Brihadeeswara Temple or literally the big temple is the epitome of South Indian temple architecture. And is the signature temple of the Cholas. If you do not have the time to go around and see all the temples they built, see this one and you have seen the best.
Thanjavur Temple – Brihadeeswara Temple
The Gopurams in this temple are not huge. But they are still in their base stone color so to me they look far more attractive and sophisticated. As you walk through two of them, you see the huge Nandi blocking the view of the temple as if trying to deflect the potential evil eye. As you walk past the Nandi pavilion, grand superstructure or the Shikhara of the temple catches and holds your eye. Though the Thanjavur temple, on the whole, is beautiful and well maintained, the Shikhara is the element that enthralls you the most. I could have looked at it for hours. There is a rhythm in its giant pyramidical built, a certain sense of symmetry that resonates with your senses.
Huge single stone round finial sitting on top of it probably makes it look as if the whole temple may just oscillate to balance it on its tip. It is said that it was covered in gold in its hay days. Today you have to visualize that state to imagine the grandeur of the temple. It also had a lot of gold and bronze idols, some of them can be seen in the palace museum. After all this Thanjavur Temple represents the best period of Chola Art when it flourished under the tutelage of its famous king in this very temple.
Nandi pavilion is also on a high platform and the huge Nandi looks directly towards its Lord. The ceiling of this pavilion is painted in bright blue and golden yellow like at Chidambaram. In front of it is a pillar or Stambha with the image of the king bowing to the Lord and his vehicle. Go around the temple and notice the distinctive feature of the Chola temples: Huge Dwarpalas on the side entrances of the temple. If you look intently you would be able to see the imprints of various times. The lines showing the original construction followed by series of add-on pavilions.
For some reason, the stone on the Shikhara shines like no other stone on the premises. The subsidiary shrines are also very intricately carved but somehow they look pale in comparison to the Shikhara, which in its Sindhoori color stands out. I almost thought that it is painted. But I was told it is not and it is the natural color of the stone. On the walls, you can go around deciphering the various statues as they depict the various Gods and Goddesses and scenes from their stories. Koshtha Panjara’s or the niches to hold the idols are interspersed with Kumbha Panjara or the depiction of the sacred pot.
Inside of the temple is relatively plain, though the mandapa is huge and so is the linga in black stone. The upper-story of the temple, which is not open to the public has Shiva depicting all the dance poses like the Gopuram at Chidambaram. The difference being here it is Shiva himself depicted.
The Pradakshina path of the inner sanctum sanctorum is supposed to have the wall paintings from the times of Cholas. That was later superimposed by the paintings of Nayakas time. This part is also closed to the visitors. You need to have special permission from ASI to be able to see the paintings. Thankfully the paintings have been reproduced in the Interpretation center through special techniques. You can see the replicas of the paintings here. This part of Tanjore temple opens after 10:00 AM and not along with the temple in the morning. The hall that houses the paintings is a covered part of the corridor on the periphery of the temple. And is completely dark. So in case, there is no power at the time when you visit, you would not be able to see much.
More Paintings on the walls of corridors
Another set of paintings is on the walls of the corridors surrounding the temple and are worth a watch. Painted on the thick lime-plastered walls these paintings depict the stories associated with Shiva. Barricaded corridor houses Shiva Lingas in various sizes and stones in front of these painted walls. If you move in the clockwise direction, you would see the stories flowing through the walls. The chipped parts tell you the technique used as the thick layer of lime reveals itself. Bright colors do not give away the age of the paintings and sometimes give the impression of being recent.
There are Sanskrit inscriptions on a wall in the temple. Around this wall, a small wall has been built to save a falling tree and provides support to the almost bent trunk. I could not figure out if there was a special significance associated with the tree. But the gesture indicates the reverence that the tree deserves. And makes you think about the deep relation between spirituality, nature, and compassion.
Must visit Temples
If there are two temples you must see before you leave, go to Brihadeeswara temple in Tanjore and Kandariya Mahadeva temple in Khajuraho. Both these temples you must visit at least twice a day. Once early morning as the first rays of sun illuminate the shimmering stones. And once later may be at noon or early evening. The stone changes color and creates an entirely different ambiance at different times in a day. The mix of visitors changes. And you get a feeling of visiting entirely different place in a single day at the same place. If you go early enough on around full moon days, you can get to see the Shikhara playing with the moon and it is a sight to see.
A must visit Thanjavur Temple.
In addition to the above Thanjavur Temple, recommend you to read following Chola Trail.