of the most spectacular piece of South Indian architecture, with
due respect to the Vijayanagara and Pallava Kingdoms,
is the Brihadeeswara Temple in Tanjavur. Looking at
it, one has to redefine the normal notions of ‘size’.
The grandeur of the monument caught me off guard when I first saw
it, about a few good kilometres away. The 'Vimana' (the central
tower of the temple) is visible from quite a distance away.
The temple took 12 years to complete, and
King Raja Raja Chola - I, performed the Kumbhabhishekam (consecration
ceremony) in 1011 AD. The temple was built in honour of his victorious
reign, during when the Chola kingdom (10th to 14th centuries
AD) extended till Ceylon and some parts of the Malaya
The Temple, like many others built during this period served many
functions; the walls are very high and the entrance is built like
a fort, along with a moat. On the inside, there are separate waiting
areas for musicians, workers etc and the periphery served as a meeting
place for the public. The eastern side of the temple has the yagnasala
(place for special prayers), the kitchen, the storeroom and
the dining hall. The western and the northern ends have a
long corridor with 108 Shiva Lingams arranged along the inner side
of the corridor. The walls are decorated with paintings of the 64
divine 'lilas' (plays) of Lord Shiva.
central attraction is the great Vimana built over the sanctum, which
is 216 feet high. It has 14 storeys of intricate sculpting with
pilasters and niches, and images of God. This is peculiar, because
usually, the Gopurams (towers at the entrance) are generally higher
than the Vimana in most temples. This style of high Vimana has a
feel of the Orissa Temples in Bhuvaneshwar. The main sanctum
of the temple is a Mahalingam, a huge lingam that is 23 feet in
circumference and 9 feet high.
The Nandhi (the divine vehicle of Lord Shiva)
is a monolith measuring 12 feet in height, 19.5 feet in length and
18.25 feet in width, it weighs about 25 tons. The Nandi is
seated in an ornately sculpted mandapam called the Nayak Mandapam.
According to local legend, the Nandhi was growing in size and people
fearing that it might grow out of the mandapam, stuck a nail
at its back and since then the growth has ceased. Also it houses
many other sub shrines, which are later additions to the great complex.
The Shrine of Sri Subramanya is a new addition. Built towards
600AD, the architecture is considered 'modern' in the scale of Dravidian
architecture and is believed to have been built in the Nayak period.
pillars in this corridor have carvings of Maratha rulers in them.
The shrine of Goddess Sri Brihannayagi was built by a later
Pandya King in the 13th century. The shrine of Lord Ganesha
is said to belong to the time of King Sarfoji II, the
legendary Maratha King. This temple has Ganesha statues in seven
poses. The Nataraja shrine, and Saint Karuvurar's Shrine
was built in honour of the Saint Karuvar who helped Raja
Raja Chola consecrate the Mahalinga. The Sri Chandeeswara Shrine
completes the list of sub shrines. These later additions provide
us with a wonderful example of the progression of Dravidian architecture.
interesting note is the central stone of the Vimana, which weighed
235 lbs (plus 35 lbs of gold plating on it) and was
carried to the top by a scaffold built especially for this purpose,
which was 4 miles long.
Another striking feature about the temple apart from the blown
out size of almost anything here, are the colours.
The fresco painting can be seen in the ceilings of
the corridors and also in the ceilings of the many sub-shrines.
They are an invention of the Cholas and the painting, which are
about 1000 years old are still brightly colourful.
A wonderful lesson in history, it is quite a humbling experience
to walk around the huge temple complex, imagining
the level of artistry and engineering ingenuity that
has achieved such a masterpiece. Makes me wonder if we have 'progressed'
in the right direction in the last 1000 years.
Distance : 285 km from Coimbatore (Approx.)
Nearest Rail Hub : Tanjavur
|Text : Leslee Lazar
Photographs : V Ganesan