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In Shiva’s Refuge At Airawateshwara Temple, Darasuram

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Airawateshwar Temple is one of the three Great Living Chola Temples. Built in 1162, by Raja Raja II the age old traditions are still followed in prayers and festivals.

Darasuram is an hour’s drive from Thanjavur and buses and taxis are easily available. Tour operators operate one-day, three-days and five-day tours for all the temples of the nearby temples. But we decide to drive.

Even as we drive carefully to Darasuram through the thatched huts lined village road, half expecting a cow to saunter down the road or a child suddenly running across behind a baby goat, I notice the lazy pace of some people who seem to be few of the early risers on a day after ‘Mattu Pongal‘. Unyoked bulls with ribbons and bells hanging from their horns tied to tree trunks munch on their hay….carts lie in a state of peaceful idleness…

The mud floor outside the huts, freshly wet and adorned with kolam or rangoli made from natural and dyed vegetables and seeds seem to tell that women were up and done with their daily prayers while men still slept on due to hangover of not only toddy but also of highly energetic sport of ‘jallikattu’  or the bull race, the previous evening.

As we near the temple complex, the inactivity around the area and austere fort like wall almost make us miss the temple at Darasuram….but then a smallish board points us to the temple and parking area.

A dry moat runs along the unadorned stone wall leading to the gopuram, the entrance gateway to the temple complex. Just outside sits a stone Nandi, the bull, Lord Shiva’s ride.

Top of inner Gopuram adorned with sculptures
Top of inner Gopuram adorned with sculptures

At the entrance an old couple sits selling small mud diyas with wicks in frozen ghee in a set of five for the devotees to offer during prayer….their wrinkled faces, shrivelled palms and the fading paint of gopuram idols, hint at a similar story… that of an era gone past.

As I step through the huge gateway into the courtyard, I behold an exquisite example of Chola Dynasty architecture…a repository of art, sculpture, fine workmanship and mythology. The inner sanctum of temple is approached through a hundred pillared hall, the mandapam which looks like a chariot with big stone wheels and horses.

Hundred pillared hall, Mandapam
Hundred pillared hall, Mandapam
Wheels and horse of chariot like mandapam
Wheels and horse of chariot like mandapam

We decide to offer our prayers first before revelling in the art that is on display on every inch of the temple. We enter the main sanctum where a ‘Shiva Linga’ is being given a bath from milky water and a family of seven sits performing a special prayer.

There is something very peaceful and contending about a place of worship and it envelopes you, be it a temple, Gurudwara or a Church. The chanting ‘Om Namah Shivaya‘ in the unanimous voices of family reverberates in the dark, lit dimly by only the oil lamps  garbha-griha or the inner sanctum. I join in with the chanting and it calms me…I can feel my heart, beat in a slower rhythm. It is then that I also notice the unadorned sombre walls of the sanctum and the gigantic pillars dwarfing us.

For a temple that is constructed with an aim to provide Nitya Vinod or ‘perpetual amazement’, I wonder at the plain interiors of the sanctum. The priest kills my curiosity.

“When people pray they should concentrate only on the image of the God and not get distracted by other things so the innermost walls and pillars are without any embellishment” he informs. We are not permitted to use cameras in the inner sanctum either.

Prayers done, we step back into the chariot like mandapam and here all faces of hundred pillars, the ceiling, the niches, corners everything is carved with floral motifs, dancers in various classical dance ‘Bharatnatyam’ poses and the stories from ‘Shiva Puranas‘.

Carved Pillars at mandapam
Carved Pillars at mandapam
A panel on column showin Shiva in his marriage procession
A panel on column showing Shiva in his marriage procession

The best thing about a mythological story is that when as a kid you hear it from a very pious grandparent, it stays somewhere in the back of your mind and as an adult when you see it carved in stone in an ancient temple, the story surfaces from the labyrinth of memories and brings along with it some fond memories of childhood. The stories depicted in stone then become a part of your cultural heritage which need to be zealously protected so that we stay connected to our roots…

Each panel on the pillars has a new story about Lord Shiva and I recollect so many of them….Shiva’s wedding, birth of Lord Ganesha, Indra and his vehicle, the white elephant Airawat.

Incidentally, the temple earlier named Raja Rajechuram, after the king Raja Raja II who built it, came to be known as Airawateshwar courtesy that very white elephant of Lord Indra.

The mythological story says that once Sage Durvasa famed for his anger and curses, visited heaven and gave a special garland to Indra. Indra in his arrogance gave it to the white elephant Airawat who in turn threw the garland and trampled it. Sage was furious and cursed the elephant to lose his colour. The elephant then sought refuge with Lord Shiva and repented his act.  Lord Shiva granted reverted the curse and this temple dedicated to Lord Shiva came to be called as Airawat- Eeshwar, God of Airawat.

Ceiling showing Indra on white elephant Airawat and Yama on a buffalo
Ceiling showing Indra on white elephant Airawat and Yama on a buffalo

After spending time studying a few panels, we descend the steps of mandapam to go around the main shrine and I notice eight pillars that have a mythical figure of Yalli at their base guarding the steps of chariot hall. The figure combines attributes of a lion, a ram and an elephant.

Yalli, a mythical creature
Yalli, a mythical creature

The outer walls of the main shrine has niches with some of them bare. The priest tells us that the state government deliberately removed the idols from niches to display in museums…..and I am stumped!!

Wouldn’t the temple and idols in their in-situ condition look better and attract more visitors?

Stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, routine lives of ordinary people and other mythological stories besides various forms of Shiva also find place on the stone panels on the walls of temple.

My awe knows no end as I look at each panel and observe the fine work, effort and dedication of the artisans who hand-carved such minute details in stone after stone…the delicate fingers, the ornaments on animals and idols, the facial expressions….everything.

The pleasant morning becomes sultry with sun climbing high up and blazes on us and I realize I could spend hours in the temple complex and still miss out on some panels. I decide to head back home with a hope to come back again but not to ward off any curse instead to stay blessed in his refuge….

If you are visiting Tamilnadu, make it a point to do a temple tour of the three living Chola temples. The magnitude of the architecture will leave you spellbound and leave you awestruck at what man can achieve even without sophisticated tools.

Shoma Abhyankar View All

I believe "Life is short and the world is wide"and travel is best possible solution to make the best of this life.

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