Thanjavur Big Temple-Some lesser known facts

The Brihadeeswara Temple THanjavur

It was a Saturday evening. Seemed a sunny perfect day  for a visit to the World Heritage Monument, the Brihadeeswarar temple at Tanjore. Although we have visited this UNESCO World Heritage monument earlier, it’s like always seeing for the first time.  To see and absorb effectively one needs 1000 eyes!

Such is the grandeur.

Going past the intricately sculpted gateways we stopped to absorb the holiday atmosphere. The place was teeming with people clicking away pictures from all angles.

The Magnificent entrance to Big temple Thanjavur


We climbed up one flight of stairs adjacent to the GarbaGriham to reach the circumambulatory passage above the massive Shiva Lingam. There was a proper staircase, though steep for the elderly, took us up to the terrace. It was a beautiful sight to see the main tower up close and also see the rest of the complex at that height.

We went in and stopped at a point. (if we stepped in further we would be standing right above the magnificent Brihadeeshwarar lingam). The intense magnetic vibration which the huge Shiva Lingam right below us was emitting was almost palpable. It was a bare floor with the roof going high up in a conical form. When Raja Raja Chola built it, the floor wasn’t there. It was just hollow space above the massive lingam,  reaching several feet above as tapering squares built with geometric precision. With the help of a torch we were able to see the top of the hollow space beautifully constructed.

 Raja Raja’s  wives as well as his court dancers used to stand at the edge and shower flowers on the Lingam from above during the daily Pooja rituals. The Nayak kings built the floor years later, apparently to avoid bird droppings falling on the shiva lingam.

Om Nama Shivaya! When chanted loudly, the resulting echo due to the conical hollow space above, hushed us into an awed silence.

Then we went around the corridor surrounding the upper chamber of the main sanctum. 81 panels of the 108 Karanas or the dance poses of the Bharathnatyam  were sculpted beautifully. The 27 panels were left empty. The reason was probably his son, Rajendra Chola had already embarked on a mission to build the Gangai Konda Cholapuram temple and requested the skilled sculptors from the Big Temple to go there to commence the temple work. The sculptors had obviously placed the Karana panels first and then began sculpting. The paintings above the panels were all faded and we could see only traces of colours. Each karana or dance pose was labeled by the ASI.

Some Facts we gathered which may not be widely known:

  1. The towering vimana has the sculpture of Mount Kailash, specifically built for devotees who will be unable to visit Kailash. They can worship from Dakshina Meru.
  2. The Tiruvadigai Veerattanam temple, built by Parameswara Pallava, served as another main reference point for Raja Raja. The main shrine of Brihadiswara is built in the Analpita style — from ground floor and for Tier 1. The Pallava architecture was improved by Raja Raja in several ways. Analpitam is gharbagriha (sanctum sanctorum) with two walls, which have a gap in between, called alindam . In Arpitam, the wall is not detached.
  3. Raja Raja visited Kanchi Kailasanatha temple several times. Inscriptions about four of them, dating to his 12th and 15th regnal years, are available. An overawed Raja Raja calls the structure Kanchipurathu Periya Tirukkatrali (the big stone temples of Kanchipuram).
  4. There are 252 Shiva Lingas inside the complex and there are 1008 Nandis including the Giant Nandi installed by the Nayak Dynasty.
  5. The main Shiva Lingam is 18 feet in height with 5 feet under the ground. The Vimana is 216 feet tall. The 80 ton Kalasam rolled in place from a village nearby usng planks is now considered a Myth.
  6. The Big temple took only 7 years to build and the foundation was only 6 feet.
  7. The stones were brought in from the Pudukottai and Trichy districts by elephants.
  8. The main idol was installed and then the temple constructed around. This is being refuted by some historians that there is evidence to prove this.
  9. Traveller Marco Polo’s sculpture was added during the 12th Century.

10. The inscriptions are in several languages and each line goes around the wall of the temple, and there is no punctuation.

Inscriptions Big temple

11. Rain water harvesting was done very effectively and the temple never was flooded as water channels were built which sent the excess water to feed 7 lakes in Thanjavur. Sadly only 3 lakes remain, the rest are now concrete jungles.

12. The Kalasam holds 80 kgs of Varagu Arisi (and not paddy as people normally think) Millets were more commonly eaten by the masses during the chola reign. If ever a famine struck the seeds would be used to sow the lands.

Kalasam Big temple

13. The place just below Kalasam is so wide that a bullock cart can go around.. It currently houses nandhi in all corners – almost 5 3/4 ft high each.

14. The Kala Bhairavar statue in front of the Sanctum santorum is the custodian of the temple. Even today when the temples are locked the keys are placed at the foot of that statue.

15. The original Nandi built by Raja Raja is housed on the left side near the Varahi Amman sannidhi. The Nayaks felt that for such a huge Shiva Lingam the Vahana has to be bigger, so they installed the current magnificient Nandi.

16. The Big temple was built only using the technology of interlocking stones and no binding agents.

17. Kunjara Mallan Raja Raja Perunthachan was the architect of the temple and built with the blessings of Raja Raja’s Guru Karuvur Thevar (there is a separate sannidhi for the Guru)

18. As the Brihadisvara temple has been made to represent the body of Lord Siva, the Cosmic Dancer, the space above the linga is invoked as the supreme akasa (theatre) where His dance takes place. This is why the karanas have been depicted on the upper floor walls of the garbagrha, a most unusual location, to commemorate not just the origin of Bharatanatyam (an art form of which Rajaraja was a great patron), but of creation itself. Further, the karanas find repeated mention in most of the Agamas as part of the temple rituals, emphasising their importance. Courtesy:

19. The Subramanya temple within the complex built during the Nayak period is built on a raised chariot like structure, the outer walls are of lighter coloured granite but the idols are in polished black granite, a beautiful contrast.


Fascinating and lesser known facts about the Thanjavur Big Temple by Prof Madhusadanan Kalaiselvan. 





Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *