Not many temples narrate the stories of their past like the Brihadisvara Temple of Thanjavur does. The detailed inscriptions, as lengthy as 107 paragraphs, carved in stone at the temple, offer a peek into the temple’s construction, its rituals and offerings, and the many gifts it once received. These inscriptions, along with the temple’s magnificent architecture and art, also tell us a lot about its patron, one of the most prominent Chola Kings, Rajaraja I, and how prosperous his empire was. This temple, more than 1,000 years old now, is still an active centre of worship and draws a flock of devotees every day.
Marking the skyline of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu with its lofty tower, the Brihadisvara Temple represents the prime of the Chola Empire and its temple-building tradition. Legend has it that the city of Thanjavur is named after a demon called ‘Thanjan’, who was killed by Vishnu here. Thanjavur, formerly known as Tanjore, became an imperial capital of the Cholas, who ruled between the 9th and 13th centuries CE, which is also when the city reached its peak. At their zenith, the Cholas held sway from as far as the Ganga River in North India and Odisha in North-East India, to Java overseas, and parts of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and even islands like the Maldives.
While the earliest reference to the Cholas is found in the second rock edict of Ashoka in Girnar from the 3rd century BCE, it is only from the 9th century CE that Chola rule shot into prominence. It is said that in the 3rd Century CE, the Cholas faced an invasion of the Kalabhras, after which their territory faded into obscurity.
Before the Cholas took over Thanjavur once again, it was ruled by the Mutharaiyar Dynasty for around three centuries, between the 6th and 9th centuries CE. Mutharaiyar rule was brought to an end by Vijayalaya Chola (r. 850-870 CE), who captured Thanjavur from Ilango Mutharaiyar in 848-850 CE. In 850 CE, Vijayalaya established a small kingdom in and around Thanjavur, which developed into an expansive empire under his successors.
Zenith of Chola Empire
Under the Cholas, their empire including the city of Thanjavur reached new heights of excellence in art, religion, music and literature. The Chola period also marked the culmination of movements in art and architecture that had begun in an earlier age under the Pallava Dynasty (4th to 9th Century CE). Architecture in the form of majestic temples and sculptures in stone and bronze reached a new level of finesse.
The Cholas, great temple-builders, left behind magnificent temples across South India. The 11th century CE is known for grand temple building activities all across India.
The Cholas continued and enhanced the temple-building traditions of the Pallava Dynasty and contributed significantly to the Dravidian style of temple architecture.
Being devotees of Shiva, they commissioned a number of Shiva temples along the banks of the Kaveri River. A novel development in Chola temple style was the addition of a huge gopuram, a large tower at the entrance to a temple. But it was under the rule of the great Chola King, Rajaraja I, that temple-building received a great impetus. At that time, temples were not limited to being centres of worship; they were also active centres of culture and learning.
Rajaraja I ascended the throne in 985 CE and went on to become one of the greatest Chola emperors, reigning till 1014 CE. His military triumphs, organization of the empire, administration and revenue system, and patronage of art and literature made him stand out as a ruler. It is he who built the Brihadisvara Temple, which was also called ‘Sri Rajarajeswaram’ after him.
The Brihadisvara Temple, dedicated to Shiva, was built in the early 11th century CE. The temple, with splendid architecture, lofty vimana (tower over the sanctum sanctorum), beautiful sculptures and magnificent paintings, reflects the prosperity of the empire at that time. But the Brihadisvara Temple is extraordinary also because of its valuable Tamil inscriptions engraved in stone in elegant calligraphy. Interestingly, the inscriptions running along the plinth at the srivimana (sanctum sanctorum and crowning tower) serve as the earliest records of the temple. The inscriptions also record the consecration of the temple in the year 1010 CE, when Rajaraja Chola presented a gold finial to be installed at the top of the vimana.
These inscriptions were engraved on the orders of the king himself while he was seated in the royal bathing hall on the eastern side of his palace. It is also recorded that he instructed that his execution of the temple plan and the list of gifts that he, his sister Kundavai, his queens and others gave to the temple should be inscribed in these inscriptions.
But here’s a twist. According to some historians, there was a pre-existing temple where Brihadisvara now stands. Historian S R Balasubrahmanyam in his book Middle Chola Temples: Rajaraja I to Kulottunga I (1975) says that some believe there was a temple at this very site, which also finds mention in a Tamil text called Thevaram, devoted to Shiva. It is said that Rajaraja rebuilt this temple as the grand Brihadisvara Temple. However, the author goes on to say that this cannot be conceived as true.
The Brihadisvara Temple is built mainly of granite and the large blocks of stone were transported to the site from 50 km away. The stones were raised to the required height by constructing an inclined plane. The temple consists of the srivimana, ardhamandapa (front pavilion), mahamandapa (assembly hall), mukhamandapa (community hall) and a Nandi-mandapa in front. The main vimana of the temple is especially unique, reaching a height of around 200 feet.
The Nandi-mandapa is also a striking component of the temple as it houses a huge monolithic sculpture of Nandi, the bull and vehicle of Shiva. The sculpture is estimated to weigh around 25 tons. There is a large courtyard with a circumscribing tiruch-churru-maligai (a raised, covered and columned verandah).
The defensive structures, which included a moat and fortification walls, make Brihadisvara a unique temple. This could be because Brihadisvara was not only a temple meant for public worship but it also served as the royal shrine for the use of the royal family whose palace was in its vicinity. Outside, there are two further walls of the enclosure, the outer wall being a defensive one with bastions and gun-holes. This was added to the complex in 1777 CE.
The fortified wall in the complex has two gopurams. In the courtyard (prakara), there are two major shrines, that of deities Amman and Subrahmanyar, and a number of other smaller ones. A later mandapa in the north-eastern corner of the courtyard and two gopurams in the eastern perimeter walls complete the complex.
Records show how immensely Rajaraja Chola invested in the temple. He showered all his wealth and war-won booty on its construction and embellishment. He presented numerous bronze sculptures to the temple, including the famous Natraja bronze sculptures of the Cholas, along with other sculpture presentations in silver, gold and copper.
The expanse of his contribution to the temple and its functioning through many land grants is also revealed in the temple’s inscriptions. The people who worked at the temple, ranging from cooks, to gardeners, musicians, accountants and watchmen, were all endowed with land grants. Interestingly, the king built two long streets to house the 400 devadasis or dancing women of the temple, which suggests the lavish scale on which he endowed the temple and its functioning.
The Brihadisvara Temple is truly a gallery of art from that era. One can only imagine how grand and embellished the temple must have been in its heyday. Apart from the various sculptures that once adorned the interiors of the temple, there are paintings belonging to the Chola period and also of the Nayaks, that decorate the walls of the sanctum sanctorum. The Nayaks ruled Thanjavur in the 16th and 17th centuries CE. These paintings are mostly depictions of various scenes from the lives of Shiva and other deities. There are also some replicas of sculptures as paintings, some gifted by the king Rajaraja himself.
The paintings made during the Nayak Dynasty were done on a layer covering the Chola paintings. Restoration work was done by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at the temple, which now reveals both the sets of paintings on the walls.
The detailing of sculptures such as the fine ornamentation is also vividly described in the inscriptions, hinting at the empire’s wealth. However, most of these sculptures and jewels have disappeared over time and only a few bronze sculptures survive in the temple today.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Brihadisvara Temple provided a unique sensory experience for the devotees. Every evening, the local folk would gather for the ritualistic prayers and chanting of hymns performed during the waving of the lamps. Balasubrahmanyam notes that as many as 160 lamps and torches lit up the temple and its various shrines. Imagine spending a serene evening at the temple in that ambience! To provide ghee for the lamps, Rajaraja made extensive grants to cattle shepherds.
Interestingly, Rajaraja Chola revived an ancient hymn tradition known as ‘Devaram’ at the temple, which went on to become an important part of the daily chants. He appointed 48 pidarars, traditional Devaram hymn singers for the temple.
After the decline of the Chola Empire in the 13th Century, Thanjavur was captured by Pandyan King Malavarman Kulasekara Pandyan I in 1279 CE, who annexed the entire Chola kingdom. Over the next few centuries, Thanjavur saw the rule of the Delhi Sultanate (14th century), the Nayaks (16th-17th centuries) and the Marathas (17-18th centuries). It is said that the temple valuables were probably lost after the Chola rule declined. However, the later rulers also made additions to the temple complex, like adding pavilions and shrines. For instance, the Nandi pavilion was added during the rule of the Nayaks. The shrines of Amman and Subrahmanyar are also later additions.
During the British occupation of the temple complex for around 30 years (1772 to 1801 CE), the temple was damaged as it was used as barracks by the British. It is said that worship at the temple was also abandoned during this period and the temple was out of bounds for the population. It was Maharaja Serfoji II Bhonsle (r. 1798-1832 CE), the most prominent ruler of the Thanjavur-Maratha rule, who restored the temple in 1801.
Interestingly, there are Marathi stone inscriptions on the southern wall of the temple, which mention the history of the Bhonsle clan, to which Serfoji belonged. These inscriptions, considered to be one of the lengthiest inscriptions in the country, also record the restoration and other building activities of Maharaja Serfoji.
Another fascinating anecdote associated with the Brihadisvara Temple is when it served as a spot for the ‘measurement of the Indian subcontinent’. In 1802, an officer of the British administration, Lt Col William Lambton, set out to undertake a scientific survey, to map and measure the land of the Indian subcontinent, which came to be known as the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.
The survey started at Madras. But, when Lambton found the Cauvery Delta too difficult to map, he used the gopurams of a few temples, including that of the Brihadisvara Temple, to assist him in this mammoth task. Heavy machinery was hoisted to the top of the temple. On one such occasion, Lambton accidentally dropped the machine off the temple’s sides and damaged one of the statues. According to local lore, Lambton had his own face sculpted there as a replacement!
The ASI has undertaken major restoration work at the temple. In 2003, it restored the Nayak paintings. It was historian and archaeology expert K V Govinda Swami who spotted the Chola paintings through the peeled-off Nayak paintings. In 2010, the temple celebrated its 1,000-year anniversary of its royal consecration in 1010 CE, which was commemorated with many cultural events. Today, the temple witnesses flocks of devotees and tourists alike, not only for the prayers but also to taste the cultural flavour of the city during annual celebrations such as dance festivals at the temple.
The Brihadisvara Temple of Thanjavur along with the Gangaikondacholapuram Temple and the Airavateshwara Temple at Darasuram constitute the UNESCO World Heritage Site designated as the ‘Great Living Chola Temples’. The Brihadisvara Temple is truly a masterpiece of Chola architecture and lives on to reflect the dynasty’s legacy.
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