When we travelled through Tamil Nadu state in India last december, we visited the Brihadishvara temple in Tanjavur, devoted to Shiva!
I was immediately blown away by the beauty, size and grandeur of this Hindu temple complex.
Tanjavur was the capital of the Cholas, an empire that ruled much of present-day South India and parts of Sri Lanka from circa 848 until 1279. Their prosperity was largely due to their investment in harnessing water in the Kaveri river bassin for agricultural and irrigation projects, they turned vast areas into cultivable land. They also actively participated in Indian ocean maritime trade. They even extended their influence till Indonesia.
This monument was commissioned and built by the mighty ruler, Rajaraja I of the Chola empire, in the 11th century, 1000 years ago! It took six years to be completed.
You first must enter two impressive gateways, pass the enormous Nandi in stone (one of the largest in South India), climb the stairs of the largest temple and continue through halls with carved pillars. At the far end of this temple you can admire the monumental Shiva Linga at the center of the shrine. The immense pyramidal tower rises in thirteen diminishing levels, topped by a dome structure which rests on a single 7.7 m square granite block of eighty tons, called stupika. How was it raised to such a height? It is believed that a ramp or inclined plane was set ut and a thousand elephants hauled the stone in order to raise it to the top of the tower. Hereupon stands the kalasha, a massive pot-shaped finial made from copper. The gateways are decorated with monolithic dvarapalas or door guardians, some double life-size. The exterior is lined by panels of dance figures depicting eighty-one different dance movements of Shiva.
The temple is built with strong interlocking stones; no mortar or any other binding agent has been used. The basement is filled with sand, the entire structure is built on a moving raft, which helps to absorb frictions of the ground. The surprising factor is also the use of granite, a stone that was not available locally...the heavy granite had to be brought from far way.
The carved inscriptions in the stone base of the temple provide a wealth of information about the conduct of rituals and festivals with the famous bronze images in procession, the allocation of income owned by the temple, and the name of the donors. The temple employed hundreds of people as dancers, priests, attendants, accountants and administrators. It was also a cultural center with performances of dance and music. Almost 400 dancing girls were part of the Hindu worship.
It is believed that the temple has several underground secret passages which connect the temple to other temples of the region. The temple was roughly five times larger than any other similar earlier temples.
Finally this temple had some of the best representations of Chola art, exceptional stone and bronze sculptures, known for their detailed precision and expression, a contribution to the climax of Indian art. One of the most famous was Shiva as a Lord of Dance, Nataraja.