With their dynamic queens and influential kings, their world-class army and navy, their massive temples and cities of beauty incomparable, and a legacy that continues to last, the Cholas hold their ground as one of the most powerful and impressive dynasties in history. The biggest reasons for the Chola Empire’s fame in South India and elsewhere are undeniably the architectural marvels built under the patronage of the royal family.

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Map of the Chola Empire ©Venu62
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Portrait of Rajaraja Chola and his Guru Karuvurar ©Venu62

The Chola Empire is one among many great empires and dynasties that graced the lands of the Indian sub-continent and though it was one of the longest-ruling dynasties that made a great impact on South India and beyond, its history and legacy are not very well known to many. Here are a few of the Chola Empire’s architectural accomplishments, however, we must keep in mind that there are so many more still unexplored.

Temples of the Chola Empire

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Brihadisvara Temple ©City Village News

The beginnings of Chola architecture were highly influenced by the temples of the Pallava dynasty which was of the Amaravati School of Architecture. Chola temples tended to follow similar principles of construction and had special features. Sanctums of the Chola temples were either circular or square and special Vimanas were built above the Sanctum. Chola temples were known for their beautiful sculptures and ornamental works.

1. Koranganatha Temple, Srinivasanallur, Trichy

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View of the Koranganatha Temple ©Ssriram mt. (2018)

Located in the town of Srinivasanallur, Trichy, Tamil Nadu, this temple dedicated to Hindu god Vishnu in the form of Ranganatha was built under the Patronage of Parantaka I. The temple is believed to be of the Nagara style, which was mostly found in North India and has a vimana. The temple has an ardha mandapa which is attached to the sanctum and acts as a porch that is slightly below the ground level in a pit kind of structure. The structure was predominantly built of stone.

2. Vijayalaya Choleeswaram, Narthamalai, Pudukkottai district

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Vijayalaya Choleeswaram Temple Complex ©Kannanraj1002. (2016)

Located in the Panchayat town of Narthamalai, Pudukkottai district, this temple is a grand temple with rock-cut architecture dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Being one of the few remaining structures from the Chola Empire, Vijayalaya Choleeswaram is maintained and administered by the Department of Archaeological Survey of India as a protected monument and is said to be one of the oldest stone temples in South India. The central shrine housing the Lingam is surrounded by eight shrines, out of which six are still present.

3. Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur

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Brihadisvara Temple Complex ©Vbmindia. (2017)

Undeniably one of the most famed temples in South India, this temple is a prime example of early Dravidian architecture. Built under the patronage of one of the most renowned kings of the Chola Empire, Rajaraja Chola I, who was known to be a great lover of Monolithic architecture, the temple was built on a platform 5 meters high. 

The temple is surrounded by a moat and has high outer walls which give it a fort-like feel. The temple has two entrances, one with a five-story gopuram and the other with a free-standing gopuram.

Rajaraja Chola I and Buddhism – The Chudamani Vihara

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Painting Representing the Chudamani Vihara Complex ©Pictures From History. (2015)

Rajaraja Chola is undeniably one of the greatest Chola kings to ever be and Chola architecture reached its peak under his reign. His contributions were not just in the form of Hindu temples but also extended to other sects like Buddhism.

One of his iconic contributions to the Buddhist community of the time was the Chudamani Vihara, a Buddhist Monastery located in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. The vihara survived in dilapidated condition until 1867 when it was demolished by Jesuit missionaries. Over 350 Bronze statues have been found here.

The Capital of the Chola Empire – Gangaikonda Cholapuram

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Remains of the Royal Palace ©Kasiarunachalam. (2007)

Rajaraja Chola I was also known by the nickname Gangaikonda Cholan – The one who conquered (brought) the Ganges and hence the capital of the Chola Empire established by Rajaraja’s son, Rajendra Chola was named Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Epigraphs found had preserved in them the names of a few roads and streets of the town. It notes that the entrances of the city were named Thiruvasal, and the south gate was called the Vembugudi gate.

The layout of the city was partially inferred using the present positions of the existing temples. The palace is assumed to have been at the center of the city around which the other temples in the city seem to have been erected. The great temple of Shiva (the Brihadisvara temple) is located in the northeast.

The existence of a Royal Palace is confirmed by a few dilapidated remains as well as the epigraphs. These show that the royal palace also was built of burnt brick. The pillars were inferred to be made of polished wood, supported on granite bases. Small, flat tiles were used to construct the ceiling. They were laid in courses with fine lime mortar.

Naval Architecture in the Chola Empire

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A Song Dynasty junk ship believed to have been employed by the Chola Navy ©Public Domain

The Chola Empire, being one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the world, was said to have a very advanced Naval system. The Chola Navy grew exponentially during the reign of Rajaraja I. and became a powerful trading post, with maritime trade links extending from Arabia to China.

During the early stages of the Chola Navy, the designs of ships were based on trade vessels with the bare minimum of boarding implements. Soon after, the Chola Navy became a specialized force that advanced to designing ships for specific combat roles. Some of the major warships were Dharani, Loola, Vajra, Thirisadai, etc.

There were also a series of Royal Yachts like Akramandham, Neelamandham, and Sarpammugam.

References

Tamil Nadu Information (2016). ART AND ARCHITECTURE UNDER THE CHOLAS [online]. Available at: https://www.tamilnadu.ind.in/tamilnadu_history/chola/art_and_architecture_under_chola.php [Accessed 6 March 2021].

Tamilnadu Tourism (2017). Koranganatha Temple, Srinivasanallur, Trichy [online]. (Last updated September 3 2017). Available at: https://tamilnadu-favtourism.blogspot.com/2017/09/koranganatha-temple-srinivasanallur.html [Accessed 6 March 2021].

Wikipedia. Vijayalaya Choleeswaram [online]. (Last updated January 26 2021). Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vijayalaya_Choleeswaram [Accessed 6 March 2021].

Alamy. Chudamani Vihara [online]. Available at https://www.alamy.com/this-painting-may-represent-the-former-chudamani-vihara-a-buddhist-vihara-monastery-in-nagapattinam-tamil-nadu-india-chudamani-vihara-was-constructed-in-1006-ce-by-the-srivijayan-king-sri-vijaya-maravijayattungavarman-with-the-patronage-of-rajaraja-chola-the-vihara-building-survived-in-dilapidated-condition-till-1867-when-jesuit-missionaries-demolished-it-since-1856-about-350-buddha-bronzes-have-been-found-at-nagapattinam-dating-from-the-11th-to-the-16th-century-image344270299.html [Accessed 8 March 2021].

Loraine Balita-Centeno (2020). The 10 Biggest Shopping Malls In The World [online]. (Last updated October 20 2020). Available at: https://military.wikia.org/wiki/Chola_Navy [Accessed 8 March 2021].

Wikia.org. Chola Navy [online]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gangaikonda_Cholapuram [Accessed 6 March 2021].

Krishnamurthy, K. (1999). Ponniyin Selvan. Chennai: Macmillan Publishers India Ltd.

Author

Priyesha is currently a student at RV College of Architecture, Bengaluru. An avid reader with a passion for travelling, she also has a background in public speaking, debating, creative writing and music. She aims to find a good balance between these personal interests and her academic interest in architecture.

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