As a kid, I’d go to Kumbakonam from Hyderabad almost every summer to visit my grandparents. But in those days, neither photography nor heritage interested me, so I never realized that three exquisite specimens of Indian architecture were so close by! They are collectively called the Great Living Chola Temples, because they were built by the Chola dynasty. The group is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Brihadeeshwara Temple in Tanjore (or Thanjavur, more correctly), the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavateshwara Temple in Darasuram form the trio. All three are dedicated to Lord Shiva. You can read all about them in this series
of four photoessays I did for The News Minute, about the World Heritage Sites of Tamil Nadu.
A bit of history
The Cholas were one of the most powerful Tamil dynasties of South India. Raja Raja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I were two of the greatest Chola rulers, and built the temples in Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram respectively. The third temple in Darasuram was built by Rajaraja Chola II, who came about 8 generations later.
Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore
This temple is the grandest of the three and was built by King Raja Raja Chola I in the beginning of the 11th century. It is truly a pinnacle of human achievement. It now has a small museum in it which you shouldn’t miss – the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff will tell you all the things that make this temple unique.
Brihadeeshwara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram
This temple built in the 11th century is strikingly similar to the one in Tanjore. Not surprising, since they were built by father and son.
Airavateshwara Temple, Darasuram
This temple built by King Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century is quite different from the other two, but every bit as stunning. The front of the temple is shaped like a chariot. I did a small post about it long ago.
How to visit:
The three temples are almost in a straight line. Darasuram in the middle, is practically in Kumbakonam – it’s just 3 kms away. Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram are on either side, at 40km and 35kms respectively. You can go to Tanjore (310 kms) or Kumbakonam (270 kms) by bus/train/car from Chennai. Both have decent hotels and taxi services.
I took an auto rickshaw from Kumbakonam to Darasuram. To the other two temples, I went in a taxi. There’s a bridge on the way to Gangaikonda Cholapuram on which they don’t allow buses (as of Feb 2014).
The temples are closed approximately from 12 to 4 in the afternoon. Kumbakonam has many gorgeous temples that are totally worth visiting but pretty much all of them are closed in the afternoon. If you want any other details, feel free to ask in the comments or on twitter 🙂