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Three temples comprise the great living Chola temples namely the Brihadisvara temples in Thanjavur that was built in the 11th century, the Brihadisvara temple in Gangaikondacholisvaram built in the 11th century and the Airavateswara temple at Darasuram built in the 12th century.
Chola Empire: The Chola Empire influenced vast stretches of land from Madurai to Mekong Valley in Vietnam - spreading Hinduism. This remarkable dynasty ruled for nearly 1500 years in the fertile plains of Tamilnadu - administering the vast expanse of land from Thanjavur as its capital. The Early Cholas established their kingdom from Uraiyur around 235 BC. Inscriptions and Sangam literature speak about the glory of Cholas from this time. Grand Anicut or Kallanai as it is called in Tamil, was built across the river Kaveri around 270 BC by Karikalan - a Cholan King. This oldest surviving dam in the world was later revamped by the British in 19th Century.
Under the Chozha Emperors, temples became the center of importance. Major official ceremonies were held in the temples. Temples became the hub of political, economic and cultural activities. Arts in various form flourished under the Chola Kingdom. Chola empire represented the finest tradition of sculpture, painting, dance, music and literature of the Tamil Culture.
Cholan Empire : Chola Emperors ruled vast swaths of fertile land not only in the Indian Sub-continent but also around south east Asia. Their influence - notably their temple architecture, idols, religion (they worshipped Shiva) and language spread in these regions. Research studies on Chozhan Empire show a strong influence of Chozhan civilization in many parts of south Asia. Thanjavur - Tanjur - one of their latter year capitals was considered as the granary of the South India during the British Raj. Cholans administered the fertile plains of Kaveri river. Their staple diet - rice would be plentiful in all their regions of influence as they chose perennial rivers around their cities. Tamil inscriptions describing their administrations can be found in all these places. Cholans excelled in administering land captured during their conquest. Their Governors collected tax from their subjects and the proceeds helped in the expansion of their empire. Cholan rulers, history tells us, were largely benevolent to their subjects. Cholan armies were primarily used to establish their supremacy over new territories. When the Cholan rulers left, there was not much acrimony against the erstwhile Cholan Empire. e.g.: The Chennakeshava temple in Belur in Karnataka was actually built to commemorate the victory over the Cholan Viceroy in the battle near Talakad. The magnificent Hoysala Temple bears testimony to the fact that the new rulers copied many features of the Cholan temple architecture.
The Brihadishvara temple at Thanjavur was built by the potent ruler of the Chola dynasty, King Rajaraja Chola in the year 1010 AD. Construction of this magnificent edifice was started in the year 983 AD and was designed to represent a Cosmic structure from Hinduism - Maha Meru, the 'big mountain' or the abode of Shiva. Originally called as the Rajarajeshwaram, this big temple has 2 gigantic sandstone archways. The first one with five tiers is called as the Keralanthagan Thiruvayil meaning the 'the Gateway of the Conqueror of Kerala'. This was in honor of his victory over the Cherans ruling Kerala - early in his reign.
The second archway with 3 tiered structure is called as RajaRajan Thiruvayil named after the Emperor directly.
The main temple at the time of completion in the year 1010 consisted of a Sanctum Sanctorum tower known as Sri Vimana, a big rectangular mandapa with an intervening vestibule known as Mukha Mandapa. The Sri Vimana has a large granite stone structure as the basement to lend structural stability for the massive towers upon it.
The perfect symmetry of the structure, the elaborate arrangement of impeccably sculpted stone figures adorning the outside walls and the visual symphony of the large stones meticulously placed one atop another with amazing mechanical precision - will leave you spellbound.
These three temples have been declared as a world heritage site by UNESCO. The Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur was declared as a world heritage site in the year 1987 and the other two temples were declared as world heritage sites in the year 2004. In the year 2010, this temple had its Millennium celebrations.
As we have seen, the Chola Kings were great patrons of art,music and literature. They called in Tamil as "Iyal, Isai and Nadagam" - meaning the arts, music and drama. The vast space before the Cholan temples served many roles - one of which is as an 'Arangam' - a stage for the music and drama. Cholan art work is noteworthy for its elaborate detail whether in stone or in metal work. You will find some samples of the Cholan arts in stone as well as in Bronze here. Here you see Vishnu and Lakshmi stone sculptures on the walls of the Tanjure big temple. The Cholan architect who was responsible for the creation of such magnificent sculpture took enormous care in the overall proportion of the figures carved. Though the Cholan dynasty was largely Shaivaits ( worshipping Shiva) they were not partial to Vishnu. Many Chola temples include Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi in sculptures or in additional praharams. The Bronze NataRaja statue here displays Shiva performing the cosmic dance. Observe the finely etched details in his face and the circle enveloping him which represents the universe.
You can see the intricate details of the ornaments worn by the Goddess Lakshmi. She is flanked by two diminutive guardian nymphs.
This Nataraja statue (from 10th Century AD) in bronze found in Vedaranyam in southern Tamil nadu is representative of Chola arts.
This World Heritage UNESCO site - Big Temple bears the hallmark of 3 different dynasties - Chola, Nayaks and Marathas. You will see in this video - the magnificent grand stone edifice of the RajaRaja Chola, with additions of a monolithic Nandhi statue and Subramanya temple added by the Nayaks and Marathas.
Airavateswara temple at Darasuram
Named after the White Elephant of Indra, this temple is an exquisite testimony to the grand temple architecture of the Cholan Empire. It is the last of the 3 great Cholan temples built by successive generations of Kings starting from Rajaraja I. Airavateswara temple was built by Rajaraja II around 1150 AD. One of the striking features of this temple is Rajagambhira Thirumandapam - Royal Courtyard, with intricately carved pillars, long steps made of granite stones and elegant chariots drawn by horse - again hewn out of stone. You will see finer workmanship in this temple than the earlier temples. Darasuram is literally a stone's throw away from Kumbakonam.
Thanjavur is located 58 kms from Tiruchirapalli; the nearest town that has airport facility. Tiruchirapalli is well connected to Chennai and Madurai by regular flights. Thanjavur is well connected by rail to Trichy, Chennai, Madurai and other important towns in Tamilnadu. The road network is good to Thanjavur and there is a good network connected to other parts of the State. Darasuram and Gangaikondacholisvaram can be reached from Thanjavur or Trichy by road. The temples are open from 6 in the morning to noon and from 4 in the evening to 8 in the night.