Monday, November 21, 2011

Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur (Tanjore)

The Big Temple at Tanjore - correctly and properly known as the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur, is one of the most famous of all temples devoted to Lord Siva - the great Lord (brihad = great; eeswara = lord). It is also recognized as a World Heritage site by the United Nations. It therefore tends to attract a fair number of foreign tourists from around the world.

This temple completed 1000 years of completion. Yes, that is 1 followed by three zeroes. The temple was completed in 1010 CE - imagine the fanfare with which people would have tweeted the symmetry of the year, and there would have been polls on Facebook to debate whether the temple should be inaugurated by the King on the 10th of October, so that the date would read 10.10.1010.

Sometimes temple history is clouded in confusion and doubt. Not so in the case of the Thanjavur Big Temple. Thanks to extant inscriptions carved on the walls, we know the temple was completed exactly 25 years and 275 days after Raja Raja's ascension in 985 CE. [Temples Of South India by Ambujam Anantharaman]

From the UNESCO site, the following is listed as the justification for the inclusion of the temple in the World Heritage List:
Justification for Inscription
Criterion (i): The three Chola temples of Southern India represent an outstanding creative achievement in the architectural conception of the pure form of the dravida type of temple.
Criterion (ii): The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur became the first great example of the Chola temples, followed by a development of which the other two properties also bear witness.
Criterion (iii): The three Great Chola Temples are an exceptional and the most outstanding testimony to the development of the architecture of the Chola Empire and the Tamil civilisation in Southern India.
Criterion (iv): The Great Chola temples at Thanjavur, at Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram are outstanding examples of the architecture and the representation of the Chola ideology.

The placque at the temple entrance in available in English, Hindi, and Tamil.

Temples tend to have the obligatory elephant and throng of devotees waiting to get blessed by the elephant's trunk. All for a nominal payment of a rupee or two to the mahout. Or deposited to the elephant's trunk, which then makes it way to the mahout.

The vimanam marks out this temple as unique from the architectural point of view. In most temples in south India, for that matter in India, the temple gopuram (pyramidal tower at the entrance to the temple) is bigger than the vimanam. At the Srirangam Ranganatha temple and the Srivillputhur Vatapatrasayee temples, for instance, the gopuram is magnifient, while at Thanjavur and in three other temples built by Chola kings, the vimanam dominates.
The dimensions of the vimaanam in Thanjavur clearly indicate the ingenuity and skill of Chola architects. Its 13 tiers are totally 58 m tall. The square base of 29  supports the octagon-shaped shikara (cupolic dome). This dome that weighs 81 tonnes rests on a single block of granite, which is a square of 7.8m.  [Temples Of South India by Ambujam Anantharaman]

The best time to visit the temple is in the early hours of the morning or after 4PM, when the sun is shining a little less intensely, the light is softer, and the ground walkable with your bare feet.

What is fascinating, among so many other aspects of this temple, is that the Chola dynasty, that built this temple, ruled over South India and large parts of India and South East Asia, and held sway for over a thousand years, making it surely one of the longest lasting dynasties in the world. Even the vaunted Mughals could not hold on to power for more than a few hundred years. By the time the eighteenth century dawned, the empire was a pale shadow of itself.

Chola dynasty - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Chola dynasty (Tamilசோழர் [ˈt͡ʃoːɻə]) was a Tamil dynasty which was one of the longest-ruling in some parts of southern India. The earliest datable references to this Tamil dynasty are in inscriptions from the 3rd century BC left by Asoka, of Maurya Empire; the dynasty continued to govern over varying territory until the 13th century AD.
During the period 1010–1200, the Chola territories stretched from the islands of the Maldives in the south to as far north as the banks of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh.[6] Rajaraja Chola conquered peninsular South India, annexed parts of what is now Sri Lanka and occupied the islands of the Maldives.[4] Rajendra Chola sent a victorious expedition to North India that touched the river Ganges and defeated the Pala ruler of PataliputraMahipala. He also successfully invaded kingdoms of the Malay Archipelago.[7][8] The Chola dynasty went into decline at the beginning of the 13th century with the rise of the Pandyas, who ultimately caused their downfall.[9][10][11]

You will find a fair number of foreign tourists at this temple. This is not surprising, considering its World Heritage Site tag. However, despite this, the infrastructure for tourists - domestic as well as foreign - is not upto the mark. The hotels are mostly old and of the three-star variety. The staff is courteous and helpful, and the rooms themselves were clean - in the hotel we stayed at - but not where you would want to stay back for a day and lounge in the hotel. No. These hotels are strictly utilitarian. Not luxury.

The second is the pretty dismal state of parking facilities at the temple itself. There is but one small parking lot opposite the temple's entrance, which has one entry that also serves as the exit. It is not asphalted, and no parking slots are marked, leading to cars and other vehicles parking in a fairly haphazard manner. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that someone will not park their vehicle in a manner that makes it impossible for you to get your car out. That can happen - take a look at the parking lot to decide for yourself. These are small amenities that would make it a lot less stressful to the visitor and make it easier to take in and enjoy the magnificence of this edifice itself.

On the other hand, the road from Trichy to Tanjore - NH 67 - is now a dream to drive on (also see this post). It is four-laned, and makes the drive from Trichy a short 45 minute breeze.

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.