Darasuram Airavateswarar temple (Part-1) – A Chola repository of micro carvings and sculptures

“Darasuram Airavateswarar temple is near our Swamimalai kovil in Kumbakonam, isn’t it?”, asks my grandma.

“Why do you want to go there? The Airavatesvara temple there is in ruins”, she continues, while this news disappoints me a bit.

I ask her when had she last visited the Darasuram temple, as she frequents our family temple at Swamimalai near Kumbakonam often. She ponders for a while and then answers “long back“.

Nevertheless, I take this as a cue to visit the UNESCO heritage temple of Airavatesvara at Darasuram or Airavateswarar temple, 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.

And, thus, I embarked on my exploration of the Chola architecture and Chola sculptures at Airavateswarar temple in Darasuram, two months post the above conversation with my grandma.

So, if you are looking for information on the Darasuram temple, which is also known as the Airavtesvara kovil, then you have come to the right place.

For, we have you all covered with our two-part in-depth guide in understanding and appreciating this one-of-a-kind Chola era temple.

The Darasuram Airavatesvara temple is also simply addressed by the local people as Darasuram Kovil or Airavateswarar Kovil. Kovil stands for a Hindu temple in Tamizh.

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
The ancient town of Omakareshwar in Madhya Pradesh is home to one of the 12 dwadasha jyotirlinga named Omkareshwar Mahadev. Read our complete guide to planning a visit to Omkareshwar Jyotirlinga situated on the banks of the sacred river Narmada.

Journey to Darasuram from Pattukotai

A three-hour journey from Pattukotai town, comprising of a ride on 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 Chola 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 Airavateswarar 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 of Periya Nayaki (Goddess’ shrine) thinking she would oblige a glimpse of her, upon my return.

But then, I also wanted to engage a guide inside the premises of the Airavateswara temple for a better understanding of the Chola micro-carvings and sculptures of Darasuram.

Nevertheless, destiny had other plans. For, not a single tour guide was to be found in our vicinity!

Family trip to Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram

However, through sheer providence, I found a perfect ‘guide’ that evening on our family trip to the Airavateswara temple at Darasuram.

Based on his inputs, further readings, and research, I have put together this detailed guide to planning a trip to Airavateswarar temple at Darasuram, with explanations around its Chola architecture, Chola sculptures, and more…

Note: 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 while others in the artificial lights of the temple.
The ornate facade of Airavateswara Temple in Darasuram

Additional Reading
The shape of Yali at Darasuram, 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.

Darasuram temple history

The temple of Rajarajeshwara in Darasuram was built by Rajaraja II in the year 1167.

Rajaraja was also known as Rajendra Chola, and he ruled the Chola empire from 1146 CE to 1173.

The deity at the Darasuram temple 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.

Moreover, I also read a story in a forum about a cowherdess who was responsible for the construction of the temple.

According to this lore, it is widely believed that the temple at Darasuram was built to fulfill the promise made to a cowherdess, who had donated the stone, which is at the top of the vimana at the Big temple. And, it was her wish to have a temple built by the Cholas in her village Darasuram too.

However, I am not very sure about the authenticity of this story though…

Legend around Airavatesvara temple

There’s another interesting legend around the Darasuram temple.

According to this legend, 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 in Darasuram [where the temple now exists], and regained its white colour after a dip in a nearby temple tank.

From then on, the Shiva lingam at the original Rajarajeswara temple came to be known as ‘Airavateswarar’.

Additional Reading
You might want to read about the difference between a shiva lingam, jyotirlinga as well as lingodhbava in our in-depth guide on Omkareshwar jyotirlinga.

Nandi Mandapam at Airavateswarar temple

Now that we got to know the legends and lores associated with the temple, let us enter the premises.

On that day, a glimpse of the uncrowded spick and span environs of the Airavateswarar temple complex at Darasuram, 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., and indeed the east gopuram ruins were cordoned off.

As the sun was in a hurry to log out for the day, we dashed quickly inside the Airavateswarar temple complex through the second gopuram, but not before praying to the Nandi — enshrined in the Nandi Mandapam, adjoining the ‘Bali Peetam’.

Nandi Mandapam of Darasuram temple
DwajaSthamba -Airavateswarar-temple-at-Darasuram
Dwaja Sthamba of Airavateswarar temple at Darasuram

Darasuram – a repository of Chola architecture and Chola sculptures

Every nook and corner of the Airavateswarar temple façade was adorned with intricately chiselled beauties of granite.

Although the Darasuram temple adheres to the Dravidian architecture, and aesthetic sense of the Cholas — on the lines of the Big temple and Gangaikondacholapuram temple, 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 as my aunt and I were admiring the delightfully unique sculptures set in various niches of the Airavateswara temple, we realized that my son had escaped our ever-attentive eyes.

So, we quickly ascended the intricately carved steps of a mandapam resembling a chariot — being drawn in opposite directions, by a horse and an elephant.

Additional Reading
You may want to read about my experience of visiting the Brihadeeswarar temple at Gangaikondacholapuram in this complete guide to the UNESCO Heritage site of Gangaikondacholapuram.
The famous granite horse chariot of Darasuram

Garbagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of Airavateswarar

As if through an intervention of Providence again, we were informed on the whereabouts of the brat by one of the Darasuram temple kurukal (poojari) 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.

It looked as if he was smitten by the charm of the Darasuram temple, and was in a trance!

The kurukal performed the evening poojai ( religious rituals) to the Shiva lingam, and we had a good darshan of the main deity of the temple at Darasuram, Airavateswara.

Post the rituals, the priest casually enquired us of our whereabouts and purpose of the visit, while confessing that not many outsiders actually visit Darasuram.

Ah! what a loss… I thought.

Upon enquiring about the availability of guides, he answered in the negative. But, and surprise of surprises, he offered to take us around and be our guide for the evening.

We could not consider this as anythinge but divine interference and blessing of Airavatesvarar.

Soon, the kurukal kickstarted this one-of-a-kind tour of the Darasuram temple, by giving a glimpse into the historical background of the Airavateswarar Kovil, followed by ancient stories around the Cholas, architecture and concluded with the sculptural aspects.

Various mandapam of Darasuram temple
The diety of Airavateswarar at Darasuram temple

The architecture of Darasuram Airavateswarar temple

Originally, the Rajarajeswara temple at Darasuram had been much larger.

In later years, owing to the destruction of the surrounding temples built by Hindu rulers, and Muslim invaders, much of the complex was lost barring what remains of the temple now.

Today, the surroundings of the temple is encroached upon illegally by miscreants!

Anyway, coming to the architecture of the Darasuram temple :Unlike the elaborate high vimana and large-scale constructions of the Big temple and Gangaikondacholapuram temple, the architecture of Airavateswarar temple at Darasuram looks subdued.

However, it would not be a mistake to say that here at Darasuram temple, the grandeur is compensated with intricacy!

Yet, the vimana of Airavateswara temple is 5-tiered and soars to a height of around 80 feet.

Additional Reading
I have discussed in detail the sculptures and micro-carvings of the Airavateswarar temple, in part-2 of this blog-post on Darasuram Airavateswarar temple and its Chola micro-carvings and sculptures 
A side view of the Vimana of Airavateswarar temple
 Vimana- Airavateswarar-Darasuram-temple
Lingodhbhava embedded inside a niche of the Vimana

You may want to read more about the sculptures and carvings in the part-2 of this blog post on Darasuram Airavateswarar temple

Darasuram Airavateswarar temple mandapam and unique Chola sculptures

The segregation of a temple into mandapam is facilitated for religious needs, provide better service to devotees, as well as to provide shelter for people to rest.

Based on this noble concept, the Darasuram temple is also divided into four various mandapam ( hall) 

  • Rajagambhiran-thiru-mandapam
  • Rajagambhira Mandipam
  • Mookahmandapam
  • Ardhamandapam

Let me guide you through all the four mandapams of the Airavatesvara temple in detail, with a short note on each of its significance.


Do you remember the fleet of Darasuram temple’s ornate stairs that we had ascended before was of the Rajagambhiran-thiru-mandapam, designed in the form of a chariot?

Well, the Rajagambhiran-thiru-mandapam consists of intricately chiselled pillars and columns, catering to the philosophy behind the construction of the temple, which is ‘Nithyavinodham’.

This design at Darasuram temple seems to be a precursor to the Konark temple in Orissa.


Rajagambhira mandapam of Darasuram temple

Next is the Rajagambhira mandapam, which has eight pillars with the mythical Yali(Yazhi) carved at their 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 a 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.

Shiva-Parvati marriage being presided over by Brahma


Along with the Mookahmandapam adjoining the Rajahgambhiramandapam, the pillars and columns of the Darasuram temple are profusely and intricately carved.

We were informed by the kurukal that four of the pillars in the Mookahmandapam, have carvings and sculptures with renditions of the Skanda Purana — totalling 48 sculptures, with 12 each on every pillar.

Mookahmandapam pillars of Darasuram


The priest also brought our attention to the Ardhamandapam of the Darasuram temple that has plain pillars — devoid of carvings, unlike the other two mandapams.

This is a permanent feature in all temples — owing to the same reason, which’s done to facilitate mindfulness and undivided attention on the part of devotees, towards the divine deity.

The Ardhamandapam connects the Mookahmandapam with Garbagriha.

The kurukal of the Airavateswarar temple, later showed us the various micro-carvings and sculptures.

I have covered all this in-depth and detail, in my part 2 on Chola micro-carvings and sculptures at Darasuram

Ardhamandapam of Darsuram temple

Additional Reading
Pillars and halls, reminds me of my trip to the Tirumala Nayakar Palace in Madurai. It has some stunning architecture of its times. You might want to explore its architecture in our guide on visiting the Madurai Palace

Sarabeswarar shrine inside Darasuram Airavatesvara temple

There are several smaller shrines dedicated to various Gods and Goddesses around the shrine of the presiding deity — Airavateswarar of Darasuram temple.

However, the one shrine that caught my attention, and which I had never seen before, is that of Sarabeswarar.

Sarabeswarar bas-relief and shrine

This shrine for Sarabeswarar has a wonderfully carved bas-relief with intricate details.

Shiva took the form or avatar 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, the 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.

While, Narasimha is shown with eight arms struggling under Sharbeshwaramurti’s feet.

Interesting, isn’t it?

By the way, do you see how the discus and the conch are 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?

By the way, did you know that there is a substantial Tamil population in Mauritius that has built beautiful Hindu temples, and celebrates all our festivals? Read about these temples in my comprehensive Mauritius Travel Guide.

Airavateswarar temple

A guide to Darasuram temple sculptures and carvings

Having taken a pradhakshinam (circumambulation) around the Darasuram temple, we came across various long corridors with sculptures, paintings, and bas-reliefs.

Unfortunately, we could not see much of these. For one, it was too dark. Secondly, the closing time of the temple was nearing. So, we had to rush!

A reason, why I hope to visit the Airavatesvarar temple again very soon in broad daylight.

Yet, in the twilight, this 1000-year-old gem called Airavateswarar 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— making it endure the test of times.

In hindsight, 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 Darasuram Airavatesvara in a mere few thousand words. Do you think so?

Hence, I have written another part exclusively on exploring the micro-carvings and sculptures of the Darasuram temple.

In the infographic below, I have mentioned the topics covered in part-2 of my blog post on understanding the Darasuram temple sculptures.

You can now read part 2 by clicking on Guide to understanding the Darasuram temple sculptures

Topics covered in Part-2 on Darasuram


I hope this information helps and motivates you to visit this gem called Darasuram temple.

Also, you may want to read part-2 of this blog-post and visit the Darasuram Photogallery

Although, I have given all practical information : how to visit the temple, guided tours et al in the next part, you could opt for the below guided tours to have a pleasant experience while visiting the Great Living Chola temples, including Darasuram.

Meanwhile, I would appreciate your thoughts and opinions on this write-up around the Darasuram temple, as well as 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

29 thoughts on “Darasuram Airavateswarar temple (Part-1) – A Chola repository of micro carvings and sculptures”

  1. I just visited your website and read your article about the Darasuram Airavateswara Temple. I wanted to say thank you for sharing such detailed and fascinating facts about this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Your descriptions of the microcarvings and sculptures truly brought the temple to life for me. The way you write makes it easy to understand and respect the beauty and history of the temple. Keep up the great work!

  2. senthil raja ayyannan

    Thanks for writing this article on the great historical monument of Chola Kingdom. I enjoyed reading it and decided to visit the temple
    to experience the grandeur of Chola Dynasty and more…., during my next vacation.

    And your site is a big source of info for travellers like me. Thank to Google that helped me to land in your site.

  3. Prof. Balu Prakash

    Passionate Article in total Dedication! Congratulations!
    Heard Cholas had visited Great Nicobar Island and used it as a Naval Base…want to sponsor Research Project to find out more…can I seek help?

  4. This temple looks like a magnificent place to visit. Just when you think you’ve heard of all the great place to visit, you learn of another one! This post has made me really want to visit there now!

  5. The Darasuram Airavateswara temple is a remarkable example of the best of ancient temple architecture. The carvings and sculptures are indeed so exquisite. The entire atmosphere inside the temple seems so surreal. This is yet another gem from the realms of history that you have unmasked.

  6. The temple of Airavateswar at Darasuram looks beautiful – I don’t understand why it doesn’t attract many visitors. It was so kind of that priest to give you a tour since no other guides were around. I love the carving of the horse and cart – so realistic.

  7. Wow the temple is most definitely worth visiting! I wonder what it was like before the restoration, it looks like they did a great job. How wonderful to get a guided tour with the priest!

  8. Amazing. Every time I read some blogs about the temples in India i get a wish to go there and visit it. I can’t believe that temple of Rajarajeshwara is almost 900 years old, and it still standing. Great story indeed.

  9. What an incredible place! And I love that you took the trip with your family. I’ve never visited a temple at night. It looks like it definitely adds to the atmosphere. Would love to get to India one day.

  10. Darasuram sounds interesting. To tell you the truth, this is the first time I hear about the temple, but I was drawn to the story because of these magnificent carvings and sculptures. Hard to believe that this is the 12th-century temple, right! And I’m so glad that your grandmother wasn’t right though – it seems that the place is not in ruins. 🙂
    Thanks for all the details, love the legend and stories behind it.

  11. First and foremost, I’m absolutely astounded with the detailed research you’ve done for this post, Meens. Your writing is so breezy and interactive, I felt like I took a live tour with you through the temple!
    Never knew of Yali before this. Yes, the chariots are somewhat similar to Konark. The pictures are truly breathtaking! Saw some other temple pictures and granite seems to be the stone of choice, for good reason.
    Looking forward to your next post. Please put it up soon.

  12. This is stunning and, outside of my culture, I definitely would have needed a tour guide. None of this hitory was ever taught in my schooling, either. Amazing!

  13. Theres so much intricacy in their work, one could spend hours, trying to visualise the indepth meaning in each of these carvings. I love these old temples for varied reasons. As i child I remember vivsintg other tamil Nadu temples. i would particularly love the cool stone floor, and yes, I had a paatti too who would narrate tales about the whole place.

  14. Wonderful post Meenu! These lesser known gems of Indian heritage need to be brought forth. I always believe, if you have to see temples, it has to be in South India. The mighty Cholas have created iconic architectural marvels that are relatively well-preserved. It was very interesting to read about the Darasuram Airavateshwarar temple’s history and architecture. The pictures are spectacular. Looking forward to the next part.

  15. Awestruck and speechless on three different fronts… Firstly your well researched approach and ability to catch the glimpses of majestic shrine in most brilliant way, second being the richness of our country when it comes to hidden heritages like this one and last and most important the craftsmanship, the profound think tank of those times and the grandeur the temple might have enjoyed in its heyday!
    Eagerly look forward to the next part Meenakshi.

  16. Tamil Nadu has some lovely temples. I would love to visit them all especially now after looking at your pictures. Thanks for sharing all the information about chola temple. It’s wonderful to know about Indian history and monuments.

  17. Good coverage of Darasuram Airavateswar temple….when I visited the temple in 2010 the renovation work had begun and the temple was looking glorious with plenty of rainfall washing away all the dirt and grime.

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