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Great Living Chola Temples

There was a continuous development and enhancement of Dravidian art and the architecture during the period of imperial Cholas (between 850 CE to 1250 CE). The Cholas preceded the tradition of temple construction by Pallava Dynasty and thereby enhanced the design of the Dravidian temple. The imperial Cholas constructed various temples including the Brihadeshvara Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Thanjavur, the Sarabeswara Temple (this Shiva temple is also known as Kampahareswarar Temple situated at Thirubhuvanam and the Airavatesvara Temple of Darasuram situated near Kumbakonam. These 4 temples were constructed during tenure of 200 years depicting the prosperity, glory together with the stability established by Chola Kings.

he Grand Living Chola Temples are the significant Hindu temples constructed between 10th to 12th centuries CE in southern part of our country are together credited as UNESCO World Heritage Site. These temples include the Brihadeeswarar Temple situated in Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Brihadeeswarar temple located at Thanjavur and also the Airavatesvara temple built at Darasuram. In 1987, the Brihadeeswarar temple was credited as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gangaikondacholisvaram and Airavatesvara temple then added as an extension site during 2004. Currently, the site is called as “Great Living Chola Temples”. These temples illustrate the magnificent accomplishments of Imperial Cholas in the field of sculpture, architecture, bronze casting and painting.


In small stretch of Kaveri river belt between the Tiruchy-Tanjore-Kumbakonam, to their maximum potential, the Cholas constructed more than 2500 temples, in which 1500 temples were built in between Tiruchy to Thanjavur belt. The evolution scenario of these architectural styles of temples can be categorized into three different stages- Vijayalaya Chola initiated the early stage, Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola played significant role in the middle stage where their achievements reached great heights and the Kulottunga Chola I and his successors during Chalaukya Chola comprised the final stage.

The Chola Kings supported and endorsed building large temples over the entire parts of the Chola territory. The temples include forty of 108 Vaishnava Divya Desams among them; seventy seven are located in major places of southern India and rest in Andhra Pradesh and Northern India. Out of these, the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple located in Srirangam comes first as the largest temple of our country (**) and Chidambaram Natarajar Temple (originally constructed by Pallavas, later on seized by the Cholas during the Pre-Christian epoch while ruling all the way from Kanchi) are the most significant shrines supported and extended by Chola Kings.

Early Chola Period

The Chola emperors are creative temple constructors starting from the very first king of the Chola dynasty Emperor Vijayalaya Chola, the Vijayalaya Chozhisvaram temple was named after him. There are earliest illustrations of the Dravidian temples built by Cholas. The son of Vijayalaya Chola, Aditya I constructed various temples in and around Kumbakonam and Kanchi areas.

The living early Chola construction is the Vijayalacholeswaram situated near to Pudukkottai in the state of Tamil Nadu. The architectural design of this temple clearly depicts the influence of Pallavas.

Parantaka I and Aditya I were productive constructors for their belief. The inscriptions of the Aditya I account his role in constructing large number of temples along the bed of the Kaveri River. These temples are very small when compared with the giant monumental building of later Cholas and might have probably constructed by bricks rather than the stones.

The small Nageswara temple located at Kumbakonam also belong to the same era. The Koranganatha shrine situated at Srinivasanallur near to Hirapalli stands as an illustration of the Parantaka I era. This shrine was constructed on the beds of the Kaveri River, which is small in size but filled with amazing sculptures on each and every surface.

During second half of 10th century, a feudatory of King Parantaka Chola II constructed a Muvarkovil – temple of three in Pudukkottai region. These temples were built on an architectural design that display great concordance with later Chola shrines.

Middle Period

The construction of temples achieved remarkable force from take-over and mastermind of the great Rajaraja Chola followed by his son Rajendra Chola I. A large number of small shrines were constructed during early phase of their era. Among those, the significant temple is the Tiruvalisvaram temple located near Tirunelveli. This temple is constructed with delicate and well designed sculptures and wall paintings along with some comic figures. There are few other temples that come under the same category including the Vaidyanatha temple at Tirumalavadi and Uttara Kailasa temple at Thanjavur.

The magnificence and maturity with which the Chola architecture evolved can easily be identified in two grandeur temples at Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Thanjavur. The splendid Shiva temple located in Thanjavur is the best example for material achievements during the reign of Rajaraja Chola. Being the tallest and largest among all Indian shrines, this masterwork leaves a great mark in the architecture of south India.

Although the temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram is almost similar to the famous big temple at Thanjavur, it gets differentiated with its own specific characteristics. It can be obviously witnessed that the former temple possess single enclosure wall with a gopura whereas the Big temple at Thanjavur contain two enclosure walls and gopura.

Later Period

The Chola style of construction continued for about a century and displayed itself in the form of large number of shrines. Among those, the 2 large shrines are worth comparing to Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola.

The Airavatesvara temple situated at Darasuram town near Thanjavur District was constructed during the period of Rajaraja Chola II carries a glorious structure similar to the phase of architectural advancement attained during twelfth century CE. The temple possess highly artistic pillars made from stones and good decorated walls in fashion bordering mannerism enriched with a touch on polished features and elaborated limbs.

The last illustration of this era is Kampahareswarar temple situated at Tribhuvanam close to Kumbakonam has survived after a good repair service as constructed by Kulottunga Chola III. This temple possesses architecture similar to that of temples located at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Thanjavur and Darasuram.

Significance of Chola Temples

The architecture of the Chola temples depicts the stability, affluence and grandeur of the Chola kings.

Being strong devotees of the Lord Shiva, the Cholas constructed temples in dedication to their beloved Lord Shiva in Hindu pantheon.

The Cholas succeeded the tradition of temple construction from the Pallavas; they also elevated the Dravidian design temple to great stage. The style of Chola kings is expressed in using granites for creating warriors, deities, dancers and kings. They constructed gigantic shrines. The great Brihadeeswarar temple situated at Thanjavur rests inside a drudgery inner prakara which is about 240.9 meter in length (towards east to west) and measures 122 meters in breadth(towards north to south).

Brihadeeswarar Temple

The most prestigious of Chola constructions, the Brihadeeswarar temple situated at Thanjavur was constructed following a command received by Chola King Rajaraja I in his dreams. This temple with majestic design and grandeur adds to architectural splendor of Thanjavur.

This temple possesses a tall linga of the Lord Shiva which measures about 3.7 meter and also tallest Vimana in whole world. One among the splendors of Indian architectures, the gopurams present in the Brihadeeswarar shrine is embellished with sculptural carvings of several gods and goddesses.

Built with massive proportions together with simple design, this temple is known to provide inspiration for further constructions in future even at south-east Asia together with South India.

Gangaikonda Choleswarar Temple

Together with the Brihadeeswarar temple at Thanjavur, the Gangaikonda Choleswarar Temple was also constructed by Chola emperor Rajaraja I in order to celebrate his victory over the northern kingdoms. Rajendra Chola I erected the Gangaikonda Cholapuram as capital of Cholas together with Gangaikonda Choleswarar temple, to be the focal point for the Chola capitals.

The Shiva lingam at Gangaikonda Choleswarar temple is taller when compared with the Shiva lingam present in the Thanjavur Big temple. Several other focus of this temple includes the monolithic expression of the Navagrahas in the form of chariot and also the sculptures of Gnanasaraswathi and Chandeswarar.

Airavateswarar Temple

Smaller in size when compared to the Brihadeeswarar shrine and Gangaikonda Choleswarar shrine, this Airavateswarar shrine situated at Darasuram near to Kubakonam comes in as third in list of Great Living Chola Temples.

This temple was constructed in Tamil Nadu by the great Raja Raja II during the 12th century CE. This temple was built out of their dedication to Lord Shiva who venerated as Airavateshwara and there is a belief that space elephant Airavat adored the statue in this place.

Similar to other shrines, this Airavatesvara temple is popular for its extraordinary architecture. The temple vimana is of 24 meter altitude. The mandapam in the front is designed in form of gigantic chariot pulled by horses. There is a belief that this temple was constructed with “nitya-vinoda” means perpetual entertainment in mind.

Kampahareswarar Temple

Though this temple does not fall under the list of Great Living Chola Temples, the Kampahareswarar temple situated at Tribhuvanam was constructed by the emperor Tribhuvana Chakravarti as a celebration of his victory over kings in the northern India.

The mandapam of this temple was constructed in the figure of gigantic chariot and also the vimana is comparatively larger than gopuram. This is approximately 120 feet in altitude. Additional attractions are the sculptured panes, displaying the scenes from Great Ramayana. One can also witness a rare sculpture of the Sarabha, a form of the Lord Shiva in order to subdue Narasimha.

How to Reach

By Road

Thanjavur is well connected with all major cities in Tamil Nadu by state transport corporation buses. Bus services are regularly available from Madurai and Tiruchy to reach Thanjavur. There are Private tourist buses to connect Thanjavur with other cities. The city is well linked with Kanyakumari, Trivandrum, Chennai, Bangalore and Madurai. The tourist bus services may collect approximately 3 to 4 INR per km.

By Rail

The nearest railway station is at Tiruchy, which is situated at distance of about 58 km. Tiruchy Junction is a significant railway station in the route from Trivandrum to Chennai through Madurai. There are routine train facility from Tiruchy to Chennai and Madurai.

By Air

The closest airport is at Tiruchy which is about 58 km from Thanjavur. There are regular flights to Tiruchy from Chennai. The other major airports are at Chennai (345 km distance) and another at Bangalore (390 km distance from Thanjavur). These two airports got good connectivity to most of Indian cities and also abroad. Taxi services are also available at the cost of INR 1000 from the Tiruchy railway station to reach Thanjavur.

Visitor Information

  • Free admission

  • Still photography and videography together with handheld cameras are permitted free of cost

  • For any other form of Photography and videography, one can contact , the Superintending Archaeologist, A.S.I Chennai Circle, Chennai -9 (Phone: 044-25670396/25670397)

  • Visiting hours: 6.30 am to 8.30pm round the clock.

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