As a kid, I'd go to Kumbakonam from Hyderabad almost every summer to visit my grandparents. But in those days, neither photography nor heritage interested me, so I never realized that three exquisite specimens of Indian architecture were so close by! They are collectively called the Great Living Chola Temples, because they were built by the Chola dynasty. The group is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Brihadeeshwara Temple in Tanjore (or Thanjavur, more correctly), the Brihadeeshwara Temple (not a typo - it has the same name!) in Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavateshwara Temple in Darasuram form the trio. All three are dedicated to Lord Shiva. I posted about Darasuram a couple of years ago. I think I'll do separate posts about the other two soon and link to them here - this one is like an overview :)
A bit of history
The Cholas were one of the most powerful Tamil dynasties of South India. They ruled for a really long time - from the 3rd century BC to the 13th century AD. Raja Raja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I were two of the greatest Chola rulers, and built the temples in Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram respectively. The third temple in Darasuram was built by Rajendra Chola II, who came about 8 generations later. Read more about the Cholas here.
Brihadeeshwara Temple in Tanjore
This temple is the grandest of the three and was built by King Raja Raja Chola I in the beginning of the 11th century. It will make your jaw drop, I promise you - I'm not exaggerating even a teeny bit. It now has a small museum in it and the knowledgeable staff will tell you at least a million things that make this temple unique.
Brihadeeshwara Temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram
This temple built in the 11th century is strikingly similar to the one in Tanjore. Not surprising, since they were built by father and son. This year marks the 1000th anniversary of the coronation of King Rajendra Chola I, the builder of this temple.
Airavateshwara Temple in Darasuram
This temple built by King Raja Raja Chola II in the 12th century is quite different from the other two, but every bit as stunning. The front of the temple is shaped like a chariot. Here's my post about the temple.
How to visit :The three temples are almost in a straight line. Darasuram in the middle, is practically in Kumbakonam - it's just 3 kms away. Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram are on either side, at 40km and 35kms respectively. You can go to Tanjore (310 kms) or Kumbakonam (270 kms) by bus/train/car from Chennai. Both have decent hotels and taxi services.
I took an auto rickshaw from Kumbakonam to Darasuram. To the other two temples, I went in a taxi. There's a bridge on the way to Gangaikonda Cholapuram on which they don't allow buses (as of Feb 2014).
The temples are closed approximately from 12 to 4 in the afternoon. Kumbakonam has many gorgeous temples that are totally worth visiting but pretty much all of them are closed in the afternoon. I think that's about it - was this useful? If you want any other details, feel free to ask in the comments or on twitter :)