Category Archives: The Chola Dynasty

Siva Nataraja Bronzes (Origins)

Shiva (Siva) Nataraja: Re-examining the Origins of Nataraja Bronzes

Bronze masterpiece of Siva Nataraja (King of the Dance). 11th century CE, Government Museum, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

One of the most recognizable Hindu icons, both inside and outside India, is the standardized depiction of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva king of dance) seen in places as far apart as Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu and the CERN nuclear research center in Geneva, Switzerland. This particular standardization of Shiva Nataraja seems to have arisen under the rule of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, as the first fully three dimensional stone carvings in this style appeared during her reign, though questions have been raised about earlier origins (Srinivasan, 434). This standardized form is distinctive and easily recognizable in several ways. First, this particular style of Shiva Nataraja is distinct from not only depictions of other deities, but also other depictions of Shiva as cosmic dancer, by the raised left leg held high across the body at the level of the hip with the foot at knee level (Srinivasan, 433). The supporting right leg, and indeed all the limbs save the lower left arm, are deeply bent giving an appearance of movement paused in a single frame (Kaimal, 392-3). Though held straight, the left arm does faintly bend at the wrist and the hand is held in a relaxed gesture known as gajahasta or “elephant hand” (Kaimal, 393). His lower right hand is held, just above the wrist of the lower left, in abhayamudra, a gesture of fearlessness seen frequently in Indian and Indian-influenced art (Kaimal, 393). The two upper arms hold a damaru drum (right) and a flame (left) (Srinivasan, 433). The foot of the supporting right leg rests on a dwaf, Apasmara, the demon of ignorance (Srinivasan, 433). Finally, in the bronzes, though not in the stone depictions commissioned by queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, Shiva is surrounded by a ring of flames (Srinivasan, 433). The popularity of this image has far outlasted the Chola dynasty, and inspired many speculative interpretations of the iconography present.

Detail of a Siva Nataraja or Natesa (Lord of the Dance) image, with his four arms holding the drum and fire, and displaying the fear-not (abhaya) mudra and the gajahasta (elephant hand) mudra.

Origin of the Image

It is generally accepted that the style of bronze Nataraja we see today originated, or at least rose to prominence, during the reign of queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the Chola dynasty during the tenth century (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi was a great patroness of the arts, she commissioned numerous pieces of art and even engaged in the refurbishment of several brick temples, rebuilding them in stone (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi made the job of archeologists in our own time somewhat easier by re-inscribing previous information about donations and patrons in the temples she refurbished, providing a rich historical record (Dehejia, 209). Notable in regard to the Nataraja image is that it seems to have appeared first in bronzes and stone carvings during her refurbishments (Dehejia, 209). While the similarity of these Nataraja images to present depictions in this style is undeniable, the peculiar raised foot and four armed form being present, doubts have been raised recently about a definitively Chola origin (Srinivasan, 432).

There are certainly examples of images and sculptures which could have contributed to the present Nataraja image exemplified at sites like Chidambaram and CERN, so a pre-Chola origin is not out of the question. One of the earliest possible ancestors of the Chola-era Nataraja is a stone figure from the Harappan civilization, which shares the raised leg posture with the Chola-Nataraja (Dehejia, 32). Granted, a single oddity from a civilization that died thousands of years before the Chola rose is a tenuous connection at best, but Srinivasan points to numerous other examples which may indicate a continuous line of artistic evolution culminating in the Nataraja images we see today.

One of Srinivasan’s suggested precursors is a Satavahana statue, of Shiva as Lakulisa the ascetic, from Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India, the statue is dated to around the first or second century B.C.E. (Srinivasan, 434). What is remarkable about this statue is that, already as early as the first or second century B.C.E., we see the theme of Shiva trampling a dwarf which appears not only in Chola-era Nataraja images but in Pallava depictions as well (Srinivasan, 434).

The Pallava dynasty, in fact, is where Srinivasan asserts that the image of Shiva Nataraja we are familiar with today rose to prominence. Prior to the Chola overthrow of their dynasty around 850 C.E., the Pallavas ruled in the Tamil regions of south India from about 550 C.E., themselves having risen from the older Andhra dynasty (Srinivasan, 434-5). When the Pallava king Mahendravarman Pallavan converted from Jainism to Shaivism a burst of Hindu art in stone was produced (Srinivasan, 435). We can surmise that these stone icons were probably a distinctly Pallava innovation in the Tamil region by inscriptions at Mamallapuram praising Mahendravarman for building in “neither brick, nor timber, nor mortar.” (Srinivasan, 435).

What is interesting about these Pallavan stone icons is that the depictions of Nataraja among them show the four-armed Shiva with the raised leg and dwarf, of which there are no prior examples outside the Tamil region in stone or metal (Srinivasan, 435). Examples of Shiva Nataraja from outside the Pallava-controlled Tamil region show Shiva in the chatura tandava posture with both feet touching the ground and knees splayed outward, as opposed to the bhujangatrasita karana posture in which one leg is raised at hip level across the body which we see in the Chola bronzes (Srinivasan, 435). In addition, the dwarf is not present in any of these chatura tandava examples (srinivasan, 435). The number of arms also differs from the four-armed depictions seen in the Pallava and Chola examples, we see eight arms in Gupta examples from the Sirpur region of central India dating to the fifth century, and sixteen arms in a Chalukyan example from Badami in south-west India dated to the sixth century (Srinivasan, 435).

The earliest clear approximation of the Chola style Nataraja we see is on a Pallava pilaster from a cave temple at Siyamangalam, dated to the seventh century (Srinivasan, 436). This icon stands in the bhujangatrasita karana posture, although with the right leg raised, his lower right hand is in abhaya mudra with his upper right hand holding a lamp or bowl with a flame (Srinivasan, 435-6). This statue does differ additionally from the Chola examples in that its lower left arm extends out away from the body rather than across the body, though it retains the gajahasta gesture (Srinivasan, 435-6). Furthermore, the upper left hand holds an ax and the dwarf is not present under the foot of the supporting leg (Srinivasan, 435-6). This is paralleled in an eighth century cave painting from Ellora in Maharashtra, attributed to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, as well another Pallava stone icon in the Tirukkadaimudi Mahadeva temple in Tirucchinampundi (Srinivasan, 436).

While evidence seems to suggest that, in the cave temples constructed by Mahendravarman stucco and wood images are most likely to have been the norm, a seventh century verse by the poet Appar mentions Shiva’s “sweet golden foot raised in dance”, so we can not rule out bronze processional icons (Srinivasan, 436). In addition, the mention of Shiva holding a drum in the image worshipped at Tillai (now Chidambaram) from the same seventh century verses by Appar seems to indicate that this aspect of the standardized Nataraja icon was already incorporated during the Pallava dynasty (Srinivasan, 436).

Hindu bronzes have not often been attributed to the Pallavas, due largely to a lack of inscriptions on the bronzes themselves, however there is no definite way to date solid metal artifacts with any known method (Srinivasan, 436-8). What we can do, however, is group metal artifacts by shared ore sources based on lead isotope content (Srinivasan, 437). There are some metal artifacts which have been attributed to the Pallavas, for instance a bronze of Shiva dancing in the urdhvajanu pose found in Kuram (Srinivasan, 440). This bronze is attributable to the Pallavas in part because of the forward facing dwarf, as opposed to the sideways facing dwarf in the Chola Natarajas, in addition it shares a metallurgical profile with other artifacts from the reign of Paramesvaravarman Pallavan I (Srinivasan, 440).

This Pallava metallugical profile becomes interesting in regard to two Nataraja bronzes previously attributed to the Chola dynasty, which share the lead isotope content of the Pallava bronzes and the left legged bhujangatrasita karana posture and four armed form of the Chola bronzes, with the hands of each arm bearing the same gestures and implements (Srinivasan, 440). The first, from Kunniyur, differs from Chola images in that it lacks the flying locks of hair found in the Chola bronzes, though the ring of fire is surprisingly present, a date around 850 C.E. is suggested (Srinivasan, 440-1). The second, a small bronze from the British Museum, differs in several ways; the raised leg does not cross the body, the dwarf faces forward, and both the flying locks and circle of flame are not present (Srinivasan, 440-1). This second bronze has been dated to around 800 C.E., making it the oldest known Pallava bronze of Shiva Nataraja (Srinivasana, 440-1). This may indicate that the ring of flame was the latest addition to the Nataraja icon.

It may be that these two Pallava images show an evolution from wood carvings of Shiva Nataraja due to their compactness and lack of flowing locks, both indicative of the limits of wood’s tensile strength, we see these same limits in modern wood carvings of Nataraja (Srinivasan, 440). This may explain the increasingly flared out and circular nature of the icon in Chola times as the tensile strength of bronze was understood to allow for these stylistic changes.

These issues of tensile strength may also indicate that properly three dimensional stone carvings of this style of Nataraja came later than the bronzes and were, in fact, modelled on pre-existing bronzes. We see the emergence of three dimensional stone Natarajas in this style during the reign of Sembiyan Mahadevi, and these images bear the signs of a struggle to represent the style found in the bronzes in a medium with lesser tensile strength (Srinivasan, 441). For instance, in the stone Nataraja from Manavalesvarar temple at Tiruvelvikudi, we see a strut disguised as clothing supporting the lifted leg and crossed left arm to allow for a more expansive image which would make more sense in a bronze casting (Srinivasan, 441-2). The lifted leg of an eleventh century Chola sculpture at the Gangaikondachalapuram temple is propped up by a rough basal strut, while in several other examples the lifted leg is completely broken off (Srinivasan, 442). These struts may even have been inspired by the runners which facilitate lost-wax casting, though they are usually removed from the finished product (Srinivasan, 442). All of this seems to indicate that the style of Nataraja statue attributed to the Chola dynasty was already well developed as such, and likely in bronze, during the Pallava dynasty.

Iconographic Interpretation

An influential, and enduring, interpretation of the Nataraja icon was offered close to one hundred years ago by Ananda Coomaraswamy in “the Dance of Shiva” (Kaimal, 390). While Coomaraswamy’s interpretation is certainly compelling, and likely responsible for the popularity of the Nataraja icon in the west and its interpretation by Western scholars for the last hundred or so years, there is some reason to doubt its accuracy in reflecting the way that the Pallavas and Cholas interpreted this icon when they developed it (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal offers three fairly compelling reasons for questioning Coomaraswamy’s interpretation. First, the question of if it is even possible to properly recover the original meaning of these objects, given the fragmentary evidence from medieval India (Kaimal, 391). Second, Kaimal questions whether a single interpretation is sufficient, noting that objects of art take on different meanings during different times and in fact live multiple symbolic ‘lives’ (Kaimal, 391). Finally, Kaimal draws attention to the fact that Coomaraswamy based his interpretation on texts written several centuries after this style of Nataraja rose to prominence (Kaimal, 391). On this last point, Kaimal also reminds us that there is no simple equivalence between text and sculpture, both mediums have their own “spheres of eloquence” which do not always overlap entirely (Kaimal, 391).

Kaimal is cautious not to completely reject Coomaraswamy’s interpretation however, as it does reflect the significance of the icon to devotees in the thirteenth century and later (Kaimal, 392). While elements of the thirteenth century interpretation could have, and in all likelihood did, derive from earlier interpretations, Kaimal offers three different interpretations which may reflect the meaning of this icon for devotees in the tenth century and possibly earlier (Kaimal, 392). The first interpretation, that Nataraja was used as a kind of emblem of the Chola dynasty is certainly compelling and well argued by Kaimal. Though, while it could serve as the subject of a book in its own right, this interpretation does not tell us much about the symbols within the icon or their origin, which are the primary foci of this paper.

Kaimal’s second interpretation deals with the origin, or synthesis, of this Nataraja icon in Chidambaram (previously Tillai). When Appar wrote about Tillai in the seventh century, it was already an ancient and well established center of many sects, including sects devoted to Vinshnu and the goddess (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal points to earlier interpretations of Nataraja from Tillai which see the tandavam as a dance much more associated with Shiva’s destructive aspects than with the lofty philosophical interpretation of Coomaraswamy (Kaimal, 401).

Many of the less obvious symbols built into the Tamil Nataraja sculptures do indeed point to an association with the destructive aspects of the creative cycle, and many of these symbols appear on depictions of other wrathful aspects of Shiva all over India (Kaimal, 401). For instance, the skull often present in the hair of Nataraja icons and the serpents which encircle his limbs often receive special emphasis in images of Shiva’s destructive aspects, such as the ‘enraged’ face on the giant three-faced Shiva at Elephanta (Kaimal, 402). These often indicate Shiva as Aghora, associated with cremation grounds and destructive ecstasy, as well as drawing an association with similarly adorned goddesses such as Kali, Chamunda, and Nishumbhasudani (Kaimal, 401). These wrathful goddesses also share the characteristics of deeply bent supporting legs and multiple arms splaying out in an explosive and energetic fashion (Kaimal, 402). That these symbols were present in earlier forms of Shiva and other gods/goddesses may indicate that they were redeployed to allow this icon to participate in a symbolic conversation which was already ongoing, and this interpretation would fit nicely with a gradual evolution of the form from the Pallava dynasty through the Chola standardization (Kaimal, 404).

The association with goddesses is interesting in regard to another possible origin of the icon. One of the origin myths laid down in the Chidambaramahatmya, a tenth century text reflecting the Sanskritization of the Tamil cult at Tillai into a pan-Indic cult, tells of a dance competition in which the goddess already resident at Tillai, Tillai Amman, resented Shiva’s encroachment and challenged him to a dance competition (Kaimal, 407). Shiva won the competition by taking a raised leg posture, which modesty prevented the virginal goddess from copying (Kaimal, 407). This loss split the goddess in two, the wrathful virginal aspect retreated to a shrine outside the temple walls, while her benign aspect became Shiva’s wife and remained in the temple where her worship continued. This may reflect an earlier tradition being replaced by, or syncretized into, a more pan-Indic cult rooted in Upanishadic Hinduism rather than the local Tamil culture. This Sanskritization of a local cult may reflect political or social changes brought about as a result of empires growing larger and larger which had to unify disparate belief systems without abolishing them.

Another myth, also presented in the Chidambaramahatmya support the hypothesis that symbols present in the Nataraja icon derive from earlier cults which where absorbed in, and Sanskritized by, the Nataraja cult. The “Pine Forest myth” relates the story of Shiva visiting several sages who were living in a pine forest to punish them for their devotional inadequacies (Kaimal, 406). Shiva arrives in the form of a nude and mirthful ascetic, Bhikshatana, who was sexually irresistible to the wives of the sages, he was accompanied by Vishnu in his female form, Mohini, who proved distracting to the sages themselves (Kaimal, 406). When the sages realized their humiliation they became infuriated and attacked Shiva with various objects which he incorporated into his dance (Kaimal, 406). After incorporating the objects hurled at him by the sages, Shiva’s dance intensified until it encompassed all of creation (Kaimal, 406). As the sages saw this dance they became enlightened by the cosmic proportions of Shiva’s true form and instituted the worship of Shiva in an aniconic form as the linga, which we see carried on at Chidambaram today (Kaimal, 406).

It is the particular items thrown at Shiva, and their incorporation into his dance, which interest us here. The items were: a skull, which Shiva wears in his hair; serpents, which adorn Shiva’s limbs and hair; a dwarf, which he tramples underfoot; a tiger, to which are attributed the shredded appearance of Shiva’s flowing garment; and the fire and drum which we see in Shiva’s two upper arms as well as the flaming ring within which he dances (Kaimal, 406). It certainly is not out of the question to see this legend as a possible reference to earlier Tamil cults, represented by the items, being displaced by and absorbed into the cult of Shiva as a pan-Indic god. This interpretation would further support the idea of a unification of disparate local cults as the empire grew to incorporate, and accommodate, more cultural groups. This is by no means the last word on the origins of the Nataraja icon, but it may indicate that a reappraisal is in order.

Works Cited

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. Phaidon, 2011, London.

Kaimal, Padma. “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon” in The Art Bulletin, 81, 3. College Art Association, 2009, New York.

Srinivasan, Sharada. “Cosmic Dancer: On Pallava Origins for the Nataraja Bronze” in World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3. Taylor & Francis, 2004, Abingdon.

Article written by Logan Page (Dec. 2018), who is solely responsible for its content.

Hinduism in Sri Lanka

The origins of Hinduism in Sri Lanka have not been conclusively determined. However, it is known that the development of a multiethnic modern day Sri Lanka, primarily influenced by Buddhist and Hindu religious worldviews, has unfortunately resulted in devastating ethnic and religious conflict. Currently, it is believed that the expansion of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka occurred relatively close to the evolution of the major ethnic group identified as the Sinhalese (Holt 70).  The Sinhalese are thought to have originated from the assimilation of various tribal or aboriginal ethnic communities that occupied Sri Lanka during the early Iron Age, approximately 600 to 500 BCE (Holt 70). However, some scholarly sources state that the Sinhalese may in fact have migrated to and colonized Sri Lanka around 500 BCE (Nubin 95). Despite these variances, it is accepted that the Sinhalese developed sophisticated civilizations with innovative technological advancements such as water tanks, reservoirs and irrigation canals (Nubin 95). Most importantly, the Sinhalese would help establish, spread and safeguard the traditions of Buddhism that would eventually be protected by the governing states of Sri Lanka (Nubin 95).

In regards to the spread of Hinduism from south India to Sri Lanka, the earliest inscriptions and texts from the Pali chronicles (the Mahavamsa) state that the primarily Hindu Tamils occupied Sri Lanka from the early Iron Age onward, directly parallel to the evolution of the Sinhalese (Holt 71). It is important to understand that there is a distinction between Sri Lankan Tamils, considered a native minority, and Indian Tamils, who later immigrated to Sri Lanka or are the descendants of these immigrants (Nubin 146). With their migration, the Indian Tamils brought with them their own Tamil language and spread their Dravidian cultural influences amongst the people of Sri Lanka. Additionally, since Tamil Nadu, India and northern Sri Lanka are closely connected in terms of geography, this physical link has supported the continual spread of Tamils in Sri Lanka (Holt 71). These Tamil immigrants comprised various castes and positions of power in the Hindu societies of south India, and “brought with them a kaleidoscope of religious myths and rites reflective of Hindu worldviews” (Deegalle 39). Archaeological evidence supports this migration model for the spread of Tamil language and culture in Sri Lanka (Holt 71). Eventually, some Tamil traders became elite and their significant influence in northern Sri Lanka allowed Tamil language and Hindu culture to become dominant (Holt 71). However, the Hindu Tamil influence was not as strong in the central and southern regions of Sri Lanka, where most Tamils were assimilated into the majority, Sinhalese Buddhist tradition (Holt 71). Additionally, as the Sinhalese slowly gained control of Sri Lanka, they started to view both Tamil language and culture as invasive and foreign to their native Buddhist traditions (Nubin 146). This tension between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Hindu Tamil minority has resulted in severe conflict throughout the history of Sri Lanka, even up to the past few decades (Mainuddin and Aicher 26).

The peak of these clashes between the Sinhalese and Tamils occurred between the 5th and 9th centuries CE, when the Cola (pronounced Chola) dynasty, a Hindu empire of south India, increasingly pushed towards the Sinhalese-Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka (Nubin 101). Under the rule of Rajaraja the Great (983 – 1014 CE), the Cola Empire, which had already established hegemony over south India, proceeded aggressively to conquer Sri Lanka (De Silva 25). The Cola Empire gained near complete control of the Buddhist Sinhalese kingdom by removing the Sinhalese king at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka and subsequently, Rajaraja’s son Rajendra completed the conquest of the island (De Silva 26). A significant and relatively permanent change created by the Cola Empire, which outlasted its period of rule, was the shifting of the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruva (De Silva 26). The Cola Empire’s primary motive behind shifting the capital farther south was to protect their empire from potential invasion from southern Sinhalese kingdoms (Nubin 102). However, the southern Sinhalese kingdoms would eventually overthrow the Cola Empire, but the crucial shift of the political and religious capital allowed certain aspects of Hinduism established during the Cola rule to be maintained in Sri Lanka (Holt 87).

Importantly, the Cola conquest resulted in significant changes in the religious and cultural dynamics of Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). The rule of the south Indian Tamils of the Cola Empire allowed Hinduism to prosper in Sri Lanka, while Buddhism receded (Nubin 102). A crucial consequence of the Cola conquest was that it allowed Hindu-Brahmanical traditions and religious practices of Saivism to become dominant in Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). Furthermore, various characteristics of Dravidian (south Indian) culture including notions of art, architecture and the Tamil language, collectively had a substantial impact on the religious and cultural structures of Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). Under the Cola Empire, many Siva temples were built in major centers of worship in the Anuradhapura kingdom. These temples in Polonnaruva, Kantalai, Tirukkovil and other cities further assisted in enhancing Hindu Saivite traditions in Sri Lanka (Carter 164). Interestingly, despite the large amount of evidence about Saiva religious practices in Sri Lanka that arises after the Cola conquest, earlier inscriptions from the Mahavamsa indicate that the origins of Saivism in Sri Lanka may date back to the pre-Buddhist period (Carter 162). During this time period of around 400 BCE, the majority of Sri Lankans likely followed religious practices that closely adhered to Hindu Brahmanic and Saivite traditions (Carter 162). Archaeological studies of these religious practices in early Sri Lanka suggest significant phallic (Sivalinga) worship and worship of Saivite deities that closely resemble the principal religious practices of Hindu Tamils at the time (Carter 163).

Once the Sinhalese kingdom regained power approximately a century after the invasion by the Tamil Cola Empire, under King Parakramabahu I, the city of Polonnaruva was transformed into a dynamic center of cultural evolution (Holt 87). Although certain cultural aspects concerning literacy, art and fashion seemed to resemble or evolve from Anuradhapura roots, the city of Polonnaruva allowed for an extensive Hindu community to flourish (Holt 87). Sculptural and archaeological pieces indicate that a significant Hindu Saivite presence was maintained in Polonnaruva (Holt 11). This Hindu community followed Brahmanical traditions that were supported by the matrimonial alliances between Parakramabahu’s royal court and Hindu political elite in south India (Holt 87). Smaller, localized communities of Hindus also continued to thrive and their origins are likely based on Hindu mercenaries that served military interests of south India (Holt 87). Modern day archaeological evidence of religious figures that were worshipped during these times in Sri Lanka indicate a high degree of connection to the practices of Hindu Tamils in south India. Many sculptures depict the Hindu deities Siva, his wife Parvati, and their elephant headed son Ganesa (Holt 87). Importantly, these Hindu deities as well as Skanda (or Murugan) were widely worshipped by the Cola Tamils. These statues also strikingly resemble deities worshipped in south India and are likely derived from the Thanjavur styles of Tamil Nadu (Holt 87).

Modern day, pluralistic Sri Lanka is shaped by four main religions, and primarily two major ethnic groups (Carter 149). Currently, approximately 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 15% are Hindu, 8% are Christian, and 7% are Muslim (Nubin 9). Importantly, we find that many characteristics of Hinduism in India are different from the Hinduism established in Sri Lanka. Among the Hindus of Sri Lanka, Saivism is predominantly practiced, whereas other Hindu sects are essentially absent (Carter 175). One reason for such a lack of diversity in the Hindu communities of Sri Lanka is due to the migration of largely Saivite Tamil Hindus from south India. Furthermore, the historical and geographical events that collectively established Saivism in Sri Lanka have also produced differences from Saivism practiced in Tamil Nadu, India (Carter 175). Specifically, Vaisnavism and Saivism are thought to be contrasting systems in India, whereas in Sri Lanka, Visnu and Siva worship is complementary (Carter 175). Additionally, there are some temples in Sri Lanka devoted to the worship of Visnu even though there is not a significant number of Vaisnavites in Sri Lanka (Carter 175). Despite some of these differences, the established religious practices and traditions of Hindus in Sri Lanka have remained relatively unchanged until recent times. Many components of Hinduism in Sri Lanka including religious, cultural and linguistic factors can also be traced back to Hindu religious and political practices of south India. For example, Brahmin priests, who conduct rituals and ceremonies in social settings and in Hindu temples, do not involve themselves in the politics of public affairs (Carter 149). It is believed that this indifference towards public affairs by Brahmins can be traced back to the construction of Hindu society in India (Carter 149). Conversely, the Buddhist Sangha in Sri Lanka has held a key voice in political issues and has received major support from the state (Carter 149).

Nearly all Sri Lankan Hindus are Saivites and adhere to the Saiva Siddhanta School that was developed during medieval times in Tamil Nadu, India (Carter 150). Specifically, Saiva Siddhanta reveres the Vedas and the texts known as Agamas, whereas in south Indian Saivism, the collection of hymns referred to as Thirumurai and other texts including philosophical treatises comprise the canonical literature (Carter 150). This literature has also influenced Saivism in Sri Lanka, which in the broader sense can be thought of as “a blend of the Vedagama tradition with that of the Saiva Siddhanta” (Carter 150). Hindus in Sri Lanka have also maintained many of the cultural and linguistic characteristics of their Tamil Hindu counterparts in south India. For example, alongside the worship of similar deities, Hindus in Sri Lanka have also constructed temples, sculptures and other architectural monuments by employing south Indian artisans and architects (Carter 150). Additionally, many components of south Indian culture, such as the classical art of Bharata Natyam, have been established and sustained in Hindu communities in Sri Lanka (Carter 150). Sri Lankan Hindus also make pilgrimages to Cidambaram, Madurai, Ramesvaram, as well as other major Saivite centres in south India (Carter 175). Furthermore, many major religious festivals, such as the Kataragama festival celebrating the highly venerated deity Kataragama (or Skanda), occur in Hindu temples built at holy pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka (see Welbon and Yocum 299-304).

Although, possibly countless gods constitute the Hindu pantheon, for Tamil Hindus in both India and Sri Lanka, the gods Visnu and Siva are highly revered (Nubin 162). Visnu is referred to as the all-pervading god or “Blessed Lord,” who is the defender and creator of Dharma (Rodrigues 509). Visnu is usually depicted as a king with his wife, Laksmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune (Nubin 162). One of Visnu’s ten incarnations is Rama, who is the central character in the epic Ramayana. The other most popular incarnation of Visnu is the god Krsna, who is a cowherd and a warrior prince. Krsna appears in the highly important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, where he primarily conveys fundamental teachings regarding devotion and following one’s duties (Nubin 162).  Siva is considered to be the most important Hindu deity for Sri Lankan Hindus (Nubin 162). Siva is referred to as the lord of the yogis or sometimes as Pasupati, “Lord of Animals” (Rodrigues 37). Siva is married to Parvati, the daughter of the mountains, and Siva is often depicted as an ascetic being, covered in ashes, meditating in the jungle with animals surrounding his presence (Nubin 162). For Tamil Hindus, the most powerful and creative expression of Siva is as Nataraja, “Lord of the Dance” (Nubin 163). Large collections of literature and poems dedicated to Siva are held by some Tamil Hindus to be as sacred as the Vedic scriptures (Nubin 163). Although the primary focus for Sri Lankan Hindus is on the worship of Visnu and Siva, the Mahavamsa-Culavamsa (non-canonical narrative on the religious history of Sri Lankan royalty) also references the Hindu deities Brahma, Laksmi, Indra, Kuvera, Skanda, Visvakarman, Brhaspati, and Sarasvati (Deegalle 41). However, since much of the content of the Mahavamsa-Culavamsa is of Buddhist legend, myth, or folktale, searching these texts for connections to Hinduism in Sri Lanka can feel like trying to find information on Taoism by reading Confucian histories (Deegalle 41). Notably, female deities are also important amongst Hindu Tamils of south India and Sri Lanka, and they often receive more devotion by worshippers (Nubin 163). These goddesses are the Sakti, or cosmic energy, that has the ability to be both a creative and destructive force (Nubin 163).  Additionally, many small Hindu villages in Sri Lanka may also have their own local stories or origins based upon the presence of a specific deity. Therefore, they may have built specific temples for worshipping these deities, which usually include Ganesa, Muruga, Vairavar, and Kali (Carter 183).

In the more recent colonial history of Sri Lanka, Hindu religious practices have become less extensive due to the persecution of these religious worldviews by European colonizers, and also due to an increasing Buddhist influence (Carter 165). Specifically, the Portuguese colonizers persecuted Saivites, who in turn responded by fleeing to India. The Saivites that remained in Sri Lanka found themselves struggling to assert their Saiva religious practices, as they were unable to participate in fundamental religious observances such as temple worship (Carter 165). The Dutch imposed similar restrictions, but eventually British rule near the end of the nineteenth century allowed for greater religious freedom for Saivites in Sri Lanka (Carter 165). Nowadays, Sri Lanka faces problems of segregation based on caste (“caste-ism”) and untouchability that continue to be prevalent because of the absence of social reforms in Sri Lanka that are, however, taking place in India to fight the hierarchical division of groups into classes (Carter 155). On the political forefront, the proportional representation that Hindu Tamils enjoyed in the Sri Lankan government was eliminated with the 1949 Indian and Pakistani Residents Act (Mainuddin and Aicher 35). Additionally, the 1978 Constitution enshrined Buddhism with the state, further increasing the political tension between the Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese (Mainuddin and Aicher 37). In the next few years, radical Tamils formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and led an armed combat against the Sri Lankan government during the Sri Lankan Civil War to protect their Tamil statehood (Mainuddin and Aicher 37). Furthermore, the continued warfare by the Hindu Tamil militants against the Sri Lankan government in the 1990s indicates that the separatist self-determination issue is not yet resolved. These constant struggles illustrate the extent to which the heterogeneous society of modern day Sri Lanka continues to sporadically encounter clashes between the revivalist Sinhalese, Buddhist majority, and the separatist Tamil, Hindu minority (Mainuddin and Aicher 28). These struggles will likely resurface in the future as the relatively young sovereign nation of Sri Lanka continues to address conflicting political and religious powers in attempt to define its true national identity.


References and Further Recommended Readings

Bastin, Rohan (2005) “Hindu Temples in the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict – Capture and Excess.” Social Analysis 49: 45-66.

Carter, John R. (ed.) (1979) Religiousness in Sri Lanka. Colombo: Marga Institute.

De Silva, Kingsley M. (1981) A History of Sri Lanka. London: C. Hurst.

Deegalle, Mahinda (ed.) (2006) Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka. New York: Routledge.

Holt, John (ed.) (2011) The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, USA: Duke University Press.

Jayaram, Narayana (ed.) (2004) The Indian Diaspora: Dynamics of Migration. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Kumar, Pratap P. (ed.) (2013) Contemporary Hinduism. Durham, UK: Acumen.

Mainuddin, Rolin G., and Joseph R. Aicher (1997) “Religion and self-determination: A case study of Sri Lanka.” Indian Journal of Asian Affairs 10:26-46.

Nubin, Walter (ed.) (2002) Sri Lanka: Current Issues and Historical Background. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Olson, Carl (2007) The Many Colors of Hinduism: A Thematic-historical Introduction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Schwarz, Walter (1988) The Tamils of Sri Lanka. London: Minority Rights Group.

Welbon, G. R., and G. E. Yocum (eds.) (1982) Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka. Delhi: Manohar.

Wickramasinghe, Nira (2006) Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Cidambaram temples

Cola (or Chola) Dynasty


Dravidian (south Indian) culture



Saiva Siddhanta


Siva Nataraja

Tamil Nadu





Noteworthy Websites Related to Topic


Article written by: Harshil Patel (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Cidambaram Temple

Cidambaram Temple, also known as the Thillai Natarajah Temple is a sixteen hectare temple complex (Smith 4) located in the center of the city of Cidambaram in Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India, and was built and expanded between the 10th and 14th centuries. The official name of the temple is Sabhanayaka (Lord of the Hall) temple (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). This temple venerates Siva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance) in Sanskrit or Thillai Koothan in Tamil (Spencer).

The temple is famous for the veneration a 3 foot tall bronze statue of Siva (Srinivasan 433) in a dancing position and the local myth that inspired the depiction and the worship of Siva in that form in Cidambaram. The statue is meant to be used as an utsava murti (processional image) in festivals (Cush, Robinson, and York 366), but is usually located in an inner gold-roofed sanctum called the Cit-Sabha or Hall of Consciousness (Srinivasan 433, Smith 5). Siva is also represented in the form of a traditional lingam, and in the form of an empty alcove representing akasa (ether, space, or sky) and transcendence (Srinivasan 433). It is said that the Cit-Sabha embodies Siva as well (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Other deities worshipped at the temple include Sivakamasundari, Ganesa, and Visnu among other deities connected with Siva. The depictions of each deity can be found in alcoves and ambulatories around the edges of the temple.

This temple is one of five temples in south India dedicated to Siva which each represent elements and the supposed geographic locations where Siva has appeared and performed miracles. These temples collectively are called the Panca Bhuta Sthalam, (Spencer 233, Isaac 16, Dey 49) and Cidambaram temple represents the element of akasa.


Temple History

The Nataraja temple at Cidambaram was built in the 10th century during the reign of Cola ruler Vira Cola Raja and is among some of the oldest temples in south India (Sullivan 58). Cidambaram temple has been the center for the worship of Siva in a dancing form since the seventh century (Smith 1), however the depiction of Siva as Nataraja was popularized by the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites sometime later (Cush, Robinson, and York 799).

Cola rulers through the 10th to the 13th centuries considered Siva, especially as Nataraja, to be their family deity and sponsored massive expansions of the Cidambaram temple complex and other Saivite temple complexes in south India. Along with the level of temple construction and renovation, they also made efforts to increase the scale and organization of worship at these temples (Davis 16). Vikrama and his military minister Naralokaviran are credited with renovating and adorning the Cidambaram temple, as well as sponsoring and developing services and facilities to encourage patronage and worship such as grand festivals, lit processional walkways, ocean pavilions, etc. with the goal to secure the Cidambaram Nataraja temple as the capital of Saivite worship in south India (Davis 19).

Cidambaram temple is sometimes simply referred to as “the temple”, and the entire city is sometimes referred to as a temple in literature (Spencer 240). Historically in the Saivite temple culture throughout south India, the main keepers and collectors of information were travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), who were advocates of bhakti (devotionalism), and whose Tamil (Sullivan 195) devotional hymns are still sung today (Sullivan 211). However, there were multiple schools of thought in place in the area in medieval times who each would have a variation on thought and their own canon. For example, the accepted canon for Saiva Siddhanta philosophy was the Agamas (Srinivasan 432). Numerous nayanmars are remembered and venerated at the temple, and their poems have been passed down orally through generations. Recently, the process has begun of writing the poems and stories down for posterity. The veneration of priests, saints, and poets at Cidambaram is hierarchical with more well-known figures such as Umapati Sivacarya who wrote the poem Kuncitanghristava or “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515) being remembered and praised more often than lesser saints which included women and Dalits (Spencer 235). The lineages of Saivite saints, priests, and teachers is hard to decipher because of a patchy record and an initiatory re-naming tradition (Davis 9).


Temple Mythology

Cidambaram is considered the center of the universe (Smith 2), as well as the place where Siva first performed the anandatandava, or dance of bliss (Srinivasan 432, Smith 1), in the presence of his consort Sivakamasundari, and three sages who were awaiting his arrival in Cidambaram while worshipping a lingam (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Cidambaram is said to be the sky temple in the series of five temples in south India which represent elemental forms of Siva, the Panca Bhuta Sthalam (Dey 49). Each temple in this collection of temples is said to have a connected story of Siva appearing at that location in the presence of devotees to perform a miracle in a new form. At Cidambaram the miracle was the anandatandava and the form that Siva assumed was that of Nataraja or Lord of Dance (Smith 1). The traditional lingam which would usually stand in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Cit-Sabha, is replaced in this temple by a bronze statue of Siva performing the dance (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). The representation of the figure of Siva performing the anandatandava is steeped in symbolism.

The speed of the dance is said to determine whether it will be creative or destructive, with a slower pace being creative and a faster pace being destructive (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Siva as Nataraja is depicted with 4 hands, each having a specific meaning. The hand raised up in the abhaya-mudra (Cush, Robinson, and York 799) represents refuge, while the downward-pointing hand represents escape from samsara shown by the surrounding ring of fire (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). The other two hands hold a drum used for keeping time while dancing and a ball of fire, which each represent creation and destruction; fire can be creative in a Vedic sense by creating favor from the gods and the drum can be interpreted as destructive by marking the passage of time (Smith 1, Cush, Robinson, and York 160, Sullivan 148). In the 14th century in Cidambaram, the priest Umapati Sivacarya devoted a poem to the depiction of Siva in anandatandava entitled Kuncitanghristava, “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515), the foot on the statue of Siva as Nataraja is said to grant anugraha (blessing) and salvation (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Siva’s other foot steps on a smaller person or demon named Apasmarapurusa in Sanskrit or Muyalaka in Tamil (Nayagam 120) which represents ignorance (Smith 1).


Temple Structure

The style of southern Indian temples is distinct from northern Indian temples. In the southern style, the gopuram (main towers) are raised high above the gates of the temple and set into the walls that encircle the inner sanctuaries, the walls are usually highly decorated and ornate (Sullivan 227). Cidambaram temple is one of the largest in south India, with the gopurams measured at 49 meters high (Sullivan 58).

The walls of the Cidambaram temple have been decorated with depictions of 108 Bharata Natyam (traditional Indian dance) poses (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). This style of classical dance is said to have originated in the surrounding area of Tamil Nadu and especially within Saivite temple culture (Tiruvalluvar 1201), and the temple also boasts a large performing arts hall shaped like a chariot called the Nrtta Sabha (Sullivan 58).

The Cidambaram temple is also set apart by the golden roof of the Cit-Sabha, extensive processional routes, and lamped walkways all added on by Cola rulers (Davis 19). Cit-Sabha, the innermost hall or sanctum of the temple contains three alcoves, the main alcove contains the three foot tall bronze statue of Siva Nataraja, with the other two alcoves containing the stone lingam usually representative of Siva and an empty space representative of Siva as the element akasa (Srinivasan 433). Several shrines to other deities are featured in the temple, most of whom have some connection to Siva in Hindu literature (Sullivan 58). All of the elemental Saivite temples are built in the same southern style but differ in their decorations and size.



The main festival at temples dedicated to Siva is Mahasivaratri (Great Night of Siva) or simply Sivaratri (Sullivan 211). This festival is held yearly on the thirteenth night and fourteenth day in the dark half of Phalguna, the month that takes place in February to March in the Gregorian calendar (Sullivan 130). The festival is widely popular and devotees of many different deities attend. The festival consists of a night vigil at the temple which involves devotional hymns, darsana (auspicious viewing) of images of Siva either in statue or lingam form and highly decorated (Sullivan 130), and puja offerings which include sandalwood paste, flower petals, bilva and bel leaves, milk, curd, ghee, honey, rose water, and vermillion paste (Dwivedi 30, Sullivan 130). A drink made of cannabis, milk, and almonds is also said to be consumed at this festival (Dwivedi 30). The second day of the festival is a celebratory day reserved for feasting rather than solemn worship (Sullivan 130). The Mahasivaratri has many origin stories including Parvati venerating a lingam in Siva’s absence, a hunter accidentally venerating a lingam when out in the wilderness, and the gods Brahma and Visnu finding a pillar of fire which is revealed to be Siva in a different form (Dwivedi 72).

Other festivals include occasional processional temple festivals called mahotsava or brahmotsava in Sanskrit and tiruvila in Tamil. These festivals can last up to two weeks and involve the use of utsava murti (processional images) of deities used in festivals and temple rites (Cush, Robinson, and York 366). The icons are dressed in finery like silk, flowers, and gold ornaments and led down the streets either on the shoulders of followers, or pulled in chariots by devotees holding hemp ropes. There are also animals and musicians involved in these parades, which stop occasionally along the procession to allow people to view the gods and make offerings to them which is seen as very auspicious (Davis 15). Bronze figures and accompanying inscriptions show that this form of festival worship has been taking place in south India since at least the 9th century (Davis 16).

This festival takes place in Cidambaram as well with the obvious addition of the Nataraja statue. Other differences in the Cidambaram mahotsavas are the length and scale of the festival which is always very long, around fifteen days, and features two parades each day with the deities riding on different vahanas (vehicles). This culminates in the ratha-yatra where the deities are paraded on chariots which are much like individual moving shrines (Davis 15). At the beginning of any festival period devoted primarily to Siva, the temple flag is raised with the image of a bull on it which represents Siva’s vahana Nandi (Davis 30). Another practice which sets Cidambaram apart is the practice of applying a black balm to the statues, priests, servants, and lay people in hierarchical order if the festival is venerating Nataraja (Davis 51).


Staff and Important Persons

Important persons connected to the temple include the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites who popularized the veneration of Siva as Nataraja, as well as the other numerous lesser-known philosophical schools which helped inform the literature in medieval south India (Cush, Robinson, and York 799). Also of great importance were the travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), whose Tamil devotional Saivite hymns recorded the mythology and chronology of the area and whose stories were passed down orally and are still told and sung today creating a rich illustration of the history of the area (Sullivan 211). Some of these poets became priests or teachers or gained fame from their writing which creates a useful image of the social landscape of the time.

The temple staff at Cidambaram are called diksitars because they undergo the initiatory process of diksa. This process involves numerous rites to be performed at different prescribed times before the initiate is accepted. The nitya-karman are the daily rites and show Saivite piety if they are done on one’s own behalf (atmartha), this category includes the nityapuja (veneration of a lingam), nityahoma (a small fire sacrifice), and suryapuja (sun worship). Daily rituals need to be completed before other rituals, they are the prerequisites. Naimittikarman, or occasional rites include pavitrosava and damanotsava and they are the prerequisites for the last set of rituals. The last set of rituals, on completion, marks the initiation of a diksitar as part of the Saivite community and released of earthly bondage. These rituals are therefore held in high regard as transformative. The initiate is consecrated as either a sadhakadiksa (mantra-adept), or as an acaryadiksa (priest) through a series of upanayana-like rituals including a mock cremation on the receiving of a special mantra (Davis 7).



Aghorasiva (1157) A Priest’s Guide to the Great Festival. Translation and notes by Richard H. Davis (2010) New York: Oxford University Press.

Cush, Denise, and Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Dey, Nando L. (1979) The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Dwivedi, Anil K. (2007) Encyclopedia of Indian Customs & Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Ferro-Luzzi, Gabriella E. (1996) “Reviewed Work: The Dance of Siva. Religion, Art and Poetry in South India by David Smith” East and West 46:515–17. Accessed February 5, 2016.

Isaac, Eric (1960) “Religion, Landscape, and Space” Landscape 9:14-18.

Nayagam, X.S. Thani (1970). Tamil Culture and Civilization. London: Asia Publishing House.

Smith, David (1996) The Dance of Siva: Religion, Art and Poetry in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, George W. (1970) “The Sacred Geography of the Tamil Shaivite Hymns.” Numen 17:232–44. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.2307/3269705.

Srinivasan, Sharada (2004) “Shiva as ‘cosmic dancer’: On Pallava origins for the Nataraja bronze.” World Archaeology 36:432-450. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.1080/1468936042000282726821.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1997) Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Tiruvalluvar (2000). The Handbook of Tamil Culture and Heritage. Chicago: International Tamil Language Foundation.


Related Topics

  • Bhakti
  • Diksa
  • Bharata Natyam
  • Saivitism
  • Viasnavism
  • Cola Dynasy
  • Tamil Poetry
  • Poet-saints
  • South Indian Architecture
  • Processional Festivals


Related Websites

Article written by: Katherine Christianson (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.




Rajendra Cola I

Rajendra Cola I was a great king who ruled from 1012 to 1044 CE. He presided over the expansive Cola dynasty in Southern India inheriting the kingdom from his father, Rajaraja I. The Cholas had ruled kingdoms of varying sizes in South India from approximately 850 CE (Srivastava 1). However, by 980 CE the Cola dynasty had been in a steady decline for a few decades until Rajaraja I, Rajendra’s father, became king from 985 to 1014 CE (Srivastava 11). Thus, Rajendra was perfectly placed in history to become a great king, as he watched his father return the dynasty to its former glory and learned what was needed from a king to continue expanding his territory.

When discussing Rajendra the logical starting point is then Rajaraja, as much of Rajendra’s success as a king and leader should be attributed to Rajaraja. This is true for many reasons, the most prominent being Rajendra had inherited a kingdom that had already been rescued from oblivion by Rajaraja. Thus, Rajendra’s success was not solely his own. Once Rajaraja was firmly in place as a prominent king he began mentoring Rajendra in warfare and governance. This tutelage continued into the first two years of Rajendra’s rule, as Rajendra and Rajaraja co-ruled until Rajaraja’s death in 1014 CE (Srivastava 24).

There is no known date of birth for Rajendra; his early life is also a bit of a mystery, however his mother is said to be Vanavan Mahadevi, one of Rajaraja’s wives (Srivastava 15). It seems one only starts to see Rajendra’s name appearing once he had been named the crowned prince. It is also known that Rajendra had four wives: Vunavan-Mahadeviyar, Mukkokkilan, Pancavon-Mahadeviyar and Vira-Mahadevi, however the dates of the marriages are also unknown (Srivastava 15).

Before Rajendra became king, his father Rajaraja introduced him to the many responsibilities of ruling. One such example was how Rajaraja insisted that Rajendra participate as an acting member of the government, as Srivastava stated, “Under his [Rajaraja’s] direct supervision and by holding different positions in the government, both civil as well as military, Rajendra got excellent opportunities to shape his personality as the crown-prince” (Srivastava 23). Rajaraja also ensured that Rajendra understood the art of war, by having Rajendra fight in his army (Srivastava 16). Rajaraja’s foresight to include his son, early on, in the day to day managing of the kingdom was an excellent decision. It appears that Rajendra agreed as he utilized the same tutelage with his eldest son, Rajadhiraja, who was the next crown-prince (Srivastava 51). As a matter of fact, Rajendra made use of this technique when it came to the numerous princes, as Professor K.A.N. Sastri is quoted in Srivastava’s book, “By finding suitable occupation for the energies of restless princes of the royal family, he doubtless allayed their discontent, diminished the chances of palace intrigues and revolutions, and at the same time brought new strength to the administration of an over-grown empire which was called upon to face many difficult problems, domestic and foreign” (Srivastava 65). Thus, Rajendra successfully employed the same deterrent his father, Rajaraja, had taught him.


Rajendra presided over a government system that was quite unique for the time period, in some aspects it seemed almost democratic. Rajendra held those he presided over with great respect. In many instances he wished to know public opinion regarding a proposed law that may affect his people and on occasions he was also known to get the approval of the majority of his people before passing laws (Srivastava 74). Rajendra was also dedicated to his people, using government money to build roads and improve irrigation (Srivastava 73). Although, there was one aspect of the government that was quite traditional: members of the government were chosen from high society. However, if a government official wanted to move up in rank the ultimate factor in the decision was the ability of the individual to do the job correctly (Srivastava 66). Given that Rajendra was interested in the opinions of the public and that members of the government were judged on merit, the government appeared to be quite steady. It was probably due to this stability and prosperity that allowed Rajendra to wage wars without worrying about monetary issues.


Rajendra was known as a fierce warrior and king and a brilliant war strategist (Spencer 1976:416). Along with his father, Rajaraja, Rajendra radically altered how raids were accomplished. What was once done in a haphazard manner was transformed by Rajendra and Rajaraja into much more productive, long term invasions (Spencer 1976:409). Once their army had invaded an enemy territory they were to start building camps that acted as a home base, from where they could continue raiding the surrounding area (Spencer 1976:409). A large aspect of Rajendra’s army was an extremely powerful navy which was passed down to him by Rajaraja (Srivastava 42, 68). As Rajendra’s army collected more and more enemy territories, stories started to circulate about how fierce the army was; this caused a few kings in neighbouring areas to send gifts to Rajendra in the hope that a friendship could be formed to ensure their own kingdom’s survival (Srivastava 48). As the distance between the capital city and the outlying communities grew Rajendra had to ensure that he remained in control; this was partially accomplished through the building of temples.


By building temples in outlying areas where Rajendra’s influence may not have been overly prominent he was placing himself in the forefront of the minds of his people. As Kaimal states, “Temple building declared publicly the king’s ability to protect and donate to the deity, it created a lasting visual symbol of the king’s sacred authority,” (Kaimal 1996:55). Another reason for placing temples in the outlying areas was to incorporate any non Cola traditions into Cola traditions, which changed the locals associations with the king (Kaimal 1996:62). Most of these temples also had a specific location where the names of donors would be placed. To ensure that the general public recognized that the the king was a main contributor their names were always placed in a prominent location (Spencer 1969:51).


The Colas were well known as Saivas, worshippers of Siva, because of this most of their temples are dedicated to Siva (Lippe 44). The preferred depiction of Siva installed in most of these temples was the image of Siva as Lord of the Dance, or Siva Nataraja (Lippe 62). This particular depiction of Siva represents the dance that Siva does to destroy the universe. Siva is depicted dancing on the dwarf of ignorance, while a ring of fire encircles him. He usually has four arms in this depiction, one of which is usually holding a drum while another is holding a flame. The goddess Ganga is also shown trapped in Siva’s hair (Kaimal 1999:393). There are many temples with this type of iconography, one such example is the temple that Rajendra built in 1030 CE at Gangaikondacholapuram (Lippe 35). However, Rajendra’s temple is largely abandoned. As it could not compete with the temple his father built in Tanjore.


When it came to temple construction it appears that Rajendra did not take his father’s lead. The temple that Rajaraja built in Tanjore is still in use today due to Rajaraja’s clever use of his subjects. Rajaraja ensured that people all over his dynasty were a part of the temple itself. He conscripted a selection of his subjects who were already working other temples around his territories to work at his temple in Tanjore. This gave many people who lived far from the temple a way to associate themselves with the temple itself, through their neighbours or relatives who were now working in the great temple at Tanjore (Geeta 23). When Rajendra’s temple was finally built instead of using the same technique that his father had used to ensure that the public felt connected to the temple he simply had some of the current workers from his father’s temple moved to his own temple. Which did not have the same effect.


Given all that Rajendra Cola I managed to accomplish during his reign as one of the most prolific kings of Southern India it is easy to understand why Srivastava said, “During his regime the goddess of the Earth, the goddess of Victory in battle and the matchless goddess of Fame became his great queens” (Srivastava 100). Yet, with all that Rajendra is said to have accomplished, almost single handedly the way some of his history is described, it is also understandable why Srivastava said, “Notwithstanding the exaggerations, he is to be reckoned as one of the greatest rulers of India” (Srivastava 101).

















References and Further Recommended Reading


Kaimal, Padma (1996) “Early Cola Kings and ‘Early Cola Temples’: Art and the Evolution of        Kingship.” Artibus Asiae, Vol. 56 (no. 1/2), 33-66


Kaimal, Padma (1999) “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon.” The Art Bulletin, Vol.81      (no.3 September), 390-419


Lippe, Aschwin (1971) “Divine Images in Stone and Bronze: South India, Chola Dynasty (c.        850-1280).” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 4, 29-79


Majumdar, R. C. (1961) “The Overseas Expeditions of King Rajendra Cola.” Artibus Asiae, Vol.   24 (no. 3/4), 338-342


Spencer, George W. (1969) “Religious Networks and Royal Influence in Eleventh Century South India.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 12 (January), 42- 56


Spencer, George W. (1976) “The Politics of Plunder: The Cholas in Eleventh-Century Ceylon.”    The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35 (May), 405-419


Srivastava, Balram (1973) Rajendra Chola. India: Thomson Press Limited.


Stein, Burton (1977) “Circulation and the Historical Geography of Tamil Country.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 37 (November), 7-26


Vasudevan, Geeta (2003) The royal temple of Rajaraja : an instrument of imperial Cola power.     New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.



Related Topics for Further Investigation

Cola Dynasty

Rajaraja I



Siva Nataraja




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic



Article written by: Krysti Bouttell-Bonnar (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Rajaraja I

Rajaraja I: The Great Cola King

The medieval period in India is not romanticized period like its European counterpart, but it is nonetheless important for the development of both modern Indian Society and the Hindu religion. Like Europe at the same time, areas of the Indian subcontinent were ruled by dynastic kings, and one of the most influential and important of them is the Cola Dynasty of the Tamil region. The Cola’s conquered almost the entirety of the South of India, using their military to expand their borders. The Cola Dynasty lasted from the 9th century C.E. to the 14th century C.E. and oversaw a period of religious transformation, particularly in the Hindu tradition. One of the most important leaders of the Dynasty was Rajaraja I (r. 985-1017 C.E.), who was responsible for a great deal of religious change, and was perhaps best known for his temple reforms focused on taking the power away from bhakti temples and placing it in his own sphere of influence (Vasudevan 15).

Collossal Entry Gopura at Rajarajesvara (aka Brhadesvara) Temple in Thanjavur
Collossal Entry Gopura at Rajarajesvara (aka Brhadesvara) Temple in Thanjavur

Like so many other kingships throughout the medieval world, power was passed along within the family lineage. The importance of a ruler having a son was therefore intensified in its importance, and the emphasis placed on having a male heir is still seen today (Kaimal 34). In medieval India, kings were especially emphatic about honouring their lineage and any warrior ancestors from whom they had descended. This was done as a way of legitimizing their own power and status as a great warrior, which was necessary of a king (Kaimal, 35). The early Cola kings were no different in this regard, as they focused on making their family and themselves appear to be great warriors and in many ways godlike (Veluthat 30). However, the Cola’s also began to use religion as a way to legitimize their position by financing the construction of temples and using them as places of worship and administration. Temples in the Hindu tradition were steadily gaining importance throughout the first millennium C.E., as Brahmanical Hinduism based around temple worship gained more and more influence (Vasudevan, 13). This was especially true during the reign of Rajaraja I, who sought to bring the focus of worship to his own royal temples and in turn advance his personal prestige and influence. Rajaraja was known as ‘The Great Cola King’ in part because of his impressive usage of temple construction and administration to consolidate his power, and in part because of his successful military exploits.

Prior to the rule of Rajaraja, the borders of the Cola kingdom were confined strictly within the Tamil region on the Southern portion of the Indian subcontinent. When Rajaraja came to power, he went about conquering territories both to the North and South of the area he first controlled. He was ultimately quite successful in these military exploits, conquering the Telugu and Kannada regions to the North, and the area known as Ilam to the South (Vasudevan 16). As a result, Rajaraja became renowned as a great conqueror and military strategist who earned the complete loyalty of his soldiers, which helped to further secure his authority and respect of his subjects as a warrior king. The military conquests also gave him a large empire over which he tried to implement uniform administration practices (Vasudevan 43). In order to do this, Rajaraja strategically placed armies and military resources throughout the conquered regions and had them enforce his will and laws. However, this was a costly way to administer an empire, and the Cola king schemed new ways to administer his domain peacefully. The solution to the problem was to build and use temples as both a place of worship and as a place where the king could exercise considerable political power in order to better control his subjects and add to his kingdoms wealth (Vasudevan, 16). This in turn led to a resurgence in large scale temple building spearheaded by the central government of Rajaraja. Such building operations not only allowed for Rajaraja to better control his subjects and earn more prestige, but to be the cause of the further entrenchment of Brahmanical Hinduism in Southern India.

During Rajaraja’s reign, the temple became a political and economic centre that functioned in a way similar to a Lordly estate did in Europe at around the same time. Many of the tasks and duties assigned to temples under Rajaraja were similar in nature to those of a Lord to his peasants in a feudal system, though the relationships between priests and commoners were much different. Temples were given land grants by the king or private patrons so they could raise the money needed to run the services they had to provide; this was known as devadana (Vasudevan 62). The temples acted as banks in that they lent money and earned profit on the interest, as well as invested in local business ventures in things such as agriculture and so on. Another duty was to oversee land exchanges and other business transactions. All of these ventures were designed to make the temple money, and since Rajaraja sponsored so many, much of the profit from these royal temples went straight back to the crown. On top of these duties temples already had in the community under Rajaraja, they also acted as his personal tax collectors, with the Great Royal Temples like Rajarajesvaram acting as the feudal-like lord of multiple villages (Vasudevan 62). In this regard Temples played a key role in the day to day affairs and running of the Cola kingdom during the rule of Rajaraja.

Entrance to Rajaraja I's royal palace, now the Palace Museum in Thanjavur
Entrance to Rajaraja I’s royal palace, now the Palace Museum in Thanjavur

While temples functioned as the economic and political centres of a given area, they also served their purpose as places of religious worship as well. In the temples, Brahmin priests performed the rituals they were requested of upon payment to those who qualified via their class or jati. This is a relatively obvious function for a religious temple, though what particular god was focused on individual temples was varied. For example, in the very large royal temple of Rajarajesvaram, which was built by Rajaraja, Siva appears to be the most commonly worshipped god (Schwindler 163). Hindu deities appear all over the temple in carvings and sculptures, but Siva is depicted the most and in the most prominent places. This could be partly due to Siva’s high place in the pantheon, but it is equally likely that this was done because of the parallel between Siva being a great warrior and Rajaraja also being a great warrior, or at the least wishing to be portrayed like one (Schwindler 164). At this location, an inscription on a done at the behest of the king recorded all of the individuals in the temple’s employ. In total, there were over seven hundred people on the payroll of the temple; some for religious purposes and others to take care of the temple’s other duties (Vanamamalai 27). It has been thought that this temple was built by Rajaraja in dedication to Siva, using the arts as a means to draw people to the temple (Vanamamalai 27). Siva worship was therefore obviously an important aspect to the rule of Rajaraja, as was the recording of any business transactions in which the temple was involved.

In conclusion, the rule of Rajaraja I was complex and important to the history of India and the Hindu tradition. ‘The Great Cola King’ ushered in an era of prosperity for his kingdom and became a renowned figure in the history of India. He was able to vastly increase the size of his kingdom and give himself an empire by conquering vast areas of lands to the North and South, essentially stretching the Cola’s borders from sea to sea. Rajaraja was able to accomplish this through brilliant military strategy and commanding the complete loyalty of his armies, creating himself into an all important great warrior king like his ancestors before him. He was also a skilled politician and ruled his domain extremely well through both the use of occupational military forces and temples. Temples under Rajaraja were the major centres of the kingdom, responsible for most social, economic and political duties in a given region. This extension of temples as a form of power for the king led to the mass building of royally funded and patronized temples, the most magnificent being Rajarajesvaram. The new temples were used to bring power to the king at the expense of public, or bhakti temples. Siva worship was very important in these new temples, as it drew a comparison between the Siva as a great warrior and Rajaraja as a great warrior king. All in all, the system created by Rajaraja I to administer his kingdom was complex and important to the development of the Hindu tradition in Southern India.


Kaimal, Padma (1996) “Early Cola Kings and “Early Cola Temples”: Art and the Evolution of         Kingship”, Artibus Asiae , Vol. 56, No. 1/2, pp. 33-66.

Schwindler, Gary J. (1987) “Speculations on the Theme of Śiva as Tripurāntaka as It Appears           during the Reign of Rājarāja I in the Tanjore Area ca. A.D. 1000”, Ars Orientalis , Vol.         17, pp. 163-178.

Vanamamalai, N. (19754) “State and Religion in the Chola Empire: Taxation for Thanjavur            Temple’s Music and Dance”, Social Scientist , Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 26-42.

Vasudevan, Geeta (2003) The Royal Temple of Rajaraja : An Instrument of Imperial Cola             Power. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Veluthat, Kesavan (1993) “Religious Symbols in Political Legitimation: The Case of Early             Medieval South India”, Social Scientist , Vol. 21, No. 1/2, pp. 23-33.

Related Readings

Maloney, Clarence (1970) “The Beginnings of Civilization in South India”, The Journal of Asian   Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 603-616.

Sewell, Robert (1883) A sketch of the dynasties of Southern India. Oxford: Government Press.

Related Research Topics

The Cola Dynasty

The Pallava Dynasty

Rajendra I

Noteworthy Websites

Article written by Greg Blow (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Chola Dynasty

The Chola Dynasty was a Tamil dynasty that flourished from the 9th century through the 13th century. The bhakti period, starting in the 14th century, saw the rise of temples built for principal gods and a decline in Jainism and Buddhism. Not only does the Hindu temple bring communities together with religion, but it also has social, economic and political affects. The Pallava kings were the first to build stone temples in the Tamil country and were defeated by the Chola dynasty in the 8th century. (Vasudevan 10-20).

The Chola empire extended its power over the whole of South India from each coast. In the north, the empire stretched to the Tungabhadra river, and far south, even to include Sri Lanka for a short time. During expansions, the Chola kings established a Tamil culture over the controlled regions and introduced Brahmanical rituals in the temples.

Many kings of the Chola dynasty would build several temples and even rebuilt existing temples in stone. Atitya I (r. 871-907 CE) was one of the earliest conquering kings in the Chola Empire and brought gold back from his conquests of the Kaveri river valley. This gold was used to rebuild a gold shingled roof on the Cit Sabha in Cidambaram, which was then adopted as the family temple for the Chola kings (Younger 16-17). Credit is given to Atitya’s son, Parantaka I (r. 907-55 CE), who was next in line and completed this monumental task of putting the gold on the temple’s roof (Younger 94). This temple complex is known as the Siva Nataraja and is the only Hindu temple that contains Siva in his dancing form (Younger 1).

Citamparam/Chidambaram Temple (Chola Dynasty)

Temples began to receive more financial resources and started to become a redistribution centre of wealth and services. The greatest period for the dynasty began in 985 CE with the rise of Rajaraja I (r. 985-1017 CE) to the throne. Rajaraja I wanted to change the focus of worship from Cidambaram to his own royal temple. Rajaraja’s reign was followed by his son Rajendra I (r.1012-44 CE), who would help complete the conquests of his father. During the reign of Rajaraja I, the great temple, Rajarajesvara, was constructed near the king’s palace in Tanjavur, the new capital of the Chola kingdom. Rajaraja used this temple to help control the empire and as a political tool to demonstrate the power and authority of the Chola kingdom. The temple was built in 1010 CE and is almost 200 feet high. (see Lippe 29-36). These Hindu temples became an institution to unite different regions and cultures.

Cola/Chola Palace Museum (Thanjavur)

When the reign of Rajaraja ended, the empire had no successor and a period of chaos occurred. A Calukyan ruler from Central India seized the throne and took the name Kulottunka I. Under Kulottunka’s reign a general in his army by the name Naralokaviran began a rebuilding program at Cidambaram. This included constructing two gateway towers, an inner wall around the central shrine, expanding the temple of the goddess Sivakamacuntari, adding stairs and porches to the water tank, building of the main outer wall and the addition of other doorways and golden vessels for ritual use (Younger 100). Vikrama (r. 1118-33 CE), Kulottunka’s son wanted to take credit for the construction at Citamparam and in 1118 CE attended the rededication of the temple. Kulottunka II (r. 1133-50 CE) became a strong supporter of Citamparam and did not allow any inscription carvings in the temple (Younger 100-110).

Temples in Southern India host two different types of worship. The everyday worship is carried out by priests who have a defined ritual pattern. The other type of worship is seen during festivals when huge crowds gather in the courtyards and the deities are carried around the streets. The deities leave the temple to be entertained, bathed and honored by their worshipers (Younger 48). In Tirukkovalur, a Vaisnavite temple is at its center and the rest of the town is built around it. The temple was rebuilt and an additional wall was added in the eleventh century (Heitzman 802). A large number of workers were employed including drummers, dancers, and musicians. These workers had an income to support their family but were not granted a high status because their work seemed demeaning (Younger 50).

The Cidambaram temple complex contains four major shrines as well as ten minor shrines. The shrine of Lord Natarajan is at the heart of the temple followed by the shrine to the goddess Sivakamacuntari. The temple of Murukan, the Mulastana temple and the Deva Sabha are the other three major temples in the complex. Priests and assistants are present each day to complete the daily feeding, bathing and pray to for the deities that are found in the major and minor temples (Younger 24-30).

Markali Tiruvaturai is the great festival that occurs in Cidambaram, which corresponds with the winter solstice. This time is considered a dangerous time and Indian astrology considers it inauspicious. The major event occurs during the morning of the tenth day when the deities are taken out of their shrines to be bathed in a ritual procedure involving priests and worshipers. Another event is the daily reading of the Tiruvempavai [hymn of Manikkavacakar] which celebrates the daily bathing that the women and girls do in the morning during the festival month. Before the festival begins, the Ditcitar priests prepare clothes for the deities to wear and perform special prayers to Vinayakan who is responsible for auspicious events. The name of a priest is drawn out of a pot (by a child) and will become the head priest for the festival. During the first day of the festival a flag is raised to signify the beginning of the celebrations. The flag is a forty yard long white cloth that has a picture of an ox and a trident. A procession with the head priest riding an elephant and the temple musicians playing behind him occurs through the corridors to the priest home. Worshipers in the streets bow to him and place garlands around his head. The temple musicians then participate in a preparation ceremony as the head priest brings out a special brass drum from the sanctum that was donated by the bull, Nandi, who is Siva’s vehicle and gate keeper. A drummer is selected to perform a special concert with an unusual beat that is connected with this sacred drum. To finish the day, a concert is put on for the five deities who are brought out from the temple. After the concert the priests chant to the nine gods for protection during the festival. The middle days of the festival have similar structure with processions in the morning and evening with a different theme each day. A third procession is placed in on the eighth day in which the beggar form of Siva is worshipped (Younger 54-74).

When the deities are brought out of their temples, there are three major events that occur. The chariot pull, the bathing ritual and the Royal Audience on the tenth day. During the chariot pull, worshipers pull the statues of the deities down the streets. Because of poorly constructed chariots and muddy roads, these chariots can sometime get stuck in the streets. The holiest moment occurs on the tenth day at 4 A.M. when the Dancing God and goddess images are bathed with water, milk, curd, honey, sugarcane juice, lemon water and coconut water by the head priest. Mantras are spoken as each of the liquids is poured on the images, with Lord Natarajan being bathed first. The images are then covered with garlands and perfumes after which they are bathed using apple juice, grape juice and rose water. The most auspicious moment occurs when water brought from the Ganges River and is poured over the statues. The final bath occurs in sandal paste water, composed of ground up sandalwood, and afterwards worshipers try to receive a drop of the precious liquids the priests begin to hand out (Younger 54-74).

The Royal Audience is the event which brings the festival to a close. Worshipers line up for a blessing but many are turned away. People are selected to help push the images of the deities back into their shrines (Younger 60-70).

The Citamparam temple became a showcase of the Chola kings and their imperial status. Though Rajaraja I and Rajendra I tried to develop their own temples away from Citamparam, the later Chola kings spent much of their time at the Citamparam temple complex (Younger 233-35).




Heitzman, James (1987) “Temple Urbanism in Medieval South India”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 791-826.

Kaimal, Padma (1996) “Early Cola Kings and Early Cola Temples: Art and the Evolution of Kingship”, Artibus Asiae, Vol. 56, pp. 33-66.

Lippe, Aschwin (1971) “Divine Images in Stone and Bronze: South India, Chola Dynasty (c. 850-1280)”, Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 4, pp. 29-79.

Vasudevan, Geeta (2003) The Royal Temple of Rajaraja. New Delhi: D.K. Fine Art Press.

Younger, Paul (1995) The Home of Dancing Sivan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Atitya I



Kulottunka I

Kulottunka II

Markali Tiruvaturai



Parantaka I

Rajendra I

Rajaraja I


Sivan Natarajan








Article written by: Matthew Miller (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.