Big Temple at Thanjavur

An enigma and few unanswered questions

12 JANUARY 2017,
The Big Temple at Thanjavur
The Big Temple at Thanjavur

After collecting my notes at hotel reception at Trichy, I left for Central Bus Stand. There are very frequent buses to Thanjavur which take about hour and fifteen minutes to reach. Though, there was an option of hiring the cab also, I preferred to explore the bus which I generally do unless there is paucity of time. It gives you an opportunity to explore and feel the new place with a different lens. Bus dropped me at New Bus Stand at Thanjavur which is located on city outskirts. There is a direct local bus which touches Brihadeshwara temple on route to local bus stand. The temple is also called as Raja Rajeswara temple or The Big Temple. There are plenty of autos also available which will charge anything between Rs.150-250.

When I had started from the hotel in the morning, I was expecting to see a temple like the ones I had already seen at various places in southern India though a little taller as compared to others. Indeed, I was expecting to see complex artisan work but what I saw was so impressive and daunting that it was completely beyond my imagination. Though I had seen the pictures of the temple but they did not do the justice with the magnitude as well as the complexity of the structure. The huge sprawling campus with sculptures all around the campus, small replica alongside the main sanctorum and off course the perfectly well maintained interiors left me astounded. The beauty, architectural brilliance and the magnitude of the temple did put me in a tricky situation whereby if I have to rank between Taj Mahal and the Big Temple, It will be very difficult for me to rank them against each other. On my scale, both of them will be at par.

The type of work that has been carried out in the temple which still survives after 1000 years left me wondering as if there is something that our generation is missing about that era. How such a huge complex & complicated structure could be built without the help of many modern tools and techniques that we see being used during the construction these days. Did the engineers and architects of that era possess better tools which we are not aware of? or simply put, was there something which has been lost or have been destroyed with the passage of time. I cannot imagine a structure like Big Temple having been built without the aid of engineering and architectural tools and techniques. This is a big puzzle which I am sure will take years for historians to resolve. May be they have already resolved this but I may not have read it yet.

Brief History of Temple

The Big Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was constructed by Chola King Rajaraja Chola 1 during his reign from 985-1012 A.D. The temple took about 15 years to complete and is an example of unique Chola architecture. UNESCO has declared it as a World Heritage Monument. As compared to other temples of south India, one thing that is different in this temple is high temple tower and the smaller entry gates (gopurams) while in other temples it is other way round with high entry gates and smaller temple tower. The temple tower is about 65 meters tall with a huge dome on the top which is said to weigh about 80 ton.

The temple is one another perfect living example of extreme engineering and architectural skills of that era and especially of the Cholas Empire. To add, Chola Empire built many temples spread across south East Asia and many of them are located around Thanjavur. Though I would not like to compare but can say that Halebeedu and Belur temples in Karnataka are in similar category if you want to look at fine artisan work that is on display on walls and inside the temple complex.

The fresco technique has been used to make paintings on the inside walls of the Big temple. The dome of the vimanam comprises monolithic cupola made out of granite rock weighing about 80 ton. There is very interesting story around the way cupola was installed. A 6 kilometer long inclined road which was used with the help of elephants to push it to the top. After installation, the road was removed and today you cannot find even a single strand or indicator about the existence of the road. A monolithic Nandi stands in front of the sanctum. It is the second largest Nandi in India and measures 5.94 meters in length, 2.51 meters in breadth and 3.66 meters in height. The construction of temple was completed in year 1010 AD and it completed 1000 years in 2010. At that time, there were millennium celebrations around town.

Reaching Thanjavur

Thanjavur is well connected with train and bus service from Bangalore and Chennai, the 2 big cities nearby. The nearest international airports are Trichy and Madurai which are about 60 kms and 170 kms away respectively. Both the airports are connected with direct flight from Singapore, Chennai, Mumbai, Colombo, Dubai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru.