top of page

Brihadisvara Temple: A testament to the Architectural and Artistic brilliance of Ancient Bharat

Niranjan Bhombe

Madhavi Ojha

23 March 2023

"No matter from which direction one approaches Thanjavur, one’s gaze is irresistibly drawn to....."

....the colossal, elegantly ornamented temple tower presiding over the renowned city in South Bharat’s Kaveri delta region….

A closer look at the soaring structure confirms its identity as the central ‘vimana’ rising above the sanctuary of a palpably ancient shrine. Built by Rajaraja I (reigned 985-1014) in 1010 CE at his kingdom’s capital, the Brihadisvara temple is a masterpiece of Chola architecture and an icon of Tamil art, history and culture. The grandest granite structural temple in the Dravida style as developed by Rajaraja and his successors, this magnificent abode of Shiva was placed on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites in 1987.

The publication, at the beginning of the twentieth of the Tamil inscriptions that cover the walls of the Thanjavur temple catapulted it into fame as a key resource for century, recovering the history of the illustrious Cholas, who nurtured a great flowering of Tamil civilisation. Nevertheless, thriving under abundantly the patronage of the Pandya, Nayaka and Maratha kings, who ruled Thanjavur after the Cholas, the monument reflects the legacies of later golden ages as well. The Brihadisvara temple is in fact a palimpsest of the multicultural histories of more than a thousand years of worship and artistic endeavour, conveyed to us across time through inscriptions, ritual traditions, sacred hymns and stories, and processions of images of gods and saints, as well as through painting, sculpture, poetry, music, dance and drama in many languages.

Rajaraja's temple: A journey in time

Entering the temple campus through its three eastern gateways, the visitor walks into an immense rectangular courtyard edged by a colonnade, dominated by the sanctuary tower, and sparsely populated by smaller shrines, and immediately takes step back in time.

The Big Temple is a monument of superlatives in every respect. Grandeur of size and scale, mathematical and geometric precision, and innovative symmetries of proportion that draw on and yet transcend the prescriptions of the early Shaiva Agama texts give Rajaraja's temple its distinctive ambience. The dimensions of the walled courtyard, the main temple and the central deity are merely three examples of these features. The compound is a perfect double square, measuring 241 X 121 metres, and its proportions are echoed in several of the temple's architectural elements. The linga sanctuary measures 24 metres square externally. Based on a high platform, the vimana tower rises to a height of 59.82 metres from the ground, dwarfing the tallest of the gopura gateways.

The tower's 13 square storeys of diminishing size form a pyramid that culminates in an octagonal domed shikhara pinnacle. The pinnacle sits on a 26 metre square granite slab weighing 80 tons, and is capped with a massive gilded copper pot finial. In Rajaraja's days, the Thanjavur vimana was the tallest temple tower in Bharat.

Likewise, measuring 1.9 metres in diameter and 3.95 metres in height (including the pedestal), the image Rajaraja installed in the sanctuary is among the largest Shiva lingas worshiped in a temple. The king called the deity 'Rajarajesvaram Udaiyar', (the Lord of Rajaraja's temple) in Tamil, but the name was later replaced by 'Brihadisvara', the Sanskrit version of the Tamil 'peruvudaiyar', the great Lord.

The stories of gods, devotees and saints sculpted in stone and stucco on the great gateways look as vivid as they might have appeared on the day the temple was completed, and the central platform's walls and stairways are covered with small sculptures as well. These are beautiful, but the large-size sculptures of Shiva's murtis his manifest forms- that are carved in the vimana's outer wall niches at two levels are masterpieces of Chola art. They come into view as we circumambulate the temple.

In Rajaraja's time, the other deities prescribed for worship in Shiva temples were housed in shrines and niches along the Brihadisvara's enclosing colonnade.

In subsequent centuries, Pandya and Nayaka rulers added shrines and mandapa pavilions for Nataraja and the goddess, and a Nayaka king built a beautiful temple for Subrahmanya, counted among the finest examples of Nayaka architecture. Withou­­­­­­­­t detracting from the main temple's majestic beauty, this highly ornamented structure offers intimate encounters with the narratives of the gods, especially of Skanda-Murugan, in its finely chiselled sculptures. The latest additions are plain Ganesha temple built by the Maratha ki­­ng Serfoji II, and a small twentieth century shrine for Karuvur Devar, the Chola era poet-saint who extolled Shiva and the Thanjavur temple in a Tamil hymn in Tiruvisaippa (Sacred Songs): 'How marvellous, how beautiful the form, bright as a hundred million rising suns, worshipped by the whole world, the form of the Lord who dwells in Rajaraja's temple in Thanjavur, enclosed by walls outfitted with leaf-covered ramparts, and abounding in fortified towers of many tiers, lofty as mountains, touching the white moon!"


Lastly, the massive monolithic image of Shiva's bull, Nandi, installed by a Nayaka patron in the pavilion facing the sanctuary, takes pride of place among the later additions to the temple. Along with Rajaraja's vimana, it has become an icon of the Brihadisvara temple.


Chola history and Shaiva devotion at the Brihadisvara temple


The Brihadisvaramahatmya (The Glorification of the Brihadisvara Temple), a late Sanskrit purana text, tells us that the temple's founder was a certain Karikala Chola, and describes the miracles that enabled the monument's construction and its ceremonial consecration. Karikala brought a naturally formed banalinga from the Narmada River and installed the deity in the sanctuary of the Thanjavur temple, built at his command by a father and son team of master architects from Kanchipuram. The construction was suspended when a stone large enough to support the shikhara at the top of the vimana could not be found, but was resumed when a huge monolithic slab was provided by a poor old woman at Shiva's behest. The great stone bull is the subject of the most popular legend about the temple, also narrated in the Mahatmya. The Nandi kept growing bigger, until the architect nailed it down after tapping its thigh and expelling a toad that had been living inside. Clearly, our predecessors were as intrigued as we are by the feats of size and engineering skill involved in the construction of this temple, including the mystery of how the granite required for the building was transported, when the nearest source of the stone is several kilometres from Thanjavur, a city situated in a flat riverine plain.

While some of the temple's enigmas may never be solved, the more than 107 Tamil inscriptions on the temple walls, the majority of which were commissioned by Rajaraja and his immediate successors, are a treasure trove of historical information. A fascinating window into Rajaraja's illustrious career, his devotion to Shiva, and Agamic temple worship in medieval Tamil Nadu, the inscriptions also record and describe in minute detail the economy and administration of the Thanjavur temple as envisioned by the king. Such systematic, comprehensive documentation from the founder's days is not available for any other south Indian temple. The information provided here ranges from the exact weights of precious gems, to the specifications of the images made for worship in the temple's many sub-shrines, to the names, tasks and earnings of every one of the men and women who served as at the temple.

The magnificence of the Thanjavur temple-it was styled 'Mahameru, a replica of the celestial mountain Meru-was an expression of its founder's imperial glory as well as his devotion to Shiva. Rajaraja had conquered all of South India, extended Chola authority over parts of Sri Lanka, and taken over the Maldive islands. He assumed the title Rajarajadeva, 4 'king of kings', but also called himself 'Shivapadasekhara' (he who bears Shiva's feet as his crown), and gifted the gold and jewels captured in his conquests toward the construction and maintenance of the Thanjavur temple and the worship of Shiva and the other deities he installed there. It comes as no surprise that the emperor and his entourage showered the temple with the most lavish gifts and endowments, or that every one of these was recorded in stone.

Adavallan (Expert Dancer), a second name the Lord at Thanjavur, suggests that the king conceived of Brihadisvara as identical with Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer at the temple in Chidambaram, the tutelary shrine of the Cholas. The space above the Thanjavur sanctuary connects with the concept of cosmic space, 'paramakasa', the supreme mystery of Shiva's dance in Chidambaram. In addition to large mural paintings of the dancing Shiva, the Lord himself is depicted as dancing, employing 81 of the 108 Karana dance postures described in Bharata's Natya Sastra, in a series of reliefs sculpted on the upper level of the passageway around the sanctuary. So was Rajaraja's devotion to the dancing Lord that the principal measure employed for weighing gifts and other materials at his temple was also named Adavallan.

Shaiva devotion and temple worship in the Kaveri delta were stimulated and immeasurably enriched by the moving Tamil devotional (bhakti) hymns of the three great Nayanar poet saints, Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar, who flourished in the Pallava era (sixth to eighth centuries). Rajaraja's temple became the site of the grandest celebration of the saints and their hymns, collected in the Tevaram anthology. The Nayanars were revered in bronze images, and forty-eight 'pidarar' singers appointed for performing their hymns, accompanied by drummers. Surpassing all other patrons, Rajaraja also recruited from various temples, four hundred 'women of the quarter', ('talichcheri pendir'), in this case dancers, to serve at the Brihadisvara temple.

The statistics of the material and human resources allotted for ritual and maintenance at the temple are staggering. For example, 2,832 cows, 1,644 ewes and 30 buffaloes were distributed to 366 cowherds, who were required to supply ghee (for burning lamps) at the temple. The details given in many inscriptions feast the senses and the imagination.


European romance, and a Maratha renaissance


Throughout its history, Lord Brihadisvara's temple was a cherished place of worship for Thanjavur's rulers. In the eighteenth century, however, the Maratha Bhonsle kings became increasingly embroiled in the politics of the Carnatic, which was dominated by the rulers of Mysore and Arcot, and by competing European trading companies. By the reign of Tulaji II (reigned 1763-73 and 1776-87), Thanjavur, politically subordinated by the English East India Company, had become colonial 'Tanjore'. The inevitable happened. From 1777-98, during the Mysore wars, a British garrison occupied the Brihadisvara temple's precincts, and worship was reduced to a bare minimum. There was no question of the kind of upkeep demanded by a great Hindu temple.

However, the air of decay that pervaded the temple at the time proved strangely alluring to British visitors. Where devotees saw a living temple being desecrated, engineer-surveyors Elisha Trapaud and Michael Topping, as well as touring artists such as Henry Salt, viewed the 'Great Pagoda' of Tanjore through a romantic and antiquarian lens, as a ruin. Their paintings and drawings of the temple circulated widely among European audiences, but the most celebrated of these depictions is undoubtedly that of the artist duo Thomas and William Daniell, who toured Bharat in the late eighteenth century, immortalising its great monuments and landscapes in their enchanting aquatints.

But the Big Temple was not condemned to remain sleeping princess forever. It was rescued at the turn of at the nineteenth century by Serfoji II (reigned 1798-1832), Tulajaji's adopted son. Within a year of attaining the throne, the English-educated Serfoji was pensioned off by his British overlords, his sovereign rule restricted to a severely truncated 'Tanjore kingdom', consisting of just the fort-city of Thanjavur and the Brihadisvara temple, located in the 'Small Fort'.

Serfoji's genius and his remarkable contributions to south Indian culture, achieved under the most abject circumstances. A polymath and innovator, the Maratha king forged a glorious cultural renaissance at Thanjavur, one that reflected the city's ambience as the confluence of multiple linguistic and ethnic streams and fundamentally reshaped arts and learning in modern South India. The Brihadisvara temple was a focal point for Serfoji's renaissance.

For Serfoji, as for Rajaraja, the Brihadisvara temple was the king's own temple. Serfoji restored the temple to its former splendour, and added greatly to its cultural riches, making a pilgrimage to the major Kaveri delta temples, he styled himself of the Chola land (Cholabhupati). He collected 108 lingas from distant shrines, and established them in the Brihadisvara temple colonnade. He his contributions in Marathi inscriptions at the temple, as well as in a Marathi poem, Sarabhendratirthavali. He also inscribed on the colonnade walls a long Marathi text, the Bhomsalavamsacaritra, a history of the Thanjavur Marathas. With these acts, Serfoji both expressed his devotion to Brihadisvara and recentered his sovereignty in Thanjavur, in symbolic defiance of colonial domination.

An avid patron of new painting styles, Serfoji commissioned paintings for the ceiling and walls of the goddess shrine; the legends of Madurai were painted on the colonnade walls. In addition to promoting the Sanskrit Brihadisvaramahatmya, along with a Tamil translation, Serfoji commissioned a Chola- style Ula poem in Tamil, describing Brihadisvara's festival procession. Serfoji's greatest contribution, though, was his vigorous promotion of the performing arts at the temple. The king made the temple's mandapas and courtyard ring with the festive sounds of drama, dance and music, in Telugu, Tamil, Marathi and Sanskrit. Under his patronage, the Tanjore Quartet, brothers who were gifted composers and dance masters, composed numerous padams, varnams, svarajatis, tillanas and other musical and dance pieces on Brihadisvara, the goddess, and the king. These were performed by singers and devadasi dancers at the temple as well as the royal court. The Quartet's compositions spread Thanjavur performance traditions in other south Indian courts, and became an important part of the Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dance repertoires that were eventually refashioned in Madras city (now Chennai).

The masterpiece among the works commissioned by Serfoji for the Big Temple was Sarabhendrabhupala Kuravanji, an innovative Tamil dance drama which portrayed the glory of both Serfoji and Lord Brihadisvara through the songs and dances of a, a wandering tribal fortune-teller, this highly popular drama was performed by devadasi dancers at the temple's annual festival, on a permanent platform ('Kuravanji medai'), erected by Serfoji in front of the Nandi pavilion.

Serfoji's son Shivaji Bhonsle II immortalised the Thanjavur Maratha dynasty in a portrait gallery in the vestibule of the Subrahmanya temple's pavilion. Sadly, the British government declared the Tanjore kingdom extinct in 1855, when Shivaji II died without a male heir. Three years later, Linnaeus Tripe, who toured south India as government photographer, recorded striking views of the Big Temple in the new visual medium of photography. For Tripe, as well as for Edmund Lyon, Samuel Bourne and other British photographers who followed him, the Thanjavur temple was the relic of a vanished past, the symbol of a kingdom in ruins.

A new era

The big temple continues to flourish in the new era. The great Nandi continues to receive abhishekas, the festival carts carrying the deities in procession, has been refurbished and put to use. Devotees continue to flock to worship at the temple, mingling, as always, with the scholars, history buffs, artists, dancers, engineers, archaeologists and others who stream in to partake if this ancient monument’s eternal beauty and mystery, and to listen to the fascinating story it tells.



Indira Vishwanathan Peterson (2021), Where the Gods Dwell, Westland Books

bottom of page