How does the holy sanctum of Brihadeeswara temple, Thanjavur, TN differ from others? - Important features

The 1010 year old Sri Brihadeewara temple, Thanjavur city, TN dedicated to God Shiva (his consort Parvati is  known as Periyanayaki Amman) is a UNESCO recognized World Heritage Monument of exceptional beauty and grandeur. Built by the famous  Chola  ruler Sri Rajaraja I, this huge temple is often referred to as the  Dhakshina Meru (Meru of south).  In this temple the  sanctum is a tall one with a hollow space above it. The tower/gopuram was built ingeniously using interlocking system that considerably  reduces the weight of the overlying structure.

The sanctum sanctorum or Garbagriha (in Sanskrit, garbha meaning womb and griha meaning house ) is traditionally  the innermost sanctuary of Hindu and Jain temples  and it is where the presiding deity in idol form (mostly carved out of stone) is reverentially enshrined as per Agama Sastras. Often referred to as Karauvarai or moolasthanam in Tamil (in Jain temple: the Mulnayaka)  literally the word means "womb chamber",  Generally, in most places across India only qualified 'priests' (pujaris) are allowed to enter this chamber and nobody  is allowed inside. Women priests are rare, and there are some exceptions.  At Haripad  Mannarasala  Sree  Nagaraja Temple, Kerala, the priest is an old woman from the Namboodri family. Sanctum, the most sacred and sanctified  part on the temple premises, is built with single entrance  relative to the size of deity that is placed at the center, and mostly East facing to be accessed by the Sun rays. Normally, it is devoid of a window.

Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple, TN.

Brihadeeswara temple,Thanjavur, tall linga in the 2- story

The  two-story Sanctum and the overlying  tall tower has the following distinctive features:

01. At Brihadeeswara temple, the sanctum and the overlying tower form one unit and the garbagriha is  at the center of the western square. Surrounded by massive walls, they  are divided into different levels by sharply cut sculptures and pilasters providing  space - deep bays and recesses. Each side of the sanctuary has a bay with iconography. 

02. The sanctorum houses  an image of the primary deity, God Shiva, in the form of a huge monolithic stone- linga measuring  8.7 m (29 ft) in height, one of the largest lingams  in India,  covering two floors. So is the awe-inspiring  tall sanctum which is one of its kind in India .a

03. At the entrance of the garbagriha (east facing) is adorned  two giant sentinels -Dwarapalas on either side (which is a common feature in all Shiva and Vishnu temples). The vestibule has three stone sculptures that is intricately carved, and mural paintings. 

04. The ground floor level sanctum walls have the following sculptures:

 East wall: Lingodbhava - Shiva in standing posture, Pashupata-murti, plus two dvarapalas flanking the pathway from ardha-mandapam.

South wall: Bhikshatana - various murtis such as Virabhadra, Dakshinamurti, Kalantaka, Nataraja  plus two dvarapalas.

Sentinels, Dwarapalakas, Brihadeeswara temple, Thanjavur, TN

West wall: Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu) - Lingodbhava - Chandrashekhara without prabhavali, Chandrashekhara with prabhavali, plus two dvarapalas.

North wall: Ardhanarishvara (half Shiva, half Parvati) - Gangadhara without Parvati, Pashupata-murti, Shiva-alingana-murti, plus two dvarapalas.

05.. The various forms of God Shiva in this sanctuary  imply that he  embodies other Trinity Gods as well  like Vishnu and is all pervading. In his domain, ''the woman shares equality on par with  the man.; hence he is Arthanarisvarar - half man and half woman.''  

06. Normally, in all Dravida styled  temples,  the sanctum takes the form of a miniature vimana.

Cupola atop the tower above the sanctum, Big temple, Thanjavur. /

with a provision for covered  Prethakshana  path around the sanctum  from  the outer wall  of the sanctum to the end wall of the structure.  Example: Srirangam  Ranganather temple, Madurai Meenakshi Amman  temple, etc. But, at Brihadeeswara temple, the sri-vimana rises  up to 13 floors (total height from the ground is 216 feet).and the uncovered prathkshana path goes  around the entire structure comprising the sanctum, 2  halls on the east side, etc.

07. One can see the hollow space of the tower (gopuram) up to a much higher level from the bottom. of the sanctum. In most temples you can not see the shikara from inside the sanctum and it is a solid structure.. 

08. It has been a traction to enshrine  the main deity in a manner that the center point of the murti and the center point of the cupola atop the tower lie in the same vertical axis.

sanctum at the bottom , Thanjavur big temple, TN slideshare.neti n

above sanctum, hollow space in the tower, Big temple.

09. Sri Vimana has 13 floors and atop lies  a single square block of granite weighing  60 tons, and 7.77 meters (25.5 ft) side. On top of this block, at all four coordinal  corners are set pairs of Nandi, each about 1.98 meters (6 ft 6 in) by 1.68 meters (5 ft 6 in) in dimension.

10.. Above the center of this granite block rises the griva, the sikhara and the finial (stupi), distinctive features of  Dravidian  Hindu temple architecture. The height of  stupi is 3.81 metres (12.5 ft) and originally  it was covered with gold (removed long ago). The cupola-shaped -sikhara at the top  weighs whooping 20 tons (total weight of cupola and the platform: 80 ton . Each story of this tower is decorated with kutas and salas. 

11. The shrinking squares tower architecture of this temple is unique and the temple at  Gangaikondacholapuram. built by Rajendra Chola, son of Sri Rajaraja differs from this style.

 12. Yet another fascinating feature of the Sanctum- Shikara is the fine stone carvings of Dance Karanas 81 of the 108  postures of Natya Sastra. They are found  on the upper story corridor wall of the aditala. The Bharathanatyam, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu and the various postures are based on the postures on display on  the upper story corridor. The various intriguing postures carved suggest the significance and the growth  of this classical Indian dance form by early 11th century during the Chola period.  

13. The garbhagriha is square in plan and is set  on a plinth. This is molded and 0.5 meters (1 ft 8 in) thick. It consists of upapitham and adhishthanam, respectively 140 cm and 360 cm thick.

simple entrance to the temple. fortified side walls

14 There is no tall massive entrance tower at this temple unlike Srirangam or Thiruvannamai temples of Tamil Nadu.
Fortified wall with a moat, big temple

15. Yet another interesting feature is the outer wall of this temple is fortified and  dotted provided with spaces at regular intervals for cannons. The is a wide moat outside the outer most boundary wall.,_Thanjav