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The Great Living Chola Temples

The thousand-year old wonders of architecture, sculpture and painting embodied in the Great Living Chola Temples of Tamil Nadu, represent the acme of Dravidian creative endeavours. These have to be studied, documented and propagated for a global awareness on the cultural treasures of India and for the appreciation of Dravidian heritage by the young and future generations. These cultural and historical sites, including the archaeological and architectural wonders, are the most ideal subjects for documentation for the better appreciation of the cultural heritage of the country.

This documentary film on the Great Living Chola Temple is the documentation of reality for education or for making a historical record for future generations. This historical documentary is based on researched and analysed facts, cross-verified over and over with data from several sources, woven into an interesting story without using any element of fiction and presented in an appealing manner. Every conclusion is supported by authentic evidence and references. Through integration of all relevant elements, the place and time of these historic constructions become familiar to the viewer so that the viewer understands the events in the proper context. The Great Living Chola Temples makes the viewer mentally experience the past and the present.

The study and appreciation of these temples will make the younger generation more patriotic and more proud of their country.


A brief History of the Great Living Chola Temples

The ancient rock temples of India are some of the greatest archaeological treasures of the country and priceless architectural heirlooms handed down to the human family and posterity. The creative effort and sculptural finesse bequeathed with supreme dedication on each bit of stone will make every viewer awe-struck.

The World Heritage Site recognised by UNESCO and named 'The Great Living Chola Temples' is a group of three monuments which were completed between the 11th and 12th century CE, viz. Brihadiswara Temple at Thanjavur, the Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavateswara Temple at Darasuram. The first of these was recognised in 1987 and the second and third were added as extensions in 2004.

The four criteria for recognition by the UNESCO were that:

  • 1. these temples represent an outstanding creative achievement in the architectural conception of the pure form of the Dravida type of temple
  • 2. the Brihadiswara Temple at Thanjavur became the first great example of the Chola temples followed by a development of which the other two properties also bear witness
  • 3. these temples are an exceptional and the most outstanding testimony to the development of the architecture of the Chola Empire and the Tamil civilisation in Southern India
  • 4. these temples are outstanding examples of the architecture and the representation of the Chola ideology.

The UNESCO also noticed that these temples show the evolution of Dravida architecture from the Chola to the Maratha period and all the three monuments are in a good state of preservation, with the tradition of temple worship and rituals continuing as practised over a thousand years ago.


The Chola Dynasty

In the history of southern India, the Chola dynasty was one of the longest-ruling dynasties. There is mention of it in a rock edict of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka inscribed in the 3rd century BCE. Until 13th century CE the dynasty continued its rule over varying territorial areas. The history of the Cholas falls into four periods, beginning with the early Cholas of the Sangam literature. However, the last reign of the Cholas from 850 CE to 1250 CE, was their most glorious period of military conquests and cultural achievements.

Though the heartland of their Kingdom was the Kaveri River valley, they ruled over a much larger area at the height of their power. For more than two centuries, it was a great military, economic and cultural power in South-East Asia, under the capable kings Rajaraja Chola-I, Rajendra Chola-I, Rajadhiraja Chola, Virarajendra Chola and Kulothunga Chola-I. The fleet of Chola Kingdom was the representation of the pinnacle of India's supreme power over the oceans.

King Rajaraja Chola conquered South India including Sri Lanka and Maldives. King Rajendra Chola sent a victorious expedition to North India that reached the River Ganges and defeated the Ruler of Pataliputra. He invaded cities of Srivijaya of Malaysia and Indonesia. The Chola dynasty declined by the beginning of the 13th century CE and was overpowered by the Pandyan Dynasty.

The Chola Kings left a lasting legacy of their patronage of art, literature and architecture. They set up a centralised government and a disciplined bureaucracy. They envisioned temples as places of worship and economic activity. The Chola school of art spread all over South-East Asia and greatly influenced the architecture and art of these regions.


The Three Temples

1. The Brihadiswara Temple

One of the most visited temples in Tamil Nadu and the first of the three in the World Heritage Site, the Brihadiswara Temple at Thanjavur, dedicated to Shiva, is one of the largest South Indian temples and the model of the fully-blossomed Tamil architecture. It was built by Raja Raja Chola-I between 1003 and 1010 CE. The main temple has inscriptions, frescoes and sculptures related mostly to Shaivism, with representations of Vaishnvaism and Shaktism included. With one of the largest Shiva Linga and one of the tallest vimana towers in India, it has an enormous colonnaded corridor. The bronze Nataraja is believed to have been originally commissioned here.

2. The Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadiswara Temple

The Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadiswara Temple is located about 70 kilometres from Thanjavur Brihadiswara Temple. It was completed in 1035 CE by Rajendra Chola-I as part of his new capital and is similar in design to the Brihadiswara Temple at Thanjavur. Like the former, this temple also displays other traits of Hinduism besides the main deity Shiva. Bronze sculptures, artwork on its walls, the Nandi and the scale of its curvilinear tower make it stand out from the other two.

3. The Airavateswara Temple

The Airavateswara Temple, the third in the group, is in Darasuram, near Kumbakonam, and was completed in 1166 CE. It is dedicated to Shiva, and, like the other two, displays Vaishnavism and Shaktism traditions, major Vedic and Puranic deities such as Indra, Agni, Varuna, Vayu, Brahma, Surya, Vishnu, Saptamtrikas, Durga, Saraswati, Sridevi (Lakshmi), Ganga, Yamuna, Subrahmanya, Ganesha, Kama, Rati and others, as well as the legends of 63 Nayanars who were saints of Shaivist Bhakti movement. The chariot wheel with spokes is a major attraction. Though the gopuram is in ruins the temple continues to attract a large number of pilgrims.

Temple worship and rituals

The routine pooja and worship at these temples, including all the rites and rituals, continue without any change as they were observed and followed when the temples were built in the 11th and 12th centuries. Even the change of kings and trustees has not resulted in any change so far. This has been possible because of the inscriptions on the walls of the temple that specify the details of daily rituals to be conducted in the temple, the details of offerings and decorations to be made and rites for special worship on important days.



Pallavas and Cholas were the major Tamil kingdoms that nurtured the Dravidian Architecture. While the Pallavas used dwarfed gopurams, bricks, lion motifs, etc., the Cholas used stones instead of bricks, sculpted kings and queens in the place of lion motifs, decorated the walls with sculptures and paintings of deities, made the benign-faced dwarapalas (guardian figures) more fierce-looking with protruding tusks, and added an audience hall named the Mandapa. Modern architects wonder how stones weighing several tonnes were placed on top of tall towers without the help of cranes.

Some prominent features of Chola architecture are:

  • »Niche - architectural designs carved in the temple walls
  • »Devakusthas - niches in the walls where deities are sculpted
  • »Kudus - two lion heads on the curved roof of the pilasters
  • »Yazhi - mythical animals with which the base of the walls are decorated
  • »Arthamandapa and nandi mandapa with special decoration
  • »Parivardevatas - subsidiary shrines for other deities
  • »Inscriptions - on the walls with fitting architectural designs
  • »Shikara stone at the top with beautiful carvings