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Updated: February 10, 2012 21:12 IST

Temple architecture: Aesthetics, carved in stone

chitra ramaswamy
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While one can see the Chola architectural stamp on the temple in Darasuram, the Pallava influence too is clearly palpable in several aspects of the structure. A study by Chitra Ramaswamy

A sculptor's dream come alive in stone. That is the first thought that crosses my mind as I step inside the portals of Airavateswara Temple in Darasuram, Tamil Nadu. Of the quartet of grand temples built by the Chola kings, this is easily considered the most aesthetic. Built in purely Dravidian architectural style in the 12th century during the reign of Rajaraja Chola II, the temple took 25 years to complete and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

While one can see the characteristic Chola architectural stamp on the temple, the Pallava influence is clearly palpable in several aspects of the structure.

The entrance to the temple is from its rear, through a well laid out path that is flanked by lush green lawns that end in a parking lot. Its weed-ridden front entrance hosts a pair of ruined pillars, remnants of the tower of its main gate. Proceeding along the pathway, we climb a few stone steps to come upon the separate enclosure for the Nandi next to which is a grilled chamber with the seven “musical” steps providing access to the Nandi. The steps when tapped, it is believed, produce the seven notes of music. And that is the reason it became encased, having attracted vandalism.

Signature Chola

We pay due respects to the Nandi and move towards the main temple which bears the hallmark Chola temple architectural style in the tower or vimana that is 80 ft. tall comprising five tiers of progressively smaller storeys. A mammoth rectangular granite wall skirts the shrine attached to which are a couple of halls leading to the sanctum sanctorum. Sculptures of the Nandi abound as they adorn every exterior and interior temple walls. An ASI-authorised guide automatically guides us on a tour of the magnificent structure, the legends associated with which we would have missed but for his chirpy narratives.

Bedecked temple walls

The central shrine houses the sanctum sanctorum for Lord Airavateswara, an ardha mantapa for the congregation of the erudite of the times, and the main hall (Rajaghambira mantapa) shaped like a chariot, drawn by exquisitely sculpted horses and held aloft by 108 sculpted pillars narrating tales from history and Hindu mythology, including the pantheon of deities in their various forms and moods.

Yet again in keeping with the characteristic Dravidian patterns, the halls are aligned on the east-west axis while the praakara or circumambulatory walls circumscribe the central edifice. The artistic stone pillars and the embellishments on the temple walls have mannerismelongated limbs and polished features. Particularly prominent are the dark black basalt idols of the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in the niches of the outer walls of the main altar. The edifice is a veritable storehouse of art, abounding in sculptured panels and paintings executed entirely from vegetable and natural dyes.

Particularly striking is the portrayal of Goddess Saraswati emerging from a closed and open lotus, symbolic of the rising and retiring sun. The “five-in-one” mythical Yaali is imaginatively depicted, bearing a lion's torso, elephant's tusk, goat's horns, pig's ears and cow's tail. Dancing damsels, musicians, the 63 Saivite saints or Nayanmars, creatures from the animal and avian kingdoms, human figures from the rustics to the royals – all find a place in the friezes that bedeck the temple walls. A rare piece of art work, supposedly seen only in this temple and in the Shiva temple at Thirubhuvanam, is that of an elephant delivering.

Yet again

Our senses are still recovering from the scintillating visual onslaught that is Airavateswara as we drive away from Darasuram, bowing down to mankind's ingenuous creativity and craftsmanship.

At the same time, we are already making plans to re-visit the Jagannath Temple at Puri – if only to make the connect — because our guide tells us that it was inspired by the architecture of Airavateswara's abode!

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