Kaveri with a royal temple that was almost a replica of the Big Temple of Thanjavur. This was named Gangaikondacholapuram.
The Brihadeeswara Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram was built by Rajendra Chola as a victory symbol of his conquest over the kingdoms of the Gangetic plains that includes present-day Bangladesh.
It is said that he had bought along with him gallons of Ganges water and got a huge tank dug, which was called Gangaikonda Chola Pereri, the great tank to mix these waters with that of River Kaveri. The Brihadeeswarar temple was built on the north-eastern side of the palace.
Thus, Gangaikondacholapuram was the capital of the Cholas from about 1024 CE for the next 250 years. Fourteen Chola kings have ruled their kingdom from here. And, to imagine that the city completely disappeared without leaving any traces except for this royal temple of Brihadeeswara is beyond belief.
Yes, except the ruins of the Brihadeeswara temple nothing has been found of the other structures that were once part of the glorious Gangaikondacholapuram city. Was the city razed to the ground by the subsequent invaders and only the temple spared or did a natural calamity wipe away all the inhabitants and just the temple survived? This still is an unsolved mystery of the lost city of Gangaikondacholapuram!
Recent excavation works in the lost city
In the last few years, archaeologists have found some remains of the royal palace in a village called Maaligaimedu ( meaning palace mound) that is nearby to the Brihadeeswarar temple.
Here is an update from the archaeological website of TamilNadu:
“Excavation conducted at two locations at Maligaimedu revealed the remains of the royal palace, built with burnt bricks. The ceilings were covered with flat tiles.
The pillars were probably made of polished wood, supported on granite bases. Excavations revealed brick walls about 1.10cm in thickness.
On the foundation wall, granite stone pillar bases were embedded at an equal distance of 2 meters. Bone objects with animal figures, ivory carvings, quartz beads, shell bangle pieces, and stone objects were found during the excavation.
The excavation also yielded celadon ware and porcelain sherds. Both of them are of Chinese origin. This shows the contact of the Chola kingdom with China during the 11th to 12th centuries CE”.
It’s quite interesting to note that while Rajendra Chola built the Brihadeeswarar temple with stones, he decided to get his palace built with burnt bricks!
Guided tour of Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar Temple
The Brihadeeswarar Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram was commissioned to be built by Rajendra Chola within twenty years of building the great temple of Tanjore by his father.
Here is a guided photo tour of the prominent things to see inside the temple premises, for the benefit of the readers.
The unmissable Nandi of Gangaikonda Cholapuram
The majestic Nandi ( the celestial bull)is a fixture in all temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. And, the one at Brihadeeswarar temple of Gangaikondacholapuram is no different. Unlike the Nandi at the Brihadeeswara temple of Thanjavur, the one here is a little smaller and isn’t enclosed in a mandapam. It looms large as you enter the temple premises of the Gangaikondacholapuram temple.
Elegant Vimana at Gangaikonda Cholapuram
The vimana of the Brihadeeswarar temple at Gangaikondacholapuram rises to a height of 182 feet (55 m) and is shorter than the Thanjavur tower but has a larger plinth. It is often described as the feminine counterpart of the Thanjavur temple.
However, the form of this temple is different from that of the Big Temple at Thanjavur.
The main tower here at Gangaikondacholapuram is square at the bottom, octagonal in the middle, and circular at the top, thus simulating the form of the Shiva lingam.
And, there are many more such differences, according to Dr.Nagaswamy ( an acclaimed archaeologist) in one of his talks. You may want to watch his talks on the Brihadeeswarar temple and the Chola sculptures
The Sanctum Sanctorum that always remains cool
The main deity of Gangaikondacholapuram is Brihadeeswarar in the form of a Shiva Lingam of 13.5 m tall. In local dialect and Tamizh, the deity of Lord Shiva is referred to as ‘Bragadeeswarar’ or ‘Brihadeeswarar’ meaning great Lord or Lord of the World. His consort is known as Periya Nayaki.
It is said that there is a rare gemstone of Chandrakantha/Moonstone that has been installed beneath the Shiva lingam at Gangaikondacholapuram temple. The Sanskrit name for moonstone is Chandrakantha mani (Chandra is one of the names for the moon, Kantha means light, and Mani means jewel).
What is Moonstone?
Another interesting lore is of Chandrakantha mani being representative of feminine energy and Shiva lingam at Gangaikondacholapuram temple is supposed to be feminine in nature. I guess that explains the feminine hints in the architecture too.
Etymology of Anaconda
As is the custom in Sangam temple architecture, the inner sanctum is guarded by a pair of ‘dwarapalak‘/gatekeepers. The highlight of Chola architecture is the importance and finer details that went into sculpting these characters.
A specialty of both the Brihadeeswara temples(Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram) is the dwarapalaka sculptures. On keen observation, you can find a giant snake syphoning a whole elephant alive, while the snake itself is being caught and controlled by the dwarapalaka’s foot.
aThis supposedly portrays the importance of the gatekeepers and the influence they wielded through their huge built, and how they could have gone to any extent to protect the Lord who resides inside the temple.
Observe and identify the huge snake in the pic below!
Now, it is a historical fact that Chola kings, traders, and merchants travelled wide for conquests and trade establishments. They once reigned the whole of North-Srilanka which is a tropical region with abundant wildlife.
So, it is said that one of them must have seen a huge snake that was mammoth enough to actually swallow an elephant alive. He must have shouted or whispered or shared this news with his friends by uttering Anai -Kondar.
Anai means elephant and kondan/kondar means conquered or vanquished. Thus, the name for this gigantic snake came to be Anaconda.
Thus, the etymology of the name originates from the Tamizh language, possibly from the Srilankan Tamizh dialect.
To stamp the superiority of the Almighty and drill in the fact that humans and animals are mere mortals and puny in front of the Supreme Lord and his dwarapalakas, the sculptors would have been commissioned to chisel out the anaconda being stomped under the feet of the gatekeepers. Interesting, isn’t it?
Other temples around the main Brihadeeswarar temple
There are other small temples around the main sanctum sanctorum dedicated to Vinayagar, Durga, Navagraham (The nine planets)
It was a Monday when we visited the temple. Monday is auspicious in Shiva temples and fortunately, we could actually find quite a crowd who had gathered to witness the Somavara Poojai (Somavar is the Sanskrit name for Monday) when the idols of the Gods and Goddesses are taken in a procession and the prasadam is distributed to all.
I was reminded of the Maargazhi bhajanai that takes place in the early morning during the Margazhi Masam across Tamil Nadu.
Simha Kinaru or Simhakeni
A well(kinaru) was dug to pour the waters from the Ganges inside the temple premises, maybe to herald the construction of the temple here as a mark of an auspicious beginning. A lion statue was built over the well and this water was used for sanctification before entering the temple.
However, now the well is closed but one can still see the steps leading below to the waters.
I remember that once during the Navarathri Golu, we did build a small Simhakinaru beside a temple set-up at home.
Must-See Chola Sculptures
Although the sculptures of the gatekeepers with the anaconda are unique to the Chola architecture, the sculpture of Shiva wrapping a garland around the head of a kneeling saint Chandesha is one of the most popular images of Gangaikondacholapuram temple.
However, some archaeologists and historians believe that the sculpture actually symbolizes the coronation of Rajendra Chola while being blessed by Lord Shiva himself. Since there is no consensus on this yet, the debate lingers on!
Another Chola sculpture that is a personal favourite of mine is the one that oozes calmness through all the chiselling that it has taken.
Here are some more Chola sculptures inside the premises of the Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar temple to enthrall your eyes…
My thoughts on Gangaikondacholapuram and Rajendra Chola
I have read time and again on various blogs and sites, that Rajendra Chola wanted to compete with his father in building a bigger and better temple to reign supreme, but failed and subsequently accepted defeat. Hence, the height of the vimana at Gangaikondacholapuram was reduced from what was proposed before. I find this proposition really absurd.
Reasoning: Let us remember that the Gangaikondacholapuram temple was built within twenty years of the Big temple of Thanjavur. This means Rajendra Chola must have been in possession of at least a majority of the architects and sculptors if not all who could have replicated the architecture here too.
My conclusion is that Rajendra Chola wanted to dedicate a temple to show that this universe requires feminity as much as masculinity to maintain a balance. It is a known fact that the vimana of Gangaikondacholapuram temple looks elegant and is the feminine version unlike the masculine version of Thanjavur Big temple.
And, from historical records, we get to know that Rajendra Chola was raised by his aunt Kundhavai and great-grandmother Sembian Madevi who come across as strong female characters when reading Chola history. Maybe, the temple was a tribute in his own way to these two ladies because his father too was highly influenced by Kundhavai.
Who knows, probably, there was a silent pact between the father-son duo to build masculine and feminine forms of Brihadeeswara temple. And, that is the reason there are not many inscriptions on the temple walls unlike the ones seen at the Big temple of Thanjavur. Possible, isn’t it?
How India has forgotten historical characters like Rajendra Chola
Unfortunately, not many Indians are aware of Rajendra Chola, including me, until a few years back. It is only when I started taking interest in the Cholas and read umpteen papers and listened to talks on Cholas as part of my research that I got to know about this once glorious dynasty of India.
Indian school history textbooks have never looked beyond the Mughals and the region of Vindhyas when it comes to ancient Indian historical events and kings. So do not be surprised if you meet an Indian who is unaware of the Chola emperors!
Thanks to the efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India in recent years, under the aegis of Dr.Nagaswamy, many of the Chola heritage sites have been renovated and brought to the fore. The UNESCO Heritage tag has only further alleviated the cause and has helped in a speedy revival of the spectacular Chola art and architecture.
The year 2014 also marked the 1000 years of the coronation of Rajendra Chola (the most successful Chola emperor). People of Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the surrounding villages held a huge rally starting from Maaligai Medu, the village from where the remains of the king’s palace have been excavated.
A glorious sunset at Gangai Konda Cholapuram
As we were leaving the premises of the UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple, I witnessed flocks of birds(pigeons) circumambulating (flying) around the vimana in a clockwise direction, exactly three times, as if in a trance and meditation and then occupying their homes nestled between the innumerable stucco work on the vimana!
Was this out of reverence to the almighty or just a coincidence! Well, we may never be able to find answers for these surprises that nature, history, and spirituality throw at us.
Practical information on planning a visit to Gangaikondacholapuram
Here are some practical information and tips to plan your trip to Gangaikondacholapuram.
Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar Temple timings
The Brihadeeswarar Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram is open throughout the week from 6:00 a.m to 12:00 a.m and again from 4:00 p.m to 8:00 p.m. There is no entry fee.
Best Season to Visit Gangaikondacholapuram
If you cannot withstand heat then it is always advisable to visit south-India between the months of November-January. Also, early mornings and evenings are the best times to visit the temples to avoid the everyday crowd.
Where to stay
There are no hotels, restaurants, or shelters available nearby to the Gangaikondacholapuram temple. So plan your trip accordingly.
Also, pack some food before embarking on a journey to Gangaikondacholapuram. There is just a kiosk that sells snacks outside the temple entrance.
You may opt to stay at Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, or Chidambaram instead, which are bigger cities with top-notch accommodations.
Plan your trip to Brihadeeswarar temple
You can either cover Gangaikondacholapuram separately or club it with a trip to all the three Great Living Chola Temples, and a visit to Chidambaram.
The below map gives you the route from the airport at Tiruchirapalli and covers the Big temple at Thanjavur, Airavateeswara temple at Darasuram, Brihadeeswara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram as well as the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram. I suggest you not hurry but make it a leisurely two-day trip with an overnight halt at Chidambaram.
Each of these temples will take at least a few hours to see around. And, if you are a photography and history enthusiast then keep aside some more hours!
How to reach Gangaikondacholapuram
Bus Route: There are ample buses plying from towns named Chidambaram, Thanjavur, and Kumbakonam towards Gangaikondacholapuram. The nearest town is Kumbakonam which is around 30 kilometers from Gangaikondacholapuram. Alternatively, you can also catch a bus plying towards Jayakondam to reach this place from Kumbakonam or Chidambaram.
Cabs: One can hire a cab from any of the above towns as well as Tiruchirapalli or Neyveli. We hired an Innova from Chidambaram and it costed us around Rs.3000/- for the round trip, but then we covered our ancestral village too!
Airport: The nearest airport is at Tiruchirapalli.
I hope you enjoyed the virtual tour as much as I enjoyed putting it together! Do leave your thoughts and valuable feedback in the comments below. Also, I expect this exhaustive guide comes handy in planning your trip to the elegant Brihadeeswarar temple and this part of India.
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