Brihadeeswara temple also called PeruvudaiyārKōvil or Rajarajeswaram is a Hindu temple dedicated to Bhagwan Shiva located on the South Bank of the Kaveri river in Thanjavur, located about 350 kilometers southwest of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. It is one of the largest South Bharatiya temples and a symbol of Chola architecture. It is called Dhakshina Meru (Meru of the south).
Built by Tamil king Raja Raja Chola I between 1003 and 1010 AD, 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 at Darasuramthat are located about 70 kilometers and 40 kilometers to its northeast respectively.
The temple has a massive prakara (corridor) and one of the largest Shivalingas in Bharat. The complex includes shrines for Nandi, Parvati, Kartikeya, Ganesha, Sabhapati, Dakshinamurti, Chandeshvara, Varahi, and others. The temple is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Tamil Nadu.
Brihadeeswara is a Sanskrit composite word wherein Brihat means “big, great, lofty, vast”, and Ishvara means “Bhagwan, Shiva, supreme being, supreme atman (soul)”. The name means the “great Bhagwan, big Shiva” temple.
The city and the temple are at the start of the Kaveri River delta, with access to the Bay of Bengal and through it to the Indian Ocean. History reveals the ponds and canals developed near the temples in those days (since 11th century) were also used for irrigation, movement of cargo, and drinking water needs of the people while the sea route was used for foreign travel and global trade. No wonder, Tanjore is considered the rice bowl of Tamilnadu.
Several styles of temple architecture continued to develop from the 5th to the 9th century over the Chalukya era rule as evidenced in Badami and other places, and then with the Pallava era as witnessed at Mamallapuram and other monuments. Thereafter, between 850 and 1280 CE, Cholas emerged as the dominant dynasty. This South Bharatiya style evolved gradually and led to beautiful architectural marvels. One of such iconic pieces is the Brihadeshwara temple built between 1003 and 1010 by the Chola king Rajaraja I.
The main temple along with its gopurams are from the early 11th century. The wars, particularly between Muslim Sultans who controlled Madurai and Hindu kings who were ruling Thanjavur caused damage to this temple. The temple also saw additions, renovations, and repairs in the succeeding 1,000 years. The shrines of Kartikeya, Parvati, and Nandi in the Brihadeeswara temple are from the 16th and 17th-century Nayaka eras. Similarly, the Dakshinamurti shrine was also built later.
The temple complex is a rectangle that is almost two stacked squares, covering 790.0 ft east to west, and 400.0 ft north to south. In this temple complex are five main sections: the sanctum with the towering superstructure (srivimana), the Nandi hall in front (Nandi-mandapam), and in between these the main community hall (Mukha mandapam), the great gathering hall (maha mandapam), and the pavilion that connects the great hall with the sanctum (Artha mandapam).
The temple complex has a large pillared and covered veranda (prakara) in its spacious courtyard, with a perimeter of about 450 meters (1,480 ft) for circumambulation. Outside this pillared veranda, there are two walls of the enclosure. The outer wall which is very high was added in 1777 CE by the French colonial forces with gun-holes with the temple serving as an arsenal.
On its east end is the original main gopuram which is in 30 meters height. The temple’s towering vimana is 216 feet in height. This is one of the rare temples where the tower at sanctum sanctorum (vimana) is taller than the tower at raja gopuram (entrance), typical of Chola’s style of architecture.
The main gateways are on the east side. The first one is called the Keralantakantiruvasal, which means the “sacred gate of the Keralantakan”. The word Keralantakan was the surname of king Rajaraja who built this temple. About 100 meters (330 ft) ahead is the inner courtyard gopuram called the Rajarajantiruvasal.
The inner eastern gopuram leads to a vast courtyard, in which the shrines are all located in east-west and north-west cardinal directions. Around the main temple that is dedicated to Bhagwan 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 RajarajaChola), Chandeshvara, and Nataraja. The Nandi mandapam has a monolithic seated bull facing the sanctum.
The Nandi (bull) facing the mukh-mandapam weighs about 20 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. The interior of the sanctum sanctorum hosts an image of the primary deity, Bhagwan Shiva, in the form of a huge stone linga. Only priests are allowed to enter this innermost chamber, i.e., GarbhaGruha.
The main Vimana (Shikhara) is a massive 16 storeys tower made of 60,000 tonnes of granite with a height of 216 feet. On top of this Vimana is a capstone (kumbham) weighing 80 tons.
In the sanctum sanctorum, Bhagwan Shiva in the form of a huge linga is 8.7 m (29 ft) high, occupying two storeys of the sanctum. It is one of the largest monolithic linga sculptures in Bharat. On the second floor, Bhagwan Shiva’s Tripurantaka form in different postures is depicted corresponding to these sculptures.
On the walls of the floor above the sanctum are 81 of the 108 dance karanas in carvings. The 108 karanas (postures or bhangimas) are described in the 4th chapter of the NatyaShastra written by Bharat Muni, the ancient treatise on the Bharatiya performing arts. This text is the basis of the Bharathanatyam, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu.
Some of the paintings in the sanctum sanctorum and the walls in the passage had been damaged and the Archaeological Survey of India, for the first time in the world, used its unique de-stucco process to restore 16 Nayak paintings, which were superimposed on 1000-year-old Chola frescoes. These 400-year-old paintings have been mounted on fiberglass boards, displayed at a separate pavilion.
According to George Michell, an authority on South Asian architecture, the Thanjavur temple was a major charity institution in its history providing free meals for pilgrims, devotees, and wayfarers on a daily basis. Raja Raja Chola patronized dance and music and several dancers and musicians from the nearby places came and lived in Tanjore, which became to be known as the Tamil cultural capital.
The temple turned 1000 years old in September 2010. 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.
How to reach the Tanjore temple?
The nearest airport is Tiruchirappalli Airport which is 60.8 Kms from Brihadeeswara Temple.
The nearest railway station is Thanjavur Railway Station which is (1.9 Kms) from Brihadeeswara Temple.
The Tanjore temple town is connected by National Highways 67, 45C, 226, and 226 Extn.
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