The Dravidian style of temple architecture as we know it today, originated and matured during the reign of the Pallava dynasty, and reached its pinnacle under the Cholas. The Pallavas ruled from the 6th to 9th centuries AD, with their capital in Kanchipuram, known as the city of a thousand temples. In the beginning of their rule, temples were gouged out of rocks, influenced heavily by the Buddhist rock cut temples of the Deccan. These Pallava rock cut temples are said to be the oldest surviving monuments in Tamil Nadu. The next phase had temples carved out of single monolithic rocks. Later, they gave way to the “structural temples” that we see all over Tamil Nadu, built stone by stone. Extraordinarily, you can see exquisite examples of all of these phases in one glorious place - Mahabalipuram, less than 60km from Chennai. It is no surprise therefore, that the group of monuments was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
The next dynasty to rule medieval South India, roughly from the 9th to 13th centuries AD were the Cholas. Under their rule, the region rose to great heights and saw power and prosperity like never before. Their capital was Tanjore (or Thanjavur), one of Tamil Nadu’s most important centers of art and culture, about 350km from Chennai. Chola temples are also structural temples like those built by the later Pallavas, but typically have enormous vimanas or towers. Elaborate entrance gateways called gopurams and separate smaller shrines for other deities gradually began to appear as well.
The piece de resistance of Chola temple architecture is without a doubt the Brihadeeshwara Temple of Tanjore, built by Raja Raja Chola I, arguably one of the greatest kings India has ever seen. His son, Rajendra Chola I, built another magnificent edifice dedicated to Brihadeeshwara, a form of Lord Shiva, in Gangaikondacholapuram. And about 8 generations later, Raja Raja Chola II had the sublime Airavateshwara Temple built in the town of Darasuram. The three temples built between the 11th and 12th centuries are among the most outstanding specimens of Chola architecture and are collectively called the Great Living Chola Temples. The trio joined Mahabalipuram on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1987.
In the next few weeks, we will take you on a virtual tour of these veritable repositories of history, art and culture that showcase the evolution of temple architecture in the region over the centuries.
This is third in the series, Gangaikondacholapuram: City of the Chola who conquered the Ganga.