The Great, Living Chola Temples

Getting around this amazing set of temples and keeping track of names like Gangaikondacholapuram (yes, that’s eight syllables – count them!) has been more than exhausting enough. I’m going to have to ask for another indulgence and complete this post later. After all, tomorrow is another day: a day containing – wait for it – more temples.

(Completed subsequently)

Unravelling our various sketchy notes with the help of a pile of maps and guide books, it seems that we did not visit that particular polysyllabic temple, after all. The task of working out what we had seen was been made all the more complicated by the fact that many places are known by more than one name or just by their devotional attributes (see below). The basic temple lay-out is remarkably consistent and the most interesting parts are often off limits to cameras while much of the Hindu mythology is still unfamiliar. Add to that the heat and discomfort and I may be forgiven for recalling the magnificent Chola Heartland with some rather undignified nicknames (Leprosy Temple, Temple of the White Eagle and the Green Sheets Temple etc).

If I had to choose the most impressive then I would probably pick the first: Sabhanayaka in the coastal town of Chidambaran, as the most memorable and it seems that, along with Madurai (no, we haven’t even got there yet) it also turns out to be a great favourite with travel writers and documentary film makers as well. This is probably because it most powerfully presents the sights, sounds and ceremonies of Hindu worship as it has been practiced here for Millennia. Just how many Millennia it is difficult to determine, since the founder who was cured of leprosy in its sacred pool is a legendary rather than a historical character. Whilst the decorative high points are Chola (9th-11th century), the foundations are much earlier and a great deal of further building has gone on since. Accounts of what was built when are often vague and even the most highly recommended of visitor guides will make up a figure he thinks you might like while privately wondering what you are worrying about. It is as it has always been.

The great processional chariots were still for the season but a closer examination showed that they are constructed of an ancient hardwood so patched and worn they must have been dragged around the streets at festival time for centuries. The life of the temple went on all around us, with small ceremonies beginning and ending in different areas of the great chambered and pillared complex, all presided over by a highly distinctive Brahmin priesthood. Distinguished by their skin colour, a light buttery gold, they contrasted starkly with the much darker complexioned worshippers. And since they wore only prayer beads and a white dhoti we could see that they were buttery in other respects as well, their “man boobs” nicely complimenting the deliberately feminine styling of their long, sleek hair.

Legend states that these priests came originally from Kashmir but I suppose that many generations of selective breeding in accordance with strict adherence to the rules of caste might produce the same result. I wonder if the people at UNESCO really understand what they were trying to preserve when they bestowed World Heritage Status on this group of “living” temples. Yes, religion is still practiced here much as it was since its earliest beginnings but how does that stand with the rights of the individuals concerned for self-determination in the modern world? At least the odd mobile phone could be seen tucked into those ample waistbands.

Our next destination was Darasuram where we visited the much quieter Airavatheshwara temple, distinguished by the hermaphrodite god (black granite) and white headed eagle (flesh and blood) guarding its portals. This was more of a monument than a living temple and here it was much easier to walk around looking at the minute detail of the sculpted reliefs. Tiny, carved mice scurried behind life sized stone chariot wheels while snakes, demons and intertwined human couples disported themselves with due regard to the scriptures. This left just a little time for a visit to the silk weavers’ district for a bit of shopping before getting to our hotel in Tanjore for some well-earned rest.

For, believe it or not, our itinerary had only permitted one day for all of the above and the following day held, yes, more temples. I’m going to have to summarise them, I’m afraid, otherwise I’ll just never get to the end of this post. Anyway, to take a leaf out of Elisabeth’s website, there is only so much “guide book” information our readers can reasonably be expected to absorb.

Location Name Sacred to Nickname Notes
Chidambaran Sabhanayaka Nataraja = Shiva, Lord of the dance Leprosy temple Active, ceremonial paraphernalia
Darasuram Airavatheshwara Shiva in male/female form White headed eagle Preserved, quiet, fine sculpture
Tiruchirapalli(aka Trichy) Sri Ranganathaswamy Vishnu Green sheets & political march Active, maze like,no photos
Tiruchirapalli(aka Trichy) Rock Fort Ganesha Fifty steps (?) Active, great views
Thanjavur(aka Tanjore) Brihadishwara Shiva Lady from Mumbai Preserved, open plan, WH status



  • Sandy says:

    You haven’t explained the other nicknames.

  • Nicola says:

    True. Thanks for reading that far anyway.

    Green Sheets: this huge, open roofed temple was so full of concentric courtyards we had to navigate by the gopuras to find our way out again. Those towers were covered in massive green sheets while their writhing masses of gods and demons were being re-painted. We enjoyed chai outside with some loud but friendly political marchers who, of course, all wanted to pose for pictures with us.

    Fifty steps: Our driver told us that was the number, actually it was more than 350 which explains why it was so important to climb up to this hilltop shrine for a view of the city (and the distant green-shrouded towers, of course).

    The Lady from Mumbai: Well, that’s me! I must have overdone it with my enthusiasm for the architectural details on the tour because our guide asked if I was a researcher down from the big city. You’d think my lack of Hindi would have given me away!

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