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The Great Living Chola Temples of Tamil Nadu

temples tanjore tamil nadu
Darasuram Airavateshwara Temple

THANJAVUR (formerly Tanjore)

It is the former capital of the greatest of the Chola rulers, Rajaraja Chola I. On the throne from 985 to 1012 AD. J.-C., he is known for his military prowess, his administrative skills and his passion for art and literature. After the Cholas, Thanjavur will pass through the hands of the Pandyas, Vijayanagaras, Nayaks and Marathas.

Located some 350 km southwest of Chennai, Thanjavur is home to the jewel of Chola architecture. Built by Rajaraja Chola I and dedicated to Shiva, the colossal Brihadeeshwara Temple was built in the 11th century, in 6 years and required thousands of tons of granite, extracted more than 50 km away and transported to Thanjavur.

The temple is the largest of the three 'Great Living Chola Temples'. He is the quintessence of their splendour. A major Hindu pilgrimage site, it welcomes visitors of all religious denominations which is not the case with most temples in Tamil Nadu.  It is made up of tons of hard granite rocks transported here by elephants and the pyramidal vimana of the main temple which culminates at 66 meters is the highest of its type. The 36-ton granite boulder that sits atop this tower has been a question mark for years. The current explanation is that he was pushed up a series of ramps by elephants! Finally, fine carvings abound, and the central courtyard in front of the main temple is dominated by a huge statue of Nandi (Shiva's bull) weighing an estimated 25 tons. Added in the 16th century, it is the second largest of its kind.

The entrance to the main temple complex is through two beautiful arches, topped with ornate gopuras (pyramidal towers), covered with various stucco deities. The archway leading inside the temple is flanked by two huge and fierce dwarapalas or guardian deities, a typical feature of Chola architecture. 

The Brihadeeshwara temple was the first of the Chola temples to be inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A veritable masterclass in architecture, engineering, logistics, planning and execution, it is a spectacular witness to an empire at its peak and a civilization of extraordinary knowledge and ability.

Thanjavur Chola temple
Thanjavur Brihadeeshwara Temple
Tamil Nadu temples Thanjavur

The Saraswathi Mahal Library is one of the other curiosities of Thanjavur. One part of the city palace, former official residence of the Bhonsles who reigned over the region from 1674 to 1855, has been converted into a library. Established around 1700, it contains many very rare and even unique books, including the original works of many Nayak and Maratha kings. More than 30,000 Indian and European manuscripts are written on palm leaves or paper, in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi on a variety of subjects such as science, medicine, engineering, astronomy, painting , music and dance.



On the death of his father Rajaraja, builder of the Brihadeeshwara temple in Thanjavur, Rajendra I took over the reins of the Chola empire in 1014. An accomplished warrior, winner of numerous military expeditions, he received from his armies the nickname "Gangaikondachola" or "the Chola who conquered the Ganges". It is indeed under his reign that the dynasty extends its influence from the river Ganges in the north to the lands of Southeast Asia.

He established a new capital about 70 km from Thanjavur and named it Gangaikondacholapuram. He built a royal temple of the same name there, now called the Brihadeeshwara temple of Gangaikondacholapuram. The construction of the temple is very similar to that of Thanjavur. A spectacular vimana soars skyward, visible for miles around. However, the concave slope of the vimana and its shorter height, make its appearance more delicate. Just like in Thanjavur, a huge stucco Nandi (or bull) sits facing the main shrine.

Gangaikondacholapuram was the capital of the Cholas for about 250 years, until their decline and the arrival of the Pandyas. The temple, meanwhile, is on the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites. 

temple Gangaikondacholapuram
Nandi Gangaikondacholapuram


More than a century after the construction of the temple of Gangaikondacholapuram, Rajaraja II, sovereign of the Chola kingdom from 1143 to 1173 built that of Darasuram. It is named 'Airavateshwara' several centuries after its construction, after the legend that Airavata, the white elephant of Lord Indra (god of heavens) who had lost its white color due to a curse, got it back after praying to Lord Shiva.

While the temples of Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram are strikingly similar, that of Darasuram differs in its size. If the first two impose, his, smaller, is compensated by its architectural complexity, in particular a series of mandapas (or halls with columns) which lead to the garbhagriha (shrine) housing the main deity.

The temple contains some of the most exquisite carvings in the region. They describe episodes from Hindu mythology such as the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, the birth of their son Subramanya and more. Sculpted friezes represent Lord Shiva in different forms, stories from the Mahabharata, the life of the Nayanmars (Shiva poets considered saints), etc.

The Airavateshwara Temple was the last of the three 'Great Living Chola Temples' to be included in the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites in 2004. Together the three temples offer a fascinating journey through the annals of the history of two of India's most powerful empires and bear witness to the heyday of Dravidian architecture under the Pallavas and the Cholas.

Darasuram Airavateshwara Temple
Airavateshwara Temple Darasuram
Darasuram Temple
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