Tamil Nadu is known for large temples with multiple gopurams (towers at the entrance), and passageways or praharas constructed in stone. The existing gopurams in most temples we see, had been added in bricks and painted with vibrant colours in the later years under subsequent kings. The entire structure of many such shrines has changed with time.
But Vijayalaya Cholisvaram temple at Narttamalai village in Pudukkottai district is an excellent example of early Chola architecture, that remains intact with not much further additions for the past 1200 years. Though smaller in size compared to other temples, the entire structure from base to the top had been constructed in stone. It is the forerunner of the Chola temples.
Situated atop Melamalai hill, the temple was built by Vijayalaya Cholan (850 – 871 CE), founder of the imperial Chola dynasty that dominated South India for the next four centuries. Narttamalai village has a cluster of 9 hills and also houses 2 rock-cut cave temples one for shiva and another for Vishnu. The village was earlier known as ‘Nagarathar Malai’ as it was under the administration of merchants of the erstwhile dynasties.
During the time of Pallavas and Cholas, circa 7th century to 13th century, this place had considerable political and cultural importance. Granite from the hillocks here was used for the construction of many temples in the neighbourhood, including the Thanjavur Big Temple. Now Narttamalai, situated 17 km from Pudukkottai district, on the Trichy-Pudukkottai Highway is often passed unnoticed by the travellers.
It is a structural stone temple, with a main shrine in the centre and eight sub-shrines around it, out of which only six remain today. Each of these has a square sanctum with a bulbous sikara over it and a rectangular open mandapa in front. Traces of a wall surrounding the enclosure with the gateway in the east can be seen. There is no gopuram at the entrance of the monument.
The tower on top of the garbagriha (santum sanctorum) or the main shrine is four-storied with a circular shikara, to match with the circular garbagriha. The stone stupi (filial), which once should have graced the top of the shikara is missing. Since the time of its construction intersects with the Pallava regime, the vimana resembles the Pallava monuments in Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram.
The Ardhamandapa in front of the sanctum has 6 pillars. The mandapa has a wall enclosure and a flat ceiling. Over this is a parapet wall decorated with a series of miniature shrines called panjaras. The outer wall of the ardhamandapa has a row of yazhi and elephant sculptures running around the entire shrine. This embellished frieze adds to the beauty of the structure.
The entrance guards outside the ardhamandapa are 5 feet tall. These two dvarapalas have two hands – one resting on a club and the other in a wondering pose. Their armlets, bracelets, necklaces, belts, and sacred thread can be considered typical features of sculptures of the age of Vijayalaya.
The nandhi outside the main shrine is placed inside a small mandapa with four pillars. Now, the nandhi sits in bare sunlight as the terrace above the pillars is missing.
Vijayalaya Cholisvaram is unique in a number of ways. The first being that it is the earliest and grandest of the early Chola structural temples. It has a circular garbagriha, which only few South Indian temples have. Most of the temples have either a square or a rectangular garbagriha. The existing sub-shrines, though without idols in them, are still intact, clearly bringing out the general layout of the temple. Several stunning sculptures of this temple such as the Saptamaatrikas, Vindhara Dakshinamurti, and more can be seen even now in the Govt. Museum of Pudukkottai. There is no doubt that this granite masterpiece has set the tone for the grandeur of the Chola architecture in the coming centuries.
Special thanks to my friend Mr. Maheshwaran for the photos.