About 5 km south of Kumbakonam is Darasuram with the Airavatesvara Temple (open 0600-1200,1600-2000) after Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, the third of the great Chola temples, built during the reign of Rajaraja II (1146-1172). The entrance is through two gateways. A small inner gateway leads to a court where the mainly granite temple stands in the centre. The gopuram is supported by beautifully carved apsaras. Inside, there are friezes of dancing figures and musicians. The mandapa is best entered from the south. Note the elephant, ridden by dwarfs, whose trunk is lost down the jaws of a crocodile. The pillars illustrate mythological stories for example ‘the penance of Parvati’. The five gods Agni, Indra, Brahma, Vishnu and Vayu in the niches are all shown paying homage to Siva. The main mandapa, completely enclosed and joined to the central shrine, has figures carved in black basalt on the outside. The ceilings are also richly decorated and the pillars have the same flower emblems as in the outer mandapa. The main shrine has some outstanding sculptures; the guardians on the north are particularly fine. Sculpted doorkeepers with massive clubs guard the entrance to the main shrine, which has a Nandi at the entrance. Some of the niches inside contain superb early Chola sculptures of polished black basalt, including a unique sculpture of Ardhanarisvara with three faces and eight arms, a four-armed Nagaraja and a very unusual sculpture of Siva destroying Narasimha. The outer walls are also highly decorative. Siva as Dakshinamurti on the south wall, Brahma on the north wall and Siva appearing out of the lingam on the west wall. The inner wall of the prakara (encircling walkway) is divided into cells, each originally to house a deity. The corners of the courtyard have been enlarged to make four mandapas, again with beautiful decoration.
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