|Weekly Feature - July 23 1999
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Tradition Meets Technology
Temples of Tamilnadu
Imperial Chola Monuments - Part I (Periya Koyil at Thanjavur)
Thanjavur Chola History Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur
Introduction: Templenet focuses this week on the glorious temples attributedto the reign of Raja Raja Chola and his
successors in the Thanjavur Cauvery belt of South India.
Historically speaking, these temples are not as ancient as the 274 odd Saivite temples and
the 108 Vaishnavite Shrines sung by the Nayanmars and Alwars of the 7th through the 9th
centuries, however they stand out as towering monuments proclaiming the glory of the Chola
regime and its committment to the arts and culture.
This issue zeroes in on the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, Gangaikonda Choleeswarar
Temple in Gangai Konda Cholapuram, the Airavateeswarar Temple in Darasuram and the
Kambahareswarar temple at Tribhuvanam.
Thanjavur: The districts of Thanjavur, Kumbhakonam and Nagappattinam
(constituting the erstwhile Thanjauvr district) boast of hundreds of ancient temples. The
town of Thanjavur was the seat of the glorious Chola Empire of Tamilnadu, and was later on
the seat of the Nayaks and the Marathas. True to art historian Fergusson, the Chola
artists conceived like giants and finished like jewellers.
Chola History: Raja Raja Chola I, was clearly the greatest of the Chola
Monarchs. During his reign (985 - 1014 AD) he brought stability to the Chola Kingdom, and
restored from obscurity the brilliant Tevaram hymns of the Saivite Nayanmars from
obscurity. Raja Raja was a great builder, and the Peruvudaiyar Koyil or the Big Tmeple at
Thanjavur was his creation. His son Rajendra Chola (1014 - 1044 AD) was a greater
conqueror who marched all the way to the banks of the Ganges. This march was commemorated
with a new capital Gangaikonda Cholapuram and another 'Periya Koyil'. Gangai Konda
Cholapuram was the capital of the Cholas for about two centuries, although it is nothing
more than a village now with this rather well maintained magnificient temple. 35
Kilometers from Thanjavur lies Darasuram, once known as Rajarajapuram - a part of the
Chola's secondary capital of Pazhaiyarai. Here is the Airavateeswarar Temple built by Raja
Raja II (1146 - 1173). It was during the reign of Kulottunga III (1178 - 1218) that the
Kambahareswarar temple at Tribhuvanam was built.
These four temples under discussion stand out from the others in Tamilnadu in that, it is
only in these that the Vimanam towers over the entrance Gopurams. After these four
temples, the Cholas went back to their traditional style of building temples with larger
Gopurams and smaller central Vimanams. These temples are fitting memorials to the glory of
the rulers that built them, as well as monuments of piety and a committment to art and
Temple at Thanjavur: A 107 paragraph long
inscription on the walls of the Vimanam records the contributions of Raja Raja Chola and
his sister Kundavai to the Thanjavur temple. The temple stands within a fort, whose walls
are later additions built in the 16th century. The towering vimanam is about 200 feet in
height and is referred to as Dakshina Meru. The octogonal Shikharam rests on a single
block of granite weighing 81 tons. It is believed that this block was carried up a
specially built ramp built from a site 6 kilometeres away from here. Huge Nandis dot the
corners of the Shikharam, and the Kalasam on top by itself is about 3.8 meteres in height.
Hundreds of stucco figures bejewel the Vimanam, although it is possible that some of these
may have been added on during the Maratha period. The Shivalingam - Peruvudaiyar,
Rajarajeswaramudaiyar - is a huge one, set in a two storeyed sanctum, and the walls
surrounding the sanctum delight visitors as a storehouse of murals and sculpture.
The long prakaram surrounds the great temple (500 feet/250 feet), and the walls
surrounding the prakaram again go back to Raja Raja Cholan's period. The walls house long
pillared corridors, which abound in murals, Shiva Lingams and Nandis. The Periya Nayaki
temple within the temple is a later addition from the Pandya period, and so is the
Subramanyar Temple sung later by the Saint poet Arunagirinathar.
Incidents from the lives of the Nayanmars, several of the 108 Bharata Natyam Dance
postures, manifestations of Shiva (Aadalvallaan - Nataraja, Tripurantaka, Dakshinamurthi
etc.) are depicted in sculptured panels or in exquisite Chola murals. Both the interior,
and the exterior walls of the temple, are replete with images of the kind described above.
The sanctum, the ardhamandapam, the mukhamandapam and the Mahamandapam, although distinct,
form a composite unit with an imposing appearance that awes visitors, forcing one to
wonder how such timeless architectural feat was executed about a 1000 years ago. Entrances
to the Mandapams and the towered entrances to the Prakarams are majestic. The grandeur of
the architecture and the sculptural finesse speaks volumes of the skills of the Imperial
Inscriptions refer to Shiva as Dakshina Meru Vitankar and Aadavallan. The Nandi, which
dates back to the Nayak period, is housed in its own mandapam and it matches up to the
grandeur and size of the temple. It is a monolithic Nandi weighing about 25 tonnes, and is
about 12 feet high and 20 feet long.
Visit the featured links for more information on nearby
Visit the other Chola
monuments at Gangai Konda Cholapuram, Darasuram and Tribhuvanam in our next issue.
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