A guide to Darasuram Airavateswarar temple sculptures and micro-carvings (Part 2)

Are you looking for information on the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram? Do you want to know in-depth about the chariot miniatures and micro-carvings of Darasuram temples? In search of details on the Chola sculptures of Darasuram? Fret not! You have to come to the right place.

For, we have you all covered in this write-up on the Darasuram temple.

Firstly, especially for the uninitiated : Airavateswarar temple at Darasuram near Kumbakonam, also fondly known as the Darasuram temple, in the south-Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is a Chola repository of micro carvings and sculptures.

It’s one of the three ancient temples that are collectively called the ‘Great Living Chola temples’ and bestowed with the UNESCO world heritage tag.

The other two being : Gangaikondacholapuram temple, and the Big temple at Thanjavur.

So, come with me on a virtual guided tour of the Darasuram temple to appreciate the Cholas’ sensibilities towards art and architecture.

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This blog-post on Darasuram temple 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. Please do not copy or lift the content without permission and written requests.

Quick links to plan your trip to Darasuram Airavateswarar Temple

1. Club your visit to Darasuram, with a visit to Thanjavur Big temple and Gangaikondacholapuram

2. Audio guides are great tools to explore a place. I often opt for them while visiting new destinations, like I did when visiting Russia. You could also opt for a self guided audio-tour of Darasuram that provides a personally created tour itinerary map with audio guide.

3. Instead of an audio guide, you might also want to opt for cultural tours like the ones below, which include an English speaking Live tour guide.

Chennai: Private 2-Day Great Living Chola Temples Cultural Tour

Bespoke tailor made Chola trails offered by Courtyard Tours

Private Day Tour to Great Living Chola Temples from Trichy

4. Are you a book lover? Then, I suggest you buy a copy of Ponniyin Selvan, written by the Tamil writer Kalki Krishnamurthy avargal, and excellently translated into English by Pavithra Srinivasan : a ready reckoner on the Cholas.

5. If you know to read Tamil, then the book on Rajendra Chola by Kudavayil Balasubramanian is a must read.

6 . Also, if you are looking for books with a refreshing take on Indian history, then I highly recommend you read The Ocean of Churns , The Incredible History of India’s Geography, and, Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography — all written by Sanjeev Sanyal.

Additional Reading
Know more about the Chola rulers in my in-depth write-up on the Chola empire

Airavatesvara Temple Darasuram

For first-timers who are visiting the Airavateswarar temple (Airavatesvarar) at Darasuram, it could be a bit daunting and overwhelming as to where and what to look, which sculpture to ponder over, and which to give a miss, as it happened in my case.

Therefore, this write-up [as well as the Darasuram Part-1 post], covering queries and ethos around the Darasuram temple — should prove handy. It will give you a brief idea about this UNESCO heritage site, by dispelling all your doubts.

Meanwhile, I suggest you to read Darasuram Airavteswarar temple – Part 1, if you haven’t already, before going ahead with this post on this gem of a temple called Darsuram temple.

In the infographic below, I have given a gist of what to expect if hopping onto Part1 of the Darasuram travel guide.


Darasuram : A unique Chola temple

Now, come, be a part of this family trip that we had taken to Darasuram, as I share some stories and quirkiness that surround this place, the must-see Chola sculptures at Airavatesvara temple, and more.

Yes! The same Cholas around whom the magnum opus Tamil historical fiction “Ponniyin Selvan” by Kalki is penned, and its namesake recent Indian movie directed by ManiRatnam is bringing in the masses back to the cinemas.

A Guided tour of Darasuram Airavateswarar temple

On our family trip to the Airavateswarar temple at Darasuram, we had the good fortune of the temple poojari or kurukal explaining to us the various aspects of this almost 1000-year-old Chola marvel.

He also pointed to us the panels and pillars of the Darasuram temple mandapams, surrounding the garbagriha (sanctum sanctorum), on which were chiselled spell-binding miniature art.

So, here is a virtual tour of the Darasuram temple through my lens and words.

Be fascinated by the Darasuram sculptures (Chola sculptures)

Firstly, while Gangaikondacholisvaram at Gangaikondacholapuram is known for its elegance, and Thanjai Periya Kovil for its mammoth design, the Darasuram temple is known for its intricate Chola carvings and sculptures.

Hence, as we entered the Airavateswara temple, the first set of the basaltic sculptures that caught my inquisitive eyes, in this ancient Chola repository were in the niches of eastern and south-eastern temple walls.

Up close with the unique Ardhanarisurya and Nagaraja

At first glance, I thought it was a sculpture of Ardhanariswarar (the hermaphrodite form of Shiva). Later the priest confirmed the same.

However, once back home, when I zoomed in the photo, I could actually see a sun behind the head of the statue.

Soon, I did look in the iconography books, many of which suggested that it could be Ardhanarisurya and not Ardhanariswarar.

Surely and astonishingly, this is the only known such statue of Ardhanarisurya, in the world for now!

Ardhanarisurya at Darasuram Airavateswarar temple

A little further, just around the corner, at the south-eastern direction of the Darasuram temple was the Nagaraja (Snake God) — standing majestically with folded hands.

I could not take my eyes off the wonderful ornamentation work on him.

Nagaraja at Darasuram Airavatesvarar temple

The mystical world of boulders and granite at Airavatesvara temple

With every step we took inside the Darasuram temple premises, it looked as if we had gained entry into a mystical world where the inanimate turned animated in our presence.

Ages ago, this mystical world with boulders and blocks of granite, had been meditatively chiselled with love and labour.

Today, they serve as ethereal props and characters, to narrate the mighty stories of Shiva and the Chola rulers.

Some of the excavated stones that lay at a corner of the Darasuram temple, looked like the workplace of the craftsmen from the bygone era.

I wondered if we missed seeing the artisans in action by coming late in the evening!

The charming Shivaganas of Airavteswarar

The Shivaganas are usually the cutest lot in most of the Shiva temples, who are always filled with mirth.

And, the ones here at Airavateswara temple did not disappoint me for sure. For, they seemed to be having a wonderful time singing and dancing with that ‘Haasya Rasa’, intact on their faces.

Read about what is a rasa and also about the Navarasas in my write-up on Kathakali- the ancient classical dance of Kerala

Meanwhile, here is a set of three ganas who looked delighted upon seeing us…

Shivaganas at Darasuram temple

Additional Reading
Read about what is a rasa and also about the Navarasas in my in-depth write-up on Kathakali — the ancient classical dance of Kerala.

Poetry in stone at Darasuram temple

Soon, we were standing in front of the Rajagambhiran-thiru-mandapam that was oriented in the shape of a chariot.

Ah! What a spectacle it was to be transported into the times of the Cholas, some 900 years back, and gaze in wonder as the intricately shaped wheel effortlessly pulled along the chariot with the help of the ornate horse, right across one’s sight!

The expression on the face of the charioteer was one of delight, joy, and maybe of admiration too for his passenger.

I was reminded of the delight on Hanuman’s face at Ashoka Vatika, that I had visited earlier, upon seeing the mirth on the charioteer’s face.

Additional Reading
Read my complete guide on visiting Ashoka Vatika in Sri Lanka, and about the places associated with the Ramayana in Lanka.

Yali sculptures at Airavateswarar temple

The curled balustrades with royal elephants and makara (crocodile) carved on the Darasuram temple stairs, which led to the mandapam, looked resplendent. They appeared to accord a hearty welcome to its visitors.

Meanwhile, the mythical Yali pretended to be ferocious and mimic each other, while looking similar.

But then upon observing keenly, their tails were curled different while carrying detailed articulation.

We were awestruck by the detailing done by the sculptors of yore.

I still wonder if they had competed with each other to prove their artistic prowess, by thinking out of the box.

Else, how can one justify a work of such a highest order?

There was amazement truly at every step inside the Darasuram temple.

Additional Reading
The shape of Yali, and the way they captivated us, reminded me of the Kecak Dance of Bali. This dance is based on the Hindu epic Ramayana and is quite colourful and alluring. Do read our in-depth guide on the Indonesian Kecak dance.

Nithya Vinodam at Darasuram temple

On one of the pillars inside the Darasuram temple, a beautifully carved Shiva was performing a thandavam (cosmic dance) and the expression of trance on his face was truly captivating!

After all, the philosophy behind the Rajarajeswara temple at Darasuram is all about ‘Nithya Vinodam’ — which means ‘perpetual amazement’.

Nevertheless, surely this was just the beginning.

Shiva thandavam at Darasuram temple

Additional Reading
Read my complete guide on visiting the Omkareshwar Jyotirlinga in Madhya Pradesh — where I also talk about the different types of jyotirlinga.

Is this the oldest statue of Kannapar?

Once inside the Airavatesvarar kovil, there was more wonder.

The statue of Kannapar – a great proponent of Shaivism ( in Sangam Tamizh), stood humbly with hands folded in reverence, for he was adorning the niches of the Mookahmandapam.

The priest directed our attention to Kannappar’s feet, and, lo and behold, we could actually see the hunter-turned-poet wearing footwear that is sure to give today’s fashion industry a run for their money.

As, the straps and the toe-thong were carefully cut and smoothened keeping in mind the comforts of the wild wanderer, even centuries ago. Mind-blowing!

(You may want to read about the various halls or mandapam of the Darasuram temple and their importance, in my previous post).

Kannapar statue at Darsuram

Additional Reading
Get to know about the various halls inside the Darasuram Temple in the Part 1 of my guide on visiting the Darasuram temple.

Intricately carved pillars of Darasuram temple

I could feel the infinite motifs on the ornamented pillars of the Darasuram temple come alive.

As I touched them, I felt the sharpness of certain floral patterns even after all these centuries, their texture so real that suddenly I could perceive the emotions that went into making these pieces de resistance of the Chola grandeur and fame.

Meanwhile, as the temple kurukal of Darasuram showed us one pillar after another with enthusiasm, I envisioned ourselves to be travellers — akin to the Chinese Traveller Hiuen-Tsang, guided by the temple priest from the Chola era : accorded a royal reception and welcomed amidst the clunks of the chisel, watching and inspecting the craftsmen invoke life into the stones by their able hands, lending an able ear to the discussions being presided over by the architects, the craftsmen, and the masons, while partaking in these everyday activities of the Chola empire!

Ornamental pillars of Darasuram

Carvings and Contradictions of Airavateswarar temple

While browsing through one of the niches of the Darasuram temple, we could not divert our gaze and wonderment from the basaltic sculpture of Goddess Ganga. Everything seemed so perfect with the way it was sculpted- from the eyebrows to the fingernails to the nose.

There are again varied opinions about the idol being of Annapurna, Mohini, et al. However, records mention that the inscription above the idol on the wall, names it as ‘Ganga’ in Sangam Tamizh. This seems to be a war trophy from the Tungabadra delta.

However, I strongly feel it has been made by the Chozha artisans observing the features of make that usually are considered to be slated a Chola artwork.

Let me inform my readers that it was a norm in ancient times to get home ‘idols’ as ‘war trophies’ from the region of victory. Thus, one can find many varied sculptures and idols from different regions under the Chola tag!

You may also want to read my write-up on the influence of Sangam Tamizh in Thailand

An idol of Goddess Ganga

Another interesting sculpture is that of Goddess Saraswati replete with minuscule detailing- the ribs and the toenails could also be seen carved. However, the stringed instrument Veena that is a staple and associated with her is missing.

I was reminded of another sculpture of Saraswati without the Veena at Gangaikondacholapuram, that I had visited a couple of days prior to this visit. Looks like Darsuram was inspired by the latter.

An intricately chiselled idol of Goddess Saraswati

Darasuram bas-reliefs and sculptures

While we gazed through the intricately carved mookahmandapam of the Darasuram temple, we could envision dancers putting up their best performances as the crowd cheered; musicians enthralling the spectators and us, mermaids having a frolicking time in the sea, a lady belonging to the gypsy clan performing gymnastics…..and literally, a slice of day’s activities during the Chola era came alive.

Mermaids on one of the pillars at Darasuram

I was spellbound by the intricacy wherein the smiles are still intact even after almost close to a thousand years!


Some unique sculptures and carvings of Darasuram kovil

A performing gypsy?

I especially loved the carvings of a lady playing with a swan in one of her palms (that had a 3D effect) and the other of Shiva-Parvati inside the Darasuram temple premises.


The Shiva-Parvati sculpture was indeed very alluring. It captures one of those rare moments when the usually high-tempered God-Shiva is persuading and cajoling a dejected Parvati with Ganga in his ‘other hand’.


There is an inkling of surrender and coyness in Paravati’s face, isn’t it? Do you see it?


Micro carvings of Darasuram Airavateswara temple

Apart from idols, life-size sculptures, and carved pillars, Darasuram Airavateswara temple is also replete with micro carvings.

These carvings measure between 1-2 inches in height but are articulated in a detailed fashion that seems to be a trademark of the skilled Chola sculptures.

The priest showed us these and said, “Observe the tails of these two cows which are oriented differently, the family of Shiva-Parvati seated, the dancing Ganesha and the standing postures of the other two deities. These sculptures are not more than an inch in height but have got artistic detailing.”

And, indeed it is an astounding effort to bring out the expressions on these hard granites, give life and details in such fine proportions!

Darasuram Photogallery

Here is a photo gallery of the micro carvings and sculptures that I found fascinating at the Darasuram temple

A micro carving of a seated Siva and Parvati
Airavateswara temple
Lord Ganesh playing the Veena – A rare micro carving!
Lord Kaala Bhairava micro carving
A micro carving of Maa Kali
The famed Mookahmandapam staircase with the horse chariot made of stone
A micro carving of a Yogi meditating inside a cave!
The carved ceilings of Darasuram temple

The fascinating Darasuram ceilings

While the ceilings of the Darasuram temple brim with carvings of various dance poses, mudras, sun signs, and star signs and varied stories; the steps of the Darasuram Airavateswarar temple are devotionally carved and chiselled.

Every nook and corner echoes creativity and impressions in this wonderland of sculptures and carvings.

I am sure the Chola sculptors and craftsmen were going about their work in a meditative process seeking perfection in all those 12 years of construction and putting together of this Airavateswara temple at Darasuram.

Isn’t their zen-like quality akin to the sculpture of the meditating yogi above?

As we had reached the Drasuram temple, just a few hours before the closing time at dusk, we missed admiring and understanding many more of these wonderful micro carvings and sculptures.

Tips and suggestions on visiting Airavateswara temple at Darasuram

  • Reach Darasuram temple early, and spend at least 2-3 hours to be able to cover a maximum.
  • Also, I would advice visiting the Darasuram temple during the daytime, if possible on a sunny day, to appreciate the detailing on every sculpture, pillar, and to appreciate the work on every stone here at the Airavateswarar temple.
  • While here, look out for the bas-relief of Rishabh Kunjaram – the body of a bull and an elephant on opposite sides conjoined in the middle with a common head and also of the Shiva with a flute.
  • Also, do not miss seeing Ravana lifting the Kailasa mountain or the humorous pieces of everyday life that have been depicted beautifully on the walls of the Darasuram temple.
  • There are carvings from the ‘Skandapuranam’ on the pillars of the Mookahmandapam. So, do crane your neck up when here!
  • The highlights of Darasuram temple are the sculptures of the 63 Nayanmars with their life stories from the mesmerizing ‘Periyapuranam’.
  • Lifestyle-based sculptures, themes surrounding women warriors, humour in the domestic lives of warriors and common man, are all part of the splendour of the micro carvings at Darasuram temple.

Additional Reading
Read about the rock-cut temple of Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar, and get to know its history, the iconic bas-relief and more in our in-depth guide on visiting the Pillayarpatti kovil
Bas-relief from Skandapurana

Practical Information on planning a trip to Darasuram

Here is some practical information to help you plan a visit to Darasuram Airavatesvarar kovil.

Where is Darasuram and Darasuram temple

Darasuram is around 5-6kms from Kumbakonam town in the state of TamilNadu, India.

Kumbakonam town in itself is well-connected with bus and rail services from Thanjavur and other important towns and cities of TamilNadu.

The Darasuram temple is located a few metres away from the main state highway.

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/-

Darasuram Airavteswarar Temple timings

The Airavateswarar Temple at Darasuram is open throughout the week from 6:00 a.m to 12:00 a.m and again from 4:00 p.m to 8:00 p.m.

There is no entry fee to visit Darasuram temple.

Best Season to Visit Darasuram

If you cannot withstand heat then it is always advisable to visit south-India between the months of November-January.

Also, early mornings and evenings are the best times to visit the temples to avoid the everyday crowd.

Additional Reading
Read our in-depth guide on Maargazhi season — the best time to visit the state of Tamil Nadu.

Where to stay

Unlike Gangaikondacholapuram, there are small hotels and restaurants available nearby to the Darasuram temple.

However, you may also opt to stay in bigger cities like Thanjavur and Kumbakonam with top-notch accommodations.

You could also consider staying at the below properties in both Kumbakonam and Thanjavur, which are offering some excellent deals.

Booking.com Booking.com

Plan your trip to Airavateswarar temple

You can either cover Daarsuram separately or club it with a trip to all the three Great Living Chola Temples, and a visit to Chidambaram.

If you are new to the state of Tamil Nadu, and planning a trip from Chennai, then I highly recommend you opt for the below LIVE guided tours, or audio guides, as it would really help to understand the importance and cultural significance of these temples.

Route map to reach Darasuram

The below map gives you the route from the airport at Tiruchirapalli and covers the Big temple at Thanjavur, Airavateeswara temple at Darasuram, Brihadeeswara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram as well as the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram.

I suggest you not hurry but plan a leisurely two-day trip, with an overnight halt at Chidambaram.

Each of these temples will take at least a few hours to see around. And, if you are a photography and history enthusiast, then you may have to spare some more hours!

Additional Reading
Read about Paal Payasam and other prasadam in our write-up around traditional and authentic Indian Sweets and Desserts.

My thoughts on Airavateswarar temple

It indeed was a very satisfying first visit to Darasuram, however, I need to confess that we could not cover much in those 70mins that was spent there. I guess, this calls for another visit to the Darsuram temple!

On a tour of the Airavateswarar temple, I could actually sense the respect and honour that was accorded to various artisans of that era and understood the undoubted patronage given by the Chola rulers to literature and arts, that has resulted in this incomparable craftsmanship.

I am of the opinion that this information would help and motivate you to visit the Darasuram temple.

I also hope you enjoyed this virtual tour, and in-depth guide of the Airavateswara temple at Darasuram — a temple that re-emphasizes the fact that ‘art is eternal’.

Meanwhile, I would appreciate your thoughts and opinions on this write-up and also on the Cholas :)


Pin this article for a later read!

UNESCO Heritage site india - Read about Darasuram - a UNESCO Heritage site of India. This is more than 900 years old and is a treasure trove of sculptures and micro-carvings. Travel | India | SouthIndia | UNESCO | Architecture | TamilNadu | Sculptures |Carvings | Photography | Travel Blog | UNESCO HeritageSite #travel #indianart #india #architecture #art #asian #tamil #unesco #incredibleindia #architects #temple
Darasuram unesco heritage site - Read about Darasuram - a UNESCO Heritage site of India. This is more than 900 years old and is a treasure trove of sculptures and micro-carvings. Travel | India | SouthIndia | UNESCO | Architecture | TamilNadu | Sculptures |Carvings | Photography | Travel Blog | UNESCO HeritageSite #travel #indianart #india #architecture #art #asian #tamil #unesco #incredibleindia #architects #temple
Airavateswara temple Darasuram - Read about Darasuram - a UNESCO Heritage site of India. This is more than 900 years old and is a treasure trove of sculptures and micro-carvings. Travel | India | SouthIndia | UNESCO | Architecture | TamilNadu | Sculptures |Carvings | Photography | Travel Blog | UNESCO HeritageSite #travel #indianart #india #architecture #art #asian #tamil #unesco #incredibleindia #architects #temple

17 thoughts on “A guide to Darasuram Airavateswarar temple sculptures and micro-carvings (Part 2)”

  1. கருவறை மண்டபத்தின் வெளிப்புறத்தில் சுமார் ஒரு அடி உயரத்தில் அறுபத்து மூவர் செய்த சிறப்புடைய செயல்கள் சிற்பமாக்கப்பட்டுள்ளன.காளையும் யானையும் ஒருங்கிணைந்த சிற்பம் வெகுநேர்த்தியானது.மொத்தத்தில் இக்கோவில் சிற்பக் களஞ்சியம்.இரண்டாம் இராசராசன் பெயரால் இராசராசேச்சரம்.மருவி தாராசுரம் ஆயிற்று.

  2. Dear Ms Meenakshi,
    I accept your views on the temple and the intricate artefacts of Darasuram. Hope you must have seen the window panel designs and the rainwater harvesting system than was once existing in the temple and the granite siphons to the yama theertham. ( the temple tank). Exquisite display of artmanship coupled with societal interest.

  3. Lovely description. I love such history related to our ancient monuments. I doubt if I noticed the foot wear, I don’t have the pic. So glad to see this temple through your blog again.

  4. I am glued to this article. Me a person who loves to visit the old temple and especially old Shiva temples – for its silence and remote nature. This place is so interesting and the way you have taken the effort to narrate with the picture is simply superb. Good that I clicked on the linky from Alexa. Happy!

  5. Your pictures are great and it actually makes me feel as if I am actually there visiting the place. Great description to go with the pictures.

  6. Amazingly detailed and well-researched post as always, Meens. Kannappar’s sandals are truly striking and so is the happy expression on Shivaganas’ faces. If you were transported to the Chola perios during your visit, so were we through your beautiful pictures!

  7. I felt I am standing there and someone is sharing all this with me. I like visiting historical places and knowing more about the details. I wish I can visit this place sometime.

  8. Fabulous write up Meenakshi . I loved each minute of your narration and perceiving those beautiful sculptures through your eyes was just mind blowing.

  9. Never wished it to get over. Listening to your written words and checking it out from your lens about this magnificent edifice, transported me to the culturally rich era of Cholas.
    Appreciate your efforts, research and discerning eye Meenakshi.

  10. Tales and stories in each one of these pillars, thats the reason temples were in fact built those days. I noted the ones on women warriors, reflects on the position they were given in society. So much to learn for us from these structures.. truly divine and truly magnificent.

  11. Brilliant coverage of this exceptional temple. You were really lucky to see all this and even luckier to have this wonderful and knowledgeable priest explain all the intricacies that otherwise would remain hidden to a lay visitor. The sculptures are mind-blowing and your detailed coverage helps understand them. Awesome post Meenu!

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