ONE thousand years ago, the great emperor of Chola dynasty, Raja Raja-I built a majestic temple for Lord Shiva in Thanjavur (Tanjore), Tamil Nadu. Called Peruvuidayar Kovil, or Brihadeeswarar Temple, or sometimes Rajarajeswaram it is on rolls of the UNESCO heritage sites as part of the circuit called “Great Living Chola Temples”. The Tamil Nadu government recently organised a grand function, spanning over five days, to celebrate the millennium of its consecration. A scintillating Bharatnatyam recital by 1,000 artistes, led by eminent danseuse Padma Subrahmanyam, took the cream of the cake. A host of events including exhibitions, cultural shows, seminars and deliberations were also organised to mark the occasion.
Tamil Nadu remains as the wonderful resort of classical India whether it is temple architecture, dance, vocal or instrumental music. It hosts the oldest living temples in India, which remained unaffected by iconoclasm of Turks, Mughals and Bahmani invaders. Temples in ancient India were not merely centres of religion, but also art, culture, literature and vocational training. The Brihadeeswarar Temple stands as a reminder to our great culture, art, architecture, religion and language. It is also a symbol of the great wealth and prowess of Chola dynasty, which expanded its empire on Indian Ocean.
The construction of this ‘Big Temple’ begun in 1003 AD and was completed in six years before being consecrated in 1010 AD. The unique archaeological feature of the temple is its Vimana (temple tower) standing 216 feet tall. The summit stone weighing about eighty tons was dragged on to the top through a slope path from a distant Village, called ‘Sarapallam’. It rises over the sanctum, on a square base about a hundred feet, dominates the whole structure. Its shadow never falls on the ground.
The valiant king Raja Raja-I, who reigned between 985 and 1014 AD, was renowned for land and naval conquests. He found peace at the feet of Lord Shiva. The construction of Brihadeeshwara temple coincides with a visible shift in his policies from military expansion to internal administration. But here is a lesson for us. Neither he, nor his illustrious son Rajendra I (who built the famous Shiva temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram similar in design to Brihadeeshwara temple) neglected external and internal security unlike some people, who weakened the martial spirit of India through.
The distinct feature of Brihadeeshwara temple is magnificent monolith Nandi bull, the mount of Lord Shiva, facing the temple tower. The shrine of goddess Brihanayaki, Ganapati, Subrmanya, Dakshinamurty, Nataraja are finely carved. The corridor surrounding the sanctum is a treasure chest of Chola painting and sculpture. The walls of this cave-like corridor were plastered with lime and used as a large canvas for the paintings.
The paintings, which have survived time and a seventeenth century coat of paint, are very beautiful in detail and colour and accuracy.
The story of Sundaramurthy Nayanar reaching Kailash on a white elephant is depicted on another wall. Karuvur Thevar, the Guru of Raja Raja is portrayed in an impressive manner. While the sculptures of Shiva in this corridor are imposing and colossal, the series of eighty one dance poses are superb illustrations of the Natya Sastra.
There is an interesting and popular story about the deep personal interest that the King evinced in the construction of the temple. It is said that one day, when the chief sculptor was deeply absorbed in chiseling the huge Nandi, King Raja Raja Chola went and stood by his side. The sculptor, thinking that it was his boy attendent standing by his side ordered him to prepare a pan (betel leaf with araca nut and lime). The king calmly obliged, folded a couple of betel leaves and handed it over to the sculptor who received it without seeing the hands that supplied them. Chewing the pan in his mouth, the sculptor started uttering words of praise, appreciating the king who planned this unique monument. Later he asked his attendant to bring the spitton near him. The king silently obeyed. When the sculptor raised his head after spitting the chewed betel leaves, he was terribly shocked to see the great Raja Raja Chola standing in front of him. Immediately he touched the feet of the king with tears and made an apology to the emperor, in a voice choked with emotion. The king, with a smiling face, lifted him up and consoled him by telling that it was a rare privilege for him to serve the sculptor whose hands chiseled the sculptures of the magnificent temple. Raja Raja Chola, though a worshiper of Shiva, at the same time, was tolerant to other religions.
He endowed and built temple of Maha Vishnu. He granted a village to the Buddhist Vihara at Nagappattinam. The Brihadeeswara temple was not an act of royal fancy. It is iconic of the glory of Tamil Saiva Siddhanta. Amongst two principal schools of Bhakti cult prevalent in South India, Saivism has a larger following.
In Tamil districts of Sri Lanka Saivism holds unchallenged sway. In Saiva Siddhanta Shiva is believed to exercise the functions of creation, protection, destruction, prevention from lapses is the result of enjoyment of one’s action and beneficent action. These functions He is said to discharge with a view to release the struggling souls from the bondage of karma, and present unto them the ultimate knowledge of Shiva. The goal of individual souls is to realise that it is made of Shiva-Tatva (element of Shiva), and though not merging in Shiva, remain at its feet like beloved child. The icon of Lord Nataraja is most symbolic of Saiva Siddhanta. Temple worship is an indispensable part of Saiva Siddhanta. That might explain why Tamilians have an image of orthodox and scrupulous temple goers.
Raja Raja Chola’s period was one of height of Saivism. This had been made possible by the surge of Shiva devotion brought by Nayanar saints in previous centuries. The heart melting hymns (Devaram) to Lord Shiva by Sambandar, Appar and Sundaramurthy as well as Manikkavasagar in the 9th century who wrote Tiruvasagam are worth hearing. They, in reality, were the pioneers of Bhakti movement that later swept across other parts of India in the medieval age.
He was an extra ordinarily powerful king and a grand monrch of southern India. His army crossed the ocean by ships and conquered many islands. His was a versatile personality. It is a matter of pride that Tanjore temple attracted the appreciation of UNESCO for its art and architecture. Brihadeeswara Temple, is the shining jewel in the crown of Bharatmata. No doubt, it is, Tamil Nadu’s contribution to the pride of India. Let us all celebrate this one thousand years architectural wonder.