The Thanjavur “Big Temple” (Peria Kovil) is one thousand years old this year, 2010. Rajaraja Chola I commissioned this greatest edifice of Tamil history and performed the sacred dedication of the temple in the year 1010, the 25th year of his reign. It was the jewel-in-the-crown of Rajaraja, an extraordinarily powerful king, a grand monarch with a style of his own, a conqueror who also understood art and architecture, and a true devotee of Siva. It is a matter of pride that a Tamil king built the finest example of Tamil architecture, stupendous in proportion, yet simple in design. Siva in this temple is known as Brihadisvara — the Lord of the Universe. A gigantic stone “lingam” fills the sanctum sanctorum, sheltered by a vimanam (towering roof) which pierces the sky at 216 feet. One can gaze with awe at this majestic structure from a distance as one drives towards Thanjavur. However many times one has seen it, one cannot help but hold one's breath in amazement. And as you enter its precincts, this temple never fails to humble you, for, such is its magnificence. It is the perfect tribute to the Almighty, ordered by a great king and executed by his subjects who contributed to its building in more ways than one. To this day, it stands tall as a reminder of who we are in the history books of culture, art, architecture, religion, language, governance and trade.
The temple occupies an area measuring about 750 feet by 400 feet, in a fort, surrounded by a moat. It is a marvel of engineering, considering the technology of those ancient times. The towering vimanam is built up with stones with bonding and notching, without the use of mortar. The topmost stone, weighing about 80 tons, is still a matter of discussion for engineers who are baffled as to how the builders lifted it to that height without the help of modern contrivances. A charming tale is told about a ramp being built from a village — Sarapallam — four miles away, from where the giant stone was pulled up by elephants!
The details of the stone work of this imposing vimanam are representative of the masterly craftsmanship of South Indian artisans. The shilpi (sculptor) and the sthapathi (architect) came together to create their fanciful abode for Shiva. Naturally, the shape had to echo Mount Kailash itself. In its perfect geometry and distinct clarity of lines, this tower is unbeatable.
Every feature of the temple is larger than life — the monolithic Nandi, the gigantic (12-feet high) Dwarapalakas (guardian deities) and the sculptures in the niches around the central shrine. They are distinguished by an elegant simplicity in lines and ornamentation. The faces of the figures like Dakshinamurthi and Yogalakshmi are beatitude in essence. Inside the vimanam, there is a hidden corridor surrounding the sanctum. Rarely open to visitors, this is a treasure trove of Chola painting and sculpture. The walls of this cave-like corridor were plastered with lime and used as a large canvas for the paintings. Perhaps the subjects chosen were dear to the great king's heart, for, he was a staunch Shaivite, a great warrior who took pride in his victories, and was responsible for the renaissance of the Bhakti movement through the spread of the songs of the saints ( Thevaram). The paintings, which have survived time and a 17th century coat of paint, are exquisite in detail and colour, and proportion. The colours in the paintings are subdued, the lines are delicate and the expressions vivid and true to life. Figures of Dakshinamurthi, Nataraja in Thillai, surrounded by celestials, dancers and saints in a celebration, and Tripuranthaka, the gigantic warrior, are masterpieces of Chola painting. The story of Sundaramurthi Nayanar reaching Kailash on a white elephant is depicted on another wall. The most telling of all is the portraiture of Raja Raja with his Guru Karuvur Devar. It was Karuvur Devar, the wily administrator, who master-minded the building of the temple, and fittingly he has a special shrine dedicated to him in the outer courtyard of the temple. While the sculptures of Shiva in this corridor are imposing and colossal, the fine series of 81 karanas (dance poses) are superb illustrations of the Natya Sastra. These figures are much bigger than the dance figures in Chidambaram and other temples. The renowned historian C. Sivaramamurthi averred that this group is unique as it depicts Shiva himself dancing.
Plenty of documentation
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this temple is the vast number of inscriptions on its walls which record details of Raja Raja's reign as well as that of his successors. They reveal that Raja Raja endowed a large number of villages, money and cattle to the temple for its maintenance, daily worship, festivals, singing of devotional songs and dancing. He and his queens presented fantastic gold and gem set jewels to the temple. The king's donations, as well as those of his favourite queen Lokamahadevi, and his sister Kundavai are recorded on a slab close to the sanctum. Among the most noteworthy inscriptions is the one about the two streets given over to the occupation of the 400 Devadasis who were pressed into the service of the temple from many surrounding temples of the region. Their names, places of origin, the door numbers of the houses they occupied are also part of the details inscribed. From the inscriptions we gather that the king, his queens, and their relatives set the example followed by the nobility, the merchants and even soldiers, to return to the people what was collected by taxes etc., by erecting irrigation canals, hospitals, schools, granaries and so on.
One of the best bronze images of the period is that of Nataraja, referred to as “Adavallan” in this temple. Raja Raja named the currency of his reign, a coin, Adavallan.
Over time, many additions and improvements took place in this temple. Sevappa Nayak, the first of his dynasty who ruled Thanjavur, built the shrine for Murugan (Subrahamanya) as an integral part of the temple. It is a beautiful, elaborately-carved stone structure, a designer's delight. To copy the un-repeated designs on each of the short pillars of this shrine would take an artist weeks if not months. One can just imagine how long the stone chiseller would have taken to complete each piece. Facing this shrine one can also see a mandapamwhich houses a Maratha period portrait gallery. Done as mural paintings but in the style now known as “Tanjore painting” with gold leaf embossing, the portraits of Serfoji, his queen and other royals are a feast of colour.
One can spend a whole day in the Big Temple, and still want to come back to marvel at every detail of its beauty. Many kings had built temples to Shiva on the banks of the Kaveri. Many saints have sung in praise of these deities. But there is only one temple to Brihadisvara, and it stands tall a thousand years after a devotee-king climbed a ladder with a copper pot ( kalasam) anointed with holy water from all the sacred rivers, to dedicate it to history. Our history!