The temple that helped us understand more about the Cholas – Esalam -Part 1

Youngsters like Shashwath make us believe that the message of heritage and conservation will be taken to the Gen neXt and beyond. Today he takes us on a tour to Esalam via his guest post.

On a late January morning, a small group of us started on a trip down one of the most historical roads in the south, to find one of the most important places in Chola history.

When we met that morning, Arvind told us about this cluster of four temples within about 5 km of each other, and within a day’s journey from the city. When I got to know that one of the places on the list was Esalam, it was too much to resist. I didn’t know what to expect, except that it is a full stone temple, including the vimanam (which is rare enough), and that there was the “most beautiful Veenadhara Dakshinamurthy” ever. More on the temple itself shortly, but first, I must try to why I was so excited to see Esalam.

Often, it’s not the primary temple endowed by a ruler that tells us the most about them. In Gangaikondacholapuram, there is hardly anything that tells us anything about his builder, Rajendra I. Unlike his father, the “Chola who captured the Ganga” is something of an enigma, since the first available inscription at the temple he built is from the reign of his second son, Virarajendra. Who was he? What were his motivations? Who influenced him? Tough questions…

One of the places that help us piece together some of these answers is Esalam. It was here that a copper plate grant made by him was found, along with several wonderful bronzes.

As Dr. Nagaswamy (who translated the plate) describes the find, “On the 11th of August 1987, the inhabitants of Eslam a village near Villupuram, in South Arcot district, Tamilnadu, stuck upon a group of bronzes, temple utensils and a copper plate charter, within the temple premises of Tiru Ramanathesvara temple of the village, while carrying out renovation work to the temple.” The content of this copper plate is interesting and important, and Dr. Nagaswamy details it in the link above. Just some highlights before we go on: this grant details the creation of a new Devadana to support the temple, dedicated to Shiva in the form of Ramisvara, or Ramaanathesvara. What is most important about this place, and this record, is that this is no ordinary temple. It was built and endowed by Rajendra for his own Guru, the high priest of the Tanjore temple (and quite possibly, the temple at Cholapuram also), Sarvasiva Panditar. Hence, this is a royal temple – built by the strongest of the Cholas, as a gift to his preceptor. As such, some of the best craftsmen in the land would have been called on to work on it, and it shows!

Approaching the temple from the front, it doesn’t really look like much – a miniature modern gopuram greets you in all its garish oil-painted glory.

It’s when you go in, that you see a beautiful Chola temple.

The first thing we notice is this huge, bulbous dome of the Vimanam, almost Mid-Eastern in proportions, and the wonderful Balipeedam, with miniatures on all sides.

A stone-work window, with designs and dancing girls on the “bars” covers the front of the temple

and the entrance is off to the left side

The walls of the temple are covered in inscriptions

Around the temple are the Goshtas: Vinayaka, Dakshinamurthy, Vishnu, Brahma and Durga.

More in part 2 of this post

Iconography of an early Siva Lingam – Gudimallam

It was in the December of 2009 when me and Arvind set out on an interesting road trip – one of the uncharted sites we visited was the ruined Muchukunda temple ( very near to the Moovar Koil complex). Nestled midst lush green farms amidst an idyllic village setting, wading through about half a feet of slush we arrived at a pillared mandapa which was devoid of any sculptures. The assortment of pillars suggested that someone had attempted a complex puzzle assembling the structure from what appeared to be a mix and match of many different game pieces – they did not match. The Sanctum was dark and damp, rodent infested and the camera flash repeatedly failed to provide the illumination required to focus. In such uncomfortable settings on a empty stomach a chance click lit up the side of the Artha Mandapa. The seemingly heavy pillar rested on an innocuous looking sand bag miraculous showed up on the camera display.

We ventured closer and tortured the camera a few more times to get a clear shot in the near dark and there he was in all his glory. A Shiva Linga of truly massive proportions.

We had just met with a master Stapathy Sri Umapathy Acharya and in all my amateurish ignorance had asked him ” Which form would he consider the most difficult to sculpt” and prompt came the unexpected reply = ” Shiva Linga”. He went on to mention that he had conducted a two day session just on the Iconography of the Shiva Linga recently. I felt he was pulling my leg at that time. what was so difficult in sculpting something as simple as a Linga ! It has taken me almost 4 years to muster the courage and conviction to do a post on this ” simple” form.

For starters it is the most controversial of subjects in Hindu Iconography and being very much the amateur i am treading a precarious line here, but then what is so special about this form that has seen its spread across the nook and corner of not only India but deep into South East Asia – in central Vietnam, into Cambodia – and that too as early as the 6th and 7th Centuries ? Cannot believe it… Standing a full 4 feet tall, holding the pride of place among exhibits, the massive stone pillar is an awe inspiring site. On closer scrutiny, it is not any stone pillar but a Shiva linga and this is no Indian Museum – this is at the Museum of Vietnamese History, Hochi Minh city, Vietnam and is a local find. Fu Nan period, 6th C CE.

This isn’t some Vietnamese version of the Shiva Linga, rather one that has been perfectly sculpted as stipulated in the Agamas or the Iconographic canons. The main stem of the Linga seen here is paired with its pedestal called the Avudai to make up the Lingam you see in all our temples. Further, the main stem of the Linga is made up of three distinct parts – the bottom most being square shaped denoting the Brahma Bagam, the middle being octagonal – Vishnu Bagam and the topmost cylindrical being the Rudra Bagam. When matched with the Avudai which is circular at the base and oval on top, with a hole bored through it middle to receive the stem, the Brahma Bagam would be below the Avudai, the Vishnu Bagam within it and the Rudra Bagam would be visible on top. The actual dimensions, proportions and further intricacies like inscribing the lines of the Brahma sutras are subjects of serious study but it is worthy to note that in the Vietnamese Linga, there is a face sculpted just above the Vishnu Bagam. Such are called Mukha Lingams though the Indian variants have more pronounced features.

For those who are already feeling heady it is worthy to point out that one of the world’s oldest Shiva Linga is found in Gudimallam, situated about 21 kms from the more famous Kalahasti temple near Tirupathi. Dated to between 2nd C BCE and 1st C BCE, this imposing Linga measures an exact 5 feet in height and has one of most interesting sculptures carved on it.

For the keen observers it would immediately strike that this could also be on the earliest apsidal shrine as well ( though not as old as the Linga though!)

I am taking the liberty of posting some early photos from the ASI review 1973-74 – to show how the lower portion of the Linga could have been hidden by the rather crudely fashioned late day Yoni – which incidentally could have given rise to the version that the figure sculpted is Parasurama ( and a local legend forming to substantiate the story as well)

It is however not right to completely discredit the local legends since the two armed figure, holds a Ram/Goat by its hind legs with his right hand, holds a curiously shaped pitcher with his left hand and has an Axe slung over his left shoulder.

Scholars however are unanimous in the view that it is indeed Shiva ( the Parasu ofcourse being his choice of weapon) and shown standing on a rather grotesque Rakshasa, who is shown as kneeling down and supporting the weight with both his hands on his knees. His face is nowhere near the cute muyalakans we see in the Nataraja form – his ears are pointed like those of a bat and his cheeks marked with deep lines but he has a shrek like smirk with both rows of teeth exposed. His head dress and ornaments however, are sculpted in style.

An important start book for students of Hindu Iconography is Sri Gopinath Rao’s Elements of Hindu Iconography and am using some of his illustrations to further analyse this rare form – especially the ornamentation and designs.

It is important to notice that this early Linga is definitely a representation of a Phallus.

The shaft is seven sided which needs to studied as well.

The unique way in which the ram /Goat is held by its hind legs show that it is definitely a quarry brought back from a hunt and not the later day antelope being petted/fed. What is more interesting is though the lower torso is clothed – you can clear see the waist cloth ( not skin curiously again), the male organ is visible as well. The popular assumption being the garment being a thin cloth. What is important otherwise is the fact that the representation is not shown as Urdhva ( am sure some of you would have to google for it!).

This raises lot more fundamental questions – The most popular reason attributed to lack of pre 5th -6th C CE Hindu Icons is that stone was earlier associated with funerary stuff and hence they were made of wood or sudhai ( limestone mix). How come we have such an advanced stone sculpture predating the accepted timeline by over 800 years. The quality of workmanship, the detail, the ornamentation etc are far too advanced to state that this is a one off freak.

The features of the central figure is unique and the first impression is the feeling that its origin could not be from South India !

Am sure lot of questions will be raised in your comments….

Photo Credits: Mr Wasantha Fernando, Mr Gaman Palem, ASI Review 1973 -74 and Elements of Hindu Icongraphy – Sri Gopinath Rao.