A Visit to the Chola Temples in Tanjore

King Rajendra's Temple, Gangai Konda Cholapuram

We left for Gangaikonda Cholapuram (GKC) at 7:30, which wasn’t early enough, because there was already traffic congesting the 65 kilometer stretch from Tanjore. Roads in Tamil Nadu are the Kannadiga’s envy, but this one was narrow even if the asphalt was thick and hole-free. Anyway, we weren’t driving, and Chandran, the hotel driver, did his job in sober silence, and Sujaya and I relaxed, looking out at this sunsplashed, green part of Tamil Nadu. Rice Bowl of the State. In the cool inside we couldn’t tell the 38°c outside, so deceptive was the sight of fecund land through the glass. There were staple crops in the fields, and patches of teak, and tamarind and occasional mango and neem alongside the road.

The heat hit when Chandran opened the doors at the grand temple in GKC. The barefoot walk in the precinct was agonizing. The stone seared the soles as we went the distance from portal to door.

I envy the Christians their chapels. They are always clean, anywhere in the world. When you go in, the altar is immediately in view, you don’t compete for a darshan of it. There’s never noise there, and you can go in with shoes on. I’ve sat many times in the comfort of chapels and cheated the church a bit and meditated on the god of my choice.

But the GKC temple was clean as well, and quiet, and, very important, I could see the deity—a tall large Shivlinga—right from the door. It’s a long walk from the door to the sanctum in this magnificent temple.

Two chains hang on either side of the Shivlinga. Three oil lamps are attached to each chain, six in sum, and they are the only light source in the sanctum. The coils of Naga (the divine serpent) round the Linga, the hood of Naga flared over the Linga, the entire length of Naga from head to tail-tip is gilt, and it catches the lamplight and glows. The giant Linga is covered in a sheen framed by shadow. My hands went up on their own, folded in namaskar, in spell of a swelling worshipfulness that engulfed me.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram translates as the City of the Chola Who Conquered the Ganga. King Rajendra Chola’s marches went up to Bengal in the North, Lanka in the South, and the Khmer kingdom beyond the eastern seas. Winning the North, he brought to his capital the holy water of the Ganges, earning the title Gangaikonda Chola, rising to the greatness of his father Rajaraja who’d ruled 37 years before him and who’d begun the golden age of the Cholas. This was 1000 years ago.

King Rajendra’s temple in GKC is smaller than the great one his father built in Tanjore, but the artistry and technique employed here are more sophisticated, they have stood on the shoulders of what’s been achieved by the father.

King Rajendra's Temple, Gangai Konda Cholapuram

Outside, a bony sunburnt mali was hosing the quite-green lawn. In sparse shadow we sat and watched the art on the walls. The form of the Chola statue is slender, the pose delicate, and the features of both male and female are sharp enough to cut with. West of the Cholas, contemporary Hoysalas had a taste for the buxom. My wife voted with me for Chola art, and evening in Tanjore we bought two Chola bronzes, and I’m still worrying if we paid too much for them—though we brought down the quoted price by a half.

Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore

Then we went to the Big Temple of Tanjore, built by Rajaraja. The scale of everything dazzled us: the Nandi, the main deity which again is the Linga, the vimana, the expanse of the place, the subsidiary temples round the main, and, of course, the crowds. But the crowds were considerably less during this, our first visit; due the heat, perhaps, and maybe because of the aashada maasa, at which time nothing auspicious is done, no important project begun, or prayed for.

A veena player was performing by the great Nandi before the main gopuram. He had a full accompaniment backing up the sweet plucking sounds from the veena. The man tossed his head up and around a lot, sending his long hair flying, adding drama to mastery. The style was Carnatic, and his rapt audience comprised the young and the old and kids and locals and tourists. I asked an old man before me who the performer was.

Rajesh Vaidya at the Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore

He turned and smiled a disbelieving smile. Rustic man, with a grey stubble and wearing a stripe shirt over a soiled white veshti. He asked in Tamil, “Don’t you watch TV?” He repeated the question, glancing at the folks around, who were watching us. “That’s Rajesh Vaidhya,” he said, engaging the onlookers. Everybody raised a smile to that.

I’ve since looked up that Tamil artiste on Wikipedia, and I think the old man at the performance was a kind one. My question to him was as asking, in Liverpool, “Who is John Lennon?”

Some more pictures …