Thanjavur Big temple is one of India’s most prized architectural sites. Rajarajeswaram,at Thanjavur in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is the world’s first complete granite temple and a brilliant example of the major heights achieved by Cholas kingdom Vishwakarmas in Tamilarchitecture. It is a tribute and a reflection of the power of its patron RajaRaja Chola I. It remains India’s largest temple and is one of the greatest glories of Indian architecture. The temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Great Living Chola Temples”.
RajaRaja Chola I wanted to build a grand structure in his capital Thanjavur. Something that had never been built before and would symbolise his achievements and the greatness of the Cholas. He knew well that only a structure built with strong material such as granite would last long. The temple stands amidst fortified walls that were probably added in the 16th century. The vimana — or the temple tower — is 216 ft (66 m) high and is among the tallest of its kind in the world. The Kumbam (or Kalash or Chikharam) (apex or the bulbous structure on the top) of the temple is not carved out of a single stone as widely believed. There is a big statue of Nandi (sacred bull), carved out of a single rock, at the entrance measuring about 16 feet long and 13 feet high. The entire temple structure is made out of hard granite stones, a material sparsely available in Thanjavur area where the temple is. Built in 1010 AD by Raja Raja Chola in Thanjavur, Brihadishwara Temple also popularly known as the ‘Big Temple’ turned 1000 years old in 2010.
It is believed the rock was brought to the building site by river boat. PS Sriraman, assistant superintendant archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India, says: “If you compare Big Temple with other temples of that time, it is at least 40 times bigger. The temple complex sits on the banks of a river that was channeled to make a moat around the complex’s outer walls, the walls being built like a fortress. The complex is made up of many structures that are aligned axially. The complex can be entered either on one axis through a five-story gopuram or with a second access directly to the huge main quadrangle through a smaller free-standing gopuram. The massive size of the main sikhara (although it is hollow on the inside and not meant to be occupied) is 63 meters high, with 16 severely articulated stories, and dominates the main quadrangle. Pilaster, piers, and attached columns are placed rhythmically covering every surface of the shikhara.
“This is a dramatic scaling up. It shows their confidence and imagination. It has a very unique design. It is the first Hindu temple to be built on such a grand scale.” Interestingly, the temple also has number of statues and stone carvings depicting the life of Buddha. The main temple is in the center of the spacious quadrangle composed of a sanctuary, a Nandi, a pillared hall and an assembly hall (mandapas), and many sub-shrines. The most important part of the temple is the inner mandapa which is surrounded by massive walls that are divided into levels by sharply cut sculptures and pilasters providing deep bays and recesses. Each side of the sanctuary has a bay emphasizing the principle cult icons. The karuvarai, a Tamil word meaning the interior of the sanctum sanctorum, is the inner most sanctum and focus of the temple where an image of the primary deity, Shiva, resides. Inside is a huge stonelinga. The word Karuvarai means “womb chamber” from Tamil word karu for foetus.
In the Dravida style, the Karuvarai takes the form of a miniature vimana with other features exclusive to southern Indian temple architecture such as the inner wall together with the outer wall creating a pradakshina around the garbhagriha for circumambulation (pradakshina). The entrance is highly decorated. The inside chamber housing the image of the god is the sanctum sanctorum, the garbhagriha. The garbhagriha is square and sits on a plinth, its location calculated to be a point of total equilibrium and harmony as it is representative of a microcosm of the universe. In the center is placed the image of the deity. The royal bathing-hall where Rajaraja the great gave gifts is to the east of the hall of Irumudi-Soran.
The circumambulation winds around the massive lingam in the garbhagriha and is repeated in an upper story, presenting the idea that Chola Empire freely offered access to the gods.
The inner mandapa leads out to a rectangular mandapa and then to a twenty-columned porch with three staircases leading down. Sharing the same stone plinth is a small open mandapa dedicated to Nandi, Shiva’s sacred bull mount.
The adjoining structure of the big temple is Surrounding the main temple are two walled enclosures. The outer wall is high, defining the temple complex area. Here is the massive gopuram or gateway mentioned above. Within this a portico, a barrel vaulted gorpuram with over 400pillars, is enclosed by a high wall interspersed with huge gopurams axially lined up to the main temple. The temple is made up of 130,000 tons of granite. The 60-metre tall vimana is the tallest in South India. A European-like figure which is carved on the vimana is believed to be an ancient warning of the arrival of the British. Later investigations by archaeologists proposed that this carving may be a hoax. It is widely believed that the shadow of the gopuram never falls on the ground. However, some scholars have dismissed this as a myth.
The tons of stone was taken, with the help of hundreds of elephants, from Thirukoilore (birth place of Raja raja’s mother) near Sri Virateshvara swamy temple. The kumbam, on top of the temple was believed to have taken to the top by creating a slope from the ground to the 66m gopuram made of soil. Then elephants would drag the stone to the top of gopuram.