Review of The Three Great Living Temples, World Heritage Landmarks: Breathing life into stone

A new coffee table book celebrates three old Chola temples

Published - August 19, 2022 11:34 am IST

The book offers basic information, available across publications, on the three temples.

The book offers basic information, available across publications, on the three temples.

The Three Great Living Temples, World Heritage Landmarks, co-authored by S. Rajavelu and Ram Shankar, is a glossy, coffee-table addition to other tomes on the history of the Chola dynasty. The three temples were built between the 11th and 12th centuries CE, considered the golden age of the Chola empire. 

In the past, noted art historian C. Sivaramamurti chronicled the architecture of the period in The Chola Temples: Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram & Darasuram. S.R. Balasubrahmanyam produced several volumes, Early Chola Art, Early Chola Temples, Middle Chola Temples and Later Chola Temples. His son, B. Venkataraman, inherited a passion for the art and history of the period, and wrote several books too. In fact, Venkataraman was the first historian to compile information on the Rajarajesvaram and the Brihadisvara temples at Thanjavur from the long epigraphs available there. P.S. Sriraman, former Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, wrote a volume called Chola Murals, in which he documented and re-interpreted the Chola murals at the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur. 

Prior to Sivaramamurti and Balasubrahmanyam, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri pioneered research on the history of the Cholas. B. Rasamanikanar wrote on the subject in Tamil. H. Sarkar authored a book on the Kampaharesvara temple at Tirubhuvanam, built by the Chola king Kulotunga III (regnal years 1178 – 1218 CE). This temple is popularly called the fourth great Living Chola temple. Other scholars such as Noboru Karashima and Y. Subbarayalu have written insightful volumes on the Cholas’ economic, social and administrative history.  Sriraman and Rajavelu have published volumes separately on the Chola murals, the former in English and the latter in Tamil. 

Majestic architecture 

The book under review, authored by Rajavelu and Ram Shankar, is the first coffee-table book on the Brihadisvara temple, known in the inscriptions as Rajarajesvaram, at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, and the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram. They were built respectively by Raja Raja Chola (985-1014 CE), his son Rajendra Chola (1012 CE-1044 CE) and Rajaraja II (1143-1173 CE) between 1003 CE and 1173 CE. It is indeed puzzling why the word ‘Chola’ is missing from the title. 

Thanks to their architectural beauty, sculptural wealth, bronzes, murals and inscriptions, UNESCO inscribed the three temples as World Heritage Sites. The Archaeological Survey of India has declared them “protected sites of national importance.” They are living Chola temples in the Kaveri delta region, and worship is extant in them. 

The book is essentially a photo essay, with illustrations by the artist Maniam Selvan. It is, therefore, limited in scope with the text added on to the excellent photographs. It offers basic, well-known information, available across publications, on the three temples’ architecture, structural engineering, gopuramsvimanas, sculptures, bronzes, karanas, inscriptions, frescoes and miniature bas reliefs. 

In the chapter on ‘Rajarajiswaram’, as the book adamantly calls the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur, the writers point out that its majestic vimana is hollow inside, which is a marvel of high precision structural engineering. There is an interesting story on how a big Nandi (bull), originally to be installed at the temple, was damaged and abandoned at Sanyasikuppam village near Puducherry. Rajaraja Chola arranged for a small Nandi to be installed in the temple he built. Subsequently, the Nayaka rulers installed a big Nandi, which is still worshipped. 

It throws light on the themes of the exquisite Raja Raja Chola-period frescoes, the sculptures portraying the five aspects of Siva, the karana carvings and niche sculptures.  There is a useful table on the evolution of various structures in the Brihadisvara complex, how Rajaraja Chola built the main temple with its gopuras, the vimana, the various mantapas and the Chandikesvara shrine; the additional shrines were built by the later-day Pandya, Nayaka and Maratha kings. A majority of the inscriptions belongs to Rajaraja’s period and they talk about liberal donations from him, his sister and wives for building the temple and his gold-plating its vimana

Rajendra Chola built the Brihadisvara temple, called Gangaikondacholapuram in the book, in the style of the temple his father built at Thanjavur. The writers describe the incredibly beautiful niche sculptures of Chandesa Anugrahamurti, Sarasvati, the Nataraja, and Ardhanarisvara. The chapter on the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram gives details of the Rajagambhira Mantapam with its ornate pillars and the series of miniature bas reliefs depicting the life-stories of the Nayanmars or the Saivite saints. 

But there are several editing bloopers which mar the reading experience. Even words such as Rajarajesvaram and Brihadisvara are misspelt. Several sentences have technical terms in Sanskrit which are not explained in the glossary. The book appears to have been written in a hurry, and that is a disservice to the monuments it writes about. 

The Three Great Living Temples, World Heritage Landmarks; S. Rajavelu & Ram Shankar, Grantha Research Foundation and Universal Publishing, Chennai, ₹1,300.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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