This is a story that is set 1,000 years ago. A story about kings and queens, about battles lost and won under the aegis of Gods and Goddesses. A story about forgotten towns that were once flourishing palaces but are razed now, with the city completely disappeared. My trail took me down the eons of history as I went looking for Gangaikondacholapuram, the erstwhile capital of the Chola Dynasty during Rajendra Chola’s reign in the 11th century .The town does not exist, but the only testimony to its existence is the Brihadeshwara Temple built by the king here which is similar in scale to the big temple built by his father Raja Raja Chola in Thanjavur, the seat of the Cholas before Gangaikondacholapuram was even founded.
We started our journey on one sunny afternoon and drove down to Thanjavur from Chennai. The landscape was hardly what one would describe as spectacular. One nondescript hamlet followed another. And then, suddenly without warning the scenery changed dramatically and the roads gave way to a green fabric of paddy fields. Situated on the deltaic region of the River Cauvery also known as Ponni in Tamil Nadu, it is believed that every inch of soil here is equal to an ounce of gold. Pon in Tamil means gold and the river yields ‘pon’ or gold in the form of paddy.
We stopped by to take in the fresh air and saw women cultivating paddy in the fields. This was the short term crop Kuruvai which would be ready for harvest by November. Almost ankle deep in water, the women were tending to the long term crop, which constitutes about 60 per cent of production called Samba. It had been sown in August and would be harvested between January and March. The farmers soon gathered and we learnt that paddy cultivation happens across four seasons and the crops were either short term or long term depending on the harvest period.
As we continued our journey, sculptures of fierce mustachioed deities looked down upon us from the fields. Idols of horses and elephants were placed around along with weapons such as tridents, spears and swords. We passed by several such road side shrines and learnt that these Guardian Gods were called Ayyanars. They protect the village from the malevolent forest spirits and punish the guilty and are often feared by the villagers.
The Big temple of Thanjavur
It was quite dark and the lights from the Big Brihadeshwara Temple beckoned us. We gaped at the 216 feet high Vimana which is taller than the outer Gopura and the temple remained fortified. We stood in awe as throngs of tourists and devotees flooded the temple and decided to return early next morning.
The Big Temple or the Brihadeshwara Temple was built in the 11th century by Raja Raja Chola 1 and it is today part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. We got there just after dawn as the sun was caressing the Vimana. The Gopura looked quite dwarfed. A few shops had opened and a couple of priests were entering. We were stopped by a tall Dwarapalaka with four arms who points towards a sculpture of a snake swallowing an elephant positioned below his leg . Another hand points towards God. “If you think this is big and I am bigger, look at the Lord who is the biggest, “said a voice. We turned around to find Raja, the guide who explained the significance of the sculpture. He said that there were 150 musicians, 430 dancing girls and more than 600 staff who were employed here. The details were etched in inscriptions on the walls of the temples.
Raja Raja Chola was inspired by the Big Buddhas in Srilanka and hence the scale of this temple. Each sculpture is massive; the Nandi here is the second largest in the country. The sculptures from Indian mythology, the frescoes, the dance Karanas – some highlighting Shiva dancing are the unique aspects of this temple.
Darasuram – a part of the trilogy
We moved on from Thanjavur to Kumbakonam and reached Darasuram which is just 5 km away. The Airavateswara temple built by Raja Raja Chola 11 in the 12th century is another World heritage site and is an architectural marvel. If the temple in Thanjavur symbolises all things massive, Darasuram celebrates the miniature. We found a local who reluctantly agreed to show us around. According to a legend, Airavata, the white elephant of Indra, worshipped Lord Siva in this temple; hence the deity was named Airavateswara. According to another story, the God of Death, Yama was cured from a Rishi’s curse by the presiding deity after he took a bath in the sacred tank called Yamatheeratham. The exquisite sculptures narrating the stories from the Puranas and the sanctum which is in the form of a chariot are some of the unique features here. The carvings depict vignettes of social life in a village, acrobatic and dance poses by artistes. There is even a sculpture depicting a pregnant woman giving birth as other women help her.
In front of the temple, a small ladder with three steps takes you to a mandapa. The steps are musical as the stones resonate with different musical sounds when tapped. We spent a few hours enjoying the silence and continued our journey towards Gangaikondacholapuram.
Onward to Gangaikondacholapuram
The state highway soon gave way to empty stretches of wasteland. A few fields lay scattered. There was no town or village. And then we saw it. Looming in the distance and standing tall was the 160 foot high Vimana of a temple announcing its existence in this otherwise dead capital city which had controlled all of South India, Orissa and Bengal and even overseas like Malaysia and Srilanka for over 250 years. This is the Brihadeshwara temple built by Rajendra Chola 1 in the 11th century to commemorate his victory over the rulers of the Gangetic Plain. He left Thanjavur and founded this capital city Gangaikondacholapuram which literally means the ‘town of the Chola who the Ganges’. The defeated kings were forced to carry the water as a tribute to the Chola king Rajendra who built a huge reservoir. A large sculpture of a lion in brickwork stands in the temple where a flight of steps lead inside like a tunnel into the huge well known as Simhakinar. Rajendra apparently ensured that Ganga water was always there to perform the rituals in the temple.
A few gardeners were tending to the lawn while we soaked in the ambiance. It was sheer poetry. The sculptures were massive and almost an exact replica of the temple in Thanjavur. One particular sculpture catches the attention. The Chandesanugraha murthi panel depicts the king being blessed by Siva and Parvati suggesting that all his laurels were dedicated to his lord.
An ASI official gave us some more information. The inscriptions show that the city was well planned and the palace was built at Maaligai-Medu near a small village called Ulkottai. Smaller villages close by are testimonies to this one time big city. A tank called Tottikulam, another called Tirthakulam ,a reservoir called Ponneri which probably stored the water from the Ganga and a village called Vaanadipattam where the fireworks for temple festivities were prepared are what exists today. We saw the ruins of the palace as 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 visit to this humble museum enriches you as you learn that the city had been fortified and the outer fortification called Rajendra Chola Madil is mentioned in the inscriptions. A painting of the emperor and a map showing his dynasty held me spell bound. Here was a great warrior who had once controlled all of India and even overseas, but was forgotten along with his city. The temple is just a mute spectator for the rise and glory.
The Chola trail includes the trilogy Thanjavur – Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram. Kumbakonam is the central point to get there. The trail however is not complete unless you add Chidambaram to your travels and if possible, Thirubuvanam as well.
From Chennai, Thanjavur is 350 km and you could drive via Kumbakonam which is just 36 km or take a train. Tiruchirapalli is the closest airport to Thanjavur at 54 km if you choose to fly. From Kumbakonam, Darasuram is 5 km and Gangaikondacholapuram is 36 km and can be done in a day.