Gangaikonda Colapuram was erected as the capital of the Cholas by Rajendra Chola I, the son and successor of Rajaraja Chola, the great Chola who conquered a large area in South India at the beginning of the 11th century C.E.
The city was founded by Rajendra Chola to commemorate his victory over the Pala Dynasty. The name "Gangaikonda Colapuram" means "The town of the cola who brought Ganga (water from Ganga) or who defeated (the kings near) Ganga".
As the capital of the Cholas from about 1025 C.E. for about 250 years, the city controlled the affairs of entire south India, from the Tungabhadra in the north to Ceylon in the south.
The great temple of Siva at this place is next only to the Brihadisvarar temple at Thanjavur in its monumental nature and surpasses it in sculptural quality.
Rajendra Chola-I (1012-1044 A.D) son of the Great Rajaraja-I, established this temple after his great victorious march to river Ganges on Northern India.
Rajendra Chola was originally called Madurantakan. He assumed the title of Rajendra during his coronation and continued to rule along with his father Rajaraja-I as Yuvaraja. He was awarded the supreme title of the Colas known as "Parakesari".
Rajendra-I was a great warrior. He assisted his father in numerous expeditions to elevate the Colas to supreme power. His empire included the whole of southern India to the river Thungabathra in the north. For administrative and strategic purposes he built another capital and named it Gangaikonda Colapuram. The city of Gangaikonda Colapuram was probably founded by Rajendra before his 17th year. Most of the Chola kings who succeeded Rajendra were crowned here. They retained it as their capital, reoriented and trained the efficient Chola army.
About 1022 C.E. Rajendra undertook an expedition to the Ganges along the east coast of peninsular India. The emperor himself lead the army up to the banks of the Godavari river. The Cola armies conquered all the countries north of Vengi, which included Kalinga, Odda, Southern Kosala, the lower and upper Lada and finally the Vangaladesa (Bengal).
The triumphant Cola armies brought back waters from the river Ganges in golden vessels.
Around the same time, the Colas under the rule of Rajendra Chola I vanquished the Chalukyas of Manyakheta. To commemorate this celebrated victory, Rajendra assumed the title of Gangaikonda Colan, "Irattapadi-konda Colan", "Mannai-kondan", i.e. the king who possessed Irattapadi (erstwhile land of the Rashtrakutas usurped by the Salukkis (Chalukyas) and the king who possessed Manyakheta (or Mannaikadakkam in Chola annals, the Chalukyan capital) and had the Siva Temple Gangaikonda Colesvaram built (about 1020 - 29 AD). After completion of the temple, the capital was moved from Thanjavur to Gangaikonda Colapuram.
It is also stated that Rajendra Cola directed the vanquished Chiefs to carry water from the Ganges to the lion-faced well, Singakkinaru, dug out in the north-west corner of the shrine.
The legend connected with the idol in the central shrine is that Siva gave a Linga to Banasura, a demon, who seems to have installed it here. In later times a pious Cola king wanted to hold communion with the God. When the temple priest was approached on the matter he promised to help the king if he should built the temple. At the completion of the temple the God appeared unto the king and answered his prayer. The priest, who was a witness to this scene, is said to have been struck dumb, in order to prevent him from proclaiming the news to the world.
The temple architectural style, known as "Dravida", reached its apogee during the Cola period. The architecture of the temple is so similar to the Big Temple in Thanjavur that it looks like a miniature of the Thanjavur temple.
The temple of Gangaikonda Colisvarar is approached through the eastern entrance from the road. The entrance is called the "Mahaduvar" leads to the inner court.
The Gangaikonda Colapuram temple consists of 3 stories and was surrounded by a huge fort like wall, the outer wall greatly destructed during the English rule (1896 A.D) to reuse the building material (Granite rocks) for constructing the Lower Anicut (Dam across river Kollidam).
The principal composition of the temple occupies a rectangle (103.6 by 33.53 m), with its long axis from east to west, consisting of Maha mandapa (53.4 by 28.96 m) and Vimana (30.5 m in base and 50.6 m high). The number of tiers are 8 against 4 in Tanjore. The main entrance in the middle of the eastern wall of Maha mandapa is designed as a portal. There are also two subsidiary entrances in the northern and southern walls of the vestibule. Maha mandapa is relatively low building with a flat roof supported on rows of pillars of ordinary design, more then 150 in number, arranged in the interior of the hall.
Vimana with its recessed corners and upward movement presents a striking contrast to the straight-sided pyramidal tower of Thanjavur but with octagon shape of Dravidian architecture. As it rises to a height of 182 feet (55 m) and is shorter than the Thanjavur tower with larger plinth, it is often described as the feminine counterpart of the Thanjavur temple.
Vimana (the main tower) surrounded by little shrines truly presents the appearance of a great Chakravarti (emperor) surrounded by chieftains and vassals.
The Gangaikonda Colapuram vimana is undoubtedly a "Devalaya Chakravarti", an emperor among temples of South India.
The crown over the vimana is said to have been formed of a single block of stone, and placed in its present posture by means of an inclined plane laid out from the village of Paranam, situated some miles to the westward in Udatarpalayam Zamindari.
The vimana is flanked on either side by small temples:
The sanctum sanctorum embraces the four meter high lingam of Lord Shiva. This is the biggest Shiva Lingam in the Southern part of India, even bigger than the one in the Thanjavur temple. To provide a private worship area for the royal family, the sanctum is encircled with two walls.
There are icons of "Suryapita" (Sun worship) and "Navagrahs" (Nine planets) inside the temple. A monolithic representation of Navagrahas (the nine planets) is installed in the shape of a chariot, and Saturn is a driver. The other planets occupy places on the sides. The idol of Navagraha is carved on a single stone, which is different from other temples.
Another architectural excellence to mention about this temple is that the idol of Nandi placed in front of the main temple is positioned in such a way that the sunlight gets reflected on the forehead falls on the Siva Linga inside the main temple at any point of time in the day. This huge Nandi is cut out of a block of stone.
In the courtyard is a large well entered by an underground passage with a large figure of Yali at the entrance. The water of Ganges is stated to have flowed into to well.
The temple had at one time been fortified by bastions at the four corners of the courtyard but the walls have been demolished. There are still slight traces of stone bastions of ancient days.
Cola sculptors retained an ideal balance between form and ornamentation.
The story of Chandesa, a devotee of Siva, is depicted in a niche in the northern wall and it is called "Chandesanugrahamurthi".
The legend is that Vicarasarma was born in Cola country on the banks of the river Manniyar, in the village of Seygnallur, in the Gotra of the sage Kashyapa. Once he went to school and saw a cow which was ill-treated. He took up a duty to graze the cows of the whole village. The cows began to give plenty of milk. He used all this milk to make abhishkam on a Linga, which he set up with sand. Thus, cows gave less of milk to villagers, and they complained to the father of the boy. The father went to the Linga and kicked it. The boy was overwhelmed with this atrocity and cut off fathers leg with the axe. Seeing this devotion of the youth, Isvara appeared with his consort and gave him his full grace by making him the steward of Kailasa and naming him Chandesa. Siva also crowned him with the garland worn by him, as is shown in the sculptural representation. Siva also ordered that all the offerings and cloths of Him, should be set aside for this devotee. Chandesa is always depicted with the axe on his right shoulder.
It is widely believed that the figure of Chandesa is a portrait of Rajendra Cola himself. This composition is carved with utmost care. Decorations, head gears, necklaces of Siva and Parvati are of great elegance.
Siva in dancing postures can be found on images depicting victory of Siva over demon. There are two images depicting this scene, on the upper tier of the vimana and on Garbha griha wall, in the niche. Colas were famous for development of Nataraja images. One of the few stone sculptures of Nataraja can be seen on the wall of Garbha Griha.
Siva as Daksinamurthi (the one facing South, i.e. great yogi and teacher who conveyed spiritual truths to rishis) is another importand motive present in all Siva temples of Cola age without exception. Dakshinamurthi image traditionally is put on the southern wall of Garbha Griha. Another image of Dakshinamurthi in found on the wall of garbha griha. The banyan tree (tree of knowledge) is seen behind Dakshinamurthis head in this sculpture.
Siva leaning on rishabha (the bull) Nandi. Here Siva is represented as Ardhanareswarar, right side being male, and the left side being female. There are two sculpture installed in niches on the walls of Garbha griha and Maha mandapam. The second image is fascinating. The face of Siva radiates beauty and tranquility.
Siva and Parvati images can be seen on the first and second tiers of gargha griha wall. The second image is parger. Composition is decorated with panels depicting gandharvas (selestial artists) and dancers. Figures of Siva and Parvati are depicted in Sringara mood, as loving couple of heavenly beauty.
Another images of Siva comprise important sculpture of Siva Lingotbhava, which is traditionally placed in the nich on the back (western) wall of Garbha griha, in the center. Siva is depicted as appearing from Lingam. Symbolism of this image is manifestation of Siva from transcendent to immanent state, as the world is manifested from the "column of fire".
The next image is Siva in sitting posture, with suci mudra (the symbol of universal knbowledge). The hair style is characteristic for ascetic images of Siva, like Dakshinamurthi. He holds beads and camara in his upper hands. This sculpture represent Siva as universal teacher, who gives absolute knowledge and enlightment (ananda).
One more image of Siva as Sundareswarar (the handsome one) can be found on side wall of the southern-side entrance to garbha griha. The central image of Siva bears resemblance with later Nayak images, it was obviously added later, during renovations.
The central panel of the northern wall of Garbha griha represent Candikesa, the one responsible for receiving all oblutions and cloths offered to the Lord. The image is located above the pipe through which abhisheta waters and ablutions are drained out.
Image of Saraswathi in meditation is on the right side-wall of southern entrance to garbha griha.
There is also one more image of Devi in meditatin posture.
South Indian Shrines by P. V. Jagadisa Ayyar, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1982