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AIRATESWARA TEMPLE, THANJAVUR

AIRATESWARA TEMPLE, THANJAVUR

• This Dravidian architecture temple is located in the town of Darasuram, near Kumbakonam, Thanjavur District in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. • Airavateswara Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated mainly to Lord Shiva. This temple is referred to as the Great Living Chola Temple by UNESCO and was declared as the UNESCO heritage site in the year 2004.

• Built by Raja Raja Cholan II in the 12th century, this temple is yet another feather in the hat of Cholas. This incredible piece of art comprises of exquisite carvings, Chariot shaped Mandapams, huge Vimana and extraordinary artworks. The presiding deity here is Lord Shiva.

• The temple consists of a sanctum without a circumambulatory path and axial mandapas. The front mandapa known in the inscriptions as Rajagambhiran tirumandapam, is unique as it was conceptualized as a chariot with wheels.

• The pillars of this mandapa are highly ornate. The elevation of all the units is elegant with sculptures dominating the architecture. A number of sculptures from this temple are the masterpieces of Chola art.

• The labelled miniature friezes extolling the events that happened to the 63 nayanmars (Saiva saints) are noteworthy and reflect the deep roots of Saivism in this region. The construction of a separate temple for Devi, slightly later than the main temple, indicates the emergence of the Amman shrine as an essential component of the South Indian temple complex

• As one enters the Airavatesvara temple at Dara suram, one finds a large gopura, the upper portion of which is completely lost but the form of which may be imagined from the complete second (inner) gopura.

• The larger prakara-wall all around the temple, decorated with couchant bulls at intervals, is in continuation of the second gopura. Supporting the gopura are pillars in a row, which have some fine carvings of lovely apsarases, Siva-ganas and other motifs.

• Beyond the gopura is a large bali-pitha (Nandi) with beautiful lotus-petal decorations. Towards one side of it, just behind the large Nandi, is a quaint standing dwarf Siva-gana blowing a conch, which, together with the Nandi.

• On either side at the entrance are small balustrades, intended to flank steps (now missing), with beautiful makara-decoration on their outer side.

• The makara with a floriated tail, short legs and curled-up snout and a pair of dwarf gana-riders on it forms a lovely decoration. At the entrance the visitor is greeted by a beautiful mandapa with a number of pillars, to be approached through an extension of it towards the south, with flights of steps on the east and west.

• The balustrades for these steps are beautifully decorated on the outer side with a long curling trunk issuing out of a lion-head; a similar second one runs parallel to the trunk of an elephant, lost in the open jaws of a makara whose floriated tail is curled up, to balance the complete design.

• The elephant is beautifully decorated and has on its back dwarf ganas viz. the sankha- and padma nidhis. The eight outer pillars of the mandapa are supported by squatting yatis with their trunks curled up and with pronounced abaci.

• The lotus-petal decoration below has prominent petal-tips. The capital, as in the other pillars in the mandapa, has the beginning of the bodhika-decoration, which, in the late Chola and Vijayanagara periods, develops into the lotus-decoration.

• Each of the four inner pillars is divided into sections, three oblong and two polygonal. The decoration which later develops into the naga-bandha is just present, and, as in other early Chola structures, is only a decorative pattern of the double-geese.

• The rectangular portions of the pillars are decorated with small panels illustrating mythological stories, such as the attack of Manmatha, the penance of Parvati, the prayer of the gods for a son of Siva, the birth of Kumara, Siva’s marriage, his fight with the asuras,

etc. On four pillars which lead on to the extension of the mandapa short inscriptions are repeated, describing it as Raja-gambhiram-tiri-mandapam.

• The front of the base of this mandapa-extension is decorated at the bottom with panels showing: Siva fighting the Tripuras from the chariot and as Kalantaka repelling Yama for protecting the son of Mrikandu whom he had blessed with a long life; Siva burning Kama who dared attack him with his flowery bow and arrow even while his lovely queens, including Rati, and other gods pray for his being spared; and the destruction of Daksha’s sacrifice by Virabhadra. Above this, in five niches at intervals, are Agni, Indra, Brahma, Vishnu and Vayu, all standing with hands in the attitude of reverence to Siva.

• The main mandapa is in continuation of the mukha mandapa of the main shrine and is covered completely on the northern side at the extreme ends of the eastern and southern sides, providing on the outer face of the wall as in other portions of the temple, the usual pattern of niches with pilasters in between.

• The main mandapa is decorated with a pair of dwarf yakshas guarding padma- and sankha-nidhis in niches on either side on the east. These figures, like all the other special forms of deities in the niches, are of fine-grained black basalt, distinguished from the granite used in the entire structure.

• The pillars of the first (main) mandapa contain beautiful patterns of decorative creepers so arranged that in the circular medallions created therein are figures dancing in diverse poses, musicians and sometimes forms of deities such as Gangadhara and Tripurantaka. These figures adorn panels. arranged in tiers of niches and salas on the sides of other pillars. Even where the pillars have purely decorative patterns, there are figures, mostly in dance-poses or playing musical instruments, introduced very deftly into them.

• In the next mandapa, which leads on to the ardha-mandapa and the main shrine, there are in niches Devi with lotus, and ratna-kalasa (pot filled with gems) and Nandikeśvara standing with hands in adora tion on one side and saint Kannappa and seated Sarasvati on the other.

• The mukha-mandapa, approached by long flights of steps from the north and south, marks the end of the mandapas and the beginning of the main shrine. Here there is a couchant Nandi smaller than the one at the start of the main mandapa.

• The dvara palas of the main shrine are depicted as furious and with huge clubs; they have four hands in the threatening attitude (tarjani), bear tusks and carry trisula on their bound-up hair decorated with the lion-head design.

• A six-headed Kumara standing to the left of the entrance of the main cell is a fine sculpture. The walls of the mandapa and the main shrine contain niches, some of which still possess exquisite specimens of early Chola sculpture

• Of the noteworthy Chola specimens are: a fine Ardhanarīśvara, unique of its kind, with three faces and eight arms; a four-armed Naga raja having snake-hoods over his head and hands join ed in adoration; Agastya, the dwarf sage, seated with one of his hands in the teaching attitude and the other carrying a water-vessel; another seated sage carrying the rosary and manuscript; dancing Martanda-Bhai rava or Aghora-Virabhadra with four hands, three heads and a terrible countenance; Siva as Sarabha destroying Nara-simha (in a niche to which a small mandapa, reached by a flight of steps, is provided); standing Ganesa; Dakshina-murti attended by sages seated under a banyan-tree and expounding the highest truth; Lingodbhava Siva, issuing from a flaming pillar, Brahma and Vishnu unable to reach the top and bottom, adoring the linga; Brahma; eight-armed Durga on the severed head of buffalo; seated Devi as Bhuvanesvari carrying pasa and ankusa, in two of her hands the other two being in abhaya and varada; Siva as Tripurantaka, carrying the axe, deer, bow and arrow; multi-armed Gajantaka destroying a demon in the guise of an elephant and dancing against the spread-out hide of the animal in the bhujanga-trasita pose, Devi shrinking away from him in fear; Bhairava with six arms standing with his dog behind him; a sage carrying a water-vessel and teaching two disciples; and Mahesa-mardini seated with three heads and four arms carrying the spear, axe, rosary and water-vessel. All these sculptures, made of polished black basalt, are of exquisite workmanship.

• In the vicinity of the main temple near this gargoyle is the shrine of Chandikeśvara, similar to the one at Tanjavur. The linga of the temple is known as Rajarajesvaram-udayar, and the story goes that the temple was erected by Rajaraja himself