Stepping outside the fringes of the city after 10 months, Roshne Balasubramanian hops on the history wagon to explore the magnificent Great Living Chola Temples through stone-engraved stories, sounds and sights.
CHENNAI: The clanking and popping of metals from road-side welding shops, the hissing of stone stoves, hinting at its readiness to cook and serve piping hot kal dosas and parottas; fresh, sweetsmelling jasmine and tulsi flowers waiting to adorn the deities in the myriad temples that dot Kumbakonam, the earthy scent of rain, and the iridescent flicker of sun rays peeping through dark clouds.
As I navigated through the maze of narrow lanes at the ancient temple town to reach the first of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites that I was about to explore, I found myself being sewed right into the rich tapestry of sights and scenes that laced the way. After being momentarily distracted by a few stray goats that brushed past my legs, I finally looked up and there it was — the resplendent, beautiful 12th-century Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram (about three kilometres from Kumbakonam).
‘Look! A chariot!’ yelled a little girl, pointing to the majestic Rajagambhira mandapam (front hall) inside the temple built by Raja Raja Chola II, and uniquely designed to look like a chariot complete with wheels and spokes, pulled by horses. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)-trained guides and some history enthusiasts even suggested that the design was an inspiration for the popular Konark sun temple. If you ever plan a visit (I insist you do!) to this temple with ‘singing steps’, get yourself a guide to walk you through the stories that each stone has to tell.
Keep an eye out for the micro-carvings and fascinating sculptures including that of a woman giving birth in a standing position, of mermaids, and gipsies performing gymnastics, the tails of the recurring Yali’s which tell tales, among others. Moving further into the trail, I found myself inching towards a grand structure in Thanjavur. If we were to talk about the monarchs of the grandest and perhaps the longest ruling dynasties in Indian history (with references dating back to 3rd century BCE in the Edicts of Ashoka), the Rajarajaesvaram (Brihadisvara/Peruvudaiyar) temple here, built by Raja Raja Chola I in the 11th century, will undoubtedly stand testament to how the Cholas were both able administrators and prolific builders with an aesthetic sense.
Among the temples that were commissioned by the rajas of the erstwhile dynasty across the country, the Peruvudaiyar Kovil is an exemplary example of fully realised and executed Dravidian architecture. With bas-reliefs, vibrant murals in the Nandi mandapam, massive gateway guards (dvarapalas), cloistered enclosures, breathtaking courtyards, life-like sculptures and inscriptions that depict in detail the life and times of the Cholas and their desam’s irrigation system, accounts, economic transactions, administration and other slice-of-life details, the edifice, visualised and nurtured under the Cholas sway over a thousand years ago, effortlessly pulls us into its cradle of art, architecture and aesthetics.
In their quest to fan out to places far and wide, the dynasty conquered several cities in the country and even stretched beyond its niches. This was often followed by the commissioning of temples and founding of new capitals to commemorate their victory. When Rajendra Chola I, son of Raja Raja Chola I emerged victorious in overthrowing the Pala Dynasty, he established a new city — Gangaikonda Cholapuram (around 70 kilometres from Thanjavur in Ariyalur district) and turned it the capital of the kingdom for centuries to come.
The past glory of the capital is now remembered by the existence of the ‘Gangaikonadacholapuram Brihadisvara’ temple built in 1035 AD. True to its name, the temple emulates the ethereal structure built by Rajendra’s father in Thanjavur. With a vimana (made using a stone interlocking system), as breathtaking as the one at the Peruvudaiyar Kovil, this Chola temple is for those who wish to spend their time soaking in solitude.
With flickering oil lamps from the inner sanctum becoming almost the only source of light in the temple post dusk, it allows one to tangibly experience the life, times and conquest trails of the dynasty, which find a prominent place in world history. Along the trail, it was only natural to imagine the sounds of chisels at work, stones being hauled, and the sweat of the artisans who brought to life several thousand tonnes of granite, retelling the stories of the imperial Cholas for generations to come. While the sun set at the beginning of the 13th century for the empire, the remnants of its past have managed to shine brighter through the darkness, it seems.
Did you know?
- American astronomer Carl Sagan visited the Airavatesvara Temple for his 1980 television documentary series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.
- In 1931, SK Govindaswami, a history lecturer from Annamalai University discovered the Chola frescos on the sanctum walls of the Brihadisvara temple. Natural pigmentation and dyes were infused into a layer of wet limestone to create these paintings.
- The 13-odd-feet Shiva lingam at the Gangaikondacholapuram temple is carved out of a single rock.
- The Great Living Chola Temples are interlinked with each other by bus services and is easily accessible by road.