January 1, 2018

A Visit to the Great Living Chola Temples!

Hi Guys,

Wish you a very Happy New Year 2018! I’m here back with another post on my recent mini trip across three famous ‘Great living Chola temples’ as referred by UNESCO. It was an adhoc trip and it turned out to be a great one.

Day 1 – Train to Kumbakonam and Sunset at Gangai Konda Cholapuram
I started by journey via Cholan Express to see the temples built by the Cholans. This train is one of those rare trains in Indian Railways which doesn’t run on optimal passenger load thanks to the presence of sleeper and AC coaches in a daytime train. So, it is a suitable train for Adhoc trips. Nevertheless, let me skip the train journey and focus more on the temples.  The train was an hour late as it reached Kumbakonam on the verge of 3 pm. It meant that I had to cut down Darasuram from Day 1 and keep it for day 2.

I kept my backpack in a nearby Hotel and got into a bus for Gangai Konda Cholapuram which is approximately 40 kms from Kumbakonam. The trip has a scenic dam on the way across Kollidam River. The dam has an island called ‘Anaikarai’ in between and the bridge on either side is one way which means vehicles have to stop on one side and wait for their turn. It was around 5.30 pm by the time I reached Gangai Konda Cholapuram.

Gangai Konda Cholapuram was built by Rajendra Cholan after he expanded his kingdom till the branches of the mighty river Ganga. He constructed the imposing temple here and moved the capital city to this place. A look at the place today and you will see it as nothing more a giant temple amidst a village. It is hard to believe a mighty kingdom was ruled out of this place once.

The Silhoutte of Gangai Konda Cholapuram amidst Sunset
The temple is completely built out of stone as are the other two temples. The temple’s main tower is the heart of the whole architecture. It is built very similar to the Thanjavur temple, but the key difference is that after the first two layers, the structure is more spherical in nature as against the tapering square in the Thanjavur temple. Incidentally, the temple is also named as Brihadisvara temple in line with the temple at Thanjavur. The temple has a giant Shiva Lingam and is a very peaceful temple with very little crowd around. The peace adds to the mystical feel of the temple. Outside the temple, the landscape is well maintained by ASI with lawns and trees attracting hundreds of pigeons and parrots. At Sunset, there was constant screeching from the parrots as they were settling down. Apart from the main temple, the surrounding complex has been destructed over time. After strolling across till sunset, I took a bus back to Kumbakonam and stayed there for the night.

The giant tower in Gangai Konda Cholapuram!

The big Nandi Statue and temple Flagstaff
Day 2 – Darasuram and Thanjavur
After thinking of starting as early as 6 am in the morning, I slept off and got ready by 7 am. Darasuram is a Suburb of Kumbakonam and is only 2-3 kms away from the main town. It was around 7.45 am when I reached the deserted temple. The temple is constructed a bit lower than the surface which means that you have to climb down a few steps and get into stagnant water (from the rains) to get inside the temple. Since, the temple is below surface level, water keeps creeping in through the stone floor, which has resulted in Algae bloom and not so pleasant odour.

This temple known as ‘Airavateswara Temple’ was built by Raja Raja Chola II in the 12th century. The temple is said to be a much bigger complex with seven streets. However, only the main complex is present today. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. As I went in so early, the priest was yet to come and he came leisurely after 8 am, by when a few tourists had come. So, a late start did help the process.

The temple is not as magnificent as the other two in terms of size, but it makes up with the intricate carvings on stones across the temple. For this reason, the temple reminded me of the Vittala temple in Hampi.
Darasuram temple entrance, which is a few feet below the ground level

The Chariot Shaped temple that reminded me of Vittala temple in Hampi

Those Intricate Stone Carvings!
I then came back to Kumbakonam, had my breakfast and started to the biggest and famous of the three temples in Thanjavur. After a bumpy ride, I reached Thanjavur around noon. Unlike the earlier two temples, this one was bristling with crowd and in particular lot of tourists had arrived at the complex.

This temple was constructed by the famous king Raja Raja Chola I in earlier 11th century and recently the temple celebrated its 1000th Anniversary. Named Birhadesvara which means the ‘Big Shiva’, the Shiva Lingam in the temple is huge fittingly. The temple is more famous for the giant Nandhi statue at the entrance and the colossal tower in the centre of the temple. The main tower is 16 storeyed with 13 of them tapering towards the top. The centre piece is the giant monolithic stone which completes the tower. It is an architectural wonder considering the grandeur and age of the temple.

Unlike the other two temples, this temple was significantly improved by the later Nayak rulers adding more sanctums and idols to the temple. Chief among them is the gigantic monolithic Nandhi statue at the temple’s entrance. It’s amusing that Raja Raja Chola’s son left this magnificent city and temple to construct a new capital at Gangai Konda Cholapuram. Had it not been for the later Nayaks and Marathas, Thanjavur too might have faced the same fate of the other two temple towns.
Unlike the other two temples, the main temple in Thanjavur had two giant entrance doors!

The magnificent temple complex!

Elephants and Horses carved on stones seems to be a common thing across the temples!

Not just the main tower, the other towers in the temple too are large and filled with intricacies which makes the complex an amazing one!
History is interesting! Cities that flourished once upon a time have fallen down big time today. While some like Thanjavur are still surviving albeit not to the full flurry, cities like Hampi or Gangai Konda Cholapuram have vanished. Forests and deserts have become big urban clusters today. Who knows what would happen to these cities tomorrow?

On that thought, I left Thanjavur and went to Srirangam before boarding a train back to Chennai!

Happy Reading!


  1. Good to know about these chola temples ..don't know other than Thanjavur temple...

  2. Interesting information about the chola temples. I have also visited the Tanjavur Temple.
    Wish you a great year ahead.


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