Updated: Aug 24
The Brihadeshwara Temple, also known as Thanjai Periya Kovil and Peruvadiyar Kovil is a Shaivite Hindu temple located in Thanjavur, India on the southern bank of river Cauvery. Built in the 11th century CE, during the reign of Raja Raja Chola 1, the temple is an architectural masterpiece that captivates visitors with its sheer magnitude and intricate craftsmanship, while also serving as a living testament to the architectural genius, vision, power, and prosperity of the Chola dynasty.
For devout Hindus, the Brihadeshwara Temple is considered one of the holiest pilgrimage sites, attracting worshippers and spiritual seekers from far and wide. The temple's sanctity and the rituals performed within its sacred precincts create an atmosphere charged with devotion and spiritual energy.
The Brihadeshwara temple in Tanjavur along with the Brihadeshwara temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram Airavatesvara Temple in Kumbakonam forms the “Great Living Chola Temples”, a UNESCO world heritage site.
From Myth to Monument: The Origin Story of Brihadeshwara Temple
The establishment of the Brihadeshwara Temple finds its roots in the flourishing era of the Chola dynasty, renowned for its remarkable cultural achievements. Raja Raja Chola I ascended the throne in the 10th century CE, propelling the empire to new heights of power and influence.
A famous legend associated with the Temple's Creation is that Lord Shiva, appeared before the king in a dream, revealing a profound desire for a temple that would surpass all others in grandeur. Inspired by this divine revelation, Raja Raja Chola I embarked on an extraordinary mission to manifest the Lord's sacred abode on Earth, it is then he choose the fertile banks of river Cauvery as the ideal location, setting the stage for an architectural marvel that would stand the test of time. Inscriptions on the walls of the Brihadeshwara Temple reveal fascinating stories that exemplify the prosperity and religious patronage of the Chola era. Among them, one inscription recounts how Raja Raja Chola I facilitated collaboration between two distinct trade communities, urging them to donate bananas for the sacred offering of appam to Lord Ganesha. Remarkably, Raja Raja Chola ensured that the price of bananas remained constant throughout his entire reign, emphasizing his commitment to fair trade practices.
Another inscription highlights the king's benevolence as he funded and dedicated the income from an entire village to cultivating aromatic spices and fragrant substances. These valuable resources were then mixed with water and used for the abhisheka, or ceremonial bathing, of Lord Shiva.
Chola Dynasty's Patronage: A Legacy of Support for the Brihadeshwara Temple
Raja Raja Chola 1 commissioned the construction of the temple in the 11th century CE. His patronage not only provided the necessary resources for its construction but also ensured the temple became a symbol of Chola's power and devotion to Lord Shiva.
Following the reign of Raja Raja Chola I, his son and successor, Rajendra Chola I, continued the patronage of the Brihadeshwara Temple. Rajendra Chola I expanded the Chola empire, bringing wealth and prosperity to the region.
After the decline of the Chola dynasty, the Brihadeshwara Temple came under the patronage of the Nayaks of Thanjavur in the 16th century. The Nayaks were great supporters of art and culture and made significant contributions to the temple complex. They commissioned the construction of a 16 ft long nandi on the temple premise.
The Marathas, who subsequently ruled the region, were ardent devotees of Lord Shiva and also included several mural paintings in the Brihadeshwara temple.
The Architectural brilliance of the Brihadeshwara temple
The construction of Brihadeshwara Temple is attributed to the ingenious engineer and architect Kunjara Mallan Raja Raja Perumthachan and is built in the Dravidian architectural style. His successors, who still practice the ancient science and art of Vastu Shastra, have upheld his legacy to this day.
The temple is made entirely of granite stones and is believed to be 130000 tons in weight. Historians still ponder over how these massive granite stones were transported from Pudukottai, a distance of around 100 km from the temple site. The disposal of waste materials from the temple construction also remains a mystery.
What makes the construction even more remarkable is the absence of any binding material between the stones. Instead, the stones interlock with each other like a perfectly crafted puzzle. They fit together with such precision that it resembles a male and female interlocking mechanism, one part having a protrusion and another a hole that fits perfectly ensuring stability and strength.
The 208 high tower, often called Dakshin Meru or Vimana structure is entirely hollow from within. The stones were ingeniously arranged at an angle, and to prevent collisions, eight stones were strategically placed at the top, ensuring structural integrity in both inward and outward forces. The Kumbam or apex of the temple is carved out of a single stone and weighs 80 tons.
The centerpiece of the temple is the linga, a sacred representation of Lord Shiva weighing about 20 tons and standing 29 ft high.
While many details of the temple have been uncovered, some fascinating features remained hidden for over a millennium. Modern technology, like drones, revealed numerous tiny curved holes drilled into the granite at some height, measuring a mere 3 mm in diameter. These minute holes, unnoticed by historians for centuries, demonstrate the meticulous craftsmanship employed in the temple's construction.
The temple also has more than 100 underground passages, some leading to the palace of Raja Raja Chola 1 and others unexcitable. They are made in a maze format so as to ensure the safety of the passerby, government has currently closed the access to these tunnels as it's easy for people to get lost in these tunnels.
Preserving Architectural Splendor and Cultural Legacy Across Centuries
In 2010, the Indian government allocated a substantial 25 crore investment towards the temple's restoration, emphasizing its cultural significance. As part of this endeavor, the temple's moat underwent a renovation to enhance the overall appeal of the complex.
In 2019, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) initiated a comprehensive project, utilizing chemical cleaning techniques to remove the accumulated grime and pollutants that had caused the temple and gopurams to darken over time. Employing a meticulous four-step process, including chemical cleaning, consolidation, bio-side treatment, and preservation, the temple regained its luster and longevity.
Further expertise was brought in from IIT Madras in 2020, with experts meticulously inspecting the condition of the Kalasam. A special pooja atop the Vimanam was conducted, followed by the dismantling of the Kalasam into eight parts for thorough cleaning and preservation. As time has passed, efforts to preserve and restore the Brihadeshwara Temple have ensured that its magnificence remains intact. Today, the Brihadeshwara Temple stands not only as a place of worship but as a living heritage, a symbol of the unwavering human spirit, and a testament to the profound spirituality and artistic achievements of ancient India. It continues to inspire and captivate all who visit, offering a glimpse into a glorious past and reaffirming the enduring power of faith and creativity.