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Rajarajeshwaram - The Brihadeeshwara Temple of Tanjavur

The ‘Emperor of Temples’—the Brihadeeshwara temple—is 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.

AD 1005. 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 architects.

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 Lord’s 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 Raja’s 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 Raja’s 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 Sundarar’s 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 Bharata’s 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 superstructure.

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 Rajaraja’s 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 millennium.

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