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Brihadeshwar Temple
See also Temple site,    Its 360 degree view at

An architectural gem, one of the seven wonders of India, Thanjaavur (Tanjaur in Tamilnaadu) Brihadeshwar Temple was built during the reign of Chol King Raajaraajaa I (985 1016 AD). The Temple is noted for a large Moorti (idol) of Nandee, the second largest in India. Another noteworthy feature of the Temple is its Vimaan (Tower) nearly 216 feet (65 meter)  high crowned with a huge cupola carved from a single boulder and just the top one weighs over 80 tons. Its one specialty is this its Gopuram does not cast its shadow.

The Raajaraajeswaram Temple in Thanjaavur is an architectural marvel that has survived the ravages of time. A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Monument, the 1,000-year-old temple is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. Although it was originally called Raajaraajesvaramudaiyar Temple, it came to be known as Brihadeeswar (Brihad in Sanskrit means big), or the Big Temple, during the Naayak and Maraathaa rule because of the gigantic proportions of its Vimaan, Ling, Nandee (sacred bull) and Dwaarapaal (doorkeepers).

Exactly 1,000 years ago, emperor Raajaraajaa Chol I, the greatest monarch of the Chol dynasty, ordered the building of the imperial monument of Raajaraajeswaram. It was on the 275th day of his 25th regional year (1010) that Raajaraajaa Chol (who ruled from 985-1014 Common Era) handed over a gold-plated Kalash (copper pot or finial) to crown the Vimaan. An inscription in Tamil in the temple talks about the handing over of the pot.

Many books and monographs have been written on the Temple's grandeur. The historian K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, in his book The Chol (Volume I), calls the Raajaraajeswaram Temple the finest monument of a splendid period in south Indian history and the most beautiful specimen of Tamil architecture at its best remarkable alike for its stupendous proportions and simplicity of its design. The art historian C. Sivaramamurti assesses it "As the Chol's most ambitious architectural enterprise, the Brihadeeshwar Temple is a fitting symbol of Raajaraajaa's magnificent achievements.


The first sight that greets a visitor to Thanjaavur is the majestic Vimaan (the tower above a temple's sanctum sanctorum) of the Raajaraajesvaram Temple. The Vimaan and the Gopuram (towers above the gateway) soaring skyward add to the temple's resplendent glory in the early morning Sun - 216 feet high.

The Vimaan has not developed even a minor crack in all these years. In order to achieve stability, architects of the 13-tiered Vimaan had positioned it on another two-tiered double-walled plinth. Each of the lower two tiers of the Vimaan has a Pradakshinaa Pad (corridor) running all round with an inner and outer wall. The inner and outer walls of this corridor have a 1.5 meter wide masonry wall, made of brick and mortar, running between them. Since the whole temple has been built with Granite stone, all its 13 tiers have stones stacked up with perfect balance and equilibrium. No binding material is used, and they are made to stand on their weight. The wonder is that the Vimaan has withstood six recorded earthquakes in 1807, 1816, 1866, 1823, 1864 and 1900.

The Dakshin Meru created on the Vimaan shows Shiv and Paarvatee seated on a mountain with their sons and Bhoot Gan in attendance. The Vimaan with its 13 receding tiers looks like the mythical Mahaa Meru mountain. The beautifully carved Nandee is of epic proportions. It is 3.66 meter in height, 5.94 meter in length and 2.59 meter in breadth.

The two gateways, with the Keralantakan Tiruvaasal in the foreground and the Raajaraajan Tiruvaasal behind it. Surprisingly, the 59.82-metre Vimaan is hollow in the interior. It is the tallest Vimaan ever built and has 13 receding tiers. It is an architectural marvel built of interlocking stones. The Raajaraajeswaram Temple is dedicated to Shiv, and the main deity is a massive cylindrical Ling in a double-walled, box-like sanctum. The monolithic Ling is 1.66 meter in diameter and is mounted on an Avudaiyar (Yoni-Peeth), which is 5.25 m in diameter. The Ling rises to a height of two storeys.

Nandee, the Sacred Bull of Shiv in the Temple

SR Balasubrahmanyam in his book Middle Chola Temples A.D. 985-1070 (1975) calls the Rasjarasjeswaram the grandest of the Chol monuments and a Devaalaya Chakravartee (an emperor among temples). About the temple's Vimaan, Balasubrahmanyam says: "The gradual upward sweep of the Vimaan towards the sky is breathtaking. The Sri Vimaan is in pyramid form and not curvilinear. The 25-tonne cupola-shaped Shikhar and the golden (no longer so) Stoop give a fitting crown to an all-stone edifice, which is a marvel of engineering skill unparalleled by any structure anywhere in India built during that period. It is the grandest achievement of Indian craftsmen.

Balasubrahmanyam's son, B. Venkataraman, in his book Raajaraajeswaram, the Pinnacle of Chol Art, calls Raajaraaja an astute politician, a military genius and a great administrator. He adds: "When one tries to recall the reign of Raajaraajaa, it is not his wars of conquest, not his naval expeditions, not his revenue administration nor his military strength that come first to one's mind. It is the magnificent Shiv temple, the Raajaraajeswaram, he had built at the Chol capital, Thanjaavur, which stands to this day as a finished memorial to the grandeur of his rule.

It is a virtual gallery of inscriptions, sculptures, frescoes, dance panels, bronzes, and so on. The entire history of how the temple came to be built is available in the inscriptions. This is the only temple in the whole of India where the king specifically mentions in an inscription that he built this all-stone temple. The king uses the word "katrali" kal and thali in Tamil mean a temple built of stone. This epic inscription, running to 107 paragraphs, describes how Raajaraajaa Chol, seated in the royal bathing hall on the eastern side of his palace, ordered that it be inscribed on the base of the Temple's Vimaan, how he followed through with his temple plan, a list of the gifts that he, his sister (em akkan) Kundavai, his queens and others gave the Temple, and so on.

Nagaswamy, who has authored several books and monographs on the Rajarajesvaram temple, calls this inscription "a fantastic order". He explains: "It reveals the clarity of mind with which Raajaraajaa Chol did everything. A careful study of all the inscriptions in the temple shows that Raajaraaj Chol had a great administrative and aesthetic sense. The only other king who revealed his mind through his inscriptions or edicts is Ashok Maurya of the third century BC. The inscriptions in the Raajaraajeswaram Temple encompass all activities of Raajaraajaa Chol's kingdom the administrative machinery, economic transactions, survey of lands, irrigation system, taxation, accounting, organization of a huge army, rituals, music, dance, the king's fondness for Tamil and Sanskrit literature, and so on. They also show that he had defined and classified the duties, responsibilities, qualifications and service tenure of each functionary of the temple.

A Karan Panel in the Upper Ambulatory Passage of the Sanctum

The inscriptions provide interesting information on drummers, tailors, physicians, surgeons, carriers of flags and parasols during festivals, torch-bearers, cleaners and sweepers. The temple had singers of Tamil hymns (called Devaram) and Sanskrit hymns, and a large number of vocal and instrumental musicians. It had on its rolls 400 accomplished danseuses called "Talippendir" to perform dances during daily Temple rituals and in festival processions.

Thanjaavur's History

The fragmentary inscription of the Pallav king Dantivarman dates back to 800 AD and built into the front Mandap wall of the Raajaraajeswaram. This inscription was a later-day addition, for the front Mandap built by Raajaraajaa Chol was an open one and it was later converted into a closed Mandap by the Naayak rulers.

The hollow interior of the Vimaan, a view from below - Built of interlocking stones without any binding material, the Vimaan has not developed a crack or tilted even a few centimeters in all these years despite six earthquakes. Vijayaalaya Chol (who ruled from 850 to 871 AD) captured Thanjaavur from Ko-Ilango Muthariyar around 850 AD, which led to the founding of the Imperial Chol empire. Vijayaalaya built a temple for goddess Nisumbasudanee in Thanjaavur, and she is still worshipped under the name of Vadabadrakalai, near the eastern gate of the present-day town.

The discovery of an 85 copper-plate charter of Raajendra Chol I (who ruled from 1014 to 1044 AD) at Tiruindalur, near Mayiladuthurai, in May this year provided for the first time valuable details about the capture of Thanjaavur by Vijayaalaya. Down the Imperial Chol line, Raajaraajaa Chol I built the Raajaraajeswaram, or the Great Temple. The Temple faces east. It was built in accordance with the "Makuda Agam Shaastra". The chief architect-sculptor of the temple complex was Veer Chol Kunjar Mallan alias Raajaraajaa Perunthatchan. The deputy chief architect was Kunavan Madurantakan alias Nitha Vinodha Perunthatchan.

A similar view of Hollow Interior of the Gopuram of Raajaraajan Tiruvaasal - The basic unit of the temple's layout, was taken from the main deity, the Ling itself. The inner sanctum, the height of the Vimaan, the intermediate space between the Vimaan and the cloistered enclosure (Sri Krishnan Tiruchuttru Maaligai), and the distance to the two gateways called Keralantakan Tiruvaasal and Rajarajan Tiruvaasal were all proportionate to the Ling in a remarkable way. For instance, the height of the Vimaan is exactly twice the width of the outer base of the Adhishthaan (plinth) of the sanctum. The mathematical calculations were advanced to a great extent at the time of Raajaraajaa Chol.
Saraswatee Sculpted on the Outer Wall of the Sanctum.

The Temple's outer gateway topped by a Gopuram was called Keralantakan Tiruvaasal to commemorate Raajaraajaa Chol's conquest of the Chera country. While the lower portion of Keralantakan Tiruvaasal is built of stone, the superstructure is built of brick and mortar. This is a fine example of a multi-storeyed brick structure erected in Raajaraajaa Chol's time. The stucco figures on the Gopuram were redone in the 19th century during the Maraathaa rule.

Some distance away is the next gateway called the Raajaraajan Tiruvaasal, which has a tall Gopuram too. The gateway is guarded by two huge, awe-inspiring Dwaarapaal, six meter tall and sculpted out of single blocks of stone. The Dwaarapaal on the southern flank is portrayed differently. He rests his right leg on his club (Gadaa), which is entwined by three coils of a python, which is in the act of swallowing an elephant.

About the Huge Dwaarapaal at the Raajaraajan Tiruvaasal

The great Shilpaachaarya who designed and constructed the Raajaraajeswaram had made use of Vyangya, or implied suggestion (kuripporul in Tamil), in sculpting this imposing Dwaarapaal. If the elephant is enlarged in one's mind to its real life size, the size of the python that can swallow one such would be suggested as the next step in the mental visualization. And if such an enormous python could entwine the club only by three coils from head to tail, the magnitude of such a club could be imagined next, and from it the enormous stature and strength of the colossal doorkeeper who can wield such a Gadaa, and from his size, the mental concept of the magnitude of the Ling (deity) in the sanctum which he guards, from which again, the ultimate size of the Vimaan which can enshrine such a colossal Ling, a size that would ultimately transcend the limits of mental conception.

The bas-relief panel on the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal depicting Arjun's penance to obtain the Pashupat weapon from Shiv - The sculpture showing Arjun standing on one leg with hands clasped above his head has an uncanny resemblance to the Arjun's Penance bas-relief at Mamallapuram near Chennai. The base of the Raajaraajan Tiruvaasal has superb bas-reliefs narrating the story of Arjun's penance to receive the Pashupat weapon from Shiv; the wedding of Shiv and Paarvatee; the legend of Kaal Sanhaar Moorti (the story of Maarkandeya), and so on.

The Temple complex measures about 240 meter east to west in length and about 120 meter north to the south in breadth. It consists of the sanctum with the Ling, the Vimaan towering over the sanctum, the Ardh Mandap in front of the sanctum, the Mahaa Mandap before it and then the Mukh Mandap. Then comes the seated Nandee inside a Mandap built by the Naayak rulers.

Sculpture of Raajaraajaa Chol Worshipping Nataraaj.

There is a courtyard running all around. On its south-eastern side is a shrine for Ganesh, and on its northern side are shrines for Chandikeshwar, Amman and Subrahmanya. There is a modern-day shrine for Varaahee on the southern side. Around the courtyard runs a cloistered enclosure named after Krishnan Raman, Rajaraja Chola's Minister-General. In the niches of the outer walls of the sanctum are life-size sculptures of Shiv in his various forms as Bhikshaatan, Veerabhadra, Vishnu Anugraha Moorti, Harihar, Ardh-Naareeshwar, Nataraaj in Aanand Taandav, Chandrashekhar, and Umaa-Maheshwar. There is an exquisite sculpture of him in Lingodbhav on the western wall. Two bas-reliefs of the Buddha, seated under a tree and standing under a tree, in the episode dealing with Shiv as Tripuraantak, found on the side wall of the steps leading to the temple.

Stones Used in the Temple

Although the Thanjavur region has no hills or rocky outcrop, the temple complex was built of Granite stone. Which means that huge rocks of stone were quarried from Mammalai near Tiruchi and hauled to the site. Pichard estimates that the Vimaan alone has utilized 17,000 cubic meters of masonry. The entire temple complex with its vast enclosure and two gateways amounted to almost 50,000 cubic meters, which is 130,000 tons of granite. The temple's architects paid special attention to the selection of its site, the preparation of drawings (of the plan and elevation) and selection of materials including stones of different varieties. For the Vimaan, they chose Charnokite from Mammalai. Massive stone sculptures were made at Pachchamalai region, near Tiruchi. A huge stone from Tiruvakkarai (near Tindivanam) was selected for the Ling. The key inscription on the base of the Vimaan where Raajaraajaa Chol says he built the stone temple and records the gifts that he, his sister, his queens and others gave to the temple.

R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, pointing to a 10-foot-tall inscription in Tamil at the entrance of Rajarajan Tiruvaasal, which deals with the festivals conducted in the temple. No wonder Pichard called the Vimaan an architectural audacity.



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Created and Maintained by Sushma Gupta
Created on March 15, 2003 and Updated on September 08, 2013