The grandeur of the Great Living Chola Temples

Tripoto
22nd Aug 2018
Photo of The grandeur of the Great Living Chola Temples by Vihang Ghalsasi

When you think of South India, what comes to your mind first? I am sure the delicious food flashes in front of your eyes at the very mention of the word south. However, what comes next is the tall Gopuras of the majestic temples. Especially in Tamilnadu, every city-scape is dotted with such Gopuras popping out from nowhere. Tamilnadu is the land where the Chola dynasty ruled for several centuries. The Chola kings were not just great rulers and administrators but also great builders and patrons of art. They left a footprint of their rule in the form of magnificent temples. Although there are several Chola temples spread all over southern India, three of these temples represent an outstanding achievement in the conception Dravida style of architecture. The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram are the three temples, which are together considered as “Great Living Chola Temples” and are designated as a World Heritage Site.

Day 1

Being a templeophile, these temples were on my bucket list since long time. Finally, I planned my trip to Tamilnadu on a long weekend in August. I boarded an overnight bus from Bangalore and got down at Kumbakonam the next morning. I was expecting the weather to be hot. However, the morning sun at Kumbakonam literally felt like an oven. Probably I was too much used to the all-time-pleasant temperatures of Bangalore. Kumbakonam is a typical town in Tamilnadu, which is full of temples and religious places. Two of the three Great Living Chola Temples are in proximity to this town. I checked into a hotel, freshened up, and started planning my day. The heat was unbearable in the afternoon. So, I decided to explore a couple of famous temples in the town and start for Darasuram later in the evening. Fortunately, Sarangpani temple and Athi Kumbeshwar temple were at a walking distance from my hotel. Sarangpani temple has a gigantic Gopuram that can be seen from anywhere in the town. I first went there. Being afternoon time, there were hardly any people inside. The granite walls of the temple had considerably lowered the inside temperature. I spent some time appreciating the huge temple complex and taking pictures of the majestic Gopuram. Then, I walked toward Athi Kumbeshwar temple. This was comparatively larger and slightly more crowded. Pongal was being served as Prasadum; it was indeed very delicious. I had lunch at a nearby eatery and came back to the hotel. The previous night had been sleepless in the sleeper coach; I decided to nap for a while.

Photo of sarangapani thirukovil, Haritha Nagar, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of sarangapani thirukovil, Haritha Nagar, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of sarangapani thirukovil, Haritha Nagar, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of sarangapani thirukovil, Haritha Nagar, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of sarangapani thirukovil, Haritha Nagar, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of sarangapani thirukovil, Haritha Nagar, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of sarangapani thirukovil, Haritha Nagar, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi

It was 4 PM and the heat was still unbearable. I hesitantly got out of the hotel and boarded the bus toward Darasuram. Darasuram is a tiny village barely 5 km away from Kumbakonam. Within 15 minutes, I found myself staring at the vast complex of the Airavatesvara temple. This is the smallest among the three Great Living Chola Temples. The legend says that Airavata, the white elephant of Indra, worshiped Shiva at this place. Thus, the temple got its name. The temple was built by Rajaraja II in the 12th century. It has a huge Mandapam, which is conceptualized as a chariot with wheels. The sanctum has a circumambulatory path. The whole temple is built with reddish granite. As I walked in, I felt as if I travelled several centuries back in time. The late-afternoon sunlight was excellent for photography. The pillars of the Mandapam appeared mystic when the slanted sunrays diffracted through the gaps. I walked through the entire complex, clicking pictures from various angles. Fortunately, there were hardly any people inside. Rarely in India you come across a situation where a major tourist place is without any crowd. I spent some peaceful time appreciating the grandeur of the temple. Soon I came back to Kumbakonam, had a delicious meal, and retired for the day.

Photo of Shri Airavatesvara Temple, Gurunathan Pillai Colony, Darasuram, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Shri Airavatesvara Temple, Gurunathan Pillai Colony, Darasuram, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Shri Airavatesvara Temple, Gurunathan Pillai Colony, Darasuram, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Shri Airavatesvara Temple, Gurunathan Pillai Colony, Darasuram, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Shri Airavatesvara Temple, Gurunathan Pillai Colony, Darasuram, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Day 2

The next day was scheduled for Gangaikondacholapuram. This place is about 30 km from Kumbakonam. I reached the bus stand. Figuring out which bus goes to my destination was quite a challenging task. None of the signboards were in English! Moreover, nobody spoke a word of Hindi or English! After struggling for some time, I met a gentleman who spoke decent English; he explained me the route and finally I hopped on to the right bus. Despite being a World Heritage Site, there was no direct bus to Gangaikondacholapuram from Kumbakonam! Government apathy or a deliberate attempt to favor privet tour operators? Whatever it is. I took the window seat and started enjoying the landscape. I changed the bus at Jayakondan and finally arrived at the temple of Gangaikondacholapuram. The journey of barely 30 km had killed two hours of my precious time; thanks to the excellent connectivity of public transport. The place where I got down seemed like a random spot on the highway in the middle of nowhere. On one side of the road stood the temple and on the other was the village of few hundred houses. I walked toward the temple.

Photo of Gangai Konda Cholapuram, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Gangai Konda Cholapuram, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Gangai Konda Cholapuram, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Gangai Konda Cholapuram, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Gangai Konda Cholapuram, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi

This temple, the Brihadisvara Temple, was built by Rajendra I, after his victory over the northern empires. It is said that he ordered the defeated kingdoms to bring the holy water from Ganga and pour it in the temple well. Thus, the name of the place was coined as Gangaikondacholapuram. He established a new capital of the Chola empire at Gangaikondacholapuram, which remained the capital for the next 250 years. He built a grand capital city full of temples; however, most of these structures were destroyed in the 13th and 14th centuries but for this temple. As I entered the temple, I saw a ruined Gopuram, a giant Nandi, a Garudastambha, and a 55-m tall Vimana. It was very difficult to walk barefoot on the hot granite. I quickly moved on the surrounding lawn and started going around the temple. The sanctum was unfortunately closed and would open only after 3 PM. I was a bit disappointed and blamed the pathetic public transport for this miss. But soon, I was mesmerized by the magnificence of the temple. Beautiful sculptures depicting Shiva, Durga, and Vishnu were carved on the temple walls. The most prominent among them was that of Shiva garlanding the king Rajendra I. Other than the main temple, there were some smaller shrines in the courtyard. Much of the original temple is now lost. Whatever is visible today is restored by the later Hindu kingdoms of 15th and 16th centuries and by the ASI. The mid-day sun was at its zenith and the white clouds were playing hide and seek in the deep blue sky. Although the sunlight was too bright for photography, the clouds and the sky provided a good contrast. I spent some time at the temple appreciating its beauty and clicking pictures. By late afternoon, I was back to Kumbakonam.

The same day evening, I checked out from the hotel at Kumbakonam and took a bus to Thanjavur. Hardly I checked into a hotel in Thanjavur, it started pouring like hell. The thunderstorm reminded me that it is actually the monsoon season. When the skies over most of India are covered in gray clouds, the skies here in Tamilnadu were sparsely populated with clouds and the sun was baking the land like there’s no tomorrow. If I travel a few hundred kilometers west and enter Kerala, I will be greeted with incessant torrential rains and probably floods. Indian geography never seems to amaze me. So be it. The rains did bring a good relief from the intense heat, but they also brought a power cut. The usual woes of Indian urban life! I was sitting in my hotel room in complete darkness, contemplating on whether to head out for dinner. Fortunately, the rains stopped in a while and the power supply was restored. I finished my dinner at a nearby restaurant and retired for the day. The next day was for the Big Temple.

Day 3

In the morning, I took an auto and headed straight to the Brihadisvara Temple, also popularly known as the Big Temple. As the name goes, the temple is indeed one of the biggest temples in India. Its 63.4-m tall Vimana was possibly the tallest structure built at that time. This temple was built by the king Rajaraja in the 11th century and is dedicated to lord Shiva. The temple underwent several repairs, additions, and modifications in the subsequent years. The south Indian architectural style, which originated during Chalukya reign, is said to be fully realized at this temple. The building material of the temple, the granite, was transported from more than 60 km away. A huge inclined platform was constructed to build the Vimana, and each piece was mounted on top of the other with the help of elephants. The topmost piece, the Kalasha, weighs about 80 tons and how it must have been transported up there is indeed a technological achievement of then architects. Surprisingly, there is no mortar or binding material used to keep the pieces intact; it is the interlocking technology that keeps them in one position. The foundation of the temple is barely 6 m deep, yet the temple has remained stable over several centuries. These features make this temple a unique one in India.

Photo of Brihadeeswara Temple, Membalam Road, Balaganapathy Nagar, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Brihadeeswara Temple, Membalam Road, Balaganapathy Nagar, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Brihadeeswara Temple, Membalam Road, Balaganapathy Nagar, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi

I entered the temple through the first Gopuram, Keralantakan tiruvasal. I could only have some glimpses of the temple from here. But for sure I was about to witness a majestic place. The second Gopuram, Rajarajan tiruvasal, opened in the huge courtyard of the temple. From here, I could see the huge courtyard, the proportionate Mandapam, and the massive Vimana in front of me. I was momentarily stunned. The place was moderately crowded. Groups were people looked like miniatures in front of the gigantic temple complex. I took some pictures and moved ahead. Right in front of the Mandapam was the Nandi Mandapam. The Nandi is monolithic and is one of the largest monolithic Nandis in India. The Mandapam was divided into Mukhamandapam, Mahamandapam, and Ardhamandapam. The Ardhamandapam eventually led into the Garbhagriha, which housed the massive Shiva Lingam. I finished Darshana and started walking around the courtyard appreciating the beauty of the temple. Around the main temple, there were smaller shrines of Parvati, Ganesha, Kartikeya, Nandi, Varahi, and Karuvur deva, Chandeswara, and Nataraja. The smaller shrines were as good as independent temples. Their walls were also decorated with intricate carvings. The weather was hot and humid. Yesterday’s thunderstorm had brought in some clouds, and they had decided to loiter around until today. The light wasn’t much good for photography. I still took out the camera and decided to capture how much ever I can. The Viamana was indeed the most fascinating structure of the temple. I kept looking at it from all possible angles, and it looked different every time. It was a challenge to accommodate the whole structure in one frame. I kept experimenting to get the best shot.

Photo of The grandeur of the Great Living Chola Temples by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of The grandeur of the Great Living Chola Temples by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of The grandeur of the Great Living Chola Temples by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of The grandeur of the Great Living Chola Temples by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of The grandeur of the Great Living Chola Temples by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of The grandeur of the Great Living Chola Temples by Vihang Ghalsasi

It was almost noon when I finally exited the Big Temple. Thanjavur has couple of other places worth visiting: the Maratha Palace and Saraswati Mahal Library. I took an auto and reached the Maratha Palace. After the fall of Thanjavur Nayakas, the Maratha king Venkoji, half-brother of Chhatrapati Shivaji, took over the reign of Thanjavur. He and his successors ruled over Thanjavur until the British annexed the region to British India in 1855. The palace, originally built by Nayakas, was occupied by Maratha kings during their rule. The important sites in the palace include Darbar Mahal, Art Gallery, Bell Tower, Arsenal Tower, and Saraswati Mahal Library. Different sections require separate tickets. I went to the library first. Although this library has a rare collection of palm leaf manuscripts in Sanskrit and Tamil, only a tiny fraction of it is on display. I took one round of the display gallery. It had nothing but some old coins, weapons, costumes of royal personnel, and charts describing the history of the Thanjavur Maratha dynasty. From there, I headed to the Art Gallery. This gallery has an amazing collection of bronze and stone carvings from the Chola period. Unfortunately, photography wasn’t allowed anywhere inside the library or the gallery. From there, I visited other sections of the palace. Except for the Darbar Hall, the other sections were pretty ordinary. With little more maintenance, the place can certainly be made more interesting.

Photo of Maratha Palace, Rajakrisnapuram, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi
Photo of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India by Vihang Ghalsasi

It was nearing 3 PM and my train was about to leave in a few hours. I took a sumptuous meal in a nearby restaurant and headed to the train station. I was happy that I could visit these temples that were on my bucket list since long time. Indeed, the grandeur of the Great Living Chola Temples will never cease to amaze the visitors.

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