Its been over a year since my visit to Bhimbetaka near Bhopal – which was no 18 on list of 23 World heritage cultural sites . And this time, I could make it to Thanjavur to see the Chola temples. We took the train to Kumbakonam – a 6 hr journey – and stayed at one of the new eco-resorts in the area. The site includes three great 11th and 12th century Shiva Temples built by the Cholas: the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram.
On the first evening, we visited Gangaikonda Cholapuram. The temple was built by Rajendra I (1012 -1044 CE) the son of Raja Raja Chola following his great victorious march to river Ganges. He assumed the name of Gangaikonda Cholan (the Chola who had seen the Ganga) and hence the name. The structure was completed in 1035. It has a 53-m vimana (sanctum tower) with recessed corners and a graceful upward curving movement and a large, impressive Nandi in front.
The next day we headed for Thanjavur, via Darasuram. At Darasuram is the the Airavatesvara temple complex, built by Rajaraja II (1143-1173 CE.). This temple does not have the grand vimana of the other two temples, but the highlight is its highly ornate execution. The sanctum does not have a circum-ambulatory path or axial mandapas and the front mandapa (Rajagambhiran tirumandapam) is unique as it is built like a chariot with wheels. The pillars of this mandapa are highly ornate. Miniature friezes extolling the events that happened to the 63 nayanmars (Saiva saints) reflect the deep roots of Saivism in this region.
Legend has it, that Shiva was worshipped at this temple by Airavata, the white elephant of Indra. Airavata, was cursed by Sage Durvasa leading to a change in his color, and the color was restored by bathing in the sacred waters of this temple. The temple and the presiding deity derive its name from this incident.
The next stop was the ‘Big Temple’ – as it is referred to by everyone in the area. This is the grand Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur, which marks the greatest achievement of the Chola architects. The construction of this temple was inaugurated by the Chola King, Rajaraja I (985-1012 CE) and consecrated by him in 1009-1010 CE. The vimana here soars to a height of 59.82 meters and is surmounted by an octagonal sikhara. There is a circum-ambulatory path around the sanctum, which houses a massive linga. The temple walls are embellished with exquisite mural paintings. The grounds around are large with many smaller shrines scattered around.
There were many features that set these temples apart from the many I have visited over all of South India. These temples are not in the middle of populated towns and have very little population living around. And hence, even though these are living temples – that is worship and traditions are followed as they have been for the last thousand years – you don’t see the throng of worshipers. Architecturally, they have high outer walls, which have been re-enforced at later dates by various rulers, especially the Nayak rulers in the 16th and 17th century.
Another interesting feature was the well laid out gardens around the temple periphery – which is certainly a part of its heritage site status. And for me, this was site no 19 on the list – but since my visit to site 18, 2 additional sites have been added – the Forts of Rajasthan and the step well at Patan. Fortunately, I have seen the former and so my score stands at 20 of 25. Lets see when I get to the next one……