Gangai Konda Cholapuram
Chola Period (11th - 12th Centuries)
Comprehensive On Line Book on Gangaikondacholapuram -
Gangaikondacholapuram, now in the Udaiyarpalayam
taluk of Tiruchi district, in Tamilnadu, was erected as
the capital of the Cholas by Rajendra I, the son and successor of
Rajaraja I, the great Chola who conquered a large area in South India at
the beginning of the 11th century A.D. It occupies an important place in
the history of India. As the capital of the Cholas from about 1025 A.D.
for about 250 years, the city controlled the affairs of entire south
India, from the Tungabhadra in the north to Ceylon in the south. The
great temple of Siva at this place is next only to the
great temple of Tanjore in its monumental nature and surpasses it in
The city was founded by the
eminent Chola emperor probably to commemorate his victorious
march to the Ganges and reflected his personality throughout
the days of its eminence and continues to do so because of
its great temple, though its role as a capital of the south
has been forgotten by its inhabitants...
The temple of Gangaikondacholisvara is approached
through the northern entrance from the road. The passage passes through
the enclosure wall and leads on to the inner court.
As one steps in, the great Vimana arrests the visitor's
sight. The Vimana with its recessed corners and upward movement presents
a striking contrast to the straight-sided pyramidal tower of Tanjavur.
As it rises to a height of 160 feet and is shorter than the Tanjavur
tower, it is often described as the feminine counterpart of the Tanjavur
The Vimana is flanked on either side by small temples;
the one in the north now housing the Goddess is fairly well preserved.
The small shire of Chandikesvara is near the steps in the north. In the
north-east are a shire housing Durga, a well called lion-well
(simhakeni) with a lion figure guarding its steps and a late mandapa
housing the office. Nandi is in the east facing the main shrine. In the
same direction is the ruined gopura, the entrance tower. The main tower
surrounded by little shrines truly presents the appearance of a great
Chakravarti (emperor) surrounded by chieftains and vassals. The
Gangaikondacholapuram Vimana is undoubtedly a devalaya chakravarti, an
emperor among temples of South India.
Though the temple of Gangaikondacholapuram follows the
plan of the great temple of
Tanjavur in most details it has an individuality of its own. From
the remains it may be seen that it had only one enclosure wall and a
gopura while the Tanjavur temple has two gopuras and enclosures.
The prakara follows the Tanjavur lay-out in that it had
a two storeyed cloister running all around. Only a part of this has
survived in the north. The stones from the other portions were utilised
to build the Lower Anaicut across the Kollidam. The pillars of cut stone
are severely plain throughout as in Tanjavur. They have no inscription
unlike at Tanjavur.
The courtyard in 566'9'' in the length and 318'6" width
and has a transept at the west in line with the main sanctum. The
cloister has a raised platform, 18' in height. At regular intervals,
bases for shrines are noticed. These shrines should have resembled the
prakara shrines of Tanjavur and in all probability housed the images of
the eight directional deities, in their appropriate quarters as in
Tanjavur. However none of the images have survived. Evidently the
prakara has been laid out in the traditional Vastu grid system called
The entrance tower, the superstructure of which has
completely fallen down, is located in the east. It measures about 68
feet x 46 feet with a 12 feet entry way. It followed in pattern the
outer gopura of the Tanjavur temple, with no sculptures on its basse
except for the Dvarapalas. The stones from the ruined gopura were
removed to construct the dam mentioned earlier. In the temples of
Tanjavur, Darasuram and Tribhuvanam, there are two gopuras, the outer
being taller than the inner. But in Gangaikondacholapuram there is only
one gopura, at the east. Besides this eastern entrance an entrance is
provided in the northern enclosure, which now serves as the main entry
on account of its priximity to the main road.
Dr. James C. Harle in his excellent work the 'Temple
gateways in South India' states that
"the gopura of the great temple at
Gangaikondacholapuram (A.D. 1030) belongs as far s one can tell in
its present ruined state to the same early phase of development as
the Tanjavur gopuras. It was neither as large or as complex,
however, as the Tanjavur gopuras. On plan, the whole edifice forms a
rectangle approximately 60 feet by 33 feet. Large dvarapals were
placed on the outer facade. One of them now lies on the ground in
front of the gopura and measures atleast seven feet. The unique
dvara, as at Tanjavur, is on the outerside of the entryway. The
vestibules have two storeys, divided by a crude and massive
architrave; in the lower, an exposed stair is built against the back
wall; above a doorway in the same wall may have led either to
another stairway or to a circumambulatory corridor."
Dr. Harle further states that an early photograph (photo
No. 2452 Indian Museum, Calcutta) shows the three upper storeys of the
gopura, in a dilapidated condition.
A fairly large size bull is found on a pedestal inside
the court, facing the main sanctum. It is made up of fallen stones and
stucco. It is not known whether the original one was monolithic. A bali
pitha is found east of Nandi.
The building to the north of Nandi, called Alankara
mandapa, and now housing the executive office of the temple was in all
probability constructed in the 19th century.
To the north of this mandapa is a circular well with
steps provided at the western end. The entrance of the steps is adorned
with a lion figure which has given the name to the well. According to
tradition Rajendra poured a part of the Ganges water, brought from his
famous expedition, into the well, to sanctify it. An inscription on the
lion sculpture, in 19th century characters, records that it was
constructed by the Zamindar of Udaiyarpalaiyam.
The Mahishasuramardini Shrine
To the west of the lion-well is a shrine dedicated to
the Goddess, Mahishasuramardini. The shrine is a later structure
(probably built in 14-15th Century) and did not form part of the
original layout. It consists of a sanctum preceded by a mandapa. The
Goddess installed in the sanctum in similar to a Durga found at
Veerareddi street, in the same village and is in all likelihood,
Chalukyan in origin.
The Southern Kailasa
The shrine, south of the main Vimana and called the
southern Kailasa has a sanctum preceded by a mandapa which in turn is
fronted by flights of steps from south and north of which the basement
alone remains. The outer walls of the sanctum and the front mandapa
carry niches, housing images. The niches of the sanctum carry
Dakshinamurthi in the south and Lingodhbhava in the west, while the
niche on the north is empty. The niches on the front mandapa carry in
the south Ganesa, Nataraja, Bhikshatana, and Subrahmanya and in the
north, Gauriprasada, Durga, Ardhanari and Bhirava. The inner sanctum of
the shrine is now in ruins.
A little to the north-east of this temple is a granite
basement, probably the ruin of a mandapa. It is now called the Alankara
mandapa. To the west of this is a well, probably coeval with the temple.
To the south-west of the main temple, is a small shrine
dedicated to Ganesa. It has a sanctum preceded by a mandapa. The
structure could be assigned to the 13th century on stylistic grounds.
The temple of Goddess (Northern Kailasa)
To the north of the main temple is a small shrine now
housing the Goddess, Brhannayaki, the consort of Lord
The temple, as mentioned earlier, resembles the southern
Kailasa in every aspect and is called Uttara Kailasa. It has a sanctum,
preceded by a front mandapa, provided with side-steps. In front of this
is a bigger mandapa (mahamandapa), which is well preserved, unlike its
southern counterpart. The niches on the sanctum and the front mandapa
carry the same sculptures as in the southern Kailasa. Thus Ganesa,
Nataraja, Bhikshatana, Subrahmanya, Dakshinamurti, Lingodhbhava, Brahma,
Bhairava, Ardhanari, Durga, and Gauriprasada are noticed in order, from
the south, while in the southern Kailasa, the northern niche of the
garbhagrha is empty, a sculpture of bearded Brahma is noticed in this
temple. Two gatekeepers flank the entrance.
In front of the gatekeepers, in the mahamandapa, are
images of Saraswati in the north and Gajalakshmi in the south. These two
Goddesses, Lakshmi and Saraswati, occupy the same position in the main
temple and also in the great temple of Tanjavur. They occupy these
positions to suit some ritual needs. It is significant that the
mahamandapa has steps to it only on the side. In ancient times, steps
were always provided on the sides and not in front of the sanctum. The
beautiful image of Goddess now enshrined in the sanctum of this temple
should be a later instalation. Originally the temple should have
enshrined a Siva Linga, like the southern Kailasa. Though separate
shrines of Goddesses came to be built in the main temples only from the
reign of Rajendra I, no Devi-shrine was built originally in this temple,
the present one being clearly a later institution.
The Chandikesvara shrine
The little temple to the north-east of the central
shrine enshrining Chandikesvara, the steward of Siva temple is of
interest. It is an all stone temple built on a raised basement, with a
storeyed superstructure. The sanctum is approached by side steps. Inside
the sanctum is an image of Chandikesvara, coeval with the temple. The
outer walls of this sanctum have niches on all the three sides, carrying
sculptures of Chandikesvara. He is the principal subsidiary deity in
Siva temples and till about 13th century A.D. all transactions relating
to the temple were made in his name. Hence a separate shrine is provided
for him in the temple complex. This shrine is coeval in time with the
The main temple
The main temple consists of a sanctum tower called Sri
Vimana or Sri koil, a big rectangular mandapa called the mahamandapa
with an intervening vestibule called mukhamandapa.
The Sri Vimana consists of the following parts beginning with the lowest
1. The basement (upa-pitha) 2. The base (adhishtana) 3.
The wall (bhitti) 4. The roof cornice (prastara) 5. The garland of
miniature shrines (hara) 6. The storeys (tala or bhumi) 7. The neck
(griva) 8. The crown (sikhara) and 9. The final (stupi).
According to architectural treatises, basements
(upa-pithas) are introduced in temples to increase the height of the
main tower; to add to structural stability and to make the temple tower
majestic. That these purposes are magnificently fulfilled by the
basements of both the Tanjavur temple and Gangaikondacholapuram temple,
may be noticed even by a casual visitor not conversant with
architectural principles. Besides the purposes mentioned above, the
basement also provides, a space to walk around the tower. In this
temple, the basement is ornamented with sculptures of lions and
leogriffs with lifted paws.
The main base adhishtana is decorated with well defined
courses, consisting of the lotus moulding adaspadma, and the kumuda
moulding, topped by a frieze of leogriffs and riders. This constitute
the main base, the top of which forms the flooring level of the inner
That portion of the structure rising above the main base
up-to the roof cornice is called 'the wall' (bhitti or kal). It is the
principal element that encases the main sanctum and carries on it a
number of niches housing various deities. The wall in this temple is
divided into two horizontal courses by an intervening cornice. The lower
and upper courses have an equal number of niches, on all the three sides
except the front.
On the vertical axis the wall surfaces are well defined
by intervening recesses forming a rectangle in the centre and squares at
the corners. Each is made up of a central niche housing a deity, flanked
by a group of small sculptures which in turn are flanked by pilasters
simulating pillars. Thus each niche housing a deity appears as a
miniature shrine. The recessed walls in the lower courses carry a vase
and pilaster ornamentation, while on the upper courses carry a vase and
pilaster ornamentation, while on the upper courses, there are small
niches housing deities. Thus these are five principal deities in the
lower course and nine deities in the upper course on each side. Since
the mukhamandapa abutts the eastern wall, only one niche is retained in
the lower course. On either side of the eastern wall, the upper course
retains the principal niche at the corners and smaller niches at the
The sculptures in the lower courses, of the Sri Vimana
depict various aspects of Siva and also the subsidiary deities who
include Ganesa, Vishnu, Subrahmanya, Durga, Brahma, and Bhairava,
supplemented by Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Durga in the niches of the great
mandapa. The sculptures were made separately and fitted into the niches.
They are flanked by a group of small sculptures, carved in situ,
illustrating the theme the niche sculpture seeks to represent. The
sculptures on the upper courses represent, besides some aspects of Siva,
the guardian deities of the eight quarters.
The roof cornice consists mainly of three parts: (a) the
frieze of dwarfs at the bottom, (b) the cornice forming the outer edge
of the ceiling roof proper and, (c) the frieze of leogriffs on the top.
The cornice is decorated with plain spade-like ornamentation topped by
the head of a leogriff.
A row of miniature shrines runs around the tower like a
garland, and is called a hara. It consists of square pavilions at the
corners, rectangular pavilions in the middle, with a nest (nida)
ornamentation in between.
Above this rise the main tower, consisting of nine
stories including the ground floor. The upper stories of the main tower
carry the same type of ornamentation, consisting of square and oblong
pavilions except a change; the central wagon-shaped pavilion is flanked
by square ones instead of "the nests", the whole being projected forward
than the rest. This is a change from the Tanjavur tower, which presents
a pyramidal appearance without the central projection.
The neck is provided with four niches in the cardinal
directions and bulls at the corners. The niches are topped by arch-like
embellishment called kirtimukhas.
The globular element on the top called Sikhara is
according to tradition, made of one stone weighing many stones. But, in
fact, it is made of many pieces of cut stones dressed for the purpose,
as may be seen from the portion where the plaster has fallen down.
The final, stupi is a metal vase with a lotus-bud design
at the top. It is gilded with gold and is said to carry an inscription
named after Nallakka-tola-udayar, a Poligar of Udayarpalaiyam. It is not
known whether the stupi is the original one and probably guilded by the
Poligar or is a new one gifted by him.
The sanctum enshrining the main deity, is encased by an
inner wall. Between the inner wall and the outer, there is an
intervening passage-called sandhara running all around. The two walls
are joined at the top by a series of corbelling. They are provided to
support the massive super-structure. In the great temple of Tanjavur,
the outer walls have openings in the centre leading into the intervening
passage. Facing the openings are sculptures of deities. The inner faces
of the passage are painted with scenes depicting exploits of Siva and
But in the temple of Gangaikondacholapuram, no painting
is noticed in the inner passage. The central openings and corresponding
sculptures, are also not found here. This inner passage around the
sanctum is also found on the first floor. In the Tanjavur temple the
inner wall of this passage carries 108 poses of dancing Siva, of which
83 are fully finished and the rest are incomplete. But in
Gangaikondacholapuram to such sculptural representation is noticed.
The inner sanctum, houses a very big Siva Linga, rising
to a height of thirteen feet. It is said to be the biggest Siva Linga
enshrined in a sanctum in any South Indian temple. The entrance to the
sanctum is guarded by massive doorkeepers, dvarapalas.
The mandapa immediately preceeding the sanctum is
approached by steps leading to it from the north and the south sides and
also from the great mandapa in the east. The entrances are guarded by
big dvarapalas of remarkable beauty. The mandapa is supported by massive
plain and square pillars. The eastern walls flanking the opening to the
great mandapa carry groups of small sculptures illustrating Saivite
themes. The following are the themes thus represented.
The episode of Ravana travelling in his chariot; shaking
the Kailasa mountain; Siva seated with Uma, pressing the mountain with
his toe; Ravana's anguish under the weight of the mountain and finally
Siva bestowing boons on Ravana, are depicted in three panels.
The second episode on the same wall depicts Vishnu,
worshipping Siva with 1008 lotus flowers; finding one short he plucks
his own eye and offers it as a flower; Siva bestows grace on Vishnu. The
panels closer to the entrance depict the marriage of Siva with Uma. Uma,
the daughter Himavan, desirous of marrying Siva, undertakes austerities
and worships Siva; Siva, after testing her steadfastness as a beautiful
youth, marries her; the celestials witness the marriage; Brahma, the
creator offers oblation to the sacrificial fire and Vishnu gives Uma in
marriage to Siva.
The east wall close to the entrance on the northern side
depicts the Kiratarjuna scene; Arjuna the Pandava hero performs
austerities to obtain a Pasupata weapon; Siva as a hunter accompanied by
Uma as a huntress, tests Arjuna's devotion; picks up a quarrel with
Arjuna over a kill; Arjuna not knowing the personality behind the
hunter, enters into a duel with him and is ultimately vanquished; Siva
manifesting himself bestows the weapon.
At the extreme north of the same side are portrayed two
episodes, one representing Siva quelling the pride of God of death, in
order to protect his devotee and the other representing Saint
Chandikeswara a great devotee of Siva, cutting off the leg of his
father, who disturbed his faith and Siva bestowing grace on both father
Though these group sculptures are carefully selected,
they are imperfectly finished and lack the beauty and elegance of the
sculptures of the main tower.
Had the original mahamandapa been preserved, it would
have retained the grandeur of its conception and beauty. But as it is,
only the portion upto the main base is original. The side walls, the
pillars and the ceilings have been reconstructed, probably in the 18th
century A.D. Obviously the superstructure should have crumbled due to
neglect and vegetation.
However a part of the original has survived upto the
ceiling at the western end. From the surviving portion it may be seen,
the roof (prastara) of the mahamandapa was in level with the prastara of
the ground floor (adi bhumi) of the main Vimana. Like the walls of the
main Vimana, a horizontal cornice divides the outer walls of the
mahamandapa into two parts. They carry a series of niches both in the
upper and lower courses.
The sculptures of Vidyesvaras, Vasus, Adityas and other
subsidiary deities were probably enshrined in them. As mentioned
earlier, the adibhumi of the main Vimana has two floors inside the
sandhara passage, the intervening cornice forming the intermediate floor
level. The mahamandapa should have been a two storeyed pavilion, quite
fitting with the mahaprasada of the temple. In view of the tall
dvarapalas guarding the entrance to the mukhamandapa, the central
passage should have had only the upper ceiling without the intermediate
flooring. Thus the central passage was flanked by two storeyed
structures, resembling the storeyed cloister of the enclosure. It is
likely that the mahamandapa of Tanjavur was also originally a two
storeyed structure. They would have presented a most spectacular sight
when the deities were taken out in procession through the mahamandapa.
As it stands today the inner side of the mandapa has a
central passage, leading from the front to the sanctum flanked by two
raised platforms and a passage running around. Two massive dvarapalas
are noticed at the western and guarding the entrance to the
mukhamandapa. A room at the south western corner houses a beautiful
Somaskanda image and a few other bronzes. A few sculptures and bronzes
receiving regular worship are on the northern platform. The north
eastern corner houses an interesting Solaar altra, now worshipped as
navagraha (nine planets).
The front entrance to the great mandapa, is again
approached by steps from north and south. The entrance to the mandapa is
guarded by massive dvarapalas. As the flooring of the mandapa is on a
high elevation, the stpes rise to a considerable height forming a high
platform in the front. It is said that there is a sub-terranian passage
with steps under this platform. Some claim that this passage leads to
the royal palace, while others assert that t leads to the river
Yet a third tradition says that it leads to an
underground treasury wherein invaluable properties belonging to the
temple are preserved. None in the living memory has set foot on this
passage for fear of darkness, poisonous gas and wasps. It is not
unlikely that the empty underground space below the great mandapa and
the space between the steps, were utilised as store houses.
The original steps leading to the front entrance of the
great mandapa and the raised platform were probably disturbed are
rebuilt as some of the stones built-in haphazardly carry fragmentary
inscriptions of the 13th Century A.D."