By Monidipa Dey
The Brihadesvara Gangaikondacholesvara temple in Gangaikondacholapuram stands tall, proudly proclaiming the 11th century victorious march of the Chola army up to the banks of the Ganga, where they defeated king Mahipala of the Pala dynasty. While the once flourishing city and the mighty emperor’s palace are now in ruins, the main temple still stands about 1.5 km away from the city remains. The palace and the city of Gangaikondacholapuram were built between 1023 CE and 1029 CE, while the temple was consecrated in 1035 CE by Rajendra Chola I. Gangaikondacholapuram was the capital city of the Cholas and their administrative centre until the middle of 13th c. CE.
The city and the temple complex of Brihadesvara Gangaikondacholesvara (which was built as per the Tamil Vastu and Agama Sastras, hence had more temples and other structures within the complex) faced largescale destruction at the hands of the Delhi Sultanate armies (AD 1311 and AD 1327), Deccan Sultanate armies, and later under the English and French administration. The colonial armies used the temple premises as a fort, owing to which the structure faced further damages. The temple complex that we see today has been largely repaired and rebuilt in different phases by the Pandyan and Vijayanagara dynasties, the colonial era archaeologists, and the ASI.
As one enters the Brihadesvara Gangaikondacholisvarar temple, right after crossing the gate, the first thing that catches the eyes are the shining dhvajastambha (flag post), the bali-peetha, and the large Nandi all in a line. The bali-peetha (sacrificial pedestal) holds a carved lotus and offerings are placed on it during various rituals, a symbolic feeding of the pancha-mahabhutas (five elements of nature) or the parivara devatas (family deities).
The Brihadisvara Gangaikondacholesvara temple is rectangular in shape with a mukha mandapa, maha-mandapa, ardh mandapa, and a square sanctum. There are two flights of stairs on the northern and southern faces that lead up to two imposing dvarapalas, guarding the side entrance doors to the antarala. Besides the other dvarapalas guarding all the entrances, a pair of colossal dwarapalas guard the sanctum door that with their sizes are bound to leave the devotees in great awe.
The temple walls show Shiva in various postures of bestowing favours or anugraha: Ravananugraha-murti, Vishnvanugraha-murti, Devyanugraha- murti, Chandesanugraha-murti, Kalyanasundara- murti, and Markandeyanugraha-murti. There are two beautiful images of the devis Lakshmi and Saraswati on two side niches of the entryway to the mandapa on the northern and southern side respectively. Besides various other deities, there are also representations of kings and princes as warriors holding swords and shields on the walls. The tall pyramidical vimana of the temple is in 9 diminishing tiers (or talas), with a domed sikhara on top showing lotus petal patterns, and a gold coated stupi with a lotus bud. A little away from the Nandi at the entrance way sits a large lion built of plaster and brickwork, which is known as Simhakinar, and it houses a large well. It is believed that this is the tank where Rajendra Chola had put in the holy waters of the Ganga for daily abhishekam of the main deity.
The temple base has many inscriptions, and the longest inscription belongs to Virarajendra Chola, a son of Rajendra Chola, which gives details of land grants in villages, the revenue of which went towards temple maintenance. Two more inscriptions are of Rajadhiraja I, who succeeded Rajendra Chola, and also talk of land grants. Other inscriptions are from the Pandyan reign, while another inscription mentions Prauda Virupaksha, of the Vijayanagara dynasty.
A rather unique point of this temple is the fact that it holds a slab that shows the navagrahas (nine planets), which is a combination of north and south Indian astrological elements. A form of solar pedestal (Saura Pitha) it has in its two tiers an open lotus on a square base. The upper tier bears the eight grahas or planets, and with Surya/Sun at the middle it forms the navagrahas. The lower tier is a chariot drawn by seven horses, with Aruna as the charioteer.
Travel tips: Gangaikondacholapuram is close to Thanjavur and the place can be visited on a day trip from there. The temple will take around two hours for a through look at everything. The best time to visit the place is between November to January, when the weather is cooler. The temple mandapa and sanctum remain closed from 12 pm to 4 pm and the visit must be planned accordingly. The temple is under the ASI purview.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)