Fed by the often bountiful, sometimes scarce (as is the case this year), waters of river Kaveri flowing down from neighboring Karnataka state, Thanjavur in Tamilnadu is well known as the rice bowl of south India. It is also equally famous for one of the great architectural wonders of the region, the Big Brihadeeswara Temple, perhaps next in grandeur only to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai that was the subject of one of my earlier blog posts [see: 44) Madurai’s Magnificent Heritage – Personal Photo Album Part 13 (Feb 12)]. I have visited it many times, but it was only during my last visit in January this year that I was able to do photographic justice to this fabulous edifice. A bright Sun on an early morning, with brilliant blue skies, provided the perfect setting for my visit, escorted by a resourceful host from nearby Tiruchirapalli that is itself a major tourist attraction.
Thanjavur (better known as Tanjore in olden days) is well connected by both rail and road and very easy to reach. The nearby city of Tiruchirapalli has air services and just an hour’s drive away from Thanjavur. It is one of the major cultural and artistic centres of Tamilnadu. The world famous bronze statue of a dancing Nataraja (Lord of the dance, Shiva), is traced to the Big Temple here.
The Brihadeeswara temple (brihad meaning big), known in Tamil as Peruvudaiyar Koyil, is indeed worthy of its name and dedicated to Lord Shiva of Hindu mythology. It is a magnificent example of Dravidian temple architecture that seems to have reached its zenith during the reign of Raja Raja Chola I of the Chola empire about a thousand years ago. Surrounded by tall fortified walls and built entirely of large granite blocks, the great pyramidal temple tower (Vimana) stands 66 meters tall and is among the tallest of its kind anywhere in the world. It is the centerpiece of the rectangular temple complex measuring about 240 m by 125 m as can be made out clearly in the Google terrain view shown below (click to enlarge):
After entering through a rather ordinary looking gate from the roadside the visitor encounters a quadrangle with well laid out lawns and paved path leading to a massive main gate with equally massive ramparts on either side as evident from the following picture:
[As in my previous albums, all pictures are in high resolution and can be blown up to their full size by clicking on a picture and opening it in a separate window]
The temple tower itself is completely hidden in this view, but shows up prominently when viewed from a lateral location. Before showing this, I would like to highlight the row of three pedestal displays, in Tamil, English, and Hindi respectively, visible at lower left in the above picture. Here is a close-up view of them:
This picture is interesting not so much for the contents of the tablets as for the appalling condition in which the Archaeological Survey of India has maintained at least two of them. They proudly and unashamedly proclaim that the temple is part of the (UNESCO) World Heritage, listing the reasons as to why they are so regarded! I was also puzzled by both the obscure context and the grammar of the English sentence; “The Great Living Chola temples has been inscribed upon the World Heritage List”. However, it was nice to see the temple complex itself very well maintained despite the large daily influx of visitors. Incidentally, the name of the temple has been spelt differently in different sources, including this tablet.
He is a picture I took from a point just a short distance to the right of the entrance:
The tall and stately main temple tower appears rather dwarfed, yet very impressive, at a considerable distance behind the main gate. I zoomed in on it and captured the following picture showing just the upper part of the tower in considerable detail:
On either side of the main entrance gate are large dancing figures sculptured into the rampart walls. One of them is shown below. The temple complex is dotted with such sculptures at numerous places, especially all around the big temple.
Looking through the main entrance the visitor sees another gate, leading to the inner quadrangle of the temple complex, with a wide superstructure (gopuram) bearing extensive and highly ornate carvings seen in the next three pictures all of which were shot with the bright morning sunlight falling on the structure at possibly the most desirable angle. I couldn't have hoped for better lighting conditions. The first picture was shot with part of the upper arch of the first gate forming a silhouette. The beautifully perfect symmetry seen in this picture was rather fortuitous and a pleasant surprise.
The next picture shows a larger portion of the same superstructure with different magnification and more detail.
The next picture is a super high-zoom view of the uppermost part of the gopuram visible in the last one. The awe inspiring and intricately detailed sculpture could hardly be more spectacular, but is rather commonplace within the temple complex. It also speaks for the quality and durability of the construction that has survived a whole millennium and looks good for another.
As one enters the inner quadrangle through the second gate the main focus of attention in the foreground is a massive monolithic black stone statue of Nandi, the bull housed within a pillared enclosure open on all sides, with the big temple itself in the background. Here is a picture of this, with the statue facing the temple.
Except for the lawns, there isn’t much greenery inside the temple complex, but I found one spot where some greenery in the foreground accentuated both the beauty and the size of the main temple as can be seen in the following picture:
The next picture provides a closer view of the temple tower with some overhead greenery coupled with the blue sky enhancing the quality of the view. Entry to the upper floors of the tower was restricted and my host used his influence with the authorities to get me there through the openings prominently visible in the picture. The interior is adorned with carvings of dancing figures and other mythological themes all around, coming to an abrupt end at one place signifying a halt to the activities there some time in the distant past. In keeping with the mindless official policy of not allowing interior photography, practiced dutifully almost all over the country, I was not allowed to use my camera.
From the same spot I captured a super zoom view of the upper most part of the tower, showing the bronze Kalasha atop the huge dome with its intricate carvings. It is not clear if the rather ugly looking vertical support is meant for the Kalasha or the electric light bearing down on it. If it is for the latter, one wonders why somebody chose to compromise so severely on aesthetics which is one of the hallmarks of this great edifice.
Looking up at a steep angle, the next picture was taken very close to the side entrance to the big temple, marked by the small gathering of visitors there. It shows how really big the temple itself is. When enlarged, it reinforces the appeal of intricate carvings adorning each of its pyramidal layers right up to the top noticeable from a distance in previous pictures.
A notable feature of temple architecture in south India is the elaborate inscriptions carved on walls and stone slabs often extolling the virtues of the place, achievements of the ruler and carrying administrative edicts as well. This is particularly noticeable in the Thanjavur temple as the following picture illustrates (click to enlarge):
At the back of the temple complex is a much smaller temple of very similar architecture, yet no less beautiful, as seen in the following picture:
Here is yet another view of the big temple showing a well maintained lawn and paved pathways:
The next picture showing the upper floors of the tower was taken from a vantage point on the large platform in front of it on my way out from the interior chambers.
From the same point on the upper deck I shot the following picture showing two structures in one corner of the temple complex, including the smaller temple shown in a previous picture.
Finally, after some leisurely strolls inside the vast quadrangle, I made an uneventful and unhurried exit from the historic temple complex and shot the following parting picture near the exit gate. It is a beautiful blend of the accomplishments of both man and nature. The center of attraction here is as much the magnificent young tree, with its twisted root and branches, as the thousand year old handiwork of a great extinct civilization. It reminded me of my earlier experience at Hampi, the seat of another such equally great and extinct civilization [see my earlier blog post: 46) Resplendent Ruins of an Extinct Empire – Personal Photo Album Part 14].