The Big Temple of Thanjavur – The Great Living Chola Temple

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

One could just sit the whole day simply gazing at the 1008-year-old Big Temple of Thanjavur! As its name suggests it is BIG in size and also beautiful, contrary to the ‘Small is Beautiful’ concept. Besides awe-striking as a massive structure, it also has colossal monolithic statues as well as miniature sculptures; there are murals to appreciate and inscriptions to be read in this all-in-one Big Temple of 1008 years old!

This Big Siva Temple, appropriately called Brihadisvara and Dakshinameru, was consecrated in AD 1009-1010 by the Chola Emperor Rajaraja (AD 985-1012), the initiator of this mega project,  in his 19th regnal year.

Architecturally, it is the most ambitious structural temple, wholly built of granite. With no source of granite within sight, it is a wonder how such massive rocks weighing tons and tons were brought here and then raised to their respective position! This Temple is regarded as a ‘landmark in the evolution of building art in South India’ and its vimana a ‘touchstone of Indian architecture as a whole’. The vast temple complex measures 240.9 m x 122 m. The prakara is surrounded by a raised and covered mandap all around with murals and statues, mostly Lingas of various sizes. A moat surrounds the compound wall that resembles fort-like. Its massive proportions combined with simplicity of design inspired future designs in temple constructions not only in South India but as far as in South-East Asia also.

The sikhara, a cupolic dome, is octagonal and rests on a single block of granite, a square of 7.8 m weighing 80 tons! The plinth has extensive royal inscriptions listing Emperor’s achievements, endowments, pious acts and organisational events connected to the temple such as financial arrangements, donations, etc., bearing an impression of contemporary society.

The brihad(big)-linga within the sanctum is 8.7 m high. There are life-size iconographic representations on the wall niches and inner passages depicting Goddesses and various forms of Siva. The murals of the lower ambulatory inside are finest examples of Chola and later periods which depict the contemporaneous scenes with legendary ones. During later period, the celebrated Thanjavur School of paintings were largely superimposed over the Chola murals.

Unesco’s World Heritage list includes the three great 11th and 12th century Chola Temples: the Brihadisvara Temple of Thanjavur (330 km from Chennai and well connected by rail and road, with Trichy at 100 kms. being the nearest  airport), the Temple of Gangaikondacholapuram (Perambalur District, 70 kms. from Thanjavur) and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram (40 kms. from Thanjavur). Gangaikondacholapuram Temple was built by Rajendra Chola I, the illustrious son of the great Chola Emperor Rajaraja, in AD 1035. It is smaller version of Thanjavur Brihadisvara Temple with excellent sculptures. Darasuram Temple, comparatively compact in size, is full of wonderful sculptures, mostly small. These three temples testify to the Chola dynasty’s brilliant achievements in architecture, sculpture, painting, and bronze casting.

These three temples have been grouped by Unesco as the Great Living Chola Temples for the reason that the tradition of temple worship and rituals established and practised over a thousand years ago, based on still older Agamic texts, continues to this day as an inseparable part of life of the people. Hence these temples are known as the ‘Great Living Chola Temples’ that demonstrate the unique Tamil culture as well. They are listed for the outstanding creative achievement in the architectural conception of the pure form of Dravidan style of temple construction.

The great Cholas established a powerful monarchy in the 9th CE at Thanjavur and in its surroundings. They enjoyed a long, eventful rule lasting for four and a half centuries with great achievements in all fields of royal endeavours such as military conquest, efficient administration, cultural assimilation and promotion of art.  Chola Empire stretched over all of South India and some neighbouring South-East Asian nations.

The Indian Government honoured this Big Temple by issuing 1000 rupee note in 1954, coin, and  postage stamp. Mere words and pictures will not justify describing this granite beauty! 

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