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Have you heard of the Living Chola Temples? Temples that have no shadows? Or have been built with material that was not native to the place? Or have dozens of underground secret passages? Well, these are just some of the facts about one of the oldest temples in India. Located in the ancient town of Thanjavur (also, called Tanjore), the Brihadeeswarar Temple is indeed a sight to behold. The temple is more than just a religious stop. It is a destination of mysteries and spellbinding architecture, making it the topmost among the places to visit in Thanjavur.
For long I had been wanting to visit the Thanjavur Big Temple. In fact, since my first trip to the famous Madurai Meenakshi Temple. However, as fate had it, it was almost after 7 years that the Golden Chariot Train got me here. It was one of our longest stops during this train journey. And though the train staff might claim that it was because we insisted, the reality is that if they hadn’t, they would not have done justice to this destination. From its stunning carvings to the various legends and facts associated with it, Brihadeeswarar temple is one important place to visit in South India. The Golden Chariot visit might have been my first visit to the Thanjavur Temple, but was not the only one. I returned again – to decipher a few more secrets and debunk a few myths.
History of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Locally, the Brihadeeswara temple is called Peruvudaiyar Koyil or Thanjavur Kovil. This “Great Living Chola Temple” is dated back to the 11th century and the times of the famous Raja Raja Chola. This was after the famous group of monuments in Mahabalipuram (8th century) but before the gorgeous Madurai Meenakshi temple (14th Century). The temple is built using granite and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is in fact, called the Dakshin Meru (South Meru).
During the reign of one of the longest-ruling dynasties of India – the Cholas, the temple was called Rajarajeshwaram. It was a center for all religious functions and festivals. Later, after the Nayakas and Marathas invaded it, the temple became famous as the Brihadeeswarar Temple. It is now a UNESCO Heritage site and one important destination in South India. This stems not just from its history but also, owing to the unusual facets of it.
Unusual Facts about Brihadisvara Temple
Whether by design or by coincidence, the architecture and the design of the Thanjavur Temple have made it quite mysterious. There are quite a few unexplained stories about it that will intrigue every visitor here. Some of them did make my eyebrows disappear into my hairline. No – really – they did. My first guide at the Tanjore temple did not give me a scientific explanation to some of these but it was the guide on my 2nd visit who helped explain them. Check them out –
- In most South Indian Temples, the gates (gopurams) are taller than the main temple tower (Vimana). Check my post of the Meenakshi temple and you will know what I mean. However, in the Brihadeeswarar Temple, it is exactly the opposite. The gopurams are smaller than the main Vimana.
- The entire temple is made of Granite. Evidence shows that there was no granite cutting quarry or even sources to get the stone around Thanjavur. In fact, it is not available even within 50 km of the site. Imagine how they would have carried it all here to be used in the temple – and in those days!
- Speaking of Granite, the main Vimana measures 66 m in height. This is 6 stories high and was the largest structure in South India in those days. The astonishing part about this is that the large granite capstone on the top weighs around 80 tons. This is those days, was placed over the hollow Vimana – how? No one knows!’ Upon my 2nd visit, this astonishing fact was explained. My guide told me that they had created inclines stretching to almost 8 km to reach the top of the temple and place the granite there. Close your eyes and imagine how a procession of elephants carried a piece at a time to reach the apex. That itself must have been a jaw-dropping sight.
- The tall Vimana is made using interlocking bricks. There is no binding material used. The best part is – it has survived so many centuries and various invasions and calamities like earthquakes
- According to my first guide, there is a debate on whether this was really a temple or was it a watchtower. The presence of a moat around the temple and the various underground passages leading to different locations definitely add some weight to this theory. However, my money was on it being a temple for there is other evidence that points to it. And boy! Was I right? Upon my 2nd visit to the Tanjore temple, my 2nd guide explained that owing to the kingdom wars after the Cholas, the Marathas and the Nayaks sought refuge within the temple and consequently used it as a watchtower. The added extra fortifications around the temple – which is the moat and the outer gates and walls.
- And here is the whoopiest of all facts about Brihadeeswarar temple. You will never see the shadow of the Vimana at noon – no matter which season you visit it in. In fact, I was super puzzled by it. My first guide through the Golden Chariot insisted on it by pointing the various spaces in the Tanjore temple grounds at noon and saying there was no shadow. However, this myth was debunked by the facts shared by my knowledgeable 2nd guide a few years later. She said that it is true that the shadow of the Big Temple Thanjavur did not fall within the grounds. However, the Tanjore Big Temple did cast a shadow away from the main grounds, towards the periphery. One could not see it owing to the various trees covering the ground.
Pretty cool – right? I am sure that by now you are all geared to take the virtual tour of this unique Indian temple, with one more hidden mystery in its carving. Just don’t want to spoil the fun by revealing it here – time you take the tour!
Layout of the Tanjore Temple
The Dravidian styled Tanjore Temple may seem quite elaborate and daunting when you see it from the entrance. However, it is a fairly simple layout. To help you get your bearings right – you will first cross three Gopurams (gateways) and enter the main square. Here along the perimeter of the wall are open corridors called mandapams. Straight in front of the gopuram, you will see a cow shrine – Nandi Mandapam. This faces the entrance to the main shrine – Sri Vimana. Around the Shri Vimana, are several other shrines. And yes, each of these has a story of its own. 😉 Thus, not surprising if you spend half a day just seeing all this around.
Gopurams of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Technically, there are three gates but only two elaborate Gopurams. The first one is more like a fort gate that was built by the Marathas to defend the place. It was connected to the moat that surrounded the Temple. It is the 2nd gate – Keralantakan Tiruvasal and the 3rd gate – Rajarajan Tiruvasal that I spend a lot of time admiring.
The gate as the sign informed me, was constructed to celebrate the victory of the King Raja Raja Chola over the Cheras. Tiny figures of the popular Hindu Gods – Ganesha, Shiv – Parvati, Vishnu and more highlighted the entrance arch. Along with these, all through to the top. I could see various mini-stories of mythical beasts, nymphs and humans. I could have figured more out except that from the arched gateway, I could see an even more elaborate gopuram – waiting to be explored. That is what I did – but not before a quick stop to the shoe stand behind the Keralatakan Tiruvasal.
The third and final gateway was a teaser of things to come. Every inch of the Rajarajan Tiruvasal (Gate of the King) was covered with detailed stone carvings. Two stone guards – Dwarpalikas flanked the arched doorway. As I gazed over the arch, I could make out three distinct tiers of carvings. Stories from the life of Shiva seemed to be the overlying theme for I could make out some that referred to his marriage.
There were also, scenes from the Puranas like this one that is said to be of a wishing tree – Kalpavriksha. I remember this one as I first thought it was from the life of Krishna – like this one where he mischievously steals the clothes of the bathing ladies and climbs up a tree. I was corrected by my first guide saying that it wasn’t that – though he could not substantiate his explanation. Personally still, think that it is Krishna and not Kalpvriksha 😉
Even within the arched gateway, there are complete stories etched along the walls. Once you come out, spare a glimpse along its inner walls. You will see many cows or Nandi figures on it. The ones on the corner have 2 bodies but one head.
And finally, the first glimpse of the grand Vimana from the doorway. It was time to move ahead to the next stop – the Nandi Mandapam.
Where there is Shiva, there is Nandi. For those of you who are not familiar, Nandi is Shiva’s guardian as well as his mount. Every Hindu temple that is dedicated to Shiva, will have a Nandi outside its shrine, with the Nandi idol facing the Shiva Idol. Brihadeeswarar Temple too, followed this norm. However, the interesting thing is that the pavilion with this Nandi was only built later in the 16th century by the Nayaka Kings.
Maybe, there was a structure earlier or maybe, the Nandis along the Tanjore Temple walls served the original custom of a Nandi before the Shiva. Or maybe, it was indeed a defense post and not a temple. Either way, there was no denying the excellent craftsmanship of the monolithic Nandi here (yes, carved out of a single stone).
Pillars of Nandi Mandapa at Brihadeeswarar TempleIf you are here and glance up, you will see gorgeous ceiling paintings. Some say that the Nayak dynasty was responsible for these while some credit the Maratha kings. While you admire the Nandi and the ceilings, remember to check out the pillars with the mythical Yellis holding up the Nandi Mandapam. I am sure, you will even notice the old oil lamp in front of the Nandi as you exit it.
Sri Vimana of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Following the gaze of the faithful Nandi, I made my way across an elaborate courtyard to the main shrine – the Sanctum Santorium – the Sri Vimana. The courtyard was marked out like a car park and a query to my guide revealed that this was where an annual cattle fair was held. Cows were brought here for cow worship and each herd was given a lot for it. However, in the olden days, this same courtyard was used for religious gatherings and functioned as a community hall.
Standing at the entrance of the Brihadeshwara temple, I could see the magnificent Shiva Linga. It was at the far end in a smaller shrine called the Garbha Griha, where only the priests were allowed. No pictures were allowed inside the temple and the only window that our guide pointed out was to take whatever we could from the entrance.
I don’t remember much about the work inside the temple for I was focused on the glistening Shiva Linga. Also, possibly because it was so dark inside. However, the one thing that I recall my guide telling me – the Vimana which stood over the Garbha Griha was hollow so much that the echo of “OM” chanted in it became a divine sound!
Exiting out of the shrine, there were different splendors to experience. The entire outer facade – be it the walls or the great Vimana – was covered with scenes and characters from the Hindu Mythology. Conspicuous among them, on the other side of the Vimana, is this carving of a foreigner with his hat. Now, this guy is the hidden mystery that I mentioned in the unusual facts about Brihadeeswarar temple. No one knows who he is – but the popular explanation is that he is a European tradesman. Now if that were true – well, even before the historical records show, we had European trade relations. 🙂
When you get here, look closer at the lower walls for inscriptions in Tamil. What do they say – well? That is a short-term mystery for my first guide did not know. However, the 2nd guide mentioned that it referred to who paid for those carvings!
Cloister Mandapa of Thanjavur temple
As you exit the main Vimana Shrine, along the perimeter of the temple grounds, you will see a corridor. This is the Cloister Mandapa that contains the shrines of several minor deities. A sign told me all that I wanted to know about it. It was built by the military commander of Raja Raja Chola, named Krishnan Raman. Besides the shrines, the interesting bit about this cloister was that it contains several ancient murals.
. The Maratha king – Saraboji installed 108 Shiva Lingas here. Some of them in a cluster while some of them in a line along with their guardian Nandis. Behind them the sequence of murals tells you a pictorial tale of the marriage of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. You will see pictures of the various guests arriving at the wedding. The wall art has been done using natural organic colors like vegetable dyes and has survived the long passages of time.
When you walk along the walls of these mandapas as well as near the innermost gates, you will notice a lot of ancient scripts carved on them. These are the various accounts of the donations and wealth spent in the temple by the Chola kings. Every bit of the temple make and care has been mentioned on these walls and in some cases, floors. However, nowhere is the secret to the Brihadeeshwara Temple architecture been mentioned. The temple has withstood centuries of wear and tear and natural calamities. The mystery of its construction remained with the Chola kings and has now been lost with time.
Other Shrines of Brihadeeswarar Temple
The rest of the Brihadeeswarar Temple grounds were filled with smaller shrines meant for the other Hindu deities. Some of these shrines had their own unique elements to see. To be honest, it was a little overwhelming to do this in the short time I had. However, here are the few that still remain fresh in my memory.
I will always remember the shrine of my favorite God. The Elephant-headed Ganesha bestowed his blessings on me as I visited his temple right behind the main Shri Vimana. He was also, the chief deity of the Marathas and the main idol in the temple is said to have been installed by them. Note the little building on the right of the Ganesha shrine. More on that below.
Karuvur Dewar Shrine
The little shrine mentioned above is dedicated to the guru of Raja Raja Chola – Karuvur Dewar. Compared to all the other shrines, there isn’t much to talk of in terms of its design. However, note the little tree along the way to it. The sacred tree is revered by the devotees of the temple and they tie a sacred thread or cloth on festivals around it. Normally, this is accompanied by their heart’s wish and a desire for the well being of their near and dear ones.
Compared to his younger brother, Lord Subramanya or Karthikeya had a far bigger and elaborate shrine. This was placed behind the Sri Vimana temple on the right-hand side (if you were facing the front entrance of the main temple). Among the many carved beauties of its walls and roof, it was the staircase that caught my attention.
Upon my 2nd visit to the temple, my guide unveiled another curious fact of the Brihadeeshwarar temple. This one required a bit of a demo where she took a blade of glass and inserted it into the hollow and hidden loops within the carvings of the Subramanya temple. Such were the intricacies of the Chola construction!
Carved reservoir at Tanjore TempleA carved reservoir by the Brihadeeshwara temple is bound to attract your attention and bring you close to a smaller shrine just next to it. This is the Chandikeswara temple. The construction of it is said to be as old as the Tanjore temple itself and you can see a lot of similarities in the designs too.
Literally meaning the “Mother’s shrine“, this is dedicated to Shiva’s consort and Ganesha’s mom – Parvati. The shrine faces the main temple (Sri Vimana) and is on the right-hand side of the main entrance or the Rajarajan Tiruvasal. This one is quite distinctive for its gorgeous carvings that are interspersed with the murals of yesteryears. The Murals, in particular, are quite detailed – almost like a graphic novel of mythology.
This is right next to the Nandi Mandapam and is said to have the idol of the dancing form of Shiva – Nataraja. This one I recall, owing to its proximity to the entrance and it being different from the elaborately carved shrines around Brihadeeswara Temple.
There is plenty more that I have left unseen in this gorgeous Tanjore Temple. Brihadeeswarar temple is in fact, one destination where one visit is just not going to be enough. As I wait for my second visit, I wonder if you have made your first. And if you have not, I am sure you are planning one now. Let me know – first, second or “n” the visit – what are your views about this 1000-year-old Brihadeeswarar Temple of Thanjavur.
How to reach Brihadeeswarar Temple?
- The closest airport to Thanjavur or Tanjore is Trichy. This is around one hour from the main town. You will get plenty of buses and taxis that take you straight from the airport to Tanjore.
- The nearest railway station too, is Trichy.
- Brihadeeswarar Temple is central to Tanjore town. Any auto or taxi will get you here. If you are driving to the Tanjore Kovil, you will find a parking space just opposite to the temple.
- To get Brihadeeswara Temple on your google maps, just click here.
- The Brihadeeswarar Temple Timings are from 6 am to 12:30 pm. The temple reopens at 4 pm and closes at 8:30 pm. There are no entrance fees for the temple.
- Shoes are not allowed inside the temple. You will need to remove them at the Keralatakan gopuram gate. You can get temple socks from here.
- Please refer to my post on Hindu Temple norms to know how to dress. Shorts are definitely not allowed.
- Clicking pictures in the temple is allowed, as long as you are outside the shrines.
- There is a small shop near the entrance that sells the traditional Tanjore dolls. You might want to consider buying these as a keepsake.
- Tanjore town is also, popular for its unique art called Tanjore paintings. Consider those if you are an art connoisseur.
Popularly referred to as a Restless Ball of Energy. My Mom refuses to entertain my complaints about my equally restless daughter & assures my husband that I was born with a travel bug.
I am a Post-Graduate in Marketing by qualification and a travel blogger by passion. Besides travel, I enjoy photography and if you don’t find me at my desk, I would be out playing badminton or swimming or just running. I believe in planning for every long weekend through the year. And when I cannot travel physically, I travel virtually through this travel blog. My travel stories have also, got published on various websites and magazines including Lonely Planet India and Jetwings.
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