Gangaikondacholapuram: City of the Chola who conquered the Ganga

Because of its delicate appearance and gentle curve, this temple is often called the feminine version of the one in Thanjavur.
Gangaikondacholapuram: City of the Chola who conquered the Ganga
Gangaikondacholapuram: City of the Chola who conquered the Ganga

Just a couple of years after Rajaraja I built the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur, his son Rajendra I became the Chola ruler. Rajendra ruled jointly alongside his father, until the latter’s death in 1016 AD. Having served as a general under his father, Rajendra was an accomplished warrior who led many successful military expeditions. He had his army march northwards, all the way to the Ganga, to bring home pots of holy water from the river. Defeating enemy armies along the way, his men returned victorious, earning Rajendra the title ‘Gangaikondachola’, meaning ‘the Chola who conquered the Ganges’.

He established a new capital city called Gangaikondacholapuram (also called Gangaikondacholishwaram) about 70 km from Thanjavur, and had a royal temple by the same name built in it. The temple is commonly called the Brihadeeshwara Temple now. Rajendra also built a lake in the town called Cholagangam to mark his victorious expedition. It was fed by the Cauvery river, and some water from the Ganga was poured into it as well. Today, people call it Ponneri lake. 

The Brihadeeshwara Temple of Gangaikondacholapuram is built along very similar lines as the one in Thanjavur. The entrance to the complex is through a gateway on the east, whose gopura has long since collapsed. Inside, just like Thanjavur, a spectacular vimana rises into the sky, visible for miles around the town. The most striking difference between the vimanas of Gangaikondacholapuram and Thanjavur is that this one has a concave slope. It is also about 9 meters shorter. Because of its delicate appearance and gentle curve, it is often called the feminine version of the one in Thanjavur. 

The vimana sits above the garbhagriha or inner sanctum, which is accessed through a beautiful pillared mandapa or hall. It is rather plain on the outside since it has been rebuilt after the original wall was ruined. However, the stretch closest to the vimana reveals that it was originally two-storeyed and quite ornate. There are three entrances to this mandapa - one in front, and two on either side, and they are all guarded by pairs of enormous dwarapalas or guardian deities. The walls flanking the side entrances are decorated with elaborate carvings depicting episodes from Shaivite mythology. Especially stunning is the sequence of panels telling the story of the saint Chandikeshwara, who is worshipped along with Lord Shiva in the region. For a long time, it wasn’t uncommon for transactions in temples to be carried out in Chandikeshwara’s name! A separate shrine dedicated to him stands right next to the vimana.

The main deity in the garbhagriha is a 13 feet tall Shivalinga. Two walls run around the deity just like in Thanjavur, but there are no sculptures or paintings to be found here.

Originally, a two-storeyed hall ran all along the perimeter. None of it remains now, except for a bit that has survived on the northern edge of the complex. Stone from this hall and the entrance gopura was used in building the Lower Anaicut dam nearby. The raised platform that the hall stood on has now been used to display idols from the ruined parts of the temple, that have withstood the ravages of time.

There are many smaller shrines in addition to the main one, dedicated to attendant deities like Brihadeeshwara’s consort Goddess Brihannayaki, Lord Ganesha, Chandikeshwara and others. A circular well guarded by a lion stands to the northeast of the vimana. It is called Simhakeni. The lion is believed to have been added in the 19th century, but the well has been around from Rajendra’s time. Apparently, he even had some water from the Ganga poured into it. A huge stucco nandi or bull faces the main shrine.

Gangaikondacholapuram served as the Chola capital for about 250 years, until the decline of the Cholas and the rise of the Pandyas. Today, the temple features on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, and is one of the three Great Living Chola Temples. The Brihadeeshwara temple of Gangaikondacholapuram is undoubtedly as worthy a successor to the Brihadeeshwara temple of Thanjavur, as Rajendra Chola was to Rajaraja Chola.

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