26/11/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

A Trip To Ancient India: The Living Chola Temples Of Tamil Nadu

Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple. Great architecture of Hindu Temple dedicated to Shiva. South India, Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur (Trichy). Six vertical images panorama
Lakhesis via Getty Images
Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple. Great architecture of Hindu Temple dedicated to Shiva. South India, Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur (Trichy). Six vertical images panorama

With World Heritage Week (19-25 November) being observed all over the country, I am reminded of my trip to the great living Chola temples of Tamil Nadu. The seeds of the trip were sown three years before I actually set off, at the courtyard of the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam. I had travelled to the temple towns of Tiruchirappalli and Srirangam on a whim and the beauty of their temples had left me spellbound. That morning, as my guide told me about the other temple towns of Tamil Nadu, I resolved to return and experience them for myself, especially the ones enlisted with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

The great living Chola temples -- Brihadisvara at Thanjavur, Airavatesvara at Darasuram and Brihadisvara at Gangaikondacholapuram -- are three such temples. Built during the 11th and 12th centuries by the kings of the Chola dynasty that ruled southern India for more than 450 years, the temples stand intact as a testimony to the affluence, brilliance and craftsmanship of the golden period. A stamp from UNESCO only confirms their significance.

"All three temples are living -- they follow ancient Vedic rituals and the deities are worshipped every day."

I reach Thanjavur after a long, sleepless night -- I had spent half of it in the train with a snoring co-passenger and the other half sitting straight at the Trichy railway station before taking a bus to reach Thanjavur. The gates of the Brihadisvara temple are still shut and the sun still asleep. In the faint light, I can just about make out the silhouette of the temple; the sight is enough to replace all my fatigue with excitement. By the time the gates open, the sky behind the colossal spire has lit up and a brilliant, bright blue canvas with an enormous temple tower stands in front of me.

Built in the 11th century by Rajaraja Chola, the 1000-year-old sandstone and granite complex is surrounded by a moat and a boundary, and is among the most valued temple complexes in the country. Its three gopuram, added much later by subsequent dynasties, are significantly smaller than the main spire (an exception to the conventions of Dravidian architecture), and perfectly complement the grandness of the 216ft-high structure. Its sculpted, pyramid shaped tower is monolithic, as is the gigantic 16ft-tall Nandi that guards the shrine. The corridors and halls of the temple are adorned with rich, exquisite paintings and murals displaying the life and times of the Chola rulers.


Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur

I spend half an hour going around the complex gazing at the humongous spire, the gigantic Nandi, and the sprawling complex. I also visit the three smaller temples of Parvati, Ganesha and Subramanya before entering the main shrine located in the centre of the courtyard. When I finally reach the sanctum sanctorum, I happen to be the only visitor inside. Two priests -- the only other people inside the temple -- are busy with their morning rituals and don't even notice my presence. The sanctum is illuminated only by the lights of long, multi-layered oil lamps suspended from the high ceiling. I enjoy a long audience with the lord (a 23ft-tall Shivalinga), thank him for getting me here, and offer a token dakshina in the donation box.

Guide maps had told me that my next destination, Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram, was not more than 4km from the famous town of Kumbakonam. I therefore expect to reach easily, but it takes me a good 40 minutes to find out how to get there. Once I figure it out though, the journey takes only 20 minutes.


Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram

Built by Rajaraja II, Airavatesvara Temple is much smaller than I expect it to be (the main temple is only 80ft high). Although a Shiva temple, it is named after Indra's royal elephant Airavata. According to the legend, cursed by the infamous Durvasa rishi, Indra's royal elephant came to the temple and prayed to Shiva for atonement; he was cured after bathing in the sacred water of the temple tank and has been a deity here ever since.

Unlike the big temple at Thanjavur, the beauty of this one lies in its compactness. Built on a platform carved in the form of a chariot, complete with stone horses and wheels, the temple has ornate pillars and columns with exquisitely carved animal, human and celestial figures. Smaller shrines of Parvati, Ganesha and Subramanya are located next to the main temple that houses the Shivalinga. The entire complex, surrounded by lush, beautifully manicured lawns and high palm trees, looks like a picture postcard. I spend a long time inside the sanctum talking to the young priest in broken English and absorbing the serenity and beauty of the place. When I leave the complex, the temple is gleaming like a priceless gem in the light of the setting sun.

My final destination, Brihadisvara Temple in the town of Gangaikondacholapuram, was built by Rajendra Chola, the son of Rajaraja Chola. He set up the town of Gangaikondacholapuram after returning victorious from his northern conquests (the name literally translates into "the town of the king who brought in the water of Ganga"). An ambitious man, Rajendra Chola assisted his father in various conquests all throughout the peninsula before setting up his own capital here. He supposedly built this temple to outshine the one in Thanjavur.

But all this information fails to come of help me when I reach the Kumbakonam bus stop looking for a bus that could take me to the erstwhile capital. After running from one bus to another, struggling to explain my destination to the drivers, I almost give up on my plans. Just when I am contemplating return, a kind, English-speaking gentleman directs me to the bus going towards my destination. I reach the capital town of Rajendra Chola four hours later.

The temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, located in the middle of nowhere, is indeed grand - and very well maintained. Larger than the one at Darasuram and much more elaborate than the one at Thanjavur, it stands high at 182ft inside a large complex. The layout of this complex is distinct from the other two and the smaller shrines are placed differently. It has no gopuram either.


Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram

Although all three temples are living -- they follow ancient Vedic rituals and the deities are worshipped every day -- I get to see a live, elaborate ceremony only in this one: the priests are pouring milk, honey, water and other offerings on the Shivalinga, hymns are being chanted and a family of four is earnestly praying to the deity when I reach inside. The sanctum is dark with only faint sunlight illuminating the Shivalinga. Once the ceremony finishes, the gentleman presiding over it tells me that the only source of light inside the sanctum is the reflection of sun's rays from the Nandi outside. He adds that the Shivalinga is at its brightest around four in the evening when the rays fall straight on the Nandi. He also tells me that gopuram of this temple was pulled down by the British while constructing a dam nearby (they had found a ready source of stones in it). The broken gopuram happens to be the only chink in Rajendra Chola's otherwise perfect armour. But then, even the moon has scars.

A version of this article was first published in The Week and on

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