Located deep within the Kaveri River valley, Uraiyur (modern-day Tiruchirappalli) was once the capital of the Great Chola Empire, which expanded beyond the confines of Southern India to the unexplored territories of Southeast Asia at its peak. The great Tamilian rulers of the dynasty which antedated the early Sangam poems had a rooted connection with the Uraiyur family.
Attributed for the spread of the Tamil identity across South India and Sri Lanka, the Cholans brought about a revival of Shaivism, the worship of Lord Shiva, and Vaishnavism, the worship of Lord Vishnu. The affection for the gods was such that the Cholans sculpted a large number of bronze figures in tribute to them. Much of modern Tamil classical literature and architecture is heavily influenced by the 9th-century dynasty. A glorious time for literature, the period also saw devotional pieces of work prosper.
Taking their devotion to the next level, the Cholans established a long-standing temple building tradition using Dravidian designs. Built along the banks of the river Kaveri, the Great living Chola temples are included in UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.
Brihadisvara Thanjavur Temple
Capturing the hearts and faiths of the locals of Tamil Nadu, the Brihadisvara Temple holds one of the largest Shiva lingas in the country. The granite structure has one of the tallest vimana structures in South India and includes shrines for Nandi, Parvati, Kartikeya, Ganesha, among many others. Standing at over a thousand years old, the complex structure commissioned the building of the monumental brass Nataraja, the famous sculpture of Lord Shiva dancing, in the 11th century. An outstanding structure inspired by Dravidian architecture, the temple was built around a moat and had been fortified massively in the 16th century. A series of sanctums, which takes the form of the a vimana in the Dravidian style of architecture, surrounds the main complex. The towers are intricately embellished with pilasters and columns which support the vimana.
Associated with the legends of the sixty three Nayanars, a group of Shiva devotees who influenced the Bhakti Movement in Tamil between the 6th and 8th century, the Airavatesvara Temple integrates a chatriot structure and includes tributes to major Vedia and Puranic deities. The carvings along the base of the main temple narrate the stories of the Nayanars. A series of other carvings on the outer walls of the main sanctum depict various Hindu deities, five on each side while the middle sculptures display Lord Shiva in different forms. Located in Darasuram, the temple showcases Vaishnavism and Shaktism traditions of Hinduism. This great Cholan marvel is also fine tuned with a group of ornately carved steps on each side. When one walks on these steps, they produce a musical note and hence are recognised as the 'singing steps'.
Protected within the confines of the Cholan capital city of Chidambaram, the Nataraja Temple was the centre of worship and religion in the vast empire. The Cholans, who considered Nataraja as their family deity, built a complex which was a tangible mix of art, spirituality, creative activity, and the divine. A site of the annual Natyanjali dance festival on Maha Shivaratri, the carvings on the temple walls exhibit all the 108 karanas from the Natya Shastra by Bharat Muni. A exotic sculpture of Lord Shiva performing the Ananda Tandava, the dance of delight, resides in the golden hall of the shrine. These enigmatic postures ultimately laid the foundation of the Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam. A hot-spot area for ardent followers of Shaivism, the temple is one of the five elemental lingas in the pilgrimage destination.
Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple
Built by the Cholan king Rajendra Chola I as part of his new capital, the Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple is similar in design to the Brihadisvara Temple. A supreme example of Dravidian architecture, the temple is the only remaining piece of the elaborate puzzle from the destroyed capital city of Gangaikoda Cholapuram. The site is also offers a monolithic representation of the Navgrahas which are the nine planetary deities. Over fifty fascinating sculptures are housed on the walls of the grand temple, a couple of of which like Harihara, a fused representation of Shiva and Vishnu, and Ardhanarishwara, an androgynous form of Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati, are especially intriguing.