A Visit To The Great Living Chola Temples In Tamil Nadu (2021)
The Chola rulers were one of the most excellent builders of the ancient Indian civilization. During their rule, some of the most beautiful and magnificent temples were constructed in all of Southern India. The mighty Chola dynasty ruled for nearly 1500 years, and the temples they built became major centers of importance during their rule. These temples were not only architectural masterpieces, but they were also a hub for all political, economic, and cultural activities. Commonly known as the Great Living Chola Temples, it is a historically important UNESCO World Heritage Site that showcases the outstanding creativity of the Chola rulers.
Located in the state of Tamil Nadu, the Great Living Chola Temples were built during the early 11th and 12th century CE. The Great Living Temples include:
- The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur
- The Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram
- The Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram
Let’s take a look at each of these Great Living temples.
1. The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur
The Brihadisvara Temple, located in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva that was constructed between 1003 and 1010 Ad. This great temple was built under the reign of Raja Raja Chola I. It is one of the biggest Hindu temples in South India. It is located 350 kilometers southwest of the capital city of Chennai, and you can reach the place easily by train and bus. If you want to drop into Thanjavur for a quick weekend getaway, then the closest airport is Tiruchirappalli International Airport, just 55 kilometers away.
The Brihadisvara Temple is over 1000 years old and is the perfect showcase for the majestic Dravidian architecture. The temple’s architect was Kunjara Mallan Raja Raja Perumthacha. The temple is built using the principles of symmetrical geometry rules.
This gigantic temple complex is made up of five different sections. It has a high tower where the main sanctum is located, known as the Sri Vimana. In front of the complex lies the Nandi Mandapam or the Nandi Hall. Situated between these two structures is the vast community service hall known as the Mukhamandapam and the gathering hall known as the Mahamandapam. There is another pavilion that serves as a connecting structure between the gathering hall and the sanctum. This is known as the Ardhamandapam. The wall of these majestic structures is covered end to end in beautiful carvings and paintings, which stand testimony to the extraordinary skills of the artisans at that time.
Many say that the Brihadesvara Temple was built as a result of a dream that Raja Raja Chola had while he was visiting Sri Lanka. While visiting the Brihadesvara Temple, you will find many similarities to the temples of Sri Lanka.
The temple is open from 6:00 am to 12:30 pm and then again from 4:00 pm to 8:30 pm.
2. Gangaikonda Cholapuram in Ariyalur
Another of the Great Living Chola Temples is located in the serene district of Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu. Known as the Gangaikonda Cholapuram, the temple is located 280 kilometers away from Chennai. Many bus routes and trains ply daily to Gangaikonda Cholapuram.
The Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple was constructed by Rajendra Chola I during 1035 AD. After the conquering of the Ganges, located in the northern part of India, King Rajendra Chola, I was given the name Gangaikonda Chola, meaning the conqueror of the Ganges. After laying the foundation of the temple, he also proclaimed Gangaikonda Cholapuram as the new capital of his kingdom. It continued to serve as the capital city for over 250 years.
The main deity of the Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple is Lord Shiva. However, the temple is also home to many other deities, such as Goddess Durga, Lord Surya, and Lord Vishnu, amongst others.
The temple is sometimes also referred to as the Brihadisvara Temple, though it is more famously known as Gangaikonda Cholapuram only. The temple is built in a square design, and the beautiful Dravidian style of architecture can be recognized from outside the temple walls itself. All the structures located on the grounds of this glorious Chola temple are square-shaped, and the central courtyard is also covered by two separate square structures built right next to one another. The main sanctum of the temple, known as the Garbha Griha, the Upapitham, and the mandapas, are all designed to be squarish buildings. The craftsmanship that the Chola kingdom is famous for even today is visible in the 11th-century bronze statues that are present in the temple.
The best time to visit this Great Living Temple is during the celebration of Annaabishegam, which is celebrated once a year in the seventh month of the Tamil calendar. It typically falls sometime between October to November and is one of the best times to see the glory of the Chola kingdom in all its beauty. For the festival, the main deity, which is the Shiva Lingam, is decorated with rice from top to bottom. Over 75 bags of rice are required to cover the Shiva Lingam owing to the monumental size of the Lingam.
The temple is open from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm every day.
3. Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram
Located in Darasuram near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, the Airavatesvara Temple is the third of the Great Living Chola Temples. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has a huge statue of Nandi bull at the entrance of the temple complex. The temple was built in the 12th century by Raja Raja Chola II. The temple is regarded as an architectural marvel due to the chariot structure in the temple that is a sight to behold with its many intricate carvings and exquisite sculpting done by thousands of talented artisans. The temple is structured in the form of a chariot being pulled by an elephant and a horse.
Again, the square structures are a common sight in the architectural style here. The temple contains a 212 feet Vimana, a Shiva Lingam, a massive Nandi statue at the entrance, and a colossal statue of Goddess Periyanayagi. The epigraphs and paintings throughout the temple depict the history of the Chola dynasty and its famous rulers. Perhaps the most impressive carvings are present on the ceiling of the temple, showing Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati seated on the inside of a blooming lotus. This majestic view will remain with you much after you have left the temple.
The temple is open from 6:30 am to 8:30 pm every day of the week.
Certain things you must keep in mind while visiting the Great Living Chola Temples include:
- Dress appropriately while keeping in mind the cultural sentiments here. Shorts and skirts are not allowed in the temple complex.
- Photography is not allowed inside the main sanctum or shrines of the temples.
- It is best to opt for a guided tour as the guides can explain in detail the exact architectural and religious importance of everything inside. Most tour guides here today speak fluent Hindi and English and can also speak Tamil.
These three Chola temples are among the most outstanding representations of the magnificent architecture and sculpting techniques of the Chola dynasty. The three temples are today a testimony to the culture of the Tamil civilization and are considered to the actual living embodiments of the Chola ideology.