Thanjavur’s Chola mystery

Lokeshwarri SK | Updated on November 29, 2019

Kingly connection: The Kailasanathar temple at Udaiyalur village in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu   -  LOKESHWARRI SK

An ordinary Shiva temple in a small village of Tamil Nadu finds itself in the limelight amid claims that it is the final resting place of the mighty Chola emperor Raja Raja

A narrow lane in Udaiyalur village, in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, leads to the Kailasanathar temple. From the outside, there’s little to distinguish this Shiva temple from the countless others in this part of the country — the entrance arch has idols of various deities from the Hindu pantheon, while inside prayers are offered to a Shiva lingam, a phallic representation of the deity, and an idol of his consort, Shakti. If a historian is to be believed, this may be no ordinary temple but one that can unlock a centuries-old mystery.

According to this school of thought, this spot may be the final resting place of none less than the great Chola emperor Raja Raja. Based on certain historical facts, inscriptions, iconography and longstanding architectural practices, it argues that the Kailasanathar temple at Udaiyalur may have been built over the 11th-century Tamil emperor’s tomb.

While it is established that Raja Raja Chola — whose kingdom extended over parts of North India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and East Asia, besides South India — died a natural death at the age of 67, his final resting place has long been a subject of conjecture. In recent times, there have been claims that the tomb is at a place called Ottathoppu, in Udaiyalur.

Professor G Deivanayagam, an authority on Chola history and a well-known scholar of temple architecture, is however convinced that the Kailasanathar temple is the correct one. The founder professor of the department of architecture at Thanjavur’s Tamil University points to a range of clues to back his claim.

Ancestor worship

The erection of a memorial stone on the 16th day after a death is a custom common to many sects across the country, explains Deivanayagam. Mourners typically gather at the stone in a ceremony marked by the wailing of grieving women, praises for the departed and pledges to do good. While the memorial could be nothing more than an ordinary stone for those with modest means, it might be much more decorative in the case of the wealthy and certainly on a grand scale for a dead king. Rich with inscriptions, the memorial stone becomes a site of gathering and elaborate mourning for the king’s subjects.

For a dead emperor who was feted as a noble person in his lifetime, the memorial stone, erected on a pedestal, always faces east —- signifying that he was equivalent to God, and daily prayers are offered to it.

Memorial stones usually have a protective overhead shade, or pandal; in the case of a king’s memorial, this may be a decorative pavilion or mandapa made of granite, sometimes resembling the soaring vimanas (spires) of Shiva temples.

In fact, this practice of building memorials and praying to ancestors, equating them to god, became popular during Raja Raja Chola’s reign. His great-grandfather Aditya Chola died close to Srikalahasti (in present-day Andhra Pradesh) at an old age. Raja Raja Chola built a memorial for him and he was worshipped in the form of a Shiva lingam. The temple, Adityeswara, is named after him.

Such memorials, which came to be known as pallipadai (sepulchral temples), grew in number. The one that Raja Raja Chola built for another ancestor, Arinjeya Chola, at Melpadi near Vellore, is called Arinjigai Iswaram temple. There are inscriptions on the walls of these temples that indicate these are pallipadai temples.

Raja Raja Chola is believed to have adopted this form of ancestor worship after he became a follower of the Lakulisa Pasupata cult, eight years before his death. This school of Shiva worship originated in Gujarat and spread to Tamil Nadu after 7th century AD.

Raja Raja Chola is also said to have brought four aghori (a Shiva-worshipping cult known for extreme rituals) pundits from Kashi (Varanasi) to erect the Brihadeeswara or Big Temple at Thanjavur under their guidance in 1010 AD.

“If Raja Raja built Shiva shrines [for] his ancestors and worshipped them as god, is it surprising that his son Rajendra did the same and constructed a Shiva temple above his father’s tomb?” asks Deivanayagam.

He says Rajendra buried his father at Udaiyalur, close to Pazharai, which is where his family lived. A memorial stone, in the form of a Shiva lingam, was erected over the tomb and prayers were offered.

Inscriptions at the Kailasanathar temple mention that Shiva yogis from Kashi were accommodated in settlements, known as agraharams, around the temple to take care of the pasupata cult rituals.

Follow the clues

Heritage Inspired, a Chennai-based company that organises historical tours within Tamil Nadu, offers a package called ‘Chola’s Trail’ based on Deivanayagam’s findings on the final resting places of this royal clan.

“When Raja Raja died in 1014, Rajendra constructed a temple of brick and mortar, which lasted only 98 years. In 1112, the Kailasanathar temple was in a dilapidated condition when Kulottunga Chola, the great-grandson of Raja Raja, renovated it. That’s when it was converted into a granite construction,” explains Ramesh Vangipuram, a history consultant with Heritage Inspired.

These details are mentioned in an inscription on a stone pillar at the Paalkulaththu Amman temple, located opposite the Kailasanathar temple. Stating that the Shiva temple was renovated in the 42nd year of Kulottunga Chola’s reign, it adds that Raja Raja Chola became a Sivapadasekarar (someone who attained a place at the feet of Shiva, namely salvation).

There are other indicators in and around Kailasanathar temple that suggest it may not be an ordinary Shiva temple

“The shrine for the goddess, within the Kailasanathar temple, appears to be a latter-day addition, built perhaps less than 200 years ago. Typically, pallipadai temples do not include shrines for goddesses,” adds Vangipuram.

Act of piety: An engraving of a worshipper, said to be Raja Raja Chola, at Kailasanathar temple   -  LOKESHWARRI SK


Inside the main hall of the Kailasanathar temple, right outside the sanctum sanctorum, is a small engraving depicting a hermit worshipping a Shiva lingam. This may be a depiction of Raja Raja Chola and his transformation into an aghori sanyasi in his final years.

On a wall outside the sanctum is yet another interesting sculpture. A dancing Shiva, with a tinybairagi (hermit) at his feet, in a clear depiction of the Sivapadasekarar concept.

Deivanayagam writes in a research blog on the Heritage Inspired website that according to Agama (ancient principles governing worship, meditation and other practices), a pallipadai temple vimanam should take a square form and the plinth (side) should be of a specific measurement. The vimanam in the Kailasanathar temple has exactly this feature, confirming that it is a pallipadai temple.

It is also worth noting that the temple is often referred to as Kailasam Udayar, which means one who has attained the heavenly abode of Kailasa, as opposed to Kailasanathar, which means one who presides over Kailasa.

Contesting claims

There are several online posts, including videos, that claim that a forlorn shed in Ottathoppu, in Udaiyalur, is Raja Raja Chola’s tomb. A Shiva lingam was found half-buried there. The state archaeology department, too, made some explorations here, but has not made any official report.

Legendary hero: A statue of the 11th-century Tamil emperor Raja Raja Chola that was installed in Thanjavur in 1972 - RM Rajarathinam   -  The Hindu


Deivanayagam, however, has his reasons for disagreeing with these claims. “Kings who meet an untimely death have a stone planted in their memory but without any temple constructed around it. Such stones do not have a pedestal, they typically face west, and are called Banalingams. Raja Raja’s brother Adithya Karikalan was murdered by four Brahmins in the Kadambur palace. The lingam in Ottathoppu is a Banalingam and may denote the tomb of Adithya Karikalan.”

He adds that those who die a natural death get east-facing stones, in the direction of the rising sun, denoting grace.

The last word on the location of Raja Raja Chola’s tomb has not been said yet. Deivanayagam and the Heritage Inspired fraternity have asked for a GPRS (ground penetration radar system) survey at the Kailasanathar temple to confirm their analysis. A survey can detect reflected signals from sub-surface structures. Such a mystery as this involving one of the greatest emperors of ancient India certainly calls for some deeper digging.

Published on November 29, 2019

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