The Chola Trail – roads taken in 2008
The Chola trail gave me something more than just an dose of history. A sense of identity as well. It is very difficult to be objective and write about the trail , so I am not even trying as of now. I am just putting down some raw information to help you understand the might and the glory of this dynasty, which was one of the most powerful in South India and they established its supremacy in South Asia as well.
This ancient Tamil dynasty held sway for more than 1500 years and its origins are mired in myths and poetry as the chronology matches the reign of Emperor Ashoka (273 BC-232 BC). Literature heralds the rulers to be descendants of the Sun God.Historically though the reign is divided into three distinct eras –the early Cholas (2nd century BC-9th century AD), the medieval Cholas (9th -11th century AD) and the later Cholas (11th -13th century AD).Our story starts somewhere in the middle of 10th century and moves on to the 12th during the reign of Raja Raja Chola 1 and his son Rajendra Chola 1 and later on to Raja Raja Chola II
All that remains today as a witness to their might are The Great Living Chola temples . The Brihadeshwar temples in Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram and the Airaveteshwar temple at Darasuram built by these kings are part of UNESCO World heritage Site and this is where the trail actually begins .
The Big Brihadeshwara Temple, Thanjavur
We start with Thanjavur, the original BIG Brihadeshwara temple , or the Periya Koil built by Raja Raja Chola 1 in the 11th century in Thanjavur.This was the moment I was waiting for, a moment that defined this trail for me.My eyes follow the Vimana of the temple as my neck crane to capture its height. It is an understatement to call it big. It is larger than life .Consider this . At a height of 216 feet the towering Vimana is the tallest of its kind in the world dwarfing the Gopura, or the outer tower. The shikara or the golden dome replete with numerous stucco figures weighs 80 tonnes . Elephants were apparently used to draw this single granite block on a 6 km ramp to place it on top. The Nandi weighs 27 tonnes and is the second largest in the country while the main deity, the Shivalinga is at a height of 8.7 metres, the largest in the world. Life size representations of Gods and Goddesses fill the sculptured panels and the temple is a repository of records for posterity . 108 Bharatnatyam dance postures are depicted here and the corridors and ceilings are a colourful blend of fresco and mural paintings –unique to this dynasty.Architecturally the temple is the most ambitious structural granite temple to be ever built in the world and hence it is the first to become a Great Living Chola temple and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site .There is so much to say, but I will end here for now about this temple.
I went to the 11th century when Rajendra Chola 1 , the next ruler had moved beyond South India and invaded East upto the Gangetic Plain and created ripples overseas in Asia and overpowered all of today’s Srilanka, Maldives, Malaysia and Indonesia. Yet, his capital ,Gangaikondacholapuram that controlled this mighty empire for over 250 years has simply vanished from the face of this earth. When Rajendra Chola 1 conquered the Gangetic plain, he wanted to celebrate . He also 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 Rajendra took a step further. After all, he was the commander in chief in his father’s army as well. He moved away from Thanjavur , his father’s capital and built another Brihadeshwara temple in a new found capital called Gangaikondacholapuram which literally means the town of the Chola who captured even the Ganges. However he did not complete the temple. And he finally ensured that his father’s temple was bigger than his . Its tempting to delve deeper and share stories and information about the temple, but I wouldnt know where to end …
The third destination was Darasuram at the Airavateshwar temple built by Raja Raja Chola II in the 12th century . Called Rajarajapuram , this is indeed a sculpture’s dream in stone. A temple shaped like a chariot drawn by horses and supported by 100 monolith pillars carved exquisitely greet us. And finally ,a Chola trail is incomplete if one does not refer to the golden Chidambaram temple .
Do enjoy the pictures for now..I may at a later stage write in detail about these temples. However if you are eager to read more, my friend’s Vijay’s site , Poetry in stone will give you information on the temples. Vijay himself is a treasure house of knowledge when it comes to the sculptures and he along with Siva helped me a lot during this trail. My uncle and my mother who accompanied me shared a lot of their knowledge with me as well.