Regal city with a chequered past

Poetry in Stone

Sheer Magnificence : The Brihadeeswara Temple.

With a history dating back to nearly 2,000 years, this ancient city is situated in one of the most fertile areas in South India, the delta of River Cauvery. Thanjavur has had a chequered past, being ruled by the Cholas, the Nayaks and the Maratha rulers, before coming under the British rule. Legend has it that Thanjavur, also known as Thanjapuri, is named after a demon Tanjan, who was a menace and was therefore annihilated by Goddess Anandavalli Amman and Lord Neelamegaperumal. The dying wish of the demon was that the city should bear his name, which was granted. 

Like all ancient cities of historical significance, Thanjavur and its surrounding areas are home to many temples and monuments. The best example, which perhaps, symbolises the zenith of artistic endeavour is the Brihadeeswara Temple built by the Chola king Rajaraja. Also known as the Big Temple or the Periya Kovil in Tamil, this poetry in stone compels one to search for superlatives to describe its awe-inspiring magnificence.

Enclosed within the walls of a fort, the temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva (Brihadeeswara). The entrance is through a massive tower or gopuram. The first thing to strike the eye is the colossal, monolith stone Nandi (sacred bull), housed in its own enclosure and facing the main deity. Right in the centre of this vast expanse of land is the shrine of Brihadeeshwara.

Typical of Chola architecture, the main sanctum is enclosed within three outer structures, the ardha mandapam, the mukha mandapam and the maha mandapam, each adorned with exquisite stucco sculptures and carved pillars. The various manifestations of Lord Shiva, all the 108 Bharatanatyam dance postures, find expression here. Proceeding through the darkened halls, one’s sense of breathless expectations are not belied as the gigantic lingam of Lord Brihadeeswara comes into view in the soft glow of the oil lamps. Such a contrast to the puny man!

The exterior of the temple carries inscriptions detailing the conquests and donations of the king. But the crowning glory of this temple is the stupendous gopuram or vimanam. Towering to a height of 200 feet, this glorious structure is an amazing   example of not only artistic perfection but of engineering skill also. Surmounted by an octagonal dome resting on a single granite block weighing 81 tons, it is believed that this block was hoisted up an inclined plane, especially built for this purpose, from a spot six km away.

The gopuram is embellished with a metal kalasham, nearly four metres in height. Innumerable stucco carvings adorn the gopuram, making it a rivetting sight. Abutting the southern face of the tower and reached by a flight of 21 steps is the tiny alcove shrine of Lord Dakshinamurthi.

The entire outermost passage (prakaram) on all the three sides of the complex houses 108 Shivalingams with beautiful mural paintings depicting incidents from the lives of the shaivaite saints. To the right of the Nandi is the temple of Goddess Brihannayaki, the  consort of Lord Shiva. Situated within the same precincts are temples to Lord Ganapati, Lord Chandikeshwara and Lord Subrahmanya. Coming out of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, one’s mind goes back to an age where artistic sensibilities created edifices that have stood the test of time.  

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