Darasuram is a small village located near the town of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. Its claim to fame is the Airavateswara temple, an extensive, chariot-shaped temple built in 1166 CE by Rajaraja II. At that time, Darasuram was way more prestigious than it is today – it was a suburb to the secondary Chola capital of Pazhayarai, and the royal seat of Rajaraja II. Today, the Airavateswara temple is one of the three living Chola temples that are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Darasuram has been on our to visit list for at least the past fifteen years, and we finally made it there last January, when we spent ten days exploring the land of the Cholas. The first time we visited the Airavateswara temple was the same evening that we landed – a Chola temple in the sunset is a sight to behold, as the golden light brings out the colors of the stone and makes it look ethereal.
The temple is in the form of a chariot, drawn by elephants and horses and with wheels at the sides of the temple. Time has wrought its destruction on the edifice, and parts of the wheels and horses have been strewn about and re-assembled by different people at different periods in history. The entire complex is covered in sculptural detail that depicts scenes from daily life, the then-contemporary legends, and Saivite mythology.
At the entrance to the temple is a mandapam in which there is a sculpture of Shiva’s vehicle, Nandi the bull. There are seven narrow steps on one side of the mandapam which ring out with different musical notes when struck. Unfortunately, hundreds of years of devotees and visitors striking them repeatedly has worn them down, and today they are protected by a sturdy metal grill.
Past this, you kick off your shoes and head into the temple complex, stepping through tall doors into a world that has remained essentially the same for the past eight and a half centuries. The floor is made of large rectangular stone slabs laid unevenly. As you step on them you can feel the heat of the day on the soles of your feet. As you look around, you are surrounded by sculptures at every conceivable place – every vertical surface is adorned by acrobatic men and women demonstrating the poses of temple dance, fierce warriors fighting an assortment of wild animals and enemies, war elephants on the rampage, tearing people apart, warriors astride lions tearing into enemy armies – the list can go on and on. There is no mistaking the martial culture of the Cholas, as war and bravery is commemorated on panel after panel.
As with any Chola temple, you cannot enter straight from the gate – the steps up to the platform of the temple is at the side, and leads to a large pillared hall that precedes the way to the sanctum. The pillars are again replete with martial and artistic sculpture. An entire gallery is filled with yali pillars – each pillar has a bottom part which is a fierce-faced yali (a lion-elephant hybrid) sitting placidly, it’s lion tail curved elegantly.
Further inwards stand two majestic doormen, better known as dwarapalakas in temple terminology. These are always way larger than life, and for fierce guards with Dracula-like canines, rather benign-faced.
As you make your way among the pillared halls, or walk on the outside marveling at the sculptures and the detail in them, it strikes you that you are doing what people have been doing for almost a millennium here. As you touch the sculptures (many sculptures are within reach and touching them is not forbidden) you realize that the way you experience this history – walking amongst it, touching it and feeling it – is extremely special, and very different from seeing it sequestered behind glass cases in museums.
We made a second trip to the temple later in the week, guided by a very knowledgeable local who pointed out various architectural and religious things we would have never noticed ourselves. This second visit was in the morning, so we got to see the temple in the morning light as well.
Apart from the temple, Darasuram is known for its silk-weaving tradition. Around the temple, there live a community of silk weavers who still practice the techniques handed down from their ancestors. We visited one of them at his workshop home and watched him at work. It was incredible how physically demanding the art of silk-weaving is – witnessing it first hand gave us an appreciation that is hard to have otherwise.
Our Darasuram visit was many years in planning, and when it finally happened, it was well worth it.