The capital city of one of the greatest empires of the south,Thanjavur achieved great significance between the 10th-14th centuries as a centre of art, culture, music, dance and education. The temples were recently hounoured with the National Heritage Award.
The Chola kings were passionate builders whose reigns are marked by a series of dazzling temples. It was said of them that they ‘conceived their designs like giants and finished like jewellers’. Raja Raja Chola I (985-1018AD), the greatest of the Chola monarchs commissioned Thanjavur’s ‘Big Temple’, the crowning glory of his reign in 1005 AD. Six years of single-minded involvement and dedication on the part of its architect Sama Varma, hundreds of artisans, scores of sculptors and stone workers and the entire royal family resulted in a temple befitting both Shiva’s stature and that of his ardent devotee, the king.
Chola art is characterized by enormity of size, intricate detailing and outstanding workmanship. The temples made during their reign adhere to the same blueprint - massive superstructures ornamented with miniature sculpting and elaborate decorations. Chola era art demanded dedicated labour and single minded involvement from its craftsmen and hence Chola temples are the finest examples of this era.
So perfect in dimension, so impressive in grandeur, the ‘Emperor of Temples’, Thanjavur Brihadeeshwara Temple is possibly the finest temple in Tamil Nadu, if not in India. Rajaraja Chola must have received divine inspiration, for Brihadeeshwera remains unsurpassed in scale and substance, grace, symmetry, elegance and ambience. Little details like the fact that the vimana never ever casts its shadow at midday, just emphasises the brilliance of its design and the class of its craftsmanship.
The temple stands within the Sivaganga Fort, a small citadel surrounded by a moat on the outskirts of Thanjavur. An imposing gopuram on the eastern side interrupts the march of high walls and gives access to the fort. Twin shrines dedicated to Shiva’s sons Ganesh and Murugan flank this gopuram and barely 100m away is another, even more magnificent gopuram that leads into the paved inner courtyard where the Brihadeeshwera Temple stands. A long pillared corridor or parakram decorated with colourful murals and shivalingas runs all the way round the courtyard.
Worth more than a second look are the frescos discovered in 1931 by a local scholar, the murals date back to the Chola era and are amongst the earliest examples of Chola art. The walls of the corridor are covered from top to bottom with two layers of paintings –the real find, the Chola frescos lie hidden beneath the upper layer attributed to the Nayaka dynasty. Relying heavily on Shiva legends and stories for content, the outstanding quality of the paintings illustrates the dedication and devotion of the Shiva bhakts who painted them.
Coming back to the temple - what first strikes the eye is the immense size and majesty of the temple surmounted by a lofty tower (vimana) that reaches high into the skies. Unusual in Dravidian temples of its era, Dakshina Meru, Brihadeeshwara’s 14 storeyed vimana (216m) is taller than it gopurams (gateways). Its octagonal shikhara (dome) rests on an enormous granite block weighing 81 tonnes, decorated with beautiful stone Nandis and exquisitely detailed stuccowork; the crowning glory of the vimana is a gilded kalasha (finial) that is nearly 4m high. (This amazing and complex feat of engineering was achieved by way of a ramp).
The main shrine is ensconced behind three doors guarded by monolithic dwarpalikas, whose gigantic size and fine craftsmanship make them intimidating and awe–inspiring. Many such highly polished and minutely detailed dwarpalikas can be seen at Brihadeeshwera Temple, some as big as 18ft by 8ft.
The temple proper consists of the garba-griham (sanctum), the ardhamandapam, the mukhamandapam and the mahamandapam, each a distinct entity with a specific function that coalesce perfectly as a composite whole. Brihadeeshwera’s presiding deity is, of course, Lord Shiva enshrined here as Peruvudaiyar, Rajarajeswaramudaiyar. The Shivalinga (4m by 7m) is the second largest in the world- so enormous that is resides in a double storeyed sanctum sanctorum. The weight bearing outer walls of the sanctum sanctorum form a corridor that is, as is the rest of the temple, richly adorned with exquisite sculptures. The corridor of the ardhamandapam not only serves to uphold the shikhara but also functions as a permanent art gallery. The detailed carvings illustrate events and incidents from the live of Shiva, entire panels showcase 108 poses of Bharatnatyam, others present Shiva in his many manifestations - as Nataraja, Aadavallam, Tripurantaka, Dakshinamurty and Anugrahamurty.
Nandi the bull, Shiva’s vahana (vehicle) is an essential feature of any shrine dedicated to Shiva. The huge granite monolithic Nandi at Thanjavur is simply fabulous dates back to the Nayaka period and is housed in its own mandapam. Its stately dimensions match those of the Brihadeeshwera temple – made from a single block of stone weighing about 25 tonnes, Thanjavur’s Nandi measures 12 ft by 20 ft! To the visitor, it seems Nandi calmly presides over the proceedings from his vantage position in the mandapam facing the main shrine, as if waiting a command from his master. So real is the sculpting and so endearing the icon that visitors feel compelled to caress it. Sit beside Nandi and you can actually feel his serenity envelope you.
There are many other smaller shrines in the Chola complex - later additions that are happily harmonise perfectly with the original architecture. The Subramanya Temple is the most beautiful of these small temples, its been called a “perfect gem of carved stonework” and “as exquisite a piece of decorative stone work as found anywhere in the south of India”.
A small temple attributed to the Pandya dynasty (13th century) houses an idol of the Goddess Brihanayaki, companion and consort of Lord Brihadeeshwera. Shiva’s son Ganesha has his own shrine in the southwest corner of the temple compound – the shrine is worth more than a cursory visit just to see its seven Ganesha idols. The shrine was built by the Maratha King, Serfoji II (1776-1855) though the 7 enshrined idols -two standing, three seated and two dancing images of the Ganesha -date back to the reign of Rajaraja Chola I (985-1018AD).
Chandeeswera, one of 63 eminent Saivite saints and chief devotees of Shiva has his shrine towards the north end of the temple compound. It is the only shrine that is contemporaneous with the Brihadeeshwera temple. Chandeeswera is supposed to be the Lord’s accountant – all financial transactions were conducted in his name and each and every donation/gift made to the temple recorded for posterity on slabs near his shrine.
Two other shrines are dedicated to Sri Dakshinamurthy and Saint Karuvarur, a local saint whose help was crucial to the installation of the installation of the great Shivalinga in the sanctum sanctorum. The tall copper plated pillar outside the Brihadeeshwera temple is the Dhwaja Stambha, the flagpole remarkable for its elaborately decorated square base.