Road trip to the land of temples – IV – Brihadeeswara Temple – Architectural brilliance, never before and never again !

“Architectural audacity”, The Hindu had once quoted Pierre Pichard, architectural historian to describe the greatest temple building effort in India’s history. There is no better way to describe it.

We are, of course, talking about the Thanjavur’s Brihadeeswara Temple, if you want to see what pride looks like, visit this temple !

The Big dream !

Dream big, they say, 1000 years ago, Raja Raja Chola did exactly that. Going down in the history of India as one of the greatest kings, he expanded the Chola kingdom over the whole of South India, Kalinga and Sri Lanka, his reign is considered the golden period of the Chola Dynasty. To commemorate the great achievements of his kingdom, he set out to leave behind a mark of his kingdom’s supremacy, something that told generations to come what a mighty and great dynasty ruled over the land. The culmination of that thought was the Brihadeeswara Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at the then capital of the Chola kingdom, Thanjavur.

He did leave an unforgettable mark, today, the Brihadeeswara Temple or the Big Temple or RajaRajeswaram or the Thanjauvr Periya Koil is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the temples at Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Darasuram, built by Raja Raja Chola’s successors. Together these 3 temples have been called “The Great Living Chola Temples” by UNESCO.

Grandeur like no other !

Built in 1010 A.D, the Brihadeeswara Temple stands out as probably the grandest temple ever built. With a Vimana reaching to a height of 216 feet, the giant temple is visible miles away !


Even before you enter the temple, the gigantic Vimana has a shock value, 4 times, this writer has been to the temple and every single time, the first expression is “Oh My God !” If you get over the Vimana and proceed further, the next interesting thing is the huge fort wall around the temple and moat running along it.


Fort walls around temples are common but moats?

Next you are greeted by the outer Gopurams, these gopurams are massive by themselves, yet, they pale in size before the Vimana.


This is the only temple where the Vimana is way bigger than the Gopurams, in every other temple in the country, the Raja Gopurams are always taller than the Vimana.


Beyond the Gopurams, stands the Brihadeeswara Temple.


Unsurpassed in grandeur for 1000 years and counting !


Architectural genius

To dream about building something like this is one thing but executing it to such massive proportions is what legends are made of. Building a temple like this was unthinkable 1000 years ago so how did they achieve it? It remains a mystery.

The temple was built entirely out of granite stone, The Hindu article mentions some 130000 tonnes of granite having gone into building the temple ! Where did they find such huge quantities of granite stone and how did they manage to transport it to Thanjavur and make such a temple out of the granite?


Attempts have been made to understand the architecture and building methods and the findings are mind boggling !

It is believed that the temple designers studied the architecture of all the famous temple across the country at that time, made blue prints, did a lot of research on the type of soil to be used, analysed how the base would hold such a huge Vimana and came up with some really innovative, ingenious ideas to executing it like the dome of the Vimana alone is 80 tonnes and it is believed to have been placed at the top of Vimana by building a 6 km ramp from the top of the Vimana to a nearby village and the dome hauled up the ramp by elephants !


It seems each succeeding tier of the Vimana leading to the temple was built through an interlocking system of stones carved in such a way that they fitted into each other without any material used to bind them together ! What a work of genius !

If you can read Tamil, do read Balakumaran’s Udayar, the 6 part novel also talks about the building of the temple. To know the technicalities you can check the internet, there are interesting articles on how the temple was built or watch Discovery Channel’s documentary on the temple, you will be amazed !

The Great Big Lord

Brihadeeswara means the “Great Lord”, true to the name, inside the Sanctum Sanctorum stands the colossal Shiva Linga at more than 12 feet high and 25 feet in circumference ! “Ponniyin Selvan”, a famous Tamil historical novel on Raja Raja Chola mentiones how the King visited the giant statues and temples of Buddha in Sri Lanka and wanted to build something back home in honour of Lord Shiva that outdid those temples. We do not know if it is true but he definitely outdid all the temples existing in the country at that time and perhaps the world over. Even to this day, the Brihadeeswara Temple remains one of its kind, not just for its sheer magnificence and size but also for its engineering brilliance.

Try clicking a picture of the temple in its entirety, you will have to lie down on the ground to fit the entire temple within your lens ! Here is our lame attempt !


A big Lord needs a suitable assistant and so a 13 feet high Nandi stands guard at the entrance of the temple, the Nandi is carved out of a single rock !


Art and sculpture at its best

The Sanctum Sanctorum which houses the Shiva Linga is a double walled structure with a passage between the two walls, this was built in this way to hold the 40000 tonne Vimana. Fresco paintings adorn the walls from the base to the ceiling along this passage, they are, of course not open for public. There is an article on the internet on how these 15 feet paintings were photographed by ASI with great difficulty since there was less than 7 feet gap between the two walls of the passage. Forget photography, how did they even manage to paint them in the first place, 1000 years ago !! The paintings are believed to be on par with those at Ajantha. Do check the internet for pictures of these paintings, we may never get a chance to view them.

There are some paintings along the pillared corridors surrounding the temple and in the Nandi Mandapam but most of these belong to the later periods especially the Nayak reign in the 16th Century A.D.


Everything about this temple is big, including the sculpture. The size of the temple did not seem to deter the sculptors from filling it with sculpture ranging from huge statues to minute figures.

These Dwarapalakas at the side entrance to the Garbha Griha and inside the temple are terrifyingly imposing and lifelike.


Check out these miniature soldiers trying to bring down an elephant !


Look who’s here !

Located somewhere in the middle of the Vimana on the North side is the most interesting sculpture in the Brihadeeswara Temple – a figure of a foreigner complete with modern clothes and a hat !


It is shocking yet amusing to find such a figure in a Hindu temple. While nobody knows for sure how it came to be sculpted, it must have been an addition during the later Centuries when this part of the country began to have more trade relations with the West or did the Chola sculptors meet up with a foreigner?

Another interesting sculpture is this figure adjacent to the above figure – this forlon looking lady at the edge of the picture can also be found in the Virupaksha temple at Hampi, this figure is an exact replica of the one at Hampi !


Now, now, who copied whom? It is most likely that these figures were added much later but how did they manage to fit it along with the existing sculpture? If you zoom your camera lens, the lady actually looks very different from the statues of women on most Hindu temples ! Out of thousands of figures in the Virupaksha temple, why did they choose only this one to replicate? Fascinating questions !

Other shrines

As you walk around the vast temple premises, you will find pillared corridors with hundreds of Nandi mounted on them.


There are smaller shrines dedicated to other Deities like Lord Ganesha and Lord Subramanya. Of these, the shrine dedicated to Lord Subramanya is the most beautiful with ornate sculpture.


This is the standard size of a Dravidian style temple, Raja Raja Chola magnified the style by several times and built the Brihadeeswara Temple. Move away and compare the main temple with the smaller shrines, you will know what we mean !


Further up is the temple for Goddess Brihannayaki.


More than just a temple

Raja Raja Chola made sure he left behind enough information through inscriptions on the temple walls. These inscriptions talk about the people who contributed to the temple, the temple funding and utilisation of funds, administration and taxes. The temple was not built merely as a place of worship, it was supposed to be a centre of art, learning, performing arts, may be it even served as a fortress or a shelter in times of need. It was also a means of useful employment as it is believed that prisoners of the Chola Empire were used as construction labourers !

Probably, this is why, Brihadeeswara Temple, despite being the greatest temple ever built in honour of Lord Shiva, is not exactly of much pilgrim importance.

Architectural arrogance?

Audacity, yes, it was a bold idea but when you actually walk around the temple and strain your neck looking up at the Vimana, you begin to wonder if it was more than audacity. Raja Raja Chola’s pride is evident everywhere, we find a certain kind of arrogance too, the arrogance of a King unmatched in valour and supremacy. How else would he even dream of coming up with something as overwhelming as this?


If only one could go back in time and witness this marvel being built ! A statue of Raja Raja Chola stands at the entrance of the temple, you would want to fall at his feet for giving us the Brihadeeswara Temple because there never was and there never will be another one. Ever. Period.

Info tidbits

– The Brihadeeswara Temple is open from 7 AM to 1 PM and 4 PM to 8 PM.

– Finding accommodation and transport in Thanjavur is never a problem, it is after all an important city in Tamil Nadu.

– You will end up spending more than 2 hours in the temple, plan your schedule accordingly !

– The Thanjavur Royal Palace, the Madamaligai and its 6 storied tower are worth visiting and just 2 kms from the Big temple. If you climb up the tower, you can get a nice view of the area including the temple.

– Saraswathi Mahal Library is another must visit, the library is famous for some rare and ancient manuscripts.

– While at Thanjavur, make it a point to visit the other two Great Living Chola temples at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, 70 kms and Darasuram, 35 kms from Thanjavur. The beauty of these two temples is sure to leave you in a state of daze !

PS: Do not be surprised if you find a post on the Brihadeeswara Temple once again sometime in the future, we will never get tired of visiting or clicking pictures or talking about this temple !

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