With close to a whopping 40,000 temples, Tamil Nadu in South India is rightly known as the Land of Temples. Most of these temples are centuries old and have been built by the erstwhile ruling dynasties like the Pandyas, Cholas, Pallavas etc. Many of these were just not places of worship but also centres of craft and community development and intrinsic to social and political life. Among these, the legacy of the temples built by the mighty Cholas is unmatched. Unarguably the most beautiful and massive temples built by them are the Great Living Chola temples which include the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur, the Gangaikondacholisvaram Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram near Kumbakonam.
Built by king Rajaraja II of the Chola dynasty between 1146 and 1172 CE, the Airavatesvara temple is a UNESCO world heritage site. Replete with artistic brillance and architectural splendour, the temple at first sight is awe inspiring to say the least. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple is testimony to the achievements of the Cholas in the field of art, architecture, sculpture and related crafts.
According to history, the temple was much larger and whatever you see today is only a part of the original structure. Nonetheless, the temple is a structural wonder symbolic of a glorious and prosperous past. Legend has it that Airavat, Lord Indra’s white elephant prayed to Lord Shiva at the place where the temple stands today when he was cursed by sage Durvasa for disrespecting him. As a result of the curse, Airavat lost his pristine white colour which was resorted by Lord Shiva who asked him to take a dip in the holy tank. Hence the temple is known as the Airavatesvara Temple.
Poetry in Stone
The temple complex is vast and replete with stone vimanas. The main tower is 80 feet high and the south side of the front mandapam is in the form of a huge chariot drawn by horses. The temple is known for its utterly stunning, exquisite carvings that are beautiful and extremely ornate. Some of them like the panel of 73 sculptures depicting the life history of 63 Nayanmars and the 108 Devara Othuvars who sung in the temple during the time of Raja Raja II are unique and cannot be seen anywhere else.
The stone sculptures dedicated to some of the main rivers like Cauvery, Ganges, Yamuna etc, the Yali figurines, the detailing on the pillars as well as the fleet of steps that are believed to produce musical notes are just some of the other splendid elements of this mighty temple.
A marvel not to be missed, make sure you visit the Airavatesvara Temple on your next visit to Tamil Nadu.