A stupendous work done during the Chola dynasty, a thousand years ago, the Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur district (formerly known as Tanjore) is a masterpiece of architecture. Located in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, this temple finds its place in the World Heritage sites declared by UNESCO. The temple is also known as Peruvudaiyar Kovil and Rajarajeswaram temple. The sculpted brilliance depicted through its architecture, sculptures, paintings and its hugeness, was a tribute given to Lord Shiva by the then king Rajaraja Chola I (Arulmozhivarman). A symbol of his power and his relationship to the universal order, this temple was the prime location for all the worships during his rule. The entire monument is made out of granite and is a 66m tall structure which soars into the sky. A one of its kind temple, and considered as the temple of the temples, Brihadeeswarar temple is the largest temple in south India.
Protected by the high walls of more than 15m height, the main temple is located at the center of this rectangular boundary. These boundaries also house the Nandi, a pillared hall, an assembly hall and a number of sub shrines. A rectangle formed by two squares constitutes the area of the main temple. The main tower which represents mount Meru, is built on the rare side of the rectangle and has 16 tiers. The Kumbam (kalash; the tip of the temple) mounts the gopuram (the pyramidal structure on top), which has been made from a single piece of granite rock and has been carved magnificently. The Karuvarai (innermost sanctum or garbhagriha) shelters the lingam which is 3.7m tall. This entire structure has been placed on a plinth. At the end of the main rectangle, there is a porch which is supported by 20 pillars and has three stair cases that lead the visitors downstairs to the huge Nandi statue. The walls of the inner sanctum display the 108 karmas that are dance poses by Lord Shiva himself and have been delicately yet precisely sculpted throughout. The exterior walls of this temple also show evidence of the mesmerizing skills of the sculptors and the painters as well as the architects of that era.
Beauty and Beliefs
It is believed that the king, Rajaraja had thought about this architectural marvel when he was in Sri Lanka. With the view of establishing his universal rule and to show his people the power he possessed, the temple was constructed to these heights for the portrayal of the same. Built in a single granitic stone, the entire Gopuram; weighing more than 80 tons was pushed by elephants on a mud slope that started a few kilometers away from the actual site. It was then placed in position. The prime deity being Lord Shiva, it is one of the temples which have the deities of all directions (also known as Ashta-dikpaalakas or Guardians of direction) in one temple. Situated in the respective corners of the temple, there were idols of the Gods of all eight directions. As of now only four remain intact (Agni, Varun, Vayu, Isaanya). It is also believed that the temple has been so constructed, that the shadow of the gopuram never falls on the ground; at least not in the entire premises of the temple.
Another fascinating thing about this temple is the inscriptions on the temple walls. Written in ancient Tamil, these narrate the passion of the king who built the temple. Also, the astounding paintings or murals are a beauty in itself. With different colors and figurines, the murals showcase the heroic deeds of Lord Shiva when he killed the demons. The murals portray even the demonic women as beautiful, which is really spectacular. The other tales portrayed by the frescoes are the journey of Saint Sundarar and Chera king to heaven and the battle scenes from the war of Tripantaka between Lord Shiva and the Asuras (demons). Unfortunately, due to the continuous exposure to smoke from lamps, these majestic artworks have been damaged to a large extent. The soot has deposited on the murals covering them up in black color. The archaeological Survey of India has tried to replace them with the 400 year old paintings given by the Tanjore Nayak, and are exhibited in a different hall.
Apart from the sacred sanctorum, the temple also has a shrine with a picture of Ganpathi (Lord Shiva’s son) in it. On the left side of the main temple is a 6m wide statue of the Nandi (Lord Shiva’s vehicle, a bull). Built in a single stone, even this is one of the sculpted beauties, with the artistic delicateness that has been portrayed through the minute details sculpted precisely.
Marking its 1000 year completion in the year 2010, the Government had organized Millennium celebrations and now the temple also finds its place on the stamps and coins released in the same year. A two day fest in September had converted the city into a festival hub, where people could experience the greatness of the temple. As a part of celebration, the temple also hosted the Bharatnatyam Yajna.
The existence of this temple even after 1000 years, in itself is a wonder. Open from 6.00am to 8.30pm the temple is crowded throughout. But if you really want to experience what greatness is, then the wait is worth it. The temple in true sense leaves your eyes wide open and your heart astounded.