Indian history is always fascinating with all the mighty kings and dynasties. One of the most prominent dynasties of Southern India is the Chola dynasty. Being one of the longest-ruling dynasties and one of my favorites, I'm always curious to know more about the rulers and their history. The Cholas are not only brilliant administrators, and great conquerors, but also phenomenal builders. Their history always goes hand in hand with the numerous stone temples they built. So, I planned to visit the Chola temples to understand more about their period and architecture. Temples built by Cholas or which have a Chola influence on them are scattered over a large region, which includes central and Northern Tamil Nadu and also parts of modern-day Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
Have you ever been to a temple premise where you stood awestruck by its brilliant architecture and fine detail? Such is the case of anyone who has visited any of the prominent temples that have been built by the Chola empire. There are a lot of temples built during the Chola reign, but only a few stood the test of time and still continue to spread the legacy. UNESCO rightly considers three of these temples as the Great Living Chola Temples, they are Brihadishvara Temple at Thanjavur, The Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. These temples show the colossal influence, riches, and religious responsibility of the Cholas in the urban areas of Thanjavur and Gangaikonda Cholapuram.
Rajaraja Chola I, the famous king of the Chola dynasty, extended the antiquated capital of the Cholas, particularly by building the marvelous Brihadishvara Temple. Rajendra Chola I, son of Rajaraja Chola I, continued his dad's military battles, growing the realm all through the Indian Ocean. To remember his triumphs, Rajendra Chola I constructed another capital city in Gangaikonda Cholapuram. With the formation of the new capital city, Thanjavur declined while Gangaikonda Cholapuram grew more in importance. Last but not least, Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram was built by Rajaraja II and is considered to be the final of the three Great Living Chola Temples. These temples stand declaration to the accomplishments of the royal Chola dynasty. But I wanted to know beyond that. So, I thought of visiting some early Chola temples built by their ancestors. Vijayalaya Choleeswaram is one such early Chola temple.
Vijayalaya Choleeswaram, one of the oldest stone temples, and a frontrunner among the Chola temples is located in Narthamalai on the Trichy-Pudukottai highway in Tamil Nadu. Narthamalai is a group of small hills and home to some of the oldest rock-cut cave temples. Narthamalai district comprises of nine little hillocks, Alurutti-malai, Bommadi-malai, Kadambar-malai, Kottai-malai, Man-malai, Mela-malai, Pon-malai, Paraiyan-malai, and Uvachchan-malai. There is a scarce forest surrounding the region and thus it comes under the reserved forest area. According to mythology, when Lord Hanuman was carrying Sanjeevi hill to cure Lakshman, few parts of that hill fell in this place and thus gives a variety of shrubs. Legend has it that the name Narthamalai is derived from Nagarattar which refers to the merchant community who dominated the region back then. A little town now at present, Narthamalai used to be the center for a trade back in the days. During the reign of Pallavas, Narthamalai was under the Muttaraiyar kings who were loyal to the Pallavas. Once Pandyas dominated the Pallavas, Muttaraiyar kings pledged allegiance to Pandyas. Later, Cholas took over and ruled over the entire region. The main attraction of Narthamalai is the three monuments present on the Mela-malai hillock.
Mela-malai hillock is also referred to as Samanar-malai or Sivan malai. The three famous monuments present on the Mela-malai hillock are Vijayalaya Choleeswaram temple, Samanar Kudagu, a large rock-cut cave, and Pazhiyili Iswaram, a small carved out cave.
Vijayalaya Choleeswaram temple
One of the prominent attractions of Mela-malai hillock is the Vijayalaya Choleeswaram temple, which is believed to have been built by the Muttaraiyar kings in the 9th century, and later expanded by the Cholas. According to an inscription found under one of the Dvarapalas (protective figures guarding the shrine), the temple is built by a Muttaraiyar chief by the name of Ilango Adi Araiyan or Sembudi. It further adds that the temple was badly hit by rains and almost got destroyed a few weeks after the construction. Later during the Chola period, a Mallan Viduman has reconstructed the temple. Though built by the Muttaraiyar kings, the name of the temple comes from the Chola king Vijayalaya Chola who was the ancestor of the great Rajaraja Chola I, and the ruler during the reconstruction of the temple. This temple is an example of Parivara and early Chola architecture where eight sub-shrines are placed around the main shrine in the center.
Vijayalaya Choleeswaram temple holds a high position in the architectural history of Tamil Nadu. The temple is built facing west and has a rare arrangement where the circular structure is present on the square Prakara. The Garbagraha (sanctum sanctorum) in the center is yet another architectural marvel, with a big Shiva idol inside. A four-storeyed Vimana is present, which is the structure over the sanctum. The three storeys at the bottom are square and the top is circular. Another interesting feature of this temple is the circular Garbagraha under the square Vimana. Each tier of the Vimana is adorned with rows of Ganas, Yazhis, and Apsaras. They can be found in various dancing positions on each tier, and these look very similar to Indian classical dances, thus making the resemblance quite uncanny. At the topmost storey, the circular one, there are four statues of Nandi (bull, considered to be the gate-guardian of Lord Shiva). They are present on four corners with two of them facing west and other two facing east. Between these Nandis are four carvings which are brilliant portraits holding arches in the hand, with one of them being Dakshinamoorthy who appears to be highly serene.
In the west-facing temple, to approach the Garbagraha, one needs to walk through the hallway called Arthamandapa which has a lot of old paintings. This is an enclosed Mandapam which is supported by Pallava style pillars. These pillars have an octagonal shaft in the middle supported by cubical structure at the top and bottom. Next to these pillars are the age-old paintings, some of which seem to depict Lord Vishnu. It seems like the paintings were not a part of the original construction but were included later in time. They are in various stages of ruin, with some almost washed out. Another common sight in Cholas’ art and architecture style, two life-size Dvarapalas are present at the entrance of the main shrine. They can be seen with one hand resting and the other hand raised in the air. Of the two Dvarapalas, the right one seems to be in a better condition than the other. It is under this Dvarapala, the crucial inscription about the construction of the temple is told to be found. Dvarapalas are one of the prominent features of the Chola architecture which can be found in almost all of their temples. There is a Prakara around the main shrine to walk around and pray to the Lord.
In front of the main shrine is present a Nandi on a raised platform with four pillars on the corners. These four pillars stand isolated with neither a roof on top nor a wall on any of the sides. Nandi is placed in the middle facing the main shrine, which is typical in a Shiva temple. According to mythology, Nandi is the gate-guardian of Lord Shiva and is believed that Nandi is a direct messenger to the Lord. There are sub-shrines surrounding the main shrine depicting the typical Parivara architecture. Initially, there were eight sub-shrines present around the main shrine, arranged as Chandesha in north and Bhairava in the north-east, Chandra in the east, Surya in the south-east, Sapta-matrika in the south, Ganesha in the south-west, Subramanya in the west, Jyestha in the north-west.
Of these eight sub-shrines, only six remain today. All these six sub-shrines are one-storied buildings with an Arthamandapa in the front. All of these sub-shrines are in various phases of ruin, but three of them are in a very damaged state possibly affected by the heavy rains after the construction. Each of these has a gate present in the front but there are no deities to be found inside any of these shrines. All of these sub-shrines are constructed in a way to face the main shrine following the Parivara style. The temple, which is a combination of rock-cut and Dravidian architecture, is an example of the early Cholas art inspired by the tradition of the Pallavas. Here, the sanctum has four storeys which are believed to be resembling the Hindu symbol Om.
The temple also has a fort-like stone structure on the three sides with the fourth side being the steep hill. Several blocks of stones on the three sides indicate that there used to be a fort-like architecture around the temple complex. There is even an entrance from the east side, back to the temple. From the top, next to the temple, the hill offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the entire surroundings, with several hillocks all around the place. This temple has so much historical importance and is a testimony to early Chola art, who would build the Great Living Chola Temples in the future. Legend has it that the Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple built by Rajendra Chola I took its inspiration from this temple.
Opposite to the temple is Samanar Kudagu, one of the two rock-cut cave temples built on the steep hill, with the other one being Pazhiyili Iswaram. This Samanar Kudagu which used to be a Samanar cave was later converted to a Vishnu temple. Samanar in Tamil refers to the Jains, who used to live in these rock-cut caves. It consists of an Arthamandapam and has a Sanctum sanctorum inside, both carved out of the rock. On the outside, there seems to be an extended platform that probably should have been an enclosed mandapam, but now only the platform remains. The cave is guarded by two Dvarapalas on each side which stand on separate stones, unlike the temple shrine, indicating that they can be a later addition to the structure. There are several sculptures present on the side of Dvarapalas, such as a Sapta-matrika group stone and another being an Ayyanar, all of these being separate stones.
Inside, there is a rectangular Sanctum sanctorum which looks empty with nothing but a broken stone structure, which also looks to be carved out of stone. The Arthamandapam on the outside houses twelve large Vishnu statues, six on each side, carved out of the rock. These twelve statues may seem identical but have a little variation to each of them. There are also two Ganesha statues present which are excavated in the nearby region. In front of the cave, there is a stone plinth that showcases several carvings and statues of various animals like elephants, lions, and yazhis. Yazhis, the mythological creatures can be found in several variations with them having the head of a lion, elephant, and even humans. The resemblance to the Sphinx in Egypt is uncanny. These graceful carvings of the creatures show the creative and artistic skill of the sculptors.
Below these carvings, one can find several inscriptions, even some referring to the Chola period. There is an inscription that refers to the sale of land from a Nagarattar to a Mudikonda Chola for the purpose of daily worship. There are several other inscriptions that can be found along the entire Mandapam.
Next to Samanar Kudagu is another rock-cut cave temple which is comparatively small, known as Pazhiyili Iswaram. It is a Shiva temple in a cave that has been cut out off a steep hill. It is believed to be excavated by a Muttaraiyar king named Sattan Pazhiyili, thus the name. It must be built during the rule of Pallavas. The cave houses a Shiva lingam which doesn't match and looks to be a later addition to the structure, as the Shiva lingam is not carved out of the mother rock. The cave has a mandapam in front of it, with a Nandi present on it.
An inscription found next to the mandapam states that Pazhiyili's son built the mandapam in front and also placed a Nandi on the top. Even here, the cave is guarded by two Dvarapalas which are clearly isolated and not carved out of the original rock. The mandapam has several inscriptions on the sides which state the history of Muttaraiyars. Above these inscriptions is a row of ganas(dwarfs) which seem to be in various dancing positions.
Vijayalaya Choleeswaram temple is regarded as a protected monument and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. But, there is no proper pathway to reach the temple, and the only way is to climb over uneven rocks and walk through rough terrain. This way of walking up a hill on an uneven terrain itself gives us a feeling of entering into the past. There are several small ponds along the way up to the temple. There are two ways up to reach the temple, and one can walk from either the north or south side of the hill. Most of the people prefer the north route which is easier comparatively, but the entrance gets flooded during rainy seasons. In order to reach the southern route of entering the temple, one needs to ride through a forest. The southern side of walking up has a gradual rise on the uneven hill. From the south, after reaching a certain height, one needs to walk through dense bushes and shrubs to reach the temple complex. In the south, before starting the ascent, there is a small but peaceful lake at the bottom of the hill. At the end of this lake is a shrine dedicated to the famous guarding deity Ayyanar.
Though the temple is an important part of architectural history, the complex is rarely visited by tourists and seldom gets crowded. The saddening part is that many of the people and even history enthusiasts are not even aware of this temple and the caves. The later built Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur is the face of Chola architecture and is visited by thousands of tourists every day. Maybe these tourists should also consider visiting such lesser-known and much early Chola temples. The entire area surrounding Narthamalai consists of a number of such small temples and Jain caves. Each of the nine hillocks present in Narthamalai has historical importance and connection to Jain caves. One can say that the rough terrain surrounding Narthamalai and not so easy path may attribute to poor tourism. Either by promoting the temple or by making it easy to reach the place, don't know how, but the condition needs to improve and more people should be able to know and understand the history of such an early Chola temple.