Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar temple – Possibly the most elegant UNESCO Heritage Site

Gangaikondacholapuram temple

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.

So, when on a weekend family trip, my appa and mama asked “Brihadeeswarar kovil ku pogalama“, I thought it was the Thanjai Periya Kovil.

For, little did I know back then that the Gangaikondacholapuram temple is also known as Brihadeeswarar kovil and Gangaikondacholisvaram!

Now, 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 Gangaikondacholesvaram or Brihadeeswarar temple and more.

Yes! The same Cholas around whom the magnum opus Tamil historical fiction “Ponniyin Selvan” by Kalki is penned, and its namesake recent Indian movie directed by ManiRatnam is bringing in the masses back to the cinemas.

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Quick links to plan your trip to Gangaikondacholapuram

1. Club your visit to Gangaikondacholapuram, with a visit to Thanjavur Big temple and Darasuram.

2. Audio guides are great tools to explore a place. I often opt for them while visiting new destinations, like I did when visiting Russia. You could also opt for a self guided audio-tour of Gangaikondacholapuram that provides a personally created tour itinerary map with audio guide.

3. Instead of an audio guide, you might also want to opt for cultural tours like the ones below, which includes an English speaking Live tour guide.

Chennai: Private 2-Day Great Living Chola Temples Cultural Tour

Bespoke tailor made Chola trails offered by Courtyard Tours

Private Day Tour to Great Living Chola Temples from Trichy

4. Buy a copy of Ponniyin Selvan, originally written by Tamil writer Kalki Krishnamurthy avargal, and excellently translated into English by Pavithra Srinivasan : a ready reckoner on the Cholas.

5. If you know to read Tamil, then the book on Rajendra Chola by Kudavayil Balasubramanian is a must read.

The deity of Brihadeeswara is often called as Brihadeeswarar, out of respect by Tamizhians. So, do not be confused if both Brihadeeswara and Brihadeeswarar are used interchangeably in conversations as well as in this post.

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
Gangaikondacholapuram Temple

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 nearby Jayankondam in the Ariyalur district.

This in itself was a pointer to an exciting trip ahead, as most of our memorable family trips have always 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!

Interesting read
The influence of the Cholas and Pallavas could be still seen in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Thailand. Read my article on Manorama Online about the influence of the Sangam Tamzih across Thailand.

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!

During the journey, I felt as if I was sitting inside a time machine and transported to a bygone era, as appa (dad in Tamizh language) recollected and reminisced his simple and frugal childhood days.

He talked about 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

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.

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
Western view of the Gangaikondacholapuram temple

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 how the colours ranged.

And, 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!

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram

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 was 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.

For the uninitiated, the novel Ponniyin Selvan is based on the conquests of Raja Raja Chola, and his coming-of-age.

His son, 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.

A dance based on Ramayana
The influence of the Cholas and Pallavas could be still seen in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Thailand. Read about the Kecak dance of Bali that is based on our Kambar Ramayanam.
Gangaikondacholapuram temple
Source : {By Rajendra_map_new.png: The original uploader was Venu62 at English Wikipedia.derivative work: Gregors (Rajendra_map_new.png) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons }

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 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.

He later 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.

Thus, Gangaikondacholapuram was the capital of the Cholas from about 1024 CE for the next 250 years.

Meanwhile, 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.

Today, 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!

Gangaikondacholisvaram at 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.

And, the Gangaikondacholisvaram or Brihadeeswarar temple was built on the north-eastern side of the palace.

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
Ruins of the temple still intact

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 Gangaikondachilisvaram or 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”.

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
The Northern wall of the Vimana

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

Do remember that the Gangaikondacholisvaram or 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.

It’s a fact that needs to be kept in mind while reading further. You will know why soon…

Meanwhile, 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. 

Instead, it looms large as you enter the temple premises of the Gangaikondacholapuram temple.

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple

Elegant Vimana at Gangaikonda Cholapuram

The vimana of the Gangaikondacholisvaram 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.

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
Curved Vimana of Brihadeeswarar 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

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
vimana at Brihadeeswarar temple
The Vimana

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).

Brihadeeswara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram
The Mahamandapam which was dark sans any light
Additional Reading
Read our complete guide to planning a pilgrimage to Omkareshwar temple that is home to one of the Jyotirlingam. Also, know about the significance of the 12 dwadasha jyotirlinga, and the difference between them and lingodhbhava.

What is Moonstone?

In India, from time immemorial, moonstone or the Chandrakanta mani has been regarded as sacred.
It’s said that Chandrakantha mani grows under the influence of the moon and absorbs its magical powers.  Indian tradition holds, that the stone itself symbolizes the third eye of Shiva.
The gem supposedly keeps the place cool in summers and warm in winters. And indeed, the interiors of the Gangai Konda Cholapuram temple were very cool when compared to the outside. This compels one to believe the moonstone theory!

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.

Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar temple
View from the Mukha mandapam

Etymology of Anaconda

As is the custom in Sangam temple architecture, the inner sanctum of Gangaikondacholisvaram, is guarded by a pair of dwarapalak/gatekeepers.

Remember, that the highlight of Chola architecture is the importance and finer details that went into sculpting these characters!

Steps from the Northern Side

Hence, a specialty of both the Brihadeeswara temples (Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram) are 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.

This 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!

Anaconda Chola
Look at the foot!

Interesting back story on the Anaconda

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 – Sri Lanka 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.

And, then 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.

Meanwhile, the etymology of the name originates from the Tamizh language, possibly from the Srilankan Tamizh dialect.

In hindsight, the sculptors would have been commissioned to chisel out the anaconda being stomped under the feet of the gatekeepers : 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.

Could be, isn’t it?

Additional reading
Visiting Ramayana sites in Sri Lanka is exciting. Do read my write-up on finding Ashoka Vatika in Sri Lanka. And, also check out these travel tips and things to do in Sri Lanka
UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
The southern side of the Vimana
Additional Reading
You may also want to read about the Karpaga Vinayagar Kovil at Pillayarpatti near Karaikudi in the Chettinad region.
UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
Ganesha temple

Other temples around the main Brihadeeswarar temple

There are other small temples and shrines around the main sanctum sanctorum dedicated to Vinayagar, Durga, Navagraham (the nine planets)

It was a Monday when we visited the temple, and Mondays are considered auspicious at Shiva temples.

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 prasadam is distributed to all.

While, witnessing the Somavara Poojai at Gangaikondacholapuram temple, I was reminded of the Maargazhi bhajanai that takes place during Margazhi aasam across Tamil Nadu.

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
Prasadam being brought to be distributed
UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
Additional Reading
You may also want to read about the festivities of Maargazhi as well as the history of the Madras Music Season.

Simha Kinaru or Simhakeni

During the time of Rajendra Chola, 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 to the new capital of the Cholas.

Later, a lion statue was built over the well, and this water was further used for sanctification before entering the temple.

Today, however, the well is closed. But one can still see the steps leading below to the waters.

I remember that once during the Navarathri Golu festivities at home, we had built a small Simhakinaru beside a temple set-up as a replica to the one at Gangaikondacholisvaram.

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
Additional Reading
You may want to read about the significance of Bommai Golu during Navarathri celebrations across Tamil Nadu.

Must-See Chola Sculptures at Gangaikondacholisvaram

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 the Gangaikondacholisvaram at Gangaikondacholapuram.

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!

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
By SezhiyanR [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

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…

Brihadeeswara temple

Brihadeeswara temple

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple

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?

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
The Lingodhbhava

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.

UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
UNESCO Heritage Site of Gangaikondacholapuram temple
The flock of birds circumambulating around the vimana

Additional Reading
Architectural elements like pillars and halls, reminds me of my trip to the Tirumala Nayakar Palace in Madurai. It has some stunning architecture of its times. You might want to explore its architecture in our guide on visiting the Madurai Palace

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.

sunset at Brihadeeswarar temple at Gangaikondacholapuram
The sunsets on the lost city

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 for Gangaikondacholisvaram.

Best Season to Visit Gangaikondacholapuram

If you cannot withstand heat then I would highly recommend you to visit southern 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.

The, same holds good with Gangaikondacholapuram.

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 some top-notch accommodations in Thanjavur, as well as Kumbakonam, which are bigger cities with a wide range of stay options.

Meanwhile, if you are planning a visit to Chidambaram from Gangaikondacholapuram, then do check these hotels to stay while in Chidambaram.

Alternatively, you could also consider staying at the below properties in both Kumbakonam and Thanjavur, which are offering some excellent deals.

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.

If you are new to the state of Tamil Nadu, and planning a trip from Chennai, then I highly recommend you opt for the below LIVE guided tours, or audio guides, as it would really help to understand the importance and cultural significance of these temples.

Route map to reach Gangaikonda Cholapuram

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.

Edible Souvenir
If planning to buy an edible souvenir from Tamil Nadu, then read about the delicious Mysore Pak and take your call

Books on Gangaikondacholapuram and history of India

I would recommend the following books if you are keen on knowing more about Gangaikondacholapuram, as well as much of India’s glorious past not discussed in main stream academic circles.

Happy reading!

Also, I hope you enjoyed this guided virtual tour of Gangai Kondacholapuram, 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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Read about an almost 1000-year-old temple of Gangaikondacholapuram in India which is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. Travel | India | TamilNadu | Architecture | Photography | Temples | Ancient | UNESCO Heritage Site | Archaeology | History | IncredibleIndia #travel #india #asiatravel #unesco #architecture #travelphotography #hindutemple #tamilnadu

Read about an almost 1000-year-old temple of Gangaikondacholapuram in India which is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. Travel | India | TamilNadu | Architecture | Photography | Temples | Ancient | UNESCO Heritage Site | Archaeology | History | IncredibleIndia #travel #india #asiatravel #unesco #architecture #travelphotography #hindutemple #tamilnadu

Read about an almost 1000-year-old temple of Gangaikondacholapuram in India which is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. Travel | India | TamilNadu | Architecture | Photography | Temples | Ancient | UNESCO Heritage Site | Archaeology | History | IncredibleIndia #travel #india #asiatravel #unesco #architecture #travelphotography #hindutemple #tamilnadu

Read about an almost 1000-year-old temple of Gangaikondacholapuram in India which is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. Travel | India | TamilNadu | Architecture | Photography | Temples | Ancient | UNESCO Heritage Site | Archaeology | History | IncredibleIndia #travel #india #asiatravel #unesco #architecture #travelphotography #hindutemple #tamilnadu

Read about an almost 1000-year-old temple of Gangaikondacholapuram in India which is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. Travel | India | TamilNadu | Architecture | Photography | Temples | Ancient | UNESCO Heritage Site | Archaeology | History | IncredibleIndia #travel #india #asiatravel #unesco #architecture #travelphotography #hindutemple #tamilnadu

30 thoughts on “Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar temple – Possibly the most elegant UNESCO Heritage Site”

  1. Hi, Great article! Am unable to see any images on my windows laptop. Shows the links as broken. Can you please check? I would like to create a link to your blog to a site that I am creating, which has a section on Chola temples.

  2. GKC my love!!! I was really young when my parents took me to GKC, Dharasuram and Thirubhuvanam…
    Now, I’m hoping to go again, this time with my little gal. (Soon, she’s complain too that I took her when she was too young! lolz!).
    Thanks for this detailed guide. This is one of the first 3 places (other 2 being Mahabalipuram & Kanchipuram) in TN that I want to take my daughter to! :)

  3. I heard about this temple before but never realized it’s a part of the UNESCO Heritage list. The information you provided about the Dwarpalaks is fascinating. This will be one of the first places I’ll visit when I go back to India next year.

  4. Gangaikondacholapuram Temple definitely looks elegant and beautiful. I love how detailed the sculptures, statues and the wall are. The guided tour of Nandi and Vinama look interesting. It’s useful that you include the transportation method for this temple.

  5. What an incredible beautiful site. This temple – I won’t try to spell it out! – is really one of the reasons I’d love to visit India one day. The legends and tales surrounding the temple is equally interesting too. Vimana is really a work of art, and it definitely deserves its UNESCO title.

  6. The temple looks magnificent! Its details including the walls, statues, and sculptures are very intricate. The things they found during the excavation are quite interesting. This is actually my first time to know about this UNESCO World Heritage Site and I learned a lot from your in-depth article and tidbits. :)

  7. Gangaikondacholapuram Temple looks beautiful and I was truly delighted to learn about yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site from India :) It is elegant indeed and a complete new discovery for me. Looking at the fantastic pictures, I would agree that it is magical enough to transport one to another era. I loved the guided tour here and can’t wait to see it when I visit Tamil Nadu next!

  8. Such a great detailed post about the fascinating site. It must have been great to hear your father’s stories as you were travelling there, always makes it much more memorable when you have first-hand anecdotes. The history of the kings you included was very interesting and really bought the place to life.

  9. You are right. The temple is symmetrical that made it elegant and it does look like a Shiva lingam. I also like that you could catch the sunlight on the Vimana with your camera. It’s beautiful! Reading through your history lesson about Rajendra Chola Dynasty that also conquered Sumatera in Indonesia, reminded me of a history lesson I learned back in middle school; more over after I saw a picture of the temple ruin. It reminded me of a temple ruin that looks the same, situated in Riau Province in Sumatera. So I guess it was from Chola Dynasty.

  10. This is an amazing article about a great UNESCO site whose name i can’t pronounce :D
    As usual your pictures are fabulous and makes me want to drive up there right now. Thanks for refreshing the history lessons on Chola Dynasty which we read in school. Sad that they remain mostly neglected in pop culture compared to the Rajputs, Mughals and British colonists.

    1. True… it is quite a difficult name for non-Tamilians to pronounce. It is quite sad that we haven’t seen beyond the mughals. I am yet to read about the Ahoms! Thanks for dropping by :)

  11. The narration and the photographs were a treat, Meenakshi! Loved the detailed piece and the exquisite craftsmanship that you managed to capture on your camera so beautifully. Would definitely love to see it for real someday.

  12. Fantastic post, Meenakshi. I’m fascinated by the detailed sculpture that you managed to capture so brilliantly. This temple seems to exude peace, unlike some of the other busy religious places we see in India.

  13. Mesmerised by the beauty of this place Meenakshi, you have captured the essence of the heritage site so brilliantly. Thank you for sharing the details about the historical importance too.

  14. Wow! The Nandi looks magnificent, I hv never seen such a beautiful and majestic one before. Keeping a note of this place, I have been to TN before but NVR heard about this place.

  15. I love how symbolic and detailed all of the statues and carvings are. It took me a while to find that snake! Haha. I agree with what you said about family travels. It’s always more enriching to hear all of the little tidbits that come with bringing our parents and grandparents with us!

  16. Very interesting read. I was also totally unaware of the Chola kings. It is only when I started reading a translation of Ponniyin Selvan, I delved deeper to understand this dynasty. The temple looks so beautiful and the pictures are amazing. Already added this location to my must visit list.

  17. Such a detailed and exhaustive post Meenu. Of course, studded with your stunning captures. I loved the information about the Dwarpalaks, so symbolic and interesting. Glad you could visit on a Monday.
    Pencilling in this for a future visit.

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