The Great Chola Temples
Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram

Dr Crispin Branfoot
On 22nd April 1010, the twenty-fifth regnal year of the Chola king Arunmolivarman – better known by his title Rajaraja, ‘the King of Kings’ – installed a gold-plated pot-finial on the summit of a monumental new temple in the city of Thanjavur, consecrating one of the grandest temples ever built in India. By Rajaraja’s reign (985-1014), the Chola kings had come to be the rulers of one of the foremost of India’s temple-building polities from their power-base in the Kaveri delta region of central Tamilnadu. The period from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries in southern India is regarded as one of the most creative and formative periods of Tamil culture, inspiring some of the finest literary and artistic achievements. Over the height of the Chola dynasty’s power in southern India, at least three hundred stone temples were built, among which the great temples at Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram are often considered their finest artistic achievements for the monumentality of conception, architectural grandeur, powerful sculpture and fine painting.

Brihadishvara Temple, Thanjavur Photo: Debashish-Banerjee
Brihadishvara, the royal Chola temple at Thanjavur

Thanjavur lies at the head of the Kaveri delta from where various tributaries provide the low-lying lands of central Tamilnadu with a near constant supply of water that has enabled intensive rice agriculture and supported a dense population for over a thousand years. The city became a Chola settlement from c.850, but was a major political centre only from Rajaraja’s reign with the foundation of this monumental new temple and surrounding royal centre. This coincided with the height of the Chola Empire, with expansionist conquests under Rajaraja and his son and successor Rajendra (1014-44) to the whole of south India and overseas to northern Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even Sumatra.

Temples have been built in stone in the Tamil region since the sixth-seventh centuries, both rock-cut monuments excavated from the living rock and structural ones. The earliest monuments are to be found both to the north and the south of the Kaveri region: the temples at the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram and their coastal port of Mamallapuram, and the monuments in the southern Pandyan region around Madurai and Pudukkottai. Temples in both brick and stone had been built in the central Kaveri region dominated by the Cholas since at least the ninth century. Though beautifully sculpted and elegantly proportioned, most were on quite a modest scale. A number were located on the numerous sacred sites celebrated by the Shaiva nayanmar and the Vaishnava alvars, the wandering poet-saints who sang their praises of Shiva and Vishnu in localised forms in passionate, poetic devotion song in the Tamil vernacular. In terms of its scale and grandeur, the temple founded by Rajaraja in Thanjavur marked a major change in the conception of the Hindu temple in south India. Its explicitly royal character also established a model followed by the great Chola temples at Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram.

The Rajarajeshvara temple is set within a large rectangular enclosure, measuring 241 by 121m, nearly a perfectly proportioned double square. Entered through two monumental pyramidal gateways (gopuras) this huge enclosure is aligned on an east-west axis. The 18-degree deviation south from exact east may be explained by the careful alignment of the temple with the rising sun on the day of the temple’s foundation. At the exact centre of the rear square of the enclosure is placed the monumental tower or vimana that rises above the main shrine containing the massive linga of Shiva in his form as Rajarajeshvara, ‘the Lord of Rajaraja’. The vimana is slightly under sixty metres in height, almost exactly half the courtyard’s width, further demonstrating the precision with which this temple was built.

Photograph: Inner view of Vimana in Brihadishvara, Photo: Debashish Banerjee

The temples built in the Kaveri region in the preceding 150 years had rarely exceeded around ten metres in height. A few of the largest temples built under the Pallava dynasty in the eighth century in northern Tamilnadu had reached a height of twenty-two metres. In the eleventh century temples were being built on an unprecedented and magnificent scale across south Asia: at Modhera in western India, at Khajuraho in the north and in Bhubaneshwar in Orissa. No south Indian temple would ever aspire to such a monumental single-towered shrine as at Thanjavur and its royal successor temples, and the dramatic mastery of stone corbelling to create such a temple is one of the great technical achievements of the Chola architects.

Thanjavur’s vimana is built on a massive square plan with an internal circumambulatory passage around the garbhagriha, the sanctum containing the huge linga. It is built in the Tamil Dravida language (or style) of architecture, characterised by the stepped pyramidal form of the main tower, the vimana in south Indian terminology. This is in contrast to the Nagara language used in north India in the same period. Thanjavur’s vimana is raised on a monumental base, with a two-storey wall supporting the sweeping elevation of the fourteen tiers of the stone superstructure. On the summit is the pot-finial (stupi) installed in April 1010 that marked the consecration of the temple and the start of its ritual life. The capping stone is composed of several pieces and not a monolith, as is often stated. Only four temples in the Kaveri region built before Thanjavur in the tenth century, such as at Pullamangai, had three-storeyed vimanas when the norm was only one or two. No temple built after Thanjavur had as many, for Gangaikondacholapuram has nine, though this temple’s vimana was only slightly lower at 51 metres high, and Darasuram has only five.

Before the vimana is a small chamber with doorways leading to huge staircases on each side. Attached to this is the long rectangular, enclosed columned hall (mahamandapa) – that remained unfinished in the eleventh century – to accommodate large numbers of worshippers approaching Shiva. Just before the entrance to the mahamandapa is a huge image of the kneeling Nandi or Rishabha, the bull-mount of Shiva. The present massive image and the columned pavilion above it were additions of the sixteenth-century; the Chola-period Nandi has been placed by the southern enclosure wall.

This huge temple is built almost entirely of stone, hard granite laid in horizontal courses with no mortar. A striking feature of the temples built in the Kaveri region is that so much stone has been procured in a riverine land with no local sources. Among the remarkable technical accomplishments at both Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram is the volume of stone quarried from upstream near Tiruccirappalli and transported by water to the two temples, 45km and 95km respectively. It has been estimated that around 130,000 tons or 50,000 m3 of granite was required for the complete temple at Thanjavur, around forty times the quantity of stone needed for the smaller shrines built in this period. Between 985 and1044 under Rajaraja and his son and successor Rajendra (1012-44), around eighty temples were built. The volume of stone required for the two great temples was equivalent to around eighty normal temples; approximately 50% of the total effort in this period went on building these two temples. Furthermore they account for c. 20% of all Chola-period architectural activity between 850 and 1250 when around three hundred temples were built in Tamilnadu.

One of the Karanas in Brihadishvara,
Photo: Kevin

Though now containing several smaller additional shrines, when the Rajarajeshvara temple at Thanjavur was built it consisted of only the massive main temple and the small shrine to Chandeshvara, the guardian of Shiva’s temples, on its north side. The monumentality of the temple is enhanced by being set within such a very large and open courtyard. This huge open enclosure is entered through two gopuras, all built in stone. Gopuras had been built earlier, and their genesis can be traced to the barrel-vaulted roofed shrines at the cardinal directions around the some Pallava temples at Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram. The Rajarajeshvara temple at Thanjavur establishes not only their importance within a temple on a massive scale, but also the principle that the tallest ones are those furthest from the main shrine and placed upon the same axis. The outer gopura suggests that a second enclosure was planned around the inner courtyard, though not completed. From the twelfth century the Tamil temple was increasingly built as a complex of structures with numerous massive gopuras, in one, two or even all four sides, in a series of concentric enclosure walls dwarfing the modest vimanas over the main shrine at the sacred heart of the temple.

The name of Shiva at Thanjavur is Rajarajeshvara, the ‘Lord of Rajaraja’ thus emphasising the intimate connection between the deity and king. Shiva is also named the ‘Lord of the Southern World-Mountain’ (Dakshinameruvitankar), for Rajaraja had offered him a new home in the South. In the sixteenth century the deity came to be known as Peruvudaiyar, ‘the Great Lord’ hence the Sanskrit name Brihadishvara. So much is known about the circumstances of Rajaraja’s temple foundation as a result of the detailed inscriptions written all around the temple’s base and walls. These declare the king’s conquests over the kings of Kerala, the Pandyans of Madurai and in Sri Lanka, but in greater volume record a wealth of detail from the time of the temple’s establishment and later donations of gold, silver, jewellery and metal images of deities, and tax revenues to support the temple’s ritual life. The temple had over 800 employees, including 400 temple dancers to entertain Shiva and fifty musicians to regularly recite the Tevaram, the hymns of praise composed by the Tamil Shaiva poet-saints. Across southern India and Sri Lanka, 369 settlements were connected with Thanjavur as endowments for the maintenance of worship, a wide-ranging transactional network that focussed both resources and political culture on the city and the surrounding region.

Though few of the bronze sculpture donated to the temple at the time of its foundation have survived, the temple is ornamented with a rich array of stone sculpture. The monumental 3.95 metre-high linga at the ritual heart of the temple is a vast, smooth monolith. In earlier temples in the Kaveri region, the exterior walls were animated by the inclusion of up to nine niches on the walls of the vimana and the adjoining mandapa, containing images of Shiva’s manifestations and related deities. At Thanjavur the whole iconographic programme became much richer with three large images of Shiva on the exterior walls of the garbhagriha within the circumambulatory passage, and a far greater number of niches for sculpted images on the exterior walls than ever before. The range of Shaiva deities exhibited includes Shiva as the dancing Nataraja, as the ‘Lord who is half-woman’, Ardhanarishvara and a striking thirty-four images of Tripurantaka, Shiva as the Destroyer of the Demon of the Three Cities. Few wall-paintings before the sixteenth century have survived in south India, and so Thanjavur is renowned for the eleventh-century murals within the circumambulatory passage found in 1931 beneath later, Nayaka-period paintings of the seventeenth century. Among these eleventh-century paintings are scenes with Rajaraja and his three wives worshipping before Nataraja at Chidambaram, Dakshinamurti and the Shaiva poet-saint Sundarar.

Gangaikondacholapuram Temple: Photograph: Debashish Banerjee
Gangaikondacholapuram, the ‘City of the Chola who conquered the Ganges’

During the reign of Rajaraja’s son and successor, Rajendra, the Chola Empire’s geographical claims over India expanded further. To celebrate his conquest of the cardinal directions, Rajendra built a new capital city and royal temple fifty-five kilometres northwest of Thanjavur on an arid site north of the river Kaveri. This was named Gangaikondacholapuram, the ‘City of the Chola who conquered the Ganges’. Alongside a five-kilometre artificial lake that was fed by a branch of the river Kaveri and included water from the sacred river Ganges, brought from the northern conquests, was a monumental stone temple on a similar scale to that at Thanjavur and a new fortified city on a rectilinear plan. The symbolic conquest of the universe was made evident by the relocation of Mount Kailasa in the Chola lands, with two shrines named Northern and Southern Kailasa on either side of the main temple to Shiva as Rajendracholishvara, the ‘Lord of the Chola Rajendra’ completed by 1135.

Nataraja in Gangaikondacholapuram,
Photograph: Debashish Banerjee

In contrast with the longevity of occupation of so many Tamil temple sites, Gangaikondacholapuram’s existence as a royal temple and as a capital did not outlast the Chola dynasty’s height of power. The temple, never finished, ceased to be ‘living’ in the mid thirteenth century but was revived for use in the seventeenth century by the Thanjavur Nayakas when a few additions were made. The model is clearly the temple at Thanjavur, yet Gangaikondacholapuram is no mere copy. The vimana is lower at 51 meters but with a wider base and a concave profile. The transition from the square base through to the circular shikhara is similar to the changing profile of a linga. The monumental mandapa that precedes the vimana is one large hall and not divided in two as at Thanjavur.

As at Thanjavur, the walls are ornamented by a rich programme of large stone sculpture in niches but at Gangaikondacholapuram there are no openings in the outer wall of the plainer circumambulatory passage to reveal inner images. For both temples the increase in scale resulted in a greater number of niches to fill with images and thus there are far more sculptures at these two temples than for any earlier temple in the Kaveri region. At Gangaikondacholapuram many of the same niche-sculptures are included as at Thanjavur, such as Shiva as Lingodbhava, Nataraja or Ardhanarishvara. But less common Chola-period images include the famous sculpture of Shiva wrapping a garland around the head of a kneeling saint Chandesha. A much greater volume of relief sculpture ornaments the walls beside each niche. Monumental dvarapalas guard the doorways and a huge stone Nandi kneels before the east-facing temple.

In contrast to Rajaraja’s temple at Thanjavur, the temple at Gangaikondacholapuram was largely a complete conception on its foundation with fewer later additions. The inclusion of the two shrines to Northern and Southern Kailasa determined the projections in the rectangular enclosure plan, though the single east gopura was never finished. The northern Kailasa shrine was dedicated to Shiva’s goddess-consort by the sixteenth century.

Airavatesvara Temple, Photograph: Debashish Banerjee
Darasuram and the afterlives of the Chola temple

The third of the great royal Chola temples is the Airavateshvara at Darasuram near Kumbakonam in the Kaveri delta heartland of Tamil culture. Like Thanjavur, it was dedicated to Shiva as Rajarajeshvara and was completed by 1167. It was built under the patronage of Rajaraja II (r. 1146-73), whose capital was at nearby Palaiyarai. The main temple’s vimana is a more modest 24 metres in height and is preceded by a series of mandapas entered on the south side by the stairs with stone wheels and rearing horses, the mandapa being modelled on a temple-chariot (ratha). The temple is placed within a 64 by 104-metre enclosure entered from the east through a single gopura. A separate goddess shrine to Devanayaki in its own 28 by 66-metre enclosure was built later in Kulottunga III’s reign (r. 1178-1218), when a further monumental royal temple was built at nearby Tribhuvanam. This is among the earliest separate goddess shrines (tirukkamakkottam) built, a standard feature of Tamil temples from this date. A second unfinished gopura in line with the Airavateshvara temple would have been the entrance to a large second prakara intended to enclose both temples.

Airavatesvara Temple, Photograph: Debashish Banerjee

Darasuram is striking for the exceptional volume and quality of the sculpture, some now removed to the Thanjavur Art Gallery, including Shiva as Gajasamhara, the slayer of the elephant-demon, and Shiva with a group of rishis. On the temple itself, Darasuram is among the first to include a frieze of the complete series of all sixty-three of the Tamil Shaiva poet-saints or Nayanmar, whose poetry had been incorporated into temple liturgy. The poet Cekkilar had composed his narrative of their lives, the Periya Puranam, in this period in the reign of Kulottunga II (c.1133-50).

Though labelled ‘living’ temples today, the afterlives of all three temples demonstrate a discontinuous pattern of ritual and building activity into the present. Although largely built in the early eleventh century, Rajaraja’s royal temple at Thanjavur continued to be an active religious site in the subsequent centuries as some inscriptions and the addition of further buildings indicate. In the thirteenth century at around the time of the Pandyan conquest of the Kaveri region and the defeat of the Cholas, in a pattern followed across the Tamil country a separate goddess shrine was included within the enclosure. As an important political centre under the Nayakas and later the Marathas from the sixteenth through to the mid-nineteenth century further shrines were added to the Thanjavur temple alongside the monumental vimana: the Skanda (Subramanya) shrine in the late sixteenth century together with the new Nandi, and the small Ganapati (Ganesha) shrine in the early nineteenth century when Thanjavur once again became a royal temple under Serfoji II (r.1799-1832). In the eighteenth century the temple was fortified by the Marathas, and fought over by the British and French during the Carnatic Wars. The British occupation of the temple in the late eighteenth century led to the temporary cessation of ritual activity. Despite these additions, there was no radical transformation of the basic form and layout of Rajaraja’s early eleventh century temple.

More has been written about these three temples, especially Thanjavur, than any others built in Tamilnadu and yet hundreds of stone temples built between the ninth and the thirteenth century have survived in the Kaveri region. Sometimes said to mark the culmination of Tamil temple architecture, the monumental towers at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram are in many ways aberrations in the development of the Tamil temple. From the eleventh century, the south Indian temple increasingly came to be characterised by the monumental pyramidal gateways (gopura) that rise ever higher towards the outermost walls with a modest shrine at the ritual heart. But it is their royal patronage, their monumental singularity and the exquisite sculpture that makes the temples at Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram so appealing.

(Dr Crispin Branfoot is Senior Lecturer in South Asian Art and Archaeology, SOAS, University of London)

The Great Chola Temples: In conversation with Dr Nagaswamy

Dr. R. Nagaswamy
Sahapedia: Can you explain the archaeological significance of the three great Chola temples: Brhadisvara, Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Airavatesvara?

R. Nagaswamy:
Brhadisvara, which was originally called Rajarajesvara, built by the Chola emperor, the first Raja Raja Chola, is an outstanding temple that has been meticulously planned on a very grand scale and every aspect of the temple – architecture, sculpture, images, bronzes, inscriptions, etc has been pre-planned with the huge linga serving as the central point. It is thus the peak of Chola architecture; you can almost call it the Himalaya of Chola architecture.

In fact, we even have some poetic imagery of a mountain peak called Meru, which was said to be golden with concentric circles of peaks going around, each one representing a personification of a deity. This has influenced the architecture and formula of the main vimana around which the enclosure and the entrance towers have been built. So this forms almost the beginning of monumental architecture and we may say the culmination of Chola architecture.

Now, almost 20 years later came the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple, which was built by Rajendra Chola, the son and successor of Raja Raja. It adopted a different format, plan and elevation, drawing from the experience of what was done in Tanjore; its articulation is slightly different, but essentially you see a unitary approach in both Gangaikonda Cholapuram and its predecessor Brhadisvara or Rajarajesvara temple in Tanjore.

The Rajarajesvaram built by the second Raja Raja Chola, which later began to be referred to as Darasuram, was built around 1150 AD or so and we have an altogether different format, plan and elevation; also the expressions of the sculptures on its body give it a different philosophy. This shows that there had been more ideas coming from different parts of the country especially from the Bengal region; new philosophy, architecture, forms of worship, etc, which is attested by inscriptions on the temple itself. And so we see a slightly different correlation, slightly different emphasis. So in all these three, each represents a stage in the evolution and also in representation. But nothing can match the Brhadisvara temple at Tanjore in the planning, vastu pada vinyasa, the layout of the ground plan originally and vastu purusa mandala, the placing of the main deity and secondary deities around the wall of the main vimana as well as in the secondary shrine of the enclosure.

A large number of bronzes were donated by Rajaraja, his sister, his queens and others and even the position and direction of these bronzes in the surrounding enclosure, sub-shrines, etc., has been pre-planned. They bear the inscriptions referring to them exactly in the same position where it ought to have been. Unfortunately those old bronzes are no more except one Nataraja but you can see the inscription referring to the Nataraja shrine is exactly behind the modern Nataraja mandapa in the enclosure in the north-eastern direction.

So the foremost aspect about the Brhadisvara temple is the layout, its orientation and the distribution of various shrines. As far as the main vimana is concerned we have different groups of deities represented on the walls; one of the major classical images like Siva, what you call Chakradanamurti, or Nataraja, Bhiksasana, Ardhanarisvara, Lingodbhava, Gangadhara and so on. This is one circle of the conventional deities which are distributed according to the Agamic texts but in addition we have another circle of deities which are called pancha brahma or the first manifestation of Supreme Siva in figurative form and that is represented by Tatpurusa, Aghora, Sadyojata, Vamadeva and Isana. These five sculptures are not found in any other temple in South India occupying the position mentioned in the Agamic literature and that’s extraordinary because in the worship of the central image the linga is called rupa-arupa, which is both form and formless. The pancha brahma are also represented in human form in various niches in the temple.

Then in the upper portion you have a series of icons going all around, each holding a bow and arrow in the upper hand and they are what are called the sata rudras or the physical representation of the rays of the rising sun, which remain on the earth in the intermediate space and also higher up; they are given a form and worshipped in the circles of worship of the main deity.

Then we have further up the other images which are said to occupy the different karna, puta, sala, bhadrasala and so on which are architectural terms and originally they represented the little peaks that went around the Meru and deities like the directional deities – Indra, Agni, Yama, Nivrutti, Kubera, Vayu, Isana – these are all in the appropriate positions in small shrines.

So the king called this main vimana as Meru, there are two parts of Meru: one is the northern Meru, Uttara Meru, or Vada Meru and the other one is the Dakshina Meru, the Southern Meru. And he called this vimana as the Southern Meru, Dakshina Meru.

Sahapedia: What is Tamil for Dakshina Meru?

R. Nagaswamy: There is no Tamil name for it, you can call it Thekku but it is not used in the inscriptional material. We have inscriptional references to both the Uttara Meru, which is called Mahameru that was a metal image of Siva seated on top of a peak made of bronze. Unfortunately it has not survived but other deities like Ganesa, Subrahmanya, Nandikesvara, Surya and Candra – these are all represented on the bronze image of the mount Maha Meru.

Further, Dakshina Meru is represented in this temple by Nataraja, which was called ‘Adavalan’ and this image luckily has survived to this day, though somewhere in the beginning of the 19th century it was found broken and lying in the temple without worship. The queen of the last of the Maratha rulers, Shivaji II, named Kamakshi Beebi Bai, repaired it and re-consecrated it in the temple and from then on it is under worship. This information is provided by a Marathi inscription on the base of the present metal Nataraja that is worshipped in the temple.

So one is Mahameru Vidanga and other one is called Dakshina Meruvidanga and as this temple follows an Agama called ‘Makutagama’, according to an ancient tradition, it means that the main image of the temple was considered the dancing form of Siva that is Nataraja. The linga inside the garbhagrha represented the dancing form of Siva. It is this concept that has influenced the inner enclosure of the main temple and also the upper floor where you have 108 forms of dance, which are called Nrtya Karanas detailed in Bharata’s ‘Natyashastra’. It almost looks as if it has been carved in space, which is akasa – Siva’s dance is said to take place in akasa – and that is the reason why you have these 108 dance karanas portrayed on the first floor around the main sanctum. It begins with the karana ‘Tala-puspa-puta’ at the entrance and then the sequence as found in Bharata’s ‘Natyashastra’ is found here in sculptural form, which is the earliest representation of Bharata’s ‘Natyashastra’ in visual form in India.

Now this representation of Siva’s form coming out of its own body is described in many Sanskrit texts. Siva creates multivarious forms out of his own body as the Supreme God, which is like the Supreme Dance taking place in a theatre. Just as a beautiful dancer comes whirling and then creates so many dance forms, so also this sculptural representation gives us an idea of how they conceived the whole movement of the cosmos as the dance of the Supreme. And this is a very, very important concept for understanding the meaning of the temple.

The second part is a dancing sculpture at the back of sanctum in the main vimana, which is in Chatura-tandava. This Chatura-tandava, square form of dance, is generally called Sandhya-tandava, the evening dance. So you had the evening dance of Siva also portrayed there from which these dance forms have actually evolved through centuries in India and for the study of the art of dance this is the most important and valuable information that we get here.

The temple worship consists of five circles of worship; these are called pancha avaranas. Five circles from the main linga and then you have the pancha brahma. Then you have what is called vidyesvaras, different forms of knowledge personified. Then the directional deities, each direction is deified and given a form, now enshrined in enclosures in their appropriate directions, which form a fortification for the central palace. The last circle, the fifth one is said to be the weapons of these directional deities. So they are worshipped in five circles and in all these, the image, the dhyana shloka and the form of worship are all prescribed in the agama and that is how we find the sculptures distributed in Brhadisvara temple too.

The inner circle, middle circle and extreme outer circle of deities are all in their appropriate position showing that they conform to a particular written text that has come down to them and they have followed it meticulously, these have all been codified. Then we have the temple opening into four directions. You do not have the garbhagrha opening out in the four directions in all temples. This is a particular type of architectural representation, the Meru type of architecture. According to the inscription the emperor says, “We, the emperor, have built this temple…’ and this is called Srivimana, the main tower, ‘…of stone in Tanjore’ thus providing the foundational information about this particular temple, when and how it was built.

The king says that we built it of stone, Kattrali – kal means stone, tali means temple, kaltali means stone temple. So it means that from base to the finial this temple was built of stone, which is called the shuddha type of architecture, that is you use only one material for constructing the whole vimana and in this case it was granite stone from the base to the top. If you use other materials also along with the stone like wood or plaster, then it is called mixed type, mishra type of temple. But the best form of temple architecture of according to shastra is the shuddha type. So here, being a Chakravarthi, an emperor, he has built this loftiest temple of a single material that is granite stone.

Under his orders the enclosure of this temple has been built by Krishnan Raman, alias, Moomudi-Chola-Brahma-Marayan, who was the Commander-in-Chief and was responsible for supervising the construction of the enclosure, which is mentioned in a number of pillars on the enclosure. Now obviously after the main vimana has reached a definite form and height, then the enclosure had been built and closed up. That facilitated easy movement from outside and inside.

In temples such as these there is a prescription that you must leave enough space between the main structure and the enclosure wall and the intermediate space is called the marmasthana, which is essential as a prakara and also to leave the surrounding area of the structure strong enough. Any digging in between will loosen the earth and the strength of the surrounding area and so it is prohibited in the text and here we have the most appropriate space that has been allotted between the central vimana and the outer enclosure. So even that forms part of the layout; the prescription says you are not allowed to build any structure between these two places; it is both for architectural and ritual reasons.

There are two mandapas integrated into, which we now call the mahamandapa but in fact there are two – one very close to the sanctum and the other one in the front. These two also have storeys, they had two storeys as the vimana and the top storey has crumbled at some point of time and we have now only the lower part and even in this part we have a number of niches containing images. In the front part we have what we call the ashta-vasus, eight images of vasus, in addition to the two dvarpalas (gate keepers), which are guarding the entrance.

The rear one was probably used for snapna, as a snapna-mandapa, where abhisheka used to be performed and the front one, it’s not very clear but in all probability, was open on three sides. But the front one has been rebuilt; the rear part of it, closer to the sanctum, is as it was when it was built. In between the sanctum and the mahamandapa we have an entrance mandapa, which is also called nishkramana mandapa in the text.

In all these great Chola temples you have side steps, you don’t enter the temple straight from the front but the steps are provided on both the southern and northern sides and they are guarded by dvarpalas. The mandapa has a Mahalakshmi on the southern side and on the northern side is a Saraswati. Generally, the front mandapa is considered the goddess and the main vimana, is called the purusa and so images of goddesses are prominently there in the front mandapa. So we have these mandapas now housing Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati in the rear part of the rear mandapa, where you have the steps leading to the sanctum.

Now as you enter from the southern side to your left on the main vimana you have the image of Surya and on the northern side you have the image of Candra. The main sanctum therefore is flanked by Surya (Sun) and Candra (Moon) and inside is the Mahalinga, Mahadeva, who is of the form of fire. So you have three fires represented; Surya and Candra, which are called the celestial fires, and the main image is the terrestrial fire agni. It is through these three great fires that the Supreme God is visualised as looking into the universe. As you enter his benign sight falls on the devotee; he is Rudra, Rudrabha.

Then when we do a pradakshina (circumambulation), we have a number of small shrines provided in the prakara, enclosure. In the north-eastern side you have the sculpture of Isana, who holds the veena, ‘Isana sarva vidyanam’; he is the presiding deity of all knowledge. Then right in front, by the side of the entrance, you have Indra and in the south-eastern direction you have Agni; the Agni is still there in its position. Then exactly in the south we have Yama, which is not there now but the shrine is there. And then in the south-western corner, you have the digdevata, Nivrutti and in the western side you have Varuna, in north-western side you have Vayu and in the northern direction you have Kubera or Soma. These are the digdevatas and just as the main sanctum was consecrated by the Rajulu, so also these digdevata shrines were also consecrated by the Rajulu. An inscription refers to the consecration and who provided for all these corner shrines.

There are also a number of empty shrines now which housed the bronzes. In the southern side there were originally Saptamatas (seven mothers) and a stone image of Kali but of these Saptamatas we have only two sculptures now remaining. One is Varahi, which is unfortunately lying broken and is not being worshipped and then there’s the image of Koumari of the same size and that was also part of the Saptamatas on the southern side. So you have a rectangular shrine which housed the seven images of these goddesses, which also included a Kali image.

Then on either side of the vimanas now you have two lay temples, one is the Subrahmanya temple on the northern side and the Ganesa temple on the southern side. Ganesa and Subrahmanya are the two sons of Siva and Parvati and are always housed as part of the family, so one on the south and one on the north; they are also worshipped regularly.

The Subrahmanya temple has been built sometime in the 17th century during the Nayak period and it is one of the finest Nayak structures within the temple, particularly of the Tanjore Nayak in that region. The articulation of the base and wall and the distribution of the sculptures are remarkable. There are some wonderful sculptures and mouldings and on the superstructure you have various aspects of Subrahmanya’s sports carved in miniature which goes around.

Then of course there was an earlier Ganesa, what was called the Parivara-alayata-pulayar in the inscription but it has been rebuilt by Serfoji later, those inscriptions are also found there. And then at the present Amman shrine was a Pandya structure, which was contributed by a Pandyan king around 1400 AD and it was originally in the prakara at the back of the present shrine where there is an inscription. That prakara shrine housed the original Amman image but later on the temple of, who we now call, Graha Nayaki was built in front of it. In the Nayak period it was enlarged with two additional mandapas in front. So that Amman shrine is also a royal consecration.

The Subrahmanya temple is probably also a Nayak royal consecration and then you have the Nataraja mandapa now where the original bronze image of Adavalan Nataraja is housed and worshipped, but originally it was also in the enclosure room at the back. We have a pillar flanking the sub-shrine, which says there was the image of Patanjali – Nataraja shrines are always flanked by Patanjali and Vyaghrapada – this Patanjali was said to have been made of bronze and it was housed there, it was under worship. So obviously in the Maratha period a separate shrine was erected for Nataraja in front of it, which is the present mandapa, and probably had a superstructure like a small tower, which has collapsed and it now looks like a flat mandapa.

Sahapedia: The Patanjali bronze is still there?

R. Nagaswamy: No. Then you have these two entrances, the inner one and the outer one. The inner one is called Rajaraja Thiruvasal and the outer one is called Keralantak Thiruvasal that is the one with the tower. Now the Keralantak Thiruvasal is very interesting from an architectural point of view because as you go up there are a number of storeys, up to the ceiling it is built of stone or granite and the superstructure is built of brick and mortar. This is something that is very, very important for the history of Chola architecture. That is during the Chola period they had the ability and knowledge to design multi-storey buildings which could be built of brick. Here we have the original Chola brick architecture which runs into five storeys and up to the third storey there are steps made of granite and above that provision were made for wooden ladders to go up. If you go inside and see it gives you an idea of how in the Chola times multi-storeyed buildings were built, particularly the palaces were built and used. They are very well laid out, very well articulated, well ventilated and you have excellent lighting conditions. But later, somehow or the other, they have lost that technique now; they don’t have the same type of architectural design.

In the inner gopura, you have two extraordinary dvarpalas, outstanding dvarpalas, flanking the main entrance and on the base you have narrative sculptures. There are different types of sculptures that you see in this temple; some ritually required for worship purposes and huge classical sculptures, which are also artistic productions and were also meant for worship, daily worship and annual worship.

Some of them are pure narrative sculpture, telling some stories from the Siva Purana or other texts. Now you have in the inner gopura at the lower level, adhisthana, you have narrative sculptures showing Siva’s marriage and so on, which are lovely sculptures. They are smaller in size not very big. You have also some sculptures inside on the kapot; that is the ceiling slabs.

Then one aspect that you see when you go inside the temple and stand in one corner of the prakara is the superstructure of this great temple, perfectly planned and beautifully going up like an absolute pyramid. At the top you have what we call the neck or griva and then you have the shikhara topped by the stupi. This makes you feel like you are also going towards the akash or heaven, you know, it takes you there. And if there are clouds then you must have the feeling that you are flying with the vimana.

Now this is an essential part of the architectural design because when they do the puja, you know they bring down the supreme power, which has no direction, no colour, no boundaries but is made to come into existence by the tip of the stupa on top of the vimana – once you put a dot in a space with no directions then you bring into operation these directions, 360 degrees are brought into existence on top, which we call the bindu. Then gradually you bring it down by lovely undulating lines of architectural form, which is called urdhva-chandas. Like poetry you bring down the supreme power from the vast space, put the dot on top of the stupi, bring it down to the ground and that’s how the supreme comes down to the earth to bestow his blessings on the devotees and on the Yajamana who built it. After the puja is over, during meditative dhyana, you dissolve this process of coming down and reverse the procedure so that step-by-step you dissolve this whole structure before you in space, and so the whole structure you see in front of you, in meditation it goes out of existence.

So it is something of a philosophical concept that is suggested by the architectural movement, line and also the ancients conceived it as beautiful poetry. When you look at it you are experiencing this lovely poetry so it is kavya, it is a new creation, ever-fresh, ever-beautiful, ever-appealing to the eye. If the measurements are not accurate, if they are not proportional, this feeling of lovely symmetry, rhythm will be lost. So the text emphasises that you must maintain the proportion of construction and this is taken from the main linga inside the sanctum. The upper part of the linga is the basic unit of the entire temple, of the inner sanctum, the entrance, the images, the space, the enclosure and every limb of the central tower, the central mandapa, everything is proportionate to the inner linga, which in turn was designed from the middle finger of the Yajamana that is Rajaraja the great. So this temple is proportionate to the basic unit of measurement drawn from the middle finger of its builder Rajaraja.

Everywhere you turn, you see there is an absolute proportion, absolute balance, absolute rhythm that you unconsciously feel and experience. That is the greatness of this great temple. It is not only great in architecture, the philosophy behind it, the rituals that are conducted but the clarity with which the administration was organised by the king for worship, daily worship, periodical festivals, annual festivals, he has made provisions of material and men to carry these out in a most beautiful way. We have the texts which say when you have the maximum number of men to do all these works, within all these temples, uttouttama; it is the best among the best.

The organisation and the administration of this temple as recorded meticulously in the inscriptions of its builder, Rajaraja, show that he was a man of great thinking, clarity and administrative power. He has divided into one, provisions for pujas, provisions for festivals, provisions for the great festival that used to be conducted once a year, for the surrounding secondary deities, parivara devatas, for day-to-day maintenance, cleaning, looking after the structural requirements and so on.

And it was not mere ritual, ritual is not confined only to offering of flowers and water and so on, but it also consists of music and dance. It is an essential part of the daily worship and it is called nrtta-geeta-vadya, geeta-vadyam-chaturdasam-nrttam-pancadasam-caiva, fifteenth anga of the worship is the nrtta, that is dance, which was offered daily both in the morning and in the evening worship with large numbers of people for which he endowed 400 dancing girls.

He provided them with houses around the temple and he has mentioned ‘House No. 1’, ‘House No. 2’, ‘House No. 3’ and so on, the name of the girl to whom it was allotted and from where this girl came and in some instances what is her accomplishment or specialisation in the field of dance. One may be an excellent dancer, nrtta, another may be a dancer of abhinaya, expression, etc. So every aspect is meticulously documented and they were given landed property and an annual bonus in gold as the king’s gift, these are all recorded.

We see that he gifted 400 dancing girls and more than 240 instrumentalists, he has mentioned each and everyone’s names and how much they were getting annually and he emphasises whether they are dancers or musicians, they must be duly qualified and for those who were qualified he gave a security that their descendants would be given the opportunity to do the same service in the temple. If for any reason they are not able to, due to ill health or some other inconvenience, do service in the temple, they were given the power to appoint their own as a substitute to do the service at that particular time or for a particular period. If they are not able to do that or they have migrated from this place to some other places then their descendants are given the opportunity to do this.

In addition to the dancers and the large number of instrumentalists he appointed 50 musicians to sing Tamil songs called Thevaram of Thirupatigam, which is the largest so far found. The poems of the Saiva saints, who lived between the 6th and 10 the century, which are sung in every temple, he gave a great boost to them by appointing them; those who knew the ancient traditional method of singing, which is called the Pann system. He also appointed a superintendent for every department to look after the functioning of the workers like vachanvaar, there were large areas, large number of villages that were gifted for supplying paddy and other requirements for pujas. For all this every department had ordinary workers, middle level workers and very great, care and supervision was entrusted to commander-in-chiefs.

The organisation of administration is unparalleled in the history of India. And the minute details with which he described every aspect, for example, when he gives a bronze image, he describes the measurement of the bronze image from head to foot and then how many hands it has and what was its form, what was the weight of the image, how much money was spent in making the image and who was responsible for the maintenance of this image within the temple premises, because every image had someone who was attached to it, who has to look after its regular puja and safety.

So such detail, not only for the bronzes but each bronze was given large number of gold and precious ornaments and for each ornament he speaks about the details of precious gems, ten or hundred or thousands of pearls, coral, ruby, emerald, each one is counted, not a single stone was left out. The total weight of gold metal that has been gifted in the form of vessels, in the form of jewels, in the form of other material is unparalleled. Even a small spoon which he gifted to the temple is brought under the register, entered and given name and its weight and cost.

Such details of every aspect of the temple administration, the property, who is to look after it, in writing is something amazing and we don’t have any other temple in India or abroad which gives so much detail as Raja Raja in every department of his administration. So the inscriptional value is very, very great so far as this temple is concerned.

Sahapedia: What could be the reason for these inscriptions, when no one else had done it, what made him do it?

R. Nagaswamy: It is the responsibility felt by the king to see that everything is accounted, everything is well-administered and everything is supervised. But that much of clarity and involvement in the preservation not only during his lifetime but after his lifetime and to assign the responsibility on someone to look after it, is the main reason why he left so much of it.

I would like to mention that he never felt it was only his creation, he involved all the people and has written the names, even a cook in his kitchen, her name is given and he gives half of the grant and he makes her give the other half and both the names, the name of the Chakravarthi, the emperor, and the name of the cook is written in one document. Like that he has involved everyone in the administration and gifts and made them feel that it is their temple and in this way he has involved the entire territory which was under his control from northern part of Tamil Nadu to Kanyakumari and even a part northern Sri Lanka. So he took responsibility to take all his subjects along with him, make them feel like this is their temple and make them feel that its fame is spread and well maintained. And that is the great temple of Tanjore.

One cannot just simply stop with that. He has beautified the whole temple with paintings and these original paintings executed under his orders are found in the inner enclosure around the main sanctum and on both sides of the wall. They depict both the classical legends like Dakshinamurthi, Tripurantaka, Kalyansundara, etc, which are all narrative paintings of exceptional merit. The moment you see them you will notice that you have the tradition of Ajanta coming down and preserved right up to this time and so you exclaim ‘Oh, this is in the Ajanta tradition!’ in some places maybe even surpassing the Ajanta art.

He has also given equal emphasis to the local legends, regional legends, like the life of Saint Sundaramurthi, and the king himself visiting Chidambaram temple – these are all painted with lovely lines, subdued colours, with emphasis on bhava, the inner feeling of each and every character that is depicted. Some of the paintings depicting the dancing girls performing outstanding poses, they are real marvels and that shows the level to which the art of dance rose under his command. So in the fields of painting, music, dance, administration, planning, articulating the whole idea into visual form, the architecture and then the care and concern to preserve it for the future in good form, that makes this temple a unique one in the history of India.

Now, Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple has a few important points that deserve our attention. That was part of a great capital that was established by Rajendara Chola, the son and successor, to commemorate his outstanding victory over the Gangetic plains. He sent his army all along the coast to go up to modern Bangladesh where they won a signal victory and brought the water of the Ganges to this place. He dug a huge tank almost like a lake, which was called Gangaikonda Chola Pereri, the great tank.

Then the royal palace was built inside, with two concentric fortifications, unfortunately these were all destroyed during the later period. But as a part of that original layout of the city, this great temple called Gangaikonda Cholapuram was built on the north-eastern side of the palace. Rajendara was with his father during the end of his life, that is Raja Raja, and so he had the benefit of getting those workers working there in the great temple to come design and build this temple. But yet he had his own individuality, he wanted to express his own idea and in this he had a great acharya, who came from Gauda-Desa and advised him.

So though it is a temple built within twenty years of the great temple of Tanjore its form is different, the main tower is square at the bottom, octagonal in the middle and circular at the top, simulating the form of the great linga, which is generally square at the bottom, octagonal in the middle and circular at the top. Even the enclosure layout is different, it is not absolutely rectangular but a little shorter, also the height of the main tower is slightly shorter than the great temple of Tanjore, but the sculptural quality in some cases surpasses the beauty of the sculptures in the Tanjore temple. Almost every major sculpture in Gangaikonda Cholapuram is a class by itself. You see the dancing Nrtya Ganapati, Ardhanisvara, Harihara and Nataraja in stone.

There is a beautiful poem in Tamil by Saint Appar that talks of the large dancing eyebrows dancing and the enchanting smile on the lips of the lord, and that beauty of the poem has been captured in the sculpture. Once you are in front of that stone sculpture of Nataraja you will feel that, you will experience that, an immortal dance, an immortal smile. And from any angle you take a photograph it’s outstanding. And then at the back you have lovely sculptures like Subrahmanya, Cakradanamurti, Lingodbhava, etc. On the northern side, by the side of the step you have Candesaanugrahamurthy which has captured attention of the whole artistic world by its beauty as has the Saraswathi opposite to it and these two are the most outstanding contributions of Rajendra.

Sahapedia: Saraswathi and Siva and Parvathi?

R. Nagaswamy: Yes, opposite on the northern side. And then this temple houses some extraordinary bronzes which were consecrated by the king Rajendra. One is Subrahmanya in bronze, a great beauty, which is still under worship, Somaskandan and so on. So Gangaikonda Cholapuram shows the extent of the achievement of what has been done in Tanjore and individually it has its own beauty in the form of sculpture.

Now when we come to Darasuram – it was originally, Rajarajaisvaram and in colloquial form it was called Daraisvaram and then it became Darasuram – is of a slightly different philosophy.

Sahapedia: Why is it called Airavetesvara?

R. Nagaswamy: Airavetesvara is quite later, that’s a very colloquial name, and it has nothing to do with it. It was actually Rajarajesvara, there are documents there and that was the secondary capital of the Cholas. So Rajaraja the second, who built the temple, had a capital called Rajarajapuram and an acharya, who came from Gauda-Desa, who was influenced by the Sakta tradition where there is an emphasis on the worship of Bhairava, Veerabhadra. And there is a lovely Tamil poem called ‘Thakkayaraparani’, which was a dance-drama composed by a builder of Rajaraja II, obviously it was enacted in the temple during his lifetime, which describes the building of the temple.
But it shows the influence of both the Bengal tradition and also the Vaishala tradition from Karnataka in sculptural form particularly on the pillars.

(Dr.Nagaswamy, former director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu, is known for his work on temple inscriptions and the art of Tamil Nadu, and was a Consultant for the Documentation of Cultural Property Thanjavur Brihadisvara Project with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts) 

Chola History: In Conversation with Prof. Champakalakshmi

Dr. Champakalakshmi
Sahapedia: How far does the city of Thanjavur speak about an uninterrupted flow of human habitation, life and history?

Dr. Champakalakshmi: Thanjavur as we know it today is a very well known city; it is one of the smaller cities but culturally the most evolved one in South India from every point of view. Its antiquity goes back to around 9th century; before that we do not hear of this particular centre nor do we hear about it as a big city. The earliest references are all to a set of villages clustering around Thanjavur, it being the center of the agricultural unit, which is even now an agricultural region. So it grew spontaneously from the early Christian era, not known from the earliest Sangam literature but only from the later sources.

When we hear of it for the first time, we hear of it as Thanjaikutram; kutram is a group of supplements. It became important only when it was deliberately chosen by the Cholas as their centre of administration. Initially, Thanjai was not important even under the Cholas, there were other centres like Kumbakonam which was known as Kudamookku or Uraiyur; we have Tiruchirapalli which is earlier than either because it is known from the Sangam literature as the early capital of the early Cholas.

But then the choice seems to be dictated by its strategic location at the entry point to the delta region of Tamil Nadu because this region is considered to be the rice bowl of South India and was therefore controlled by the Cholas right from the early Christian era. The Cholas of the Sangam Age disappeared as a major power and then came back; somehow or the other we do not know what connection they had with the Sangam Cholas but they did come back in a big way to become the rulers of this period; Cholamadalam as it came to be called.

When they chose Thanjavur it was just the main village of a cluster of agricultural supplements but then in the initial decades of Chola imperial power they tried to develop the agricultural potential of this area by creating a distributary system in the Cauvery. Tributaries are known outside, but within the delta region, which is rather steep, the distributary system was important, it had to be diverted otherwise the river waters would all go right down to the sea. So a lot of work was done, irrigation projects were undertaken right from the Sangam Era. The imperial Cholas saw to it that this region was developed very carefully as an agriculturally rich era that is why Thanjai was chosen as their centre of administration. This is my understanding of resources.

So, in the 9th century when the Cholas came to power, they developed it, but by the end of the 10th century you have important changes coming in. During the Chola period they not only started ruling over Cholamandalam but began to conquer northern parts of Tamil Nadu, southern parts of Tamil Nadu and later the western parts. All these were sub-regions, which were later integrated by the Chola administration as a state; the first regionally powerful state in South India and the most powerful one before Vijayanagara. At the point of the beginning of the 11th century this development reached its optimum level. So when the imperial Cholas succeeded one after the other it was Raja Raja who chose it as his capital because Kudamookku and Uraiyur were important towns and centres for administration but he decided to make Thanjavur more important by building the royal temple of Rajarajesvara which is now known as Brihadesvara.

By that time the temple architecture also had developed up to a point under the earlier Pallavas of Kanchi and Pandyas of Madurai. But he commanded all the resources he could, both as revenue from various land surveys and land assessments as well as taxes, which he did for the first time in South India. There was a regular land revenue department that he set up with which he surveyed the whole area with the help of land surveyors. For this he had a separate set of officers hierarchically placed who would go around, survey and assess the land. So he could get both revenues from land as well as trade, which was a secondary source and further also from loot and plunder because when he went to war with the Pandyas, he could loot their country and control all their resources; gold, pearls, other gems and so on.

Sahapedia: Even the revenue from the extended areas?

Dr. Champakalakshmi: Yes, wherever he extended his power, which was the height of Chola power, he began to collect resources both as tributes as well as regular revenue or what we call taxes. So with all these resources he was capable of producing and organising a very big project and that is what is represented by the Thanjavur Rajarajesvara temple which marks the culmination of the development of the Dravida style of architecture. Our architectural texts refer to two major styles in India: one is Nagara which is prevalent generally in North India and some parts of the Deccan; the other is Dravida style which was consciously and clearly developed systematically by the southern resources.

Now the temple had many roles to play, it was not only for the sake of worship that temples were built. The idea of the temple as the focus of the development of a settlement began under the Pallavas and the Cholas. The Cholas consciously developed it because by that time the agrarian expansion of this region became so significant that it had to be continuously done and the temple became the focus of every agrarian settlement that was created. Every place which was not agriculturally rich was turned into an agricultural settlement with the temple as its focus because land development was also simultaneously going on with land grants to the temple; under- developed areas, undeveloped lands, forest lands were also brought under cultivation and were given as land grants to the temples, to the Brahmins.

The temple itself is the institutional focus of this, which is why we see numerous temples all over the place particularly in the Cauvery region, where you will find a rich density of population, of settlements and of temples. Thanjavur represents the pinnacle of that temple, in terms of its architecture, its sculptural iconographic importance and the paintings that it contains within its sanctum walls. The sanctum has two walls and running around the shrine is an inner prakara which contains beautiful karanas of the period of Raja Raja.

The place begins to assume considerable significance after the building of the temple because he also brought in from various parts of his kingdom, priests, dancers, musicians, other service groups, instrument players, accountants, tailors, pastoralists who could supply ghee and other milk products to the temple and so on. The temple’s importance therefore lies not only in its architectural evolution but also for its role as an integrative force for agrarian expansion.

Gradually it becomes the focus for urban development because traders and craftsmen come in to make use of the temple services and the people of the locality to trade in this area. Therefore it creates an urban space too, not only an agricultural space. In this case it is this single temple that does it all the time whereas in Kanchipuram and other places you have multi-temple centres within the city. All of this suggests that the Thanjavur temple represents in every meaning of the term the pinnacle of Chola power. Also noteworthy is the importance of the cultural development that took place along with the economic and social integration that was simultaneously being done with the help of the temple as an institution.

So it is a very major institution, which is why it is of enduring importance to Indian history and culture. When you see the sculptures you realise they developed significant concepts of Saiva iconography which are all new or are repeated many times both in sculpture and bronze. The creation of the Chola bronze, for instance, must be attributed to the zealous patronage that Cholas gave to the Saiva and Vaisnava religions; particularly the Saiva religion because the most interesting monuments are in the Saiva sect rather than the Vaisnava sect under the Cholas. They consciously promoted this sect through the concept of Bhakti, the devotional cult for which many hymns were composed by the Nayanars. The Cholas promoted these by collecting the hymns, organising them into a religious canon and introducing their ritual singing in the temple, which to this day are being sung there.

The ritual growth, increased number of festivals, everything combined to make the temple the centre of a large number of activities not only economic but also social, religious and cultural. So the temple’s importance lies not only in all these integrative activities but its outreach in terms of the economy. Raja Raja also organised the inflow of resources from Sri Lanka, the southern Pandya region, the western Pulu region, the northern Pallava region, which is now all combined into one single state. So culturally and politically Tamil Nadu must have evolved as it is today only under the Cholas. Therefore the Thanjavur temple represents the major focus of the cultural development of the Tamil region and also reflects the ideologically important devotional cult of the period.

Politically too it is very significant, as the temple was a metaphor or symbol of royal power. When you look at the icons they too reflect the idea of a great warrior – they show concepts related to power, subordination of the enemy or highly devotional aspects of importance to the Saiva sect; everything is reflected iconographically. The other important point is that we can say it stands as a symbol of royal power because they visualised the temple as a cosmos in miniature; it was planned and designed in such a way that it reflects cosmic structures. The cosmos is equated with territory; the king is almost equated with god and god’s territory represents the kingdom. So Thanjavur then becomes the centre of the kingdom in every sense of the term – that is the importance of Thanjavur which developed into an urban centre under the Cholas.

Now this importance declined to some extent with the decline of Chola power but not completely because Thanjavur’s cultural importance continued to be the same. When in the post-Chola period, the Vijayanagara rulers started conquering regions other than Karnataka and Andhra, i.e. the Tamil region, Thanjavur was also taken as the most important administrative point and the Nayaks of Thanjavur derived their authority from the Vijayanagara imperial. The Cholas were defeated by the Pandyas, who for

some time held sway but did not do very much in terms of architecture. Then when the Nayaks came they also developed the architectural potential of the temple by additional structures. Till then the main Shiva shrine was important but they added the Subrahmanya shrine, the Vamana shrine and other single shrines around the main shrine, which is a very important development in temple architecture because the temple began to grow horizontally after the Chola period. That is why you have today in South India particularly in the Tamil region temples with 3, 5 or 7 prakaras. As you go into the Nayak period you’ll find Srirangam has 7 prakaras, Tiruvannamalai has 5 and you can mention endless numbers of such temples which show the architectural expansion not only vertically but horizontally. When we say vertical development it means the vimana and its super structure. In Dravida style it is a tiered super structure; one storey after another, one tier after another, which is the tallest in Thanjavur. 13 tiers over 200 feet high; all the technologically important developments had taken place by this time therefore you find the temple still has a well-designed, well-planned monument standing to this day without much damage, in spite of the climatic difficulties it has faced. .

Sahapedia: But how is it that the structure is not undergoing damage?

Dr. Champakalakshmi: Because the structure is so well planned; the masonry is not bounded you see, what they call the dry masonry. The calculation of the stones that are used to construct this superstructure and the other structures is entirely based on the size and the weight of the stone. It was so well calculated, well planned, otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible, that is why the stapathis (architects) became very important, they are not known by their personal names, they are all known by the titles of the king. Otherwise who would have supervised the construction? So, technologically also the architectural features show much greater advance than before.

If you take these things together this temple is a unique monument for various reasons. That is why when the Nayaks and then the Marathas took over in the 17th century they continuously promoted the importance of the temple, although the temple lost much of the estates which were given during the Chola period, they received regular gifts from various elite groups and survived. Today of course, because of the special importance given to Thanjavur everybody is looking at it from various points of view but it was also well maintained during the Maratha period whatever was needed to be done, was done. The Maratha rulers were not only known for their interest in temple architecture but also their interest in knowledge, education, collecting various books and works.

Sahapedia: What do you think could be the reason for the Marathas adjusting so well to a geographically and culturally different area? What could be the political or sociological reason for this adaptability?

Dr. Champakalakshmi: Well there is nothing particular, we cannot understand why they did it but then once they conquered Thanjavur, because Thanjavur must have been still important under the Nayaks, they took it over as it was and did not hesitate to develop it as it needed to be. They were also great promoters of music and dance and it is under them that the Thanjavur Quartet lived, composed and sang, they were so well known that today if anyone knows Carnatic music at all they should know something about them. It is because of the Marathas that Carnatic music still survives and has become so well developed.
We do not know what exactly the Nayaks contributed but for the Marathas we do have a clear indication of their interest in music, literature – when they came there was already well-developed music in the South, they fostered it to such an extent. But that is also due to the fact that in the Vijayanagara period, the main structure of the Carnatic music itself was established, the 72 Melakarthas. Vijayanagara did not fall behind other rulers in this; their patronage was also extended through the Nayaks.

Sahapedia: What about the familial relationships of that time?

Dr. Champakalakshmi: No, that the inscriptions are not interested in directly, but they give you an interesting peep into the occupational groups that were brought into the service of the temple. Through this we can do some more work on the sociological aspects and get to know what kind of hierarchical structures evolved in society; which group was considered to be elite, which group was considered to be middle, etc. In fact interesting changes occur after the Vijayanagara period when people from what is considered to be a lower caste in the caste system, were awarded a very important role in some of the rituals in temples.

Even in Ramanuja’s time, he is said to have introduced in Srirangam, a lot of reforms through which he brought in the inclusion of those groups which were considered to be low caste into temples. There are a number of interesting stories about the Nayanars and Azhwars, which tell you how the low caste people were given some kind of recognition; here Nandanar’s story is very important. His landlord refused him permission to go to Chidambaram on a pilgrimage – Chidambaram is considered to be the most religiously important centre for Saivites. So when he went there, he was not allowed to go the temple. The story is that due to his faith the Nandi idol moved so he could get darshan. There is another story which says that he was allowed into the temple after purification, because this purification part remains, whether you give any importance to the lower castes in the ritual performance or not, the purification ceremony goes on all the time. The Brahmins do not forget that they are the only ones who are allowed. Interestingly the temples show these aspects of society. I think Thanjavur is the best example of this.

Sahapedia: What can you tell us about the trading patterns?

Dr. Champakalakshmi: Yes, a lot of inscriptions talk about how trading groups were organised into certain categories. Those 500 kingdoms go all over the place in a thousand directions, they trade not only in India, they go to Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, and other places. We also have information about how they brought in various exotic items.

Sahapedia: Treasures?

Dr. Champakalakshmi: Yes and took important textiles and other items from here to trade with in other countries. In China there is an inscription, which talks about these traders being given certain concessions and permissions to trade by the Chinese emperor. One of the Chola rulers Kulotunga abolished chungam (tolls) so that trade could prosper because this urban process goes on simultaneously once the optimum level of agricultural expansion is reached. These people who have surplus resources, they invest in trade. So the traders are those who evolved out of the same agrarian society. They are not people who came in from elsewhere suddenly; this process of development goes on. All of us have forgotten that history is not about the kings alone or their monuments or their defeats or successes, but also about how they promoted these things, trades and crafts, etc. and also how it led to urbanization.

(R. Champakalakshmi is a renowned historian and Professor Emeritus in Ancient History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

Carving a global icon: The Nataraja bronze and Coomaraswamy’s legacy

Sharada Srinivasan
This paper attempts a historiography of the Nataraja bronze which famously came to wider international attention through Ananda Coomaraswamy’s (1912) essay, ‘Dance of Siva’, and his explorations into its symbolism; for which he is arguably best known in posterity. Cast over several hundred centuries, however, with few associated inscriptions, there have been some lacunae in understanding its development in stone and bronze. There have also been debates about the actual or original significance since Coomaraswamy’s interpretations seemed to have been based on later texts. Although this bronze is almost synonymous with the Imperial Chola dynasty of Tamil Nadu, there is a certain lack of clarity on earlier and later manifestations and other regional developments in India and in spheres of interaction beyond such as Sri Lanka. Insights from archaeometallurgical and stylistic study and documentation of surviving bronze casting practices in Tanjavur district throw new light on techno-cultural aspects of south Indian bronzes and this enigmatic icon. The place the image has acquired in the global imagination through the writings of well known artists, scientists and thinkers following Coomaraswamy’s musings is briefly elucidated here, as well as his contributions to the documentation of arts and crafts and the archaeometallurgy of the southern Indian subcontinent.

‘Archaeometallurgy’ in the southern Indian subcontinent and Coomaraswamy’s role in arts and crafts awareness

In the past few decades, the discipline of archaeometallurgy has emerged as an important sub-discipline in archaeology and scientific archaeology. It is concerned with the application of scientific techniques in the study of metal artefacts, not only for understanding their methods of manufacture from related studies of mining, metal extraction or alloying but also for the implications of technical analysis in gaining further insights into issues concerning the history of art such as the source of artefacts and stylistic affiliations. The stature of Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) as a towering art historian of the twentieth century is well known through his writings integrating visual art, religion, literature and metaphysics. However, what is perhaps less well recognized is that even in terms of these recently defined fields of ‘archaeometallurgy’ and ‘ethnoarchaeology’ his contributions are equally seminal, especially concerning the southern part of the Indian subcontinent. From his education as a scientist and geologist he turned his interests towards the documentation of artisanal technologies and crafts including metalworking. In this sense, his work in some ways even anticipated that of Cyril Stanley Smith, another Renaissance personality and materials scientist and aesthetician who is recognized as a founding figure in the field of archaeometallurgy. A student of botany and geology at the London University who in fact distinguished himself by discovering Thorianite (Rangarajan 1992), Coomaraswamy took up the post of Director of the Mineralogical Survey of the island (Moore in Foreword, Coomaraswamy 1909).

Coomaraswamy’s (1951: 190-3) early documentation of finds of iron smelting slags at Tissamaharama and ethnographic studies of iron smelting and furnaces near Balagoda and of steel making by elderly artisans in Alutnuvara are pioneering in terms of early archaeometallurgical studies related to Sri Lanka and indeed South Asia.

What sets Coomaraswamy apart though, is the way in which his interests were tempered by a deeply humanistic concern for the milieu of the traditional craftsmen and artisans and his efforts to revitalize them. Through his geological and rural fieldwork experiences, from around 1902 he became much more concerned and engaged with documenting the traditional arts and crafts of Ceylon in terms of social history and social conditions. Although he was part English, he became very perceptive to the negative effects that European colonization had had on the traditional artisanal knowledge of South Asia. He founded the Ceylon Social Reform Society in 1906 which had as its aim the discouragement of ‘thoughtless imitation of unsuitable European customs’ and preservation of traditional crafts and the social values that had shaped them (Oldmeadow 2004: 194-202). He was among the leading figures who took an early interest in the Indian crafts and its revival including Sir George Birdwood and E.B. Havell. His writings about the Indian craftsman still ring true: ‘Indian society presents to us no more fascinating picture than that of the craftsman as an organic element in the national life…’ (Coomaraswamy 1909: Foreword by A. Moore). He was also involved in the Swadeshi movement promoted by key figures such as MK Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, in terms of the need for sustaining traditional artisanship. These movements also set the stage for post-Independence developments, whereby Mangalore-born Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay almost single-handedly turned around the situation on Indian crafts with the setting up of All India Handicrafts Board and through her far reaching engagement.

‘Dance of Siva’ and the world stage

Son of a Ceylonese Tamil father Muthu Coomaraswamy, a legislator and philosopher who died when he was a baby, and an English mother, Elizabeth Beeby, it seems that the languages that Coomaraswamy held mastery over, in terms of his art historical and philosophical expositions were Sanskrit and Pali, the language of the rich body of Theravada Buddhist canon followed by the Sinhalese majority of his homeland, rather than Tamil. Nevertheless, it may be fitting in the light of his ancestry that perhaps Coomaraswamy’s genius as a writer flourished most eloquently in his inspired exposition of the Nataraja bronze made famous in Chola bronzes from Tamil Nadu, of the dancing Hindu god Shiva, and based on his interpretations of Tamil Saiva Siddhanta texts. His background as scientist-aesthetican comes through in his essay ‘The Dance of Siva’ (1912), where he wrote: ‘In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it. He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fullness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives now rest. This is poetry; but none the less science.’

Coomaraswamy’s (1912) interpretation of the Nataraja bronze appealed widely to leading figures of his time (Srinivasan 2010). His writings, such as the passage above, seem to be echoed in T.S. Eliot’s famous poetic lines ‘At the still point of the turning world…there the dance is…’ Celebrated French sculptor August Rodin (1913) in his essay ‘La Danse de Siva’ illustrated it with the same Nataraja bronze from the Government Museum, Chennai as did Coomaraswamy. His writings also provided something of a post-modernist metaphor for savouring the implications of modern physics. Fritjof Capra (1976: 258) further catapulted the Nataraja into the global spotlight by writing that, as envisaged through Coomaraswamy’s writings, ‘Siva’s dance is the dance of sub-atomic particles’ (Srinivasan 2003). Such writings also led astronomer Carl Sagan to state that the Nataraja bronze held out a premonition of astronomical ideas. The distance traversed by such eastern art forms onto the world stage can be gauged from the fact that the CERN Cosmic Lab, which has witnessed recent excitement over the Higgs Boson (also nicknamed the ‘God particle’), has the largest Nataraja image in the world today, installed there with plaques citing quotes from Coomaraswamy and Capra. This impressive work had been undertaken by the master craftsman Rajan with support from IGCAR Kalpakkam (Baldev Raj, pers comm.). The Nataraja bronze figured on the dust jacket of Belgian scientist Ilya Prigogine’s book (Glansdorff and Prigogine 1971) as if providing visual metaphors for abstract concepts related to thermodynamics, flux and stability. Notwithstanding the romanticism, Coomaraswamy’s writings assume significance in the ways they engaged Eurocentric western audiences in his times towards a better rapprochement of Indian thought and art. Coomaraswamy’s transcendental approach to Indian art influenced leading art historians such as Stella Kramrisch (Oldmeadow 2004), though in recent times art history has seen newer revisionist approaches.

Insights from bronze casting traditions at Swamimalai, Tanjavur district

Micro-structure of 13thSouth
Indian bronze

Images were made in southern India of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious affiliations. Whereas Buddhist and Jain bronzes often have donor inscriptions, Hindu images were rarely inscribed. An overwhelming majority of south Indian bronzes, especially of Hindu affiliation, are from the Tamil region and more specifically the Tanjavur region. South Indian metal Hindu icons were made as utsava murti or festival images that were taken out in rituals and festivals involving processional worship and were not generally intended for worship in the main sanctum. South Indian statuary bronze is made by a process of cire perdue or lost wax casting, a technique which has a long history in the subcontinent. The lost wax processes known as Madhuchchhisthavidhana is also described in the southern Indian text the Manasollasa attributed to the Chalukyan king Somesvara. The Kasyapa Silpasatra, a Tamil text discusses iconometric aspects of the modelling of the image including the navatala methods of proportioning the icon derived from texts such as the Brhat Samhita.

Chola inscriptions describe the image of the deity as ghanamagha or dense, i.e. solid, and the bull or rishabha as chhedya or hollow cast. As an example, a fine set of Chola bronzes from Tandanttottam is cast such that the main images of Rishabhavahana and consort are solid cast and the damaged bull is hollow cast (Sivaramamurti 1963: 14). Present day sthapatis or icon makers also maintain that the metal deities for processional worship in temples should never be hollow cast because that would be inauspicious although this rule does not apply to the vahana or the vehicles in animal forms associated with deities. According to Coomaraswamy (1956:154) and Von Schroeder (1981:19), the Sariputra, a Ceylonese text (ca 12th-15th century) based on South Indian sources warns against the making of hollow images which would lead to calamities such as famine and warfare. Interestingly, although early historic images both from southern India such as Amaravati and Sri Lanka tend to be hollow cast, from the early medieval period they are invariably solid cast, unlike northern Indian images which are most often hollow cast.

Unlike European sculptures which were usually made from physical models, South Indian icon makers in the past are thought to have not used models but were expected to memorise all the talamana canon of measurement and then invoke the images of the deities in their minds using dhyanaslokas or verses which were meant to help mentally visualise the qualities and attributes of a particular image to be carved in wax (Reeves 1962: 114, Gangoly 1978). Since the wax melted away each bronze was hence apparently a unique product of the craftsman’s imagination. There were also dhyanaslokas pertaining to each type of deity to visualise the qualities and attributes, associated myths and symbolism and these were recited and mentally invoked before executing the image (Rathnasabhapathy 1982). Hence, according to Reeves (1962: 115), it was by a process of dhyana-yoga defined by Coomaraswamy as ‘visual contemplative union and realisation of formal identity with an inwardly known image’, that the master craftsmen modelled images in wax.

Radhakrishna Sthapati of Swamimalai
making a wax model of a Nataraja bronze
photographed in 2003

E. B. Havell, writing perceptively in 1908 in Indian Sculpture and Painting (as cited in Coomaraswamy 1989: 183) seems to have witnessed something of the deep intellectual and spiritual tradition which must have informed the high craftsmanship of antiquity, commenting that ‘even at the present day the Indian craftsman, deeply versed in his Silpa Sastras, learned in folk-lore and in national epic literature is, though, excluded from Indian universities – or rather, on that account – far more highly cultured, intellectually and spiritually, than the average Indian graduate. In medieval times the craftsman’s intellectual influence, being creative and not merely assimilative, was at least as great as that of the priest and bookman’. Figure 1 shows the traditional master craftsman Radhakrishna Stapathy of Swamimalai, carving a wax model of a Nataraja image, which also movingly captures something of this inner meditative and contemplative spirit that underpinned the great artistic traditions of South Asian antiquity. While the preservation of crafts traditions themselves remains a challenge in the present day notwithstanding the very laudable and far reaching efforts of the Crafts Councils in India, what also remains a matter of concern is the decline in artistic standards due to the loss of the traditional aesthetic and philosophical milieu within which the crafts functioned.

The solid lost wax image casting process is still followed by traditional icon makers known as Sthapatis such as at Devasenasthapati’s workshop in Swamimalai. Here, the image is made from a solid piece of wax, then covered with three layers of clay made from alluvial clay from the Kaveri to make a mould, which is then heated so that the wax is melted out and finally the molten metal is poured into the mould which solidifies into the cavity in the form of the image. The odiolai or coconut palm leaf is used to mark out the tala measurements for the dimensions of the icon. Although realistic portraiture was not common, it seems that bronzes representing important personalities were made now and then even if they were not physical portraits. For example an inscription of Rajendra I, mentions offerings for worship made to the images of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi who was a great patroness of temples and bronzes (Balasubrahmanyam 1971: 182). It is thought that the Devi at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery may represent the widowed queen’s portrait due to the simple yet regal bearing (Dehejia 1990: 36-8, Srinivasan 2001).

Analysis of bronzes and the enigmatic panchaloha composition of icons

South Indian metal icons are often described as panchaloha or icons made of five metals in colloquial terms. South Indian Chola inscriptions themselves only refer to cepputtirumeni or copper images (Nagaswamy 1988: 146-7). The mystique of panchaloha is captured in Parker’s (1992) quote of a traditional sthapati in Tamil Nadu that ‘Panchaloham as a material has the second greatest sakti or power, after the material stone used for the mulamurti, followed by wood and last of all cutai (brick and mortar)’. The Caraka Samhita of the 2nd or 3rd century CE speaks of the ‘pouring of the five metals of gold, silver, copper, tin and lead into various wax-moulds’ (Von Schroeder 1981: 17).

During the course of my doctoral thesis, I technically analysed 130 important South Indian metal icons from the early historic to late medieval periods sampled from collections including Government Museum, Madras or Chennai, Victoria and Albert Museum, and British Museum, London using multi-element spectro-chemical compositional analysis and lead isotope analysis (Srinivasan 1996). The results show that some 80% of the sampled images were leaded bronzes and the rest leaded brasses, so that there is no significant alloying of five metals.

However the Swamimalai sthapati interviewed in 1990 mentioned that the images are known as panchaloha icons because in addition to three metals of copper, lead and zinc or tin, very minor amounts of silver and gold were added more as a shastra or ritual. Analyses support the notion of the addition of traces of gold and silver to some medieval images (Srinivasan 1999). We commissioned and documented the making of a panchaloha icon in 1990. About 100 mg. of gold and silver was melted in a ladle by the artisans. My husband Digvijay was invited to pour the gold and silver into the crucible together with the sthapati before casting as it is considered auspicious. In this light, it is interesting to note also some of Coomaraswamy’s (1951: 205) observations related to five-metalled alloys of ‘pas-lo’ which he mentions in the context of Sri Lanka was used too make ‘certain small articles such as nails used in superstitious ceremonies’. This suggests too that this alloy if it was used had more of a ceremonial or ritualistic purpose than practical utility.

From about the 8th century AD large solid castings up to 1 metre high began to be made in the region of Tamil Nadu with images such as the Nataraja images of Siva as cosmic dancer (Fig 2) weighing up to 200 kg. From the author’s analyses it seems that some 80% of 130 south Indian images from the early historic to late medieval period were leaded bronzes with tin contents up to 15%, at the limit of solid solubility of tin in copper, with lead up to 25%. The rest were leaded brasses with up to 25% zinc. None of these images had tin exceeding 15%, which is the limit of solid solubility of tin in copper. This ensured that the bronzes were solid, as cast bronzes with a tin content of over 15% are breakable. The average tin content in icons of the Chola period (c. 850-1070 A.D) was the highest at around seven percent. The tin content was less in later Chola and Vijayanagara and Nayaka bronzes. Lead isotope analysis of an early historic zinc ingot with a Brahmi inscription suggests an attribution to the Andhra region and it also matched a votive brass lamp with 14% zinc from the Andhra Krishna valley region. The highest average amounts of zinc were found in the bronzes of the later Chalukya period of 2.5 percent. Fig 2 shows a Nataraja bronze from Kankoduvanithavam with 8 percent tin and 8 percent lead and finger-printed to about the mid 11th century. Fig. 3 is a microstructure of a 13th century South Indian image of leaded bronze studied by the author at the Institute of Archaeology, London.

The mastery of solid cast bronze casting by South Indian and also Sri Lankan sculptors is something remarkable in the history of art. As implied by materials scientist V.S. Arunachalam (Nehru Centre lecture, 1993) in the title of his lectures ‘From Temples to Turbines’, the modern technology of investment casting used to make turbines has an illustrious history rooted in the subcontinent’s sacred past. Indeed, Chola bronzes bring together metallurgy and aesthetics, and the sensuous and the sacred in a remarkable fashion (Srinivasan and Ranganathan 2006).

Interpretations of the Nataraja and insights on dating from technical studies and questions about the ‘cosmic’ dimension

Nataraja bronze,c 1050 CE,
from Kankoduvanithavam in Government
Museum, Chennai

As reported in the author’s doctoral thesis and papers (Srinivasan 1996, 1999, 2004), 130 representative south Indian metal icons from museums including the Government Museum, Chennai, Victoria and Albert Museum, London and British Museum, London were compositionally analysed for 18 elements, and sixty of these images were analysed for lead isotope ratios. The lead isotope ratios and trace elements of a control group of images were calibrated against the stylistic and inscriptional evidence to yield characteristic finger-prints for different groups of images as Pre-Pallava (c. 200-600 C.E) [8], Pallava (c. 600-875 C.E) [17], Vijayalaya Chola (c. 850-1070 C.E) [31], Early Chalukya-Chola (c. 1070-1125 C.E) [12], Later Chalukya-Chola (c. 1125-1279 C.E) [17], Later Pandya (c. 1279-1336 C.E) [15], Vijayanagara and Early Nayaka (c. 1336-1565 C.E) [20] and Later Nayaka and Maratha (c. 1565-1800 C.E) [12]. Using these calibrations, images of uncertain attributions could be stylistically re-assessed (Srinivasan 1996).

This exercise of archaeometallurgical finger-printing suggested that the classic Nataraja metal icon of Siva dancing with an extended right leg in bhujangatrasita karana originated in the Pallava period (c. 800-850 C.E.) rather than the 10th century Chola period (Srinivasan 2001, Srinivasan 2004). Two Nataraja images, one from the British Museum and one from the Government Museum, Chennai which were thought to have been of the Chola period, had lead isotope ratio and trace element finger-prints that better matched the Pallava group. No Nataraja bronzes could be identified datable to the Vijayanagara period (c 14th-16th century) which was predominantly a Vaishnava dynasty. It is generally thought that stone Nataraja images in the round come more into prominence during the patronage of Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi (c. 940 CE) at temples such as Kailasanathaswami. However, the studies mentioned before suggest that bronze Nataraja images may have preceded stone ones. Bennink et al. (2012) have pointed to free standing stone Nataraja images with consort Sivakami or Parvati akin to the bronze forms represented in Chola utsava murtis which may have copied the bronze versions.

Citing the 13th century Tamil text Unmai Vilakkam (verse 36) thought to have been composed around Chidambaram, Coomaraswamy (1912: 87) explained the significance of the dance as ‘Creation arises from the drum: protection proceeds from the hand of hope; from fire proceeds destruction: the foot held aloft gives release’. He added that the dance represented the five activities (pancakritya) of Shrishti (creation), Sthiti (preservation), Samhara (destruction), Tirobhava (illusion), and Anugraha (salvation). As such, we may note that Coomaraswamy does not in his own essay actually use the term ‘Cosmic Dance of Siva’, the phrase by which the Nataraja is often popularly described the world over at various museums, although he does mention that the above ‘cosmic activity is the central motif of the dance’. Furthermore, although Coomarawasmy (ibid.) mentions the ‘tandava’ mode of dance of Shiva performed in cemeteries and burning grounds, he does not in his essay actually use the term ‘ananda-tandava’. As mentioned in Zvelebil (1985: 2) it was K.V. Soundara Rajan who vigorously highlighted the identification of the Nataraja bronze with the extended leg with the ‘ananda-tandava’ murti or ‘awesome dance of bliss’, while Zvelebil (ibid.) opines that the word ‘tantu’ is derived from the Tamil/Dravidian word for leaping over.

Some of the problems in only relying on Coomaraswamy’s metaphysical interpretations of the Nataraja bronze which seem to have been based on later 13th century texts were highlighted by various scholars. As Zvelebil (1998:8) put it insightfully, both in praise and criticism, that the essay ‘quotes in somewhat haphazard fashion a number of Tamil texts without much respect for their dating and historical sequence’, adding that ‘the essay is beautiful and has contributed in a very important manner to Western understanding of Indian art..’. In a thought provoking paper Padma Kaimal (1999) suggests alternate shades of meaning to the Shiva Nataraja bronze, somewhat removed from Coomaraswamy’s mystical approach. She argues that the cult of Nataraja may have been strategically propagated by the Imperial Cholas due to the martial implications associated with the dance of destruction, as a symbol of power and their expansionist agenda. Indeed, many early Tamil hymns also invoke Nataraja as the dark lord wandering around cremation grounds. In a similar vein, it is no doubt pertinent to query the extent to which there really had been a ‘cosmic’ dimension associated with the actual visualization of the icon by its makers.

Nevertheless, this author would like to reiterate that the comment of Zvelebil (1985: 8 ) that Coomaraswamy had ‘…with tremendous intuition…foreseen the results of later research’ has a ring of truth in that the ‘cosmic’ dimensions that his writings hinted at, cannot be dismissed as being totally removed from the subtext of the conceptualization of this bronze. The author has thus argued that the dating of the Nataraja bronze to the Pallava period based on the technical finger-printing evidence (Srinivasan 2004), predating the Chola period, raises new possibilities of making connections with some of the mystical references to be found in the writings of Tamil poet saints from the 7th-9th century, suggesting a nascent ‘cosmic’ comprehension.

The temple of Chidambaram dated to the 12th-13th century, is the only shrine where the Nataraja metal icon of dancing Siva is worshipped in the inner sanctum or garbhagriha in place of the aniconic lingam or cosmic pillar (Younger 1995). In all other Siva temples elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, metal Nataraja icons are only processional images for festivals or the utsava murti. Within the Chidambaram temple, the Nataraja image is worshipped inside the golden roofed structure called the ‘chit sabha’, i.e. ‘hall of consciousness’. Exploring the etymology of the word Chidambaram itself, one of its meanings could be as follows: chit translates as the consciousness and ambaram the cosmos, so in that sense Chidambaram itself could signify the cosmic consciousness. In a hymn to Nataraja ‘Kunchitanghrim bhaje’ composed by the 13th Tamil poet Umapati Sivacarya of Chidambaram (Smith 1998: 21), Siva as Nataraja performs the anandatandava or dance of bliss and is also described as sacchidananda or the one whose mind or consciousness is in a state of the dance of blissful equilibrium. The ‘Chidambaram Rahasya’ or secret of Chidambaram relates to the worship of Nataraja also in the form of ‘akasa’ or the element sky or ether. Sivaramamurti (1974: 147) mentions that the Sanskrit Vadnagar Prasasti of Kumarapala describes Siva as playing with crystal balls as if they were newly created planets.

At the same time, there are already references in the pre-Sanskritic poetic corpus of devotional poetry to Nataraja worshipped at Tillai (the old name for Chidambaram) by Tamil saints such as Manikavachakar and Appar using the Tamil words of ‘unarve’ (consciousness) and ‘nilavu’ (sky). This suggests that such ‘abstract’ notions need not have been later Sanskritised introductions but could have also formed a part of the general ways in the icon was understood in this earlier period from about the 7th-9th century when so much of the Tamil devotional poetry related to the icon was actually compiled.

For example, a verse by Manikavachakar goes, ‘He who creates, protects, and destroys the verdant world…’ (Mowry 1983: 53). Another verse by Manikavachakar cited in Yocum (1983: 20) describes Nataraja as ‘Him who is fire, water, wind, earth and ether’. Yet another 9th century verse by Manikkavachakar (Yocum 1983: 24) cited below already suggests a mystical comprehension of the Nataraja bronze in terms of ‘consciousness’ as suggested by the Tamil word (unarve), preceding the use of the Sanskritic term chit as consciousness.:

O unique consciousness (or unarve),
which is realised (unarvatu) as standing firm,
transcending words and (ordinary) consciousness (unarvu),
O let me know a way to tell of You. (22:3)

A ‘cosmic’ sense of nature mysticism also permeates a Tamil verse to Nataraja composed by the 7th century saint Appar (Handelman and Shulman 2004), referring to sky as the Tamil ‘nilavu’, prior to 12th-13th century usage of the Sanskrit ‘akasa’:

The Lord of the Little Chamber,
filled with honey,
will fill me with sky (nilavu)
and make me be. [5.1.5]

In Srinivasan (2011) the author has also suggested that this ‘cosmic’ sensibility may also hark back to the nature imagery that pervades the earlier classical Tamil Sangam poetic tradition with its sense of traversing from the inner space (akam) to the outer space (puram). This sensibility is captured in A.K. Ramanujan’s fine commentaries on early Sangam poetry, himself an exceptional scholar-literateur who in this author’s opinion evokes something of the linguistic finesse of Coomarasamy’s academic prose. For example, the following verse from A. K. Ramanujan’s translation (1980: 108-9) conveys the creative tension generated by the juxtaposition of akam with puram genres, of outer with inner space:

‘Bigger than earth, certainly,
higher than the sky,
more unfathomable than the waters
is this love for this man…’

In this context too, Coomaraswamy’s writings pointing to such ‘cosmic’ elements have resonance, such as the following verse he sites from Tirukuttu Darsharna (‘Vision of the sacred dance’) from Tirumular’s Tirumantiram, ‘He dances with water, fire, wind and ether, his body is Akash, the dark cloud therein is Muyalaka (the dwarf demon below Siva’s foot)’. Dates for Tirumular vary from the 8th century to as late as the 11th-12th century.

Finally, the author would also like to allude to preliminary archaeoastronomical studies made by her with late astrophysicist Nirupama Raghavan which point to the connections of the Nataraja imagery with the star positions in and around the Orion constellation and the possible inspiration also drawn in aspects of Nataraja worship from a postulated sighting of the 1054 supernova explosion (Srinivasan 2006). Although these are preliminary findings, there is some tentative evidence in the worship of the Nataraja in a chariot processional festival Chidambaram in the month of Margazhi around December known as Tiruvadurai. The ardra tandava darshanam at Chidambaram is related to the sighting of ardra or the reddish star Betelguese in the constellation Orion who is associated with Nataraja. The constellation of Orion appears at the zenith at this time of the year and as witnessed also by the author, some of the star positions and Orion seem to broadly correlate with some of the body parts of Siva Nataraja, for example the Orion belt falls along his belt and the lifted leg pointing towards Syrius. A Tamil text by A. Cokkalinkam identified by the late Raja Deekshitar (pers. comm.) of Chidambaram showed some of the star positions of Orion around the Nataraja bronze entitled ‘ardra tandava darsanam’. This implies the sighting of the tandava dance performed by Shiva Nataraja as ardra or arudra, the wrathful one, hence associated with the reddish star Betelguese.


The above paper summarises some of the new trends or insights that art historical studies combined with archaeometallurgical, ethnoarchaeological, crafts documentation and archaeoastronomical studies yields in terms of an understanding of the enigmatic Nataraja bronze and the milieu of south Indian and South Asian bronzes. The ground breaking legacy of Coomaraswamy in contributing to this overall understanding is highlighted.

(This article was earlier published in Asian Art and Culture: A Research Volume in Honour of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Kelaniya: Centre for Asian Studies, pp. 245-256)

(Professor Sharada Srinivasan, of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, works in the areas of archaeological sciences, archaeometallurgy, art history and performance studies. A PhD in archaeometallurgy, Institute of Archaeology, University College, London, she is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, and the World Academy of Art and Science. As an exponent of Bharatanatyam she has given several lecture-demonstrations including one at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, for their exhibition ‘Chola: Sacred Bronzes from Southern India’ (2007))


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One Response to The Great Chola Temples
Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram

  1. umesh mehta says:

    A great work and worth reading. I wish you all the best. It will help a lot to the aspiring histrians. Keep it up. Feel like to join you. My kind regards.

    umesh mehta

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