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Thanjavur’s Brihadeeswara temple: The epitome of Chola architecture’s magnificence

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By Monidipa Dey

Standing as a shining example of the high standards reached by the mighty Cholas in field of art and architecture, the Brihadeeswara Peruvudaiyar temple in Thanjavur is also a reminder of the times when temples held a central position in the polity of the land and dominated the socio-political, religious, and educational scenarios. A masterpiece of Raja Raja Chola s times (1010 CE), the temple was built to dominate the skyline of Thanjavur of that era, and it continues to do so even to this very day.

The main shrine in Brihadeeswara Peruvudaiyar temple is dedicated to Shiva, and the sanctum holds a large Shivalinga established by the great Raja Raja himself. Like other Chola temples, this one also has a flight of steps leading from two sides to a raised platform, which further leads on to the pillared mandapas and sanctum. The tall vimana over the sanctum is pyramidal in shape with a circular stone shikhara on top and is one of the tallest in South India.

The large temple courtyard is surrounded by a prakara or wall, and attached to the wall is a pillared cloister that holds murtis of Nagadevtas, and 108 Shivlingas. As one enters the temple complex, the first small gate that one crosses is known as the Maratha gate, built by the Marathas at a later period. The Maratha gate is followed by two Chola era gates with tall gopuras that are crowded with sculptures, while the walls hold beautiful carvings depicting stories from the epics. An empty moat runs around the temple complex.

The east facing the main temple has a large nandi mandapa in front. Built at a later period, this pillared mandapa has a huge monolithic black nandi sitting inside it. There are colorful paintings on the mandapa ceiling, which were done at a much later period (early 20th century) by the local artists guild. Besides the nandi mandapa, there are other subsidiary shrines built at different times in the temple courtyard, which include the Ganapati shrine, Karuvur devta shrine, Subhramanya shrine, Chandikesvara shrine, Amman shrine, and Nataraja shrine.

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The main temple walls hold some of the most exquisite Chola era stone sculptures, which include huge dwarapalas with their famous tarjani (warning) and vismaya (wonder) mudras. The other murtis seen on the temple walls include Ganesha, Vishnu with Sridevi and Bhudevi, various aspects of Shiva, Saraswati, and Mahishasuramardini.

The Brihadesvara Peruvudaiyar temple is especially famous for its inscriptions that give a detailed account of the different rulers and dynasties. This temple has inscriptions by the Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagara kings, Marathas, and Nayakas. One of the Maratha inscriptions gives details on how the king arranged for purification and re-consecration ceremonies of the temple in 1801-02 while building mandapas, repairing damaged shrines, and renovating the wall, kitchen, and courtyard flooring.

The magnificence of Chola art can be viewed here in the form of incomplete carvings of fine karanas of Natyashastra on the corridor walls in the first floor. The dark ambulatory passage that goes around the sanctum springs a surprise in the form of three large sculptures of Shiva, along with exquisite Chola era paintings on ceilings and walls.

Travel tips: Brihadeswara Peruvudaiyar temple in Thanjavur tends to overwhelm the viewer with its beautiful architecture, paintings, and exquisite sculptures. The temple is huge and the entire complex will take a few hours for a thorough look. The best time to visit is from November to January when the weather is relatively cooler. The temple sanctum remains closed from 12 pm to 4 pm, and one must keep that in mind while visiting.

(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)