Dharasuram, a small town near Kumbakonam (a town in South India) holds one of the treasures of the Chola Dynasty(one of the greatest ancient kingdoms of South India): Airavateshwara Temple. The temple stands high and mighty holding the stories of not just the gods and kings but also the common men in its walls, quite literally too. The temple built by Raja Raja Chola-II in 12th century, is now being maintained by Central Government as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Great Living Chola temple.
The Nandi Mandapa (the outer hall) with its iconic musical steps greets us at the entrance, showing a glimpse of the marvel that we are about to witness and experience inside those centuries old walls. The musical steps in the entrance is one of the architectural marvel of the great Cholas. The seven steps are designed in such a way that, if a stone is rolled from the top, it plays the musical notations of the saptaswaras (7 musical notations) when the stone falls in each step.
Once we enter the temple complex, we are met with massive stone structures with every inch of the structure sculpted out, telling stories from myths and legends. Most of the sculptures here are built with rocks but some of the parts on the top are built with bricks by the Nayakas on the later period. There are also some structures made of Basalt, a Volcanic rock that is believed to be imported from the Deccan Plateau region for the construction.
The entire circumference of the Vimana (the roof of the tower) holds the stories of the sixty-four nayanmars (disciples of Lord Shiva) from the Periyapurana (an ancient Tamil literary work), with intricate details.
The panels in the praharas (pathway around the temple) shows stories of the common men, their lifestyle, their theater arts and their day to day life. The one that is very interesting is a sculpture of a woman pulling her husband’s hair in a family feud. The agony is very delicately shown in this sculpture. It is very illustrative that one wonders if the sculptor was being plain funny or documenting his domestic life, for all eternity.
The Muha mandapam, which is the outer mandapa is designed to depict a Chariot pulled by horse on the east side and the elephant on the west side. The significance of this steps is that, unlike the Tanjore temple, these structures are not sculpted out of a single rock, instead, they are sculpted out of different rocks and then assembled together. They are also identical on both the sides with Chandran on one side and Suryan on the other, with only a difference of the flower they hold: Chandhran hold a flower bud, while Suryan holds a fully bloomed flower. The muha mandapa is enclosed by pillars bearing Yalis, which are a signature of the Chola architecture.
The mandapa itself houses the most ornate pillars and sculptures that fill the mandapa from ceiling to the floor, which are intricately carved into few inces long figurines and tell many stories.
There are two very significant pillars made of Basalt rock. They are significant because basalt is a hard rock and the figurines in the pillars are not more than a few inches tall but are intricately sculpted that it shows the facial expressions, accessories worn by the woman and the hairlines, even the tiny flowers in the pillars has sharp and delicate edges, making them inches long marvels.
The stories in the pillars, eventhough being random, the above mentioned pillars show some specific stories: one showing stories from kandha purana and other showing wedding story of Shiva and Parvathi after Shiva cast Parvati to earth for disobeying him.
There is also some scultures on the the entrance of the main mandapa which are significant for their uniqueness. There is a sculpture of Kannapanayanar, which is significant for the details in the baslt rock structure. The sculpture is portrayed wearing slipper of some kind which is illustrous on its own way. This also has a sculpture of Nandi in the form of Adhikara Nadhi (Nandhi as amalgamation of Shiva) which is a very rare occurrence in Shiva temples (usually Nandhi will be in the form of reclining bull).
The inner mandapa or the main mandapa towards the sanctum sanctorum which is a contrast to the muha mandapa which lacks all the architectural marvels, but gains points on its charm and the divine vibe that the main deity Airavatheswara is giving out. The linga with all its magnificance is believed to be worshipped by Indra’s elephant Airavadhan, thus giving the main deity his name.
Outside the Mandapa, the main mandapa is built in the form of Lotus and a small moat is built around it to fill it water to resemble a lotus pond. There are even small circles to light il lamps which is said to reflect in the water and make the mandapa looking glorious.
There are also signs of painting from the Nayakas that still sticks around after all the erosion from the sun exposure and rain.
There is also a life size statue of Lingothbavar, Vishnu Durga and a Buddha sculpture to subtly mention the co-existence of Buddhism during the period.
With all its overwhelming beauty and attention to details, the temple makes one forget reality and takes them centuries back with all the stories it has to tell and talents of its sculptors it has to flaunt. The temple has exceeded its role of just a place of worship to be an exceptional story teller as it tells stories from books of the ancient Tamils, one of them being the Periyapuranam. When one leaves this temple, they leave with more than the Lord’s grace, but also with stories of the once upon a time.