From Chennai, we fly to Tiruchirappalli or Trichy, about 300 kilometers south of Chennai. Tiruchirappalli is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Tamil Nadu province being ruled by the Cholas from the 3rd century BC. It is a good base for visiting the Great Living Chola Temples. There are no international chain hotels here so we stayed at the Sangam Hotel in town which is at best a 3-star hotel. This part of our journey was the only hitch we encountered in our 17 days in India. We had a terrible guide who decided to change our itinerary the morning of, insisting that it was impossible to visit all 3 Chola Temples on the same day. Instead, he took us to see the Trichy Rockfort which was not something we were terribly interested in and said we will only have enough time to visit the largest Chola Temple. The whole point of coming here was to see all 3 Chola Temples. After numerous back and forths with the tour company, we finally rushed and got to see 2 out of 3 Chola Temples in the afternoon. It was a good thing we had wonderful guides up till now who gave us lots of information on Indian temple architecture, culture, history, and religion. This so-called guide we had knew nothing, looked unkempt, spoke broken English, and I honestly don’t believe he even is a proper guide.
Of main interest inside the city is the Tiruchirappalli Rockfort which is a temple complex built on an ancient rock said to be 3.8 billion years old. There are two rock-cut temples inside the fortification, the Ucchi Pillayar Temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha and the Thayumanaswami Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is called Rockfort because of the many military fortifications here. The oldest structure in the fort is a cave temple built by the Pallavas in 560. Then came the Cholas who held the fort in their possession until their decline, after which it came under the Vjayanagara Empire. The climb to the top is over 400 stone-cut steps with a panoramic view of Trichy.
The Great Living Chola Temples are temples built during the Chola rule in the 11th and 12th centuries. They are called living temples because the deities here have been continuously worshipped every day according to ancient Vedic rituals. There are altogether 3 temples: the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. The Chola rulers were devotees of Lord Shiva and dedicated all 3 temples to their favorite deity. They improved upon the Pallava style of architecture by using granite for constructing the sculptures of deities and creatures.
Of the 3 temples, the Brinhadisvara temple in Thanjavur is the most famous and has the tallest temple tower or Vimana in the world at 65 meters high. The 1000 year old temple was built in 1010 AD by Rajaraja Chola I and is entirely built with granite. It is the first all granite temple in the world. It is an incredible feat considering granite is extremely hard to carve and also cannot be found within a 100 km radius of the temple. A sculpture of Nandi, the bull, carved out of a single granite rock guards the entrance to the temple. Inside the temple is a 3.7 meter tall lingam of Lord Shiva.
The Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram is built in a similar way as the temple in Thanjavur. It is smaller in size and is believed to serve as the feminine equivalent of the Thanjavur temple. Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to see it in person.
The smallest of the 3 Chola Temples is the Airavatesvara Temple where Lord Shiva is venerated here as Airavatesara. According to legend, Indra’s royal elephant, Airavata, came and prayed to Shiva and since then has become a deity here. This temple was built in the 12th century by Rajaraja Chola II. It is built on a platform in the form of a chariot drawn by horses and is decorated with ornate carvings of animals, humans, and celestial creatures. Although much smaller than the Brihadesvara Temple, it is more exquisite in detail because it is said to have been built with nitya-vinoda or perpetual entertainment in mind.
After a rather hectic day, we leave behind the beautiful Chola Temples and continue south to the major pilgrimage city of Madurai. Stay tuned!
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