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Airavatesvara Temple, Kumbakonam Overview

Located in the town of Darasuram near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, Airavatesvara Temple is a revered Hindu temple and a UNESCO world heritage site. Part of the popular trio known as the Great Living Chola Temple along with Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur and the Gangaikondacholisvaram Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Airavatesvara Temple was built by the Chola King Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century CE. Presided by the Hindu God Lord Shiva, the temple is amongst the eighteen medieval era Hindu temples in the Kumbakonam area. The shrine displays the Vaishnavism and Shaktism legs of Hinduism, and the traditional Nayanars- the Bhakti saints of Shaivism.

Constructed in the chariot structure and built in stone, the temple has smaller shrines dedicated to several Vedic and Puranic deities including Indra, Agni, Varuna, Vayu, Brahma, Surya, Vishnu, Saptamtrikas, Durga, Saraswati, Sri devi (Lakshmi), Ganga, Yamuna, Subrahmanya, Ganesha, Kama, Rati and others. Lord Shiva’s spouse has a smaller shrine towards the northern side of the temple premises known as Periya Nayaki Amman. Lately, some of the temple is in a crumpled state with the gopurams entirely in ruins. However, the main shrine and the associated sanctums still stand sturdy. The temple attracts pilgrims and devotees in thousands annually especially during the month of Magha for several special poojas.

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Legend of Airavatesvara Temple

The most prominent legend associated with the temple goes to say that Lord Shiva was worshipped by Airavat, Lord Indra’s white elephant. As per the Hindu mythology, Airavat was cursed by sage Durvasa for he disrespected the hermit. The curse went on to discolor the pearly white skin of the elephant. Airavat got his color back by taking a dip in the water tank of this Lord Shiva’s Temple. That is how the temple got its name. The water tank still rests here and pilgrims believe that by taking a holy dip in the waters here will cleanse them of their sins. This story is also carved in stone in the inner chambers of the shrine.

History of Airavatesvara Temple

Airavatesvara Temple was built during the Chola Empire between 1146 - 1172 CE by the Chola King Rajaraja II. Ayirattali was the secondary capital of the Cholas and Darasuram was part of the city complex. The king was a patron of Tamilian art and architecture and built many new temples and monuments during his reign. This temple was much bigger in size back in olden times.

The inscriptions of the temple found now state that the temple had seven streets and seven courts just like the Srirangam Temple. All of the main architecture has been damaged and destroyed; only the court with the chief shrine stays. The gopurams are also in ruins. However, the reason for this destruction is unclear. Supposedly, the temples came under later Hindu kings who restored and repaired them.

Architecture of Airavatesvara Temple

Airavatesvara Temple is one of the four temples built by the Cholas entirely on stone Vimanas. The complex is built on a square plan; Nandi Mandap and the stampa are located outside the shrine and are aligned with the temple’s east-west axis. The sanctum sanctorum has thick walls and the vimana superstructure rises exactly above the centre. The circumferencing path is however, not made around the sanctum like the other temples but rather it is outside, surrounding the courtyard.

The shrine is supported by sturdy pillars with elaborate carvings on them. Towards the east of the temple is a chariot shaped structure called Rajagambhiran-tiru-mandapam after the king. The chambers are adorned with stone horses and wheels and are luxuriously carved and decorated. This chariot hall has intricately carved steps going from east to west. It is believed that when one walks on them they produce pleasant music. They are thus, known as ‘singing steps’.

How To Reach Airavatesvara Temple

Airavatesvara Temple is located just 5 kms outside the city of Kumbakonam. It can be reached easily in hired taxi- cabs, autos or state-run buses. Alternatively, you can drive down to the spot.

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