Airavathesvara Temple, Darasuram, TN - a delight for heritage lovers!!

The architecturally popular  Hindu temple Airavathesvara  Temple  located in the town of Darasuram, near the Temple city of  Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu was built by Rajaraja Chola II (son of Chola ruler Raja Rajan) in the 12th century CE. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site  (bestowed in 2004).
Airavathesvara Temple,Darasuram, Tamil Nadu
The other two near-by UNESCO heritage sites are Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur and  the Gangaikonda cholapuram Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram; both are referred to as  the Great Living Chola Temples.
Airavatesvara temple, Tamil Nadu
Airavathesvara Temple,Darasuram
 Rajaraja II, the ruler of the Chola kingdom from 1143 to 1173, built this small temple with great care and attention, paying due attention to its  architecture, exquisite stone sculptures and statues.
Inscriptions refer to this temple as Rajarajeshwaram, just like the one in Thanjavur. The Airavatesvara temple is another square plan structure completed in 1166 CE. The inner court yard measuring a total of about 107 meters (351 ft) by 70 meters (230 ft).

According the to the legend Demigod Indira's white elephant, Airavata, lost his pristine white colour on account of a curse. However, the animal regained its original color after worshiping   Lord Shiva here; hence the temple is called  Airavathesvara  Temple  The temple is surrounded by tall well-built  wall with a series of seated bulls on it facing outside . The boundary wall is punctuated by an entrance gate with a small gopura on one side and on the opposite side the entrance is roofless.  There is a small pavilion for the seated Nandi facing the sanctum in front of the main entrance. Right before the entrance, very close to the mandabam, one can see the flagpole - Dwajastham made of pure copper.  Both Nandi and  the stambha lie aligned on the east-west axis.
Pillared maha mandapa. Airavathesvara Temple,Darasuram
Airavathesvara Temple,Darasuram, TN Sculptures on the walls wikipedia
The sanctum has a square plan 39 feet on sides. There is no prathakshana path (prakaram) just like Thanjavur big temple.
The sanctum/ garbhagriha is connected to the mukha-mandapa through the ardha-mandapa supported on pillars and flanked by two massive devarapalas (sentinels). The maha mandapa  has a rectangle plan 79 feet by 59 feet with six rows of pillars (total 48 pillars).   East of this mandapa is the Agara mandapa, called the Rajagambhiram Thirumandapam, is  a masterpiece, a glorious creation in this temple.  The fascinating feature is it is designed like a  chariot  on which Lord Shiva rides taking the avatar as   Tripurantaka. The purpose was to destroy  three demon brothers.The chariot is pulled by three galloping horses and elephants and Lord Brhama is the  the charioteer.The chariot is held by eight pillars with Yalis (part lion part griffins or gryphon at their bases and five niches  are adorned in the  front, with images of five deities - Agni, Indra, Brahma, Vishnu and Vayu.
Airavathesvara Temple,Darasuram, Tamil Nadu
Chariot detail, Airavatesvara temple, Tamil Nadu
 In the garbagriha, the main deity is in the form of linga -1.5 meter tall. Unlike the Brihadeshwara temple at near-by Thanjavur where the tower above Garbagriha (sanctum) is very tall (reaching 206 feet), here the gopura is just 25 meter tall.  Shiva's consort,  Periya Nayaki Amman (Parvati) has a detached  Shrine close  to the north of the Airavateshvarar temple. The latter was built by the Kulothuna Chola III and some historians suggested Nayak rulers of Thanjavur made some additions. However, this shrine was not part of the original plan. This temple, it is said  marked the beginning of a new practice of building shrines dedicated to the Goddess as Lord Shiva’s  consort, and not just another attendant deity.

On the temple premises one can see lots of structures and gopurams in a damaged state, pointing out, at some point of time in the past centuries ago, this wonderful place was damaged on purpose. After analyzing various theories as to the ruins of many parts of this amazing temple, there is a likelihood that the  the armies of Delhi Sultanate led by the Muslim commander Malik Kafur in 1311, followed by Khusrau Khan in 1314 and  Ulugh Khan (Muhammad bin Tughlaq) in 1327 looted  this place in the hope of finding the temple treasures.. The temple city of Srirangam, Tiruchy  was raided during this tumultuous period and faced massive destruction and, in the wake, 12000 Vaishnavites were killed when they protected the main deity at the Perumal  temple. The period that followed saw confrontations  between the Hindu kings and the Muslim Sultans who seceded the Delhi Sultanate and carved out a new kingdom called  Madurai Sultanate (1335–1378). It was the Vijayanagara Empire  who defeated the Madurai Sultanate in 1378 and this temple and other Chola era temples thereafter came under Hindu kings again who repaired and restored many of them back to splendor.
For art lovers, the Darasuram temple is a paradise. You need lots of time to explore this place initially. It is being managed by the ASI.