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Karnataka and South India - 07 Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience


Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple, also known as Brihadeshwara Temple and Gangaikondacholeeswaram, is a temple dedicated to Shiva located in Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Ariyalur district, in Tamil Nadu.

It is one of the largest temples in India and is an example of Dravidian architecture built by the Chola dynasty.

The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, referred to as one of the Great Living Chola Temples.  The temple is declared as a heritage monument and administered by the Archaeological Survey of India as a protected monument.


The temple was constructed in 1035 AD by Rajendra Chola I (1014-44 CE), the son of the famous Chola king Raja Raja Chola I, who built the Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur.  Rajendra wanted to emulate the temple built by his father, after his victory in the Ganges over the Pala Dynasty. He assumed the name of Gangaikonda Cholan, meaning the one who conquered the Ganges, and established Gangaikonda Cholapuram as his capital, transferring it from the medieval Chola capital of Thanjavur.  Gangaikonda Cholapuram remained the capital for 250 years.


It is believed from the inscriptions and the excavations made during the 1980s, that it was a planned city with palaces and fortified walls, with the temple in the centre. It is believed that Rajendra redirected all the endowments of the Brihadeeswar temple at Thanjavur to this temple, at the same time transferring the same craftsmen used by his father from Thanjavur.  Muvar Ula, a treatise on the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas, provides a vivid account of the city and the temple. Like the Thanjavur temple, this temple is also believed to have emerged as a centre of social, economical and political activities. Cultural activities like music, dance and art in the form of bronzes were encouraged and staged in the temple.

Most of the Chola kings after Rajendra I had their coronation at Gangaikonda Cholapuram. The Pandyas overpowered the Cholas during the latter part of 13th century and to avenge their previous defeats, they destroyed the city and palaces, leaving just the temple and its surroundings.  In modern times, the temple stands amidst dilapidated walls.


The site

Brihadeeswara temple is built on an elevated structure with the courtyard measuring 560 ft (170 m) by 320 ft (98 m). The principal section of the court measures 104 m (341 ft) by 30.5 m (100 ft) with an east-west axis.

The Pyramid

The vimanam (temple tower) is 55 m (180 ft) high and modelled similar to the Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur. The vimanam (temple tower) is 3 m (9.8 ft) smaller than the Thanjavur temple.

The sanctum measures 100 sq ft (9.3 m2) and is approached through the columned Mukhamandapa and an Ardhamandapa (hall of sacrifice). The sanctum is guarded by Dvarapalas, the guardian deities, each 6 ft (1.8 m) tall.  There are around 50 sculptural relief around the walls of the sanctum and many bronze statues in the temple representing Chola art of the 11 century.


Compared to the Thanjavur temple, which has straight contours, this temple has concave contours, divided into eight zones. “Experts believe that the decision to make it smaller than the Thanjavur temple, built by Raja Raja Chola I (984 - 1014 CE), the father of Rajendra I is considering the father - son hereditary aspect and also to treat this as the feminine equivalent of the Thanjavur temple.”

Lingam and yoni

 The Lingam is 4 m (13 ft) tall and is the largest for any Shiva temple.

Bull and cow

There is an image of Nandi located axially 200 m (660 ft) facing the sanctum, which is constructed in such a way that it reflects Sun light on to the sanctum. The bull is made of stucco and fallen stones.


There are five shrines around the sanctum and a Lion well, which ‘is believed to be an addition during the 19th century’. It is a little incongruous and although lions have their own symbolism, it seems inappropriate here.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items

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Creating a sacred geography