The clock struck 5 pm, and both of them exclaimed after a serious discussion, “Yes, it is Darasuram”. Maya never got a chance to get acquainted with the heritage of South India. The only connection was her best friend, who stayed here in the Tanjore district of Tamilnadu in South India. Call it either serendipity or providence; Maya hardly knew what nature had for her ahead during her sabbatical. Her friend exclaimed, “You will be flabbergasted.” And yes, it sounded prophetic! It was an opportunity for the architect to view the perspective of an aesthete. 

The Airavatesvara temple of Darasuram, recognized as one of the Great Living Chola Temples, was built in the 12th century AD by Rajaraja Chola II. Legend says that the white elephant of Indra, Airavata, worshiped and bathed in this tank and hence the name. 

The Entrapment 

The first scene that they saw was a small portion of the Vimana that seemed to emerge from the vastness of the entire complex. Her friend’s attempts to interact with Maya were all in vain. Blame the splendid setting! The phrase “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” or “God is in the details” by the American Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is downright perfect. It gives us a clue on how perspective plays an important role in the lives of architects and aesthetes. Within a couple of minutes, they were at the entrance of this grand complex. 

What caught Maya’s attention was the dilapidated Eastern Gopuram or entrance. At this point, her friend would have realized the futility of conversing with the lost architect. Maya was now oblivious to her other thoughts and was in the clutches of the magical spell. Ruins? She realized, “No, a treasure for posterity.”

It was perspective, a by-product of the years of training and the understanding of the tremendous effort that goes into a structure. 

The expansive perspective of an architect - Sheeta1
View of Vimana_©Author (Meera Venkatesh)

Manifestation of Spirituality

After a brief plunge into the monument’s history, she saw the Bali Peetam or the altar for offerings. Intuitively, she knew that it was not just a stone structure. It referred to the sacrifice of the six qualities of lust, anger, greed, attachment, pride, and envy. At this moment, she realized the vastness and immensity that architecture encompasses. Social, cultural, religious factors all play a significant role. As stated by Henri Stierlin in the book Hindu India, Hindu Architecture is one manifestation of the intense spirituality of the vast country that is India; it is an expression of a religious faith whose rites are a daily presence in the lives of millions.” 

The Technology of the Past

With much cajoling, Maya had to be pulled into the temple complex. A couple of steps into the edifice revealed the unique design of the Mandapa or the pillared hall, designed in the form of a chariot pulled by a galloping horse, very similar to the design in the Sun temple at Konark, the former built almost a century earlier. What was intriguing for her was that the 32 spokes of the wheel were all different pieces made to fit like a jigsaw puzzle. Her perspective was even more profound than that of an enthusiast or aesthete. Undoubtedly, it is the power of manifestation that makes one ponder over the question of ‘how’. The magnificence of the creation at a time that did not have even basic power tools, leave alone state-of-the-art laser cutting. 

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The structure resembling a chariot_©Author (Meera Venkatesh)

The Minutiae

Lost in thoughts, Maya dragged herself to climb up the stairs as her friend signaled to come up. For a moment, she took a close look into the riser only to find tiny musicians and artists. This time the kind of thought that flashed in her mind was not the question of how, but the aspect of perfectionism and the zeal the artisans had. Like the one who awakens to reality from the dream world, she flinched at the boiling hot stone surface below her feet and snapped a picture in a fluster.

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Intricate carving_©Author (Meera Venkatesh)

Within a couple of moments, she was inside the Mandapa, anxiously looking at the carvings on the columns. It was a representation of a dynamic woman carved in stone. 

“Look at the scale,” Maya exclaimed. She captured a photo with her finger to understand the scale of the art. A couple of minutes later, she found a series of miniature panels depicting the lives of canonized Shaivaite saints. Instantly, she realized the significance of storyboards even during the days of yore. Moreover, it was not just the aesthetics. The architect’s perspective is much deeper to reveal other important aspects. It reveals to the enthusiast about the lifestyle of the people and gives insight into the past society.

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Miniature carvings_©Author (Meera Venkatesh)

Nostalgia

As she looked into the 85 feet high Vimana, she tried to recollect her experiences inside the temple. Anything that she saw here was seen through the lens of an architect. Even the simplest of all scenes like walking along the corridor brought her the memories of studying ‘single-point perspective’ in architecture school. Her eyes had seen both the most intricate of all the sculptures in bright light and the contrasting darkness of the innermost Sanctum Sanctorum. From the hot surface to the cool temperature, she had experienced a range of tactile qualities. The entire complex displayed its exuberance with just monochromes. It was not just nostalgia that flashed in her mind but the competence of the ancient sculptors and the mastery over the material they worked on.

Architecture- More than a Visual Experience!

C.Sivaramamurti in his book, The Chola Temples, mentions the term Nitya-Vinoda (perpetual entertainment), the keynote of the decoration of this temple. Maya’s experience was not anything less. Any architect would have felt at some point in time the potential of rich sensory experience in design or its connection with emotions and metaphysical aspects of nature. The architecture of temples is certainly not only about the visual experience.

Astrophysicist McKim Malville described the experience of entering a temple as “Moving inward in space and backward in time, one proceeds from brightly lighted exterior space to darkness, from large open spaces to confined small space, from richness of carving and decoration to the simplicity of the unadorned centre … Enshrouded by a darkness pierced only by a few lamps, lies the garbhagriha … symbolic of the chaos, potentiality and undifferentiated wholeness out of which the universe emerged. Spreading outward from the centre along cardinal and intercardinal directions, the stones of the temple [and the rich iconography on them] symbolise the [diversity of] creation into which the universe transformed itself.” 

Airavateswara temple, Darasuram_©Author (Meera Venkatesh)

This account denotes the unique perspective that an architect looks at that enhances the quality of the experience by interlinking one’s thoughts, concepts, and memories. It provides new insights and thereby helps in the construction of the other aspects into the main picture. The perspective of Maya was just one small portion of the vast ocean of potentiality. The multitude of variations silently await the aesthete’s compliment.

References: 

Online Sources

  1. Staff, S. (n.d.). The River And Empire Tour – Five Things You Must Not Miss At Darasuram. [online] Swarajyamag. Available at: https://swarajyamag.com/culture/the-river-and-empire-tour-five-things-you-must-not-miss-at-darasuram [Accessed 27 Feb. 2022].
  2. ‌ Anon, (n.d.). Darasuram Airavateswarar Temple. [online] Available at: http://wanderingtamil.blogspot.com/2017/12/darasuram-airavateswarar-temple.html [Accessed 27 Feb. 2022].
  3. www.youtube.com. (n.d.). Darasuram Airavatesvar temple | kumbakonam | tamil | Guide Explained | ஐராவதீஸ்வரர் | UNESCO |. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFK1Tr3L5xg [Accessed 27 Feb. 2022].
  4. ‌www.youtube.com. (n.d.). Airavatesvara Temple | Darasuram | UNESCO World Heritage Site | Great Living Chola Temples. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eo_glGNpKDI [Accessed 27 Feb. 2022].
  5. ‌PolkaJunction. (2018). Darasuram Airavateswarar temple (Part-1) – A Chola repository of micro carvings and sculptures. [online] Available at: https://polkajunction.com/darasuram-airavateswara-temple-unesco-living-chola-micro-carvings-sculptures-kumbakonam-travel-blog/ [Accessed 27 Feb. 2022].
  6. ‌ Ramakrishnan, R. (2021). The three Chola temples that are on the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list. The Hindu. [online] 7 Dec. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/children/the-three-chola-temples-that-are-on-the-unescos-world-heritage-sites-list/article37878144.ece [Accessed 27 Feb. 2022].
  7. Team, H.O. (2019). Significance and Interesting Facts about Bali Peetam – Hinduism Outlook. [online] www.hinduismoutlook.com. Available at: https://www.hinduismoutlook.com/bali-peetam-significance/ [Accessed 27 Feb. 2022].
  8. ‌ The New Indian Express. (n.d.). From space to consciousness: Indic architecture-II. [online] Available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/columns/2021/dec/14/from-space-to-consciousness-indic-architecture-ii-2395149.html.

Books

  1. Henri Stierlin and Stierlin, A. (2002). Hindu India : from Khajuraho to the temple city of Madurai. Köln ; New York: Taschen.
  2. ‌Chopra, T. (2016). Temples of India : abode of the divine. New Delhi, India: Prakash Books.
  3. C Sivaramamurti (1992). The Chola Temples. New Delhi Archaeological Survey Of India.

Newspaper

  1. K Manjula (2021). Stories in Stone. The New Sunday Express, p.18
Author

Meera Venkatesh, an architectural writer, finds it intriguing to recreate the same experience of space through words. Her love for architectural history has led her to pursue a Master's in History. Someone utters "Indian Heritage"; you may find Meera there! Now, what's her new interest? Writing for RTF!

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