Chola Temples

Airavatesvara Temple, Darasuram (Click to embiggen)

As far back as I can recall, I’ve had a deep interest in philosophy and cosmology. Those disciples raise and seek answers to some of our most insistent questions: what is the nature of the universe and what does it all mean?

The night sky holds particular fascination for us: what are those points of lights, and why do some of them move across the sky and the others stay absolutely motionless? Who or what created them? “Who knows, who can here declare whence it all came, and how creation happened?” as the Rig Veda asks in the Creation Hymn.[1]

Some people believe that religion is what humans developed in an attempt to make sense of the world. It could be true because I get the religious impulse when contemplating the universe as I perceive it.

Since I’m brought up in the religious traditions of India, I have a singular fascination for ancient Indian temples. I’ve been to dozens of them. Thanks to the generosity and kindness of my friend K, I got to visit three amazing temples in Tamil Nadu on a 4-day road trip last month that I had never been to before. They were amazing, astonishing, magnificent, beautiful and awe-inspiring.

The first temple we visited was the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram, around 200 kms south-east of Salem, Tamil Nadu. (Salem itself is 200 kms south of Bangalore, Karnataka.) It’s a temple to Shiva because Airavata, the white elephant, worshiped Lord Siva in this temple.

That Shiva temple was built by the Chola emperor Rajaraja II in the 12th century CE. Along with the two other temples we visited—the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur, and the Gangaikondacholisvaram Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram—it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All three are collectively known as the Great Living Chola Temples.

(Though ‘Gangaikondacholisvaram’ looks intimidating, it is quite easy to learn how to pronounce it. gan-gai-konda-cholis-varam. Try ai-raa-vat-es-vara. Say it a few times and soon it will be effortlessly rolling off your tongue.)

A word about that “World heritage site” designation: those temples are in Tamil Nadu. But they belong to the world. Every human being is an inheritor of that magnificence, not just the bunch whose ancestors built the temples. So also, I’m an inheritor of the great cathedrals. My favorite is the one at Chartres in France (which is also a UNESCO-designated world heritage site.)


Equipped with a Canon G15 and a couple of nice mobiles with good cameras, I took a whole bunch of pictures during the trip. Links to the albums at the end of this post.


Visiting the temples was a dream come true. Way back in 1982, I had promised myself that one day I would go to the temple at Darasuram. I was fascinated by Carl Sagan’s tv series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on the public broadcast system. It’s where I first came across a mention to that temple. Here is the excerpt from Sagan’s TV show:

In the above bit, Sagan recites part of the Rig veda creation hymn (1:00 time stamp). That hymn has the most amazing expression of epistemic humility (an attitude that recognizes that there are strict limits to one’s knowledge) in all world literature and philosophy. It concludes that no one knows where the universe came from; perhaps the one with the highest consciousness knows — or perhaps he knows not.

Sagan goes on to say —

“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, no doubt by accident, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long, longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still. There is the deep and appealing notion that the universe is but the dream of the god who, after a hundred Brahma years, dissolves himself into a dreamless sleep. The universe dissolves with him until, after another Brahma century, he stirs, recomposes himself and begins again to dream the great cosmic dream. Meanwhile, elsewhere, there are an infinite number of other universes, each with its own god dreaming the cosmic dream. These great ideas are tempered by another, perhaps still greater. It is said that men may not be the dreams of the gods, but rather that the gods are the dreams of men.”

Those ideas of the ancient Hindu sages have always been radical (which I use in the sense “related to the root cause”). As you may know, these days since the enormous impact of computers and simulations in our technologically sophisticated world, people have begun to wonder if our universe is itself a simulation. The ancient Hindus would say, “What else is new! We’ve conjectured that this universe is a simulation in the mind of Brahma, and there are an infinite number of universes.”

That last bit anticipates the Everett many-world interpretation of the quantum mechanical description of reality. I am not going to go all dancing Wu Li masters[2] on you here but it’s fascinating that Hindus had such brilliant ideas.

But I digress. Back to the video. The segment on the temple at Darasuram starts at the 6:10 minute timestamp. Watching Sagan walking around the temple, I promised myself that one day I will spend some time there. And last month, thanks to my friend K, I did.

Later on in the video (~8:30 time stamp), Sagan talks about Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. It’s fascinating that Shiva’s multifaceted character includes that of an ascetic, a dancer and the destroyer of worlds. Given time limitations, Sagan’s description of Nataraja is fine. But if you’re really interested, read the piece by Heinrich Zimmer, Tandava–Shiva’s Cosmic Dance.

Sagan had a way with words. He was arguably one of the finest popularizers of science. His Cosmos TV series and the companion book of the same name is legendary. He motivated a couple of generations of kids to become physicists and cosmologist.

Cosmos has aged remarkably well although bits of it are outdated, such as where he writes that the dinosaurs went extinct:

“In one catastrophic event all of them and many, perhaps most, of the other species on the Earth, were destroyed. But not the tree shrews. Not the mammals. They survived.

“No one knows what wiped out the dinosaurs. One evocative idea is that it was a cosmic catastrophe, the explosion of a nearby star a supernova like the one that produced the Crab Nebula. … The disaster, whatever it was, that cleared the dinosaurs from the world stage removed the pressure on the mammals.”

Cosmos was published in 1980 — the same year that the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event was proposed by the UC Berkeley (my alma mater) physicists Luis Alvarez and his son Walter. The so-called K-T event led to the end of all non-avian dinosaurs. Shiva dancing his dance of destruction and creation, the Tandava.

Sagan sits down at the steps of the temple (~9:30 time stamp) of Darasuram and comments on Hinduism’s cosmological conjectures:

These profound and lovely images are, I like to imagine, a kind of premonition of modern astronomical ideas. Very likely, the universe has been expanding since the Big Bang, but it is by no means clear that it will continue to expand forever. The expansion may gradually slow, stop and reverse itself. If there is less than a certain critical amount of matter in the universe, the gravitation of the receding galaxies will be insufficient to stop the expansion, and the universe will run away forever. But if there is more matter than we can see hidden away in black holes, say, or in hot but invisible gas between the galaxies then the universe will hold together gravitationally and partake of a very Indian succession of cycles, expansion followed by contraction, universe upon universe, Cosmos without end. If we live in such an oscillating universe, then the Big Bang is not the creation of the Cosmos but merely the end of the previous cycle, the destruction of the last incarnation of the Cosmos.

Modern cosmological models include exotic forms of matter and energy — the dark variety which is believed to comprise 95 percent of the entire universe. Shiva, the Dark one, is there lurking in the shadows.

The Great Living Chola temples are some of the most important structures created by humans. They have spiritual, philosophical, religious, architectural and historical significance. Visiting them is an uplifting experience that is hard for me to describe. So all I can do now is to point you to three photo albums I created.

I have a few more thoughts about those temples. But those will have to wait for another post as this one is already too long.


[1] The Creation Hymn of the Rig Veda:

“Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?

“Then there were neither death nor immortality,
Nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.

“At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
Arose at last, born of the power of heat.

“In the beginning desire descended on it
That was the primal seed, born of the mind.
The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
Know that which is is kin to that which is not.

“And they have stretched their cord across the void,
And know what was above, and what below.
Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.
Below was strength, and over it was impulse,

“But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
So who knows truly whence it has arisen?

“Whence all creation had its origin,
He, whether he fashioned it or whether He did not,
He, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
He knows— or maybe even He does not know.

From – The Wonder That Was India – A. L. Basham

[2] From that wiki article:

The Dancing Wu Li Masters is a 1979 book by Gary Zukav, a popular science work exploring modern physics, and quantum phenomena in particular. It was awarded a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in category of Science. Although it explores empirical topics in modern physics research, The Dancing Wu Li Masters gained attention for leveraging metaphors taken from eastern spiritual movements … to explain quantum phenomena and has been regarded by some reviewers as a New Age work, although the book is mostly concerned with the work of pioneers in western physics down through the ages.

Author: Atanu Dey


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