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The Age of Temples

The Cholas rose to power during a time when medieval kings built immense Hindu temples—such as Bhrihadishvara temple (Tanjore temple) in Thanjavur, completed in 1013—to assert their authority and link themselves to the divine. Under the Cholas, these temples were constructed as sacred palaces to house and honor Shiva and his family. The structures also were intended to confer divine approval on Chola rule and ensure the safety and growth of the empire. Wealthy patrons of the upper classes gave jewelry, silks, and other goods to the temples to connect to Shiva, increase their social standing, align themselves with the royal family, and receive special temple privileges. Families of modest income gave gifts of lamps or flowers.

Temples functioned both as centers of religious life and practice and as hubs of economic, political, and social activity. Entire town economies were bound up in temples, which employed everyone from priests to cooks to gardeners. In the Chola period, temples even served as banks, offering an interest rate of 12.5 percent on loans in the eleventh century. Temples also became sites for major religious pilgrimages, attracting devout worshippers.

The artistic impact of temples during the Chola period cannot be underestimated. Artisans who built and decorated the temples, bronze makers who populated them with images of deities, musicians who played sacred songs for everything from daily worship to major annual festivals, and female dancers who performed for the gods during these religious rituals were among many who contributed to this rich artistic culture. It was in this environment that the bronze sculpture of Shiva Nataraja became the state deity and iconic image of the Chola family.

Next: Processional Images





Above, from top to bottom: A temple cook prepares dosais (rice and lentil pancakes) to serve as consecrated food; Temple musicians perform sacred music; An elephant leads a temple procession while priests and musicians follow behind. Photos: Neil Greentree