Gangaikondacholapuram – an ancient Chola capital
The sculpture calls out to me. Carved in stone is a story of a devout cowherd called Chandesa who worships an icon of Shiva on sand and anoints it with milk. His father angrily strikes him and Chandesa retaliates . His staff turns into an axe chopping off his father’s legs, just when Shiva lands on the scene and accepts him into his fold. When the guide finished his narration, it seemed to be just another tale from Indian mythology; but it did not end there.
“ See the sculpture carefully , the cowherd is a prince and the prince is the great Rajendra Chola 1,” he said explaining that this could be an allegory . Engraved in stone is the coronation ceremony of Rajendra Chola 1 graced by the Gods – Shiva and Parvati as the prince dedicates all his laurels to them .The sculpture that depicts this celebrated moment is the famous Chandesanugraha murthi panel from the Brihadeshwara temple.
I am in Gangaikondacholapuram,the long lost capital of Rajendra Chola 1 which has mysteriously disappeared leaving behind this mammoth temple. This was the town that once ruled all of India upto the Gangetic plain and also Srilanka, Maldives, Malyasia and Indonesia. When Rajendra Chola 1 conquered the Gangetic plain, he wanted to portray to posterity that he was probably greater than his father Raja Raja Chola 1 who had immortalised himself with the Big Brihadeshwara temple in Thanjavur. So he built another Brihadeshwara temple in a new found capital called Gangaikondacholapuram. However he did not complete the temple. And he finally ensured that his father’s temple was bigger than his. There were no answers to this sudden change of heart. Probably the panel was a clue to the sudden decision says my guide.
The towering 180 feet tall Vimana seem to touch the sky announcing its existence in this otherwise dead capital . A majestic Nandi obstruct our gaze. A few gardeners are tending to the lawn while we soak in the ambience. Various forms of Shiva captured in different moods stand out in the artistic mosaic. A giant lion shaped sculpture called Simhakinar in the form of the Chola emblem stares at you .
” This is the way the defeated kings used to go down and pour the water they brought down from the Ganga,” says the guide. I peer down and see a flight of steps leading through a tunnel below into a huge well filled with murky water. Rajendra built another huge reservoir which was about 22kms long and elephants were used by the armies to bring the water from the river. “He had brought back more than 1000 pots of holy Ganga water and performed the Kumbabhishekam,” adds my guide.
We move on looking for the palace and reach a small mound close by called Malligai medu near a small village called Ulkottai An empty spectacle of sand and rocks greet us. Recent excavations have unearthed some priceless treasures which are now sheltered in a small hut near the temple complex where the State ASI’s museum remains. A Buddha stands on the stony pavement along with some banana vendors as we enter the hut. Smiling silently at me is the king himself from a painting against the wall. The image stays with me as we drive down the highway.
This was published in the Inside Story, my column in Metro Plus.