The City of the ‘Conqueror of the Ganges’!

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    Around 70 kms from the ancient Chola capital of Thanjavur, is another Chola capital that marked the great victories of King Rajendra in the North. Called Gangaikondacholapuram, literally ‘The city of the Chola who conquered the Ganga (water from Ganga)‘, little remains of the city today. Planned as a capital that would be grander than the great Thanjavur, the highlight of the city was a massive man made lake filled with the jars of water from the Ganges, that were brought back by Rajendra’s armies. All that remains here now is a great Brihadeeswarar Shiva temple and echoes of a monarch desperate to etch his name in history. This site is also an example of all that is wrong with the way we manage our great heritage!

    The exact origins of the Chola dynasty are not clear. The founder of the imperial Chola dynasty is known to be Vijayala Chola, a feudatory of the Pallava kings, who is said to have established his rule over Thanjavur in 850 CE thus laying the foundation of what would later be the mighty Chola empire. The greatest ruler of the Chola dynasty was Raja Raja Chola I (947 – 1014 CE) who is said to have defeated the Cheras of Kerala, the Chalukyas of Kalyani, as well as conquered the northern part of Sri Lanka. He built the magnificent Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur and patronized art and literature. The Cholas were also the first Indian dynasty to look far beyond the shores of India. Their conquests across the seas saw them expand to Sumatra in Indonesia.

    Raja Raja Chola’s son and successor, Rajendra Chola expanded the Chola power further. In 1017 CE, he conquered and annexed the entire island of Sri Lanka, followed by the victories over the Chera kingdom of Kerala. In 1019 CE, Rajendra Chola, shifted focus inland and marched with an army along the eastern coast and after conquering Kalinga, he defeated the Palas of Bengal. This is when he is said to have brought the waters of Ganga in gold vessels and poured them into the tanks of the new capital that he set up. Gangaikondacholapuram, was built to commemorate his victories against the Palas of Bengal and show how a Chola king had brought the Ganges South!

    An inscription on the copper plate of Rajendra Chola , discovered in 1905 in Tiruvalangadu village near Chennai describes his northern conquests with great exaggeration:

    the light of the solar race (Rajendra), mocking Bhagiratha who by the force of his austerities caused the descent of the Ganga, set out to sanctify his own land with the waters of that stream brought by the strength of his arm. ….. after having destroyed Dhammapala in a hot battle; ….. Vangaladesa where the rain water never stopped and from which Govindachandra fled, having descended from his male elephant; elephants of rare strength, women and treasure which he seized after having been pleased to put to flight in a hot battlefield the strong Mahipala by the sound of a conch from the deep sea; Uttaraladam on the horses, of the expansive ocean producing pearls and the Ganga whose waters bearing fragrant flowers dashed against the bathing places.’

    Rajendra Chola built the Imperial city of Gangaikondacholapuram to serve as his capital. Noted historian R. Nagaswamy in his published works on Gangaikondacholapuram states that based on available literature and remains, it must have been an extensive, well-planned city and laid in accordance with the architectural treatises to suit the needs of a capital. The city seems to have had two fortifications, one inner and the other outer, with a multi storied royal palace built of burnt bricks and a number of temples and tanks. He is supposed to have built a massive lake nearby, 16 miles long and 3 miles wide, which was the largest lake in Asia at its time. Sadly, no traces of this lake exist today.

    However, unlike other great Chola capital of Thanjavur the grandeur of Gangaikondacholapuram did not survive for long. The city was destroyed by the Pandyas in the early 13th century to avenge the earlier Chola invasions. The last Chola king Rajendra Chola III died fighting the Pandyas in 1279 CE and the Chola kingdom was finally extinguished. It later passed on to the Vijayanagara empire, Nawabs of Arcot and then the British.

    Go there and you will be amazed at how absolutely nothing of the great capital of Gangaikondacholapuram survives today. Ironically, what remained of the great city, seems to have been broken down, brick by brick by the locals. Shocking as it sounds R. Nagaswamy explains what happened here. He writes ‘The residents boast that within a radius of five miles, no brick kiln is needed’. For decades local villagers have been digging out the Chola bricks from the remains and selling them by cartloads. In the forties and fifties, one bullock cart full of Gangaikondacholapuram bricks would be sold for four annas!

    The Brihadeeswarar temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, is the only monument that survives. Built by Rajendra Chola I to rival his father’s great temple in Thanjavur, you can still find the largest Shivling in South India here. It is a massive Shivling, 13 feet in height and in India, second only to one at Bhojeshwar temple near Bhopal.

    Sadly, the temple too did not escape damage, and it was not due to war or an invading army, but due to the greed of local contractors. The greatest damage to the temple was done in 1836 CE, when the lower Anaicut dam was erected across the Kollidam river, about seven miles from the temple. For the supply of stones for the construction, the local PWD (Public Works Department) pulled down the enclosure walls, the dilapidated gopura, the front and great mandapa and carried away the stones.

    An account published in local publications of 1855 CE and reproduced in the Indian Antiquary IV, page 274, states that:

    speaking of the noble temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram it must not be omitted that when the lower Kolerun anikat was built, the structure was dismantled of a large part of the splendid granite sculptures which adorned it and the enclosing wall was almost wholly destroyed in order to obtain materials for the work. The poor people did their utmost to prevent this destruction and spoliation of a venerated edifice by the servants of a government that could show no title to it; but of course without success; they were only punished for contempt. A promise was made indeed that a wall of brick should be built in place of the stone wall that was pulled down; but unhappily it must be recorded that this promise has never been redeemed.'

    Thankfully today, the Gangaikondacholapuram temple is well-protected as a heritage site. It is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage site known as ‘ The Great Living Chola temples’ along with the ones at Thanjavur and Darasuram. What has been destroyed cannot be restored. But it is important to know that there are hundreds of such sites in India, which are being destroyed, thanks to greed and sheer apathy.

    Cover Image: Saranya Chidambaram via Wikimedia Commons

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