“When we recall the nature and extent of the efforts and sacrifices that must have gone into the construction of this magnificent temple… and the manner in which numerous villages all over the empire were linked with the daily routine of the temple… when we consider further, how all the learning and the arts that flourished in the country were impressed into the service of the temple, we cannot fail to observe how the Great Temple had come to hold, from its very inception, a prominent place in the polity of the land. The temple was meant to dominate Thanjavur as Thanjavur dominated the rest of South India at the time: it was indeed the masterpiece of Rajaraja’s rule.” ~ K. A. Nilkanta Sastri
A little on the Chola Architecture
In South India the earliest temples were made by the Pallavas (7th -9th c. CE), and they developed certain typical characteristics of their own. The Cholas while keeping alive the Pallava features on monuments, made further improvisations and created an unique style of their own. So if we carefully observe, we will find that Chola niches are narrower than the early Pallava ones, while the carvings on the top of the niche appear rounder than the Pallavas (the image below: Chola on left and early Pallava on right). Similarly a closer look at the Pallava kudu shows the finial with a shovel-head (Mahabalipuram) while the Chola ones have a lion-head in their finials.
In the early Pallava rock-cut monuments, that we see in Mahabalipuram (the right image showing Durga on Draupadi ratha outer wall) the niche is wide, and the makara-torana design on the top is flat with the floral tail of the makara flowing out on two sides. Chola ones show niches that are narrower, while the pattern on top is rounder. The pillar capital and pillar/pilaster differences are noteworthy too.
Another prominent difference that is noticed between the Chola and the Pallava monuments are in the size of their gopuras. The vimana in Pallava temples stand out prominently while the gopura is smaller and squatter (Kailashnathar temple). In Chola temples the vimana is colossal by the time of Rajaraja (example: Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram, and Darasuram). While the gopuras in early Chola temples were relatively smaller (though not as squat as the Pallavas), in the late Chola period the gargantuan gopuras are bigger than even the main shrine vimana. The dwarapalas of the Pallavas are normal human figures with two arms, while the Cholas take their dwarapalas to another level altogether. Stern, four armed men, look down fiercely at the devotees as their fingers wonder and warn of the powers of the divinity inside.
On left is the normal human like figures as dwarapalas (Pallavas), while on the right is the Chola dwarapala at Thanjavur.
Brihadeswara Temple (Peruvudaiyar temple) at Thanjavur: A Pictorial Journey
The Brihadisvara temple is dedicated to Shiva, and the sanctum hold a linga established by Rajaraja himself who named it as Rajarajesvaram- udayar. This temple like all other large Chola temples have a flight of steps that lead from sides to a platform, from which one enters the pillared mandapas and moves towards the sanctum. The temple balustrades are huge with ornamented outer sides, and curled up ends. The exterior walls show alternating koshtha-panjaras and kumbha panjaras, a typical Chola feature; while the niches show pilasters on two sides with a curved crown moulding decorated with two kudus having simha (lion) heads.
The niches on the southern wall of the temple holds Ganesha, Vishnu with his consorts, Sri/Lakshmi, a pair of dwarapalas, Bhikshatana, Virabhadra, two more dwarapalas, Dakshina-murti, Kalantaka, and Natesa. The north facing wall shows Ardhanarisvara, Gangadhara, two dwarapalas, Virabhadra, Alingana-murti, Shiva with a spear, two more dwarapalas, Saraswati, Mahishasuramardini and Bhairava. The west wall niches hold Hari-Hara, Ardhanarisvara, two dwarapalas, and two Chandrasekharas (one has a halo). The temple faces east and a flight of stairs lead to a pillared mandapa of a later period. A nandi manadapa, also of a later period, sits in the courtyard facing the main shrine, and in it sits a huge monolithic black nandi. The nandi mandapa shows colourful paintings on its ceilings which are of a much later period (late 19th to early 20th century) done by local artists.
The temple’s large courtyard is surrounded by a pillared cloister attached to the prakara/wall. There are two Chola era gopuras at a distance from each other. As one enters, he or she first crosses a gateway known as the Maratha gate, which is a basic gateway, and as the name suggests, built later by the Marathas. The next gate is the first of the Chola structures and is larger in size. After crossing it one sees the second Chola era gopura guarded by two huge dwarapalas, with beautiful carvings that show stories of Shiva’s marriage, Markandeya episode, Arjuna getting the Pashupata weapon, etc. A moat, now empty, surrounds the temple complex.
Totally it is said that the temple holds 64 inscriptions by Rajaraja; 29 by Rajendra I; one each by Rajendradeva, Kulottunga I, and Vikrama Chola; 3 by a Pandyan ruler; 2 by Vijayanagara kings; 10 by Maratha rulers; two by the Nayakas. The Maratha inscriptions were by Sarafoji II, where one inscription states that the the king arranged for purification and reconsecration ceremonies of the temple in 1801-02; while adding mandapas; repairing several damaged shrines; renovating the temple wall, kitchen, and courtyard flooring (data from ASI reports)
The construction of the vimana and the setting in place of the heavy sikhara on top of the griva has long been a topic of speculation among the archaeologists. One line of thought believes that the heavy stone round Shikhara was carried on top by building an elevated plane all around the vimana
The masterpiece of Chola art is seen in this temple in the incomplete carvings of 81 of the 108 fine karanas of Natyashastra on the corridor walls (temple’s first floor). The dark passage that goes around the sanctum also holds another secret in the form of three huge sculptures of Shiva. This passage ceilings and walls also hold exquisite Chola era paintings which had been covered over by 17th century Nayaka era paintings. The original paintings have now been restored after extensive works undertaken by the ASI from the 2000s.
Brihadeswara temple (Peruvudaiyar temple) in Thanjavur with its awe inspiring architecture, paintings, and sculptures, epitomizes the might and grandeur of the Chola era. The temple is huge and the entire complex will take at least one whole day (if not a day more) for a thorough look at everything. It would be prudent to stay in Thanjavur for a few days and explore the three jewels of the Chola temple architecture at one’s own leisure : Brihadeswara temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, and Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram. The best time to visit this place is during November to January, when weather is relatively cooler. The temple sanctum remains closed from 12 pm to 4 pm, and one must keep that in mind while visiting the temple.
ASI reports on Brihadeswara/Peruvudaiyar temple from the ASI archives
George Michell, 2008. Architecture and art of Southern India. Cambridge University Press. PDF
S. R. Balasubrahmanyam, 1975. Middle Chola Temples. Thomson Press, Bombay.