Thanjavur became a center of learning during 10th to 14th century AD. The Brihadeeswara temple is the major center of tourist attraction at Thanjavur. Thanjavur is the ancient capital of the Chola kings. King Rajaraja Chola constructed the Brihadeeswara Temple in 10th century AD and the architect Sama Varma designed it. The Cholas were great patrons of art. During their reign, the most magnificent temples as well as exquisite bronze icons were created in south India. Sama Varma designed a unique structure because no shadows of the temple were cast on the ground at any time of the year. It is symbolic of the fact that the Supreme is considered to be there and yet not there. The temple is the finest contribution of the Chola dynasty to the Dravidian style of temple architecture.
The Brihadeeswara temple is within a huge compound with walls rising above 15m. The temple is made over a 29 m square base and has a soaring vimana and a stunted gopuram. The inner sanctum and the gopuram were constructed over a period of 12 years. It was constructed from a single piece of granite weighing around 80 tonnes. The dome was hauled into place along a 4-km earthwork ramp in a manner similar to the Egyptian pyramids. The lofty sanctum tower known as the Srivimana, is enclosed by a rectangular prakara or corridor consisting of two squares. The main tower occupies the center part of the rear square, with the center vimana or tower having 16 tiers, which rises to a height of 200 ft. The tower is considered to be symbolic of the mountain Meru. The inscriptions on the walls of the vimana record the contributions of Rajaraja Chola and his sister. Several stucco features also decorate the vimana.
The inner wall of the garbhagriha or the sanctum sanctorum has sculpted 108 dance poses called karmas performed by Lord Shiva himself. The Shiva lingam is called Peruvudaiya, Rasjarajeshwaramudvya. It is a huge lingam, which is set in a two-storeyed sanctum. Many inscriptions give details about contemporary times while according to experts the visual imagery is reflective of the rites and rituals of Vedic times. Rajaraja Chola crowned it with 12.5 ft tall finial of 9.25 kilograms of choppers plated with 800 grams of gold. Subsequent rulers made their contributions to the temple but they do not give the look of being added later. A huge statue of Nandi measuring 6 m length and 3.7 m in height faces the inner sanctum. The statue of Nandi was created from a single rock piece and weighs 25 tonnes. It is in fact one of the largest statues of Nandi bulls in India. The temple also has a spacious ground, number of pillared halls, shrines and 250 lingams.
The temples built under the illustrious Rajaraja and his son Räjėndra carry the early Chola architectural traditions to those of the later Chola period. Other temples of this period are those at Gangaikondacholapuram, Tiruvaji, Mėlpadi, Tiruvalańjuli, Tirumalavadi, Tiruvarangulam, Dadapuram, etc. Most of these temples are ornamented with pilasters at basement, which carry a cornice. The walls have a greater number of niches and a semi-circular arch (tiruvacci) the center of which is identical with that of' the küdu which appears beneath the architrave and over the niche. The introduction of the kumbhapańjara in between the niches is another feature.
On entering the complex you will find yourself in a huge rectangular enclosure paved with stones. The corridor is peaceful and welcoming and unlike other temples does not have shops.
Before you enter the sanctum sanctorum, you will see the two idols of Ganesha in the corridor. On taping the two, you will feel the sound traveling through stone in one idol and through metal on the other.
The Brihadeeswara temple is one of the few great Indian monuments listed in UNESCO's World Heritage list of historical sites and monuments.