THANJAVUR AND THE GREAT LIVING CHOLA TEMPLES

THANJAVUR

Thanjavur(200 kilometers south of Pondicherry) was visited by Marco Polo on his sea journey from China to Venice in 1291-95. Formerly called Tanjore, it is the home of Brihadishwara Temple,a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the "Biggest Temple of Shiva," with carvings of elephants, lions and animals. Every two weeks priests standing on scaffolding bathe the 13-foot-high statue of the Nandi bull with curried milk, coconut water, vegetable oil, honey and sugarcane juice. While they are doing this worshipers clap their hands and pray.

Thanjavur has many gorgeous monuments, a legacy of the mighty ancient Chola Dynasty, and opulent palaces, testifying of the grandeur of the ancient Dravidian civilisation. Thanjavur boasts a fine selection of traditional South Indian art and craft such as bobblehead dolls, divine Tanjore paintings and palm leaf articles. Thanjavur is also popular for classical music and Bharatnatyam dance. It is the birthplace of the percussion instrument thavil, popularly used in Indian classical music.

According to legend Thanjavur has been named after a demon, Tanjan, who was killed in a battle by Lord Vishnu. His last request was that the region be named after him, which was granted by the lord. Fringed by several quaint towns, Thanjavur acts as the gateway to serene destinations like Chidambaram, famous for the Chidambaram Natarajar Temple and Nagore, about 85 kilometers away, that is revered by Muslims.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “In Thanjavur, I stayed in at the Hotel Oriental Towers (2889 Srinivasam Pillai Road; 91-4362- 230-724; www.hotelorientaltowers.com) for 990 rupees a night. In Thanjavur, I had a memorable dinner at the Thillana restaurant in the Sangam hotel, on Trichy Road (www.hotelsangam.com/tindextan.html). The restaurant offers excellent traditional Chettinad dishes, the best of which are made with fish or shrimp. They also have live Carnatic music, a tradition of the south. A dinner for one runs around $10. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 19, 2008 /*/]

Getting There: By Air: Tiruchirapalli International Airport is at a distance of 60 kilometers from Thanjavur. One can take a cab from there. By Road: Well-constructed roads and reasonably good highways connect Thanjavur to most of South India. Bus, taxis, cars are available. By Train: Thanjavur is directly connected by rail to cities of Tiruchirapalli, Chennai, Madurai and other South Indian cities.

Great Living Chola Temples

The Great Living Chola Temples of Tamil Nadu were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. According to UNESCO: these temples “were built by kings of the Chola Empire, which stretched over all of south India and the neighbouring islands. The site includes three great 11th- and 12th-century Temples: the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. The Temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram, built by Rajendra I, was completed in 1035. Its 53-m vimana (sanctum tower) has recessed corners and a graceful upward curving movement, contrasting with the straight and severe tower at Thanjavur. The Airavatesvara temple complex, built by Rajaraja II, at Darasuram features a 24-m vimana and a stone image of Shiva. The temples testify to the brilliant achievements of the Chola in architecture, sculpture, painting and bronze casting. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“The Great Chola Temples of southern India are an exceptional testimony to the development of the architecture and the ideology of the Chola Empire and the Tamil civilization in southern India. They represent an outstanding creative achievement in the architectural conception of the pure form of the Dravida type of temple (characterized by a pyramidal tower).The Cholas were the second great historic dynasty of the Tamil Nadu, the Tamil country, which was the home of the ancient Dravidian culture whose influence was so considerable in the whole of southeast Asia.

“The great Cholas established a powerful monarchy in the 9th CE at Thanjavur and in its surroundings. They enjoyed a long, eventful rule lasting for four and a half centuries with great achievements in all fields of royal endeavour such as military conquest, efficient administration, cultural assimilation and promotion of art. All three temples, the Brihadisvara at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara at Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavatesvara at Darasuram, are living temples. The tradition of temple worship and rituals established and practiced over a thousand years ago, based on still older Agamic texts, continues daily, weekly and annually, as an inseparable part of life of the people. =

“These three temple complexes therefore form a unique group, demonstrating a progressive development of high Chola architecture and art at its best and at the same time encapsulating a very distinctive period of Chola history and Tamil culture. The Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur marks the greatest achievement of the Chola architects. Known in the inscriptions as Dakshina Meru, the construction of this temple was inaugurated by the Chola King, Rajaraja I (985-1012 CE) possibly in the 19th regal year (1003-1004 CE) and consecrated by his own hands in the 25th regal year (1009-1010 CE). A massive colonnaded prakara with sub-shrines dedicated to the ashatadikpalas and a main entrance with gopura (known as Rajarajantiruvasal) encompasses the massive temple. The sanctum itself occupies the center of the rear half of the rectangular court.

Great Living Chola Temples are important because: “1) The three Chola temples of Southern India represent an outstanding creative achievement in the architectural conception of the pure form of the dravida type of temple. 2) The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur became the first great example of the Chola temples, followed by a development of which the other two properties also bear witness. 3) The three Great Chola Temples are an exceptional and the most outstanding testimony to the development of the architecture of the Chola Empire and the Tamil civilisation in Southern India. 4) The Great Chola temples at Thanjavur, at Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram are outstanding examples of the architecture and the representation of the Chola ideology.”

Driving from Mahabalipuram to Pondicherry to Thanjavur

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Heading south from Mahabalipuram, Tini and I hopped on a bus to Pondicherry, the former French colonial town. It was a good stop for dining and some new boutique hotels, but it did not have much in the way of grand temples. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 19, 2008 /*/]

“So we hired a car to reach the temple of Gangaikondacholapuram, a few hours’ drive southwest, where the detailed statues and friezes from the Chola dynasty are as remarkable as the temple’s name. What astounded me were the demon-protector statues flanking each doorway, towering over me, snarling at me with fanged teeth, telling me in a not-too-subtle way that I didn’t belong here.

“The drive to the temple had taken us deep into the Tamil Nadu countryside, past the electric-green rice fields of the Cauvery Delta. Storms broke out as we were leaving the temple, but I didn’t mind. It all seemed part of the landscape, these rains that would bring a harvest for the farmers making a living the same way their ancestors had done thousands of years ago.

Eager for a roof over our heads, we told our driver to head for Thanjavur, where I hoped to see the finest surviving works of the Cholas, who ruled a large swath of south India from this city.

“The downpour was ceaseless, continuing through the night and the next day. I spent my first morning in Thanjavur looking at marvelous bronze statues in the Royal Palace compound. The famous bronze depiction of Nataraja, lord of the dance, standing in a ring of fire, strands of the cosmos swirling from his head, was created during the Chola dynasty and has since been replicated endlessly.”

On his bus experience around Pondicherry, Kyle Jarrard wrote in the New York Times: “The short, brutish trip back to town is another unforgettable piece of India. Our bus passes others dangerously, and the others pass too: tons of steel packed with innocents hurtle straight at each other until the last second. It is an articulate game of chicken played out with nonstop honking but never any gesticulating and no vulgarities. Only the Westerners clutch their chests....At day’s end, there’s no energy left for anything but a cold shower and a check of the seaside view. [Source: Kyle Jarrard, New York Times, August 19, 2008 ~~]

Sights in Thanjavur

Sivaganga Fort Complex is an amalgamation of several sites and it easily takes one an entire day to explore. It comprises the Sivaganga Fort, the Big Temple (Peruvudaiyar Kovil), and the Sivaganga Park, which further holds a 1,000-year-old tank and an amusement park. In addition, there is a small library to entertain the kids. The Sivaganga Fort was built by Sasivarna in the 16th century and was home to his wife Rani Velu Nachiyar long after his death. It is currently under the care of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The tank in the park had been built by Raja Raja Chola as a water harvesting system for the Big Temple in the 8th century.The tank had underground connections with all the tanks in town and was sprawled across five acre of land. In addition to the tank, the Sivaganga Poongai has also emerged as a star attraction for travelling families. It is Thanjavur's first-ever amusement park. The park has a variety of water rides, motor-boating facilities, lush gardens and a toy train.

Thanjavur Palace (one kilometers away from the Big Temple) has a unique place as a site reflecting the convergence of Tamil and Maratha heritage. The palace served as an important center for both the Nayak dynasty and the Maratha kingdom. Surrounded by magnificent walls for fortification, it was built by the Nayaks around 1550 and later expanded on by the Marathas between 1676-1855, and thus, is also sometimes known as the Maratha Palace. The building houses huge corridors, intricately designed durbars, tall observation towers, decorated rooms and stunning fresco walls and ceilings. The stucco works here are a treat for the eyes. The ornate balconies provide a breathtaking panoramic view of the city; access to them however, is sometimes restricted. Thanjavur Palace also houses the royal family's sacred temple dedicated to Lord Chandra Mauleeswara. The architectural display makes it a must-visit and the sheer amount of art it holds in the form of carvings, engravings and ornate balconies is nothing short of fascinating. While here, one should specifically look out for the Arsenal Tower, the Bell Tower, the Darbar Hall and the Sangeetha Mahal. Tourists can also visit the Art Gallery and the Saraswathi Mahal Library that have been absorbed within the ground of this complex.

Manora Tower is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, It has an eight-storeyed hexagonal tower, about 23 meters high and overlooks the Bay of Bengal. According to legend the tower had actually been built in honour of Britain's victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815. The tower is guarded by a moat and is an extremely fine example of the Chola architecture. Thanks to the cool sea breeze, coconut groves and sailing boats surrounding it, Manora doubles as a very beautiful picnic spot for visitors. Manora Fort was built by the Maratha ruler, Serfoji II in 1814-15, and was the summer palace of the kings. Sometimes, the fort was also used as a lighthouse. The structure’s name is derived from the Hindi word minar, meaning minaret.

Brihadeeswarar Temple

Brihadeeswarar Temple was built between 1003 and 1010 by Raja Raja I, a great Chola ruler, and is adorned with unique carvings and sculptures, along with inscriptions that give an account of life 1,000 years ago. It is one of the three Great Living Chola Temples of Tamil Nadu were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The "Biggest Temple of Shiva," it has carvings of elephants, lions and other animals. Every two weeks priests standing on scaffolding bathe the 13-foot-high statue of the Nandi bull with curried milk, coconut water, vegetable oil, honey and sugarcane juice. While they are doing this worshipers clap their hands and pray.

Brihadeeswara (Brihadishwara, Brihadisvara ) Temple is Thanjavur's most prominent landmark. Also known as Peruvudaiyar Kovil or the ‘Big Temple’, it is a fine example of Chola architecture and was constructed using some of the most advanced techniques of its time. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple is a towering 65-meter- (212-foot) -high structure and houses one of India's tallest lingams (phallic symbols honoring Shiva), about four meters (13 feet) high. Another highlight is India's second-largest monolith of Nandi (bull god), which is 12 and a half feet high, eight feet long and five feet wide. It stands at the entrance of the temple, as a protector of the land. The outer fortifications were put up later by the Nayak rulers, for extra protection. The Big Temple celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2010. The major festival of Maha Shivaratri is celebrated here during the second week of February.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “The next morning, with the rain lessening, I went to the Brihadishwara Temple, the most jaw-dropping architectural achievement of the Cholas. The impressive scale of it was apparent as soon as I walked past the temple’s pet elephant in the outer courtyard and toward the interior. The vimana, the tower above the inner sanctum, rises 216 feet into the air and is topped with an 81-ton-ball of stone. One theory says that the builders used a 3.5-mile-long elevated plank to roll the ball to the top. As I peered at the thousands of statues decorating the tower, pilgrims streamed into the compound, many going into the inner sanctum to be blessed by the priests and to gaze on the 10-foot-tall black lingam. In appearance, a lingam is essentially a big phallus. It is the most common representation of Shiva — the destroyer, the transformer, the god who embodies both life and the negation of life — at temples across India...A massive, brightly painted gopura rose above each of the four entrances to the temple, the 12 towers visible for miles around. The tallest, above the south entrance, was more than 150 feet tall. Male pilgrims draped in orange robes shuffled past us to stand in front of the lingam. Many were Shaivites, easily recognized by three white lines drawn on their foreheads. ” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 19, 2008]

History and Features of Brihadeeswarar Temple

According to UNESCO: The Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur marks the greatest achievement of the Chola architects. Known in the inscriptions as Dakshina Meru, the construction of this temple was inaugurated by the Chola King, Rajaraja I (985-1012) possibly in the 19th regal year (1003-1004) and consecrated by his own hands in the 25th regal year (1009-1010). A massive colonnaded prakara with sub-shrines dedicated to the ashatadikpalas and a main entrance with gopura (known as Rajarajantiruvasal) encompasses the massive temple. The sanctum itself occupies the center of the rear half of the rectangular court. The vimana soars to a height of 59.82 meters over the ground. This grand elevation is punctuated by a high upapitha, adhisthana with bold mouldings; the ground tier (prastara) is divided into two levels, carrying images of Siva. Over this rises the 13 talas and is surmounted by an octagonal sikhara. [Source: UNESCO]

“The great king Rajaraja (985-1014)” was the “true founder of the Chola Empire which spread throughout the whole of southern India, part of Ceylon and the Maldive and Laccadive archipelagos. Richly endowed by the sovereign, the sanctuary, which also bears his name - it is sometimes called Rajarajesvaram - had a permanent staff of several hundred priests, 400 devadasi (sacred dancers), and 57 musicians, according to inscriptions and chronicles. The Brihadisvara's income in gold, silver and precious stones during the Chola period has been precisely evaluated. These vast resources were efficiently managed and provided not only for the upkeep and improvement of the buildings (which was continued until the 17th century) but also for real investments to be made. The temple lent money, at rates which could sometimes reach 30 percent, to shipowners, village assemblies and craft guilds.

“Dedicated to Shiva, the Brihadisvara stands to the southwest of the historic city. A first rectangular surrounding wall, 270 meters by 140 meters, marks the outer boundary. This is dominated on the east side by a 30 meters high entrance gateway (gopuram). A second wall, with its entrance in line with the first and crowned with a smaller gopuram decorated with two dvarapala (gatekeepers), surrounds a colonnaded inner courtyard. The temple itself, built from granite blocks and, in part, of bricks, is oriented east-west like the courtyard. The layout takes its inspiration from the Pallava tradition, and especially from the layout of the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram. There is a succession of halls and vestibules (mukta-mandapa, maha-mandapa, ardha-mandapa) leading to the shrine, which is crowned with a 13-storey pyramidal tower. This vimana, which is 60.95 meters high and, in turn, crowned with a bulb-shaped monolith weighing an estimated 70 tonnes, is rightly considered to be one of the architectural masterpieces of India. The intricately carved decorations covering the outer walls of the temple are continued inside by the well known representations of the 108 poses of the Bharata-Natyam, the classical Indian dance, mimed by Shiva in person.

“The iconographic program, inspired by Shiva mythology, also consists of a series of murals from the Chola period which decorate the corridor around the shrine. The famous series depicting Rajaraja in conversation with his guru, Karuvur Devar, gives a good idea of the graphic quality, the delicacy of the colors, the expressiveness of the characters which make this sequence one of the great masterpieces of Chola art. Inside the inner courtyard, the Nandi-mandapa, a pavilion which houses the colossal statue of Nandi, the bull mounted by Shiva (vahana), is of very great interest. The temple of Devi, built in the 13th century by the Pandya king Konerinmaikondan, the temple of Subrahmanya, built and covered with carvings in the 17th century by a Nayak king of Madurai, together with additional temples and chapels of a later date (temple of Ganesh, mandapa of Nataraja) complete this remarkable religious architectural group.

“There is a circumambulatory path all around the sanctum housing a massive linga. The temple walls are embellished with expansive and exquisite mural paintings. Eighty-one of the one hundred and eight karanas, posed in Baharatanatya,are carved on the walls of second bhumi around the garbhagriha. There is a shrine dedicated to Amman dating to c.13th century. Outside the temple enclosure are the fort walls of the Sivaganga Little Fort surrounded by a moat, and the Sivaganga Tank, constructed by the Nayaks of Tanjore of the 16th century who succeeded the imperial Cholas. The fort walls enclose and protect the temple complex within and form part of the protected area by the Archaeological Survey of India.”

Near Thanjavur

Thiruvaiyaru (five kilometers north of Thanjavur) is situated on the banks of the River Cauvery. The main attraction is Panchanatheeswar Temple that is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Surrounded by lush paddy fields and groves, the temple has a very serene atmosphere. Devotees can also take a dip in the Cauvery river here, which is believed to absolve one of their sins. Another attraction is Thiruvaiyaru Temple, which is one of the seven temples called Sapta Staanam. This temple is associated with the wedding of Nandi (bull god), the mythical vehicle of Lord Shiva.Thiruvaiyaru is recognised as the place where one member of the trinity of carnatic music, Saint Thyagaraja lived and attained samadhi. The best time to visit the temple is during a music festival held every January to commemorate the birthday of the saint.

Tiruvarur (70 kilometers east of Thanjavur) is a town renowned as the birthplace of Saint Thyagaraja, the composer of Carnatic music and one of the members of the musical trinity. The main attraction is Thagyarajaswami Temple, one of the largest in South India. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple is noted for inscriptions and sculptures that tell the story of King Manu Neethi Cholan, who ordered for his own son to be crushed under the wheels of a cart because he had killed a calf by driving his carriage negligently over it. Lord Shiva is said to have intervened at that point and saved the boy and revived the calf. The temple hosts a grand Chariot Festival in March-April every year. It is a larger than life celebration and a must-visit. Adjacent to the temple is the Kamalalayam Tank in a 25-acre area and since 1997 the State Tourism Department has been providing boating services there. Thiruveezhimalai, Thirupampuram, Tirumeichur, Srivanjiyam, Tillaivilagam and Thirukkannamangai are some other temples worth a visit.

Swamimalai Temple (35 kilometers northeast of Thanjavur) is dedicated to Lord Murugan. Perched on a hillock, it is reached by climbing 60 steep steps that represent 60 years of the Hindu Years Cycle. Legend says that Lord Murugan himself taught the meaning of the pranaya mantra meant to worship his father Lord Shiva, at this site once. Swamimalai is also believed to be one of the six holy abodes of Lord Murugan. It is known as the Padai Veedugal (Battle Camps) of Lord Murugan. There is also a shrine of Lord Shiva situated just a little below the temple on the hillock. The best time to visit the temple is during Temple Car Festival, held in April and Panguni Uthiram Festival organised during the month of March.

Kumbakonam (40 kilometers northeast of Thanjavur) is an idyllic town skirted by Cauvery and Arasalar rivers. Kumbakonam (Coommbaconum) is home to around 188 temples, the most prominent of which is the Kumbeswarar Temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is the oldest shrine in the area, built in the 7th century. The best time to visit is during the celebrations of the Mahamaham Festival. Another attraction is the 12-storey-high Sarangapani Temple built by the Nayak kings. Raghunatha Nayak, who ruled the town in the 16th century, got scenes from Ramayana painted on the walls of the Ramaswamy Temple. Kumbakonam is also known to have a temple dedicated to Lord Brahma, the Hindu god who is responsible for the creation of the universe and of life on earth. There are very few temples of Lord Brahma in the world and Kumbakonam has one of them.

Mayiladuthurai (90 kilometers northeast of Thanjavur) is a popular pilgrimage site. Situated on the banks of River Cauvery, the town is dotted with temples, the most prominent of which is the Mayuranathaswami Temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, who is worshipped as Mayuranathar, the temple has an interesting legend associated with it. As the story goes, Goddess Parvati had been cursed to be turned into a peahen and she came here to worship Lord Shiva in that form. Thus, the town was named Mayiladuthurai or peacock town. Devotees can also set on a temple trail of nine shrines dedicated to navgraha. These nine temples are dedicated to the nine planets of Hindu astrology, which are Sooryan (Sun), Chandran (Moon), Sevvai (Mars), Budhan (Mercury), Guru (Jupiter), Sukkiran (Venus), Saneeswaran (Saturn), Rahu (North Lunar Node) and Kethu (South Lunar Node).

Vaitheeswaran Koil (near Mayiladuthurai, 100 kilometers northeast of Thanjavur) is best known for the Vaidyanatha Swamy Temple, which is dedicated to Sri Vaithyanatheeswarar, who is worshipped as a lingam (phallic symbol honoring Shiva). The temple boasts large enclosures and a five-tiered gopuram. The first enclosure from the sanctum sanctorum houses the idol of Lord Subramanya, who is worshipped as Muthukumara Swamy. Besides, there are metal idols of Lord Nataraja (Lord Shiva worshipped as the god of dance), Angaraka and Somaskanda, along with stone sculptures of Goddess Durga, Lord Surya and Jatayu. The architecture of the temple is such that its western tower allows the sun rays to fall on the lingam (phallic symbol honoring Shiva) for few days every year. The complex also houses a holy tank, called Siddhamirtham, where devotees can take a holy dip that is believed to cure all diseases. Don't miss the inscriptions from the times of Vikrama Chola (12th century), the Marathas (18th century) and the Nayaks (16th century). The town of Vaitheeswaran Koil is also known as the birthplace of Naadi Jyothisham- the art of making astrological predictions with palm leaves. Apparently, every person has a palm leaf to their name and if you can find the one corresponding to yours, you'll get to know our future.

Chidambaram (110 kilometers northeast of Thanjavur) is a holy town noted for its Dravidian architecture temples. As the morning bells start to peel, you can wake up to a fresh cup of hot coffee, and after a sumptuous breakfast, gear up to explore the quintessential Tamil town. The main attraction is Chidambaram Natarajar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. This is revered as one of the five shrines scattered across the state that represent five elements (air, water, earth, fire and wind). Here, Lord Shiva is worshipped as Nataraja, the god of dance, while in most places he is revered as a lingam (phallic symbol honoring Shiva). According to legend, Lord Shiva came to live in this town, but since it already served as the abode of Goddess Kali, the duo decided to resolve the issue through a dance competition. Lord Shiva gave a splendid performance of his cosmic dance, tandav, while Kali enacted the lasya. Lord Shiva won the competition and became the Lord of Chidambaram. Lord Vishnu is also worshipped in this temple as Lord Govindaraja Perumal. Another attraction is the Annamalai University, one of the best academic centers in the country. Tourists can shop for gold jewelry in the town as it is renowned for its ornament-making.

Darasuram

Darasuram (25 kilometers northeast of Thanjavur) is best known as the site of the Airavateshwara Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple was built in the 12th century by Raja Raja Chola, a great Chola ruler. It houses shrines of Goddess Parvati, Lord Yama (god of death), Lord Subramanya and Goddess Saraswati, apart from an idol of Lord Shiva. Tourists can also admire the sculptured representations of Saptamatrikas and various Shaivite devotees. Right in front of the main shrine is a mandapa (open tent of sorts) of Alankara.

The colonnade of piers at the mandapa has square panels on their sides, and each panel is covered in scenes sculpted from Shaivite traditions. On the south end of the mandapa, each base has large stone wheels supporting it and a horse to top it all, giving the mandapa the look of a chariot. During the 14th century, the temple's architectural designs were changed to brick-mortar statues in order to resemble the format used at the Big Temple in Thanjavur.

Airavateshwara Temple is one of the three Great Living Chola Temples of Tamil Nadu were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. According to UNESCO: The Airavatesvara temple at Tanjavur was built by the Chola king Rajaraja II (1143-1173 CE.): it is much smaller in size as compared to the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. It differs from themin itshighly ornate execution. The temple consists of a sanctum without a circumambulatory path and axial mandapas. The front mandapa known in the inscriptions as Rajagambhiran tirumandapam, is unique as it was conceptualized as a chariot with wheels. The pillars of this mandapa are highly ornate. The elevation of all the units is elegant with sculptures dominating the architecture. A number of sculptures from this temple are the masterpieces of Chola art. The labelled miniature friezes extolling the events that happened to the 63 nayanmars (Saiva saints) are noteworthy and reflect the deep roots of Saivism in this region. The construction of a separate temple for Devi, slightly later than the main temple, indicates the emergence of the Amman shrine as an essential component of the South Indian temple complex.” [Source: UNESCO]

Gangaikondacholapuram

Gangaikondacholapuram (75 kilometers northeast of Thanjavur) is temple established by Rajendra Chola in the early 11th century that contains richly carved sculptures of Mahisasuramardini, Nataraja, Ardhanariswara and Chandikeshwara. There is also a massive monolith of Nandi and two majestic Dwarpalas guarding the entrance. Surrounded by lush green landscapes, the temple is a fine example of Chola architecture and encapsulated a very integral period of the dynasty's rule. The temple has sculptures of exceptional quality; the bronze sculptures of Bhogasakti and Subrahmanya are Chola masterpieces of metal while the Saurapitha (Solar altar), the lotus altar with eight deities, is widely considered to be auspicious.

Gangaikondacholapuram is one of the three Great Living Chola Temples of Tamil Nadu were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. According to UNESCO: “The Brihadisvara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram in the Perambalur district was built for Siva by Rajendra I (1012-1044 CE). The temple has sculptures of exceptional quality. The bronzes of Bhogasakti and Subrahmanya are masterpieces of Chola metal icons. The Saurapitha (Solar altar), the lotus altar with eight deities, is considered auspicious.” [Source: UNESCO]

Gangaikondacholapuram was the capital of Rajendra Chola (1012-1044), the son of Raja Raja Chola. When Rajendra Chola settled down here, 70 kilometers away from Thanjavur, he also built a temple for Lord Shiva on ground, equivalent in magnificence to the Big Temple in Thanjavur. Legend states that once, during his travel, when he had conquered several northern kingdoms, the king brought back water from the holy River Ganga here in a golden pot as a sacrifice to Shiva. As a mark of celebration, he also established a liquid pillar of victory called Jalamaya Sthamba. Rajendra Chola was bestowed with the name Gangaikondan (the one who brought the Ganga). The town was then named after him. Recently, ASI unearthed remains of a ruined palace built by Rajendra Chola at a site southwest of the town; the area is currently under their protection. While here, try and visit to the palace too.

Chettinad Villages

Chettinad Villages (75 kilometers south of of Thanjavur, 75 kilometers northeast of Madurai) were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. The property comprises series of 3 clusters of total 11 villages. 1) Cluster I (4 settlements):Kanadukathan: N10° 10’ 29,17’’; E78° 46’41,64’’; Pallathur : N10° 8’ 42,61’’; E78° 47’ 58,21’’; Kothamangalam: N10° 11’ 32,58’’; E78° 48’ 24,49’’ ; Kottaiyur: N10° 6’ 42,78’’; E78° 47’ 44,91’’. 2) Cluster II (4 settlements): Athangudi : N10° 9’ 21,63’’; E78° 43’ 41,73’’; Chokalingampudur: N10° 9’ 0,93’’; E78° 44’ 48,91’’; Karaikkudi : N10° 4’ 2,32’’; E78° 45’ 55,59’’; Kandanur: N10°6’20”E78°49’35”. 3) Cluster III (3 settlements): Rayavaram : N10° 14’ 56,62’’; E78° 48’ 45,16’; Arimalam : N10° 15’ 28,62’’; E78° 53’ 22,4’’; Kadiapatti- Ramachandrapuram: N10° 14’ 0,95’’; E78° 47’ 20,33’’ [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Chettinad comprises of a network of 73 villages and 2 towns forming clusters spread over a territory of 1,550 square kilometers in the Districts of Sivagangai and Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu. The Natukottai Chettiars belong to a lineage of wealthy traders and financiers who made their fortunes by extending their business to the whole of Southeast Asia, particularly during the second half of 19th and early 20th century when they were at the peak of their economic power. Vital component in the south Indian economy, the Natukottai Chettiars represented the major banking Hindu community of South India. Their vast influence and richness allowed the community to build a dense network of 96 villages among which 73 remain, according to the Maniyadi Sastram texts, the traditional planning and lifecycle precincts.

“Since the time the community settled in the area, the Chettiars have upheld a vision of planning and development of their territory comprised of outstanding components. Here traditional and overseas influences blend together creating a unique style expressed at the urban, architectural and decorative levels. While the town planning characteristics remain unchanged with the ensemble created by long series of houses, the plan and volumetric configuration and the typologies of the buildings evolved over decades, from 1850’ to 1940’.

Chettinad Village Layout

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: All the Chettiar settlements possess outstanding physical characteristics of urban and land-use planning with their South-North/East-West grid pattern, including water system, and the development of palatial architecture which depict a unique cultural interchange of cultures with influences from all over the world and the combination of the vibrant Tamil traditions. These settlements and the architecture, built from 1850’s to 1940’s, are directly associated with the rich living heritage specific to the Chettiar community. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“The first cluster comprises of 4 villages, Kanadukathan, Pallathur, Kottaiyur and Kothamangalam in the District of Sivagangai. These settlements are neighboring the Raja’s Palace which is the starting point for a knowledge-based cultural itinerary in the region. Kottaiyur has been selected as its traditional settlement is exposed to urban development from its neighbor Karaikudi, the economic center of the region. The second series of cluster, South of the first series, covers the four Chettiar areas of Karaikudi, and the rural villages of Kandanur, Athangudi and Chokalingampudur, in the District of Sivagangai. The third series of cluster is situated North of the first series in the District of Pudukottai with the very significant villages of Rayavaram, Kadiapatti and Arimalam.

“Chettinad possesses some outstanding physical characteristics of urban and rural planning which create a unique architectural ensemble with thousands of palatial houses. This ensemble reflects the way the Hindu Tamil community of Chettiars lived. As the result of their travels, they have integrated multiple influences into the Tamil traditions. This blend represents the uniqueness of Chettinad.

“They had a vision of land-use planning which has connected the different urban to landscape elements, particularly for rainwater harvesting and storage system. The architectural features of the houses comprised of series of courtyards organized along a longitudinal axis as well as the use of material is taking into consideration the semi-arid and hot climate. The villages are organized following north-south axes, along which are created the longitudinal east-west orientated plots. Following this configuration the houses are built around an east/west central courtyard which provides shade, light, coolness and air.”

Chettinad Villages and Rain Water Management

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Due to the fact that they settled in a hot and semi arid region, the Chettiars took the climate into consideration to plan the villages, design the palatial houses and in choosing the materials to use. They had a vision of land-use planning which has shaped a unique landscape. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“The Chettiars have undertaken important earth-work in order to manage the rain water harvesting. They have developed and enhanced on a large scale over the territory, the traditional Tamil techniques of water management. They have shaped together with the local agrarian communities a specific landscape which is today a green and attractive area which hosts migrating bird species a part of the year after the monsoon, in the vicinity of the Gulf of Mannar. This landscape is made of an alternation of lakes lined by bunds planted with different species of trees, of agricultural lands, and of forests and ancient sacred groves.

“This water system is comprised of two types of inter-connected networks. One is inside the villages comprising drainages and ponds (or ooranis). The other one is made of erys (or Kanmois), traditional surface water storage reservoirs, spread over the countryside around the villages. The materials used for construction also respond to the climatic requirements: thick walls of bricks, lime plasters, multiple layer of terracotta tiles roofing, marbles and stones floors are essential components. The slopes of the roofs are important and allow the collecting of rain water during the monsoon season. The collected water serves for household use and to fill up the wells; the overabundant water flows into the drainage system of the village which feeds the common ponds and tanks.”

Chettinad Houses and Traditional Life

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Chettinad architectural uniqueness is closely linked to the lifecycle rituals and living traditions of the Chettiar community. The mansions were conceived to perform the different functions, rituals and family celebrations during the course of life from birth to death. They have been planned by the master masons who built the temples, the stapathis, and followed the traditional Tamil space organization. Chettiar tangible and intangible heritage are inseparable. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“The main courtyard is considered as the center part of the house where the rituals are taking place. It operates as a temple sanctuary where the Chief priests of one of the 9 clan temples (each Chettiar belongs to one of the 9 clan temples), celebrate the events. Each space in the house was planned both for receiving daily functions and occasionally hosting rituals.

It is to be noted the importance of the cooking area in the Chettiar house where many cooks were hired at the occasion of the celebrations. This way the Chettiars have elaborated a sophisticated cuisine taking recipes from South India and from the countries where they have developed their business shaping a blend and creating an original stylish cuisine.

In addition to the lifecycle traditions, the temple and village festivals are part of the Chettiar culture forming a large set of rituals all over the Tamil year. There is an important local craft industry which produces fine architectural and decorative elements such as tiles and wood carvings, ritual items such as bronze figures as well as gifts for weddings such as saris, basket weavings and jewels.

Chettinad Mansions and Traditional Life

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Chettinad architecture is also closely linked to the lifecycle rituals of the Chettiar community. The mansions were conceived to perform the different functions, rituals and family celebrations during the course of life from birth to death. In addition to the lifecycle rituals, the temple and village festivals are part of the Chettiar culture forming a large set of rituals all over the Tamil year. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“Pavilions, halls and courtyards were added for business purposes and as areas for receptions and weddings, thus adding palatial features to the traditional houses. Every aspect of the architecture was conceived and made to display the wealth of the owner: from the huge development in plan, to the monumental facade, the height of which was enhanced by adding multiple levels of balustrades and the use of many architectural elements such as doubled colonnades and loggias.

“In order to construct and decorate these mansions, materials and expertise were brought from all over the world, which added to the cultural glory of Chettinad. For examples, teak wood was imported from Burma, satin wood from Ceylon, marble from Italy and Belgium, cast iron and steel from UK and India, ceiling in metal plates from Great Britain, tiles from Mumbai, Japan, Germany, France and England, chandeliers from Belgium, France and Italy. As they required the best, they also brought skills from different regions of India such as woodcarving, frescoes and egg-plastering.

“The layout as well as the large scale and the number of these palatial houses (estimated from 10,000 to 15,000), are very unique in India The Chettinad region comprises a great number of striking “Art Deco” style houses wlhich were argely built during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Many villages have examples of this international architectural style.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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