I reached Darasuram around dusk on auto through a muddy road that looked like going nowhere. But suddenly the Airavatesvara temple appeared in front of my eyes. The temple is also popularly known as Darasuram Temple. It was a ruined gopuram and the outer boundary wall that I saw first. And then I saw the submerged small temple just at the main entrance of the temple. Cyclone Nilam had just visited a couple of days before me. It left the temple flooded, which I later learned is a usual feature after rains. Ground level around the temple has gone up leaving the temple in a depression and the water naturally flows inside from all directions.
It was a strange emotion as the water is obviously bad for the temple but at the same time, it made the temple look beautiful. Imagine every part of it reflecting in the water as the sun prepared to go down. When a villager told me that to go inside the temple I will have to wade through water. I was skeptical and I wanted to believe that there must be a way to reach the high platformed corridor surrounding the temple. No, there was no way. And once I stepped into the water, it really did not matter. I walked around the temple with my camera, and both of us were happy and smiling.
Elephant Carvings at Airavatesvara Temple
The temple is named after the elephants carved on the balustrades around the steps that make it feel as if the temple is being carried on their backs. There are galloping horses with wheels carved behind them also carved on the walls, making the temple look like a chariot. Though the perpendicular directions in which the elephants and horses seem to move is a bit confusing. Other two temples with wheels are Konark in Odisha and Vithala temple in Hampi. Around the main shrine is a row of miniature Nandi’s interspersed with lotus patterns on the ground and the literature tells me this was probably a low wall meant to create the impression of the pool around the temple. Looks like I was plain lucky to see the temple standing in water as it was intended to be.
Shiva & Chola Temples
All the Chola temples have a Shiva figure coming out of the Linga at the rear wall of the temple so does this one. Pillars in this temple are heavily carved with the mythological stories and dance poses. A good student of temple architecture can spend a lot of time here. The gargoyle that takes the water out of the main shrine is also heavily carved with lion head motifs. This is the only temple I saw on this trail that has latticed windows with a reverse swastika and alternate square design. Red and Green paint has been left untouched in places gives an indication that probably the unsculpted parts of the temple walls were painted once. How you wish these temples could be restored to their original glory.
Nandi Mandapa here lies outside the main gopuram, it is small and way below the platform level on which the Shiva Linga sits. Apparently, there was another bigger gopuram before the one that you see now. There are mere ruins of it now. Pillars with the bases carved as Yalis is another unique feature of this temple. Though you do see a similar carving at Mahabalipuram as well. Yali is a mythical animal with the face of an elephant, body of a lion, ears of a pig, horns of a goat and tail of a cow. The steps at the entrance are supposed to be musical producing the musical notes as you walk on them. This is what I heard from the guide but could not experience because of the water there.
Next to the main temple is a Devi shrine, contemporary of the main temple. Unfortunately, it was even more badly flooded than the main temple and I could not go in.
Name Darasuram probably comes from Daruka-Vana indicated by the many images of Kanakala and Rishi Patni’s. There are panels depicting the stories of Shiva Saints. Linga in the temple is called Raj-Rajeswaram Udyar erected by the King Rajraja himself.
Legend is that this temple was built to satisfy the cow-herdess who had donated the stone that sits on the shikhara of Brihadeeswara temple in Tanjore. And it was her wish that a temple should be erected in her village too. Think about this transaction, a common woman donates the stone for the king’s favorite temple. In turn, she could have asked anything for herself, but what she asks is a similar temple in her village too. Does it not tell us a lot about the values that were held important in those times. The value that was placed on art and culture!
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Airavatesvara Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India. Located in the town of Darasuram, near Kumbakonam, it is also called as Darasuram Temple, It was built in the 12th century CE by the then rulers of Chola Dynasty the Rajaraja Chola II. Lord Shiva is worshipped as Airavata here. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in the year 2004 under the Great Living Chola Temples.
Recommend you to read the following Places to visit in Tamil Nadu.