The Mysteries of Asia three-part video series was originally produced for the Learning Channel. During this segment, historians and others examine temples built in India more than 1,000 years ago. They remain quite intriguing, though today’s tourists rarely visit them. Records reveal that trained elephants had to drag millions of stone blocks to help erect these structures. The program notes that due to the temples’ size, the U.S. Senate, Versailles, the Houses of Parliament, and St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome could all fit within a single one of them. Michael Bell narrates as footage and animated maps are used to help viewers learn more about what these ancient structures look like and why they were built. Asia is a continent steeped in ancient cultures, religions, and buildings. In this intriguing program, we are transported to this exotic land and examine the mysteries behind some of the most fascinating structures found there. Southern India has the largest temple complexes ever built. In “Lost Temples of India”, we examine these 1,000-year-old temples adorned with intricate and beautiful sculptures. We learn how the kings used large herds of trained elephants to drag the millions of stone blocks into place and how these temples are virtually unknown and unvisited by Western tourists. Truth or fiction, the stories of Mysteries of Asia will amaze and delight.
When people think of India, they think of the Taj Mahal, Shāh Jahān’s eternal memorial dedicated to his wife Mumtāz Mahal. But there is a more ancient and secret India hidden deep in its tropical jungles, with one of the greatest building efforts in the human [record]. History has produced thousands of strange and mysterious temples that are today lost and forgotten. This is India’s Deep South, a land of emerald green rice fields and immense palm forests, where every few miles temples soar toward the heavens in the countryside.
Here, over a thousand year ago, 985 AD to be exact, Rajaraja Cholan became King of the Chola Dynasty. His original name was Arunmozhivarman, and his title was Rajakesari Varman or Mummudi-Sola-Deva. He was the second son of the Parantaka Cholan II.
His capital was the city of Thanjavur. Thanjavur was the royal city of the Cholas, Nayaks, and the Mahrattas. Thanjavur derives its name from Tanjan-an asura (giant), who according to local legend devastated the neighbourhood and was killed by Sri Anandavalli Amman and the God Vishnu.
Rajaraja Cholan was one of the greatest kings of India, and in the south he embarked on one of the largest building plans in the history of mankind that still continues till this day. He and his successors moved more stone then the great pyramid of Giza.
The extent of the Temple Grounds is so large that over 200 Taj Mahal’s can fit into it.
You might ask why Rajaraja Cholan built all these temples. Well, it was the same motive that built Europe’s cathedrals and Egypt’s pyramids. He was moved by the power of faith. You have to understand one thing about India: this is a land with almost as many gods as people, and it believes all life to be sacred; even a humble ant has its place. Gods are worshiped differently here than in Europe. During festivals, for example, the gods are taken from their shrines and paraded around in the temple grounds, their costumes are changed at the end of the day, and they are put to bed for a few hours rest at night.
Generally, it’s believed that if these and other rituals are performed perfectly, then it’s going to be more beneficial for you, so that’s why rituals are taken very seriously and they are memorized rigorously by priests. These rituals hardly if ever change with the passage of time. For any religion, anywhere in the world, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and so on – to flourish it helps to have friends in high places, like kings or very wealthy benefactors. For Hinduism, with its vast temples and thousands of priests, friends in high places are absolutely essential. Rajaraja was one of the greatest patrons of arts and religion in India’s long history.
And this was his start, the great temple of Bragatheeswarar.
It’s one of the most amazing buildings in India. It’s 10 times taller than anything built before it, and not only is it huge, but it’s made of granite, one of the hardest stones in the world. The inner shrine under the large tower contains a large phallus-shaped stone, called a ‘Ling’, which represents the god Shiva, one of the most powerful and popular gods, and also one of the three gods of the Holy Trinity that began, runs, and ultimately ends this universe, only to start all over again. The phallus-shaped ‘Ling’ which is Shiva is 12 feet in height and 5 feet in diameter. Every day the priests dress Shiva, and wash him with milk. This has been going on since the creation of the temple and it still goes on today in an unbroken chain for the past thousand years.
To build temples like these required huge amounts of money, and the easiest way to get it was by attacking your weaker neighbors. Rajaraja began his career with the conquest of the Chera country. He defeated Chera King Bhaskara Ravivarman, whose fleet he destroyed in the port of Kandalur. He also seized Pandya Amara Bhujanga, and captured the port of Vilinam. By his campaign against the Singhalees, he annexed northern Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka), and built a number of stone temples in the Ceylonese capital Polonnaruva. Most of his triumphs were achieved by the fourteenth year of his reign (AD 998-999). Rajaraja assumed the title “Mummudi Cholan” and moved his capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruva. The Chola culture and Shiva religion permeated the whole of Ceylon.
Having thus realized his cherished military glories, in or about 1003 AD Rajarajan sheathed his sword and turned his thoughts toward a life of peace. It was about this time, that the Chidambaram temple authorities bestowed on him the title of “Sri Rajarajan”.
India is a huge country and it has a very diverse climate. Eastern India is a desert, while the western part receives the highest rainfall in the world. Central India is a huge plateau covering four modern states. Warfare in India was a very different affair in each climatic region, with one common element throughout: the war elephants.
In the jungles of South India, Rajaraja had an ample supply of elephants for his war effort. Now, wild elephants might seem the right candidates to become war elephants, but they are actually very docile, only attacking when provoked. Only the biggest, fiercest, and fittest tusked males could be used as war elephants. Ancient elephant trainers, or “mahouts” (still called by this name today), made a stockade and drove elephant herds into a funnel that led them inside. As recently as the 1960s, the same method was used to capture elephants as in Rajaraja’s day, except they were used then for labor instead of war. The ancient mahouts picked the strongest bulls among the herds to be trained for the battlefields. The rest became working elephants, used for heavy lifting and transporting heavy objects for construction projects. The mahouts controlled the war elephants by getting them drunk on fermented rice liquor, called “makar”, before every battle. The elephants could literally slice their way through a battlefield with razor-sharp blades attached to their trunks. From the top of the elephants, spear throwers, generals, or archers could rain down death on the people below. Despite these advantages, elephants are very hard to control. Instinctively, they don’t favor killing people en masse. Only the legendary skill of the mahouts could make them do so. It is interesting to note, just like the Roman legions we know, the names of over 70 regiments in the ancient Indian army that distinguished themselves in battle are known because the names are inscribed in the temples – like the
Ilaiya-Rajaraja-terinda-Valangai-Velaikkarar, Parivarameykappargal (a regiment of Personal Bodyguards), Mummadi- Chola-terinda-Anaippagar (a regiment of the Elephant Corps). The surnames or titles of the king or of his son are usually prefixed before the regiment’s name, possibly as a sign of attachment after a regiment distinguished itself in a battle or other engagement. It would be considerably honorable and prestigious to be in the king’s own regiment.
After Rajaraja secured a good supply of money, he started construction on his Temple of Bragatheeswarar. The quarry that supplied the granite was over 50 miles away from the temple site. Most of the stones were moved with boats, but some much heavier stones, like the 81.3-ton capstone at the summit of the tower, were moved with a combination of ramps and elephants. The remains of the original ramps still exist today after a thousand years, indicating a gentle 6-degree slope pointing toward the top of the temple. The ramp began 1 mile from the temple, and gradually intersected with the top of the tower 216 feet in the air. Stones were moved from the quarry to the ramp, and up the ramp, with elephants pulling the stones over wooden rollers, much the same as the way ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.
You’d think Rajaraja was crazy going to so much trouble to make just a temple, but let me explain. Rajaraja was a very religious man, and he was caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, his religion forbade him to kill, and on the other hand, to be a successful king he had to make war on his neighbors for his people’s sake – otherwise his kingdom would be weak and easily overrun. So he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his enemies. He firmly believed as do all Hindu’s today in rebirth and reincarnation, and that your actions in this life will determine your lot in the next one. Given the blood on Rajaraja’s hands, he might come back as a worm or something even worse. So he spent fabulous amounts of money on his temples. As one example, it’s written in an inscription that it took 4,000 cows, 7,000 goats, and 30 buffalos just to supply the butter required for the lamps that were lit in the temple and temple grounds. And this was just one temple. Rajaraja provided for hundreds of temples that he created just to insure that he kept his karma in good standing. By his generosity, he hoped the gods would overlook his transgressions and be persuaded to reincarnate him as something better than a worm.
Indian religion during Rajaraja’s time also spread across other lands. That’s why in the steaming jungles of Cambodia, the temples of Angkor Wat don’t depict Cambodian gods, but the gods of India. Not only did religion spread, but also art. When Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, the artists in the Chola Empire were making bronze statues like the famous Nathraja shown below.
This is Shiva, who appears as Nathraja, the Lord of the Dance, simultaneously crushing the dwarf of ignorance under his foot, beating the drum of creation, unleashing the fires of destruction and finally raising one hand in assurance, telling us to fear not. Near Thanjavur, artists still create bronzes as they did in Rajaraja’s time, placing mud from the Kavari River on a hand carved wax statue to create a mold. After that, they pour molten bronze or gold into the mold and let it cool to take the shape of the statue.
Some Examples of Indian Art
When Rajaraja died in 1014, he left behind him a shining legacy that made him one of the greatest patrons of art and religion in India. The Chola Dynasty ended with King Rajendra Chola III, the last Chola king. The last recorded date of Rajendra III is 1279 AD. There is no evidence that Rajendra was followed immediately by another Chola prince. The Chola empire was completely overshadowed by the Pandyan empire, though many small chieftains continued to claim the title “Chola” well into 15th century.
This is a mural showing Rajaraja, drawn during his reign, showing him in red standing behind his guru. If you have seen a picture of the god Shiva, you might find similarities with the hair style of Rajaraja. It must be noted that some archeologists dispute whether this is actually Rajaraja or not.
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