Brihadeshwara temple of Thanjavur, TN - numerous unknown facts - 02

Thanjavur Brihadishvara temple, TN.

 temple complex (photo: Junykwilfred, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Brihadishvara temple of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu is dedicated to god Shiva in the giant form of Linga an abstract or aniconic representation of the Hindu god Shiva in Shaivism. He is ''transcendental, beyond any characteristic and, specifically, the sign of gender''.  An "outward symbol" of the "formless Reality",  Linga is symbolic of merging of the 'primordial matter' (Prakṛti) with the 'pure consciousness' (Purusha) in transcendental context''. It is one of the few largest massive monolith stone lingas in India rising to a height of more than two floors

Thanjavur Big temple,

Above image: Isometric drawing adapted from Partha Mitter, Indian Art (Oxford, 2001), p. 59. Areas in blue indicate the identical size of the sanctum and the uppermost platform of the vimana. Above the sanctuary one can see the hollow space up to the top of the Shikara. An interlocking system is used to place succeeding stone slabs to reduce the overall downward forces...................... . 

The hollow, needle like designs along the walls of Subramanya temple in Thanjavur

Yali on the pillar. Nandi Mandapa at Brihadeeswarar Temple

Adorned with countless exquisite sculptures on the tall granite tower and  massive structural and engineering features that baffle our imagination, this 'grandest among the grand'  Hindu temples  has made a lasting niche in the poliety and divinity of this land. Here in the  pierced stone windows,, decorated niches and pilasters, we see nicely   carved  many deities from the Hindu pantheon. Quite breathtaking  are the fascinating carvings of  yalis in the mandapas  Yalis (mythical creatures) in many temples serve both as a sort of decoration and also as  apotropaic (protective) purpose.

As for the Chola rulers, who emerged a powerful dynasty in the 9th century CE,  they made a remarkable contribution in the realm of temple art and architecture and what we see today is their legacy and an  indelible mark on the ancient Hindu temple architecture.  Their creations - massive temples of splendor  at Thanjavur, Darasuram near Kumbakonam and Gangaikonda Cholapuram are Unesco recognized "living monuments of the Chola kingdom''.

Thanjavur Big temple, TN,  80 ton cupola and stone platform
atop the Shikara.

Thanjavur big temple. photo credit
Arathi Menon, CC BY-SA-NC 4.0)

The following are many of the unknown facts:

01. Rajarajeswara temple, as  it is often referred to,  built on a plot of 44.7 acres, symbolizes the opulence and heyday of the Chola dynasty that popularized the making of iyempon  idols (an alloy of 5 metals),  (Vigrahas) of cosmic dancer Nataraja depicting his Ananda Thandavam.  Dancing Nataraja that has become a famous motif of Tamil Nadu  dates to the Pallava period - 7th  century. The Cholas revived the image of dancing Nataraja  as the Pallava dynasty was on the decline  due to incessant wars with the Chalukyas.

02. Dancing figure of Shiva as Nataraja was evolved and fully developed during the  reign of Chola dynasty -11th or 12th CE. Since then  many variations of this complex and thought-provoking bronze image have been modelled.  However, it is to be borne in mind that a wide range of  tantalizing Shiva iconography was evolved  and cast in the Thanjavur (Tanjore) delta region, in particular, close to the temple town of Kumbakonam  of Tamil Nadu.

Thanjavur location map. creit: image

03. The concept of dancing Hindu God Nataraja is  unique and awe-inspiring one, covering the little understood realms of divinity, spirituality and cosmology. Set within a flaming halo,  Shiva's dance  subtly covers the   unsurpassed rhythm, beauty, power and grace of  the lord.  His 'dance of bliss '  represents the interplay of dynamic as well  as static  energy flow operating  for aeons on this earth - the creation of new land mass on one side of the mantle of the earth  and destruction of land in the subduction zone (creating volcanoes, earthquakes,  tsunamis, etc.,) on the other side as postulated in the theory of ''Plate Tectonics''Divergent boundaries.

metal idol Cosmic dance of Shiva.

04. When Rajaraja I completed the temple as planned beforehand (1003 to 1010),  the temple being at the center of city had around it Saptavithis or prakara within and without fort. With the decline of fortune and chola rule, necessity arose to take the temple procession around the city itself. Till this day the annual religious procession is taken around the four  main  Raja Veethis. This also includes the annual Therottam (rath yatra). The temple has a newly made wooden  Chariot (thanks to the late CM Jayalalitha Amma who made this possible several years ago) to be used for the annual big temple festival.

Dwarapalakas - entrance guards. Rajarajan gate as seen from Keralatakan gate

Thanjavur Big temple,Keralatakan Gopuram

Rajarajan Tiruvasal from Keralatakan Gopuram

Main shrine with sanctuary, Big temple, Thanjavur,

Chandikeshwara sannidhi, Big temple, north  prakara Thanjavur.

Above image: Chandeshvara shrine on the north prakar, Thanjavur big temple, TN. . On right is the wall of main temple, in back the eastern gopuram. Chandeshvara is a meditating yogi and Nayanmar Bhakti movement saint.

Thanjavur big temple, south prakara.image credit:

Above image:   God  Shiva as Tripurantaka marked in red; Shiva is depicted with four arms wielding a bow and arrow, He holds an axe and a deer on the upper pair of his arms. In the lower pair of the arms, he holds a bow and an arrow respectively. took this form to slay Tripura, . Various forms of Shiva marked in green. Guardian figures (Dwarapalakas) flank the doorway at the center of the lower level. (photo: Arathi Menon, CC BY-SA-NC 4.0)...........................

Shrine of the goddess, Big temple, Thanjavur

flight of steps to Dakshinamurthy shrine, south prakara, Big temple Thanjavur

05. The four main veethis called Raja veethis east, west, north and south served as procession routes in the past. In the later centuries when temple chariot was run annually Ther mantaps were built on all the four streets at vantage locations to mount and demount processional deities (Utchavamurthis) from the chariot. Further, Ther mantaps  also served as stops where puja could be conducted by the devotees for the deities mounted on the chariots.

1010 CE Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple, Narasimha.

Above image: Depiction of  Narasimha avatar of  God Vishnu. Narasimhha - half human and half lion  is killing the demon king Hiranyakashpu who persecutes people for their religious beliefs...............

06. Though Rajaraja I was a devout Saivite, the unusual aspect of this temple is a preponderance of motif and sculptures on the gopura is from interesting episodes of Vaishnavite legends. The king also presented three images of Vishnu called " Mahavishnikal." While in the courtyard  they are from the Saivite legends. Yet another feature is there are depictions from the life of Buddha and they are seen on the outer eastern side of the parapet enclosing the flight of steps to the south of the  temple. 

07. The temple is often called  Brihadisvara or Peruvudaiyar Kovil and  according to the latest inscription  in the Brihannayaki shrine  the names had their origin from  temple deity' original name Periya Udaiya Nayanar.

08. The incongruous figure of an European head with a bowler hat on the north face of the gopura is a subject of debate and it is a later addition, may be in the Nayak period. 

09. The fresco paintings discovered in the Arthamantapa several decades ago was a turning point, first discovery of Chola paintings. Besides  Pallave, Chola rulers also made equal contribution to this art form. Mural paintings of Pallava  were discovered in the Kailasanathar temple at Kanchipuram in the colonial period.

Thanjavur big temple Nataraja shrine (later addition)

Cloister Mandapa / pillared corridor around Brihadeeswarar Temple

10. On the walls of the pillared corridor one could find two layers of mural painting. In the Nayak period, the underlying Chola painting having become faded or dull,  fresh mural painting work was done over the older one. In some places where the outer layer is peeling off one could see pleasing frescoes underneath the Nayak painting- the original Chola mural paintings.   

11. Apart from  king Rajaraja's personal  donations in the form of gold - more than 489 pounds  and silver (above 600 pounds), he had set aside vast lands in many villages with an  annual income from the lands - about 116000 kalams (equal to 58000 kasu), besides a cash income of 1100 kasu to meet the daily puja expenses, etc.

12. King Rajaraja had two long streets built - northern and southern talicceris (Tallicherry in Tamil) for the stay of 400 dancing woman; each one provided with a house and a 'vali' of agricultural land (roughly 6 acres). They were treated with great respect and their dance was a sort of dedication to the presiding deity.

13. Servants attached to the temple carried out various duties assigned to them  and the list  included dance masters, drummers, musicians, barbers,  goldsmiths, tailors, accountants,et al.  Apart, the ruler appointed 3 persons to sing Ariyam (Sanskrit) and four others to sing in Tamil. The devotional hymns in Tamil were recognized as Dravida vedam and it is on par with Vedam.

14. The king's elder sister Parantakan Kunthavi Alwar (as she is mentioned in the inscriptions) donated gold -10000 kalaju, jewels and utensils worth 18000 kasu for the purpose of worship  and puja protocols

pillared corridor with inscriptions in Marathi , Big temple, Thanjavur.

pillared veranda (prakara), Big temple, Thanjavur, 

15. The pillared veranda (prakara) in the courtyard of the  temple complex has a perimeter of about 450 metres (1,480 ft) for circumambulation. 

16.There are ten stone inscriptions in Marathi on the walls, etc., of the corridors commissioned during the time of Raja Serfoji II.  Mention may be made of those on the pillars of north and east prakara (dated 1801).

17. The Marathi inscriptions (dated 1801) on the steps of the Gapathi shrine NE corner inform us  that the entire sanctum of this shrine -sanctuary  was rebuilt by the Maratha dynasty from the bottom to the top. Further, the old stone image of  god Ganesha was replaced by a new one.

18.Apart, the Artha mantapa and Mahamantapa were   newly built by Raja Serfoji,  The ruler carried out major repairs in some parts of the pillared  corridor and  laid the open yard with bricks for the benefit of the devotees. He was also responsible for the stone pavement  in the middle of the prakara all around. 

19. As a token of his gratitude  to the lord for reinstating him on the throne in the colonial period, Raja Serfoji donated many jewels and silver vessels to the temple (vide Ins no. 422; inscription dated  1798   in  the Ganapathi shrine).

20.A detailed history of the Bhonsle family as well as the history of the Tanjore principality is  given in the inscriptions on the south wall corridor of the big temple.

21. There are  are two boundary walls of enclosure outside the pillared prakara. The  outer one facing the roads, etc with wide gaps for cannons is said to have been added by the French army in 1777 that used part of the temple as an arsenal. It was the time  when the English company  and the French army were at war.  

22. Additional structures were added to the original temple after the 11th century, such as a mandapa in its northeast corner and additional gopurams (gateways) on its perimeters to allow people to enter and leave.

Big temple main arched entrance note fortification

.Thanjavur big temple arched entrance facing east.

Barrel vault roof design, Big temple entrance gate, Thanjavur.

23. A rare architectural feature noted at the entrance of the big temple is the barrel vaulted roof.  The barrel vault is the simplest form of a vault: effectively a series of arches placed side by side (i.e., one after another).  Barrel vaulted roofs are known from the Indus valley civilization. This barrel vault or tunnel vault design needs heavy buttressing and earthwork sidings to secure  structural strength against lateral forces that act on the sides.

24. Tshetra-thirtha  of the big temple has been the tank in the Sivagangai Thottam ( Sivaganga park.  Locally called Sivagangai kulam the access from the temple is through the entrance doorway on the northern side of the wall with figures of Kubera on either side. Locally known as Mattu Aspathiri- veterinary hospital vazhi/ route. Thirtha for the temple rituals, abhisheka, etc., is being used only from this tank only  which has a small shrine in the center island. It is dedicated to Lokanatha Iswara. (Sivalingaswami). This shrine, it is mentioned, is older than the big temple itself. The source of water for  Sivaganga kulam  was from Sevappa Nayagan Vari)  named after the Nayak ruler Sevappa 1544-72 CE). the color of the water is pinkish red, and this being due to color of the soil at the Sivappa Nayagan Vari. 

Thanjavur Big temple Tamil inscriptions image credit 

Above image:  Inscriptions in Tamil language on the base of Rajarajesvara temple, c. 1004–1010, Chola period, Thanjavur, TN (photo: KARTY, CC BY-SA 4.0).  

 25. On the 20th day of the 26th year of his reign, Emperor Rajaraja issued a royal command to engrave on the central walls of the Vimana the gifts made by his family members and others to Brihadeswara.  The temple has the largest Chola  inscriptions in the world written in Grantha and Tamil detailing about the grants, donations, lands, names of people associated with the temple, etc. Later inscriptions were from the Maratha dynasty  who safe guarded the temple with care. 

26. The images of Siva Nayanmars were installed in the  early part of  11th century in the part outside the north enclosure by  Rajaraja himself.  For the daily recital of Thirupadiyam, Rajaraja appointed 48 persons with a daily allowance of paddy. Recitation of Tevaram and its association with Thirupadiyam gained importance in the temple.

27. The Brihadishvara  Mahatmaya of Cholavamvamsa valicharitram  is the Sihala Purana of this temple. It is a collection of local legends associated with the construction of the temple detailing linga anayanam, Kumbhabhisheka,, utchavas, etc.The Brihadishvara   Mahatmaya  also gives an account of 16 Cholas of Tanjore (Thanjavur), their history, contributions, temples they built, etc.

28. Parasara shetra Mahatmya, is yet another work that gives the history of Siva Cholas and the importance of Brihadishvara temple.

29. It was in the year 1935 (12th July) electric connection was given to the Big temple. The lights were switched on by P.T. Rajan, Minister for development  when justice party was running the government.

30. As per the treaty of 1799, the Hindu temples were directly under the Maratha rulers. The British Company took away the enam lands. However,  the endowments made later by the Maratha dynasty still remain today. Allowance for the upkeep of the temple called Mohini allowance was dispersed by the British government through the collector to the respective temples. A special officer appointed by the Raja controlled the temple administration, etc. (Photo credits: and

The great temple at Tanjore by J.M. Somasundaram BA., BL.(Solden & CO., Madras 1935. with Forward from F.H. Gravely DSc