An edited version of this piece appeared in The Week dated 9th October, 2014.
The seed of my trip to the great living Chola temples of Tamil Nadu were sown on a pleasant morning three years ago, in the courtyard of the Sriranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. I had travelled to the temple towns of Tiruchurapally and Srirangam on a whim and the beauty of their temples had left me spell bound. That morning, as my guide had told me about the other temple towns of Tamil Nadu, I had resolved to come back 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 eleventh and twelfth century by the rulers of the Chola dynasty, the most powerful of all dynasties that ruled southern India for over four hundred and fifty years, they still stand intact as a testimony to the affluence, brilliance and craftsmanship of the golden period. A Stamp from UNESCO only confirms their significance as world heritage.
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 eleventh century by Rajaraja Chola, the thousand 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 gopurams, added much later by subsequent dynasties, are significantly smaller than the main spire (an exception to the usual Dravidian architecture), and perfectly compliment the grandness of the 216 feet high structure. Its sculpted, pyramid shaped tower is monolithic, as is the gigantic 16 feet 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 Chola dynasty.
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 23 feet high Shivlinga), thank him for getting me here, and offer a token dakshina in the donation box.
Guide maps had told me that the second temple, located in Darasuram, was not more than four kilometers from the famous town of Kumbakonam. I had therefore expected to reach easily, but it took me a good forty minutes to find out how to get to the Airavatesvara temple, my next destination. The journey however, took only twenty.
Built by Rajaraja II, the Airavatesvara temple is much smaller than I expect it to be (the main temple is only 80 feet 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 had come to the temple and had 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, a temple in the town of Gangaikondacholapuram, was built by Rajendra Chola, the son of Rajaraja Chola. He had 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 had 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 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 the hope of reaching Gangaikondacholapuram. 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 182 feet inside a large complex, the layout of this complex is different from the other two and the smaller shrines are placed differently. It has no gopuram either.
Although all three temples are living temples – they follow the ancient vedic rituals and the deities are worshipped everyday – I get to see a live, elaborate ceremony only in this one: the priests are pouring milk, honey, water and other offerings on the Shivlinga, hymns are being chanted and a family of four is earnestly praying to Shiva when I reach inside. The sanctum is dark with only faint sunlight illuminating the Shivlinga. Once the ceremony finishes, the gentleman presiding over tells me that the only source of light inside the sanctum is the reflection of sun’s rays from the Nandi outside and that the Shivlinga 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 near by (they had found a ready source of stones in it). The broken gopuram happens to be the only clink in Rajendra Chola’s otherwise perfect armour. But then, even the moon has scars.