The first phase of Chola artistic activity can be dated from the ninth to the early half of the tenth century CE, the temples during this early phase were generally constructed entirely in stone and were smaller in size.
The plan of the early temples consisted of a vimana and an ardhmandapa. The entire complex was surrounded by aprakara and a small gopuram was placed at the principal entrance, the super structure of which was constructed in brick.
Vidya Dehejia mentions that the most intriguing and idiosyncratic of these temples is perhaps the Nageshvara Temple at Kumbakonam, completed in 886 AD.
The central aedicular niches on the three side walls of the shrine,, as well as the two on the walls of the hall in front, are here flanked by further niches with elegant maleand female figures, that appear as if about to step forwards. They perhaps represent members of the royal household, together with their gurus and preceptors-or possibly they are the various characters of the Ramayana epic.
The aedicular niche on the rear wall of the shrine contains a sinuous, elegant stone image of Shiv in his androgynous form as Ardhanari; the two flanking figures of aristocratic males have been identified as Rama, hero of the epic, and his brother Lakshmana. Around the corner from Rama, in a flanking niche onthe side wall, is a sensuous princess, perhaps Rama’s wife Sita.
In this small, exquisitely sculpted shrine, the master stone sculptor has imbued every image with vitality, beauty and élan.
Another fine example of the early Chola architecture is the Brahmapurishvara temple at Pullamangai in Papanasam district, twenty kilometers from Tanjavur.
The temple is dated to 910 CE and was constructed under the reign of Parantaka I, dedicated to Shiva the temple faces east and consists of a vimana and anardhmandapa.
The outer walls of the temple contain images of various Brahmanical gods and goddesses, these sculptures are some of the finest Chola sculptures carved in stone and show extraordinary grace and delicacy.
The adhisthana of the temple has a beautifully carved frieze of yalis. Sculptures of exceptionally beautifully carved ganas appear at various places on the temple walls, they are carved with great skill and delicacy and are represented in various moods and poses.
The next impetus for the Chola architecture came under the patronage of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, wife of Chola king Gandaraditya (949-957 CE).
Though not many new temples were constructed under her, she is said to have replaced a number of existing brick temples with stone.
The quality of Chola stone sculpture became deteriorated, the sculpture became stiff marking a deviation from the early graceful and delicate style. Nevertheless, she had a sense of the historical which is reflected in when she rebuilt a number of earlier brick temples in stone, she reinscribed the prior donative inscriptions before adding her own. It was during her reign too that the characteristic images of Shiva Nataraja became established in both stoneand bronze.
The Agastyeshvara temple at Anangur, Tamil Nadu is said to be built by her in 979 CE.
Chola Temple Architecture: Second Phase
The next phase of Chola architecture began with the accession of Sembiyan’s grandson: Rajaraja I (985-1012CE) and continued under the reign of his son Rajendra Chola (1012-1044 CE).
Under the rule of Rajaraja the Chola Empire reached its zenith, he conquered parts of Kerala, Coorg, lower and eastern Karnataka. In 993 CE he also led naval expeditions to Sri Lanka and Maldives. Rajaraja not only patronized Brahmanical temples and deities, under his rule a number of Jaina and Buddhist religious structures were also constructed.
This phase of Chola architecture was marked by construction of large, grand temples with multiple stories- Brihadishvara temples at Thanjavur and at Gangaikondacholapuram are two examples of this phase of Cholaarchitecture.
The Brihadishvara temple at Tanjavur (also known as the Rajarajeshwara Temple) during its time of construction, was one of the largest buildings to be constructed in the world. Its many inscriptions make clear the triumphalist nature of the edifice. Dedicated to Shiva the temple, the temple took 15 years to build (995-1010 AD) though Rajaraja did not live to see its completion. Its construction was partly funded by war booty and tributes from Sri Lanka. It also received gifts from the emperor, his queen, and officials.
The number of architects, accountants, guards, and functionaries and the names of numerous temple dancers, as well asdetails of the land revenue allocated towards its maintenance were engraved meticulously on the temple walls and formed a public record of the affairs of this institution central to the Chola capital.
The small, exquisitely decorated temples, constructed by Rajaraja’s predecessors had walls approximately 4.5m (15 ft) high, while the tallest shikhara rose to 10.5 m (35 ft). However, the base on which Rajaraja’s Brihadishvara temple at Thanjavur stands is itself 4.5 m. Its square sanctum enshrining a monumental stonelinga, is surrounded by circumambulatory paths at two levels. The two-storeyed sanctum is also surrounded by a profusion of sculptures and murals-the earliest depictions of classical dances poses (karanas), A flat roofcovers the sanctum at a height of 10.5 m (35 ft) above which the shikhara commences its graceful inwards slope, as a hollow pyramid in thirteen horizontal stages. A recently discovered inscription seems to indicate that gold plate may have been applied to parts of the shikhara. A square platform caps the tower, repeating precisely the size of the sanctum that lies directly below. The conspicuous tower consists of fifteen closely stacked diminishing tiers ending with a massive capstone of a single lock of granite above a guilded base. Upon this capstone was placed an immense stupi originally plated with gold, and crowning it was a copper kalash presented by the succedding emperor in 1010 AD to signify the completion of the temple project. The kutta and sala ornaments are on a grand scale with elaborate fan shapes in the midlle portion (all three decorative motifs playing on the gavaksa form), and are accompanied by forbidding kirtimukhas.
The temple complex is precisely laid out. If the large enclosing courtyard (241 x121 m, 791×397 ft) is divided into two equal squares, the temple sanctum occupies the centre of the rear square, and the open pavilion housing Shiva’s bull, the centre of the square in front. It is entered by a three-tiered gopuram, or pyramidal gate house, with impressive sculpted guardian figures, while beyond this, stands a larger and taller five-tiered gopuram. The temple was originally surrounded by two prakara walls, the inner prakara is 800 feet long (east-west) and 400 feet broad (north-south).
The main temple itself is constructed out of granite and is one hundred and eighty feet in length and consists of a mukhamandapa, ardhmandapa, an antarala, agarbhagriha and a pradakshinapath. The Vimana of the temple is two hundred and sixteen feet high andconsists of sixteen stories.
The monumental walls of the temple are divided horizontally into two sculptural levels, each comprised of aseries of niches. On the three outer walls of the temple, door-sized ‘windows’, visual counterparts of the door giving access to the sanctum, allow in light and air.
In the niches of the lower level is a range of manifestations of Shiva that include Natraja, Lord of Dance; Bhikshatana, the naked mendicant whose beauty and charm won the hearts of women who came to give him alms; androgynous Ardhanari; and Lingdodbhava in which the materialises within a column of fire to demonstrate his superiority over gods Vishnu and Brahma. In contrast with the profusion of imagery on the lower level, each of the thirty upper-level niches carries an identical image of Shiva as Tripurantaka, following his triumphant destruction of the forts of three demons with a single arrow. The emphatic repetition of this form suggests that it held a specific meaning for Rajaraja, himself beinga proud conqueror, who early in his reign needed a divine archetype whose blessings would ensure him victory.
Painted murals decorate the lower path around the sanctum, which is divided into fifteen bays, each devotedto a single mythological theme.
However, Vidya Dehejia mentions a critique that the carving of the stone images on the temple walls lacks the fluency of modelling and the inspired idiom that we might expect from artists capable of constructing so powerful a building. Compared with early Chola imagery, figures are broad shouldered, broad bodied and some what flaccid, and the face is frequently heavy and lacks expression. The disappointing impact of these sculptures may be due to the artists’ unfamiliarity with carving such large images (roughly 10 ft high) to suit the size of the Tanjavur temple.
Chola Temple Architecture: Third Phase
The last phase of architecture under the Chola patronage began in 1070 CE and lasted till 1279 CE.
During this phase the Chola rulers focused on restoration of the old temples and made additions to the existing temples than undertaking new temple projects.
Vikrama Chola (1118-1135 CE) added a Nrittya mandapa and covered the roof of the Tirumalikai temple.Kulotunga III (1178-1218) added a Nrittya mandapa at the Chidambaram temple.
Both these rulers also added a prakara wall and a gopuram to the already existing goddess shrine at Chidambara.
Another feature that became common during this time was construction of separate shrinefor the female goddesses, which came to be known as the Amman shrines. The addition of free standing mandapas that are popularly called the ‘thousand pillared halls’ also became popular’ the mandapas of the temple became more ornate and started receiving special attention; one of the architectural feature peculiar to this phase of Chola architecture was the shape of the mandapas which imitated form of a chariot. The number and size of gopurams increased, they also became more ornate than before.