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A trip down the memory lane!

To the great living Chola temples in South India - By Divya Raj

Indian art and architecture has always fascinated me ever since my school days. I used to look forward for my history classes (not to know about the wars, off course) but about the different rulers and their contributions to the field of art and architecture. They are remembered today through the beautiful temples and monuments in our country. And among them one dynasty that left me astonished for their contributions were the Cholan. While the Chola kings built numerous temples throughout their kingdom, one gets to experience their grandeur & magnificent contributions at Thanjavur (Tanjore). It is also referred as “Rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. Other than agriculture it is also famous for silk weaving, Classical Carnatic music, Bharatnatyam, famous Thanjore (gold) painting and happens to be the home of Great Living Chola temples – Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavateshwara Temple at Darasuram, which are also UNESCO World heritage sites.

This travel circuit was on my bucket list right from those history classes in school. But it was only 3 yrs back that I did get to fulfill this wish of mine. My friend Poongkodi from The Holiday Navigator, helped us chalk the perfect plan to explore Tanjore & Kumbakonam along with the chauffer services.

Upon arrival into Tanjore we checked into our hotel and the first thing we wanted to do was to indulge our self into some lip smacking South Indian Thali. Something that one must not miss when in any part of Tamil Nadu. Be it for that, Pulisadam, Parupu sadam, Rasam, Pooriyal, Kuzhambu, Kootu & all that satisfies your taste buds. After a good soulful meal all we wanted was to go have a nap. But we wanted to make the best use of the time to cover up all the major attractions so we proceeded with the sightseeing.

First on the list was Maratha Palace known locally as Aranmanai. Today, it is the official residence of the Bhonsle family a kingdom that once ruled Tanjore. Inside the palace complex you will find the queens courtyard, Durbar hall and Sadar Mahal Palace. The Museum situated in the Sadar Mahal palace houses a splendid collection of bronze idols, paintings and other rare collections that date to the historic period of the rulers who ruled over the place. Next we visited the Saraswathi Mahal Library, which is also situated with in the Thanjavur palace complex. It is said to be one of the oldest Libraries in the Asian Continent (How cool!). The library has a display of over 49,000 volumes of Palm leaf manuscripts in Tamil and Sanskrit and a few other languages. One cannot miss the seven storied Bell tower. It is said that once it housed a mechanical bell, that used to ring on hourly basis and the people used it as their time teller and hence it was also known as Manikoondu. But today there is noting particular about it and one could climb up to get a bird’s eye view of the city and even the Big Temple.

Timings – 10 am to 1 pm and 2 pm – 4pm

Entry Fee – a nominal fee is charged, which permits you to visit the museum, library and the palace and the bell tower.

After spending few minutes strolling across the various shops for some souvenir shopping we proceed towards the Brihadeshwara temple in Thanjavur, also known as the Big temple or Peruvudaiyar Kovil in local language. It was our last stop for the day. One needs to definitely visit this place and you will then understand about all the hype that’s surrounded this magnificent piece of architecture. Although there are controversies that the temple tower does cast shadows, while I remember my history books saying it doesn’t. Keeping all these aside, what you will truly enjoy is the temple structure itself. The entire temple is constructed out of granites. The main deity Lord Shiva is found as a gigantic lingam. One can also find other deities around the temple and also in the carvings, the inscriptions and frescoes on the walls of Brihadeeswarar Temple that tells us stories from the puranas and vedics.

The vimanam, temple tower built over the main sanctum is 66 m high and is the tallest in the world. It has 14 storeys with intricate sculptures of various Hindu gods. The Kumbam (The topmost stone of the temple) is said to have been carved out of a single rock and weighs around 80 tons. Isn’t it truly an engineering marvel and that too during those days without any motor or machinery. You will also find a huge statue of Nandi (sacred bull or lord Shiva’s vehicle), again carved out of a single rock measuring about 16 ft high at the entrance of the temple. If you are someone like me who loves temple architecture, you will simply enjoy spending time going around and clicking pictures of this beautiful place and forget the clock ticking.

Temple timings – 6 am – 12pm and 4pm – 8pm

Entry fee – Indian citizens no fees.

The next day after our breakfast, we proceeded towards our next pitstop Gangaikondacholapuram. Located around 70kms from Tanjore, it is said to be the grandest capital of the Cholas kingdom for over 200 + yrs. It translates to The city of Cholas who conquered the Ganga or who defeated the kings near Ganga. The temple here is similar the Brihadeshwara temple and often described as the feminine counterpart of the main temple. The temple is surrounded by a huge fort-like wall and built of granites. The vimana (about 55m in ht) is built just above the inner santrum or Garbhagudi which is a concave slope and shorter when compared to the Tanjore temple. The main deity again is shiva worshipped as Gangaikondacholishwaram in his linga avataram (which is considered to be the largest one to be found in any temple). One can also find many smaller shrines in addition to the main one, dedicated to Goddess Brihannayaki, Lord Ganesha, Chandikeshwara, Nataraja, Saraswati and a huge Nandi facing the main shrine. The idol of Nandi is sculpted in such a way that it reflects sunlight to the main sanctum.

The temple is considered as one of the largest temples in India and an excellent example of the grandeur of Dravidia style of architecture of the Chola dynasty and hence and is also listed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

Temple timings – 6 am – 12pm and 4pm – 8pm

Entry fee – Indian citizens no fees

Our final stopover was the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram. It is yet another masterpiece of the chola art & architecture. Unlike the other 2 living temples, this temple is a little smaller, but holds intricately carved beautiful sculptures paintings, carvings on the gopurams, walls and pillars across the temple. The temple is built in form of a chariot, being pulled by horse & elephants. The temple is dedicated to the Cholas principal deity Lord Shiva, who is known as Airavateshwara. It is believed that airavat (white elephant of Lord Indra ) and Lord Yama (king of death) worshipped Shiva here and were cured from their curses. You can also find another small temple of Periya Nayaki Amman (the consort of main deity) in the temple complex.

Temple timings – 6 am – 12pm and 4pm – 8pm

Entry fee – Indian citizens no fees

Someone has truly said “Travelling – It leaves you speechless, and then turns you into a story teller”. These temple art and architecture truly has a story behind every sculpture and carvings related to the puranic.

Basic Travel Tips

How to reach Tanjore;

Nearest airport is at Thiruchirapalli (around 60kms)

Tanjore railway station connects all major cities

If travelling by road, you could hire cab or make use of the state or private run bus services

Best time to visit – Anytime between November to March, as the weather is most pleasant and not too hot

Where to stay – Depending on your budget, you could choose your stay from a 5* category like Svatma, to number of budget and standard hotel options

Not to miss

· Lassi, Badam milk & Kalkandu paal at Anbu Milk bar

· Vegetarian South Indian Thalis & South Indian breakfast

· Handicraft shopping (the painting, bobble head dancing dolls, local handloom textiles, bronze idols, at Thanjavur Handicrafts Co-op society or directly from local artisans

About the Author

Divya believes that, No matter where or why you travel, there is always something wonderfully new to learn. Being born in a family of Defence, travel was always been a part of life, be it for dads transfers or those LTC tours, probably that is what, that has kept her travelling and exploring new things. So much so that, she ended up choosing a career in the same field. A Masters degree in Travel & Tourism and almost 10+ yrs of service in the travel industry. She not just made others travel dreams come true, but also kept striking off her own bucket list. When not travelling, you will definitely find her in the kitchen, either baking or cooking. An amateur photographer, who loves chasing sunsets, beaches & flowers.


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