Just as Chola Bronzes and other sacred figurative sculptures are highly symbolic in nature, Chola temples were also subject to the iconographic dictates of the Shilpa Shastras. Just as a bronze sculpture is believed to represent the deity in physical form (in certain specific circumstances), temples are believed to house the presence of the Divine in the world. If the universe is the body of the Divine on a macrocosmic scale then the temple is the body of the Divine in a microcosmic scale and therefore the temple’s major features correspond to features of the human body.
Chola temples were, and are, where worshippers interact with gods in their material form, either in their most ancient form as an abstract (aniconic) symbol, such as Lingam and Yoni, or figurative, such as a stone or bronze sculptural icon. If a major temple was dedicated to Shiva – as most in south India were – the central form of God might be a Lingam/Yoni in the inner sanctum (karuvarai), while a modest village shrine makes do with a simple Lingam or crude stone icon (mulamurti). A Vaishnava temple, on the other hand, would have a figurative image of Vishnu. Temples in South India dedicated to Shakti, the Divine Goddess, were less common, although they would again feature an anthropomorphic image of a specific manifestation such as Uma or Kali (note 1). South India temples dedicated to Shiva outnumber those dedicated to Vishnu roughly two to one, while temples dedicated to Shakti, the Great Goddess, are relatively few. Though each temple may be dedicated to a particular god or goddess, in the larger temples icons of the major gods are found throughout the temple building and grounds, each with their own shrines and sacred sculpture, allowing the devotee to perform puja to more than one god in a single visit.
Brihadisvara Temple, with the Nandi Mandapam
Architecturally, the temples of south India differ from their northern counterparts in three distinct ways;
They are usually enclosed by within a compound wall, with the front wall having an entrance gateway (gopuram) in its centre
The central tower (vimana) over the karuvarai is pyramid-shaped with flat sides as opposed to the bulging sides of its northern cousins. A cupola-like structure (shikhara) is placed on top.
A covered assembly hall (mandapa) used for music and dancing in front of the inner sanctum. A large temple may have several.
A tank (kalyani) is usually found in the compound and used for ritual purposes.
Temples dedicated to Shiva will have a pavilion (Nandi Mandapam) for a murti, or sculpture, of Nandi, Shiva’s bull vahana (vehicle), which will be facing his master.
The external walls of the temple are segmented by pilasters and feature niches housing sacred sculpture.
Early shrines were created anywhere having a special spiritual meaning for the people, serving as a focus for worshipping nature spirits, such as trees or Lingam shaped rocks, or springs, even anthills, the home of snakes, or nagas. Temple tradition may have started with early cave sanctuaries, themselves symbolic ‘womb chambers’, indicative of the creative power of the gods, particularly Shakti. Perhaps a simple wall would be built to define the sacred ground surrounding the shrine, and as time went on a shelter of wood or brick in time evolved to what eventually became the grand temple complexes built by the Chola kings and queens (note 3) and serving royal residence, seat of government and setting for the sacred arts. Chola temples have been in continuous use since they were created a thousand years ago, having been spared the worst of the Mughal invasions which had destroyed so many north Indian temples. Many of the original bronze icons still in place and are still being worshipped with the same mantras and rituals, and entering these temples today one feels an almost palpable presence of the worship performed in these soot-blackened chambers for the past thousand years.
Note 1 – In south India, the Mother Goddess is no less powerful, however, Shakti is expressed through manifestations such as Uma (Shiva’s consort), Lakshmi and Bhu Devi (Vishnu’s wives), Kali or Mari Amma, as Durga is known in south India.
Note 2 – Such shrines are still scattered throughout India, reflecting the animist beliefs of pre-Vedic times.
Note 3 – The trend towards grand temple complexes began when Tantric values regarding puja became popular, starting around the 5th century. Tantrism also accelerated the belief in personal devotion to one’s chosen deity, a concept known as Bhakti.
Note 4 -Brihadisvara, the grandest of all Chola temple complexes was built in only seven years by Rajaraja Chola 1. Construction began in 1003 AD and at the time of its completion was one of the tallest buildings in the world at 63 metres (208 feet). It is a UNESCO Living Chola Temple.
From time to time, when circumstances align just right, a golden age of peace and prosperity is born and a thousand years ago in south India, the Chola Empire was such a society. Once Rajaraja Chola I had created his commercial and military empire he directed his energy and treasury towards building scores of beautiful temple complexes, filling them with the beauty and power of paintings, music, dance…and the extraordinary Chola Bronzes.
Little is known about the Cholas before they became the dominant power in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu, but that changed when a new king took ascended the Chola throne. In the year 848, Vijayalaya led his armies on what was to become one hundred and fifty years of Chola military conquest. His infantry, cavalry, archers and war elephants defeated old rivals to the north, south and west; while later, his son and grandson’s navies secured the eastern seaboard before turning their attentions upon Lanka, the Maldive Islands, Burma, Malaya, Sumatra and the Srivijaya Empire of present-day Indonesia. Rather than foreign territorial expansion, the aim of this expensive aggression was control of seagoing trade. As a result, Chola traders came to dominate trade in the area as surely as Chola navies dominated the seas (note 1). Trade was the source of Chola prosperity, with exports of cotton, spices and gems, and importing and re-exporting luxury goods from as far away as Tang Dynasty China and the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. With the borders secure and trade filing his coffers, Rajaraja Chola I built Brihadisvara Temple, the tallest and grandest temple ever seen in India up to that time in Tanjavur, his capital (note 2).
When Rajaraja Chola built Brihadisvara, it was as much a political statement as it was an act of devotion. It reinforced the political principle of divine rule, blurring the line between sovereign and god. Brihadisvara was a symbol of royal prestige, an exercise of power which also rewarded Rajaraja with temple honour (mariyatai) for his role in facilitating worship. Sembiyan Mahadevi, Rajaraja’s aunt and enthusiastic patron of the arts, left dozens of masterpieces in many cities, towns and villages, including magnificent temples in Konerirajapuram, Vriddachalam and Tiruvalangadu. Such ritual gift-giving (dana) was an ancient Hindu tradition and redistributed wealth by encouraging community works such as temples, tanks, gardens and wells. Each temple was endowed with great riches in the form of gold, jewellery, textiles and bronze sculptures as well as meeting the cost of providing food, incense and lamps, ensuring the temple functioned in perpetuity. Ordinary citizens also benefitted from mariyatai as it conferred status, honour and prestige in the community. At its dedication in 1010, Rajaraja gifted twenty-two of its sixty bronze icons, as well as a set of lavish jewellery to adorn each of them. We know this because these endowments were written in stone on the temple walls, as well as an accounting of the other temple expenses such as repairs, dancers (or devadasi), musicians, poets, painters, jewellers and of course, sculptors and bronze-smiths.
Devadasis on a recently discovered mural inside the Brihadisvara temple.
Rajaraja the first with his guru.
By the late 13th century the Chola Dynasty had run its course, but its spiritual and artistic legacy lives on through their temples and sacred sculpture. The presence of Hinduism throughout southeast Asia today is due in no small part to Chola seagoing merchants, while the practice of Hinduism itself was given an infusion of fresh Chola ideas, chief among them Bhakti, the belief that anyone could approach God without the necessity of priestly ritual, which to this day is the dominant spiritual practice for Hindus worldwide. For art lovers around the world, of course, the Chola’s greatest gift is their extraordinary bronzes.
After the collapse of the Chola Dynasty, south India was spared the degree of depredation Muslim invaders inflicted upon Hindu temples and art in north India (note 3). When the Mughals arrived in the former Chola homeland in 1311, their touch was relatively light, and they stayed for only a hundred years rather than the thousand years in north India. The brevity of Mughal occupation ensured Vedic Hinduism in south India remained relatively untouched, and its temples remain as they were built a millennia or more ago. Light touch or not the Mughals – based in Madurai – were offended by icons they saw as voluptuously sensual, and many bronzes were looted and melted down into cannon by the invaders. Fortunately for us, however, temple priests of the time secretly buried their icons underground or hid them deep in their vaults. From time to time, a hoard is found, but the pieces are considered unconsecrated; without spiritual value. While a few bronzes are reconsecrated and returned to their temples, most are acquired by museums or private collectors through legal channels – or otherwise.
Note 1 – The Hindu beliefs of Chola traders also found a warm reception throughout southeast Asia and the spread of Hinduism throughout the region was rapid, extensive and long-lasting. Angkor Wat, for instance, in modern-day Cambodia is a Hindu temple.
Note 2 – Brihadisvara has been in constant use since its completion in 1010 and been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Note 3 – Today it’s very hard to find a large Hindu temple in the northern Indian sacred cities of Varanasi or Mathura older than 400 years.
Note 2 – Brihadisvara has been in constant use since its completion in 1010 and in 1987 was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Note 3 – Today it’s difficult to find a large Hindu temple in north India, the former Mughal Empire, older than 400 years.