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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.