Brihadeeswarar Temple, India

Khursheed Dinshaw (India)

Construction of the Brihadeeswarar Temple (also spelt Brihadisvara or Brihadeshwara), which is in Thanjavur in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, began in 1003 AD by Rajaraja I and was completed in 1010 AD. It is made of blocks of granite that were sourced from around 50km away. Almost 130,000 tonnes of granite were used to build this temple. The popular theory of how the blocks were transported is that they were gradually rolled here with the help of elephants.

The design of the temple is meant to represent a cosmic structure called Mahameru, which symbolises energy from the universe, including from living as well as inanimate beings. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of a lingam (that is, a symbol of divine generative energy often in the form of a phallus), which is 3.66m high. The courtyard inside which the temple is built measures 240m by 120m. The Brihadeeswarar Temple, also known as the Big Temple, is an architectural marvel in stone of the Chola dynasty. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fig. 1. Rajarajan Tiruvasal, which is a gateway that has various sculptures.

The tower, which is built over the sanctum, has a height of about 66m and has 13 storeys (Fig. 7). There are eight sikharas (spires), which are also made of stone and weigh about 81 tonnes. There are two circumambulatory passages. The walls of the lower passage are decorated with intricate paintings depicting the Chola era. The upper passage has reliefs showcasing varied dance poses. Temples dedicated to Lord Ganesh, Lord Muruga and the Goddess Parvati are also constructed inside the complex (Fig. 6).

Fig. 2. The doorkeepers of Rajarajan
Fig. 3. Another view of the doorkeepers.

The compound wall had one thousand Nandis (that is, sacred bulls that are the gatekeepers and vehicles of Lord Shiva), some of which were destroyed during the Muslim invasion. There is no masonry used for constructing the temple. Instead, an interlocking mechanism was used. When you walk towards the temple complex, you are greeted by the simple Maratha Entrance, which was built by the Maratha rulers. Next is the relatively more intricate gate called Keralantakan Tiruvasal, which was built by Rajaraja I to commemorate his victory over the Chera warriors of Kerala. The Rajarajan Tiruvasal is a gateway, which has various sculptures (Fig. 1). The two most imposing ones are the doorkeepers (Figs. 2 and 3). To depict the strength of one doorkeeper, it is shown crushing a snake, which has swallowed an elephant. The temple has about 16 such doorkeepers.

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