Call it hallucinations or my past life the word Tanjore or Thanjavur always brought back memories from nowhere. I had never visited that place but that one name always made me have a déjà vu. I could distinctly feel the stones under my feet and see the morning blue hour beyond the temples. It might be due to the pages of my history book from my primary school but for some reason, this feeling never left me.
Off late, I have been making regular trips down south to the state of Tamil Nadu and during one such trip, I had managed to include a short trip to Thanjavur. Easier said than done the origin of my journey was from Vellore and I could not get any direct connections to Thanjavur. Thus I had to take a car from Vellore to Chennai (Egmore) and then took an overnight special train to Thanjavur.
As per the schedule, the train was supposed to reach around 4.30 in the morning a delay which was to our advantage made the train reach Thanjavur at 5.30 AM. Dawn was slowly breaking and was the perfect time to set foot on this grand old city. A short 100 Rs. auto ride took us to the New Bus Stand where our pre booked hotel was situated. New Bust Stand is around 5 Kilometres from the railway station and it’s advisable to stay here since this area is very well positioned also very neat and clean.
Thanjavur is a very small city and the main tourist attraction out here is the Brihadeeswarar Temple. The city got its prominence on the international tourist map only because of this temple. This is not a single temple but a large temple complex more like a fort having multiple temple and shrines.
History of Brihadeeshwara Temple
This temple was built by the Chola Dynasty under Raja Raja Chola I in the year 1010 AD thus making this a structure which has withstood the test of time for more than 1000 years. Apart from the main central temple, there are several other smaller shrines which were subsequently built by other dynasties also. However, the jewel in the crown is the main central temple. To understand the structures we need to first see the map layout of the entire temple complex.
fifteen structures at Brihadeeshwara Temple
1) Maratha Entrance
2) Keralantakan Tiruvasal
3) Rajarajan Tiruvasal
4) Nandi Mandapam
5) Varahi Shrine
6) South Cloister Mandapam
7) Brihadeeswarar Temple
8) Interpretation Centre
9) Ganesha Shrine
10) Karuvur Devar Shrine
11) Subrahmanya Shrine
12) Chandikesvara Shrine
13) North Cloister Mandapam
14) Amman Shrine
15) Nataraja Mandapam
Maratha Entrance – Brihadeeshwara Temple
This is the first gate that you need to cross in order to enter the temple complex. As the name suggests it was built during the Maratha rule of this region. Amongst all the structures this is possible the simplest of all with just a simple gate with a gopura on top. However, this was the critical line of defence if you see to you left and right you will clearly see this as an extension to the temple fortification surrounded by a moat. The moat now has vanished in the shrubs but the walls can still be made out.
Keralantakan Tiruvasal – Brihadeeshwara Temple
This is the second structure or gopura that you will see once you pass the Maratha Entrance. This structure is what you can say a classic example of Chola architecture. This structure is completely built with granite stone. This structure was built specifically to depict the victory of the Chola king over the Cheras. The whole structures have stone carvings depicting various gods in various poses.
Rajarajan Tiruvasalv – Brihadeeshwara temple
As you pass Keralantakan Tiruvasal you will see a big ground in front with patches of green grass. If you want to go further then you have to remove your footwear. There is a counter to the left where you can deposit for Re. 1 a pair. I would recommend you to carry a pair of socks with you since all the structures ahead are complete stone structures and with the sun these can become a hot plate. I had to burn my feet all throughout the shoot.
This is the third structure also made of granite. This gopura has beautiful stone carvings depicting various Saivite episodes like the marriage of Siva and Parvati (Kalyanasundara), Siva protecting Markandeya (Markandeya-anugraha murti), Arjuna winning the pasupata weapon (Pasupata-anugraha murti). This structure has two massive stone carvings on the two sides giving it a very magnificent look.
Nandi Mandapam – Brihadeeshwara Temple
By now you are inside the main temple complex, all around you will be able to see various structures as well as fortifications. Right in front of you will be a raised platform with a huge single stone Nandi Bull. This structure was built around 16th – 17th century by the Nayaks. Once you reach the top of the platform then you need to look straight up towards the ceiling and see the colourful painting which was done during the Maratha rule.
Nataraja Mandapam – Brihadeeshwara Temple
Just right of the Nandi Mandapam, you will find Nataraja Mandapam. This is a simple rectangular stone structure built as a covered hall. This structure was built around 1800 AD by the Marathas under Sarabhoji II.
Amman Shrine – Brihadeeshwara Temple
Just diagonally opposite to Nandi Mandapam you will see Amman Shrine, built around 13th century by the Pandayas. This structure is having two sections, the innermost consisting of the garbhagriha having the deity and an outer mandapa built probably by the Nayaks and the ceiling painted by the Marathas in the 18th Century. The structure is facing the south. Photography inside this structure is prohibited.
The next structure is probably the most important structure in the whole complex around which all other temple structures dwarf. Unfortunately, photography is also prohibited inside the main temple and one needs to see with their own eyes to marvel at the structure. The moment you enter the temple you will feel the cold stone under your feet which have been deprived of the rays of the sun for over a thousand years.
The round pillars inside the temple have been intricately cut in a pattern making the grooves visible in a circular pattern around the pillars. This is a functional temple with regular pujas thus you will surely expect a crowd in front of you in a queue, with no other option you have to wait for your turn and walk along. This delay, however, will give you enough time to look around especially at the structures inside. The main highlight of this temple is the painting of Raja Rajan with his guru Karuvurdevar and other paintings from the Chola period which was once covered up during the rule of the Nayaks but later carefully restored by ASI. The main sanctum houses a Linga.
Take enough time to look around and inside as this is the main reason why you have come all the way to Thanjavur from your hometown. I am not going into the details of the temple as its very well documented by ASI to which I cannot add thus for technical details please look at their site.
But what ASI do not mention on their site is why would the Cholas depict a European amongst the gods in the outer northern section of the temple? Was that originally something else which out of environmental decay made it look like a person with a hat? Or was it purposely done to signify that the Cholas were already trading with the European much before we actually have in records? The carving clearly shows a main wearing a hat with a medieval shirt like clothing, it’s not a king else he would be wearing a crown then what could he be? Was he a tradesman which the Cholas wanted to appease and place him amongst the gods from the Indian subcontinent? This is the most intriguing question that has made me dig deeper into the history of Indo-European trade this, however, will be discussed in a different blog.
Ganesha Shrine – Brihadeeshwara Temple
To the left back of Brihadeeswarar Temple, we have the Ganesha Shrine. Since I was not wearing a pair of socks and with the temperature touching 40 degree Celsius my bare feet were being roasted with every step. The only respite was the bottle of water with me which I was using to wash my feet in order to cool them. Alternatively, the entire left stretch has grounds covered in grass, if you are too tired do take some rest under the shades of the tree.
Ganesha Shrine is relatively a very small structure built by Sarabhoji at the end of 18th century. This structure is east facing and the idol inside is clearly visible from the raised platform.
Karuvur Devar Shrine – Brihadeeshwara Temple
To the right back of Brihadeeswarar Temple, we have the Karuvur Devar Shrine. As the name suggests it’s dedicated to Karuvur Devar who was the teacher and guide to Rajaraja I. Similar to Ganesha Shrine this is a small structure with a vaulted roof supported by stone pillars. There is a tree behind this structure considered sacred.
Chandikesvara Shrine – Brihadeeshwara Temple
To the immediate right of Brihadeeswarar Temple, we have Chandikesvara Shrine built by the Nayaks in the 16th century. Right, next to this shrine there is a small reservoir built next to Brihadeeswarar Temple to allow the milk which would have been used to wash the Linga to flow and collect.
Subrahmanya Shrine – brihadeeshwara Temple
Right, next to Chandikesvara Shrine we have the Subrahmanya Shrine built by the Nayaks in the 17th century. This structure has a distinct two sections. The first flat roof section and the second a gopuram.
North Cloister Mandapam – Brihadeeshwara Temple
A substantial part of the northern boundary of the temple complex was constructed by Krishnan Raman the military commander of Rajaraja. This is not a single shrine but a set of 36 sub shrines for other deities which do not have any separate shrines present. This place was further installed with 108 lingas by the Maratha ruler Sarabhoji.
Varahi Shrine – Brihadeeshwara Temple
This is a very small shrine next to the North Cloister Mandapam dedicated to the goddess Varahi.
It is recommended that you spend a full day out here in this temple complex since it will take a lot of time to go around from one structure to another. Make sure you have a bottle full of water as all this walking can make you really dehydrated alternately you can purchase bottled water and carbonated drinks from the counter near the footwear deposit counter.
The easiest way to reach Brihadeeswarar Temple would be in an auto which would cost you somewhere between 60 – 100 Rs. Alternately there are several buses which ply around the city which would take you to the temple for around 5 Rs.
Often referred to as the “Great Living Chola Temples” is listed under UNESCO world heritage site and a trip to this temple is a must in your lifetime.
My next blog would be on the Thanjavur Palace which comprises of several museums and other interesting structures. Till then goodbye and hope you have enjoyed my first blog of the series on Thanjavur.