Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tanjore Big Temple - Part I

Every temple in TN has a name assoicated with it, but this is one temple where its name is synonymus to its size. Welcome to the "Big Temple", the splendor of Chola Architecture!!

My earlier two planned visits to the Big Temple failed due to circumstances and finally opportunity came knocking when I had to attend a colleagues wedding at Tanjore. I had visited the Tanjore temple during my school days roughly about 15 years back and the huge temple with its vast expanse made a lasting impression on me. Being from the land of Pandya’s, I had often compared the Meenakshi Amman temple complex and Big temple which stood at the extreme ends temple architecture. Unlike other well known temples, Big Temple of Tanjore has no sthala purana and was a temple built to showcase the might of a King and his devotion to his favorite deity.

The big temple goes by the names Rajarajeswaram, Peruvudaiyar kovil and Brihadeeswarar Temple which were coined during the various dynasties which ruled the Chola region. Still scholars wonder why Raja Raja chose to construct such a imposing structure. The more acceptable theory states that the building of this temple was to display his towering devotion to lord Shiva and his wish to build a temple unrivalled which was 40 times larger than any other temple in that era.

The big temple came under the rule of the following four dynasties:

• Chola's 9th – 13th AD
• Pandya's till the early part of 14th century
• Nayaka's – til the Mid 17th century
• Maratha's – till later half of 18th century

The temple complex has the major contribution from Raja Raja and thereafter small additions have happened during the reign of Pandyas, Nayakas and the Marathas. This temple complex is very unique in the sense that, you can see tamil inscriptions belonging to the various periods from the 11th century and sanksirt inscriptions put up during the period of Marathas. Even the name Birhadeeswarar is a Sanskrit word which got associated with the temple during the period of Marathas.

The big temple complex was completed by Raja Raja in year 1010 AD. As per epigraphic evidence the construction was completed in the 275th day of this 25th year of rule and the temple construction began in his 19th year of rule. One wonders of how such a big temple could be built in 6 years flat taking into account the amount stone and soil to be moved and the lack of powered machinery available in those days.

Time and again such temples of grand structures challenge our present day achievements of building big dams and skyscrapers with huge power machines and equipments, when similar feat was achieved with just very simple technology and human labor.

Few words about Raja Raja I

Rajaraja Chola I (born as Arulmozhivarman) is one the greatest rulers belonging to the Chola empire. Under him, the empire reached new heights expanding the kingdom to the Lanka in the south and till the Kalinga empire region in the south. His rule lasted from 985 to 1014 AD.

Raja Raja gopuram built by Raja Raja

As you enter the temple two majestic gopuras welcome you, the first one is the Raja Raja gopuram built by Raja Raja. These gopuras in contrast to the later gopuras built by Nayaks are shorter compared to the vimana atop the garbhagraha.

Keralaanthagan Gopuram

The second imposing gopura which leads you to the main complex is the Keralaanthagan Gopuram which was built by Raja Raja after his victory over the Chera’s.

Once you are in the main temple complex, your eyes get glued to the towering central vimana of temple. I was looking for a guide to take me through this complex but in vain I decided to wait. Then lady luck smiled at me, I met a ASI person who not only arranged a guide for me and asked me if I would be interested in coming to the top as he was escorting few people to the top of the temple complex. I had no idea what he meant by top and readly agreed and just followed him not knowing the next 30 odd minutes were going to be unforgettable moments in my life.

. We climbed 40feet above the ground level to get into an area which is formed by the outer and inner walls of the vimana structure. Once we reached atop the garbhagraha, lights were switched on unraveling the hollow structure of the vimana which left everyone spell bound. I had never know that the vimana was a hollow structure similar to Pyramids of Giza and the entire structure has been made of stones interlocked with ball and socket joint technique with no binding material used to hold the structurual parts. This was nothing less than a engineering marvel considering the fact that this temple has withstood 6 recorded earthquakes and no major damage has been reported.

Structure of the vimana, note the inner and outer wall at the bottom portion

view of the inner hollow portion of the vimana lit by flood lights - Photo CC - Frontline

The central vimana raises to a height of 216 feet from the ground and has 13 tier strucuture. The ASI person next took us to the Karana gallery which contains the 81 dance postures out of the 108 bharathanatyam postures. There were few difficult dance postures like the dancer applying kumkum on her forehead with her leg, a posture where the head of the dancer is turned to the rear. The stone sculptors depicting the dancing position were brought in as slabs into the structure and then carved. After the dancing postion 81, there are empty granite slabs till 108 which stand unfinished.

The whole vimana structure was not carved and put together, rather cholas adopted a unique way of arranging huge slabs of granite one over the other till they reached the top of the structure as per the plan. Then the whole structure was covered with soil, the sculptors then started carving the stucco figures on the granite stone. As and when they completed a level of the structure, the soil was removed and thee kept coming down the structure. Therefore the carving progressed from top to bottom. The following figure will explain this process in detail.

Covering the structure with soil and then removing it form top to bottom once sculptor completes the carvings

Overall structure of the temple - Photo CC Frontline

Currently there is false ceiling at a height of 40 feet over the garbagraha. According to officials, the first floor was built in such a fashion that Raja along with queen could pray and shower flower petals from the top on the deity. Later on Nayakas found the hollow arrangement bit difficult to manage and put the false ceiling at a height of 40 foot.

The towering vimana weighs about 43,000 tonnes and has a square base measuring 96 feet. The whole vimana has a foundation of only 7 feet and it is built in such a way that the weight is evenly distributed on the base foundation. The whole vimana structure progresses up in a conical shape and has a shikara weighing 81.28 Tonnes. This massive shikara was moved to this position by building a ramp of 7kms from a village which still exists by the name “Sarapallam”. Earlier the shikara was thought to be a monolithic structure, but later studies have revealed it to made of 2, 3 and even 8 piece structure. No conclusions have been reached on this subject by experts still. The whole of Vimana is built using granite rocks and covered by a thin layer of mortar to preserve the granite sculptures inside.

The Rajarajesvaram temple is dedicated to Siva, and the main deity is a massive cylindrical linga in a double-walled, box-like sanctum. The monolithic linga is 1.66 m in diameter and is mounted on an “Avudaiyar” ( yoni-pitha), which is 5.25 m in diameter. The linga rises to a height of two storeys.


Nandi Mandapa

Huge Monolithic Nandi

Befitting this huge temple is the Nandi which is 3.66 m in height, 5.94 m in length and 2.59 m in breadth. This nandi structure was put by the Nayak’s who felt the earlier smaller Nandi was not doing justice to this huge shrine.

Hope you were exited with the Chola engineering marvel, espcially the central vimana. We will explore the prahara of the temple in part II. Stay tuned. Meanwhile to have a glimpse of the complete set of photos check out @


  1. Fantastic narration...subbu, you are really great. Where do you get time for doing all these. Anyway excellent work. This relly gives good picture about the temple and the architecture. My only worry is... why all your work should be confined with three people. Doyou have anyother medium to express these kind of work so that many people will benefit out...

  2. Thanks for giving this information, My native is thanjavur only, but I don't this much... thanks keep it up...

  3. ungal thagavalgaluku nandri annal thaangal google translator ubayogithu thamizhakum seyumaru thaazhmaiyudan ketukolgiraen.......!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Being a native of Thanjavur, I enjoyed being there in the temple during all my school days and I always wondered how they built this marvelous engineering feat it is and off late was searching a lot to understand it and finally found this nice and clear explanation with the illustration- thanks a LOT, Subramaniyan.

    What a great idea to have thought thro and to have executed it flawlessly- we sure were blessed with such intelligent folks in those days who could build this wonderful temple with minimal technology help that stands tall even after 1000+ years displaying their brilliance.. I'm proud be part of that "mann"! Thanks you very much for sharing this..

  5. பெருமுயற்சியோடு ஆய்வு கண்ணோட்டத்துடன் இந்த தளத்தை உருவாக்கியிருப்பதற்கு மிக்க நன்றி.

  6. I went more than 10 times to the Tanjore Temple even though I have confusion about "Tower" and "Sthala Purana".. now I cleared. Thank you..

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  9. Hi
    Brihadishvara Temple, is originally named as Peruvudiyar temple And it is also called Rajarajesvaram or Peruvudaiyar Koyil, is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva located in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India. It is one of the largest South Indian temples and an exemplary example of a fully realized Dravidian architecture.

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