Tuesday 16 January 2007

Gangaikondacholapuram & Darasuram

We set off early in the morning to continue our Cholan temple trail. There was a particularly beautiful hazy light over the countryside which was predominantly fields of rice, patches of sugar cane, palm trees and picturesque but clearly manky pools. The high pothole count indicated this was definitely a minor road and for the first hour we passed just a few buses and motor bikes, though a larger number of local bicycles and oxen carts. This may be the country, but we passed what seemed to be a continuous stream of villages and the road is of course never empty of people.


This must surely be the longest name for the site of a temple. We resorted to calling it Gangaburbleburbleburble, which highly amused our driver. It apparently means "the town of the Chola who took the Ganges" referring to the 11th century king Rajendra I during whose reign it was built.

The Brihadishwara temple stands peacefully in the countryside rather than in the middle of a town and there were far fewer visitors - Indian or other - than elsewhere. We instantly warmed to it. We walked up to the huge wall that encloses the temple complex and entering through the gateway saw that the temple was surrounded by well maintained lawns and gardens. In the centre is a huge tower over the main shrine, and in front an enormous Nandi (Shiva's bull) facing towards the temple - so your first view is of Nandi's bum.

The Nandi dates from the seventeenth century and to its right there is a an equally big statue of a lion, facing respectfully towards Nandi. Lots of people appear to pray to Nandi, so having a closer look involved squeezing between crowds lighting their candles and praying. It was worth it, as the carvings at the foot of the bull and lion were beautiful.

The exterior of the temple is also covered with carvings of lions, ornamental scrolls and endless statues of Shiva in his various incarnations. Huge statues of guards protect the entrance. Inside I am becoming familiar with the church-style layout: a long, multi-columned dark "nave" culminating in the main shrine.

I won't bore you with further detail about the temple; suffice to say seeing it was an eminently satisfying experience (more about beauty than the ritual we had witnessed in Chidambaram) and we continued on our way thoroughly satisfied.


The Airavateshwara Temple in the little village of Darasuramis later than that of Gangawhatsit: it was built during the 12th century reign of King Rajaraja II. It also was surrounded by a huge wall, indeed it felt more like a citadel than a temple complex, with just one wee tower peering over the height of the walls.

This is a smaller, cosier sized complex, focussing very much on the charming
temple in the centre, preceded as usual by Nandi. The memorable thing about Darasuram was the fine quality of the carvings. In front of the temple there is a mandapa - an open multi-columned hall. Here and everywhere were beautifully sculpted columns, fine black basalt statues, charming lions, bulls and other figures.

We wandered around for a long time, reluctant to leave this delightful place. It was difficult to decide which of the two temples of the day was more satisfying, as they were the same (columns, figures etc) yet so different in character.

But we pulled ourselves away to continue the road to Thanjavur. It was dark when we arrived in what appeared a huge, bustling town. I had been sorely tempted by the guide books' (and my friend Rose Marie's) description of a luxury guesthouse outside the town, complete with eco farming and bicycles to visit nearby villages. But since the price has apparently soared recently, I settled for a more modest place, down a dirt-track past welders and garages. Hotel Valli was at first unprepossing, but the woman running it was hard-working and spoke some English and the rooms were very clean and satisfactory if you ignored the mosquitoes and the window opening onto a blank wall. Can't complain for 315 rupees (under 4 pounds)!

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