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World Heritage Site - Great Living Chola Temples

There was a continuous development and enhancement of Dravidian art and the architecture during the period of imperial Cholas (between 850 CE to 1250 CE). The Cholas preceded the tradition of temple construction by Pallava Dynasty and thereby enhanced the design of the Dravidian temple. The imperial Cholas constructed various temples including the Brihadeshvara Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Thanjavur, the Sarabeswara Temple (this Shiva temple is also known as Kampahareswarar Temple situated at Thirubhuvanam and the Airavatesvara Temple of Darasuram situated near Kumbakonam. These 4 temples were constructed during tenure of 200 years depicting the prosperity, glory together with the stability established by Chola Kings.
The Great Living Chola Temples are temples built during the Chola rule in the south of India and neighboring islands. These sites includes 3 temples of 11th and 12 century. These 3 temples are the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Tample of Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. The Brihadisvara Temple was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1987; the Temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram were added as extensions to the site in 2004. The site is now known as the "Great Living Chola Temple."
The Grand Living Chola Temples are the significant Hindu temples constructed between 10th to 12th centuries CE in southern part of our country are together credited as UNESCO World Heritage Site. These temples illustrate the magnificent accomplishments of Imperial Cholas in the field of sculpture, architecture, bronze casting and painting.

History
In small stretch of Kaveri river belt between the Tiruchy-Tanjore-Kumbakonam, to their maximum potential, the Cholas constructed more than 2500 temples, in which 1500 temples were built in between Tiruchy to Thanjavur belt. The evolution scenario of these architectural styles of temples can be categorized into three different stages- Vijayalaya Chola initiated the early stage, Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola played significant role in the middle stage where their achievements reached great heights and the Kulottunga Chola I and his successors during Chalaukya Chola comprised the final stage.
The Chola Kings supported and endorsed building large temples over the entire parts of the Chola territory. The temples include forty of 108 Vaishnava Divya Desams among them; seventy seven are located in major places of southern India and rest in Andhra Pradesh and Northern India. Out of these, the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple located in Srirangam comes first as the largest temple of our country and Chidambaram Natarajar Temple (originally constructed by Pallavas, later on seized by the Cholas during the Pre-Christian epoch while ruling all the way from Kanchi) are the most significant shrines supported and extended by Chola Kings.

Early Chola Period
The Chola emperors are creative temple constructors starting from the very first king of the Chola dynasty Emperor Vijayalaya Chola, the Vijayalaya Chozhisvaram temple was named after him. There are earliest illustrations of the Dravidian temples built by Cholas. The son of Vijayalaya Chola, Aditya I constructed various temples in and around Kumbakonam and Kanchi areas.
The living early Chola construction is the Vijayalacholeswaram situated near to Pudukkottai in the state of Tamil Nadu. The architectural design of this temple clearly depicts the influence of Pallavas.
Parantaka I and Aditya I were productive constructors for their belief. The inscriptions of the Aditya I account his role in constructing large number of temples along the bed of the Kaveri River. These temples are very small when compared with the giant monumental building of later Cholas and might have probably constructed by bricks rather than the stones.
The small Nageswara temple located at Kumbakonam also belong to the same era. The Koranganatha shrine situated at Srinivasanallur near to Hirapalli stands as an illustration of the Parantaka I era. This shrine was constructed on the beds of the Kaveri River, which is small in size but filled with amazing sculptures on each and every surface.
During second half of 10th century, a feudatory of King Parantaka Chola II constructed a Muvarkovil – temple of three in Pudukkottai region. These temples were built on an architectural design that display great concordance with later Chola shrines.

Middle Period
The construction of temples achieved remarkable force from take-over and mastermind of the great Rajaraja Chola followed by his son Rajendra Chola I. A large number of small shrines were constructed during early phase of their era. Among those, the significant temple is the Tiruvalisvaram temple located near Tirunelveli. This temple is constructed with delicate and well designed sculptures and wall paintings along with some comic figures. There are few other temples that come under the same category including the Vaidyanatha temple at Tirumalavadi and Uttara Kailasa temple at Thanjavur.
The magnificence and maturity with which the Chola architecture evolved can easily be identified in two grandeur temples at Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Thanjavur. The splendid Shiva temple located in Thanjavur is the best example for material achievements during the reign of Rajaraja Chola. Being the tallest and largest among all Indian shrines, this masterwork leaves a great mark in the architecture of south India.
Although the temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram is almost similar to the famous big temple at Thanjavur, it gets differentiated with its own specific characteristics. It can be obviously witnessed that the former temple possess single enclosure wall with a gopura whereas the Big temple at Thanjavur contain two enclosure walls and gopura.

Later Period
The Chola style of construction continued for about a century and displayed itself in the form of large number of shrines. Among those, the 2 large shrines are worth comparing to Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola.
The Airavatesvara temple situated at Darasuram town near Thanjavur District was constructed during the period of Rajaraja Chola II carries a glorious structure similar to the phase of architectural advancement attained during twelfth century CE. The temple possess highly artistic pillars made from stones and good decorated walls in fashion bordering mannerism enriched with a touch on polished features and elaborated limbs.
The last illustration of this era is Kampahareswarar temple situated at Tribhuvanam close to Kumbakonam has survived after a good repair service as constructed by Kulottunga Chola III. This temple possesses architecture similar to that of temples located at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Thanjavur and Darasuram.

Significance of Chola Temples
The architecture of the Chola temples depicts the stability, affluence and grandeur of the Chola kings.
Being strong devotees of the Lord Shiva, the Cholas constructed temples in dedication to their beloved Lord Shiva in Hindu pantheon.
The Cholas succeeded the tradition of temple construction from the Pallavas; they also elevated the Dravidian design temple to great stage. The style of Chola kings is expressed in using granites for creating warriors, deities, dancers and kings. They constructed gigantic shrines. The great Brihadeeswarar temple situated at Thanjavur rests inside a drudgery inner prakara which is about 240.9 meter in length (towards east to west) and measures 122 meters in breadth(towards north to south).

Brihadeeswarar Temple

The most prestigious of Chola constructions, the Brihadeeswarar temple situated at Thanjavur was constructed following a command received by Chola King Rajaraja I in his dreams. This temple with majestic design and grandeur adds to architectural splendor of Thanjavur.
This temple possesses a tall linga of the Lord Shiva which measures about 3.7 meter and also tallest Vimana in whole world. One among the splendors of Indian architectures, the gopurams present in the Brihadeeswarar shrine is embellished with sculptural carvings of several gods and goddesses.
Built with massive proportions together with simple design, this temple is known to provide inspiration for further constructions in future even at south-east Asia together with South India.

Gangaikonda Choleswarar Temple
Together with the Brihadeeswarar temple at Thanjavur, the Gangaikonda Choleswarar Temple was also constructed by Chola emperor Rajaraja I in order to celebrate his victory over the northern kingdoms. Rajendra Chola I erected the Gangaikonda Cholapuram as capital of Cholas together with Gangaikonda Choleswarar temple, to be the focal point for the Chola capitals.
The Shiva lingam at Gangaikonda Choleswarar temple is taller when compared with the Shiva lingam present in the Thanjavur Big temple. Several other focus of this temple includes the monolithic expression of the Navagrahas in the form of chariot and also the sculptures of Gnanasaraswathi and Chandeswarar.

Airavateswarar Temple
Smaller in size when compared to the Brihadeeswarar shrine and Gangaikonda Choleswarar shrine, this Airavateswarar shrine situated at Darasuram near to Kubakonam comes in as third in list of Great Living Chola Temples.
This temple was constructed in Tamil Nadu by the great Raja Raja II during the 12th century CE. This temple was built out of their dedication to Lord Shiva who venerated as Airavateshwara and there is a belief that space elephant Airavat adored the statue in this place.
Similar to other shrines, this Airavatesvara temple is popular for its extraordinary architecture. The temple vimana is of 24 meter altitude. The mandapam in the front is designed in form of gigantic chariot pulled by horses. There is a belief that this temple was constructed with “nitya-vinoda” means perpetual entertainment in mind.

Kampahareswarar Temple

Though this temple does not fall under the list of Great Living Chola Temples, the Kampahareswarar temple situated at Tribhuvanam was constructed by the emperor Tribhuvana Chakravarti as a celebration of his victory over kings in the northern India.
The mandapam of this temple was constructed in the figure of gigantic chariot and also the vimana is comparatively larger than gopuram. This is approximately 120 feet in altitude. Additional attractions are the sculptured panes, displaying the scenes from Great Ramayana. One can also witness a rare sculpture of the Sarabha, a form of the Lord Shiva in order to subdue Narasimha.
Best time to visit
Thanjavur is well-known as the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu. Formerly known as Tanjore, Thanjavur is famous for its arts, handicrafts, historical importance and paintings. The best time to visit the place is from March to October. The weather remains cool in between these months and it is ideal for exploring the place.

How to Reach 
To visit all these tourist destinations in and around Tanjore, you need to know how to reach Tanjore. You can avail of the following transport options to reach Tanjore
By Air:
The nearest airport is at Trichy (65 km).
By Rail:
The railway junction in Tanjore is well-linked with Trichy, Chennai, Madurai and Nagore.
By Road:
Tanjore is well-connected by a vast network of roads to all the prime towns and cities in Tamil Nadu and also to Kochi, Ernakulam, and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala and Bangalore in Karnataka. Customary bus services and tourist taxis are available for you to visit the tourist destinations in and around Tanjore.

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