Gangaikondacholapuram resonates with the tales of a legendary father and son

The sculpture calls out to me. Carved in stone is the story of a devout cowherd called Chandesa who worships an icon of Shiva on sand and anoints it with milk. His father angrily strikes him, and Chandesa retaliates.

His staff turns into an axe, chopping off his father’s legs, just when Shiva lands on the scene and accepts him into his fold.

When the guide finishes his narration, it seems just another tale from Indian mythology; but it does not end there. “See the sculpture carefully; the cowherd is a prince, and the prince is the great Rajendra Chola 1,” he says, explaining that this could be an allegory.

Engraved in stone is the coronation ceremony of Rajendra Chola 1, graced by Shiva and Parvati as the prince dedicates all his laurels to them.

The sculpture that depicts this celebrated moment is the famous Chandesanugraha murthi panel from the Brihadeshwara temple.

I am in Gangaikondacholapuram, the long-lost Capital of Rajendra Chola 1, which has mysteriously disappeared leaving behind this mammoth temple.

 King of the world

This was the town that once ruled all of India up to the Gangetic plain, and also Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Malaysia and Indonesia.

When Rajendra Chola 1 conquered the Gangetic plain, he built a lookalike of the Brihadeshwara temple (built by his father, Raja Raja Chola I) in his new-found capital, Gangaikondacholapuram. However, he did not complete the temple.

The towering 180-feet-tall Vimana seems to touch the sky. A majestic Nandi obstructs our gaze. A few gardeners tend to the lawn, while we soak in the ambience. Various forms of Shiva captured in different moods stand out in the artistic mosaic.

A giant lion-shaped sculpture, called Simhakinar, in the form of the Chola emblem stares at you.

“This is the way the defeated kings used to go down, and pour the water they brought from the Ganga,” says the guide. I peer down, and see a flight of steps leading through a tunnel into a huge well filled with murky water.

Huge reservoir

Rajendra built another huge reservoir, which was about 22 km long, and the armies used elephants to bring water from the river.

“He had brought back more than 1,000 pots of holy Ganga water, and performed the Kumbabhishekam,” adds my guide.

We move on looking for the palace, and reach a small mound close by called Malligai medu, near a small village called Ulkottai.

A spectacle of sand and rocks greet us.

Recent excavations

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 is.

A Buddha stands on the stony pavement along with some banana vendors as we enter the hut. Smiling silently at me is the King himself from a painting against the wall.

The image stays with me as we drive down the highway.