Visit Chola Temples of Tanjore, Darasuram and Gangaikonda

  • By Jayavant Prabhu
  • March 24, 2024
  • This photo feature covers Tanjore, Gangaikonacholapuram Temple, Darasuram Mandir Kumbakonam and Maratha Palace.

Thanjavur is a good base if you wish to visit Kumbakonam (40 kms) or Trichy (60 kms) away. It is in between the two. You can fly into Trichy and then drive to Tanjore, Kumbakonam.


If you choose to fly into Madurai, Rameshwaram is 172 kms away and Trichy 125 kms away both in different directions. Chettinad is 87 kms away. Tanjore to Chettinad is 75 kms. They are all close by. With good roads it does not take too long.


As a group of eight our route was Trichy, Tanjore, Kumbakonam and Chettinad. We hired a vehicle and flew out of Trichy.


Culture Rich Tanjore

1. The big temple of Brihadisvara at Thanjavur  

Tanjore offers Chola dynasty’s living legacy in the form of three highly impressive UNESCO heritage temples. Each of these temples is an amazing confluence of religion, art, and culture. 

Of these, the most famous is Brihadisvara  temple in Tanjore (also known as the periya kovil meaning the big temple)  constructed entirely in granite by Raja Raja Chola I around 1003-1010 CE.


The huge edifice encompassed by a massive perimeter wall (prakara), main entrance with a monumental gateway (gopura), the main temple tower (vimana) reaching a lofty height of 66 metres, huge halls (mandapa) and inner sanctum (garbhagriha) with many sculptures of Shiva and other personalities like dwarpalakas epitomize a fully-realized Tamil architecture-based temple.

The Vimana is taller than the Gopurams in this temple quite in contrast with many other South Indian temples where Gopurams are the taller structures. The tall vimana here is made with interlocking mechanism, without any binding material and yet it has survived for centuries. The temple is also known for its extraordinary inscriptions in elegant Tamil calligraphy along the plinth of the vimana. These serve as the earliest recorded details of the temple construction 

The present temple complex has a few shrines built later in the history by Pandya and Nayaka dynasties which show refinement achieved during those periods. The Nandi Pavilion and shrines of Amman (Devi) and Subramanyar were additions by the later rulers.


Album Brihadesvara Temple


2. Maratha Palace, Tanjore 

The Tanjore Maratha Palace, locally known as Aranmanai Palace, was originally built by the Nayaka kings (of the Vijayanagar fame) in 1530s and later conquered by Thanjavur Marathas (Bhosales) who lived in it from 1674 to 1855. 

Arsenal tower. 

The gate to the palace has a temple like structure which is actually an arsenal tower (Gooda Gopuram) and the gopuram is just a facade to confuse invaders! The palace houses a seven-storey bell tower (Maada Maaligai) and a Sangeetha Mahal with marvelous acoustic properties.


Album Maratha Palace 

The piece de resistance of the palace however is the Art gallery.  Called the Raja Raja Chola art gallery, it sports an imposing statue of Raja Serfoji besides stunning ceilings. The bronze statues of Nataraja Shiva, Parvati and other deities endorse the intricate craftsmanship of yesterday years, These sculptures range from the period of CE 8th to the 18th Century . You can capture some very interesting details here as most sculptures are well labeled and the more interesting carvings were done during the Chola period.


Album Art Gallery Thanjavur

The process of making Chola Bronze Statues was revealing. Five elements- Zinc, Lead, Copper, Silver and Gold - are melted together to produce Bronze. Figures are first made in bee wax, then covered in clay mould before heating it at high temperature. The clay mould has a hole below through which the wax is taken out and bronze is filled to create the statues. 


Read Bronze making at Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu


3. Saraswathy Mahal Library  

Maharaja Serfoji’s Saraswathy Mahal has a colourful façade and houses several thousand palm-leaf manuscripts and books. The content ranges from the epics of Mahabharata / Ramayana to books on anatomy and Chinese torture methods   (photography is prohibited in this library).

Gangaikonda Cholapuram (GKC)

It is located in Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu which is about 70 km away from Tanjore. It became the capital of Chola dynasty in 1025 CE and served as the capital for about 250 years. The temple at GKC  was built by king Rajendra Chola I ( son of Raja Raja Chola 1)  in 1035 AD after his conquests in Odisha and Bengal from where he got pots of Ganges water to be poured in the wells of GKC temple - hence the name Gangaikonda.


This temple shares the same design as the Brihadeshwara Temple of Tanjore but the vimana is smaller in size albeit with more refined architecture. The Shiva Linga in the temple however is bigger than the one at Thanjavur temple. Thanjavur Linga is 12.5 feet tall while the Linga in GKC temple is 13.5 feet. 


The main tower (vimana) of GKC temple has a graceful upward curving form- square base, octagonal middle and circular top - contrasting with the straight and rather sombre tower at the Tanjore temple. The inner sanctum in GKC temple is accessed through an elegant pillared hall guarded by a pair of monumental guardians (Dwarapalakas).

Shiva Parvati. 

This is the Bhikshatana form of Lord Shiva.


The temple displays many elaborate stone sculptures of Shiva-Parvati, dancing Nataraja , Ardhanareeshwara ( the man-woman manifestation of lord Shiva) and Ganesha . It also has exquisite sculptures of other Hindu deities such as Saraswati, Vishnu, Brahma and Yali.  


Album Gangaikondacholapuram Temple


Airavateswara Temple, Darasuram near Kumbakonam

A smaller but more exquisite Airavateswara Temple built by Raja Raja Chola II in the 12th century is believed to have been named after Airavat, Lord Indra's  white elephant. This temple stands in Darasuram which is about 3 km from the temple town of Kumbakonam. It follows the same Dravidian style of architecture as the temples in Tanjore and GKC but here mega size is replaced by intricate sculpture. 


Before you enter the temple you cannot miss a small structure right behind the Nandi mandapam that  features  singing steps which  produce musical notes when tapped  on (unfortunately caged and  closed for demo now).

The main temple has a pillared hall, conceptualised as a horse-drawn chariot. The chariot being drawn by a horse, complete with ornaments, is fashioned after the ones that are taken out in the famous festivals like the Rath Yatra. The base of the pillars has Gaja Yalis with their curled trunks while the columns are ornamented with representations of stories from the epics such as the burning of Manmatha, Parvati’s penance, birth of Skanda, Shiva’s fights with the asuras and such other narrative scenes

Album Darasuram Temple


Along with the grand sculptures, there are some ancient murals of various deities done with vegetable dyes which have survived centuries


To see all albums on Tamil Nadu Temples


Albums Temples of Kumbakonam


Albums Navagraha Temples, all near Kumbakonam


Receive Site Updates