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Travelogue:Thanjavur and Brihadishwara temple

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[Part 1 of the Tanjore/Thanjavur-Srirangam-Trichy travelogue] Part 2 can be read here

Having overloaded myself with information on Tanjore/Thanjavur, I reached the Tanjore Palace in search of all the glory of the old Chola capital.

The 16th century palace complex was built by the Nayaks and later renovated by the Marathas. With very unimpressive looks, the ill maintained complex has parts that unfortunately look more like ruins. The grandeur that the Cholas, Pallavas  and Tanjore were synonymous with, was missing here (at least from outside).

Situated close to the Old Bus Stand, the first of the museums I visited here was the Royal Museum. Is this the might and valor of the Cholas I heard of? What am I seeing here, I wondered? A scantily lit room with drums, urns, perfume bottles, wooden boxes, manuscripts, gifts, jewelry, weapons and other belongings of the Marathas. At least once, I felt pity for the exhibits with years of accumulated dirt, that tried to utter words from a glorious past. A 17th century printed Ramayana was one of the exhibits I found worth mentioning.

Exiting and moving on, a painting of a Maratha King welcomes you to the Durbar Hall. The area in front has a canon and a bull. The smell of pigeon excreta near the portrait makes you run into the interiors of the palace, only to take you into empty dark rooms with even worse stench. On the other side of the painting, an array of of Pallava and Chola statues throws light into the craftsmanship of the Pallava and Chola era. Immense amount of solace here. :)
The Art Gallery has an impressive line up of granite (7th to 17th centuries| Pallava, Chola ,Pandya) and bronze statues(10-18th centuries, Chola, Nayaks,also 7-8th century Natarajas).With details of excavation and century of origin clearly displayed, the Gods, Goddesses and other statues take you to a different era. The magnificent monolithic statues evince energy and life; the aura in their eyes beamed a story of fine craftsmanship and effort. Vishnu, Ganesha or a Nataraja look exactly the same as they look in today’s images and statues. Gods haven’t changed much. I also did notice a Buddha statue from the Pallava era here.

Climbing up the Bell Tower was an interesting exercise, but the multitude of I Love you graffiti throughout the narrow stairs and the storeys were very depressing. A lot can be improved in this palace complex.
After existing the main entrance, further down the road towards the bus stand, stands a the pink colored building on your left. Sharajah Madi, a six storied building built in the Sarcenic style by Raja Serfoji houses the belongings of the Maratha kings. With its spacious halls and grandeur, this palace will remind you nose of the Durbar Hall. The paintings and the embellishments on the roof are sparingly visible in the dark interiors. You may wonder if you mistakenly entered the Maratha kings’ dungeon. :)

With due respect to the rulers, one could easily conclude that Marathas’ and Nayaks’ efforts here seems very anachronistic in front of the Pallava and Chola splendor.

From the Palace,I headed to Brihadiswara Temple (Built in 1010 AD, 25 years and 275 days after Rajaraja Chola’s ascension to the throne in AD985).Whenever I saw this temple on Discovery and such, I always believed it is the firang’s knee jerk WOWs that created the hype around this place. Alas, I was wrong, terribly wrong. This structure looks majestic and looks way better that how it looks on TV.

Gopura-I, Brihadishwara Temple,Thanjavur

Gopura-I, Brihadishwara Temple,Thanjavur

Inside a walled fortress, this temple will take your breath away. I stood in awe, astonishment and reverence. A standing testimony of the Chola’s opulence and vision, their architectural excellence can be seen in this structure built during the 11th century by Rajaraja Chola-I. The scale and the enormity of the deities reflect the staunch reverence of the king to lord Shiva.

The Gopuras,Brihadishwara Temple,Thanjavur

The two Gopuras , Brihadishwara Temple,Thanjavur

Rajaraja, his sister Kundavai and queens donated their gold and silver to this temple. The gold Rajaraja donated came from his treasury and the booty from his Chera(Kerala) and Karnataka campaigns.
The intricate carvings on the pillars and walls, and the inscriptions on the walls make the temple a delight for a historian’s senses. The script used in the inscriptions resemble Tamil, Thai or some of the South East Asian languages. The huge(8.7m height) Shiva Linga in the sanctum sanctorum and Nandi statue reflect the magnificent munificence of the Cholas. The shrines of the goddess and Subrahmanya date back to 13th (Pandyas) and 15th century respectively. A legend says that the Nandi statue was growing and the growth was curbed after a nail was drove inside its back. So now, this monolithic Nandi is 3.7m high, 6m wide and 2.5 m broad. Get an idea how big that is?

Vimana -Inside Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

Vimana -Inside Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

The inside walls, Brihadishwara Temple

The inside walls, Brihadishwara Temple

The pillared cloisters beside the main structure has a series of deities and Shiva Lingas which includes a few of them excavated in recent past; which makes one think when does an statue excavated end up as a god and when as a Art Gallery piece. The murals narrate the story of Shiva’s might. Among the things visible were the interlocks of the granite stones. The rocks so perfectly fitted into one another at a height of tens of metres seemed to share a harmonious bonding , unnerved by the rains, winds and heat. Very well maintained, this structure will leave you with thoughts like, was it actually built in the 11th century. :)

Interestingly, I could spot that only the doors were made of wood and not surprisingly, even they were intact. Not sure if they were replaced during the course of time, once or even more.

Elephant Hair being sold outside Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

Elephant Hair being sold outside Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

Unlike in most other temples, here the towering Vimana(roof of the sanctum sanctorum) (58m tall) makes the Gopura( Pyramidal tower at the entrance of the temple) look diminutive. The inscriptions of the Vimana talk about the Rajaraja Chola’s gifts to the temple. The 13 storied Vimana is ornate with several stucco figures. Water for the temple would have(still) come(s) from the Kaveri river(should be a distributory of the river Kaveri as Thanjavur falls in the river’s delta region) flowing adjacent to the fortified walls of the temple complex.

Brihadishwara Temple at night

Indide Brihadishwara Temple at twilight

It would be the greatest show of disrespect to the Cholas, if I even think of comparing them to the Marathas. Frankly, even a Taj Mahal is nothing in front of this temple. You would not argue with me, if you have been to both the places.

The magnanimous idea, the grandiose vision, the Herculean effort, the glorious past of the Chola regime, their patronage for arts and culture, this temple stands testimony for all of these.

Some questions remain unanswered to me. Where did Raja Raja Chola rule from? Where was his palace? Since the Lord was more or less like the ruler, was the temple a center of governance too? But, where did the king and his family stay? How were the rocks brought into the site? How were they erected to such heights? Elephants, humans, inclined planes? I am yet to find some answers. The copious admiration lives on.
PS: I won’t rant about the school history text books that irreverently cut short the Chola kings. Cholas were just worthy of 5 or 10 marks while history was all about the series of kings who ruled Delhi, the Mughals included.

Cholas ruled not just South India and Ceylon. They had almost the whole of SE Asia under their control.Their system of governance and administration was so advanced and systematic that it can match the best of such systems that ever existed around the world. He was indeed king of kings, Rajaraja Chola.I am not getting into that, this post will go on for pages if I do. Read this by Charukesi if you still don’t believe the Chola might.
Suggested reading:

  • [For more on the architecture] Temples of South India, Ambujam Anantharaman
  • The Illustrated History of South India,K A Nilakantha Sastri

Photo credits Bharat Narayanan

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1 madhuNo Gravatar { 10.26.09 at 4:47 am }

couple interesting things to follow

and this probably an old tale not sure how much truth there is to it, since they didnt have anything to lift the big stone on top of the tower, they arranged cotton bales to form a right angled triangle and the stone was rolled up to the top of the temple tower on its hypotenuse

2 NirmalaNo Gravatar { 10.26.09 at 6:35 am }

Great post Nikhil! We are supposed to be from Thanjavur but been there only twice in all my life! :) The Big Temple evoked the same sense of grandeur that you have so nicely described when I first saw it after my 10th standard! And Discovery ran a program a couple of years back showing evidence of how the monolith on top of the vimana had to be pushed up by elephants on a very long ramp just as you said. Ruins of the ramp were also shown but I have not seen it myself.
Looking forward to the rest of your travelogue on Srirangam which is yet again our bastion ;)

3 RavagesNo Gravatar { 10.27.09 at 2:45 am }

Ah, smitten aren’t you, by the Chola bug? :) There’s an empty chair right at the back end of the clubroom.

Couple of points. The Nandi that you now see in Rajarajeswaram/Brihadeeswaram was installed by the Nayaks, not Rajaraja. The original Nandi was smaller – the same size as in other, smaller temples. The Nayaks thought it didn’t make sense, and hence they put in a bigger Nandi. That perhaps may have given rise to the legend of Nandi growing bigger.

Secondly, most gopurams in Tamilnadu were built small. The towering gopurams we are all now familiar with were actually the work of the Nayaks, who restored temples and built new ones after the Islamic invasion of South India.

Absolutely agree, though, on the points raised about the Maratha palace and the state of the museum.

(Came here via JK.)

4 RavagesNo Gravatar { 10.27.09 at 2:50 am }

BTW, Gopuram 1 is called Keralantakan Nuzhaivayil (Keralantakan Entrance) and Gopuram 2 (the temple has two gopurams for the main entrance.) is called RajaRajan Nuzhaivayil (RajaRaja Entrance)
Keralantakan is the title RajaRaja (born Arul Mozhi Varman) took after his conquest of Cheranadu around 1000 AD. RajaRajan, of course, is the title he took on ascending the throne.

5 charuNo Gravatar { 10.27.09 at 10:37 am }

very nice post, Nikhil – true first reaction is a WOW, whatever one has read or seen about it. when I went, it had just rained and the stone shone, freshly cleaned… did not visit the Maratha palace / museum but from what you say, may not have missed much. but waaanh, want to go again…

6 SabarinathNo Gravatar { 10.27.09 at 11:10 am }

I’d always wanted to visit Brihadeshwara temple, mainly for its magnificent architecture. I had visited its replica in Gangai Konda Cholapuram (same as referred to by Manu) and had written a blog about it –

7 AnnieNo Gravatar { 10.27.09 at 3:38 pm }

Splendid writing with inspiring imagination as if we see it while reading. Generated curiosity to find out the answers to your questions. Waiting for next part of the story with all the answers.

8 Sridevi RNo Gravatar { 10.29.09 at 7:21 am }

“Where did Raja Raja Chola rule from?”

Watch this Tamil movie ‘Raja raja Cholan’ for the dramatic version of Raja rajan’s life played by Shivaji Ganeshan. His majestic royal postures and style of dialogue delivery/voice makes him an actor par excellence. The main reason for my strong hero worship for the king is this movie. There is an interesting exchange of words between father and daughter which is a not to be missed part. Ooh…I love that movie!

Btw, I have heard that the shadow of the vimana never touches the ground…not sure though.

9 Ruby ChandrasekharNo Gravatar { 10.29.09 at 3:08 pm }

Hi Nikhil,
I first came across your blog when u wrote abt Pazhassi Raja.
It was well written and i am sorry if I came across as too much of a critique….
This is an excellent travellogue…. Though I have never visited Tanjavore, it is a must on my “to-do” list. Any particluar tiem of the year that one should visit Tanjavore?

10 Nikhil NarayananNo Gravatar { 10.29.09 at 3:29 pm }

Yes,GCK is next in the list of places to go.
Quite possible.Interesting tidbit.

Look who is here :)
Oh!Have seen the shows on Discovery.
I roamed around your bastion for 2 days. :)
Travelogue writing after reading history and all is really strenuous (read you will have to wait for Part-2)


Yes sir! Okay,so that Nandi legend cleared.
The Gopuram names,I did read it somewhere.
So,only the Marathas were the only unimpressive guys? :)

Thanks Charukesi. :)
I will join you when you are going next :)

I want to go to GCK! You should visit the Big Temple da.

11 Nikhil NarayananNo Gravatar { 10.29.09 at 3:32 pm }

Thanks ‘aunty’ :)
The next part won’t have the answers. :) Questions are still unanswered.

Thanks for the visit.
For each one’s own. :)

Thanks. You should visit this place. Like @Charukesi says, if it is just after rains,you will have a splendid time.
Tanjore is HOT. Don’t go there in summer.

12 CSNo Gravatar { 10.30.09 at 12:53 pm }

hi Nikhil,

check out this movie from youtube about the thanjavur periya kovil


13 NikhilNo Gravatar { 11.15.09 at 7:45 pm }

Interesting indeed. Thanks for sharing. :-)

14 shaanNo Gravatar { 12.23.09 at 9:59 pm }

“The Nandi that you now see in Rajarajeswaram/Brihadeeswaram was installed by the Nayaks, not Rajaraja. The original Nandi was smaller – the same size as in other, smaller temples.”
The Nayaks did replace the original Nandhi with a new Nandhi but the original Nandhi was not small, it was also big. The original Nandhi is still in the temple complex. Here is the picture of the original Nandhi, you can see a man standing near it –

Rajendra Chola, son of Rajaraja built a temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram with the Tanjore temple as the model. That temple too has a big nandhi just like the original temple –

“The towering gopurams we are all now familiar with were actually the work of the Nayaks, ”
Towering gopurams were already in vogue, but the Nayaks added more towers to temples like Sri Rangam and rebuilt the Madurai temple which was entirely destroyed (leaving only the Shiva and Meenashi shrines) by the Muslim invader Malik Kafur.

15 rajesh kamathNo Gravatar { 12.26.09 at 5:06 pm }

Your travels are very interesting . I hope to do some in the near future . These logs are very ‘interest-inducing’….

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