The Emperor of Templesthe
Brihadeeshwara templeis the tallest known standing monument.
People flock from far and near to behold this site and pay homage to
the powerful deity who commanded and inspired such a structure.
Amidst joy and bustle Tanjavur celebrated as the title Rajarajadeva
was conferred on their king of 19 years. Arulmozhi Deva, who came to
the throne in 985 AD, assumed the title after a series of successful
expeditions that expanded the tiny principality he had inherited into
an empire that spanned all of the subcontinent south of the Godavari
and the Northern half of Sri Lanka.
There was more to
celebrate. Rajarajadeva had just announced his desire to build the
greatest monument in the world that would glorify the Shivite
deities. The excitement and speculation generated among the subjects
was unprecedented. Here, in their midst, was to be a temple reported
of such proportions as no one had ever witnessed before.
Teams of master sculptors
and painters, woodworkers and quarrymen, congregated at Tanjavur
seeking employment in the project. Geology experts discerned the need
for building materials more durable than the locally to disintegrate.
They sourced the material at a nearby hillock called Mammalai, 50 km
to the west. Engineers calculated and projected the load bearing
capacity of these rocks, and laborers began quarrying Mammalai. The
steady clink of metal hitting stone persisted from the cool dawn well
into dusk, with a respite from the sun after lunch. The quarried rock
was to be dragged laboriously block by block to the site and
assembled according to the instructions of the Sthapathis or
The local economy
flourished with the influx of people. Creative energy charged the
atmosphere as the congregating artists and intellectuals discussed
and debated the plans amongst themselves. The structure began to take
shape. As it grew out of its east facing foundation, stone cutters
provided specially molded granite for the various levels of the base.
Some were in the shape of the Lotus (padmam), others rounded,
striped or engraved. These were for the Adhisthanam or the
beginning of the main structure that rests on the Upa peetam
or base. The sculptors, who were ordered to create the images in
stone, brought to life deities and demigods, animals and demons in
various carefully calculated sizes. One of these, installed on the
North West side has a carefully wrought aperture that only allows a
fine needle through. Given free creative reign, some interpreted and
illustrated Puranic stories on stone panels.
The bustling routine of a
day was punctuated by meals and a siesta. From the time the morning
miss rose from the river Kaveri to the evening hour when the birds
swirled overhead for a final dance before heading for their nests,
work carried on. These was a feverish energy to the project, fueled
by the personal interest taken by the Royal family eager to witness
its completion. At the royal palace, the king, Rajaraja, his sister
Kundavai, and his queens reviewed and approved ideas, and
commissioned the creation of jewelry, gold receptacles, and tools for
rituals. Improving on the technology generously sponsored by his
Grand Aunt, Sembian Mahadevi, Rajaraja commissioned over sixty-six
icons to be cast in gold, silver, copper, bronze, brass and
panchaloha (an amalgam of gold, silver, copper, zinc and tin)
for this temple. The ateliers competed to cast Shiva eloquently in
his various roles like Anugrahamurthy, the benevolent bestower
of mercy and Nritta murthi, lord of the arts. Of the surviving
icons is a Natarajar par excellence, the Aadavallaan. Nataraja
dances here within an oval areola emitting 31 five tongued flames.
Crocodiles rise from the base stems and hold the ardha chandra
(half moon) at either end. His rear arms generate the rhythm and
balance of the world with his awakening kettle drum and an urn of
fire. Ganga portrayed as a mermaid prays in his matted locks while
peacock feathers and a fierce skull adorn his hair.
Rajaraja demanded that
the limits of metal representation be pushed to include Tamizh Shaiva
Saints like Thiru Jnana Sambandhar and a Tamizh treatise, the
Devaram, he had rescued from an anthill at the Chidambaram
temple and popularized. The Devaram and Vedas were to be sung daily
for the royal family when they came to the temple through a private
access from the palace. Everyone else had to cross a huge moat and
enter via the Eastern Gopurams or gateways. They were delighted by
carved panels illustrating the Puranas and awed by one of the nine
unique pairs of Dwarapalakas or guards on the innermost
gateway, christened the Rajaraja Thiruvasal.
Facing the main shrine is
the Nandi mandapam with its enormous 25 ton monolithic bull.
Within the central
courtyard, the architects also designed smaller shrines for Ganesha,
the remover of obstacles and Chandikeshwarar, the Lords
Accountant. All legal matters, sales, contracts, gifts and
transactions were to be made in the name of Chandikeshwarar for or on
behalf of Shiva known at this temple as Raja Raja Ishvaran or Raja
Rajas deity. The king, intent on documenting the process for
posterity had special scribes carve the complete details of the
construction of the temple on the surface stone. He also ensured that
every gift given by each donor was recorded by the recipient deity.
On the 275th
day of the 25th year of his rule, six years after it was
begun, the temple was ready for consecration. Amidst a lot of pomp
and ceremony, Rajaraja donated a copper pot to be placed on the
copper peak of the Srivimanam of the Rajarajeshvaram temple.
The grand plans worked and it was celebrated as the tallest known
standing monument set on the largest campus to date. It was referred
to as Devalaya Chakravarti and seen as the emperor among
temples. Pilgrims were astounded by the battlements that girdled this
citadel. Passing through the three gateways, the suddenly found
themselves in a courtyard of breathtaking proportions from the center
of which rose a tower that seemed to touch the stars.
It was geometrically
simple and grandly dignified. They could see the practical
considerations for flood safety, considering the proximity to the
beautiful, temperamental river, Kaveri, in the simple elevated base
common to the Srivimanam, and the three Mandapams or
halls preceding it. Layer upon layer of decorated stone moldings
rested upon this Upa Peetam. The moldings, considered the
beginning of the structure called Adi Sthanam, supported the
floor of the Garba Griha or sanctum which housed a gigantic
Lingam, the likes of which had never been witnessed before.
Raja Raja Isvaran, or
Raja Rajas god, they called the Shivan in awe. The figure
filled the womb of the sanctum, its energy bursting beyond the
confines of the tall walls around. There was more to see. The
architects, with engineering ingenuity had distributed the weight of
the tower above between a pair of concentric parallel walls two
stories high and converted the corridors in between into a permanent
two level art gallery. The most proficient artists had painted
delicate and emotionally expressive murals on the inner surfaces of
the first level. The floor to ceiling images include panels depicting
Sundarars life and images of Shiva as Tripurantaka as well as
forest scenes. Upon entering the second floor, they saw for the first
time ever, a visual description of Bharatas Natya Shastra
or dance treatise. These unique 81 sequential panels of the 108 dance
postures set in the inner wall received natural light from the
Determined that the
visitor marvel at the magnificence and enormity of the Vimanam,
the architects designed access inside the tower. Venturing into the
darkness of the hollow enclosure, not knowing what to expect,
pilgrims found themselves enveloped by a void. On all sides, the
thirteen layers that make up the Vimanam rose pyramid-like and
disappeared into the unknown. They learnt that above them was an 80
ton cupola. It seemed to cork the darkness within.
Blinding light accosted
the eye adapted to the darkness within. From the outside, they saw
the tiers taper into a square platform upon which rested four pairs
of seated bulls. They could see the beautifully carved capstone
clearly, proudly bearing Rajarajas copper pot and the
fluttering flag of the Cholas.
Time passed. The moon
rose throwing its light on the beautifully indented tiers of the
Vimanam, scattering the bustle of yesteryears into the shadows.
Knowing every groove of this edifice having gently bathed it at night
with cool light for almost a millennium, it rejoiced when subsequent
rulers like the Nayakas adopted the temple under the name
Brihadeeshwara. It also offered solace with promises of better
times when the temple was ravaged by wars and looted for its rock and
riches by the British and the French.
AD 2000. They are
together in the larger scheme of things, the moon and the temple,
both silent entities that will outlive your life and mine. I sit in
the courtyard filled with the wonder of creation, celestial and human
and hope that we have the fortitude to help them last until the next