“Darasuram is near our Swamimalai, isn’t it?”, asks my grandma. “Why do you want to go there? The temple there is in ruins”, she continues. This news disappoints me a bit. I ask her when had she visited the temple last, as, she frequents our family temple at Swamimalai often. She answers ’long back’.
I take this as a cue to visit the UNESCO Heritage temple of Airavateswara at Darasuram, as it dawns on me that my Kumbakonam born grandma hadn’t visited the temple in recent years, at least not after it has been painstakingly renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Disclaimer: This blog-post on Darasuram is a result of extensive reading of Chola period books, research, personal visit and inputs from the temple priest. The photos are clicked by me and may show varied colours as some were taken under changing hues of natural twilight and others in the artificial lights of the temple.
Two months after that conversation with my grandma…
A three-hour journey from Pattukotai town and after a ride in two buses and a short auto safari later, my aunt, I, and my son were standing in the erstwhile capital of the Cholas-Pazhaiyarai, that comprised of the Darasuram village. We anticipated temple ruins all over and were pleasantly surprised to make way through a well-maintained lawn that welcomed visitors to the Airavateswara temple at Darasuram.
Our entry into the temple complex was through the North-Eastern gate, bang in front of the Periya Nayakikovil. I decided to catch a glimpse of the micro-carvings before sunset, instead of a visit to the Amman Koil (Goddess’ shrine) thinking she would oblige a glimpse of her on my return.
I wanted to engage a guide for better understanding of the Chola micro-carvings and sculptures of Darasuram. But, destiny had other plans. Not a single tour guide was to be found in our vicinity!
A glimpse of the uncrowded spick and span environs of Airavateswara temple complex and the architectural delight in granite against an evening sky cheered me a bit. I wondered where were the quintessential gopuram that is usually the entry points and a fixture of Tamil temple architecture. My aunt pointed out to the ruins on our left. It indeed was the east-gopuram ruins that have been cordoned off.
As the sun was in a hurry to log out for the day, we dashed quickly inside the Airavateeshwar temple complex through the second gopuram but only after praying to the Nandi enshrined in the Nandi Mandapam that adjoins the ‘Bali Peetam’.
Every nook and corner of the temple façade is adorned with intricately chiselled beauties of granite. Though the temple adheres to the Dravidian architecture and aesthetic sense of the Cholas on the lines of Big temple and Gangaikondacholapuram temple yet it is a class apart. And, I did not know where to look and which of the sculptures to admire. This truly was a problem or should I say – a delight of plenty!
Just when we were admiring the delightfully unique sculptures set in various niches, we realised that my son had escaped our ever attentive eyes. We quickly ascended the intricately carved steps of the mandapam that resembled a chariot being drawn in opposite directions by the horse and the elephant.
As if through an intervention of Providence, we were informed on the whereabouts of the brat by one of the temple priests who accompanied us inside. My son was inside the garbhagriha, standing in front of the Shiva lingam with his hands folded in reverence and I just could not believe my eyes!Looked like he was smitten by the charm of the place 😀
The priest performed the evening Poojai to the Shiva lingam and we had a good darshan of Lord Airavateswara. Post this, he casually enquired our whereabouts and purpose of our visit, then, confessed that not many outsiders actually visit Darasuram! Ah, what a loss…I thought.
When I enquired him about the availability of guides, he answered in the negative and surprise of surprises- offered to take us around and be our guide. We could not consider this as anything else but divine interference and blessing.
The priest kickstarted this one-of-a-kind tour by giving a glimpse into the historical background of the temple followed by ancient stories, architecture and then concluded with the sculptural aspects.
History of Airavateswara temple of Darasuram
The temple of Rajarajeshwara in Darasuram was built by Rajaraja II in the year 1167. He ruled the Chola empire from 1146 CE to 1173. The deity here was originally named Rajarajeshwarar. However, in later years people started referring to the presiding deity as ‘Airavateswarar’ owing to the legend surrounding the place.
Apart from this, I also read a story in a forum about a cow-herdess who was responsible for the construction of the temple. It is widely believed that the temple was built to satisfy the promise to a cow-herdess who donated the stone that forms the top of the vimana at the Big temple. It was her wish to have a temple built by the Cholas in her village Darasuram too. Well, I am not very sure about this story though…
Airavata– the majestic white elephant, a vehicle of Lord Indra was once cursed by Sage Durvasa to lose its pristine white colour. Heart-broken and humiliated, Airavata supposedly prayed to Lord Shiva at the very spot and regained its white colour after taking a dip in a nearby temple tank. From then on, the Shiva lingam here has been known as ‘Airavateswarar’.
The architecture of Airavateswar temple
The original Rajarajeswara temple had been much larger. Owing to the destruction of the surrounding temples by Muslim invaders, much of the complex was lost barring what remains of the temple now.
Unlike the elaborate -high vimana and large-scale constructions of the Big temple and Gangaikondacholapuram temple, the Airavateswarar temple at Darasuram looks subdued. However, it would not be a mistake to say that here,grandeur is compensated with intricacy !
The vimana of Airavateswara temple is 5 tiered and soars to a height of around 80 feet.
The main temple in itself is divided into various mandapam. The fleet of ornate stairs that we had ascended before is the Rajagambhiran-thiru-mandapam designed in the form of a chariot and has ornate pillars and columns, thus catering to the philosophy behind the construction of the temple which is ‘Nithyavinodham’. This design seems to be a precursor to the Konark temple in Orissa.
The Rajagambhira mandapam has eight pillars which have the mythical Yali(Yazhi)carved at its base. Yali is a mythical creature with the face of an elephant but the body of a lion, the ears are that of a pig with horns of a Ram and tail of a cow! It was interesting to see the Yali, here in a Chola temple, which is otherwise considered a symbol of Pallava architecture.
Along with the Mookahmandapam adjoining it, the pillars and columns are profusely and intricately carved. We were informed by the priest that four of the pillars in the mandapam have carvings and sculptures with renditions of the Skanda Purana totalling to 48 sculptures with 12 each on every pillar.
The priest also brought our attention to the Ardhamandapam that has plain pillars -devoid of carvings, unlike the other two mandapams. This is a permanent feature in all temples owing to the same reasonp. It is done to facilitate undivided attention on the part of devotees towards the divine deity. The Ardhamandapam connects the Mookahmandapam with Garbagriha. He later showed us the various micro-carvings and sculptures that I shall be covering in my upcoming blog-post.
Various shrines of Darasuram Airavateswara Temple
There are several smaller shrines dedicated to various Gods and Goddesses around the shrine of the presiding deity. The one that caught my attention and which I had never seen before is that of Sarabeswarar.
This shrine for Sarabeswarar has a wonderfully carved bas-relief with intricate details. Shiva took the form of Sarabeswarar-a fusion of man, eagle and lion – to relieve the devas (celestial deities) from the fury of Vishnu who was roaring with rage in the form of Narasimha after he slew Hiranyakashipu. The sculpture of Sarbeswaramurti in the Darasuram Airavateswar temple is seen with three legs, with body and face of a lion and a tail. It has four human arms, the right upper hand holds an axe, the noose is held in the lower right hand, the deer in the upper left hand and fire in the lower left hand. Narasimha is shown with eight arms struggling under Sharbeshwaramurti’s feet.
By the way, do you see how the discus and the conch is shown to have fallen from Lord Narasimha’s hands??
I wondered if this reflects the times when there was a conflict between Shaivism and Vaishnavism. After all, art is an extrapolation of the happenings in our society, isn’t it?
Taking a pradhakshinam(circumambulation) around the temple, we came across various long corridors with sculptures, paintings and bas-reliefs. Unfortunately, we could not see much of these as it was too dark and we had to rush, as the closing time of the temple was nearing. Hope to visit the temple again very soon in broad daylight!
This 1000-year-old gem called Airavateswara Koil glittered like gold against an azure evening sky that day and I could not but thank the Cholas for having built it with granite that made it endure the test of times.
As I compile this post, I realize that it isn’t easy to bring out the various aspects of a gem of a temple like this in a mere few thousand words.
Part 2 of this post follows soon…
*Update* Read part 2 by clicking on the below blog-link or FB link.
Where is Darasuram
Darasuram is around 5-6kms from Kumbakonam town in the state of TamilNadu. Kumbakonam itself is well-connected by bus from Thanjavur and other important towns and cities of TamilNadu.
How to reach Darasuram
From Kumbakonam, there are mini-buses and autos that ply towards Darasuram. We took an auto from Kumbakonam bus-stand to Darasuram and he charged us Rs.100/-.
Hope this information helps and motivates you to visit this gem.
Meanwhile, I would appreciate your thoughts and opinions on this write-up and also on the Cholas 🙂