Airavateswarar temple at Darasuram near Kumbakonam in the south-Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is a Chola repository of micro carvings and sculptures. It’s one of the three ancient temples that are collectively called the ‘Great Living Chola temples’ and bestowed with the UNESCO heritage tag.
For first-timers who are visiting the Airavateswarar temple (Airavatesvarar) at Darasuram, it could be a bit daunting and overwhelming as to where and what to look, which sculpture to ponder over and which to give a miss, as it happened in my case. This blog-post and the Part-1 which covers the topics around the Darasuram temple, should prove handy and give a brief idea about this UNESCO heritage site and dispel your doubts if any.
I suggest you read Darasuram Airavteswarar temple – Part 1, if you already haven’t, before going ahead with this post on this gem of a temple. I have mentioned below in the infographic a gist of what to expect in that blog-post of Part1.
Guided tour of Darasuram Airavateswarar temple
On our family trip to the Airavateswarar temple at Darasuram, we had the good fortune of the temple priest explaining to us the various aspects of this almost 1000-year-old Chola marvel. He also pointed to us the panels and pillars of the mandapams surrounding the garbagriha(sanctum sanctorum) on which the beauties of miniature art were chiselled.
Here is a virtual tour of the Darasuram temple through my lens and words.
Disclaimer: This blog-post on Darasuram is a result of extensive reading of Chola period books, research, personal visit, and inputs from the temple priest. The photos are clicked by me and may show varied colours as some were taken under changing hues of natural twilight and others in the artificial lights of the temple. Please do not copy or lift the content without permission and written requests.
Darasuram sculptures (Chola sculptures)
As we entered the Airavateswara temple, the first set of the basaltic sculptures that caught my inquisitive eyes in this ancient Chola repository were in the niches of eastern and south-eastern temple walls. At first glance, I thought it was a sculpture of Ardhanariswarar(the hermaphrodite form of Shiva) and later the priest confirmed the same. However, once back home when I zoomed the photo a bit, I could actually see a sun behind the head of the statue. I did look in the iconography books which suggests that it could be Ardhanarisurya and not Ardhanariswarar. And, this astonishingly is the only known such statue of Ardhanarisurya in the world for now!
Just around the corner in the south-eastern direction is the Nagaraja (Snake God) standing majestically with folded hands. I could not take my eyes off the wonderful ornamentation work on him.
With every step we took, it looked as if we had gained entry into a mystical world where the inanimate turned animated in our presence. The boulders and blocks of granite that had been meditatively chiselled with love and labour now served as props and characters to narrate us the mighty stories of Shiva and the Chola rulers. Some of the excavated stones that lay at a corner looked like the workplace of the craftsmen from the bygone era. I wondered if we missed seeing the artisans in action by coming late in the evening!
The Shivaganas are usually the cutest lot in most of the Shiva temples. The ones here at Airavateswara temple did not disappoint me for sure. They seemed to be having a wonderful time singing and dancing with that ‘Haasya Rasa’ intact on their face. Here is a set of three who looked delighted upon seeing us…
Read about what is a rasa and also about the Navarasas in my write-up on Kathakali- the ancient classical dance of Kerala
Poetry in stone at Darasuram temple
Soon, we were standing in front of the Rajagambhiran-thiru-mandapam oriented in the shape of a chariot. Ah! what a spectacle it was to be transported into the times of the Cholas, some 900 years back and gaze in wonder as the intricately shaped wheel effortlessly pulls along the chariot with the help of the ornate horse, right across one’s eyes! The expression on the face of the charioteer was one of delight, joy, and maybe of admiration too for his passenger.
Yali sculptures at Airavateswarar temple
The curled balustrades with royal elephants and makara( crocodile) carved on the stairs leading to the mandapam looked resplendent. They appeared to accord a hearty welcome to its visitors.
The mythical Yali pretended to be ferocious and very similar to each other but then we observed that their tails were curled differently and carried detailed articulation. We were awestruck by the detailing done by the sculptors of yore. I still wonder if they had competed with each other to prove their artistic prowess, by thinking out of the box. Else, how can one justify a work of such a highest order? There was amazement at every step.
Nithya Vinodam at Darasuram
The beautiful carving of Shiva doing a thandavam (cosmic dance) and the expression of trance was truly captivating! After all, the philosophy behind the Rajarajeswara temple at Darasuram is all about ‘Nithya Vinodam’ which means ‘perpetual amazement’ and surely this was just the beginning.
Is this the oldest statue of Kannapar?
The statue of Kannapar – a great proponent of Shaivism( in Sangam Tamizh) stood humbly with hands folded in reverence for he was adorning the niches of the Mookahmandapam. The priest directed our attention to Kannappar’s feet and, lo and behold, we could actually see the hunter-turned -poet wearing footwear that is sure to give today’s fashion industry a run for their money. The straps and the toe-thong have been carefully cut and smoothened keeping in mind the comforts of the wild wanderer. Mind-blowing!
(You may want to read about the various halls or mandapam in my previous post).
Intricately carved pillars of Darasuram temple
I could feel the infinite motifs on the ornamented pillars come alive as I touched them, felt the sharpness of certain floral patterns even after all these centuries, their texture sounded so real that suddenly I could perceive the emotions that went into making these pieces de resistance of the Chola grandeur and fame.
As the priest showed us one pillar after another with enthusiasm, I envisioned ourselves to be travellers akin to the status of the Chinese Traveller Hiuen-Tsang guided by the temple priest from the Chola era, accorded a royal reception and welcomed amidst the clunks of the chisel, watching and inspecting the craftsmen invoke life into the stones by their able hands, lending an able ear to the discussions being presided over by the architects, the craftsmen, and the Masons and thus partaking in these everyday activities of the Chola empire!
Carvings and Contradictions of Airavateswarar temple
We could not divert our gaze and wonderment from the basaltic sculpture of Goddess Ganga. Everything seemed so perfect with the way it was sculpted- from the eyebrows to the fingernails to the nose.
There are again varied opinions about the idol being of Annapurna, Mohini, et al. However, records mention that the inscription above the idol on the wall, names it as ‘Ganga’ in Sangam Tamizh. This seems to be a war trophy from the Tungabadra delta. However, I strongly feel it has been made by the Chozha artisans observing the features of make that usually are considered to be slated a Chola artwork.
Let me inform my readers that it was a norm in ancient times to get home ‘idols’ as ‘war trophies’ from the region of victory. Thus, one can find many varied sculptures and idols from different regions under the Chola tag!
You may also want to read my write-up on the influence of Sangam Tamizh in Thailand
Another interesting sculpture is that of Goddess Saraswati replete with minuscule detailing- the ribs and the toenails could also be seen carved. However, the stringed instrument Veena that is a staple and associated with her is missing. I was reminded of another sculpture of Saraswati without Veena at Gangaikondacholapuram that I had visited a couple of days prior to this visit. Looks like Darsuram was inspired by the latter.
Darasuram bas-reliefs and sculptures
While we gazed through the intricately carved mookahmandapam, we could envision dancers putting up their best performances as the crowd cheered, musicians enthralling the spectators and us, mermaids having a frolicking time in the sea, a lady belonging to the gypsy clan performing gymnastics…..and literally, a slice of day’s activities during the Chola era came alive.
I was spellbound by the intricacy wherein the smiles are still intact even after almost close to a thousand years!
I especially loved the carvings of a lady playing with a swan in one of her palms (that had a 3D effect) and the other of Shiva-Paravati.
The Shiva-Parvati sculpture was indeed very alluring. It captures one of those rare moments when the usually high-tempered God-Shiva is persuading and cajoling a dejected Parvati with Ganga in his ‘other hand’.
There is an inkling of surrender and coyness in Paravati’s face, isn’t it? Do you see it?
Micro carvings of Darasuram Airavateswara temple
Apart from idols, life-size sculptures, and carved pillars, Darasuram Airavateswara temple is also replete with micro carvings. These carvings measure between 1-2 inches in height but are articulated in a detailed fashion that seems to be a trademark of the skilled Chola sculptures.
The priest showed us these and said, “Observe the tails of these two cows which are oriented differently, the family of Shiva-Parvati seated, the dancing Ganesha and the standing postures of the other two deities. These sculptures are not more than an inch in height but have got artistic detailing!”.And, indeed it is an astounding effort to bring out the expressions on these hard granites, give life and details in such fine proportions!
Here is a photo gallery of the micro carvings and sculptures that I found fascinating at the Darasuram temple
While the ceilings of the Darasuram temple brim with carvings of various dance poses, mudras, sun signs, and star signs and varied stories; the steps of the Darasuram Airavateswarar temple are devotionally carved and chiselled. Every nook and corner echoes creativity and impressions in this wonderland of sculptures and carvings. I am sure the Chola sculptors and craftsmen were going about their work in a meditative process seeking perfection in all those 12 years of construction and putting together of this Airavateswara temple at Darasuram. Isn’t their zen-like quality akin to the sculpture of the meditating yogi above?
As we reached just a few hours before the closing time at dusk, we missed admiring and understanding many more of these wonderful micro carvings and sculptures.
Tips and Suggestions for visiting Airavateswara temple at Darasuram
- Reach the temple early and spend at least 2-3 hours to be able to cover a maximum. Also, I would advice visiting the Darasuram temple during the daytime, if possible on a sunny day, to appreciate the detailing on every sculpture, pillar, and to appreciate the work on every stone here at the Airavateswarar temple.
- Do look out for the bas-relief of Rishabh Kunjaram – the body of a bull and an elephant on opposite sides conjoined in the middle with a common head and also of the Shiva with a flute. Also, do not miss seeing Ravana lifting the Kailasa mountain or the humorous pieces of everyday life that have been depicted beautifully on these walls.
- There are carvings from the ‘Skandapuranam’ on the pillars of the Mookahmandapam.
- The highlight of the temple is the sculptures of the 63 Nayanmars and their life stories from the mesmerizing ‘Periyapuranam’.
- Lifestyle-based sculptures, themes surrounding women warriors, humour in the domestic lives of warriors, and common man are all part of the splendour of the micro carvings at Darasuram temple.
Plan your Darasuram trip with this practical information and tips
Where is Darasuram
Darasuram is around 5-6kms from Kumbakonam town in the state of TamilNadu, India. Kumbakonam itself is well-connected by bus from Thanjavur and other important towns and cities of TamilNadu.
How to reach Darasuram
From Kumbakonam, there are mini-buses and autos that ply towards Darasuram. We took an auto from Kumbakonam bus-stand to Darasuram and he charged us Rs.100/-
Darasuram Airavteswarar Temple timings
The Airavateswarar Temple at Darasuram is open throughout the week from 6:00 a.m to 12:00 a.m and again from 4:00 p.m to 8:00 p.m. There is no entry fee.
Best Season to Visit Darasuram
If you cannot withstand heat then it is always advisable to visit south-India between the months of November-January. Also, early mornings and evenings are the best times to visit the temples to avoid the everyday crowd.
Where to stay
Unlike Gangaikondacholapuram, there are small hotels and restaurants available nearby to the Darasuram temple. However, you may opt to stay at Thanjavur and Kumbakonam instead, which are bigger cities with top-notch accommodations.
Plan your trip to Airavateswarar temple
You can either cover Daarsuram separately or club it with a trip to all the three Great Living Chola Temples and a visit to Chidambaram. The below map gives you the route from the airport at Tiruchirapalli and covers the Big temple at Thanjavur, Airavateeswara temple at Darasuram, Brihadeeswara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram as well as the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram. I suggest you not hurry but make it a leisurely two-day trip with an overnight halt at Chidambaram.
Each of these temples will take at least a few hours to see around. And, if you are photography and history enthusiast then keep aside some more hours!
My thoughts on Airavateswarar temple
It indeed was a very satisfying first visit to Darasuram, however, I need to confess that we could not cover much in those 70mins we spent there. I guess, this calls for another visit!
On a tour of the Airavateswarar temple, I could actually sense the respect and honour that was accorded to the various artisans of that era and understood the undoubted patronage given by the Chola rulers to literature and arts, that has resulted in this incomparable craftsmanship.
I wish this information helps and motivates you to visit this gem and I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour of the Airavateswara temple at Darasuram that re-emphasizes the fact that ‘art is eternal’.
Meanwhile, I would appreciate your thoughts and opinions on this write-up and also on the Cholas 🙂
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