Deep in the southern state of Tamil Nadu is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Great Living Chola Temples that make for an amazing study in architecture and offer a reminder of the dynasty’s 1,500-year-long reign. By Anubhuti Krishna
Of all the temples I have visited, I am partial to those in South India—towering stone structures standing amid fluorescent paddy fields, surrounded by swaying coconut palms. It is this personal bias that took me on a quest to discover the Chola Temples in Tamil Nadu on a hot summer week in 2019. I had learned about the Great Living Chola Temples a few months earlier while roaming another temple complex in the southern state. That morning, when my guide had told me about the group of three temples that constituted a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I had resolved to come back to experience them for myself. And so here I am, on a stuffy June morning, waiting to step inside one of the largest temple complexes in the world.
The Cholas were a Tamil dynasty of southern India that ruled for more than 1,500 years, until the 13th century CE. My first stop is Thanjavur—an ancient town deep inside Tamil Nadu that is known as much for its paintings, musical instruments, and bronze statues, as it is for the 1,010-year-old Brihadisvara Temple. Built in the 11th century by the Chola emperor Rajaraja I, the sandstone and granite complex of the Brihadisvara Temple is one of the largest in the world. Also called the Tanjai Periya Kovil (‘the big temple of Thanjavur’) locally, the sprawling compound is in the middle of town. It houses many smaller temples, courtyards, and shrines, and stands out for its high temple tower. “The 216-foot-high tower of this temple is the tallest in South India,” an elderly gentleman tells me, as we walk through one of its elaborate gates called the Maratha Gate, which has a five-storey gopuram (tower). He is amused that someone has travelled to the heart of Tamil Nadu in the heat just to see its temples.“Unlike most temples that have just one gopuram, this one has three.” All three gates, he tells me, were built during different periods and by different dynasties, as were some other structures inside. “This one was built by the Marathas and is the newest,” he points at the pyramid-shaped low gate we have just passed through.
The temple complex turns out to be larger and more elaborate than I had imagined. Other than the exceptionally high tower, it also has one of the largest monolithic sculptures of Nandi (Shiva’s bull), long corridors, and hundreds of smaller structures strewn around. It is, however, the golden granite spire that takes centre stage here. “We call it the vimanam,” the elderly man points at the 13-storey-high structure with a large rock on top. “Granite is the hardest stone in the world, and yet, you can see how our ancestors moulded it like clay,” he says with evident pride. “And that 80-tonne stone at the top? That is the stuff of legends!” Everyone in Thanjavur has their own version of how the large stone reached the top of the spire. According to the gentleman, a five-kilometre-long ramp was apparently set up for elephants to pull the stone up. The reason for erecting such a tall tower, he says, was to replicate Mount Kailasha—the abode of Lord Shiva.
I spend an hour going around the complex and gazing at the humongous golden spire, the gigantic black granite bull, and many smaller shrines. There are intricate frescos and exquisite carvings done in different periods and by different kings; large, life-sized idols of devas and asuras adorn the high stonewalls; and detailed patterns are etched on numerous pillars. I try to imagine what the temple must have looked like a thousand years ago.
When I finally reach the sanctum sanctorum, the morning crowd has dispersed and I have the place to myself. Two priests are busy and barely notice my presence. Long, multi-layered brass lamps, suspended from the high ceiling, illuminate the small sanctum. The 27-foot-high Shiva lingam (the iconic phallic symbol of Lord Shiva), draped in flowers and sandalwood, stands majestically in the centre. I enjoy a long audience with the deity, thank him for bringing me here, and offer a token dakshina in the donation box.
Guide maps had showed me that the second Chola temple, located in Darasuram, was not more than four kilometres away from Kumbakonam. Known for coffee, temples, and a rich cultural and culinary legacy, Kumbakonam is an important town in Tamil Nadu. It is also a great place to stay the night and experience the small-town life of southern India. Having spent a day in Thanjavur, I decide to stay the next in Kumbakonam. I spend my evening visiting dozens of temples, drinking many cups of coffee, and roaming the colourful markets.
The next day begins with a large traditional breakfast at one of the many ‘tiffin centres’. After a portion of steaming idlis, two crispy vadas, and one too many ghee-laden dosas, I finally head to Darasuram in a local bus. En route, I watch a Tamil movie in the bus and gaze at vast paddy fields. It is almost noon by the time I arrive in Darasuram.
Built by Rajaraja Chola II in 1166 CE, the Airavatesvara Temple is much newer than the other two Chola temples and is dedicated to the mythical white elephant of Lord Indra, Airavat. Just off the main town, it is a much smaller structure. The tower rises just about 80 feet; the sanctum is small and the complex compact. Built over a large platform in the form of a chariot, the Airavatesvara Temple has stone horses that seem to be pulling it from the front, and wheels that look like they are drawing it from the sides. Like the other temples of the region, smaller shrines of gods Parvati, Ganesha, and Subramanya are located next to the main Shiva shrine. Ornate columns with exquisitely-carved animal, human, and celestial figures decorate the corridors and the sanctum. The stonework, closer to the eye here, is much more intricate too. I remember reading how the sculptures at this temple are considered the epitome of finesse that Chola art had reached in the 12th century.
The entire complex of Airavatesvara exudes the feeling of peace; it is neither filled with devotees nor are there many tourists. From where I stand, all I see are beautifully manicured lawns and tall coconut trees.
My final destination is the quiet little temple town of Gangaikonda Cholapuram. The third and last of the Great Living Chola Temples of Tamil Nadu, this temple, too, is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is called Brihadisvara Temple, just like the one in Thanjavur. It was established by the ambitious king Rajendra Chola I, the son of the illustrious Rajaraja Chola I, who had conquered lands up to the Ganga Delta in the North. The town, whose name literally translates to ‘the town of the Chola who took over Ganga’, was designed to be the grand new capital of the empire. Today, Gangaikonda Cholapuram is just a small town off the state highway.
I stand at the Kumbakonam bus stop expecting to find a ride to the erstwhile Chola capital without a problem. I am, however, at a loss when I see everyone at the bus stop speaking only in Tamil. I try to explain my destination to them using hand gestures, maps, and in writing, but no one seems to know anything. I contemplate returning to the hotel for help when a kind English-speaking gentleman approaches me. He smiles and directs me to the right bus, instructs the driver to drop me at the right place, and goes his way.
Built in 1035, the Brihadisvara Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram was completed barely 25 years after the one in Thanjavur. King Rajendra, the locals say, wanted to outshine his father not only in his achievements but also in his buildings, and this temple is a great example of his ambitions. Much larger than the one at Darasuram and much more elaborate than the one at Thanjavur, the temple rises 182 feet above the stony ground of Gangaikonda Cholapuram and is different in its layout from the other two, with no gopuram in its structure.
Although all three Chola temples are living temples, where ancient Vedic rituals are followed and deities worshipped every day, I get to see a live, elaborate ceremony only in this one. When I arrive inside the sanctum, I find the priests pouring milk, honey, and water on the Shiva lingam. Hymns are chanted, lamps flicker, and a family of four earnestly performs elaborate rituals. Faint rays of sunshine find their way to the black lingam, while tiny flames of long brass lamps light the sanctum, even as fragrant smoke of the incense hangs heavy inside. I sit in a corner to take the atmosphere in.
“Do you know where this light is coming from?” the gentleman presiding over the ceremony asks me. The only source of light inside, he explains, is the reflection of the sun’s rays from the Nandi outside—and it is the brightest at 4 pm. The architectural prowess of the Cholas, he says, is reflected in little details that even the best engineers cannot imagine today. “All we do is pull down these invaluable structures, like the gate to this temple was,” he says. It turns out that the temple was not always without a gopuram, but its gate was pulled down sometime in the 18th century when the local authorities were building a dam nearby and needed stones for it. What they did not know, perhaps, is that the broken gopuram and evicted rocks would only add to the beauty.
It is dusk by the time I leave Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Golden rays of the setting sun have lit up the exquisite temple spire, and long shadows of the damaged gopuram make intriguing patterns on the jagged earth. As I await my ride at the bus stop, I can feel my love for this heritage growing stronger. I promise to come back for more— sooner than later.
Thanjavur and Kumbakonam are connected to all major cities by rail and road. The nearest airport is in Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), Tamil Nadu, an hour from Thanjavur and two hours from Kumbakonam. Hiring a cab from Trichy is the best option since not many locals speak English.
The charming Mantra Koodam sits in a small village just off Kumbakonam. It features traditional Tamil-style cottages and makes for a great place to experience local culture and food (starts from INR 6,500/ USD 85). Svatma Thanjavur has a grand traditional building with multiple lodging options, spa and yoga facility, and authentic local culinary experiences (starts from INR 7,300/ USD 96)