The Brihadeeshwara Temple of Thanjavur

Not many are aware of the grand Brihadeeshwara temple of Thanjavur, an ancient architectural marvel which also goes by the name of The Big Temple. It is the pride of Tamilnadu and of India, and is one of the last remaining living Chola temples of South India. My paternal family originally hails from Thanjavur. So visiting Thanjavur and this temple was on the cards and the trip actually materialised after watching the popular movie Ponniyin Selvan

I was not aware of the details but just that this temple is an architectural marvel in itself and that its huge monolithic dome does not cast a shadow on the ground. However, I later figured out that not only this but the temple has many other interesting jaw-dropping facts which are difficult to fathom out.

Let’s begin our journey to this gem of a Dravidian architecture situated in the hinterlands of Tamilnadu.

Origins of the Brihadeeshwara Temple

The inner precincts of the Brihadeeshwara temple of Thanjavur.
Brihadeeshwara temple from one of the gopurams (gateway entrance in the fortified wall)

Brihadeeshwara temple is one of the Great Living Hindu Chola temples of India (along with Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple, Airavateshwar Temple). It is a colossal temple built by Raja Raja Chola I, an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, between 1003 to 1010 AD. Today, it is a proclaimed Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site.The Indian Government recently commemorated the temple’s completion of 1000 years in September 2010 by issuing a Rs 1000 coin and organizing a 5-day cultural festival from all over India.

Known by multiple names, Brihadeeshwara (Brihad means huge and Eeshwara refers to Lord Shiva) temple is also known as the Rajrajeshwaram temple (after the name of the king, Rajrajeshwar Chola), the Big Temple or the Peruvudaiyar Kovil in Tamil.

The temple authority changed hands soon after as the Cholas were defeated by the Pandyas who were then eventually overthrown by the Vijaynagar kingdom. The Vijaynagar King appointed the Nayaks as the guardians of Thanjavur and the temple. In 1647, the Marathas defeated the Nayaks to take control of the temple. Thus, the Cholas, the Nayaks and the Marathas have all contributed to the present day temple, its renovation and maintenance over all these centuries.

The outer gopuram of the Brihadeeshwara temple of Thanjavur.
One of the first gopurams from the outer precints (fortified wall) of the temple
The monolithic Nandi with the ornate mural ceiling at the Brihadeeshwara temple of Thanjavur.
The mural on the ceiling of the Nandi Mantapa built by the Nayakas in the later centuries. This is one of the largest monolithic granite Nandis in India.

A Marvel of Dravidian Architecture

The 11th century Brihadeeshwara temple is indeed a sight to behold. It is a great example of the Chola style of architecture that went into decline after the downfall of the Chola dynastry. Constructing such a massive temple was not attempted before this and the temple does represents the zenith of the Chola dynasty. Today, It is one of the topmost tourist attraction of Thanjavur and is surrounded by many mysteries that are not deciphered till date. Let us take a look at them:

The Mysteries of Brihadeeshwara Temple

  1. The Brihadeeshwara temple houses one of the tallest Shiva lingams of the world. Located in the garba griha or the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, the linga occupies 2 storeys of the vimana, the pyramidal structure above the garba griha. The lingam is a hollow structure which reverberates the sound of OM inside the garba griha. It is said to be a magical acoustic experience for those who are lucky to experience it. However, public entry is not allowed inside the garba griha nowadays.
  2. The main vimana of the temple is 65 metres in height, that is close to a 6-storey tall building of today. The granite capstone which weighs 80 tonne was placed on the towrering vimana back in those days . How was this done? Was a rampway built? Or was it the sound levitation technology that carried the capstone to the top in one piece? The capstone was placed to channelize the energy emanating from the huge shiva lingam below. This created the positive energy around the garba griha!
  3. The vimana does not cast a shadow on the ground ever. Even at noon and even in various seasons! There are many theories floating around to prove this dissonance. Some say that the shadow is cast at a distance over the trees; some say that the shadow does fall but does not reach the ground because of its height. The confusion still prevails.
  4. The granite vimana was built using interlocking structures which still stand intact till date. No binding agent like mortar or lime was used to seal the binding.
  5. The temple was entirely built with 60,000 tonnes of granite blocks which are not found locally. The granite was sourced from some 50 kms away and was transported to this site. This is not a mean task in any way even in modern times.
  6. It is said that there are more than 100 secret underground passages which were connected to the king’s palace (Thanjavur palace) and thereabout. Its purpose was to ensure the smooth movement of the royal family, military and others to the temple, and also as an escape route during emergencies. The passages are obviously sealed now and is not open to public.
  7. There is a carving of an European man donning a hat on one of the walls of this temple. How was this carved over a 1000 years ago? Is this related to time travel or was there ancient trade between India and Europe during those times?

I am sure there are many more mysteries waiting to baffle us coming from this marvellous temple. It is no wonder that ancient architects have used profound science to construct this temple and modern science is yet to decipher them 🙂

The towering vimana of the Brihadeeshwara temple of Thanjavur.
The 216 feet Vimana with the 80-tonne cupolic dome atop it.

Our Lunch Affair in Thanjavur

Our afternoon was spent enjoying a delicious Chettinad meal at Svatma, a luxury boutique resort restaurant, which serves some fingerlickingly good local fare. It is just a 10-minute drive from the Brihadeeshwara temple.

A visit to Svatma was no less than a culinary pilgrimage that made our trip to Thanjavur truly complete. Savouring the local delicacies is a must when exploring a new region. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. 🙂 And so we ordered a regional thali complete with some Tanjore Maratha dishes which made our meal quite memorable.

The magnificent thali at Svatma in Thanjavur.
A 3-course Chettinad thali with payasam on the side. Panakam, a summer cooler, is not in the pic. The meal ended with an ice-cream and then filter coffee, which I happily skipped..burpp!

Shopping in Thanjavur

We got time to shop as well in this one-day trip of Thanjavur. We got some exquisite 22K gold foil painting which is popularly known as Thanjavur painting from nearby the temple precints. Click here to know more about this painting and to know where to buy it from.

Thanjavur dolls, another art form originating from the city, are also a good buy when you are in the region.

Where we stayed:

We made a day trip to Thanjavur just to witness this grand spectacle of a temple. We were staying in Trichy at the Courtyard by Marriott. Thanjavur is about an hour away from Trichy at 57 kms.

Best time to visit:

Summers are usually very hot in Tamilnadu. So the best time to visit is between the months of December to February.

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