Recently, when we got an opportunity to visit Chennai in Tamilnadu, we couldn’t resist the temptation to create a side trip to go visit the great living chola temples located in and around Thanjavur about 250 km away from Chennai.
For this trip, we decided to take a train from Chennai to Thanjavur. There are many trains that ferry travellers in this corridor… but, just our luck, the day time express train that we wanted to take did not run on the day we wanted to travel. Nonetheless, we hopped on the Chozan express train and headed to Thanjavur. The journey took a bit longer but was well worth it.
The train ride was smooth. We had an opportunity to catch up on our sleep. It was almost 2 pm by the time we reached Thanjavur and made our way to the hotel. Once we settled in, we decided to have lunch and then set out to explore Tirchy which is about an hour away from Thanjavur. Since the temples are not part of the UNESCO site, a separate post is dedicated to that part of the trip. However, if Tirchy is not part of your itinerary, then I highly recommend you check out the Brihadisvara temple located in Thanjavur on the evening you arrive.
Stop 1 – Brihadisvara Temple Thanjavur
We decided to stay at the Sangam Hotel in Thanjavur. They have a good restaurant and excellent concierge service. They arranged for a taxi with a knowledgeable driver who took us around. The next morning, we had an early breakfast and set out to go sightseeing at 7:45 am. We reached the Brihadisvara temple around 8am. Our timing was a little off and the main temple was closed. It was going to reopen at 8:45 am.
We used the time we had to explore the large temple complex. From the large Nandi in front of the main temple to the smaller temples surrounding it, the architecture was breath taking. It was quite a warm and sunny day. The socks we wore helped us stay insulated from the hot floors.
One mistake we made was that we did not hire a guide. We were not confident about whether or not they would be able to communicate in English (my Tamil language skills are very basic). As a result, unfortunately, we missed climbing up what seemed like temporary stairs to pay respects to Lord Dakshineswara. So, remember – if you see flights of stairs and you feel comfortable climbing them, just do it – you might end up visiting a very special temple!
Around 8:45am, we headed inside the main temple. At the end of the long corridor was the door to the inner sanctum where you could see the beautiful Shiva lingam. They had just performed a morning puja, so the atmosphere was electric. After a brief darshan, we exited the temple and made our way out. It was around 9:15 am by the time we left the premises and headed to our next stop – Darasuram.
Stop 2 – Airavatesvara temple Darasuram
Next, we headed to the Airavatesvara temple in Darasuram. We reached there around 11 am. As we entered the complex area, we neglected to notice one small detail. Instead of one large complex, it is actually two smaller complexes. Again, we did not use the services of a guide, so we did not realise until later. From the car parking, we headed straight to the first complex we saw. Luckily, this is the main complex with a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Compared to the Brihadisvara temple, this temple is much smaller in scale. However, the architecture and the sculptures are stunning… well worth the visit. The minute details within the sculptures were remarkable.
After exploring the temple, we headed out to continue our onward journey. We then realised we had missed visiting the second complex dedicated to Goddess Periya Nayaki Amman. Unfortunately, by the time we realised our mistake and headed back to the second complex, the temple doors were closed as it was 12 noon.
We spent the next two hours exploring the small town and had lunch at a local restaurant. Around 3 pm, we headed to our final stop – Gangaikondacholisvaram, the third temple of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Stop 3 – Gangaikondacholisvaram
We reached the complex around 3:40 pm. Earlier than expected as the roads were in good shape and the drive was smooth. We were afraid the complex might be closed until 4pm but luckily, the complex itself was open and only the main temple was closed. It was going to open at 4pm.
We used the time to explore the premises. This is truly an ode to the Brihadisvara temple – similar in style, but on a slightly smaller scale. The large Nandi in front of the temple was a sight to behold… stunning. To the right of the Nandi there is another large lion like sculpture. Although it is currently closed, locals mentioned that the opening leads to a secret tunnel below.
There were many people visiting at the time and interestingly, loud speakers blasted popular local music that created a cool picnic like atmosphere. After exploring the perimeter, we waited with others for the main temple to open. Once it opened, we went inside and said our prayers to Lord Shiva. Once again, we missed climbing the stairs to visit the Lord Dakshineswara temple.
Having explored the complex to our satisfaction, we left Gangaikondacholisvaram and headed back to Thanjavur to call it a day.
Day 3 – left Thanjavur and returned home.
Important things to note:
1. Each of the temples close for brief periods of time throughout the day where the priests perform pujas behind closed doors. These closures are in addition to the 12pm to 4pm closure. The meaning of “a living temple” finally sunk in during this trip.
2. Non-Hindus may or may not be allowed to enter the main temples. Luckily, in the 3 temples, the main sculptures worth admiring are on the exterior walls. The interior walls are mostly plain although the height of the columns are overwhelming. The point I want to make is that if you are a non-Hindu, the exterior is still worth seeing. My assumption is that being a UNESCO World Heritage site, interested people will be allowed to visit. However, if you are a non-Hindu, request to enquire with an experienced travel agent regarding visitation rules as the rules may change from time to time.
3. Depending on the weather forecast, do not hesitate to wear socks. Your feet will thank you.
4. If you can, hire a guide. A seasoned traveller like me should have known better… but I guess overconfidence was my folly!
5. If you see stairs, do not hesitate to climb them if you are able to. You might discover unexpected gems!
6. Dress appropriately (conservatively). No shorts are allowed.
7. If you decide to drive from Chennai, then the sightseeing order may be reversed. Visit Gangaikondacholisvaram first, then Airavatesvara and finally Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur.
Final thoughts – the sculptures in these temples are not as detailed as the ones we had seen earlier at other temples in India. However, these temples are spectacular. It is mind blowing to see the sculptures at such physical heights. The history of the time period when these were built reveals why these temples are special. The true magic of course is in the fact that these are living temples and if you follow the Hindu religion, you will have an opportunity to pray inside few of the extraordinary temples dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Three temples in one day? Absolutely doable indeed! We are glad we took the plunge and visited these spectacular World Heritage sites.