Airavatesvara Temple, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu

Airavatesvara Temple is situated in the city of Darasuram, near to Kumbakonam, in the state of Tamil Nadu, the southern part of India. The temple; which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is believed to have been built in the 12th century by Rajaraja Chola II, and is also considered as one of the finest piece of Dravidian Architecture.

The temple was constructed in the praise of Lord Shiva; who is represented as Lord Airavatesvara in the temple. Lord Shiva is worshipped in the form of Shiva Lingam in the templeThe legend says that,Airavata, the white elephant of Lord Indra, who was cursed by Sage Durvasa, and lost its flawless white skin. Suffering badly from the wrath of the Sage, Airavata reached to this temple and prayed to Lord Shiva for help. Later the Airavata’s colour was restored when it bathed in the sacred water of temple. Inside the temple you can see a shrine showing the image of Airavata along with Lord Indra .Thus the temple and its deity got the name Airavatesvara.

There is also another legend regarding the Airavatesvara Temple associated with Yama, the King of Death. It is believed that Yama is a keen follower of Lord Shiva, and when once Yama was struck by a curse from one of the Rishi’s and his body began burning, in order to get rid of the burning sensation in his body, Yama is said to have jumped into the sacred tank. Hence the sacred tank in the Airavatesvara Temple has been known as the Yamatheertham. The Yamatheertham is about 228 feet in depth, and the water in the tank is directly collected from the river Kaveri. The piligrims visiting the temple always follow the ritual of taking bath in the sacred Yamatheertham.

Adjacent to the main temple, in the north direction, resides the consort of the main deity in the Periya Nayaki Amman Temple. The Amman temple can be found standing detached to the main temple. The locals states that, the wall connecting both the temple was decayed long ago, and since then the both temples stayed separated. Inside the Amman temple, you can see single shrine alone in a very large court.

The architecture of the Airavatesvara temple can be described as the dream of a sculpture re-lived in stone. The temple was built with a scope of ‘nitya-vinoda’; meaning perpectual entertainment, and the temple does completely signifies it. Starting from the entrance to the back door of the temple, is fine beauty and nothing else. The south side of the  front mandapam, which is inscribed as Rajagambhiran tirumandapam is constructed in the form of a huge chariot being driven by horses. The pillars hoding the mandapa is decorated with ornating carvings. All throughout the temple you can witness various paintings and sculptures making this temple a shrine of art. The Vimanam of the temple is at height of 80 feet. The sanctum of the temple neither constitute a circumambulatory path nor any axial mandapas.

From the inner court, when you move to east you can see a group of buildings, which are well crved and sculpture, one among those is the Balipita. The base of the Balipita is connected with a shrine containing the image of Lord Ganesha, the son of Lord Shiva. On the south side of the Balipita, there are three set of beautiful steps, which exhibits fine carvings. Another mystic beauty of these base steps is that it produces seven basic notes of music when they are stroked.

When you move to the south-west part of the inner court, you can see a building with 4 adjoined shrined shrines called the mandapam. One of theshrines possess the image of Yama, and to this shrine a cluster of stone slabs are connected showing the images of ‘sapthamathas’; the seven celestial nymphs.

Throughout the temple you can witness fine carvings and also numerous inscrptions. It is believed that, the inscriptions were added to the temple during its renovation by Kulottunga Chola III, who ruled the Chola Empire from 1178 to 1218 CE.

In the north all of the Varendha, you can see 108 sections of inscriptions, which contains the description and the images of 63 Saivacharya; the Saivite Saints, and also descriptions of principal events in their life. This is a fine example which shows the historical influence of Saivism in the place.  In other walls you can find inscription regarding the 108 Devara Othuvars, who performed inside the temple, during the reign of emperor Raja Raja II. Inside the inner court of the temple you can see the beautiful sculptures of Goddess Cauvery, Ganges, Godavari, Yamuna and Narmada.

There are also other set of carvings which illustrates gymnastic posses, like the one we see today in circus. The carvings are females, bending with their heads between their legs and al. It is assumed to be deceptions of present day gypsies performing in circus. Many styles of physical feats between men are also carved in the pillars of the temple. In one of the pillars in the temple you can see all the dancing poses in Bharathnatyam. In the North West part of the temple there is a beautiful stone image of Ravana carrying the Mount Kailash, which is an excellent specimen of art.  There are also other carvings which shows the delivery of a village woman, being helped by other village women. The scene is carved with utter beauty and is very much realistic and detailed. The carvings in the temple not only shows out the beauty and artistic nature of the temple, but also the social condition and history of that region.

The temple was listed among the Great Living Chola Temples, and was declared as World Heritage Centre by UNESCO, in the year 2004.

The temple is located at Thanjavur, which is located 330 km from Chennai. Regular trains are available to Thanjavur from Chennai Railway Station, or you can travel by road.