Visiting the Great Living Chola Temples3 min read . Updated: 11 Jun 2015, 08:01 PM IST
Weekend trip to a Unesco World Heritage site in Tamil Nadu, and bridging the generation gap with stories
After the first monsoon showers in Chennai, I set out on a Friday with my uncle and niece towards Thanjavur to explore the Great Living Chola Temples, a Unesco World Heritage site, for a weekend trip. The site comprises three temples dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. No amount of temple-hopping can match this rite of passage for a history-enthusiast. It was the perfect way to bond over heritage, arts, folklore and many cups of degree kaapi, a local variant of filter coffee.
We found ourselves driving through lush fields and dusty towns, cluttered markets and colourful shops to reach Thanjavur, Raja Raja Chola I’s capital, where he built the massive Brihadeeswarar Temple in 1010 AD.
Once at the temple, after 6 hours of driving, we had to crane our necks to look at the vimana (the tower built over the inner sanctum sanctorum) standing atop the shrine, surpassing the outer gopuram (the entrance tower) in height.
My uncle, a man for statistics, rattled off figures: at 216ft, the vimana is among the tallest of its kind and houses a large Shivalingam, 8.7m. Standing in front is the Nandi, weighing over 20 tonnes, the second largest sculpture of Nandi in the country. The shikara, or the golden dome, adorned with stucco figures, weighs over 80 tonnes. Back then elephants were used to drag the single granite block on a 6km ramp to place it on top.
It is an ambitious structural granite temple. Sculptures adorn every inch of the walls. We took over an hour to walk around the temple, taking in the carved figures, murals and Tamil scriptures etched on the outer walls and spent the rest of the day roaming around the streets of Thanjavur.
The following day, we were again on the road, taking National Highway 45 towards Gangaikondacholapuram.
Raja Raja Chola I’s son, Rajendra, moved his capital from lush and rich Thanjavur to a new town which he christened Gangaikondacholapuram. The name is a mouthful, remarked my niece. My uncle explained that it translated to “the town of the Cholas that brought in the Ganges". Rajendra was an ambitious king—he was not happy that his father’s empire was limited to south India. He is said to have defeated the kings of the Gangetic plains and made them bring Ganga water in pots to fill his reservoir.
The temple stood without a gopuram, but with the vimana glittering in the sky. It was a replica of the temple in Thanjavur, except it was incomplete. “Rajendra", said my uncle, “wanted to surpass his father’s temple but then he stopped all of a sudden. The temple was never completed. It stood there alone, in a town that has vanished from the face of the earth."
On Sunday morning, we drove for an hour to reach our last stop: a village called Darasuram. The Airavatesvara temple here was built by Raja Raja Chola II. It is a marvel of miniatures. Shaped like a chariot drawn by horses, the temple is supported by more than 100 monolithic pillars with carvings all over.
My uncle had another story for us—legend has it that the king fulfilled the wish of a female cowherd who wanted to have a temple in her village. He personally designed it. A tank here is said to have magical properties that cured Yama, the Lord of Death, of the curses put on him.
The journey for a brief glimpse of the Chola period bridged not only thousands of years of history but also the age gap that I was worried about before the trip. Each of us left in awe, and inspired to make a trip like this a regular feature on our calendar.
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