Devised as the centrepiece of a city built by the Chola king Rajendra I (1014–42) to celebrate his conquests, the magnificent Brihadishwara Temple (a replica of the Tanjore temple) stands in the tiny village of GANGAIKONDACHOLAPURAM, in Ariyalur District, 35km north of Kumbakonam. The tongue-twisting name means “the town of the Chola who took the Ganges”. Under Rajendra I, the Chola empire did indeed stretch as far as the great river of the north, an unprecedented achievement for a southern dynasty. Aside from the temple and the rubble of Rajendra’s palace, 2km east at Tamalikaimedu, nothing of the city remains. Nonetheless, this is among the most extraordinary archeological sites in south India, outshone only by Thanjavur, and the fact that it’s devoid of visitors most of the time gives it a memorably forlorn feel.
Although it is marginally closer to Chidambaram, bus connections are better with Kumbakonam, running every fifteen minutes or so. The village is also served by some buses between Trichy and Chidambaram. Be sure not to get stuck here between noon and 4pm when the temple is closed. Facilities are minimal, with little more than a few cool-drinks stands. Parts of the interior are extremely dark, and a torch is useful.