The Chola Temple at Pullamangai|
General composition of an early Chola temple
Before getting into the specifics of Thiruvalanthurai Mahadevar temple, it will be worthwhile to understand the general composition of an early Chola temple in terms of its overall architecture. Later on, we can refer to these generalities and quote exceptions and experiments that characterize the temple at Pullamangai, appropriately.
The Sanctum Sanctorum
The core of any Hindu temple is the Sanctum Sanctorum, wherein the presiding deity resides. The term ‘Garba Griha’ which is used to denote the Sanctum proper has profound meaning in the context of what a Hindu temple really symbolizes(1). The entire temple complex evolves around this core structure.
Though only an image or a symbolic representation of the deity is physically seen in the Sanctorum, Hindus believe that the very spirit of the cosmic deity is embodied on to this image. In other words, what is enshrined inside the Sanctum Sanctorum is the divinity itself and not just a symbolic representation.
Complex religious rites, called ‘Garba Nyasa’ are performed during the consecration of the temple, to embody the spirit of divinity into the image. At the end of these rituals, the image becomes a physical manifestation of that which is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient.
The physical structure that represents a Sanctum Sanctorum had taken a well definite shape and form during the period of Pallavas (8th Century AD). It usually constitutes a square or rectangular cell(2), hosting a representation of the main deity. Only one major opening is provided to this cell, usually in the direction which the temple faces; and most temples face East. Other openings are symbolically implied in the form of niches on the outer walls of this cell. Each of these niches may host an image which is a representation of either an aspect of the main deity or a sub-deity connected to the temple.
The cell is crowned by a tower. This Sanctum Sanctorum structure constituting the cell and the crowning tower was collectively referred to as the ‘Sri Vimana’.
The Sanctum Sanctorum and the crowning tower, together constituting the ‘Sri Vimana’ of Shiva temple at Thiruppalanam, Kumbakonam district. Early Chola style
A small to medium sized hall is usually attached to this core structure, wherein devotees can stand and worship the main deity. This hall, usually rectangular in shape, is known as the ‘Artha Mandapa’. If a small recess is provided in between the Sanctum and the Artha Mandapa, it bore the name ‘Antharala’ (‘IdaiNazhigai’ - இடைநாழிகை). These Artha Mandapas are mostly pillared in early Chola temples.
Artha Mandapa is followed by another pillared hall, called the ‘Mukha Mandapa’ and is usually larger in size than the Artha Mandapa.
The main temple and the Ashta Parivaara sub-temples at Vijayala Choleeswaram, Naarthamalai, Pudukkottai district
Smaller sub-temples are studded in all the four directions around this tri-structure, accommodating sub-deities or ‘Parivaara Devatas’. In many early Chola temples, the original sub-temples have either been lost or have undergone significant modifications. For temples of Lord Shiva, these Parivaara Devatas are found to be eight in number (Ashta Parivaara).
The structures discussed above, when enclosed within an ambulatory wall, constitutes a true and original early Chola temple.
When the temples underwent further modifications during the subsequent ages, these ambulatory walls gave way to newer shrines, halls and other structures - resulting in multiple ambulatories around the core structures. These ambulatory passages were known as Thiruchutrus (TAMIL) in inscriptions. Very many sub-deities were attached to each of these passages, eventually culminating into five different ambulatories for Shaivite temples and seven ambulatories for Vaishnavite temples in later days.
Thus, we should note that the original structures in a Chola temple of common variety is restricted to Sanctum Sanctorum, Artha Mandapa, possibly Mukha Mandapa and Shrines for Parivaara Devatas (3).
Basement (Adhistana - தாங்குதளம்)
The entire Sri Vimana portion is supported by a strong basement, called Adhistana. There are specific designs in Adhistana varieties, each constituting its component members and composition. Sometimes, in order to provide a better elevation to the Sri Vimana structure, the Adhistana itself is placed on top of another additional basement - called Upa Pitha or Supplementary basement. Like Adhistanas, there are various varieties and creeds in Upa Pithas.
Adhistana of Padha bandha variety, supporting the temple structure. Shiva temple at Thiruppalanam, Kumbakonam district
It is often seen that the design adopted for the Sri Vimana basement is carried over to cover Artha and Mukha Mandapas as well. This is to maintain some form of symmetry across the entire temple. If different varieties are Adhistanas are combined together, then it is called a differential basement or Varkha Bedha Adhistana.
Segmentation (Bhadras - பத்திகள்)
As we look at the outer structure of Sri Vimana that rises from the basement, we can see that in any given direction, the structure can be divided into several segments, called Bhadras or Patthis. Depending upon the complexity of the structure, there could be three to five segments. This segmentation is applied to the Sanctorum walls (often considered as the base tier or Adhi Thala) as well as the different tiers of the Sri Vimana tower.
The segment in the middle is called Sala Bhadra (Salaip Patthi) and the ones on the corners are called Karna Bhadras (Karnap Patthi). In between Sala and Karna Bhadras, Panchara Bhadras may be present.
Single Sala bhadra has three niches, while the Karna bhadras do not have any niche. Shiva temple at Thiruppalanam, Kumbakonam district
Usually, Karna and Sala Bhadras are projected several inches out of the wall, in order to provide a differential to the wall surface. In some cases, just the Sala Bhadras alone may be projected. This projected Sala Bhadra usually hosts a niche, called Koshta, that might hold a deity connected with the temple.
By late 8th Century AD, a level of standardization had come upon the choice of the deities that would occupy these niches, as listed below:
- Lord Dakshinamoorthi in the Southern Niche
- Lord Vishnu or Lingothbhava on the Western Niche
- Lord Brahma on the Northern niche
In certain situations, this widely adopted grammar was not adhered to, for reasons that are hard to explain. For example, we find Karthikeya or Skanda, one of the sub-deities or Parivaara Devatas, adorning the walls of early Chola period temples at Pazhuvoor (Vada Vayil Srikoil and Then Vayil Srikoil)(4)
Usually, no niches or Koshtas are seen in Karna Bhadras. Raajarajeeswaram or the Big temple at Thanjavore is an exceptional example, wherein each segment - Karna, Sala and Panchara - hosts a niche.
Karna Bhadras are usually crowned by a small cubical unit called Karna Kutas, while the Sala Bhadras have Salas. It is said that Karna Kutas are nothing but a miniature version of Nagara (or rectangular) Vimanas and likewise Salas are miniatures of Sala Vimanas. The mini walls that bridge the Karna Kutas and Salas are called Hara recesses or Hara walls ( ஆரச்சுவர்).
Salas might be provided a niche called Sala Koshta, hosting deities associated with the temple. Depending upon the complexity of the temple design adopted, Sala Koshtas might be provided in one or more tiers.
The tower that rises above the Sanctum walls may constitute One, Two or Three tiers. Such Vimanas are known as Eka Tala, Dwi Tala and Tri Tala Vimanas - respectively.
We saw in the previous section that the Karna and Sala Bhadras are crowned by miniature members or components. The second tier walls usually rise behind these members. The segments in these walls may or may not be projected out, but they are mostly crowned by Kutas and Salas like the base tier.
If enough space is provided in between these walls and the hara recesses for devotees to circumambulate the Sri Vimana, then such a structure shall be termed as Anarpitha. A good example of such a Sri Vimana is seen at the Dharmaraja Ratha at Mamallapuram. If no space is provided in between the two, then the Vimana is of Arpitha variety. Many early Chola temples are of Arpitha variety.
The Griva or the neck portion rises above the tiers, providing a recess below the rising Shikara or bulbous member. The Stupi is the top most member, ending the entire Srivimana Structure. Niches are provided in the Griva portion, hosting additional gods; these Niches are called Griva Koshtas. Most structural temples of Pallava period have Griva Koshtas. The Vijayalaya Choleeswaram temple of Naarthamalai - supposedly belonging to the reign of Muttaraiyars who ruled Chola heartland before Cholas hosts excellent Griva Koshtas.
The Shikara may be beautified with Nasikas; and because of their big size, they are termed ‘Maha Nasikas’.
Artha Mandapa and Mukha Mandapa
The outer walls of Artha Mandapa and Mukha Mandapas were mostly simple structures during the period of early Cholas, with few notable exceptions. It was only during the period of middle and later Cholas that these walls became more elaborate and complex - hosting a number of deities and sub-deities.
We saw that Artha Mandapas were mostly pillared. These pillars underwent significant changes (in terms of their members and design) over the Centuries and today, they help us to identify / attest the originality of the Structure. For example, it will be found that many Chola temples belonging to the age of Parantaka Chola-I, the pillars supporting the Artha Mandapa structure exhibit striking similarities in their design and composition.
Artha Mandapa pillars of Parantaka temples are mostly of Vishnukantha or Isakantha variety. The Podikas or the pillar arms that support the ceiling on the top, came to adopt a very peculiar pattern. The simpler waves (or Tharangams) in Podikas (introduced by Mahendra Pallava-I) gave way to a slightly complex Kulavu Podikas. This variation is achieved by reversing one tide in the middle in the opposite direction - giving a differential rhythm. Though such types of Podikas are found in earlier creations like the Muttaraiyar built cave temple at Malaiyadippati, Scholars consider that this pattern came into a wider adoption only during Parantaka’s period.The Pali portion is bulbuous and looks downwards.
In many Chola temples, the original Mukha Mandapas have been altered or modified during subsequent renovation / expansion. They are usually bigger in size and are supported by more pillars.
(Series in progress...)
(1) For a detailed treatment on the symbolism of a Hindu temple, please refer Stella Krarmrisch ‘The Hindu Temple’ - Two volumes. For a brief introduction to the same subject, refer Krishna Deva’s ‘Temples of North India’
(2)Circular Sanctorum cells are also seen in few places. A famous example is the Vijayalaya Choleeswaram Temple at Naarthamalai, Tamilnadu
(3)Of course, there are few exceptions to this generic rule - like the Raajarajeswaram complexs of Thanjavore and Dharasuram. However, these are major Chola complexes and fall out of what we call as a ‘common variety’
(4)Interestingly, Skanda is seen on the eastern niche of Arjuna Ratha at Mamallapuram, which dates back to Pallava period.
Srinivasan, K.R 1982 : Temples of South India, National Book Trust, Chennai
Balasubrahmanyam, S.R 1971: Early Chola Temples, Orient Longman, Bombay