Chola Splendour

Print edition : July 02, 2010

The 1,000-year-old Rajarajesvaram temple with its towering vimana.-D. KRISHNAN

THE first sight that greets a visitor to Thanjavur is the majestic vimana (the tower above a temple's sanctum sanctorum) of the Rajarajesvaram temple. The vimana and the gopurams (towers above the gateway) soaring skyward add to the temple's resplendent glory in the early morning sun.

A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Monument, the 1,000-year-old temple is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. Although it was originally called Rajarajesvaramudaiyar temple, it came to be known as Brihadisvara (brihan in Sanskrit means big), or the Big Temple, during the Nayaka and Maratta rule because of the gigantic proportions of its vimana, linga, Nandi (sacred bull) and dvarapalas (doorkeepers).

Exactly 1,000 years ago, emperor Rajaraja Chola I, the greatest monarch of the Chola dynasty, ordered the building of the imperial monument of Rajarajesvaram. It was on the 275th day of his 25thregnal year (1010) that Rajaraja Chola (who ruled from 985-1014 Common Era) handed over a gold-plated kalasam (copper pot or finial) to crown the vimana. An inscription in Tamil in the temple talks about the handing over of the pot.

The two gateways, with the Keralantakan Tiruvaasal in the foreground and the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal behind it.-D. KRISHNAN

Surprisingly, the 59.82-metre vimana is hollow in the interior. It is the tallest vimana ever built and has 13 receding tiers. It is an architectural marvel built of interlocking stones.

The Rajarajesvaram temple is dedicated to Siva, and the main deity is a massive cylindrical linga in a double-walled, box-like sanctum. The monolithic linga is 1.66 m in diameter and is mounted on an Avudaiyar ( yoni-pitha), which is 5.25 m in diameter. The linga rises to a height of two storeys.

The Dakshina Meru created on the vimana shows Siva and Parvati seated on a mountain with their sons and boothganas in attendance. The vimana with its 13 receding tiers looks like the mythical Maha Meru mountain.-D. KRISHNAN

The beautifully carved Nandi is of epic proportions. It is 3.66 m in height, 5.94 m in length and 2.59 m in breadth.

Many books and monographs have been written on the temple's grandeur. The historian K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, in his book The Colas (Volume I), calls the Rajarajesvaram temple the finest monument of a splendid period in south Indian history and the most beautiful specimen of Tamil architecture at its best remarkable alike for its stupendous proportions and simplicity of its design.

The art historian C. Sivaramamurti assesses it thus: As the Chola's most ambitious architectural enterprise, the Brihadisvara temple is a fitting symbol of Rajaraja's magnificent achievements.

Nandi, the sacred bull of Siva, in the temple.-BVNCBNBNMB

S.R. Balasubrahmanyam in his book Middle Chola Temples A.D. 985-1070 (Thomson Press, 1975) calls the Rajarajesvaram the grandest of the Chola monuments and a devalaya chakravarti (an emperor among temples). About the temple's vimana, Balasubrahmanyam says: The gradual upward sweep of the vimana towards the sky is breathtaking. The srivimana is pyramidical in form and not curvilinear. The 25-tonne cupola-shaped shikhara and the golden (no longer so) stupi give a fitting crown to an all-stone edifice, which is a marvel of engineering skill unparalleled by any structure anywhere in India built during that period. It is the grandest achievement of Indian craftsmen.

Balasubrahmanyam's son, B. Venkataraman, in his book Rajarajesvaram, the Pinnacle of Chola Art, calls Rajaraja an astute politician, a military genius and a great administrator. He adds: When one tries to recall the reign of Rajaraja, it is not his wars of conquest, not his naval expeditions, not his revenue administration nor his military strength that come first to one's mind. It is the magnificent Siva temple, the Rajarajesvaram, he had built at the Chola capital, Tanjavur, which stands to this day as a finished memorial to the grandeur of his rule.

The temple continues to fascinate both the serious researcher and the layperson. It is a virtual gallery of inscriptions, sculptures, frescoes, dance panels, bronzes, and so on. The entire history of how the temple came to be built is available in the inscriptions.

As R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, says, This is the only temple in the whole of India where the king specifically mentions in an inscription that he built this all-stone temple. The king uses the word katrali kal and thali in Tamil mean a temple built of stone. This epic inscription, running to 107 paragraphs, describes how Rajaraja Chola, seated in the royal bathing hall on the eastern side of his palace, ordered that it be inscribed on the base of the temple's vimana, how he followed through with his temple plan, a list of the gifts that he, his sister (em akkan) Kundavai, his queens and others gave the temple, and so on.

Nagaswamy, who has authored several books and monographs on the Rajarajesvaram temple, calls this inscription a fantastic order. He explains: It reveals the clarity of mind with which Rajaraja Chola did everything. A careful study of all the inscriptions in the temple shows that Rajaraja Chola had a great administrative and aesthetic sense. The only other king who revealed his mind through his inscriptions or edicts is Asoka Maurya of the third century B.C. The inscriptions in the Rajarajesvaram temple encompass all activities of Rajaraja Chola's kingdom the administrative machinery, economic transactions, survey of lands, irrigation system, taxation, accounting, organisation of a huge army, rituals, music, dance, the king's fondness for Tamil and Sanskrit literature, and so on. They also show that he had defined and classified the duties, responsibilities, qualifications and service tenure of each functionary of the temple.

A karana panel in the upper ambulatory passage of the sanctum.-D. KRISHNAN

The inscriptions provide interesting information on drummers, tailors, physicians, surgeons, carriers of flags and parasols during festivals, torch-bearers, cleaners and sweepers. The temple had singers of Tamil hymns (called Devaram) and Sanskrit hymns, and a large number of vocal and instrumental musicians. It had on its rolls 400 accomplished danseuses called talippendir to perform dances during daily temple rituals and in festival processions.

Thanjavur's history

The earliest reference to Thanjavur occurs in a sixth century C.E. inscription on the Rock Fort in Tiruchi town, about 45 kilometres away. The inscribed text calls it Thanjaharaha, that is, one who captured Thanjavur, but it does not say who captured it. Subsequently, the Thanjavur region came under the sway of Mutharaiyars, and its rulers included Perumbidugu Mutharaiyar alias Kuvavan Maran, and Suvan Maran. The town and its outskirts were probably under the control of the Pallavas in the seventh and eighth century C.E. This is evident from a fragmentary inscription of the Pallava king Dantivarman dating back to 800 C.E. and built into the front mantapa wall of the Rajarajesvaram. This inscription was a later-day addition, for the front mantapa built by Rajaraja Chola was an open one and it was later converted into a closed mantapa by the Nayaka rulers.

The hollow interior of the vimana, a view from below. Built of interlocking stones without any binding material, the vimana has not developed a crack or tilted even a few centimetres in all these years despite six earthquakes.-M. SRINATH

Vijayalaya Chola (who ruled from 850 to 871 C.E.) captured Thanjavur from Ko-Ilango Muthariyar around 850 C.E., which led to the founding of the Imperial Chola empire. Vijayalaya built a temple for goddess Nisumbasudani in Thanjavur, and she is still worshipped under the name of Vadabadrakalai, near the eastern gate of the present-day town.

The discovery of an 85 copper-plate charter of Rajendra Chola I (who ruled from 1014 to 1044 C.E.) at Tiruindalur, near Mayiladuthurai, in May this year provided for the first time valuable details about the capture of Thanjavur by Vijayalaya.

Down the Imperial Chola line, Rajaraja Chola I built the Rajarajesvaram, or the Great Temple. The temple faces east. It was built in accordance with the Makuda Agama Sastra. The chief architect-sculptor of the temple complex was Veera Chola Kunjara Mallan alias Rajaraja Perunthatchan. The deputy chief architect was Kunavan Madurantakan alias Nitha Vinodha Perunthatchan.

A similar view of the hollow interior of the gopuram of Rajarajan Tiruvaasal.-D. KRISHNAN

Pierre Pichard, the architectural historian, who has done a detailed study of the measurements of both the elevation and plan of the Rajarajesvaram, says in his work Tanjavur Brhadisvara, An Architectural Study (published in 1995 by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi) that meticulous pre-planning went into the layout of the entire temple complex and the articulation of its various architectural embellishments.

The basic unit of the temple's layout, says Nagaswamy, was taken from the main deity, the linga itself. The inner sanctum, the height of the vimana, the intermediate space between the vimana and the cloistered enclosure (Sri Krishnan Tiruchuttru Maaligai), and the distance to the two gateways called Keralantakan Tiruvaasal and Rajarajan Tiruvaasal were all proportionate to the linga in a remarkable way. For instance, the height of the vimana is exactly twice the width of the outer base of the adhistana (plinth) of the sanctum. Nagaswamy says: The mathematical calculations were advanced to a great extent at the time of Rajaraja Chola.

Saraswati sculpted on the outer wall of the sanctum.-D. KRISHNAN

The temple's outer gateway topped by a gopuram was called Keralantakan Tiruvaasal to commemorate Rajaraja Chola's conquest of the Chera country. While the lower portion of Keralantakan Tiruvaasal is built of stone, the superstructure is built of brick and mortar. This is a fine example of a multi-storeyed brick structure erected in Rajaraja Chola's time. The stucco figures on the gopuram were redone in the 19th century during the Maratta rule.

Some distance away is the next gateway called the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal, which has a tall gopuram too. The gateway is guarded by two huge, awe-inspiring dvarapalas, six metres tall and sculpted out of single blocks of stone. The dvarapala on the southern flank is portrayed differently. He rests his right leg on his club ( gada), which is entwined by three coils of a python, which is in the act of swallowing an elephant.

The huge dvarapala at the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal holding a club that is entwined by a python, which is swallowing an elephant.-

A paper titled The Peruvudaiyar (Brihadisvara) Temple, Tanjavur: A Study, by the late K.R. Srinivasan, who retired as Deputy Director-General of the ASI, explains that the great silpacharya who designed and constructed the Rajarajesvaram had made use of vyangya, or implied suggestion ( kuripporul in Tamil), in sculpting this imposing dvarapala.

Srinivasan says: If the elephant is enlarged in one's mind to its real life size, the size of the python that can swallow one such would be suggested as the next step in the mental visualisation. And if such an enormous python could entwine the club only by three coils from head to tail, the magnitude of such a club could be imagined next, and from it the enormous stature and strength of the colossal doorkeeper who can wield such a gada, and from his size, the mental concept of the magnitude of the linga (deity) in the sanctum which he guards, from which again, the ultimate size of the vimana which can enshrine such a colossal linga, a size that would ultimately transcend the limits of mental conception.

The bas-relief panel on the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal depicting Arjuna's penance to obtain the Pasupata weapon from Siva. The sculpture showing Arjuna standing on one leg with hands clasped above his head has an uncanny resemblance to the Arjuna's Penance bas-relief at Mamallapuram near Chennai.-D. KRISHNAN

The base of the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal has superb bas-reliefs narrating the story of Arjuna's penance to receive the Pasupata weapon from Siva; the wedding of Siva and Parvati; the legend of Kalasamharamurti (the story of Markandeya), and so on. Interestingly, the Arjuna's Penance here bears an uncanny resemblance to the one in the huge bas-relief at Mamallapuram near Chennai.

The temple complex measures about 240 m east to west in length and about 120 m north to the south in breadth. It consists of the sanctum with the linga, the vimana towering over the sanctum, the ardha mantapa in front of the sanctum, the maha mantapa before it and then the mukha mantapa. Then comes the seated Nandi inside a mantapa built by the Nayaka rulers.

Sculpture of the temple's creator Raja Raja Chola (second from left) worshipping Nataraja.-M. SRINATH

There is a courtyard running all around. On its south-eastern side is a shrine for Ganesa, and on its northern side are shrines for Chandikesvara, Amman and Subrahmanya. There is a modern-day shrine for Varahi on the southern side. Around the courtyard runs a cloistered enclosure named after Krishnan Raman, Rajaraja Chola's Minister-General.

In the niches of the outer walls of the sanctum are life-size sculptures of Siva in his various forms as Bhikshatana, Virabhadra, Vishnu Anugrahamurti, Harihara, Ardhanarisvara, Nataraja in Anandatandava, Chandrasekara, and Uma-Mahesvara. There is an exquisite sculpture of him in Lingodbhava on the western wall.

Two bas-reliefs of the Buddha, seated under a tree and standing under a tree, in the episode dealing with Siva as Tripurantaka, found on the side wall of the steps leading to the temple.-M. SRINATH

Although the Thanjavur region has no hills or rocky outcrop, the temple complex was built of stone. Which means that huge rocks of stone were quarried from Mammalai near Tiruchi and hauled to the site. Pichard estimates that the vimana alone has utilised 17,000 cubic metres of masonry. The entire temple complex with its vast enclosure and two gateways amounted to almost 50,000 cubic metres, which is 130,000 tonnes of granite.

T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, said the temple's architects paid special attention to the selection of its site, the preparation of drawings (of the plan and elevation) and selection of materials including stones of different varieties. For the vimana, they chose charnokite from Mammalai. Massive stone sculptures were made at Pachchamalai region, near Tiruchi. A huge stone from Tiruvakkarai (near Tindivanam) was selected for the linga.

The key inscription on the base of the vimana where Rajaraja Chola says he built the stone temple and records the gifts that he, his sister, his queens and others gave the temple.-D. KRISHNAN

The vimana has not developed even a minor crack in all these years. In order to achieve stability, architects of the 13-tiered vimana had positioned it on another two-tiered double-walled plinth. Each of the lower two tiers of the vimana has a pradakshina pada (corridor) running all round with an inner and outer wall. The inner and outer walls of this corridor have a 1.5-m wide masonry wall, made of brick and mortar, running between them. The 13 tiers have stones stacked up with perfect balance and equilibrium. No binding material is used, and they are made to stand on their weight.

The wonder is that the vimana has withstood six recorded earthquakes in 1807, 1816, 1866, 1823, 1864 and 1900, Satyamurthy said.

R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, pointing to a 10-foot-tall inscription in Tamil at the entrance of Rajarajan Tiruvaasal, which deals with the festivals conducted in the temple.-D. KRISHNAN

No wonder Pichard called the vimana an architectural audacity.

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