Sublime Chola Heritage – The Great Living Temples Of Thanjavur

I am not a temple goer.  I find the energy and fervour and the attendant din of a crowded temple distracting. Rare visits on special occasions are more nostalgic concessions to tradition, rather than opportunities for communion with God.

But the vibe at each of the three temples that constitute the UNESCO inscribed ‘Great Living Chola Temple‘ ensemble was different. And visiting these sublime monuments during Shivarathri – the most important Saivite festival celebrating the birth of Shiva – elevated the experience to another level.

BRIHADEESWARAR TEMPLE

Also referred to as Periya Koil (Big Temple in Tamil), this is the most magnificent of the three, perhaps of all temples in India.

It was consecrated in 1010 AD by Raja Raja Chola I, to commemorate his extraordinary military exploits. And possibly funded by war booty from Lanka. Its scale and grandeur and its name – then Raja Rajeswara (Eswara = Shiva) – proclaim the power and the divine status of the victorious emperor.

This is also the oldest among the greater Dravidian temples and the most refined. It is encompassed by a colonnaded perimeter wall and approached through two monumental gateways across the now dry moat. Both gates are topped by intricately carved gopurams (gate towers).

The dominant feature of the principle shrine within the complex is its spectacular 63 mtr high vimanam (spire/tower). It is crowned by a cupola comprising two huge sculpted granite blocks that indicate engineering prowess far ahead of the time.

The pyramidical tower is reinforced on the inside by a secondary vertical support, both resting ingeniously on a pair of concentric walls around the sanctum housing a gigantic lingam (the phallic representation of Shiva).

Rear view showing both gateways - Brihadeeswarar Temple, Tanjavur

Inscriptions in old Tamil - Brihadeeswarar Temple, Tanjavur
Inscriptions in old Tamil – Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur
Roof of Nandi shrine with Maratha paintings - Brihadeeswarar Temple, Tanjavur
Roof of Nandi shrine with Maratha paintings – Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur
Original Nandi - Brihadeeswarar Temple, Tanjavur
Original Nandi – Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur
BThe mystery of the man with a hat - Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur
The mystery of the man with a hat – Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur

Fine frescoes – Maratha era as well as recently discovered and restored finer Chola paintings beneath – cover the surfaces of the two storey high cicumambulatory corridor formed by the parallel support walls. Entry to this space is now restricted in order to preserve the decaying artwork.

The enormous monolithic Nandi (Shiva’s bull mount) in a smaller shrine opposite, is a later replica. The slightly smaller and more beautiful original, sits forlornly in a corner of the peripheral wall to the left.

I visited the Big Temple twice; on the evening on the day of my arrival in Thanjavur , and on the morning after Shivratri on the day of departure. And it was thrilling to be able to witness and participate in traditions that have been in practice without break for over a thousand years.

BRIHADEESWARAR TEMPLE AT GANGAIKONDACHOLAPURAM

Rajendra Chola I, who had assisted his father in his military campaigns, nursed grander imperialist ambitions. He quelled rebellions by the Sinhalese in the south and the Chalukyas to the west, and then marched northwards vanquishing the Kalinga, Vali, Odda and the Pala kingdoms along his way to the Gangetic plains.

He went on to extend the Chola empire all the way to Burma, parts of present day Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore, significantly influencing the culture and commerce of the region.

His conquest of the Gangetic plains merited a brand new capital, grandiosely named Gangaikonda Cholapuram (City of the Chola who brought Ganga home), and a temple that almost rivalled that of his great father.

Rear view - Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Rear view – Gangaikonda Cholapuram
An exquisite Nataraja (Shiva in dancing pose) - Gangaikonda Cholapuram
An exquisite Nataraja (Shiva in dancing pose) – Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Coronation of Rajendra Chola II by Shiva - Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Coronation of Rajendra Chola II by Shiva – Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Front view - Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Front view – Gangaikonda Cholapuram

Some believe that the temple, completed in 1035AD, was deliberately conceived as a smaller, feminine complement to the great temple of Thanjavur out of filial respect. The sculptural detailing is far more elaborate, however, and the 4m tall iconic lingam occupying the sanctum, the largest in Tamilnadu.

The Nandi, made of stucco unlike the monolithic solid stone sculptures of the other Shiva temples, is designed to reflect sunlight directly into the sanctum. The entrance gate is missing its gopuram, its stones appropriated during the British Raj for the construction of a dam.

A huge reservoir nearby – the Chola Gangam – signified a ‘liquid pillar of victory’. According to one story, every king defeated in battle by the Cholas was ordered to symbolically empty a pot of sacred Ganga water into it on the grand event of its consecration.

The once glorious capital is today reduced to a dusty village surrounded by the barely discernible ruins of a palace. It is somewhat incongruously named Jayakondan (he who gained victory). The Brihadeeswarar temple remains the sole purveyor of the stories and the forgotten legacy of the Master of the Ganga.

AIRAVATESVARA TEMPLE AT DARASURAM

Darasuram is a corruption of Raja Raja Puram, the name of yet another Chola capital set up by the 12th century monarch, Raja Raja Chola II,  in the existing temple town of Palaiyarai. Its presiding deity – Airavatesvara (protector of Airavata) – gets his name from a legend in which the pristine white elephant of the king of the Gods (Indra) prays to Shiva at this site seeking redemption from a curse that changed his colour.

While relatively smaller in size with just a 24 m high vimanam, this stunning temple is standing testament to the excellence and refinement of Chola art.

Airavatesvar Temple, Darasuram
Airavatesvar Temple, Darasuram
Nandi shrine with musical steps, Airavatesvar Temple, Darasuram
Nandi shrine with musical steps, Airavatesvar Temple, Darasuram
Shrine of female deity high on outer wall, Airavatesvar Temple, Darasuram
Shrine of female deity high on outer wall, Airavatesvar Temple, Darasuram
Chidbirth, Airavatesvar Temple, Darasuram
Chidbirth, Airavatesvar Temple, Darasuram
Legend of the parting of the waters (Cauvery) for king Cherman Perumal - Darasuram
Legend of the parting of the waters (Cauvery) for king Cherman Perumal – Darasuram

A mahadwara (great entrance) leads to a sunken courtyard with the Nandi shrine, whose stone steps are said to produce musical notes. The temple is accessed through a second royal gate with  a restored gopuram. Several mandapams (pillared halls) precede the main sanctum with a beautiful silver embellished lingam. The southern side of the mandapam is in the shape of a chariot led by elephants and horses.

The detailing is exquisite. Seated mythical yali figures form column bases. The plinth is adorned with a series of friezes depicting legends and scenes from daily life including a (standing) childbirth scene.

A 73 panel depiction of the lives of Nayanars – the 63 Saivite saints whose teachings were compiled by the great Raja Raja I into a twelve volume compendium of hymns called Tirumurai – is considered one of a kind. I wished I had more time to study these sculptures in detail. But I was equally impatient to return to Thanjavur to hunt down some long forgotten historical relics.


THANJAVUR FAST FACTS

GETTING THERE

The Great Living Chola temple circuit is best explored from Thanjavur, just over six hours by road from Chennai via the Kanyakumari road. Add another hour and a half if driving from Bengaluru.

The closest airport is Tiruchirappalli, commonly referred to as Trichy. (58 km. Approx. 60 min. by road)

Darasuram is about an hour by road from Thanjavur (35.7 km) just short of Kumbakonam. Best combined with the temple town. 

Gangaikonda Cholapuram is roughly two hours from Thanjavur (72 km) in the same direction, and although both are easily done in a single trip, it is advisable to spread it over two visits if you want to linger in each. 

BEST TIME TO VISIT THE TEMPLES

Mid December to mid March is ideal. Tamilnadu receives the highest rainfall during the north west monsoons between mid October and mid December. The roads to the temples can get damaged and the temples themselves can sometimes get inundated. I know of friends who returned without entering Airavatesvara when they found the sunken courtyard filled with ‘dubious brown water.’ Summer months are hot across much of the lower plains of the state.

GETTING AROUND THANJAVUR

Private vehicles or taxis are easily organised by your accommodation once you get there.

WHERE TO STAY

Svatma Thanjavur was a great place to stay. Read my review here. Or look for more options to suit your budget.

DISCLAIMER: My visit was made possible by Svatma Thanjavur. The Urge To Wander is part of the affiliate programs of some of the resources mentioned on these pages and will earn tiny commissions from qualifying purchases without any extra cost to you. Disclosure policy.

THANJAVUR ON YOUR RADAR? ๐Ÿ“Œ PIN FOR LATER

The three Thanjavur temple sites of Brihadeeswarar (Big Temple), Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavatesvara temples are on the UNESCO heritage list as the 'Great Living Chola Temples'. Their architecture is amazing and It is remarkable to witness traditions that have been in practice without break for over a thousand years. A must see on any south India trip.

#IndiaTravel #SouthIndia #PlacesToSeeInIndia #TemplesOfSouthIndia #CholaArchitecture #TempleArchitecture
Read all about the Thanjavur temple heritage sites of Brihadeeswarar (Big Temple), Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavatesvara temples that have been inscribed by UNESCO as the 'Great Living Chola Temples'. They are three of the best temples in Tamilnadu and a must see on a South India trip. It is remarkable to witness traditions that have been in practice without break for over a thousand years.

#IndiaTravel #SouthIndia #PlacesToSeeInIndia #TemplesOfSouthIndia #CholaArchitecture #TempleArchitecture

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

59 thoughts on “Sublime Chola Heritage – The Great Living Temples Of Thanjavur

  1. Travel is a very great gift from god and that is what we have learned from your blog. Thanks for such a good write up. Truly an amazing piece of writing.

  2. Hi Madhu,
    what a coincidence, I am also not a temple-goer, but I love reading articles on it.and that why I end up my research on this article. And trust me this is a true craftsmanship. Love your work.
    Regards

    1. Thank you very much for your lovely comment Ankur. And for featuring my blog in your list. Much appreciated.

  3. I’ve missed you Madhu, hope all is well ๐Ÿ™‚ This is yet another fabulous piece of travel writing, so informative and tempting as well. What a lovely place to stay, a perfect trip!

  4. Some beautiful shots here.. like this one “Roof of Nandi shrine with Maratha paintings โ€“ Brihadeeswarar Temple, Tanjavur”!

  5. Such lovely architecture. I loved the sculptures in Brihadiswarar temple at Gangaikondacholapuram. Another temple I love in the south is the Durga temple at Aihole. Been there Madhu ?

    1. Indeed Swati. And yes, I visited Aihole and Pattadakal last September from Hampi. Not yet featured either of the destinations here….have a huge backlog going all the way back to 2015 :/

      1. I know what you mean ๐Ÿ™‚ I have ones from 2014 ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Hello, Madhu, so very nice to see you and to read your thoughts (and facts) on Tanjavur. Knowing that a site has been designated UNESCO sometimes makes it more enticing, and therefore more meaningful. Your photographs were wonderful. Hope you are well!
    elisa

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment. Always a pleasure to see your here Elisa. Great to catch up with you all and hoping to return to a more regular blogging schedule. Have a great day ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Fascinating write up, Madhu ; And of course, great visual journey – thanks to the photos and your writing style too.
    I’ve not visiting Tanjavur yet – but definitely worth a trip to take in both the heritage and the sights.

    1. Appreciate your kind words Sid. Yes, Tanjavur is definitely worth the effort. This visit has inspired me to explore more Tamil temple towns. I am yet to visit Kanchipuram which is barely an hour away!

  8. Madhu, you ought to start writing history books, especially for Indian schools.
    That was more interesting than any history lesson I’ve learned.

    1. To think I hated history in school! Travelling truly brings all those boring lessons alive. Might not be a bad idea to hire travel bloggers to illustrate history for younger students ๐Ÿ™‚ Thank you very much for stopping by Ashu.

  9. Doesn’t it feel like a sinful confession of sorts: “I am not a temple goer.” I’m not, either, but always feel guilty for not feeling the reverence of a place. I do still find them impressive, and I love to watch the people who are there worshipping. These temples look amazing! Glad you enjoyed the experience.

    1. Oh yes it does! And in the prevailing atmosphere in this country, comes close to inviting blasphemy charges ๐Ÿ˜€ But like you I find ancient religious places – of all faiths – hugely fascinating. You should plan a visit to India Juliann.

  10. We were totally engrossed in reading this post as it is filled with interesting facts on historical events, architectural details! Visiting Tanjavur is high on our list, hope to visit it soon…:)

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment. Tanjavur is a must visit for anyone interested in Tamil history and culture. Hope you get to go soon. Try and time your visit with a dance or music festival if you can.

    1. Have to agree. It was the whole experience and not just the architecture that I found appealing. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment Ami.

  11. These craftsmanship is really superb. I guess the present generation can only admire it. And we might have anyone like this doing on that scale.

  12. beautiful ! i remember the temple in Tanjavor with all the people around and inside, it is one of the best i visited in Tamil Nadu. So much feelings.

    1. I agree. One of my favourite temple experiences to date too. Thank you for reading Annie. Have a great day!

      1. Thank you for writing
        Il you want see in my site Inde Tamil Nadu et Kerala
        Tanjor Chettinad and all what we saw from Chennai to Cochin
        So a beautiful trip !

  13. There are so many architectural wonders in India. Of course the Taj is the classic winner, but there are other places in Bharat Mata that have amazed me too. The detail in the Madurai complex still stands out in my mind.

    1. So true. Madurai Meenakshi temple is enormous with a wealth of sculptural details, but the experience was somehow more frenzied than the Chola temples. My post is long pending ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. I really enjoyed seeing the temples in Cambodia when I was there. I’d love to go to India sometime and see some of them there.

    1. You should David. These kings and their temples probably influenced Khmer Hindu architecture to a great extent. Be sure to let me know if you do decide to come down South.

  15. Lovely post, Madhu! I am going to Tanjavur later this year and have bookmarked your post.

    1. You are in for a treat Aruna. Hope you’ll have time for the Ranganathaswamy temple in Trichy as well. I regret having missed it.

    1. Thank you Alison. The fact that prayer rituals in these temples have continued uninterrupted makes them all the more remarkable.

  16. Oh my goodness, I have to go right now and look most of these places up on a map! The temples and their histories, with all the strange names and vocabularies, make for an exotic post to this neophyte in Indian history. And I am so much more likely to read and learn from someone like you, a “regular” person who writes so clearly and well in digestible doses. Thank you!

    1. Ha, hope it made some sense ๐Ÿ™‚ The stories would be hard to comprehend if you do not have a basic knowledge of at least the principal Gods in our pantheon. We have varying interpretations to boot and even pronounce the names differently in the North and South! But the symbolism inherent in the legends is endlessly fascinating. Thank you for reading Lex.

  17. This post brings back some good memories, Madhu. Due to our short stay in the city, we decided to book a hotel which was within walking distance from the temple. As we approached the temple compound, I remember how impressed I was upon seeing the tall vimanam from the street. Inside the walls, it was even more impressive and magnificent. However, somehow I didn’t see the original Nandi!

    Visiting Brihadeeswarar temple was among the most memorable moments for me during our one-month trip in India, partly because as a kid I often read about the Chola Empire in school textbooks. Hopefully one day I can return and visit the other temples in Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Darasuram — when the latter is not flooded.

    1. Haha, I was thinking of you when I stepped into that courtyard in Darasuram ๐Ÿ™‚ The level is considerably lower and I have no doubt the drains are never checked. Pity you and James went that far and couldn’t enter, but I would have done the same in your place. You need to return in Feb/March for cooler, drier weather.

  18. So good to have you back, Madhu. I hope things have gone well with you in the interim. I’m continually amazed at the detail on these temples!

    janet

    1. We had some very scary moments but yes, much better now, thank you Janet. Happy to be back here myself.

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