The Brihadeshwara Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram is dedicated to Shiva and is considered as one of the largest temples of south India. It is part of the UNESCO heritage site of Great Living Chola Temples, along with the Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur and the Airavatesvara Temple, Darasuram. The temple at Thanjavur was included in the UNESCO list in 1984. In 2004, the other two were included in the list under the common heading of Great Living Chola Temples. The temple at Thanjavur dates back to 1010 and was constructed by Raja Raja Chola. Quarter century later, his son Rajendra Chola I came up with a similar temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram.
A panoramic view of the Brihadeshwara Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram
The temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram was constructed to celebrate the victorious march of Rajendra Chola I, up to the Ganga river in eastern India. The spire (vimana) of the Brihadeshwara Temple towers to a height of 55m and is just nine metres short of its previous counterpart at Thanjavur. Historians believe that Rajendra I deliberately kept the height lower as a tribute to his father Raja Raja I. Although shorter in height, the temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram has curvilinear contour, slightly concave towards the top, thus providing a more delicate and graceful look. It is somewhat feminine compared to the Thanjavur Temple, which has a straight and severe contour representing strength and masculinity.
The Nandi bull on the complex of Brihadeshwara Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple
The temple lies inside a walled complex with an entrance on the eastern side. The tower above the gateway has long collapsed. The visitors at the temple complex are welcomed by a huge statue of Nandi Bull, which faces the temple. The front portion of the temple is flanked with the Ardha-mandap and the Maha-mandap. They lie in the east-west axis and on the very end is the inner sanctum topped with the towering spire (vimana). The nine-tiered vimana is the star attraction of the temple. Each upper level repeats the lower level designs in a rhythmic shrinking pattern. However, shrinking is not linear with height. The towering spire of the temple is topped with a circular stupa-like structure carved out of a single giant rock. It is topped with a kalash, which was once gold plated.
Apart from the Brihadeshwara Temple, the complex at Gangaikonda Cholapuram houses many smaller temples dedicated to several other deities along with several structures of Nandi bull and lion-shaped wells.
Aman Temple inside the complex of Brihadeshwara
A flat-roofed ancient structure at the complex serves as the office of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the custodian of the temple. The complex is surrounded by a cloister wall and has gates in the four cardinal directions, out of which the east gate is functional. The north gate has some scattered statues, which are collected from the temple complex.
Gates of Brihadeshwara Temple, guarded by Dwarpalas
The walls of the main temple and those of the surrounding minor temples are richly decorated with the finest sculptures depicting fierce Dwarpalas (guards at the door) to the goddesses of Laxami and Saraswati. You can also see figures ranging from Nataraj, the king of dancers, the three headed Brahma, the half-man and half-woman Ardhanarirswar to the elephant-headed god Ganesha.