Alexander the Great is the son of Phillip II of Macedon. Rajaraja Chola, the first great Chola king was succeeded by his son Rajendra Chola. This succession parallels the Phillip-Alexander saga. Great acts of the father were replicated at an early age and one-upped by the even more prodigal sons.
But then how many stars can a dynasty produce? Has anybody heard of Alexander’s son? or grandson? History has very few examples of a super star son following a star father; a star grandson is literally unknown. (The pre-common era Maurya dynasty that produced, in an unbroken sequence - Chandragupta Maurya, Bindusar and Ashoka the Great - is the only triad that comes to mind).
The Chola rule was on the decline by the time Rajaraja Chola II came to power in the middle of the 12th century. The Chola’s had lost most of their territory on the Deccan plateau. They had lost their grip on Sri Lanka. They were barely holding on to a sliver of land on the southern peninsula of India.
The Airavatesvara temple is a production of this era, and it shows. Gone are the soaring vimanaas (towers) that were taller than the gopurams and the sweeping temple complexes that were the hallmark of the temples build by the Chola empire at its peak. The impossible-is-nothing granite of Rajaraja Chola’s Brihadeeswara gives way to black stone, announcing a more pragmatic I-am-mortal attitude by King Rajaraja Chola II, a grave reflection of the reality of his times.
The Brihadeeswara temple is a chest thumping monument to a monumental victory on the battlefield. Airavetesvara is an ode to an art – the art of dancing – bharat natyam.
In that context, Airavetesvara temple is beautiful. The inner sanctum is small and peaceful. The absence of a buzzing crowd, induced partly by the one hour drive one has to undertake from Thanjavur, makes the pace of this temple sedate. The manthapa of the temple, the prayer hall, has 108 exquisitely carved pillar, each showcasing a pose of Bharat Natyam. Your guide will proudly point out nuances that the artisans of yesteryears poured into the carvings of this temple. It is well worth a hot afternoon.
My favorite spot on the temple wall is on the west facade. Notice the blackened carving that looks like an elevator? It is a cross section of a shiva lingam, with an image of Shiva carved inside the oval pseudo-opening. I have never seen anything like this before.
There are several myths associated with this temple. Stories that place mythical figures of Airavat – the carrier elephant of the king of the gods, and Yama – the lord of death, in the vicinity of the Airavatesvara temple. Does it not sound like advertisements? The type that falls back on the age old panacea - when everything fails, dial–in the religion?
The Chola dynasty extinguished within 150 years of the consecration of Airavatesvara. Airavatesvara remains the last of the Great Living Temples of Chola, a tidy tombstone of the tenacious Chola rule.
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