The most magnificent temple in India
Thanjavur (or Tanjore) is a small town in South India. It has more than 74 temples. But it is famous for the imposing Brihadeshwar Temple - the grandest and most magnificent temple in India.
Over two thousand years ago, the Chola kings ruled Thanjavur. Their rule can be divided into two phases - separated by five centuries.
Early Chola Rule
The Chola kings first ruled there between the 1st and the 4th centuries A.D. The most famous early Chola king was Karikala. During the end of the 2nd A.D., he built the Kallanai - commonly known as the Grand Anaicut - a dam across the Cauvery River about 48 km. from Thanjavur.
The dam is 329 metres long and 60 metres wide and made of rocks and stone without any binding material like cement. The dam was built to channelise water from the Cauvery River to the delta regions through canals for irrigation.
The Kallanai has faithfully performed this function to this day! The Kallanai dam is the oldest, surviving, water-diversion structure in the world - which still is in use. The dam is a great engineering marvel and would have easily earned the Chola King Karikala a memorable place in history.
But King Karikala was also a great warrior. He marched north up to the Ganges river defeating all the kings on the way. He conquered the whole of Sri Lanka.
Chola power gradually declined with frequent attacks by the neighbouring Pallava, Chera and Pandyan rulers. The Chola kings faded into insignificance till the end of the 9th century.
Medieval Chola Kings
In 850 A.D., King Vijayalaya defeated the Pallavas, captured Thanjavur and revived the grandeur of the Chola dynasty
Once again, the Cholas rose to prominence. Once more, Thanjavur became a magnificent city - the glorious capital of the medieval Chola kings who ruled from the place for four centuries.
The Chola empire reached its zenith during the reigns of King Rajaraja I (985 -1014 A.D.) and his successor King Rajendra I (1014 - 42 A.D.).
King Rajaraja I conquered Kerala (South India) and parts of northern Sri Lanka. King Rajendra I conquered Sri Lanka and parts of Bengal. His navy conquered parts of Myanmar, Malaya, and Sumatra.
Around the 13th century, the Chola Empire was the most powerful empire in South India. Then decline started. The dynasty ended with the death of King Rajendra III in 1279 A.D.
Thanjavur after the Cholas
Thanjavur was ruled by a succession of petty chiefs who claimed to be descendants of the Cholas. Towards the end of the 14th century, Vijayanagar kings annexed the kingdom and appointed viceroys to manage and administer Thanjavur, as they did in their other states.
In 1535 A.D., Vijayanagar King Achyuta Raya appointed Sevappa Nayak (1535 -1590 A.D.) his Viceroy at Thanjavur. When the Vijayanagar rule collapsed, Sevappa Nayak declared independence and founded the Nayak dynasty.
Thanjavur remained the capital of the Nayaks for one hundred and twenty five years, till Vijayaraghava, the last Nayak prince, perished in a tragic, but heroic, battle with Chokkanatha of Madurai in 1662 A.D.
Vijayaraghava’s General, Alagiri ruled for another fourteen years. The Bijapur King and his general Venkaji, alias Ekoji, the half brother of Shivaji the Great, entered the arena to support the claim of the infant son of Vijayaraghava to the Nayak throne. General Venkaji defeated Alagiri and seized the throne in 1676 A.D.
The Maratha kings ruled for the next one hundred and seventy nine years.The British first entered the area in 1749 A.D. with the excuse to restore the deposed King Saiyaji. In 1758 A.D., the French started petty skirmishes, and occupied parts of the town. In 1773 A.D, the British drove out the French and Thanjavur became a protectorate of the East India Company.
In 1799 A.D., Thanjavur became a British principality. The British gave its ruler Sarafoji II the fort of Thanjavur and some surrounding areas. Sarafoji II’s successor, Sivaji, died in 1855 A.D. without any heir and Thanjavur passed to the British.
Brihadeshwar (or Big) Temple
The Chola kings patronised art and culture. They constructed magnificent temples. Their greatest architectural achievement is the Brihadeshwar Temple - the most magnificent temple in India. Encyclopaedia Britannica has described it as the most beautiful temple of India.
The Brihadeshwar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, was built by King Rajaraja I in the 11th century to celebrate a military victory.
The Temple contains a 8.7 metre high Shivalinga (the phallic form of Lord Shiva) - the grandest in existence - in a two storey sanctum (chamber housing the deity).
The narrow galleries on the first floor encircling the sanctum contain some of the finest original Chola murals and paintings in existence. Some have been covered over by later day paintings. The galleries also contain some beautiful statues and sculptures.
In South Indian temples, the viman (tower on the main sanctuary) is always lower than the gopuram (tower on the gateway). But here, in the Brihadeshwar Temple, the viman is higher than the gopurams. The towering viman rises up towards the clouds and dwarfs the gopuram. The Chola kings built four temples in South India with the vimans higher than the gopurams.
The imposing viman rises majestically to a height of 15 metres and then tapers upwards in thirteen diminishing tiers to a total height of 58 metres. On the topmost tier is the unique cupola carved out from a single block of granite. It has beautiful winged niches on four sides and weighs over 81 tons.
Granite is not found in the surrounding areas. It is not known where this massive granite was brought from. It is believed that this block was carried up a specially built earthwork ramp from a site 6 kilometres away in a manner similar to the method used in constructing the Egyptian pyramids. On the top of the 58 metres viman is a 5 metre high gilded Kalash (pot).
The Brihadeshwar Temple is one of the tallest temples in the world and is so designed that the viman does not cast a shadow at noon during any part of the year. Like all other Chola temples, the Brihadeshwar Temple is a fully carved structure.
The 107 paragraphs inscribed on the walls of the viman record the contributions made to the temple by King Rajaraja, his elder sister Kundavai, his wives and others, and give a precise date of consecration of the temple.
A large courtyard - 250 metres by 85 metres - surrounds the great temple. The walls surrounding the courtyard date back to King Rajaraja’s period. On the inner side of the walls are long pillared corridors, with murals, Shivalingas and Nandis. Several of the statues and murals were added by later rulers.
Originally, the Brihadeshwar Temple was built inside a small fort.
The Great Nandi
Every Hindu God (or Goddess) has a vahan (mount or animal he (or she) rides on). The vahan of Lord Shiva is Nandi (bull). This temple has a massive Nandi facing the main statue. The Nandi is 6 metres long, 2.6 metres broad and 3.7 metres high. It weighs about 25 tons and has been carved out of a single stone which is said to have come from a bed of a Gneiss at the foot of Pachaimalai near Perambalur. Another version says that the stone was brought from the bed of the River Narmada in the north.
Fort and Palace
Two kilometres to the North-East of the temple is a large fort. Part of the fort is in ruins.
In 1550 A.D., the Nayak King Vijay Raghav built a palace in the centre of this fort. Subsequently, the Maratha kings expanded the palace.
On both sides of the palace are two Minars (watch towers). One was used by the King to pay homage and prayer to God Rangaswami. The other was used to observe movements of the enemy.
Parts of the palace are open to the public. I had the pleasure of meeting and having tea with the present King - a soft spoken young descendent of the Maratha King Serfoji II - inside the palace.
Maharaja Serfoji's Saraswati Mahal Library
The Nayaks of Thanjavur (1535 - 1675 A.D.), started and developed “Sarasvati Bhandar” (Collection place of Manuscripts). Maratha rulers developed the “Sarasvati Bhandar” into a Royal Palace Library. The “Sarasvati Bhandar” was situated within the Palace campus till 1855 A.D and the manuscripts were read by the Royalty.
The Maratha King Serfoji II (1798 - 1832) was an eminent scholar with extensive knowledge of various branches of learning. In his early age, he studied under the influence of Rev. Schwartz. He learnt English, French, Italian, Latin, etc. He also took interest in Arts, Science, and Literature.
He took special steps to enrich the Library. When he visited Benares, he employed many Pandits (local scholars) to collect, buy and copy a vast number of works from all renowned Centres of Sanskrit learning in the North and other far-flung areas.
Later, his descendants handed over the library to the Government. It is a fitting tribute to Serfoji that the Library is named after him.
The Maharaja Serfoji's Saraswati Mahal Library of Thanjavur is virtually a treasure trove of knowledge. It contains one of the most extensive collections of oriental manuscripts in India - over 44,000 palm leaf and paper manuscripts in Indian (Sanskrit, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu) and European languages. They include treatises on medicine and commentaries on works from the Sangam period.
There is a museum inside the Library building which has seven sections, such as Ancient Manuscripts, Illustrated Manuscripts, Old books, Printed copies of the Original Drawings, Atlases, Thanjavur style of Paper Paintings, Canvas Paintings, Wooden Paintings, Glass Paintings, Portraits of Thanjavur and Maratha kings, Daniel Paintings, Fraser prints of Indian Scenarios, Punishments of China depicted in picture, Physiognomy Charts of Charles Le-Brun, Bathing Ghats of Benares and other Antiquities. These materials give a glimpse of the rich collections of the Library.
Art Gallery & the Sangeet Mahal (Hall of Music)
The Art Gallery located inside the Palace displays an outstanding collection of 250 Chola Bronze statues and 150 stone statues dating from the 9th to 12th century.
This Sangeet Mahal (Hall of Music) built by Maharaja Serfoji has exemplary acoustic qualities.
Numerous Shrines within the Temple
There are a number of different shrines within the temple - Shrines of Subramanya; Goddess Brihannayagi; Chandeeswara; Ganapati; Karuvurar; etc.
The Chandeeswara shrine is the only one built contemporaneously with the main temple. Others were added later.
The Subramanya shrine is a perfect specimen of carved stone work in the most exquisite, delicate and elaborate patterns, remaining in as perfect condition as on the day it left the sculptor's hands. It was probably constructed by the Nayaks around 600 A.D. The walls of the pillared Mandapam, decorated with the portraits of the Maratha rulers, clearly show that these were added by the Marathas.
During the reign of the Maratha kings during the 16th century, artists of Thanjavur developed a unique style of painting which is now known as Thanjavur School of Painting.
A typical Thanjavur painting would contain the figure of a main deity, with well-rounded body and almond shaped eyes. This figure would be framed - in an arch, curtain, etc.
The original paintings were done on wood, glass, mica; even on such exotic media as ivory, murals and manuscripts. The paintings would be bright and colourful and breathtakingly beautiful. The paintings would seem to glow in a darkened room. Most of the original paintings depicted Child Krishna and his various playful pranks. Over the course of time, other deities have come to be depicted.
The paintings were made by the gilded and gem-set technique - a technique wherein gold leaves and precious and semi-precious stones were used to decorate the ornaments and dresses in the painting. The early paintings were embedded with real diamonds, rubies and other precious stones. Modern artists use semi-precious and artificial stones.
Over the years, there have been drastic changes in the stylization. The figures are no longer round. Presiding deities of various famous temples are increasingly depicted in the paintings. Now the technique is more in use than the style.
The five century old traditional style of Thanjavur painting has been kept alive by a few hundred artists mostly based in Tamil Nadu, India. Connoisseurs of art love to purchase these paintings in Thanjavur.
A few original Thanjavur paintings can be seen in the Saraswathi Mahal Library. In addition to these unique paintings, Thanjavur is also famous for its bronze sculptures, pith models, exquisite handicrafts and South Indian musical instruments.
Brihadeshwar Temple is an architectural wonder
The Brihadeshwar Temple is a well planned, meticulously executed, composite piece of temple architecture at its best.
Fergusson has written that in nine cases out of ten, the Dravidian temples were the fortuitous aggregation of parts arranged without a plan. But one great exception to this rule is Tanjore where the temple was commenced on a well-defined stately plan which was preserved till its completion.
The Brihadeshwar Temple is an architectural wonder and is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.
Where to Stay
Accommodation to suit all categories of tourists and visitors are available in the hotels, dharmasalas and lodges in Thanjavur.
Chennai (334 kms)
Trichy (54 kms)
Trichy (54 km.)
Tanjore is well connected by road to other towns in the state.
The most convenient train is the Rockfort Express from Chennai.
There are several trains from Chennai to Trichy.
From there, you can travel by road.