More than a century after Rajendra I built his royal temple in Gangaikondacholapuram, the Airavateshwara Temple of Darasuram was built by Rajaraja II, the ruler of the Chola kingdom from 1143 to 1173. Inscriptions refer to this temple as Rajarajeshwaram, just like the one in Thanjavur. The name "Airavateshwara" came into use a few centuries later. Legend has it that Lord Indra’s white elephant, Airavata, lost his pristine white colour because of a curse. He regained it after praying to Lord Shiva, giving the temple its name.
While the temples in Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram are strikingly similar, the Airavateshwara Temple is very different. The other two make an impact with their sheer scale, and this one makes up for its smaller size with its intricacy.
A high wall with a series of seated bulls on it surrounds the temple, punctuated by an entrance gopura held up by pillars. A nandi in a pavilion stands in front of it. Stepping into the gateway, the first glimpse of the temple in all its glory is breathtaking. A series of pillared mandapas or halls lead to the garbhagriha housing the main deity. The foremost of these mandapas, called the Rajagambhiram Thirumandapam, is the crowning glory of the temple. It is designed like the chariot that Lord Shiva rode in His manifestation as Tripurantaka, to destroy three cities (tri means three, pura means city and antaka means someone who destroys) controlled by three demon brothers, with one burning arrow. Lord Brahma is depicted as the charioteer, and the vehicle is pulled by galloping horses and elephants. Eight pillars with yalis or griffins at their bases hold up the chariot, and five niches adorn its front, with images of five deities - Agni, Indra, Brahma, Vishnu and Vayu.
A 1.5 meter high Shivalinga in the garbhagriha is the main deity of the temple. Above it is a beautiful 25 meter high vimana that’s much shorter than its lofty counterparts in Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. A small shrine dedicated to the saint Chandikeshwara, added later by Nayaka rulers, stands adjacent to the vimana. A pillared hall runs all around the perimeter of the temple with mandapas in the four corners.
The temple is a treasure trove of some of the most exquisite carvings in the region. Episodes from Hindu mythology are carved on the pillars of the mandapas in front of the garbhagriha like the wedding of Shiva and Parvati, the birth of their son Subramanya and more. Niches on the various structures in the complex and the spaces below the platforms on which they are built, are replete with carvings as well. There are friezes depicting Lord Shiva in different forms, the battle between Vali and Sugreeva, stories from the Mahabharata, the lives of the Nayanmars or Shaivite saints, etc.
The Amman Temple
The Amman Temple
A separate temple dedicated to Airavateshwara’s consort Devanayaki Amman (also called Periyanayaki Amman) stands next to the temple, in its own enclosure. It wasn’t a part of the original plan, but was built by Rajaraja II’s successor, Kulothunga III, and modified extensively in the Nayaka period. This temple marked the beginning of the practice of building shrines dedicated to the Goddess as Lord Shiva’s wife, and not just another attendant deity.
The Airavateshwara Temple was the last of the three Great Living Chola Temples to be included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, in 2004. Together, the three temples offer a fascinating journey through the annals of the history of one of India’s most powerful empires and bear witness to the pinnacle that Dravidian architecture rose to under the Cholas.
(The three temples are almost in a straight line with Darasuram in the middle, and Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram on either side, at 40km and 35kms respectively. They are best covered at a leisurely pace over a couple of days, but can be squeezed into a day if required.)