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Analyzing the Manifestation of Art and Architecture During Chola Dynasty in Medieval India with an Example of Dravidian Temple of Brihdiswara


Medieval India had undergone a golden period under various rulers. During 800-1200 A.D., Southern part of India became the centre of political activity. In the beginning of the ninth century, the Pallavas were on the decline. The Chalukyas of Badami were overthrown by the Rashtrakutas. The latter were engaged in several wars and alliances with northern and southern kingdoms. Development of Temple Architecture in southern India started during the Chalukya rule in the early 7th century. The Cholas who were the feudatories of the Pallavas; asserted their power and replaced them. The emergence of the imperial Cholas marked the beginning of a new stage in south Indian history. Under the domination of Chola Dynasty, art and culture reached new heights the influence of which was felt even in the countries of South-East Asia. Temple architecture in South India reached its peak under the rule of Chola Dynasty (850 - 1250) Although Early Chola temples were not as large as the ambitiously planned Pallava Kailashnatha or the Vaikunthaperumal temples at Kanchipuram. Development in early Chola architecture consists, instead, in perfecting the unique elements of the Dravidian style and combining them harmoniously with new forms in astonishingly diverse ways. The Chola king Rajarajesvara built one of the finest Dravidian style temple namely Brihadiswara appears to have been an entirely new foundation, a royal monument of power. The components of this temple are peculiar in its architectural style and one of its kinds. The Cholas greatly made use of art to express their power, used temples to make unequivocal statements about their political domination.


In South India, Temple Architecture developed with independent lines and have building style quite different from North India. The Southern styles of temples can be grouped into the following five chronological divisions corresponding to the five principal dynasties which successively ruled over the most part of Southern India which largely molded the growth of Architecture. A) Pallava(c. 600-900) B) Chola(c. 900-1150) C) Pandya(c. 1150-1350) D) Vijayanagara (c.1350-1565) E) Nayaka (c. 1600-1750). The rock cut structures developed during the 7th -9th century under the rule of Pallava. The Pallava rulers lead the way of Dravidian style of temple architecture so the temples at Mahabalipuram were built during their rule. During the Pandya rule the south Indian temples were added with the gateways called as Gopurams at the entrance with the basic temple composition. The Gopurams made the temple visually attractive and also provided the temples the enclosure. The temples were evolved from simple rock cut shrines to large and complicated structures. The temples in this period were large square building with a projecting porch and decorative pillars. The roof of the temple had small structure which later emerged as the Sikhara. The entire temple is simple with minimal decoration. Some of the examples of temples from this period are Lad Khan temple and Durga temple.

The Chola Kingdom extended along the Coromandel Coast from Nellore to Pudukottai. It also included the areas of Mysore and Madras. The Cholas rose to power in the ninth century AD defeating the last Pallava King. This rise to power was under king Aditya-I. His son Parantaka ruled for forty two years from 907 to 949 AD. He was an ambitious warrior king who drove the Pandya king to exile captured Mathura and invaded Ceylon. His successors had to repeatedly face the onslaught of the Rashtrakutas, Gangas and Pandya. It was under Rajaraja the great who ruled from (985-1014AD) that the Cholas rose as the supreme power in South India. He pursued a strategy of capturing for fourteen years during which he conquered the eastern Chalukya kingdom of Vengi, subdued the Cheras, and conquered territories on the Malabar coast, inflicted defeat on the Pandya and annexed parts of Ceylon. His alliance through marriage with the ruler of Vengi promoted unity among the Cholas and Eastern Chalukyas. Rajaraja was succeeded by Rajendra CholadevaI who ascended the throne in 1016 AD. He ruled for a period of twenty eight years. He further expanded his territories beyond his father's territories. In his mission to the North of India in about 1023 AD he defeated Mahipala the Pala king of Bihar and Bengal. To commemorate his victory he assumed the title of 'Gangaikondai' and built in Trichinopoly district a new capital called, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, which had a magnificent palace, temple and a lake. In the 11th century the Chola rulers built one of the tallest temples of that time- the Brihadeshvara temple at Thanjavur with a height of 60 m (Hardy 2007). In the later period the temples extended and became more intricate. More Mandaps were included for various activities like dancing, assembly, eating, marriages, etc. The finest example of the temple township has been the temple at Srirangam and Madurai with several concentric enclosures. The power of the Cholas declined in about the 13th century. The rise of the Hindu kingdom at Vijayanagar ended the Chola dynasty.


During the period of Chola Dynasty, the king of Cholas was the head of the administration and all powers were concentrated in his hands. Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram, Mudikondan and Kanchi were the various capitals of different Chola rulers at various times. The Chola Empire was extensive and prosperous. The rulers enjoyed high powers and prestige. The images of the kings and their wives were also maintained in various temples which indicated that they believed in the divine origin of kingship. The king was assisted by ministers and other high officials of the state in administration, who were given high titles, honors and lands as Jagirs. The Cholas had successfully organised an efficient bureaucracy and their administration. The Cholas maintained powerful armies and navies. The infantr, the cavalry and the war elephants were the main parts of the army of them. The Cholas had seventy regiments with army consisted of 1,50,000 soldiers and 60,000 war elephants. The Cholas spent huge amounts to maintain an efficient cavalry and imported the best horses from Arab countries to equip their army. In peace time, the army remained in cantonments where proper arrangements were made for its training and discipline. The kings kept their personal bodyguards, called the Velaikkaras, who were sworn to defend the person of the king at the cost of their own lives. The empire was divided into Mandals for the convenience of administration. They were either seven or eight in number. The Mandals were divided into Nadus and Nadus into Kurrams or Kottams. Every Kurram had several villages which were the smallest units of administration.The Society during Chola Dynasty was based on Varna-Asram Dharma but the different Varnas or castes lived peacefully with each other. Inter-caste marriages were permitted and it had led to the formation of different sub-castes. The position of women was good. They were free from many restrictions which came to be imposed on them by the Hindu society later on. There was no Purdah-system and women participated freely in all social and religious functions. They inherited and owned property in their own right. There were stray cases of sati but it was not a widely practiced custom. Normally, monogamy was the prevalent rule but the kings, the Samantas and the rich people kept several wives. The Devadasi system was also in vogue and there were prostitutes also in cities. The slave system was also prevalent. Chola was favorable for trade, both internal and external, grew resulting in increased prosperity of the state. The traders had brisk trade with China, Malaya, Western gulf and the islands of South-East Asia. Industries also grew up under the protection of the Cholas. Cloth, ornaments, metals and their different products, production of salt and construction of images and temples were a few of the important industries which grew and prospered under the protection of the Cholas.

The Chola kings were the devotees of Bhagavatism or Saivism. Both of which were the most important sects of Hinduism during that time. Both of these sects became admired in South India under the protection of the Chola rulers. The reign of emperor Vijayalaya manifested the beginning of the rise of these sects and, then, every Chola emperor contributed in his own way to the progress of this mythological ideology. During this period, temples of different gods and goddesses were constructed in large numbers and they became the predominant feature of Hinduism. The Chola emperors helped in the progress of Hindu society and religion by constructing a large number of temples of Hindu gods and goddesses. The Cholas were tolerant rulers. Barring one or two examples, every Chola ruler respected and gave equal protection to all kinds of religious faith. The period of the rule of the Cholas was the golden age of Tamil literature. Mostly, the texts were written as Kavya (poetry). Different scholars received support from different rulers and engaged themselves in scholarly writings. Among noted scholars of the Chola rule were Tirutakadevara, who wrote the Jiwana-Chintamani, Jayagodar, who wrote the Kalingatuppani and Kambana, who wrote the Ramavatrama. Kambana was one of the greatest figures in Tamil poetry. His Ramayana known as the Kamba Ramayana has been regarded as a masterpiece of Tamil literature. The Buddhist scholar, Buddhamitra, wrote the text named the Rasoliyan while another Buddhist scholar wrote the Kundalakesha and the Kalladama. Scholars, like Dandina and Pugalenda, also flourished under the patronage of the Cholas. Besides Tamil, texts were written in the Sanskrit language also. During the reign of King Parantaka-I, Venkatmadhava wrote has commentary of the Rigveda while Keshavaswamina wrote his scholarly work titled Nanartharnava. Thus, literature, both in Tamil and Sanskrit, progressed under the rule of the Cholas.

The Chola emperors constructed cities, temples, lakes, dams, tanks etc. at different places. Rajendra-I constructed a huge lake at his capital, Gangaikondacholapuram which was filled up by the waters of the rivers Kalerun and Bellara and which supplied water to many canals constructed for irrigation purposes. The chosen fields of the Cholas for construction were architecture and sculpture. Huge and beautiful temples cut out from rocks or from hills and huge images of different Hindu gods and goddesses were constructed by them. The best specimens of the Chola art of early period are the temples of Vijayalaya-Cholesvara, the Nagesvara temple. The Vijayalaya-Cholesvara temple at Narttamalai is interesting for its circular shrine chamber enclosed within a square ambulatory. When the Chola Empire grew in strength and its prosperity also increased, more grand temples were constructed by the them. Rajaraja-I constructed the Rajarajesvara temple at Thanjavur and the temple of Viruvalisvarama in the Tinnaveli district. Rajendra Chola also constructed a huge temple of Siva at his capital Gangai-kondacholapuram. Rajaraja-II constructed the temple of Airavatesvara at Darasuram while Kulottunga-II constructed the temple of Kampaharesvara at Tribhuvanam. All these temples possess both the grandeur and the beauty of the art of architecture. The Rajarajesvara temple at Thanjavur is covered with beautiful images of different Hindu gods and goddesses carved in stone walls. Percy Brown writes of it, “It is the touchstone of Indian architecture as a whole. These various temples justify the opinion that the south Indian architecture or the Dravida temple art had reached the stage of perfection during the reign of the Chola emperors. Of course, it was inspired by the Pallava art in its early stages but, afterwards, it developed its own qualities and perfected itself.” The art of sculpture also progressed during this period. The Cholas worshipped all Hindu gods and goddesses and therefore, built the images of all. Besides, images were carved out on the stone walls of the temples the Chola emperors also built their own images as well as of their wives and placed them also in temples. But the finest specimens of images constructed during the period of the Cholas were the bronze statues out of which the statue of Nataraja Siva has been regarded as the best and which has become widely popular even during modern times.


Brihdiswara temple at the Thanjavur had a typical new Chola feature that is different from the Pallava style of temple. The example Pallava Temple is Shore temple of Mahabalipuram at (refer fig. 1). The temples of Mahabalipuram are of rock cut Architecture in Pallava Dynasty whereas the temple of Brihadiswara in Chola Dynasty is on site construction. The difference in both of these is that the latter consists in the use of real deep niches with entablatures. These niches, the Devakushtas (niches to house deities), flanked by demi pilasters (columns), appear on wall surfaces of Chola temples. The decoration, in most finished examples, alternates between the various niche devices of koshtapanjaras and Kumbhapanjaras. Space is narrow in these forms but the decoration is more rounded. The pilasters of these niches are crowned by a curved roof molding adorned by two kudus with crowning lion heads. The bases of these decorative devices have makara (motif based on the mythical sea monster) and warrior heads.Other Chola difference is seen in the rejection of the Pallava yali or the lion at the bases of pillars and pilasters. The pillars are more enriched and defined. The element in the Dravidian pillar of the notch in the shaft before it flares, with a slight swelling above it, which gets transformed under the Chola Dynasty to become the most delicate of vases (kalash). A graceful feature of the pillar is the decorative device of the kudu, put as a roll molding on top of the pillars. The gateways in the Pallava period were dwarfed in the, had become famous features of late Chola period. The dwarpalas (gatekeepers) in Chola temples were the violent men with tridents, bearing tusks protruding from mouths, rolled eyes and hands always in hostile gestures. These contrast with the kind natural looking single paired arm dwarpalas of the past. All these features climax in two temples, the Brihadiswara (Rajarajesvara) at Thanjavur, the capital of the Cholas and the Gangaikondacholapuram, near Kumbakonam. These come at a time of greatest degree of Chola power. Cholas had become the utmost power in South India by 10thcentury CE. They had reached the borders of the Rashtrakuta kingdom in the north. Rows of temples were built on both the banks of the river Kaveri to mark their growing power of Rajaraja I, crowned in 985, carved out an abroad empire by establishing a second capital at Pollonaruva in Sri Lanka.

Fig 1: Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram (Rock Cut Architecture-Pallava Style)

Fig. 2 Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram (Rock Cut Architecture-Pallava Style) Plan and Side Elevation

The Brihadiswara (995 - 1010), built by him at his capital Thanjavur, though he did not live to see it completed is a product of this success. The temple inscriptions make clear the triumphal nature of the edifice. Donations to the shrine came from far and wide. The numbers of architects, accountants, guards, functionaries, temple dancers, revenue records of landgrants etc are engraved on the temple walls, thus establishing the importance of the temple as an institution of prime importance in Chola times.

Fig. 3 Brihadiswara Temple at Thanjavur (Chola Style)

The Brihadiswara is some 210 feet High (refer fig 2), the largest and the tallest in India. It is laid out as a Dravida padmagarbhamandala of 16 into 16 squares. It was consecrated in 1009 - 10. The site is not associated with any Puranic story or any ancient legend, the The vimana is dvitala (double storied). The vertical base (a square of 82 feet with a height of 50 feet) forms the first storey and the 13 slightly receding tiers form the upper portion.

The diminishing tiers taper till the last at the apex to become one third of the base. On top of this rests the crowning dome (refer fig 4), which comprises a massive granite block of 25 and a half feet square and estimated to weigh eighty tons. The cupola with its inward curve of its neck is a pleasing break from the outward rigid lines of the composition that has a soaring

Fig. 4 Crowning dome of Brihadiswara Temple

Fig. 5 Ornamentation in the form of Deities of Brihadiswara Temple

character. An internal circumambulatory passage, two stories high, consisting of a series of chambers with sills but no doors, runs inside the precinct. On its walls, in 1930, Nayaka period paintings were discovered to overlay the Chola murals that included Rajaraja I with three of his queens worshipping Nataraja (dancing Shiva), the patron deity of Cholas. The temple is entered by side doorways approached by large ornamental stairs leading to an antechamber (ardhmandapa), with a platform for bathing the deities. To it is attached a huge mandapa of 36 pillars (mahamandapa), entered by a front mandapa with a central entrance (mukhamandapa). In all there are 18 door guardians flanking the various entrances and sills.

Fig. 6 : Shows figure of nandi

Fig. 6.1

Fig. 6.1 and 6.2 : Show ambosed images of animals on the entry stairs of Maha mandapa and ardhmandapa

Fig. 6.3 : Shows Pallava yali or the lion at the bases of pillars and pilasters at Brihadiswara Temple

In the decorative treatment, the lower vertical base is of two stories divided by a massive overhanging cornice, reminiscent of the Pallava rock-cut. Except for this powerful horizontal member in the structure, the emphasis is on verticality, the two ranges of vertical pilasters above and below adding to the verticality. Combined with these pilasters are deep niches with motifs of ‘tree of knowledge’ and other decorative devices. Occupying the middle of each compartment, are ingeniously carved figures. The kumbhapanjara decorative device is introduced here. The surfaces of the tapering part of the vimana are patterned by the horizontal lines of the diminishing tiers intersecting the vertical disposition of the ornamental shrines, thus producing a very rich architectural texture. Finally, there is the contrast of the cupola at the summit, its winged niches on all four sides relieving the severity of the outline, just where it is most required.

Within the large enclosure walls are shrines of the parivardevatas (family deities) and the dikpalas (deities of cardinal directions). The eight dikpalas are housed separately against the wall. The two large gopuras in line are first introduced here in Dravidian architecture.

Fig. 7 Brihadiswara Temple at Thanjavur (Chola Style) Plan and Side Elevation
(Source: Croker, Alan. "Temple Architecture in South India." Fabrications 4, no. 1 (1993))


The period of the Cholas was extraordinary from many aspects. It imparted fairly to the polity and culture of south India and thereby, to Indian polity and culture. Its contribution has been widely accepted in the field of local self-government, construction of a influential navy, growth of Tamil literature and in the fields of architecture and sculpture.The Dravidian style concluded in a series of extended temple cities or townships.

Fig. : 8

Fig. 8 and 8.1 Figure show The dwarpalas (gatekeepers) in Chola temples were the violent men with tridents, bearing tusks protruding from mouths, rolled eyes and hands always in threatening gestures at Brihadiswara Temple

The Chola kingdom was extensive and prosperous. The rulers enjoyed high powers and stature. The images of the kings and their wives were also maintained in various temples which indicated that they believed in the divine origin of kingship. Since the social system was pro women during Chola Dynasty, The Kings even engraved the motifs of their queens and females on the temple shrines and palaces. The dwarpals of the temples showing their index figure towards upside indicates “God is one and only one”. Use of colours in the ceilings and in some inside walls was one of the peculiar features of Chola style temple.

Every section and every decoration at the Brihadiswara is designed for maximum effect. It is the finest example of Dravidian architecture with all its elements reaching their zenith. The temples of Hindus not only became centers of devotion but also those of learning, arts and social wellbeing. The temples fulfilled not only the religious support of the people but also served the idea of social benefit and growth.

References :::

  1. Percy Brown, Indian Architecture(Buddhist and Hindu Period), fourth Ed., Bombay, 1959
  2. Nilkanta Shastri, The Cholas, Madras, 1955
  3. Croker, Alan. "Temple Architecture in South India." Fabrications 4, no. 1, 1993
  4. Donglas Barrett, “Early Chola Architecture and Sculpture, London”, 1974.
  5. Krishna Deva, “Temples of India” Vol.1, New Delhi India, 1995.
  6. Michell, George, “The Hindu Temple: An introduction to its meaning and form”, Chicago,1988
  7. Adam Hardy, “The Temple Architecture of India”, Great Britain(2007)
  8. Stein, Burton, “Peasant state and society and medieval south India”, New Delhi Oxford University press ,1990.

Anand Kapadia, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture, Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat.
Manan Gandhi, Assistant Professor, Vidyamandir College of Architecture for women, Surat.