By Monidipa Dey
The Imperial Cholas of South India is unquestionably the longest ruling dynasty in Indian history. Their grand empire can be traced back to 3rd century BCE as they find mention in the 13th Ashokan edict of Kalsi near Dehradun, and the dynasty continued their rule well into 13th century CE. The later Chola kings were not only brave warriors and able administrators, but they were also prolific builders too, and the innumerable beautiful temples that dot the Tamil Nadu landscape speak of the architectural brilliance that was achieved in those times.
The Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram was built by the great Chola king Rajaraja II (1143-1173 CE), and it is placed third, after the two famous Chola temples of Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. Despite being smaller than the other two, Airavatesvara temple holds sculptural masterpieces that make it stand separately, exemplifying the great heights achieved in the field of art, sculpture, and architecture, during the Chola reign.
Airavatesvara, as the name tells us, is believed to have been derived from Airavat, Indra's elephant, who had prayed in this temple. According to legends, Airavat, a white elephant who had emerged during the samudra manthan, had turned black after being cursed by rishi Durvasa. It is here, after praying and bathing in the temple tank that Airavat regained his lost colour. According to another story, Yama (the god of death) was cursed by a rishi that made him suffer from a constant burning sensation. He got rid of this curse by praying here and taking a bath in the temple tank, which is known as Yama Teertha.
While entering the temple, one sees a large gopura a little away from the nandi mandapa and baali-peetha, whose upper part is completely destroyed. However, its grandeur can be imagined from the smaller gopura that stands inside and remains completely preserved. From various records it is seen that the temple once held seven walled tiers that were subsequently destroyed during invasions by the Delhi Sultanate armies, led by Malik Kafur (1311 CE), Khusrau Khan (1314 CE), and Muhammad Bin Tughlaq (1327 CE), the remnants of which are still visible in bits and parts from the scattered ruins around (Michael Howard, 2012, pp. 93-94).
The prakara or the wall that runs around the temple has beautifully sculpted couchant bulls visible from outside the gate too. The smaller gopuram that forms the entryway show pillars in a row decorated with pretty ganas, surasundaris, and other motifs. In front of it are a large nandi mandapa, and a smaller bali-peetha showing beautiful carvings of lotus petals. The bali-peetha has musical stairs that are now locked and covered with an iron grill to stop people from walking on it. The staircase of the baali-peetha is in sync with the sculpted panels seen all over the temple that are adorned with miniature dancing figures. Music and dance form the basic theme of
this temple's ornamentation: a state of perpetual joy and entertainment.
Airavateswara temple has a sanctum that holds a shiva-linga, without the circumambulatory path around it. The front hall or agra-mandapam is unique, as it had been designed to look like a chariot on wheels (the Tripurantaka ratha), complete with wheels, spokes, and hubs (in relief), pulled by leaping horses. The mandapa pillars show ornamentation depicting stories from the epics and Puranas, such as, burning of Manmatha, Parvati performing penance, Shiva's marriage, birth of Skanda/Kumara, Shiva's fights with the asuras, etc.
Another interesting feature of this temple are the miniature panels with inscriptions that tell stories associated with the 63 Nayanmars (Shaiva saints), showing the Chola connect with Shaivism. Interestingly some of the panels also depict scenes from daily lives, such as women in yoga postures, a woman giving birth to a child with the help of female attendants, etc. There is also a separate sanctum for the devi (Devanayaki amman shrine), which is of a later period.
The front mandapa has a beautiful dhwaja stambh is in front, and the two ganas, padma nidhi and sankha nidhi, are seen on two side niches facing the entrance gate. The base of the outer pillars of the agra mandapa have gaja-yalis with curled trunks and tails. The second mandapa has four niches at the side of doorway. In the first niche is seen a devi with a lotus and kalasha (an inscription says she's devi Ganga; however, there are various arguments that say she could be Annapurna or Bhuvaneshwari or Mohini).
In the second niche stands Nandikesvara with hands in anjali mudra; the third one has bhakt Kannappa standing, wearing his signature leather sandals and carrying a bow; and the last one has a seated Saraswati. The prakara (wall) which goes around the paved courtyard and around the temple holds pillared cloisters on the inside with cells in between for deities. At the four corners these cloisters are made large and turned into mandapas. Carved on a balustrade of one of the staircases that lead to the pillared cloister stands the famous 'Rishaba Kunjaram' sculpture, where we see the conjoined heads of a bull and an elephant but each having separate bodies.
Travel tips: The best time to visit this temple is during November to January, when the weather is relatively cooler. The best way to visit it is to take a taxi or a car from Tanjore or Chidambaram. The temple sanctum remains closed from 12 pm to 4 pm, and one must keep that in mind while visiting the temple.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)