Darasuram – Piety and poetry in immortal stone

Secrets stir sleepily in this dusty village in ancient Tamil Nadu, where the Airavateswara temple to Lord Shiva dates back to the 12th century. Discover the stories behind these ancient stones

The main deity, the Shiva linga, is called Rajarajeswaram Udayar or Airavateshwara to consecrate Airavata, the four-tusked white elephant of the king of heaven, Lord Indra. It is held that Airavata worshipped Shiva at this temple

Great kings do not just leave behind maps depicting their conquests. They also leave behind their footprints etched on the sands of time. Aspiring to be immortal, they build monuments that stand silently against the fury of man and nature. Their empires may fade away and many a capital city may disappear but the crumbled remains of forts and temples that they erected stand testimony to their reign.

These were my thoughts as I entered Darasuram, a dusty village in interior Tamil Nadu. The portals of an ageless Shiva temple beckoned and, entering it, I walked into a different era. Broken pillars narrated a saga of another time, while aging edifices swept me into a glorious past where even a quiet, nondescript village transformed into a vibrant town buzzing with music and dance.

This town, Darasuram, was once known as Rajarajapuram in honour of the Chola king that established it. There are just a few of us at the temple on this scorching afternoon.
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Lakshmi Sharath | Photo by Lakshmi Sharath
Mon 24 Feb, 2014 10:30 AM IST


Our story begins in the middle of 12th century when Raja Raja Chola II builds a miniature marvel called Airavateshwar temple; it takes 25 years to complete. The town was then called Rajarajapuram after the king and today it is identified as Darasuram, a village on the outskirts of Kumbakonam en route to the heritage city of Thanjavur.

Legend has it that the king fulfilled the wish of a female cowherd who wanted to have a temple in her village. He personally designed every single stone here. The structure is described as a sculpture’s dream in stone. The king, who held the title of Raja Gambhira, was an ardent Shiva devotee and the title is recorded in the mandapa of the temple.

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We stop at this very entrance, which is now in ruins. Two identical monuments covered with dust and weeds are the remnants of the gates of the temple. We walk, cutting through the tall grass until we come to a tall gopuram. We look closer and realize there were two gopuras initially; only one remains. A long, rectangular wall decorated by nandis (bulls) surrounds the temple interrupted by the  gopuram in the centre. A large Nandi, just anointed with water and milk, stands in front.

I walk inside and stop dead in my tracks. A temple shaped like a chariot, drawn by horses and elephants and supported by a hundred monolith pillars carved exquisitely, greet us. I gaze at the open mandapa, where mythical yalis grace the outer pillars and stare right into your eyes with their trunks curled up. Stories from indian mythology come alive on pillars as sculptures dance before your eyes. The temple is a veritable gallery of dance and art.

The morning sun caresses the stone and we find that we are the only visitors to the temple. 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 is the Shivalinga, which he says is called Rajarajeswaram Udayar or Airavateshwar.

It is time for stories. There is Lord Indra’s white elephant, Airavata, who worshipped Shiva at this temple and the deity is hence called Airavateshwar. A sacred tank in the temple is named after Yama, the god of death, and is called Yamatheertham. “Oh, in Indian mythology, even the gods get cursed by Rishis,” says my guide, Mani. “Yama drank water from this lake and was then cured of the curse, which had given him a burning sensation.”

A view of the temple and its towering gopuram.
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Yahoo Lifestyle | Photo by Azhar Mohamed Ali
Thu 30 Jan, 2014 12:30 PM IST


Shiva’s various moods and forms adorn the temple. So you see an angry Shiva burning Kama, the god of love, while another sculpture describes his fight with Tripurasura, a collective name given to the three Hindu demons Vidyunmali, Tarakaksha and Viryavana, who were sons of the demon Tarakasura. Marriages and penances are enacted in in stone but, finally, we stop at a handsome form of the lord watched over by women. Dwarf-like Shiva ganas are depicted playing various musical instruments — one on a drum, another holding a conch.

“This is Shiva as Kankalamurthi, he is a divine mendicant fondling a deer and those women are the wives of rishis looking after him -- can you see them?” my guide mumbles and turns away. I look and realize that the women's clothes are slipping away as the they stare awestruck at the handsome lord.

The temple wall is a veritable art gallery. Scuptures made of polished black basalt are typical representations of ancient Chola art. Multi-headed and multi-armed, they come alive with various emotions. There is Agora Virabhadra with an angry expression and three heads and four arms, or a peaceful Agasthya, a four-armed Nagaraja folding his hands with a snake hood above his head, a three-faced, eight-armed Ardhanarishwar (half-woman, half-man), an eight-armed Durga sitting on the severed head of a buffalo amongst other sculptures. The Shiva Purana and Periya Purana are enacted here as tales of devotion and devotees ooze out of the stone. The allegories are depicted here in much detail, narrating miracles in the lives of saints such as Appar, Markandya, Kannappanayanar, and Sambanda among others.

The Cholas were patrons of music and dance and the temple, like many others, is a repository of art forms. Long, narrow strips of frieze depicting miniature dancing figures with musical accompaniments create the keynote of the temple.” It is all about nitya vinoda or daily perpetual entertainment,” says Mani. There are stone panels, which are musical, and each sculpted panel is lyrical as tales from the Puranas are carved here. The carvings depict vignettes of social life in a village through the acrobatic and dance poses of artistes. There is even a sculpture depicting a pregnant woman giving birth as other women help her.

We walk down to the Devi temple, which is silent and closed. Yalis look down at us from the pillars. We sit quietly and lean against them and wonder how time had stood still here. The hamlet must have been bursting with life at one time. Today it is just a town of memory, forgotten except for stray tourists and scholars who generate curiosity in the lives of simple agrarian folks.

Getting there

Darasuram is on the outskirts of Kumbakonam, about 5 km away from the main town. Kumbakonam is 274 km away from Chennai. It is also 85 km from Tiruchirapalli and 40 km from Thanjavur. Trains and buses connect these towns as well.

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