Brihadisvara Temple – A 1000 Year Old Massive Architectural Marvel

Brihadeeswara TempleBrihadisvara temple in Thanjavur is one of the architectural marvels of ancient India that symbolizes the skill, ability and craftsmanship of ancient Indians. In its history of 1,000 years, the temple never underwent any constructional repairs. This showcases the engineering and constructional expertise of 11th century Indians that enabled them to build a most enduring structure of Indian history. Some of the attractions in the temple like the tallest temple tower and the heaviest Kumbam/Shikaram (bulbous structure on the top of the temple tower) are few remarkable achievements of the 11th century India.

Overview

Brihadeeswara temple is located at Thanjavur in the State of Tamilnadu. Thanjavur is at a distance of about 332 km southwest of Chennai, one of the major cities of South India. The temple is also called as the Big Temple for being the tallest temple in India. The temple is maintained by the Archeological Department of India, and is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Great Living Chola Temples”.

History

The greatest ruler of Chola emperors, Raja Raja Arulmozhi Thevar Chola, popularly known as Raja Raja I (985 A.D – 1012 A.D), the son of Sundara Chola (Parantakaa-II) and Vanavanmahadevi, built this magnificent Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur – the capital of the Chola dynasty. He was not only the greatest ruler, but also a great conqueror, administrator, and a great patron of art and architecture.


From the epigraphical evidence, it is known that the foundation of the temple was laid by Raja Raja I in 1002 AD, the 19th year of his rule. The construction was completed just in a span of six years in 1010 AD, 25th year of his rule. The Chola king inaugurated the temple and named it after himself as Rajarajeswaram, meaning `the temple of the Iswara (God) of Raja Raja’. Later, the temple was named in Sanskrit as Brihadeeswaram, meaning the temple of the ‘Great Iswara’ and the deity was named as Brihadisvara. The temple has been regarded as a ‘landmark in the evolution of building art in South India’ and its Vimana as a ‘touchstone of Indian architecture as a whole’.

Architectural marvels of Brihadeeswara Temple

The temple was constructed in an area of about seven acres (inner Prakara of 240.9m long (east-west) and 122m broad (north-south)). The inner Prakara is surrounded by a rectangular wall of 270×140m which marks the outer boundary. The temple has a high entrance gate (Gopuram) of 30m on the east side. A second wall with its entrance in-line with the first is crowned with a smaller gateway. After the second wall, there is a succession of halls and vestibules (Mukta-Mandapa, Maha-Mandapa, Ardha-Mandapa) leading to the shrine. The inner most sanctum is where the idol of the main deity of the temple, Shiva, is located in the form of a huge stone called as ‘Linga’. Following are the architectural highlights of the temple.

  • The tallest temple tower: The shrine of Brihadisvara temple is crowned with a 13 storey pyramidal tower, which is called as ‘Temple tower’ or ‘Vimana’. The temple tower rises to the height of 60.96m (216ft) and the foundation for it is only two meters deep. The construction is in such a way that the weight of the Vimana is evenly distributed on itself. The whole tower was built-up with stones with bonding and notching, without the use of mortar. Many sculptural images drawn from the Hindu pantheon, decorate the tower from top to bottom. With its magnificent height and mountain like structure, the temple tower remains the tallest in South India.

    For the better view of the structure, the Vimana as well as the structures in front of it were consciously separated by a constriction in the elevation. According to the architectural studies, the court of the temple was divided into two equal squares and the Vimana was placed at the center of the rear square, in order to provide the necessary foreground to view the elegance of tower in full length.

  • Brihadeeswara temple shikaraThe mysterious Shikara: The top most part of the temple tower is called as the Shikara. The Shikara of Brihadeeswara temple got much importance as it holds a massive dome like structure made up of a single block of granite weighing about 80 tons. Until today, it has been a matter of discussion for the engineers on how the builders lifted the gigantic stone to that height without the help of some or other equipment. There is a story prevailing on this, which tells that a ramp was built in the village which is four miles away from the temple; and the stone was pulled up to the Shikara with the help of elephants.
  • Built with granite: The temple was constructed entirely using granite. Around 1,30,000 tons of granite were used in constructing the temple. The tall structure of Vimana alone weighed 43,000 tons – imagine how challenging it was to support the structure. One more interesting thing is – Thanjavur area is devoid of this type of stone. Hence, the entire granite used for the construction is transported from a long distance to the site, which was indeed a challenging task in a period devoid of any kind of mechanized transportation.
  • Everything seems big in the Big Temple: Not only the temple tower, but there are also few other structures which justify the name of the Big Temple – the gigantic stone Linga housed in the main sanctum, carved out of a single stone is about nine feet high with a circumference of 23½ feet and is considered as the second biggest ‘Linga’ in India.

    The monolithic Nandi, which is housed in the shrine opposite to the main shrine measures 12 feet high, 19½ feet in length, 8¼ feet in breadth and weighs around 25 tons.

    In addition to these, six feet tall lifelike statues of deities like the Sun god, the Moon, and Ashta dik palakas (Lords of all directions) can be found only in this temple.

  • Completed 1,000 years without constructional repairs: The Big temple completed 1,000 years in the year 2010; and till this day, the temple did not lose its original grandeur. The good design and the sound structural logic made the structure stood firm all these years. Even the archaeologists are surprised at its endurance, do admit that the structure is in excellent condition and quoted it as a “marvelous structure of architectural beauty”.

Implications of ancient Indian heritage

Brihadisvara temple, though signifies the greatness of the ‘Chola’ kings, it stands as a testimony to our ancient India’s best craftsmanship, organization skills, administration skills and work ethics. This temple, though is just seen as tourist/religious spot by the present generation, reflects the competence in terms of having excellent domestic construction technology and the ability to accomplish extraordinary projects. Some of the key lessons that are to be learned by the present generation from this great Indian architectural site are:

  • Strong determination and positive attitude of the workers.
  • Skill, commitment, and hardworking nature are the greatest tools to achieve success.
  • From the inscriptions on the temple it was noted that by the time of completion of the temple, it was 40 times larger and five times taller than any average temple that preceded it. This clearly shows that the temple has neither drawn inspiration from any existing structure nor copied its model. In fact, it is original of its kind.
  • Engineering skills and technology of our ancient Indians that gave rise to one-of-its kind structure in the world (the whole world looks up to this architecture as an example of outstanding engineering skills)

Travel to Thanjavur

You can reach Thanjavur by rail, road or air. The following are the options:

  • Thanjavur has a rail junction with trains connecting from different cities like Varanasi, Bangalore, Eranakulam (Kerala), etc. If you are travelling from some place other than the one in Tamil Nadu state and if there is no direct train to Thanjavur, then you can reach Trichy. From there, Thanjavur is just 57km away by road. Frequent bus services and plenty of taxi services are available from Trichy railway station to reach Thanjavur. Another alternative is via Chennai – from Chennai to Thanjavur ten trains run daily.
  • You can reach Thanjavur by road, following two routes – via Chennai or via Bengaluru.
  • Air route is available only up to Trichy. From Trichy airport, taxi services are available to reach Thanjavur.
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