Symphony in Stone

The legacy of the great Chola and Pallava kings continues to live in the magnificent temples of Tamil Nadu. We bring you the famous four that have been awarded the status of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO

The Chola and Pallava monarchs, as did several other illustrious emperors, left behind not just the trails of their conquests but their footprints etched indelibly on the sands of time. The magnitude and beatitude of the several monuments they built, have withstood the vagaries of weather and time, leaving us in awe of their sheer proportions and artistic splendour.

The Chozhas (Cholas) who held sway over the ancient Tamil kingdom for over 15 centuries had an insatiable thirst for making conquests beyond the realms of South India. They forayed into East India up to the Gangetic plains and spread wide their wings beyond the Indian shores making their presence felt in Malaysia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The fact that some of their sculptures in South India bear close resemblance in style to the carvings at Prambanan and Borobudur in Indonesia, testify the commercial and cultural interaction between the kingdoms.

Our decision to visit the quartet of Tamil Nadu’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites — The Great Living Chola Temples of Brihadeesvara at Thanjavur, Brihadeesvara at Gangaikondacholapuram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram, along with the cluster of Pallava temples at Mahabalipuram, was impulsive. We boarded the Bangalore Chennai Mail from Bengaluru. Lulled to blissful sleep by the rhythmic motion of a speeding train, we arrived at Chennai in the wee hours of dawn. The group of monuments at Mahabalipuram lie roughly 50 km from the city and an hour’s drive on East Coast Road.

Temple in Gangaikondacholapuram


Mahabalipuram is home to 40 monuments within a radius of less than 5 km. One of the most impressive is the 27 m long and 9 m high, open air bas relief, considered the world’s largest, carved on two adjacent boulders.

Arjuna’s Penance or Descent of the Ganga as it is called, reveals an ascetic standing on one leg in a position of penance. He is believed to be Arjuna, doing penance to Lord Shiva to obtain a celestial weapon to use in the impending war against the Kauravas. Some experts however believe the figure to be that of Bhagiratha praying to Shiva to let the Ganga flow down to the Earth. The Adi Varaha Mandapam, the Pancha Rathas, Tiger Cave, Krishna’s Butterball, are other noteworthy structures defying description.

The Pancha Rathas, named after the Pandava princes and their consort Draupadi, stand regal, bathed in the golden light of dawn. Rising from a flat, part rocky, part sandy ground, the structures which are in the form of processional chariots, are monoliths carved entirely by hand, cut into blocks of diorite which emerge from the sand. Krishna’s Butterball is a spherical boulder perched on a narrow base on a granite hillock. Legend has it that Pallava kings made several unsuccessful attempts, aided by elephants, to move the boulder in a public display of bravado. The ‘butterball’ stands firm to date!

The magnificent five-storeyed Shore Temple is one of the finest examples of Dravidian masonry temple structures, the sea rushes upon the sands to weave a rich and scintillating tapestry of rock cut marvels. Built on bed rock on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, it is in a fairly good state of preserve. However, its walls and their sculptures have been battered and eroded by winds and waves for 1300 years. Its twin sculpted towers profoundly influenced temple architecture in later periods in South India and also structures in Southeast Asia. Two lowwalled enclosures lined with figures of Nandi, skirt the shrines. While two of its sanctums contain Shiva Lings, a third one has Vishnu in reclining posture. This is only surviving temple of seven granite temples called as The Seven Pagodas that the Pallavas built here.


The history of Mamallapuram begins with Mahendravarman, the Pallava king who built it as a port town to facilitate trade and laid the foundations of elaborate rock cut cave temples. However, it was King Narasimhavarman I, the 7th century ruler of the dynasty who transformed the coastal town into a hub of artistic wealth. “Mammalla”, meaning ‘great wrestler’, was a title conferred upon Narasimhavarman I.

Shore Temple

While it is predominantly a Chola monument, the Nayakas and Marathas contributed significantly to its architecture


It was back to the good old Indian Railway when we departed the following night with reservations, by the Rameshwaram Express from Chennai’s Egmore Station to Thanjavur to see the mightiest of the Chola edifices. One of the busiest commercial towns of the Cauvery Delta, Thanjavur’s skyline is dominated by the Big Temple. Against the flaming halo of the rising sun we entered the portals of the temple. Kundavai, the 55 year old elephant, a gift made to the temple by the late legendary Kollywood actor Sivaji Ganesan welcomed us at its entrance.

While it is predominantly a Chola monument, the Nayakas and Marathas contributed significantly to its architecture making additions and modifications to it during the 16th and 19th centuries respectively. This amalgam of architectural styles of the three dynasties is evident right from the entrance gate itself.

This is the world’s first granite temple which portrays the temple architecture of the Cholas and was recognised as UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in the year 1987.

As we gaped at this beautiful gargantuan structure, our guide Raju shared some unique features of the temple. The number 9 appears to be inextricably linked to the temple, and perhaps augured well for the Cholas as evident from the following: The temple has 252 Lingas in total. The Nandi at its entrance is 36 feet in circumference; its dhwajasthambha or flagstaff is 36 feet tall; the Linga in the sanctum sanctorum measures 54 feet in circumference; the tower above the sanctum is 216 feet high.

The temple has beautiful sculptures of 81 of a total of 108 karanas the Bharatnatyam alphabets; Karuvur Thevar, the spiritual mentor of Rajaraja I was one of the 18 Siddhars who composed special verses to mark the occasion of installation of the kalash on the temple tower on the 275th day of Rajaraja I’s regnal year, 1010. He is also credited with having installed the sacred Shivling in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple on the day of consecration.

Sculpture at Brihadeeswarar TempleTHE AIRAVATESVARA TEMPLE, DARASURAM

The Temple of Airavatesvara at Darasuram, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, is a crown example of the 12th century architecture built in purely Dravidian style. Constructed by Rajaraja Chozha II, over a period of 25 years, it is a stunning confluence of religion and history in a nondescript hamlet in the outskirts of the temple town of Kumbakonam. It is believed that the temple inspired the architectural style of the Jagannath temple at Puri.

We entered the temple complex from the rear side through a well laid pathway, flanked by neatly manicured lawns. A huge rectangular compound wall, adorned with Nandis at regular intervals, skirts the temple, the tower of which rises heavenwards from its centre. A giant Nandi in the lawns of the complex welcomes us before we enter the temple courtyard.

Adjacent to the Nandi is a small hall accessed by a short flight of steps that produce the seven notes of music. The temple itself is an edifice of gargantuan proportions in the form of a chariot drawn by elephants and horses, supported by 108 superbly carved monolith pillars. This is the Rajagambira Mandap, the outermost hall that takes its name from Rajaraja II who bore the title Rajagambira meaning “one with royal poise and dignity”. An interesting and rare sculpture on one of the pillars of this hall is that of Lord Shiva playing the flute! Perhaps, the fact that Rajaraja Chozha I had the temple constructed at the behest of a female cowherd of the village, is reason for this sculpture.

A separate temple for Periya Nayaki, the consort of Airavatesvarar stands desolate as a separate structure to the north of the Airavatesvara temple. Less simply ornamented, its sanctum was closed by the time we came from the Airavatesvara precincts. A host of silk weavers broke the silence of our environs as they insisted on displaying their special Darasuram silk weave. We bowed down to mankind’s ingenuous creativity and craftsmanship as we left Darasuram.


Legend has it that Airavata, Indra’s mythical white elephant lost his impeccable white sheen due to a curse by Rishi Durvasa.

Upset over the loss of his handsome looks, he fervently prayed to Lord Shiva here. Pleased by his prayers, Shiva restored Airavata’s divine beauty and colour when the elephant took a dip in the temple’s holy water. Since then, the temple came to be known as Airavatesvarar Temple and an idol of Indra perched on Airavata is placed in the precincts.

Another equally amusing tale is associated with Yama, the Lord of Death, who was freed of a curse when he took a dip in the temple’s holy tank after zealously praying to Airavatesvarar.

Since then the 228 feet wide tank came to be known by Yama’s name, Yamatheertha.

Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram

The construct shares a lot in common with the Thanjavur edifice in its layout, design and shrines


We hit the road once again, travelling to our last destination, Gangaikondacholapuram, a distance of 39 km from Darasuram. In July 2004, the UNESCO declared the Brihadeesvara temple of Gangaikondacholapuram in Perambalur district and the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram “world heritage monuments”.

Built by Rajendra Chola I, son of Rajaraja Chola, to celebrate his triumph over the Ganga dynasty, the temple stands as a remarkable example of the architectural skills of the Cholas and boasts of sculptures of exceptional quality. Not only did the king built such a magnificent and mammoth structure, but also an entire city to serve as his capital. The construct shares a lot in common with the Thanjavur edifice in its layout, design and shrines.

The semblance is particularly noticeable in the Chandikesvara shrine, the cloister mandapa with the subsidiary shrines and a gopura. Some of the most outstanding sculptures are found in the niches by the side of the northern entrance steps to the sanctum, those of Chandesanugrahamurti and Sarasvati. The bronzes of Bhogasakti and Subrahmanya are masterpieces of Chola metal icons. The Lotus and Saurapitha or Solar altars holding erect eight deities, and considered auspicious, is impressive.

Traditional temple designs have always evoked a special attraction since times immemorial. Be it the etched protrusion of deities in miniature or in the brightly coloured but oft faded murals, they glorify their creators and bewitch every beholder. It is perhaps the quintessence of “Indianness” touching chords of our heritage, cultural ethos and sense of belonging. No matter the beliefs and faith, these grand edifices relax our moods and humble our minds. And this is exactly how we felt as we boarded the Mannai Express from Mayiladuturai Junction, 25 km away from Gangaikondacholapuram, to return to our chaotic and routine urban existence of honking vehicles, swirling smoke and a jostling sea of humanity


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