Chola Art and its Architecture

The Cholas were incredible builders. They continued and developed the art tradition of the Pallavas and Pandyas, whom they succeeded in building long-lasting stone temples and exquisite bronze sculptures. Under the Cholas, temple architecture, particularly the Dravida or south Indian style of temple building, reached its pinnacle of glory. During the Cholas' nearly four-century rule, the entire Tamil country was studded with temples, and Chola art traditions were adopted and followed in Sri Lanka and other parts of South India.

Monumental Gateway, Brihadishvara Temple, Thanjavur
(CC by Jean-Pierre Dalbera)

Chola Architecture's main characteristics included:

  • The gopuram or the gateway.
  • The garbhagriha or the main shrine.
  • The mandapa or the audience hall.
  • The vimanas or the towers above the main shrine.
  • The spacious courtyards.
The Chola temples were notable for their massive towers, known as vimanas. The vimana or tower in the Brihadeswara or Rajarajesvara temple, built by Rajaraja I and dedicated to Lord Shiva, is approximately 57 metres high and consists of thirteen successive storeys. It is crowned by a single block of granite that stands 7.5 metres tall and weighs approximately 80 tonnes. Similarly, Rajendra I built a magnificent temple in his new capital. Cholapuram, Gangaikonda. Other temples built during this time period include Rajaraja Chola II's Airavateswara Temple at Darasuram near Thanjavur and Kulothunga Chola III's Kampaharesvara Temple at Tribhuvanam near Kumbakonam.During this time, the Chola temples were the hub of social activity. The temple received numerous generous donations. These temples also created a lot of job opportunities by hiring people to help with the day-to-day operations of these places. The temple authorities also pursued many welfare activities, such as temples serving as schools.

Nataraja Temple
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The Cholas also promoted plastic art; the metal and stone images cast during the period are exquisitely executed and exude vigour, dignity, and grace. The famous Nataraja or Dancing Shiva image at Chidambaram's great temple is a masterpiece of Chola sculpture. Many of these images were also cast in bronze. The Chola period's "cultural epitome" has been described as this Nataraja.

The Cholas were also fans of painting. Of all the Chola paintings, the most important are those in the pradakshina passage of the Rajarajesvara Temple. Chola wall paintings, also known as frescoes, can be found on the walls of the Vijayalaya Cholesvara Temple. Large painted figures of Mahakala, Devi, and Shiva adorn it. Scenes depicting Lord Shiva in his abode of Kailash as Nataraja and tripurantaka are painted on the walls of the Rajarajesvara Temple in large and forceful compositions.

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