I reached Darasuram around dusk by auto through a muddy road that looked like going nowhere. 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. 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.
Charms of Darasuram Airavatesvara Temple
It was a strange emotion to see the temple standing in the middle of water. 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. I wanted to believe that there must be a way to reach the high platformed corridor surrounding the temple. No, there was no way. 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.
Chola Temple Architecture
Airavatesvara temple was built in 1166 CE by the Chola king Rajaraja Chola II.
It follows a square plan. Unlike most Chola temples, the circumanculatory path is not inside the main temple but outside it.
Garbhahriha can be approached via Ardh Mandapa and Mukh Mandapa. There are two giant dwarpalas at the entrance. Mahamandapa is full of pillars. Linga in the temple is called Raj-Rajeswaram Udyar erected by King Rajraja himself.
On the side is another mandapa called agra-mandapa, named after the Chola king. It is this mandapa that is in the shape of a chariot. The steps at the entrance are supposed to be musical producing musical notes as you walk on them. This is what I heard from the guide but could not experience it because of the water there.
There are panels and inscriptopns depicting the stories of Shaivite Nayanar Saints along with Puranik stories.
There are smaller temples dedicated to Ganesha, Yama, Saptamatrikas in the temple complex.
The temple was huge, was calle Sapta-veethi or the one with seven streets and seven courtyards. Just like the Srirangam temple at Trichy. Only one of them survives today. The ruins of the gopurams and the temple remains can be seen all around this temple. It probably faced the invasions during 14th CE.
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. It was her wish that a temple should be erected in her village too.
Think about this transaction, a common woman donates the stone to the king’s favorite temple. In turn, she could have asked for anything for herself, but what she asks for 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!
Elephant Carvings at Airavatesvara Temple
The temple is named after Indra’s elephat Airavat. It is said that Airavat took a dip in the temple tank that is connected to sacred Kaveri river. It gained resplendent skin. The legend is carved on in stone in this temple.
Elephants carved on the balustrades around the steps that make it feel as if the temple is being carried on their back. There are galloping horses with wheels carved behind them also carved on the walls, making the temple look like a chariot.
It is also believed that the chariot wheels are actually sun dials, used during mornings and evenings for time calculations. Technically these chariot shaped temples are calle Karakkoil as their inspiration is temple chariots. Though the perpendicular directions in which the elephants and horses seem to move are a bit confusing.
The other two temples with wheels are Konark Sun Temple 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. 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. It is calle Lingoadbhava – meaning emerging from the Linga. Pillars in this temple are heavily carved with itihasa-purana 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 giving 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 bases carved as Yalis are another unique feature of this temple. Though you do see a similar carving at Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram as well. Yali is a mythical animal with the face of an elephant, the body of a lion, the ears of a pig, the horns of a goat, and the tail of a cow.
Next to the main temple is a Devi shrine, contemporary to the main temple. It is dedicated to Periya Nayaki Amman. Unfortunately, it was even more badly flooded than the main temple and I could not go in.
It may have been part of the larger temple complex, but as of now stands detached from the temple.
The name Darasuram probably comes from Daruka-Vana indicated by the many images of Kanakala and Rishi Patni.
It is located close to Kollidam river which is a part of Kaveri delta system.
Being a Shiva temple, Shivaratri is celebrated at the temple.
The annual festival of the temple takes place during the Magha month that falls roughly in January.
UNESCO World Heritage Site – Airavatesvara Temple
It 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 Darasuram Temple. It was built in the 12th century CE by the then-ruler of the Chola Dynasty 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.
Travel Tips for Darasuram
You can also visit it while traveling between temple towns of Chidambaram and Thanjavur.
Public transport is easily available.
Closest airport is Trichy which is 90 kms away. You can visit Srirangam if you choose to come via Thirychirapalli.