Great Living Chola Temples


The Great Living Chola Temples, stretched over different parts of south India and neighbouring islands, were built by the kings of the Chola Dynasty. Out of these, the three great temples built during the 11th and 12th centuries are marked by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

The three temples are the Brihadisvara Temple in the city of Thanjavur, the Airavatesvara Temple located at Darasuram, and the Brihadisvara Temple at a place called Gangaikondacholisvaram. These three granite temples, showcasing progressive art and architectural styles of the Cholas, are dedicated to Lord Shiva. Among the three, the Brihadisvara Temple in the city of Thanjavur was the first to be inscribed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1987. The other two temples were added to the list by UNESCO in 2004. Collectively, these are known as the Great Living Chola Temples.


The Chola Temples depict the type of civilization present during the Chola Empire, between 10thand 13thcenturies. The Cholas succeeded the Pallavas, who built the temples in Mahabalipuram in south India. The Brihadisvara Temple in the city of Thanjavur was built by the real founder of the Chola Dynasty, Rajaraja, from AD 1003 to AD 1010. Rajaraja reigned the Chola Dynasty from AD 985 to AD 1014. The Chola Empire spread its reign in the whole of South India and also in neighbouring islands like Maldives and Ceylon. Rajendra I of the Chola Dynasty built the Brihadisvara Temple at a place called Gangaikondacholisvaram in AD 1035. This temple has a 53-metre-high sanctum tower or 'vimana'. Rajaraja II built the Airavatesvara temple complex located at Darasuram, which has a 24-metre-high sanctum tower. The excellence in bronze casting, paintings, architecture and sculptures of the Cholas is striking. The pure Dravidian style of architecture, distinct from the pyramidal towers of the temples, represents the creative achievements of the Cholas.

Overview Of The Three Great Living Chola Temples

Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur:The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur or Tanjore, built by King Rajaraja of the Chola Empire, is considered his prime creation. Rajaraja remained the Emperor of the Cholas from AD 985 to AD 1012 and the temple was constructed during AD 1009 to AD 1010, when it was named after him as Rajesvara Peruvudaiyar. This Shiva temple is also called Daksinameru and Brihadisvara. Built of granite, this temple is considered a landmark in the evolution of building art in south India. The vimana or the sanctum tower is regarded as a touchstone of Indian architecture as a whole. A commodious prakara, that is 240.9 metres in length and 122 meters in width, encloses the temple. In the eastern side is a gopura with other three torana entrances, of which one is in the rear and the other two are on each lateral side. A two-storied malika with parivaralayas surround the prakara. This magnificent Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, with simple yet inspirational designs, set an example for constructing other such structures in south India and also in Southeast Asia. The rich inscriptions, paintings and iconography of the temple illustrate events, economy and society of that period.

Brihadisvara temple, Gangaikondacholapuram, District Perambalur:Rajendra I of the Chola Dynasty built the Brihadisvara Temple at a place called Gangaikondacholisvaram in AD 1035, which falls in the Perambalur district. He was the son of Rajaraja I, the great Chola King. Rajendra I ruled from AD 1012 to AD 1044 and selected this location to build a new capital city for the Chola Dynasty. Presumably he built the city in the early 11thcentury to commemorate his victory over the northern territories. Rajendra I brought the holy water of the Ganges in a golden pot during one of his trips to North India and consecrated Cholaganga or Ponneri, the reservoir in the site. After this Rajendra I was given the title Gangaikondan, and the place was named Gangaikondacholapuram which means "A Town of the Cholas, who conquered the Ganges". Inspired by the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, he built this Shiva temple which bears influences of the temple at Thanjavur in many ways. Similarities in the layout like the Chandikesvara shrine, the sanctum with its axial units, the gopura and the cloister mandapa, along with subsidiary shrines, can be cited.

The magnificent sculpture of the Nandi facing the temple, the sculpture of the gatekeepers or the dwarapalakas, and a lion-faced well are some of the interesting constructions of the temple. The exceptional sculptures of the temple include Ardhanari, dancing Ganesa, Vishnu, Nataraja, Dakshinamurthi, Lingodhbhava, Harihara, Subrahmanya, Durga, Kamantaka, Brahma, Gangadhara and Bhairava. The sculptures of Sarasvati and Chandesanugrahamurti installed in the niches on the sides of the steps of the northern entrance are the most marvelous ones. Metal icons of Subrahmanya and Bhogasakti are the two masterpieces of the Chola period that were made out of bronze. The solar and lotus altars are considered auspicious.

Gangaikondacholapuram is at a distance of 250 km from Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu, on the road that leads to Kumbakonam. Chennai has good connectivity with Kumbakonam by rail and road, and is well connected to major cities of India.

Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram, District Thanjavur:The Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram, a place near Kumbakonam in the Thanjavur district, is a masterpiece of Chola architecture. It was built in the 12thcentury CE by Rajaraja II, who ruled the Chola Dynasty from AD 1143 to AD 1173. Though much smaller compared to the other two temples, this one stand apart for its highly elaborate and embellished artwork. The sanctum of the temple is not surrounded by a path and is devoid of axial mandapas. The front mandapa is represented as a chariot with wheels. The inscriptions state its name as Rajagambhiran Tirumandapam. Its pillars are extensively decorated. The Tanjavur Art Gallery preserves many of the sculptures of the temple, including a collection of Bhikshatana illustrating Rishi Patnis in different moods. Sculptures such as dancing Martanda Bhairava, Nagaraja, Sarabhamurti, Ganesha and Agastya, among others, speak of the intricate craftsmanship of that period.

Opening Timings

The three temples remain open every day from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Entrance Fee

Admission to the three temples is free.Handheld cameras and video cameras are also allowed free of charge.

When To Visit

The best time to visit these temples is between October to March, during the winter season.

Where To Stay

All types of hotels and resorts are available in the city of Tanjore.

How To Reach The Three Temples

Tanjore is connected with other major cities of Tamil Nadu by a network of Tamil Nadu Road Transport Corporation buses. Madurai and Tiruchy also conduct regular bus services to Tanjore. Private bus services are also available from Trivandrum, Madurai, Kanyakumari, Bangalore and the state capital Chennai. Tanjore is at a distance of 330 km from Chennai.

The nearest railhead is the Trichy junction, 58 km away from Thanjavur. The city also has an international airport.Trichy is well connected with Bangalore, Chennai and other major airports in South India. Bangalore and Chennai airports are also well connected with other major cities in India and some international cities.

Last Updated on : December 21, 2013