OF ALL THE TEMPLES I have visited, I am partial to those in South India—towering stone structures standing amid fluorescent paddy fields, surrounded by swaying coconut palms. It is this personal bias that took me on a quest to discover the Chola Temples in Tamil Nadu on a hot summer week in 2019. I had learned about the Great Living Chola Temples a few months earlier, while roaming another temple complex in the southern state. That morning, when my guide had told me about the group of three temples that constituted a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I had resolved to come back to experience them for myself. And so here I am, on a stuffy June morning, waiting to step inside one of the largest temple complexes in the world.
The Cholas were a Tamil dynasty of southern India that ruled for more than 1,500 years, until the 13th century CE. My first stop is Thanjavur—an ancient town deep inside Tamil Nadu that is known as much for its paintings, musical instruments, and bronze statues, as it is for the 1,010-year-old Brihadisvara Temple. Built in the 11th century by the Chola emperor Rajaraja I, the sandstone and granite complex of the Brihadisvara Temple is one of the largest in the world. Also called the Tanjai Periya Kovil (‘the big temple of Thanjavur’) locally, the sprawling compound is in the middle of town. It houses many smaller temples, courtyards, and shrines, and stands out for its high temple tower. “The 216-foot-high tower of this temple is the tallest in South India,” an elderly gentleman tells me, as we walk through one of its elaborate gates called the Maratha Gate, which has a five-storey gopuram (tower). He is amused that someone has travelled to the heart of Tamil Nadu in the heat just to see its temples.“Unlike most temples that have just one gopuram, this one has three.” All three gates, he tells me, were built during different periods and by different dynasties, as were some other structures inside. “This one was built by the Marathas and is the newest,” he points at the pyramid-shaped low gate we have just passed through.
The temple complex turns out to be larger and more elaborate than I had imagined. Other than the exceptionally high tower, it also has one of the largest monolithic sculptures of Nandi (Shiva’s bull), long corridors, and hundreds of smaller structures strewn around. It is, however, the golden granite spire that takes centre stage here. “We call it the vimanam,” the elderly man points at the 13-storey-high structure with a large rock on top. “Granite is the hardest stone in the world, and yet, you can see how our ancestors moulded it like clay,” he says with evident pride. “And that 80-tonne stone at the top? That is the stuff of legends!” Everyone in Thanjavur has their own version of how the large stone reached the top of the spire. According to the gentleman, a five-kilometre-long ramp was apparently set up for elephants to pull the stone up. The reason for erecting such a tall tower, he says, was to replicate Mount Kailasha—the abode of Lord Shiva.
I spend an hour going around the complex and gazing at the humongous golden spire, the gigantic black granite bull, and many smaller shrines. There are intricate frescos and exquisite carvings done in different periods and by different kings; large, life-sized idols of devas and asuras adorn the high stonewalls; and detailed patterns are etched on numerous pillars. I try to imagine what the temple must have looked like a thousand years ago.
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