Three architectural marvels that have stood the test of time are the Great Living Chola Temples: the Brahadeeswarar, Gangaikondacholapuram and the Airavatesvara. All three are part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list. These structures were built by kings of the Later Chola dynasty who ruled in South India between 1070 to 1279 CE.
The Big Temple
Originally known as the Peruvidaiyar Kovil, the Brahadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur is also popularly known as the Thanjai Periya Kovil and Rajarajeshwaram Koil. Its tower ( vimana ) is the tallest in the world at 200ft. It holds an 80-tonne stone ball on top, which is known as the kumbam . A statue of Nandi, the sacred bull, at the entrance has been carved out of a single stone. The statue weighs 20 tonnes and is 16ft in length and 13ft in height. Nestled in the sanctum in a linga soaring to a height of 29ft.
Conqueror of the Ganga
Situated 36 km from Kumbakonam, in Ariyalur district, is Gangaikondacholapuram, built by Raja Raja Chola’s son Rajendra Chola. Gangaikondacholapuram means “the city of the Chola who conquered the Ganga” and was meant to commemorate his victory over the Pala rulers of West Bengal. The temple here is smaller than the Thanjavur temple and researchers say that Rajendra Chola did this out of respect for his father. The lingam here is 13 ft tall and has a base circumference of 59ft.
The third temple in the Golden Triangle is the Airavatesvara located in Darasuram, Kumbakonam built by Rajaraja Chola II. This incorporates a chariot structure with the morning and evening sun dials as the wheels. According to mythology, Indra’s elephant Airavata, after whom the temple is named, bathed in the temple tank. This legend is depicted in carvings in the inner shrine. On the base are reliefs that show the stories of the 63 Nayanars. The steps leading to the bali pitham (sacrificial place) are intricately carved and produce musical notes when one walks on them. Therefore they are known as Singing Steps. Though in ruins, the temple holds its own among the Chola temples.