Heritage Darasuram, near Kumbakonam, abounds in legends

The morning sun caresses the stone, and we find that we are the only visitors to the temple. The portals of an ageless Shiva temple led me into a different era.

It was in the middle of 12th Century that Raja Raja Chola II built a miniature marvel called Airavateshwar temple that took 25 years to complete. The town was then called Rajarajapuram.

Today, it is a dusty village called Darasuram, lying on the outskirts of Kumbakonam en route to Thanjavur.

Legend has it that the king was fulfilling a wish of a female cowherd, who wanted to have a temple in her village. He personally designed every single stone here. Described as a sculptor’s dream in stone, the temple is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The temple wall is a veritable art gallery. Multi-headed and multi-armed, the sculptures come alive with various emotions.

There is an angry Agora Virabhadra, with three heads and four arms, a four-armed Nagaraja folding his hands with a snake above his head, and an Ardhanarishwar with three faces and eight arms, among others.

Hesitant guide

The Shiva Purana and Periya Purana are enacted here as well. A curious onlooker who was sleeping under the tree walks over. He hesitates to don the role of a guide, but offers to show us around. The main deity, the Shivalinga, he says is called Rajarajeswaram Udayar or Airavateshwar. It is then time for the stories behind the names. There is Indira’s white elephant, Airavata, who worshipped Shiva in this temple; hence Airavateshwar. A sacred tank in the temple is named after Yama, the lord of death; so, it derives the name Yamatheertham.

“Oh, in Indian mythology, even the gods get cursed by Rishis,” says my guide, Mani. “Yama drank water from this lake and was cured of a curse which had left him with a burning sensation.” He continues: “The king was given the title Raja Gambhira, and he was an ardent Shiva devotee.”

Lord Shiva adorns the temple in various moods and forms. So, you see an angry Shiva burning Kama, the God of love, while another sculpture describes his fight with the Tripuras. Marriages and penances are enacted in stone, and we finally stop at a handsome form of the lord watched over by women.

Dwarf like Shivaganas play various musical instruments — one a drum, another a conch. “This is Shiva as Kankala murthi — he is shown as a mendicant, fondling a deer. The women are the wives of the Rishis looking after him. And, can you see them?” he mumbles, turning away. I take a second look and realise that the women’s clothes are slipping away as they stare awe-struck at the handsome lord.

Great kings are remembered not just for their conquests, but also by the monuments that stand silently, defying time.