Near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu there is a 12th Century Hindu temple, Airavatesvara temple which is also popular as Siva temple of Darasuram. The temple was built during the regime of Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century CE. The temple is a listed UNESCO World Heritage monument. Like any other Chola temples, this one too is an architectural marvel. But this temple goes one ‘step’ further. Do you know the what’s special quality of the steps at the entrance of the temple?
The great Cholas had established a powerful monarchy in the 9th CE at Thanjavur and in its surroundings and their rule continued till 13th century. Their achievements are well-known in all fields of royal endeavour such as military conquest, efficient administration, cultural assimilation and promotion of art. Their contribution to art and architecture are visible in three temples, the Brihadisvara at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara at Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavatesvara at Darasuram, in Thanjavur.
The Airavatesvara temple at Tanjavur was built by the Chola king Rajaraja II (1143-1173 CE.): it is much smaller in size as compared to the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. It differs from them in its highly ornate execution. The temple consists of a sanctum without a circumambulatory path and axial mandapas. The front mandapa known in the inscriptions as Rajagambhiran tirumandapam, is unique as it was conceptualized as a chariot with wheels. The pillars of this mandapa are highly ornate. The elevation of all the units is elegant with sculptures dominating the architecture. A number of sculptures from this temple are the masterpieces of Chola art. The labelled miniature friezes extolling the events that happened to the 63 nayanmars (Saiva saints) are noteworthy and reflect the deep roots of Saivism in this region. The construction of a separate temple for Devi, slightly later than the main temple, indicates the emergence of the Amman shrine as an essential component of the South Indian temple complex. (UNESCO)
However, special mention needs to be made about steps at the entrance which are now fenced to protect it from damages that might be caused by the miscreants. The agra mandapa has an attached square porch of 7 metres side. It has ornately carved steps that go from east to west. On its east, outside the main podium, is the bali-pitham. It is unusual, in that it is produced as intricately carved balustraded steps. When one walks or steps on them, they produce a musical note. They are popularly called the “singing steps”.
However, while there are 7 musical notes, we can see 10 steps in the entrance. While the 7 steps give seven different musical notes, other three steps give the sound of ‘AUM’. Further, one can also see elsewhere in the temple carvings the visual representation of the sound ‘AUM.’