Unveiling the Elegance: Exploring Ancient Chola Artistic Expressions

Chola architecture is the period of the imperial Cholas who ruled Southern India, most parts of the current Tamil Nadu, a state of India from the period 850 to 1250 CE. This period of Cholas was the age of continuous innovation in the field of architecture and art.

The Chola architecture was created utilizing the enormous wealth gained through their aggressive conquest in everlasting wars against several kingdoms in the southeast Asian countries.

The Chola architecture includes everlasting stone temples and exquisite bronze sculptures.

Dravidian Style

The Dravidian style of art and architecture reached its perfection under the Cholas. They built enormous temples and the chief feature of the Chola art and architecture is the vimana.

The early temples were found at Narthamalai and Kodumbalur in Pudukottai district and at Srinivasanallur in Tiruchirappalli district. During the period 1009 of Rajaraja Chola, the Temple building was prolific. Over a hundred important temples of Chola are still in a good state and many are still active shrines.

Chola temples are bigger in scale than anything built by their predecessors. The Chola temple’s pyramidal multi-storeyed vimana rises up to 70 meters.

Brihadiswara Temple

The Big Temple at Tanjore built by Rajaraja I is a masterpiece of South Indian art and architecture. It consists of the Vimana, Ardhamandapa, Mahamandapa, and a large pavilion in the front known as the Nandimandapa.

This magnificent Shiva temple of Tanjore is called Rajarajeswara or Brihadiswara Temple. This temple was commissioned and completed by Rajaraja Chola (Rajaraja-I) around 1009.

Brihadiswara Temple is the largest and tallest of all temples in India. Its ‘vimana’ rises to a massive 70 meters and is topped by a monolithic ‘shikhara‘ that is an octagonal dome-shaped ‘stupika‘. It is in this temple, two large gopuras (gateway towers) were noticed for the first time.

There are huge Nandi figures dotting the corners of the shikhara, and kalasha itself. Also, there are hundreds of stucco figures decorating the vimana, it was possibly added during the Maratha Period and these figures do not belong to the Chola Period.

In this temple, the main deity is Lord Shiva and there is a huge lingam set in a two-storeyed sanctum its wall was painted with mythological narratives and also with sculptures and murals.

Chola art and architecture Upsc - Brihadiswara Temple
Chola art and architecture – Brihadiswara Temple By Nittavinoda – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68113622

Other Temples

Another notable contribution made by the Cholas to temple architecture is the Siva temple at Gangaikondacholapuram built by Rajendra I.

The Airavathesvara temple at Darasuram in Tanjore District and the Kampaharesvara temple at Tribhuvanam are examples of later Chola temples.

The Cholas also made rich contributions to the art of sculpture. The walls of the Chola temples such as the Tanjore and Gangaikondacholapuram temples contain numerous icons of large size with fine execution.

Gangaikondacholapuram Temple
Gangaikondacholapuram Temple By Supraja kannan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63249693

Bronze statues of Nataraja

Bronze statues of Nataraja
Lord of the Dance Nataraja, By Shiva_as_the_Lord_of_Dance_LACMA.jpg, photographed by the LACMA.derivative work: Julia\talk, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14771931

The bronzes of the Chola period are world-famous. The bronze statues of Nataraja or dancing Siva are masterpieces.

The oldest free-standing stone sculptures of Nataraja were built by Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi.

It went popular and also became a symbol of royalty in ancient Tamil Nadu. This dancing Shiva became a part of royal processions and religious ceremonies and continued after that.

The characteristic of Nataraja Statues is that they represent dancing shiva and it belongs to the Chola empire of the 10th century AD. Also, it represents the lord Shiva smiling while dancing which shows the calm and energetic person he is.

The dance postures symbolize the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe. The Chola paintings were found on the walls of Narthamalai and Tanjore temples.

Notable Features of Chola art and architecture

The Chola temple’s pyramidal multi-storeyed Vimana rises as big as seventy meters, monolithic Shikhara (An octagonal dome-shaped stupika).

Also, one could notice two huge Gopuras which are gateway towers. Also, the Nandi figure is at the corner of Shikara, Kalasa which is about 3 meters in height, and Hundreds of stucco figures decorate the vimana.

The Primary deity of Chola’s temples is Shiva, which is depicted as a huge lingam set in a two-storeyed sanctum. The wall surrounding the lingam was depicted with mythological narrative through painted murals and sculptures.

Also, some of the structures were added during the Maratha period.

Chola Paintings

Chola paintings are known for their vibrant colors, intricate details, and dynamic compositions. They typically depict religious scenes, such as stories from the Hindu epics and Puranas. Chola paintings are also known for their portraits of royalty and everyday people.

Unfortunately, very few Chola paintings have survived to the present day. This is because most Chola paintings were done on temple walls, which were often damaged or destroyed over time. However, a few Chola paintings have been discovered in caves and on other surfaces, such as wooden panels.

Chola Paintings are seen in Nartamalai. The most important Chola paintings were found in Brihadeswara temple, Tanjore. The paintings were drawn on the walls of the narrow passage that surrounds the shrine.

In the Brihadeswara temples, two layers of paintings were found. The upper layer was executed during the Nayak period in the 16th century. The Chola painting in the temple shows narration related to Lord Shiva, Shiva in Kailash, Shiva as Tripurantaka, Shiva as Nataraja, a portrait of the patron Rajaraja and his mentor Kuruvar, dancing figures etc.

Chola Painting - Dancing Girls at Brihadisvara Temple Tanjore
Chola Painting – Dancing Girls at Brihadisvara Temple Tanjore Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=638103

Examples of Chola Paintings

Dancing Girl: This painting from the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur is one of the most famous Chola paintings. It depicts a young woman dancing gracefully and gracefully. The painting is known for its vibrant colours and intricate details.

Shiva as Lord of the Dance: This painting from the Brihadisvara Temple depicts Lord Shiva in his Nataraja form, the dancing form of Lord Shiva. The painting is known for its dynamic composition and its depiction of Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance.

Vishnu and Lakshmi: This painting from the Kailasanathar Temple in Kanchipuram depicts Lord Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi. The painting is known for its beautiful depiction of the divine couple.

Portrait of Raja Chola I: This painting from the Brihadisvara Temple is a portrait of Raja Chola I, the greatest Chola king. The painting is known for its realistic depiction of the king.

Important features of Chola art and architecture

  • Massive scale: Chola temples are typically very large and imposing structures. The Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur, for example, is one of the largest temples in India, with a vimana (tower) that rises to over 200 feet in height.
  • Intricate carvings: Chola temples are lavishly decorated with intricate carvings. These carvings depict a wide range of subjects, including religious scenes, dancers, musicians, and animals.
  • Use of stone: The Cholas were masters of stone carving, and their temples were made of finely dressed granite and sandstone.
  • Balance and symmetry: Chola temples are characterized by their balance and symmetry. The different elements of the temple are arranged harmoniously and pleasingly.


The Chola art and architecture were prolific, especially their temple building. They build over a hundred important temples which are still in a good state and still more temples are active shrines. Cholas temples were bigger in scale than structures built by Pallavas, Chalukyas, Pandyas, etc.


* * All the Notes in this blog, are referred from Tamil Nadu State Board Books and Samacheer Kalvi Books. Kindly check with the original Tamil Nadu state board books and Ncert Books.