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Home Tamil Nadu Brihadisvara Temple - The big temple of Thanjavur

Brihadisvara Temple – The big temple of Thanjavur

Brihadishvara Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, which is a Hindu temple located in Southern banks of the Kaveri river in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, is also called as Peruvudaiyar Kovil or Rajarajesvaram. Brihadishvara is a Sanskrit word combined of Brihat, which means “big, great, lofty, vast,” and Ishvara means “Lord Shiva, the supreme soul.” 

This temple is also called Dakshina Meru(Meru of the south), as it is one of the largest south Indian temples. This temple was built in between 1003-1010 AD, by the Tamil king Raja Raja Chola. It is one of the “Great Living Chola Temples” and is a part of UNESCO world heritage sites along with Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple and Airavatesvara temple. 

Location

Brihadeshvara Temple is located in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. The town is very well connected to major cities of the country via Indian Railways, Tamil Nadu bus services, and the National Highways. 

The nearest airport is Tiruchirappalli International Airport, about 55 kilometres away from the temple.

Architecture

The Brihadishvara temple’s scale exceeded the temples built before the 11th century. The architects and artisans at the time of the Chola era innovated the skill to scale up and build with a heavy stone, to accomplish the 63.4 meters (208 ft) high towering vimana. This temple is a striking example of Dravidian architecture.

One can see the axial and symmetrical geometry rules that were used at the time of temple planning and development. Since the temple was built on a higher platform of natural or human-made mounds, this big temple is classified as Perunkoil. The temple complex is rectangular, covering 240.79 meters from east to west, and 121.92 meters from north to south. 

There are five main sections in the temple: 

  • The sanctum with the towering superstructure or Sri vimana
  • The Nandi hall in the front (Nandi-mandapam)
  • The main community hall (Mukha mandapam
  • The great gathering hall (maha mandapam) and 
  • The pavilion is connecting the great hall with the sanctum (Artha mandapam).

A large columned and covered veranda (prakara) can be seen in the temple’s spacious courtyard, with a perimeter of about 450 meters for circumambulation. There are two walls of the enclosure outside the pillared veranda. The outer one added by the French colonial forces in 1777 CE with the temple serving as an arsenal. They made the outer wall high, in consequence, isolating the temple complex area. The main gopuram or gateway that is barrel-vaulted is on its east end, which is half the size of the vimana of the main temple.

Additional structures and shrine were added to the original temple after the 11th century, during the Pandya, Nayaka, Vijayanagara and Maratha era. These rulers not only added additional structures but also respected the original plans and symmetry rules. Along with the main sanctum and Nandi-mandapam inside the temple courtyard, there are two major shrines, one for Kartikeya and Parvati. The temple complex also houses additional smaller shrines.

The temple once had a water body or moat around it, which has been filled up now. The fortified wall now runs around this water moat. The two walls have elegant gateways called the gopurams, which are made from stone and feature entablatures. The primary gateways are on the east side. The first gateway is called the Keralantakan tiruvasal, which implies the “sacred gate of the Keralantakan”. Keralantakan was the surname of king Rajaraja Chola who built the temple.

About a 100 meters (330 ft) ahead of the keralantakan tiruvasal is the inner courtyard gopuram called the Rajarajan tiruvasal. The inner gopuram leads to a vast yard, where the shrines are all aligned to cardinal directions. The temple complex can be entered either on one axis via a five-story gopuram or with other access directly to the enormous main quadrangle via a smaller free-standing gopuram. The gateway of the main entrance is 30 m high, lower than the vimana.

The main temple and the great tower is in the middle of the courtyard. Smaller shrines are surrounding the main temple, which is dedicated to lord shiva. Most of these smaller shrines are aligned axially. These smaller shrines are dedicated to lord shiva’s consort Parvati, his sons Subrahmanya and Ganesha, Nandi (Bull), Varahi, Chandeshvara, and Nataraja and Karuvur deva (the guru of Rajaraja Chola). The Nandi mandapam houses a monolithic seated bull facing the main sanctum. In between, there are stairs, which lead to a columned porch and community gathering hall. There is an inner mandapa that connects to the pradakshina patha or circumambulation path. The Nandi facing the mukh-mandapam weighs over 25 tonnes and is one of the largest in the country. It was carved out of a single stone and is about 2 meters in height, 6 meters in length and 2.5 meters in width.

Sanctum 

The sanctum is at the centre of which is surrounded by massive walls. These walls are divided into levels by sharply cut sculptures and pilasters, providing deep bays and recesses. The interior of the sanctum sanctorum hosts a figurine of the primary deity, Lord Shiva, in his aniconic representation, in the form of an enormous stone linga or Brihad linga. Brihad linga is 8.7 m (29 ft) high, and occupies two storeys of the sanctum and is one of the giant monolithic linga sculptures in India.

 The inner sanctum is called Karuvarai, a Tamil word which means “womb chamber.” Also known garbha griha in other parts of India. Only priests can have access to this innermost chamber.

In the Dravidian style architecture, the sanctum takes the form of a miniature vimana. The temple has the inner wall together with the outer wall creating a path around the sanctum for circumambulation (pradakshina). 

Sri-vimana

The main Vimana, also known as Shikhara, is a massive 16 storey tower, among which 13 are tapering squares. It overshadows the main quadrangle as it sits above 30.18 meters (99.0 ft) sided square. The tower is artistically articulated with Pilaster, piers(a raised structure), and attached pillars, which are placed neatly covering every surface of the vimana.

Mandapa

The two mandapas, namely maha-mandapa and mukha-mandapa, are axially aligned between the Nandi mandapa and the sanctum. There are six pillars on each side of maha-mandapa. This, too, has artwork. Two giant stone dvarapalas flank the maha-mandapa. It is connected to the Mukha-mandapa by stairs. The entrance of the mukha-mandapa also holds dvarapalas. The mandapa has eight small shrines of guardian deities or dikpalas of each direction, such as Agni, Indra, Kubera, Varuna, and others. These small shrines were installed during the rule of Chola king Rajendra I.

Murals

The temple layer of Chola frescoes beneath the sanctum walls along the circumambulatory pathway. Natural pigments were infused into the limestone layer. These frescoes were discovered by S. K. Govindasami of the Anamalai University in 1931. The Chola frescoes were large of Shaivism themes, which were restored in the 2000s. Out of the total Chola fresco area of about 670 square meters (7,200 sq ft), only 112 square meters (1,210 sq ft) had been uncovered in a method that preserves both paintings, as of 2010. A technique developed by Archaeological Survey of India. These frescoes narrate Hindu mythology. According to Balasubrahmanyam, most of these frescoes are related to Shiva. Still, many 11th century Chola frescoes also show Vishnu, Durga, and other deities, as well as scenes of Chola royalty, courtly and ordinary life.

Temple personnel

 According to George Michell, the Thanjavur temple had been a significant charity institution in its history. As it provided free meals for pilgrims, devotees, and wayfarers daily. Brahmins were particularly invited and fed on the days of Hindu Festivals. An inscription, dated 1011 CE on the north wall of the enclosure, gives a detailed narrative of the people that were employed and supported by the temple. The inscription also gives their wages, roles, and names and includes over 600 names. These names include those of priests, washermen, lamplighters, tailors, jewellers, carpenters, sacred parasol bearers, potters, dance gurus, dancing girls, singers, both female and male musicians, superintendents of performance artists and accountants among others. Their temple employment was likely part-time as their wages were in parcels of land.

Additions and renovations

The main temple, along with its gopurams or gateways are from the early 11th century. The temple also saw additions, improvements, and fixes over the next 1,000 years. The wars and raids, particularly between Muslim Sultans and Hindu kings, caused damage. These damages were repaired by Hindu dynasties that regained control.

In some cases, the rulers tried to renovate the temple, by ordering new murals on top of the older faded paintings. In other cases, they sponsored the addition of shrines. The particular shrines of Kartikeya (Murugan), Parvati (Amman), and Nandi are from the 16th and 17th-century Nayaka era. Similarly, the Dakshinamurti shrine was built later.

Millennium commemoration

The Tamil Nadu government and the town held many cultural events to celebrate the 1000th year of this superstructure in September 2010.

 This grand temple is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Tamil Nadu.

  • India post released a special ₹ 5 postage stamp featuring the 216-feet tall giant Raja Gopuram on 26 September 2010. As a recognition of the temple’s contribution to the country’s architectural, cultural, epigraphical history.
  • Mumbai Mint issued a Non-Circulative Legal Tender (NCLT) of Rs 1000 Coin. It was the first 1000 Rupee coin to be released in India coinage. 
  • The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) released a ₹ 1000 currency note on 1 April 1954. Featuring a panoramic view of the Big temple marking its cultural heritage and significance. The then government, which was led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, demonetized all ₹ 1,000 notes to curtail black money in 1975. These notes are now popular among collectors.

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