Brihadeeswarar Temple, India

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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.

The tower, which is built over the sanctum, has a height of about 66m and has 13 storeys (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The tower built over the sanctum has a height of 217 feet and has 13 stories.

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. 2).

Fig. 2. The Brihadeeswarar Temple complex.

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. 3).

Fig. 3. Rajarajan Tiruvasal, which is a gateway that has various sculptures.

The two most imposing ones are the doorkeepers (Figs. 4 and 5). 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.

Fig. 4. The doorkeepers of Rajarajan Tiruvasal.
Fig. 5. Another view of the doorkeepers.

Inside the temple, there are inscriptions dating back to the Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara, Nayaka and Maratha rulers (Fig. 6), including some at Rajarajan Tiruvasal.

Fig. 6. Inscriptions dating back to the Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara, Nayaka and Maratha rulers.

These talk about the various contributions that were made to the temple by royalty. Huge statues, made of bronze and gold, were given to this temple. The annual income from the land on which the temple is constructed was estimated to be 116,000 kalams of paddy. The inscriptions also give an insight into the administration of the Cholas and how medieval society lived in Tamil Nadu.

The main temple complex has a structure called the Nandi Mandapam, which has a Nandi that is carved from a single stone and erected on a raised platform. Its height is just under 9m and the ceiling of the platform is beautifully painted (Fig. 7). The Nandi Mandapam was built by the Nayak rulers in the sixteenth century. This is the second largest Nandi in India. (The largest is located at Lepakshi in the state of Andhra Pradesh.)

Fig. 7. A 3.8m-high Nandi, which is carved from a single stone.

Apart from superbly carved mythological creatures in the stone pillars (Fig. 8), one can also get to see ventilators.

Fig. 8. Carved mythological creatures in the stone pillars.

Which are used to ventilate the temple and consist of detailed holes which are carved out of stone. These were carved into the stone by making detailed holes. The variety, complexity and finesse of the life-size and miniature sculptures at Brihadeeswarar Temple are a visual treat to the eyes. There are numerous gods and goddesses, and flowers and animals carved here. Don’t miss the sculpture of the Goddess Parvati, killing the demon king as he was wreaking havoc and troubling the locals.

The stone railings on either side of the steps of the temple depict two opposing emotions of ferocity and calmness in an elephant. On one side it has bulging eyes and a twisted tail ready to kill a warrior; and, on the other side, it is calm and its eyeballs have returned to normal and its tail is no longer twisted. Perhaps, this depiction is a lesson for us humans about emotions and how to balance them.

There is another carving that looks like two dears and two rabbits. In reality, it is actually one rabbit and one deer. It is so accurate that it can give modern day 3D a run for its money – notwithstanding that this is carved in stone and the artisans didn’t have modern technology at their fingertips. They created these masterpieces out of solid stone with patience and immense talent. Another detailed sculpture shows a bird drinking drops of water from the wet hair of a lady after she has bathed in a river, showing how humans and birds can co-exist in harmony.

All the photographs are by Khursheed Dinshaw.

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