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Brihadeeswarar Temple – A Great Living Chola Temple

Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur

Thanjavur is the pride of South India, dipped richly in religion, art, and architecture. A trip to this city is complete only if you visit the Brihadeeswarar Temple. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the abode of Lord Shiva. The temple is one of the “Great Living Chola Temples”.

Devotees can visit Brihadeeswarar Temple Thanjavur from 6:00 AM to 12:30 PM, and from 4:00 PM to 8:30 PM daily. The temple is a great source for spiritual awakening and transports devotees to a mystical world with heaven-like vibrations. The architecture, in particular, reflects the mystical aura through intricate details and a silhouette boasting of the culture of the bygone era. It’s majestic in size and is called The Big Temple.

Brihadeeswarar Temple in Tamil Nadu
Brihadeeswarar Temple’s View at Sunrise.

Brihadeeswarar Temple History

Raja Raja Chola I built this stunning temple between 1003 and 1010 AD when Cholas witnessed their maximum potential. This was during the 11th century. It marks the expansion of the Chola Empire and reflects the success of King Raja Raja Cholan. Periya Kovil, RajaRajeswara Temple and Rajarajeswaram are other names of the temple. It has undergone several renovations and repairs following the wars between Muslim Sultans and Hindu Kings that caused major damage.

Captivating Facts Of Brihadeeswarar Temple

  • This towering temple features one of the largest Shiva Linga and a gigantic Nandi, the bull, carved from a single stone. The Nandi weighs 25 tonnes
  • Unlike most temples where the gopuram is taller than the vimana, it’s the exact opposite in this temple
  • There is also a belief that this temple was once a watchtower
  • Highly detailed inscriptions, not preceded by any other temple worldwide, uncovers hidden information and secrets about the temple features
  • It’s the most massive monument of the Chola Dynasty that has stood the test of time for over a thousand years
  • The 8.7m Linga is among the largest monolithic sculptures in the nation
  • The main vimana is 66 meters in height
  • There are complex underground passages that lead to different locations within
  • There are over 100 such passages including secret passages leading to prominent places.
  • Similar principles for constructing the Great Pyramids have been used in constructing the main tower
  • The huge capstone at the top of the temple weighs a whopping 80 tons
  • Vedic Mantras the magical powers used to lift the 80 ton stone
  • There are 8 Nandis carved prominently on the gopuram
  • These Nandis are easily viewable from the ground
  • The hollow tower is built by interlocking the stones minus binding materials
  • Compared to other temples of its time, this temple was built using granite
  • The temple is almost 40 times bigger in comparison to other temples of that era
  • The temple has survived innumerable monsoons, several major earthquakes and a large-scale fire accident
  • There was no rock formation anywhere close to the temple. Rocks were brought in riverboats from quarries located more than 50KM away
One of the Nandi statue at Brihadeeswarar Temple
Nandi at Brihadeeswarar Temple

Murals Of Brihadeeswarar Temple

Using natural pigments, Chola frescoes run across the circumambulatory path running from ceiling to floor. Shaivism themes dominate a stunning 670 square meters and are a reflection of the Hindu Mythology. These frescos relate to Shiva, Vishnu, Durga including the Chola royalty. Also, each mural tells a story and the profound importance of the era.

However, over the years, soot and exposure to smoke from the lamps and burning of camphor have destroyed some Chola paintings. The  Archaeological Survey of India has taken steps to restore the paintings using de-stucco process. In fact, nearly 400-year old paintings are available to explore in a separate pavilion on fibreglass boards.

Inscriptions 

The inscriptions in Tamil and Grantha scripts showcase the rich legacy of this temple. An introduction about the king during that time features in either Sanskrit or Tamil. There are 64 inscriptions of Raja Raja Chola I and 29 inscriptions of Rajendra Chola I.

Additionally, there are inscriptions on the north wall about the temple personnel, their roles and names with wages. There are over 600 inscriptions of personalities from different backgrounds. It also has inscriptions of famous dancers and singers.

It’s a well-known charity institution and offers free meals for devotees and pilgrims. More importance for the same is seen during Hindu festivals.


Brihadeeswarar Temple’s Architecture

The rectangle complex covers 240.79 meters from east to west and 121.92 meters from north to south. Due to its massive structure and the vast space it occupies, it earns the name Perunkoil. The temple complex features a voluminous and covered veranda supported by large pillars. The unique design includes an enclosed and a defensive outer wall with gun-holes, installed by the French colonial forces.

Nandi mandapam at Brihadeeswarar Temple
Nandi mandapam and the entrance gopurams at Brihadeeswarar Temple

Post 11th century, additional structures like the mandapa in the northeast corner and gopurams or gateways for multiple access were set up. Besides the main sanctum, there is Nandi-mandapam and a shrine each for Shiva’s sons and Parvati.

The main Brihadeeswarar Temple Gopuram is a five-storey structure measuring 30 meters high. The main temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is surrounded by other shrines axially.

Standout Features Of The Temple

Brihadeeswarar Temple Shadow is the most peculiar and the most distinct feature among all the temples in the world. The shadow of the temple never falls on the ground. The structure is big enough and is built in such a way where the shadow of the vimana falls on itself.

Yet another distinct feature of the temple is it survival through the centuries. No structure of the Cholas period survives today. However, the survival of this temple is an epitome of the superior accomplishment of Chola architecture. It also shows the patron’s incomparable devotion for Shiva.

The main sanctum has two idols of Ganesha. Tapping the two will send sounds through a stone in one idol and through metal in the other.  The main hall features musical pillars that produce different sounds on each tap.

Brihadeeswarar Temple's wall are carved in detail
The Vimana Outer Wall Details of Brihadeeswarar Temple

The Temple Gopurams

Marathas built something like a fort gate to safeguard the place. This gate connects to a moat surrounding the temple. The second is Keralantakan Tiruvasal that pays tribute to King Raja Raja Chola. Figures of Shiva with Parvathi, Ganesha and Vishnu highlight the entrance arch.

Rajarajan Tiruvasal is yet another gopuram featuring rich stone carvings. The doorway also features two stone guards.

Other significant Shrines at the Temple

Additionally, several smaller shrines for other Hindu deities cover the temple ground. These include:

  • Ganesha Shrine
  • Subramanya Shrine
  • Amman Shrine
  • Natarajan Shrine

Events and festivals

Brihadeeswarar Temple is a famous attraction for some amazing cultural events and festivals. During February, you can head to the annual dance festival, specifically on Mahashivratri. Besides, the Brahan Natyanjali festival, featuring classical India dance, lasts for 10 days.

Car Festival

Annually, the temple car goes on a procession amidst a numerous number of people.

Commemoration

The importance of the temple is available to see in a postage stamp featuring the gigantic Raja Gopuram. This was during September 2010. At the same time, the RBI also released a 5 rupee coin with a emboss of the temple.

Way back in 1954, the RBI has released a 1,000 rupee note featuring a panoramic view of the temple. Additionally, the ex-chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi renamed a famous rice brand as Raja Rajan-1000. It signifies the millennial year of the builder.

Travelling To Brihadeeswarar Temple

You can get direct flights Tiruchirappalli or Madurai. Thanjavur is also accessible by daily rail available from several cities. Bus services are available too and it takes about 9 hours from Bangalore and Chennai. There are overnight buses available too.

Tamil Nadu's Brihadeeswarar Temple
The entrance of Brihadeeswarar Temple

Thanjavur is also very famous for unique art, the Tanjore Paintings. Art enthusiasts can explore these paintings and can also make purchases.

Ideal Time For Visiting The Temple

It’s ideal to visit the temple during the winter and spring seasons since it’s most pleasant during these times. Besides, you should avoid summer visits as the place gets very hot and humid. Specifically speaking, you can visit the temple from September to March.

Conclusion

Most importantly, a trip to this temple brings transformation in your life. The visit also leaves you asking for more. It’s also an experience in itself and uncovers surprising facts about Hindu Mythology that you never knew existed. The temple is truly a wonder to behold and is not just a religious hotspot.

It has innumerable mysteries with a stunning architecture unknown during its era. You will definitely get deeper into the bygone era that surrounds you with the kind of history never experienced before.