The musical notes of a Chariot – Darasuram Airavatesvara Temple

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Tamil Nadu | 28

The stunning architecture of the famous Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur ignited a new thirst in me. Its surreal carvings and the advanced construction techniques made me wonder what the other Great Living Chola Temples would be like. My trip to Karaikudi gave me the perfect opportunity to quench this thirst – partially. Though the plan was to do all three UNESCO World heritage sites, time and distance had me cut down one. Since Thanjavur was going to be my travel base, I had to pick between the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple and the Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram. I chose to do the Darasuram Airavatesvara temple and Gosh! It did seem like the right pick!

Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram - a UNESCO World Heritage Site in India

It wasn’t an easy decision. Scores of internet browsing revealed interesting facts about both – Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple and the Airavateswara temple. Distance-wise – both had a similar drive time from Thanjavur. However, it was the artistic splendor and the mystical tales of the chariot-shaped Darasuram Airavatesvara temple that made me decide in its favor. Let me take you on a virtual tour of the Airvatesvara temple and you can tell me if I made the right choice!

History of the Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram

The history of the Airavatesvara temple begins with the mythological era. Legend has it that the hot-tempered Sage Durvasa cursed Lord Indra‘s white elephant – Airavat for disrespecting him. Owing to this, Airavat lost his color. Upset and full of regret, he prayed to Lord Shiva from the present temple location. The Lord asked him to take a bath in the temple tank and that magically restored his white color. Since then, the Shiva Lingam at Darasuram got its present name – Airavatesvara.

The only surviving temple complex at Airavatesvara - one of the Great Living Chola Temples

It was only in the 12th century – 1166 CE to be precise, that the famous Chola king – Raja Raja Chola II build the current Darasuram Airavateshwar Temple. The temple was the last to be built among the three Great Living Chola Temples. The first one was the Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur (11th century) followed by a similar one in Gangapuri – the capital city of Cholas. This was called the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple and was also, built in the 11th century. Later, the then king – Rajaraja Chola II decided to grace his second capital – Rajarajapuri (also, called Palaiyarai or Ayiratti) with an architectural marvel. Thus, came the Airavatesvara temple.

It is said that this temple complex was way bigger than the present structure. What we see is just one of the seven gorgeous shrines. The complex had seven streets and was filled with courts and temples. Among all the Great Living Chola Temples, the Airvatesvara temple is said to be the most intricate and beautiful. Now whether you agree or not, is something you will have to let me know at the end of this guide to Airavatesvara Temple 😉

The architecture of Airvateswara temple

Airavatesvara temple with its vimana

The Darasuram temple follows the same Dravidian style of architecture that you see at the Big Temple in Tanjore and at the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple. However, the biggest difference between the older temples, and this is that size is replaced by intricacies. This is not to say that the Airvatesvara temple is small by any standards. It still stands tall at 80 feet and has a five-storied vimana (capstone). The stone temple has been built using a traditional interlocking system that has allowed it to withstand the forces of nature. The best metaphor to describe it would be “poetry in stone” for every inch of its facade has stories carved on a chariot of stone!

The layout of the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Darasuram

The Mahadwara at the Darasuram Airavatesvara Temple

As mentioned, only one of the seven major temple courts remain. This one begins with a Mahadwara – the great gate, that is now in ruins. What you see next is the Nandi shrine that faces the main temple. Next comes in the beautiful chariot styled Airavatesvara Temple. The Chariot temple is divided into five sections –

  • The outer Rajagambiram Thirumandapam
  • The 2nd part inside this bigger square forms the Mukha Mandapam
  • Next comes the Maha mandapam
  • This is followed by a small gateway called the Ardha Mandapam
  • Last is the sanctum santorum called the Garbha Griha

It may all seem like a maze of tongue twisters but I will help make your tour of Airavatesvara Temple a lot simpler. Just stay with me!

The Nandi Mandapa of Airavateshwara temple

The Nandi Mandapam at the Airavateshwara Temple, Darasuram

Like any other temple that is dedicated to Lord Shiva, this one too, had a small shrine for his gatekeeper and vehicle – Nandi. The shrine requires you to descend down a few steps. Quite unlike the one in Thanjavur, this Nandi shrine is much simpler and smaller. I expected it to be as elaborate as the Tanjore ones in terms of carved pillars and painted ceilings. However, that difference might have been owing to the fact that the Tanjore one was built by the succeeding Nayaka kings in the 16th century.

P.S: Don’t miss the carvings on the steps to the Nandi mandapa.

Check out the Nandi Mandapam at the Brihadisvarar Temple in Thanjavur. It will stun you with its colors and carvings. 

The Musical steps of Airavatesvara temple

Before you move forward to enter the grand Airavatesvara Temple, you need to pay attention to a small structure, right behind the Nandi mandapam. This structure with a small flight of stairs is called the Balipeetham. This is the sacrificial altar of the Airavatesvara temple. What is significant about is are the stairs that are now enclosed in a cage. These stairs are called the Singing stairs or the Musical staircase of Airavatesvara Temple.

The Singing steps next to the Nandi Mandapam

The seven steps of this balustrade staircase correspond to the seven musical notes. It is said that walking up and down the stairs or even tapping them produced those melodious notes. A few years back, they were open to a demonstration. However, owing to vandalism, they have not been caged and restricted.

The singing steps are one of the many melodious stone wonders in India. You might have heard about the musical pillars of Hampi. How about experiencing it through this post on the Vittala temple of Hampi.

The Singing steps leading to the Balipeetham at the Airavatesvara Temple

It is said that the stone sculptures had their own science to stones. They knew how to mix and match various stones to create melodious tunes. The whole science is called Shilpa Shastra and over time, this ancient knowledge has got lost to the world. It is no wonder that even though the British tried dissecting the musical pillars of Hampi, they were unsuccessful in finding the answer to this stone property.

Rajagopuram – entrance to the Airavateshvar temple

Rajagopuram of the Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram

The exquisite carving of the Darasuram temple begins with its main gate. Called the Rajagopuram, you can spot plenty of stories on its pillars and tall facade. The entire Shiva family – including the two sons – Lord Ganesha and Lord Karthikeyan with his wife and faithful Nandi are featured prominently on the wall. The pillars have numerous nymphs in different poses on the lower parts while the upper designs seemed more of floral vines.

Don’t miss the flagpost called the Dwaja Sthambha when you enter through the Rajagopuram.

Nataraja carving on the Rajagopuram
Carved pillars of the Rajagopuram

The Chariot of Darasuram Airavatesvara temple

The Dwajasthambha at the entrance of the temple

Once you are in through the main gate, you will see an outer corridor and enclosed within it the main temple. Let’s start with the main temple. If you are wondering where the chariot is, well it is pretty much what you are looking at. Except that the portion facing the main gate is its back. Just walk in a clockwise manner and you will realize how gorgeous the chariot temple is.

The beautiful chariot temple of Airavatesvara

This portion of the temple is the first section of the tongue twister maze that I mentioned earlier. Called the Rajagambiram Thirumandapam, this chariot is fashioned after the ones that are taken out in the famous festivals like the Rath Yatra. From a particular angle, it is easy to imagine the chariot being drawn by a horse. As you get closer to the carvings, you will be amazed by the chiseled beauty of the horse that is complete with its ornaments.

Close up of the horse and the wheel of the Chariot at Airavatesvara Temple

The wheel too is extremely detailed with its spokes. Some say that these two wheels (one on either side of the Rajagambhiram Thirumandapam) were used as Sundials – one to note the time in the morning and the other functioned as an evening clock. Some say that this chariot design was an inspiration for the famous Konark temple of Odisha.

The balustrade staircase with the elephant at the Airvatesvara temple

Right next to the horse and the chariot wheel, you will find the staircase that leads you inside the main temple. What makes these staircases special are the carved elephant banisters. I was quite fascinated with the artistic details of where the trunk doubled up as a handrail. The balustraded elephant staircase are possibly a dedication to the legendary Airavat which gave the temple its present name.

The miniature carvings along the base of the Rajagambhiram Thirumandapam

Walking around the chariot between its two wheels, you will find numerous etched stories ranging from dancing apsaras (nymphs) to various deities like Lord Brahma and Goddess Saraswati.

The carved Mukha Mandapam

The Mukhamandapam with the chariot base

In a lot of ways, this section of the Airavatesvara temple is the upper extension of the chariot part – the Rajagambhiram Thirumandapam. The hallway is easily recognizable by the Yallis on its pillars. Yelli is a mythical creature that has the body of a lion but the face of an elephant. The mix does not end there. It has the ears of a pig, horns of a Ram, and the tail of a cow.

Yalli pillars of the Mukhamandapam

The area enclosed by this set of pillars is modeled around a dancing hall (Nritya Sabha). For all you know, it might have been one where the temple devadasis performed the graceful Bharatnatyam for their deities.

Chiseled pillars of the Maha Mandapam

The Mukhamandapam that I described above leads to the Maha Mandapam where you will see even more chiseled masterpieces. Each pillar in this section is extremely detailed. In fact, they say that the entire Shiva Purana is inscribed on a few of these pillars.

The chiseled pillars and carved ceiling of the Mahamandapam of the Airavatesvara Temple
The Shiva-Parvati wedding carved on the pillar

The 48 pillars large hall will also, enthrall you with its exquisite ceiling carvings. The themes range from floral filigree to numerous dancing poses. The place reminded me of the ceilings in Badami caves (the ancient school of sculpture and carvings). It got me wondering if the gifted craftsmen had first practiced in the caves and then got down to this temple.

In various niches, you will also, find huge statues of deities and saints. Watch out for one called Kannappar. You will identify him with his well-carved footwear. The gentleman was a hunter who became a poet – singing praises of the Great Lord Shiva. In another niche, you will find a stunning Goddess – some say she depicts Ganga. The two other niches that I recall were that of a seated Goddess Saraswati and Nandikesvara.

Check out the dancer in the center and the mermaid on the side in this carved ceiling
Kannappa sculpture in Airavatesvara Temple
Ganga in one of the niches of the mahamandapam
Nandikesava sculpture

Ardh Mandapam & the Garbha Griha of  Darasuram Temple

The entrance to the inner sanctum and Ardhamandapam as guarded by the Dwarapalas

It was just past 1 pm when we visited the Darasuram Airvateswara Temple. Every day, though the temple remains open, the inner sanctum closes between 1 pm and 4 pm. Hence, we missed seeing the inner sanctum. All we could see were the two Dwarapalas (gatekeepers) to the Ardhamandapa and the inner sanctum.

However, while speaking to a local, it appeared that it was not a very big loss for most of the artistic splendor that was exhibited in the outer sections. The inner section had plain pillars so that people could focus on prayers. The inner sanctum has a smaller Nandi facing the Shiva Linga.

The external facade of the Temple at Darasuram

The pradakshina path (circumambulatory path) of the Airavateswara temple requires you to go around the chariot from the outside rather than inside the temple. This is a perfect opportunity for you to get a closer look at some of the interesting sculptures and carvings on its facade. This guide to the Airavatesvara temple will not be complete if I don’t point out the significant parts of these carvings.

The most obvious ones are the huge statues in slate gray or black stone. They don’t just represent the major deities but include several saints like Sage Agasthya and minor Gods like the King of Snakes – Nagaraja. The most interesting of the lot is this statue of Ardhanarisurya. Ardha means half and Nari refers to woman. The statue is half man and half woman avatar of the Sun God – Surya.

Ardhanarisurya - the half man-half woman avatar of Surya
Sage Agastya depicted on the facade
Nagaraja - the snake king

Along the lower tiers of the temple, you will see a lot of miniature stories. These include scenes from the epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Vishnu Puran. They also, include episodes from Shiva Purana as told by the Nayanars. The Nayanars were devoted to the spreading Shaivism in Tamil Nadu. The group consisted of 63 saints who told several tales of Lord Shiva. The Airavatesvara Temple is known to showcase all these saints and their teachings in the form of carvings on the walls.

Besides the mythological tales, there are several every-day scenes etched on the stone temple. These range from birthing scenes to warriors fighting and some royal celebrations too. Don’t miss spotting the mischievous Ganas (dwarves) and their antics that include singing, dancing and playing pranks.

Alternating with the grand sculptures, are some ancient murals of various deities. Done using vegetable dyes, these works of art have survived centuries.  While they still attract attention, they do need to be restored.

Ram aims at Valli who is fighting Sugriva. The miniature painting depicts the scene on the walls of the temple
Faded murals along the facade of the Airavatesvar Temple
A Gana depicted on the walls or is it the kid Krishna eating from a pot of curds?
The tale of Lingodbhava depicted on the wall of Airavatesvara Temple

An interesting sculpture would be that of Lingodbhava. This black statue represents a very interesting legend of Lord Shiva. As the story goes, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma were given a treasure hunt. Lord Shiva took the form of a flame and the two competing Gods had to find him. Lord Vishnu took the form of a boar and hunted the depths of the earth. On the other hand, Lord Brahma decided to find the flame from the air by riding on his swan. However, neither could locate the flame. While Lord Vishnu accepted defeat, Lord Brahma lied. This angered Shiva who took on a fierce form of Kaal Bhairava and tore off the 5th face or Lord Brahma. The sculpture represents this story with Lord Brahma depicted right over Lord Shiva’s head and Lord Vishnu as a boar below his feet.

As you go around the temple past this Lingodbhava sculpture, you will find an Abhishekha outlet (the ritualistic bath for the lord). Right next to it, is a clothed statue of Goddess Durga and Lord Vishnu. And while you are busy looking at the bigger statues, remember to check the miniature ones that continue throughout.

The ritualistic cleansing outlet
Goddess Durga along the walls of Airavatesvara Darasuram Temple

Outer corridor of Airavateswara Temple

The corridor with numerous carvings of saints

The outer corridor of the Airavatesvarar Temple too, has a few interesting things to see. For one, it is filled with Tamil inscriptions that record various accounts of the temple, including the name Rajagambhiran Thirumandapam given to the Chariot.

Besides these, you will find numerous Shiva linga and a whole row of saints bowing towards the temple. Ultimately, the long corridors lead you to a small museum of sorts. The history and key facts of Airavatesvara temple can be found here – albeit on dilapidated boards. It is hard to read through them and they, definitely need to be replaced.

Broken statues and sculptures have been kept in a haphazard manner here. Possibly the authorities plan to exhibit them in a proper manner but in its current state, there is little to discern.

A broken inscription kept in the Airavatesvara museum
Some of the sculptures kept along the artistic pillars of the Airavatesvara Museum

The other shrines at the Airavatesvarar Temple Complex

Sarabeswarar Shrine at Airavatesvara Temple Complex

The temple complex of Airavatesvarar includes a few other shrines too. There is a separate one built for Lord Shiva’s consort – Parvati. This is called the Periyanayaki Amman Shrine and is a little away from the main complex. Since I had not known about it, I fell short of time and had to skip it. I am sure, that after reading this Airavatesvara Temple guide, you can include it on your trip.

The other significant shrine is within the Airavateshwar temple. It is dedicated to Lord Sarabeswarar. The deity is quite unique as he is a mix of a lion, an eagle, and a human. He is a Shiva Avataar who came into being to calm down the ferocious Vishnu avatar of Narasimha. The shrine is one of the few in existence today. Sadly, it was closed when I visited it.

Narasimha depicted on the vimana of the Darasuram temple

Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram does not get many visitors, despite it being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The reason could be that it is a drive away from Thanjavur and after the Big Temple of Tanjore, people feel they have seen it all. However, that is a huge misconception for this temple cannot be more different than the Brihadeeswarar temple. And that is why I recommend a tour of Airavatesvara Temple. Now that you have done the virtual tour, tell me if it was all worth the choice I made between the two Great Living Chola Temples.

How to get to Darasuram Airavatesvara Temple?

  • Darasuram is a small village that is around 40 km from Thanjavur. The road trip from Thanjavur will take you around one hour and you will be traversing through narrow lanes and fields. The closest town to Darasuram is a town called Kumbakonam (around 5 km from Darasuram).
  • If private cars or cabs is not something that you prefer, consider a train or a bus to Kumbakonam and then, hire an autorickshaw to Darasuram
  • The closest airport to this area is at Tiruchirapalli or Trichy.  (90km). It is possible to get a train or a bus from there to Kumbakonam.

 Best time to visit the Airavatesvara Temple?

Winter is the most comfortable in terms of the season to visit the Airavatesvara Temple. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is open throughout the year. The best time would be either between 6 am to 12 pm or 4 pm to 8 pm. Though the temple is open throughout the day, the shrines are closed between 12 pm to 4 pm.

Where to stay in Darasuram?

It is not really necessary to stay in Darasuram. The place is best done as a day-trip from Thanjavur. However, should you require an accommodation, then consider the hotels in Kumbakonam. The town is full of temples and if you are staying back, then you might as well explore those.

I did the Airavatesvara Temple as a day trip from Thanjavur and hence, chose to stay in that city.  There are tons of hotels in Thanjavur that can work for any budget. I chose to stay in a mid-price one called Hyders Park.

Travel Tips

  • There are no entrance fees to the Airavatesvara Temple.
  • Parking is easily available at the temple.
  • Remember that this is a living temple and people still perform their sacred rituals here. Hence, please be respectful of the same.
  • There are no guides available at the Airavatesvara Temple. Your best bet to exploring this place is prior research. I am told that the temple priests are extremely helpful and do double up as guides. However, since I visited at the time that the shrine was closed, I did not meet anyone.
  • Restrooms and a small grocery outlet are available in the temple complex. However, for any restaurant, you will have to visit Kumbakonam.

Booking resources

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