Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur

Brihadishvara Temple (originally known as Peruvudaiyar Kovil) locally known as Thanjai Periya Kovil, and also called Rajarajeswaram, is a Hindu Dravidian styled temple dedicated to the god Shiva located in South bank of Cauvery river in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India.It is one of the largest Hindu temples and an exemplary example of a fully realized Tamil architecture.It is called as Dakshina Meru (Meru of south).Built by Chola emperor Rajaraja I between 1003 and 1010 CE, the temple is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Great Living Chola Temples”, along with the Chola dynasty era Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple and Airavatesvara temple that is about 70 kilometres (43 mi) and 40 kilometres (25 mi) to its northeast respectively.

The original monuments of this 11th-century temple were built around a moat. It included gopura, the main temple, its massive tower, inscriptions, frescoes, and sculptures predominantly related to Shaivism, but also of Vaishnavism and Shaktism traditions of Hinduism. The temple was damaged in its history and some artwork is now missing. Additional mandapam and monuments were added in the centuries that followed. The temple now stands amidst fortified walls that were added after the 16th century.

Built using granite, the vimana tower above the shrine is one of the tallest in South India.The temple has a massive colonnaded prakara (corridor) and one of the largest Shiva lingas in India. It is also famed for the quality of its sculpture, as well as being the location that commissioned the brass Nataraja – Shiva as the lord of dance, in 11th century. The complex includes shrines for Nandi, Parvati, Kartikeya, Ganesha, Sabhapati, Dakshinamurti, Chandeshvara, Varahi, Thiyagarajar of Thiruvarur and others. The temple is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Tamil Nadu.

Rajaraja Chola, who commissioned the temple, called it Rajarajeshwaram (Rajarājeśwaram), literally “the temple of the almighty of Rajaraja”. A later inscription in the Brihannayaki shrine calls the temple’s deity Periya Udaiya Nayanar, which appears to be the source of the modern names Brihadisvara and Peruvudaiyar Kovil.
Brihadishwara (IAST: Bṛihádīśvara) is a Sanskrit composite word composed of Brihat which means “big, great, lofty, vast”, and Ishvara means “lord, Shiva, supreme being, supreme atman (soul)”.The name means the “great lord, big Shiva” temple.

The Peruvudaiyar Temple is located in the city of Thanjavur, about 350 kilometres (220 mi) southwest of Chennai. The city is connected daily to other major cities by the network of Indian Railways, Tamil Nadu bus services and the National Highways 67, 45C, 226 and 226 Extn.[18][19] The nearest airport with regular services is Tiruchirappalli International Airport , about 55 kilometres (34 mi) away.

The city and the temple though inland, are at the start of the Kaveri River delta, thus with access to the Bay of Bengal and through it to the Indian Ocean. Along with the temples, the Tamil people completed the first major irrigation network in the 11th century for agriculture, for movement of goods and to control the water flow through the urban center.

A spectrum of Hindu temple styles continued to develop from the fifth to the ninth century over the Chalukya era rule as evidenced in Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal, and then with the Pallava era as witnessed at Mamallapuram and other monuments. Thereafter, between 850 and 1280, Cholas emerged as the dominant dynasty.

 The early Chola period saw a greater emphasis on securing their geopolitical boundaries and less emphasis on architecture. In the tenth century, within the Chola empire emerged features such as the multifaceted columns with projecting square capitals. This, states George Michell, signaled the start of the new Chola style. This South Indian style is most fully realized both in scale and detail in the Brihadeshwara temple built between 1003 and 1010 by the Chola king Rajaraja I.

The main temple along with its gopurams is from the early 11th century. The temple also saw additions, renovations, and repairs over the next 1,000 years. The raids and wars, particularly between Muslim Sultans who controlled Madurai and Hindu kings who controlled Thanjavur caused damage.

These were repaired by Hindu dynasties that regained control. In some cases, the rulers attempted to renovate the temple with faded paintings, by ordering new murals on top of the older ones. In other cases, they sponsored the addition of shrines. The significant shrines of Kartikeya (Murugan), Parvati (Amman) and Nandi are from the 16th and 17th-century Nayaka era. Similarly the Dakshinamurti shrine was built later.It was well maintained by Marathas of Tanjore.

The Peruvudaiyar temple’s plan and development utilizes the axial and symmetrical geometry rules. It is classified as Perunkoil (also called Madakkoil), a big temple built on a higher platform of a natural or man-made mounds.The temple complex is a rectangle that is almost two stacked squares, covering 240.79 metres (790.0 ft) east to west, and 121.92 metres (400.0 ft) north to south. In this space are five main sections: the sanctum with the towering superstructure (sri vimana), the Nandi hall in front (Nandi-mandapam) and in between these the main community hall (mukhamandapam), the great gathering hall (mahamandapam) and the pavilion that connects the great hall with the sanctum (Antrala).

The temple complex integrates a large pillared and covered veranda (prakara) in its spacious courtyard, with a perimeter of about 450 metres (1,480 ft) for circumambulation. Outside this pillared veranda there are two walls of enclosure, the outer one being defensive and added in 1777 by the French colonial forces with gun-holes with the temple serving as an arsenal. They made the outer wall high, isolating the temple complex area. On its east end is the original main gopuram or gateway that is barrel vaulted.

It is less than half the size of the main temple’s vimana. 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 from multiple locations. 

Some of the shrines and structures were added during the Pandya, Nayaka, Vijayanagara and Maratha era, before the colonial era started, and these builders respected the original plans and symmetry rules. Inside the original temple courtyard, along with the main sanctum and Nandi-mandapam are two major shrines, one for Kartikeya and for Parvati. The complex has additional smaller shrines.

The Peruvudaiyar temple continued the Hindu temple traditions of South India by adopting architectural and decorative elements, but its scale significantly exceeded the temples constructed before the 11th century.

The Chola era architects and artisans innovated the expertise to scale up and build, particularly with heavy stone and to accomplish the 63.4 metres (208 ft) high towering vimana.

Nandi mandapam and the entrance gopurams, northeast view from courtyard.

Another view of the entrance.
The temple faces east, and once had a water moat around it. This has been filled up. The fortified wall now runs around this moat.

The two walls have ornate gateways called the gopurams. These are made from stone and display entablature.

The main gateways are on the east side. The first one is called the Keralantakan tiruvasal, which means the “sacred gate of the Keralantakan”.

The word Keralantakan was the surname of king Rajaraja who built it. About a 100 metres (330 ft) ahead is the inner courtyard gopuram called the Rajarajan tiruvasal.

This is more decorated than the Keralantakan tiruvasal, such as with its adhishthanam relief work narrating scenes from the Puranas and other Hindu texts.

The inner eastern gopuram leads to a vast courtyard, in which the shrines are all signed to east–west and north-west cardinal directions. The complex can be entered either on one axis through a five-story gopuram or with a second access directly to the huge main quadrangle through a smaller free-standing gopuram.

The gopuram of the main entrance is 30 m high, smaller than the vimana.

The main temple-related monuments and the great tower is in the middle of this courtyard. Around the main temple that is dedicated to Shiva, are smaller shrines, most of which are aligned axially.

These are dedicated to his consort Parvati, his sons Subrahmanya and Ganesha, Nandi, Varahi, Karuvur deva (the guru of Rajaraja Chola), Chandeshvara and Nataraja.

The Nandi mandapam has a monolithic seated bull facing the sanctum. In between them are stairs leading to a columned porch and community gathering hall, then an inner mandapa connecting to the pradakshina patha, or circumambulation path.

The Nandi (bull) facing the mukh-mandapam weighs about 25 tonnes.

It is made of a single stone and is about 2 m in height, 6 m in length and 2.5 m in width. The image of Nandi is a monolithic one and is one of the largest in the country.

As a world heritage monument, the temple and the premises comes under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which falls under the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India, to ensure safety, preservation and restoration.

The surrounding facilities have been upgraded to create an ambience worthy of the grandeur of this ancient marvel with lighting, signage and facilities for devotees and visitors.

The lighting of the monument is designed to enhance the natural color of the stone along with the sculptural forms adorning all corners of the temple.

The restoration has been undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India that commissioned Sheila Sri Prakash Indian architect and designer to lead the design.

The two mandapa, namely maha-mandapa and mukha-mandapa, are square plan structures axially aligned between the sanctum and the Nandi mandapa. The maha-mandapa has six pillars on each side.

This too has artwork. The Vitankar and Rajaraja I bronze are here, but these were added much later. The maha-mandapa is flanked by two giant stone dvarapalas. It is linked to the mukha-mandapa by stairs.

The entrance of the mukha-mandapa also has dvarapalas. With the mandapa are eight small shrines for dikpalas, or guardian deities of each direction such as Agni, Indra, Varuna, Kubera and others. These were installed during the rule of Chola king Rajendra I.

Inscriptions indicate that this area also had other iconography from major Hindu traditions during the Chola era, but these are now missing.

The original eight shrines included those for Surya (the sun god), Saptamatrikas (seven mothers), Ganesha, Kartikeya, Jyeshtha, Chandra (the moon god), Chandeshvara and Bhairava.

 Similarly, in the western wall cella was a massive granite Ganesha built during Rajaraja I era, but who is now found in the tiruch-churru-maligai (southern veranda). Of the Shaktism tradition’s seven mothers, only Varahi survives in a broken form.

Her remnants are now found in a small modern era brick “Varahi shrine” in the southern side of the courtyard. The original version of the others along with their original Chola shrines are missing.

The temple walls have numerous inscriptions in Tamil and Grantha scripts. Many of these begin with customary Sanskrit and Tamil language historical introduction to the king who authorized it, and predominant number of them discuss gifts to the temple or temple personnel, in some cases residents of the city.

 The temple complex has sixty four inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola I, twenty nine inscriptions of Rajendra Chola I, one each of Vikrama Chola, Kulottunga I and Rajamahendra (Rajendra II), three of a probable Pandyan king, two of Nayaka rulers namely, Achyutappa Nayaka and Mallapa Nayaka.

On 26 September 2010 (Big Temple’s fifth day of millennium celebrations), as a recognition of Big Temple’s contribution to the country’s cultural, architectural, epigraphical history, a special ₹ 5 postage stamp featuring the 216-feet tall giant Raja Gopuram was released by India Post.
The Reserve Bank of India commemorated the event by releasing a ₹ 5 coin with the model of temple embossed on it.

 A Raja, Cabinet Minister of Communications and Information Technology released the esteemed Brihadeeswarar temple special stamp, the first of which was received by G K Vasan, Cabinet Minister of Shipping.
Mumbai Mint issued Rs 1000 Commemorative Coin with the same picture as on the Rs 5 coin. It was the first 1000 Rupees coin to be released in the Republic of India coinage. This coin was a Non Circulative Legal Tender (NCLT).

On 1 April 1954, the Reserve Bank of India released a ₹ 1000 currency note featuring a panoramic view of the Brihadeeswar temple marking its cultural heritage and significance. In 1975, the then government led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi demonetised all ₹ 1,000 currency notes in an effort to curtail black money. These notes are now popular among collectors.

In 2010, the then Tamil Nadu chief minister, M Karunanidhi renamed Semmai Rice, a type of high productivity paddy variant, as Raja Rajan-1000 to mark the millennial year of the constructor of the temple, Rajaraja Chola.

The temple “testifies the brilliant achievements of the Chola in architecture, sculpture, painting and bronze casting.” The temple finds mention in many of the contemporary works of the period like Muvar Ula and Kalingathuparani.

According to Chatterjee, the Dravidian architecture attained its supreme form of expression in the temple and it successor, the Brihadeeswarar Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

The temple has been declared as a heritage monument by the Government of India and administered by the Archaeological Survey of India as a protected monument. The temple is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Tamil Nadu.

The temple was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the Brihadeeswara Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram that are referred as the Great Living Chola Temples. These three temples have similarities, but each has unique design and sculptural elements.

All of the three temples were built by the Cholas between the 10th and 12th centuries CE and they have continued to be supported and used by Hindus. The temples are classified as “Great Living” as the temples are active in cultural, pilgrimage and worship practises in modern times.

The Brihadishvara temple at Thanjavur is the site of annual dance festivals around February, around the Mahashivratri. Major classical Indian dance form artists, as well as regional teams, perform their repertoire at this Brahan Natyanjali festival over 10 days.

The Temple car was rolled out on its trial run from opposite to Sri Ramar temple on 20 April 2015 witnessed by a large number of people. Nine days later, the maiden procession of the temple car was held. This was the first such procession in this temple held in the past hundred years, according to news reports.

Kalki Krishnamurthy, a renowned Tamil novelist, has written a historical novel named Ponniyin Selvan, based on the life of Rajaraja.

 Balakumaran, another Tamil author has written a novel named Udaiyar themed on the life of Rajaraja I and the construction of the temple.

The temple is currently administered and managed by Babaji Bhonsle, the head of the Thanjavur Maratha royal family. He serves as the hereditary trustee of the palace Devasthanam which continues to manage 88 Chola temples including the Brihadeeswara temple. Tamil groups have been unsuccessfully petitioning the Tamil Nadu government to revoke these rights as he is not of Chola or Tamil lineage. According to one of the protesters, who also happens to be the coordinator of the Big Temple Rights Retrieval Committee, Babaji Bhonsle is also not the legal heir of the Maratha kings of Thanjavur.

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