(Plates I - VI omitted)
An instructive phase of Southern Indian architecture existed during the supremacy of the Coḷas. The dynastic history of these rulers began about 900 A.D., who, attaining the height of their power a century later, declined towards the middle of the 12th century, finally succumbing to the might of the Pāṇḍyas about 1150 A.D. For the first part of this period of 250 years the Coḷas were principally engaged in territorial aggrandizement, extending their dominion from Ceylon to the mouths of the Ganges, and even over the seas into Burma. Pre-occupied as they were in these conquests, during the formative stage of their evolution, which corresponds approximately to the 10th century, A.D., the arts of peace appear to have received little encouragement, and few buildings of any note are to their credit. One small temple however is known which dates from the first half of the 10th century, as it was erected during the reign of one of the earliest kings of the Coḷa dynasty, Parāntaka I, who reigned from A. D. 907 to 949. This is the temple of Koraṅganātha at Śrḯnivasanalūr, a hamlet in the Musiri taluk of the Trichinopoly district, the peculiar name of the building being due to the legend that on completion it was defiled by a monkey, koraṅgu, and so was never consecrated ( Plate II ). The structure as a whole consists of the usual combination of the two essential parts of a temple, comprising an assembly hall or portico (maṇḍapa), and the towered sanctuary (vimāna), the axial length of both together amounting to 50 feet. In plan the maṇḍapa convers a rectangle 25 feet by 20 feet, while the vimāna is a square of 25 feet side, the height of the former being 16 feet and the latter 50 feet from the ground. Within, the small hall of the maṇḍapa contains 4 pillars in antis, beyond which is a vestibule and passage leading to the cella, a square chamber of 12 feet side. (p. 7, Fig. 1)
From these dimensions it will be seen that the Koraṅganātha is a temple of very moderate size. As an architectural conception however it is significant, as it illustrates an important stage in the development of the Drāviḍian style, standing as a landmark midway between the final efforts of the Pallavas, and the later and fully matured style of the Coḷas. Compared with the exuberant treatment of the later temples of the Pallavas the simplification of the whole composition is notable. (Plate III). It conforms to the same general principles as those of the preceding period but there is more breadth in the parts, less crowding in the disposal of the architectural ornamentation, and an appreciation of the value of plain spaces, which aids considerably in the effect. Moreover, gone is the lion pillar, sedant or rampant, and in its place is a conventional design composed of all that is best in the rock-cut pilasters of Māmallapuram. Yet it differ from the Pallava type in the shape of the capital, in other words the pillars of the Koraṅganātha illustrate the Coḷa interpretation of the Drāviḍian order. (p. 2). Two changes are noticeable in this distinctive feature of the style, one in the capital itself, the other in the abacus above. In the design of the former a neck-moulding (padmabhandam) has been introducted, where it joins on to the shaft, thus appropriating to itself a segment of the upper part of the shaft and at the same time adding another member to the lower part of the capital in the form of a pot (kalasa). As to the abacus, the palagai or “plank” is much expanded, so that combined with the flower-shape (idagi) underneath, it becomes the most striking element in the order. The carved decoration on this temple is unusually interesting, and one motif emerges which found a place in the subsequent buildings of the style. This is a string-course of demons heads, squirming from under the structure as if their bodies were immured within the foundations, probably Rājṣasas, or earth-spirits, but the meaning of their introduction into the building in this manner is uncertain. It is however to the figure-sculpture that the eye naturally turns as this is of special merit (Plate IV). In the niches of the lower story of the vimāna are standing life-size status, broadly modelled and dignified in pose, fitting in admirably with the architectural scheme. But the principal figure-subject is a group occupying the centre of the southern side of the vimāna, depicting Dakṣiṇā Mūrti surrounded by attendants, attributions, and vehicles, associated with this manifestation of Śiva. Apart from the wealth of symbolism contained in this ikon, the craftsmanship is of a high order, displaying a variety of influences, but in the main showing its derivation from that great school of plastic art which flourished some two centuries before, under the Pallavas at Māmallapuram.
The full maturity of the architecture of the Coḷas arrived less than a century later, as the temples of Tanjore and Gaṇgaikoṇḍacoḷapuram, eloquently testify. Compared with the previous temple of Koraṅganātha, they are as cathedrals to a village church. Both built within the first quarter of the 11th century, they prove that, during the intervening period, the Coḷas had had their character revealed to themselves. The first of these great temples to be erected was that at Tanjore, probably the largest and highest structure of its kind hitherto undertaken by Indian masons. This building is however well-known, and has been frequently described. On the other land the temple of Gaṇgaikoṇḍacoḷapuram produced a little later, owing perhaps to the fact that it lies off the beaten track, has not received the attention that such a fine structure undoubtedly deserves (Plate V). it is true that it has not those virile qualities, the masculine vigour, of its predecessor, but it possesses a rich and voluptuous beauty that suggests it s feminine counterpart. Gaṇgaikoṇḍacoḷapuram was a capital city of the Coḷas founded by Rājendra (1018-33), but practically all that now remains of this great enterprise is the temple, standing in solitary state except for the huts of a village which has grown up around it. Situated 20 miles south-west of Cidāmbaram, and 17 miles by road from Kumbakoṇam, it thus lies between two towns famous for their religious architecture, mostly of a somewhat later date. It occupies the middle of a spacious walled enclosure (p.7, Fig. 2), which may have been built partly for defensive purposes, The temple as a whole covers a rectangle some 340 feet long and 100 feet wide, composed of a maṇḍapa measuring 175 feet by 95 feet, and a vimāna with a square plan of 100 feet side between the two is a cross-vestibule or transept, the ends of which form north and south entrances, both picturesque doorways approached by flights of steps (Pl. VI. Fig. 1).
The main doorway to the temple is at the eastern end of the maṇḍapa, the architectural and sculptural surroundings of which being of a colossal order proclaim that an effort had been made to create a large and impressive portal. Although there is some fine bold work in this part of the conception, owing to a lack of unity as a whole it is disappointing. Through this doorway access is obtained to the maṇḍapa, a large hall containing a forest of some 140 pillars arranged across its width in 8 rows. These rise from a plinth or platform 4 feet in height, through the centre of which at ground level there is a wide aisle or passage, and there is a somewhat narrower passage at the same level round the interior circuit of the entire hall. Such a scheme of closely inter-columniated pillars may have been the origin of those thousand-pillared maṇḍapas which became common in all the Drāviḍian temple-complexes of a later date. This maṇḍapa at Gaṇgaikoṇḍacoḷapuram is covered by a flat roof which is 18 feet from the ground above the central aisle, and 16 feet on either side; the principal lighting of this great hall comes from the main doorway. An important part of the scheme is the vestibule or transept at the far end of the maṇḍapa, the exterior of which is carried up above the roof of this pillared hall to form a pronounced double-storied mass between it and the pyramidal tower of the vimāna. In the compartment forming its interior are two rows of large square piers, eight in all, producing a colonnade across this vestibule, on the other side of which lies the “holy of holies” deep in the womb of the vimāna itself.
The maṇḍapa and vestibule with all the structures forming the eastern portion of the temple, are however but a prelude to the main architectural feature of the scheme, the sanctuary with its tower or sikhara, which, rising up for some 150 feet, not only dominates the entire composition but is the keynote of the conception as a whole. Reduced to its simplest term this great mass of masonry resolves itself into three parts, a vertical foundation, a pyramidal body, and a domical apex. The vertical foundation is 35 feet in height and divided into two stories by means of a massive cornice. Except for this sole horizontal feature its decorative treatment is mainly vertical, for its surfaces are relieved by an arrangement of pilasters artistically designed and disposed, not unlike the supercolumniation of the Romans. Eight diminishing tiers comprise the pyramidal portion, the lines of which are enriched by models of miniature shrines at regular intervals, a system of architectural decoration brought to great perfection by the Drāviḍian craftsmen. It is in this part of the building that there are indications of those sensuous curves which may denote that the style had passed beyond the narrow limits of its meridian. This is shown in the concave outline of the pyramid at its angles, and the embowed contours of its sides. Both these ultra-refinements are responsible for that fluent voluptuous grace already referred to. This wealth of embellishment is carried up into the cupola at its apex, where four ornamental “caitya” forms project like wings from the aerial dome of the finial. In spite of its almost cloying richness, viewed as a whole, there is a fine fully matured beauty in this Coḷa masterpiece.
No account, however brief, of the Gaṇgaikoṇḍacoḷapuram vimāna would be complete without some description of its sculptured decoration. This is displayed mainly in the two stories of the square vertical base. The architectonic treatment of this portion of the vimāna, by means of pilasters in high relief has been referred to, but allied with these are certain supplementary forms of considerable interest. Chief among these is a motif resembling a conventional tree-shape, its elegant lines and graceful shapes filling in very effectively some of the deeper recesses. Such forms, and there are others of almost equal merit,-show great power of invention, being remarkably ingenious compositions and by themselves excellent, but in some instances they do not entirely co-ordinate with their surroundings, in other words there are passages which are not thoroughly understood. Combined with these architectural motifs are figure-subjects, statues in niches each in its appointed place, Naṭarāja on the S. W. Angle, (Plate VI. Fig. 2), Śiva in the flaming lingam on the west face, Gaṇeśa on the south, Caṇḍḯ Keśa Anugrahamūrti on the north (Plate VI. Fig. I), and so forth, all remarkably well-carved and fulfilling the purpose for which they were intended. On the surfaces around are flying Apsaras, Gaṇa-devatās, yakṣas and writhing Rākṣasas, contributing to a general effect of great richness and vitality. In this sculpture too it is easy to see that it is directly descended from the rock carvings at Māmallapuram, with the same traditions, and showing how little such things change even in the course of centuries. Yet there is a difference, subtle but quite definable, between the work of the sculptors of Narasiṁhavarman and those of Rājendra Coḷa. While there is the same feeling for rhythm, the same well-modelled forms, the same action and vitality as in the Pallava examples, there is a more sophisticated handling of the subject, a more conventional technique, an expression of self-consciousness, that is unmistakable in the finished sculptured images of the Coḷa school.