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

9 thoughts on “The temple that helped us understand more about the Cholas – Esalam -Part 1

  1. I spent a day here. The villagers described me about the find. They said that the sand looked Golden in colour. They thought that it contains Gold ( Thanga baspam) and mixed it with water and drank. The entire village folks consumed the sand.

  2. Hello Vijay,
    I enjoyed reading thru some of your blog posts. I am the owner of Lotus Sculpture. We sell Hindu and Buddhist sculpture thru our website
    I was hoping/imagining that there are some ways we can work together as we both have obvious interests in similar subjects…
    Maybe you could be a guest blogger on my site and I can help bring people to your site? I am open to ideas…
    Warm regards,

  3. புதிதாக கட்டிய வீட்டிற்கு ஒரு முருகன் பெயர் தேடிக்கொண்டிருந்தேன். அப்போது சோமஸ்கந்தர் என்று சர்ச் செய்த போது , எதேச்சையாக உங்கள் வலைபக்கத்தை பார்த்து வியந்து போனேன். உங்களின் அணைத்து தொகுப்புகளையும் படித்துக்கொண்டிருக்கிறேன்.
    கல்கியை படித்த நாள்முதல் ஓவியத்திலும் & சிற்பத்திலும் அதீத ஆர்வம் மிகுந்தது. ஆர்வமிருந்தாலும் பல இடங்களுக்கு போய் பார்த்து ரசிக்க வாய்ப்பு கிடைக்கவில்லை. இந்த வலைத்தளம் ஏன் மனக்குறையை தீர்த்தது.
    உங்களின் முயற்சிக்கு வாழ்த்த்துகள்.

  4. In Bengal and India Copper plate inscriptions (tamarashasana), usually record grants of land or lists of royal lineages carrying the royal seal, a profusion of which have been found . These inscriptions were legal documents such as title-deeds they were etched on a cave or temple wall, were then secreted in a safe place such as within the walls or foundation of a temple, or hidden in stone caches in fields. The earliest authenticated plates were issued by the Pallava dynasty kings in the 4th century A.D. The use of copper plate inscriptions increased and for several centuries they remained the primary source of legal records. This is the first copperplate record of a grant by the Sena Dynasty .

  5. The copper plates were of various sizes and there was no uniformity on the inscriptions. It is very puzzling, nay baffling, to understand how scholars agreed on the contents of the copper plates. First, these plates did not convey clearly the authorship of each of the compositions inscribed on them. Second, the language and notations used are from over 400 years back. The words and notations are either outdated, not in use any more or have a different meaning in the current context. Third, many of the plates are missing and therefore it was impossible to arrive at the original sequencing of the copper plates. In the mean time there were reports of discovery of copper plates and palmleaf manuscripts from various locations across entire Southern India. In addition what’s found on the copper plates must be corroborated with the findings from history of the region as well as with the inscriptions across various temples. In short the amount of research needed to understand the complete landscape of the new findings is humongous . The challenge of fully understanding the contents will continue for decades to come. While the scholars continue to pour in their brilliance on these research topics, the common man happily bathes in the new spirituality and philosophy offered by the compositions of Annamacharya.

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