Brihadeeswarar Temple

This article is about the Temple in Thanjavur. For the temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram, see Brihadeeswarar Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram.
Brihadeeswarar Temple
View of the entire temple complex.
Brihadeeswarar Temple
Location in Tamil Nadu
Other names Peruvudaiyaar Kovil
Brihadeshwaran Temple
Big Temple
Coordinates 10°46′58″N 79°07′54″E / 10.78278°N 79.13167°E / 10.78278; 79.13167Coordinates: 10°46′58″N 79°07′54″E / 10.78278°N 79.13167°E / 10.78278; 79.13167
Country India
State Tamil Nadu
District Thanjore
Location Thanjavur
Primary deity Shiva
Important festivals Maha Shivaratiri
Architectural styles Tamil architecture
History and governance
Date built 10th century AD
Creator Raja Raja Chola I

Thanjavur Periya kovil (also known as Brihadeeswarar temple) is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva located in Thanjavur in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is also known as RajaRajeswara Temple Rajarajeswaram and Brihadeshwara Temple.[1] It is one of the largest temples in India and is an example of Tamil architecture during the Chola period.[2] Built by Raja Raja Chola I and completed in 1010 CE, the temple turned 1000 years old . The temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Great Living Chola Temples", with the other two being the Brihadeeswarar Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Airavatesvara temple.[3]

The temple stands amidst fortified walls that were probably added in the 16th century. The vimanam (temple tower) is 198 ft (60 m) high and is one of the tallest in the world. The Kumbam (the apex or the bulbous structure on the top) weighs around 80 tons.[4] There is a big statue of Nandi (sacred bull), carved out of a single rock measuring about 16 ft (4.9 m) long and 13 ft (4.0 m) high at the entrance.[5] The entire temple structure is made out of granite, the nearest sources of which are about 60 km to the west of temple. The temple is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Tamil Nadu.[6]


Thanjavur Brihadeeswara Temple Entrance

The Brihadeshwarar temple was built to grace the throne of the Chola empire by the Tamil emperor Arulmozhivarman, popularly called Rajaraja Chola I, in compliance to a command given to him in a dream.[5] One of the first great Tamil Chola building projects, the temple's foundations were laid out in 1002 CE.[7] An axial and symmetrical geometry rules the temple layout.[8] Temples from this period and the following two centuries are an expression of the Tamilars (Chola) wealth, power and artistic expertise. The emergence of such features as the multifaceted columns with projecting square capitals signal the arrival of the new Chola style.[9]

Intended to display the emperor's vision of his power and his relationship to the universal order, the temple was the site of the major royal ceremonies such as anointing the emperor and linking him with its deity, Shiva, and the daily rituals of the deities were mirrored by those of the king. It is an architectural example showcasing the pure form of the Dravida type of temple architecture and representative of the Chola Empire ideology and the Tamil civilisation in Southern India. The temple "testifies the brilliant achievements of the Chola in architecture, sculpture, painting and bronze casting."[10]


Statue of Rajaraja Chola Chola I who consecrated the temple

The architect and engineer of the temple was Kunjara Mallan Raja Raja Rama Perunthachan as stated in inscriptions found at the temple. The solid base of the temple raises about 5 metres (16 feet), above which stone deities and representatives of Shiva dance.[11] The big Nandi (bull), weighing about 20 tonnes is made of a single stone and is about 2 m in height, 6 m in length and 2.5 m in width.[12] The presiding deity of lingam is 3.7m tall. The prakaram (outer precincts of the temple) measures 240m by 125m.[12] The outer wall of the upper storey is carved with 108 dance karanas – postures of Bharathanatyam, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu.[12] The shrine of Goddess was added by Pandyas during the 13th century, Subramanya Shrine by Vijayanagara rulers and the Vinayaka shrine was renovated by Maratha rulers.[12] There were significant additions from the Thanjavur Nayaks.[13]

Temple complex

Tamil writings and sculptures at right side of Thanjavur Brihadeeswara Temple Gopuram
Carved figures on temple wall

The temple complex sits on the banks of a river that was channelled to make a moat around the complex's outer walls, the walls being built like a fortress. The complex is made up of many structures that are aligned axially. The complex can be entered either on one axis through a five-story gopuram or with a second access directly to the huge main quadrangle through a smaller free-standing gopuram. The massive size of the main Vimanam (Shikhara) is ca. 60.96 meters high, with 16 elaborately articulated stories, and dominates the main quadrangle. Pilaster, piers(a raised structure), and attached columns are placed rhythmically covering every surface of the Vimanam.[14] The gopuram of the main entrance is 30 m high, smaller than the vimana. It is unusual in the dravidian architecture where the gopurams are generally the main towers and taller than the vimanam.[15]

Main temple

Pagoda at Tanjore, India (1847)[16]

A first rectangular surrounding wall, 270 m by 140 m, marks the outer boundary.[15] The main temple is in the center of the spacious quadrangle composed of a sanctuary, a Nandi, a pillared hall and an assembly hall (mandapas), and many sub-shrines. The most important part of the temple is the inner mandapa which is surrounded by massive walls that are divided into levels by sharply cut sculptures and pilasters providing deep bays and recesses. Each side of the sanctuary has a bay emphasising the principle cult icons.[8] The karuvarai, a Tamil word meaning the interior of the sanctum sanctorum, is the inner most sanctum and focus of the temple where an image of the primary deity, Shiva, resides. Inside is a huge stone linga. The word Karuvarai means "womb chamber" from Tamil word karu for foetus. Only priests are allowed to enter this inner-most chamber.[17]

In the Dravida style, the Karuvarai takes the form of a miniature vimana with other features exclusive to southern Indian temple architecture such as the inner wall together with the outer wall creating a pradakshina around the garbhagriha for circumambulation (pradakshina). The entrance is highly decorated. The inside chamber housing the image of the god is the sanctum sanctorum, the garbhagriha.[9] The garbhagriha is square and sits on a plinth, its location calculated to be a point of total equilibrium and harmony as it is representative of a microcosm of the universe. In the center is placed the image of the deity.[8] The royal bathing-hall where Rajaraja the great gave gifts is to the east of the hall of Irumudi-Soran.

The inner mandapa leads out to a rectangular mandapa and then to a twenty-columned porch with three staircases leading down. Sharing the same stone plinth is a small open mandapa dedicated to Nandi, Shiva's sacred bull mount.

Temple Deities

The "moolavar" or prime deity of the Brihadeeswarar Temple is Shiva. All deities, particularly those placed in the niches of the outer wall (Koshta Moorthigal) like Dakshinamurthy, Surya, Chandra are of huge size. The Brihadiswarar temple is one of the rare temples which has idols for "Ashta-dikpaalakas" (Guardians of the directions) – Indra, Agni, Yama, Nirṛti, Varuṇa, Vāyu, Kubera, Īśāna – each of whom was originally represented by a life-sized statue, approximately 6 feet tall, enshrined in a separate temple located in the respective direction. (Only Agni, Varuṇa, Vāyu and Īśāna are preserved in situ.)

Adjoining structures

Surrounding the main temple are two walled enclosures. The outer wall is high, defining the temple complex area. Here is the massive gopuram or gateway mentioned above. Within this a portico, a barrel vaulted gorpuram with over 400 pillars, is enclosed by a high wall interspersed with huge gopurams axially lined up to the main temple.


A widely held belief is that the shadow of the Vimana never falls on the ground. .[18] However, several photographs exist showing the shadow on the ground.[19] The temple is said to be made up of about 60,000 tons of granite. The capstone itself is made of four pieces of granite and weighs about 20 tons.,[20] on top of the main gopuram is believed to have been taken to the top by creating an inclined slope to the height of 66m to the top of the gopuram.


This mural was originally thought to represent Rajaraja and his guru. This has been contested now.[21]
Mural at Brihadeeswarar temple,Tanjavur. This is painting style that evolved in the town

The temple has Chola frescoes on the walls around the sanctum sanctorum potryaing Shiva in action, destroying demonic forts, dancing and sending a white elephant to transport a devotee to heaven.[11] These frescoes, discovered in the 1940s by S. K. Govindasami of the Annamalai University, portray the mythological episodes of the journey of Saint Sundarar and the Chera King to heaven, the battle scene of Tripurantaka (Lord Siva) with Asuras (demons).[22] The Chola artists have proved their mettle by portraying even the Asura women with a sense of beauty.[22] Some of the paintings in the sanctum sanctorum and the walls in the passage had been damaged because of the soot that had deposited on them once upon a time. Owing to the continuous exposure to smoke and soot from the lamps and burning of camphor in the sanctum sanctorum over a period of centuries certain parts of the Chola paintings on the circumambulatory passage walls had been badly damaged.[22] The Tanjore Nayak kings replaced them with a few paintings of their own, about 400 years ago.[22] The Archaeological Survey of India, for the first time in the world, used its unique de-stucco process to restore 16 Nayak paintings, which were superimposed on 1000-year-old Chola frescoes.[22] These 400-year-old paintings have been mounted on fibre glass boards, displayed at a separate pavilion.[22]

Temple personnel

Since its consecration in 1010 AD by Raja Raja Chola I, the temple maintained a staff of 1000 people in various capacities with 400 being temple dancers[12] Besides the Brahmin priests, these included record-keepers, musicians, scholars, and craftsman of every type as well as housekeeping staff. In those days the temple was a hub of business activities for the flower, milk, oil, and ghee merchants, all of whom made a regular supply of their respective goods for the temple for its poojas and during festival seasons. Moreover, as evidenced by the inscriptions that found in the compound wall of this temple, the temple had always served as a platform for dancers who excelled in the traditional dance form of Bharatnatyam.[23]

Millennium commemoration

Built in the year 1010 CE by Raja Raja Chola in Thanjavur, Brihadeeswarar Temple popularly known as the 'Big Temple' turned 1000 years old in September 2010. To celebrate the 1000th year of the grand structure, the state government and the town held many cultural events. It was to recall the 275th day of his 25th regal year (1010 CE) when Raja Raja Chola (985–1014 CE) handed over a gold-plated kalasam (copper pot or finial) for the final consecration to crown the vimana, the 59.82-metre tall tower above the sanctum.[24][25][26]

Bharathanatyam Yajna

One of the 108 dance postures

To mark the occasion, the state government organised a Bharathanatyam Yajna, classical dance show under noted dancer Padma Subramaniam. It was jointly organised by the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI) and the Brhan Natyanjali Trust, Thanjavur. To mark the 1000th year anniversary of the building, 1000 dancers from New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Singapore, Malaysia and the US danced in concert to the recorded 11 verses of divine music Thiruvichaippa (ninth of Thirumurai) composed by Karuvur Thevar (the guru of Raja Raja Chola) named Tiruvisaippa. The small town turned into a cultural hub for two days beginning 26 September 2010 as street performers and dancers performed throughout the town.[27][28]

Commemorative stamps and coins

1000 currency note released by Reserve Bank of India on 1 April 1954 to honour the historic Brihadeeswarar Temple, a UNESCO World heritage site
A 5 Special Commemorative coin released by Reserve Bank of India to mark the millennium year celebrations of the famous Brihadeeswarar Temple built by the great Chola ruler Raja Raja Chola I

On 26 September 2010 (Big Temple's fifth day of millennium celebrations), as a recognition of Big Temple's contribution to the country's cultural, architectural, epigraphical history, a special 5 postage stamp featuring the 216-feet tall giant Raja Gopuram was released by India Post.

The Reserve Bank of India commemorated the event by releasing a 5 coin with the model of temple embossed on it.[29][30] A Raja, Cabinet Minister of Communications and Information Technology released the esteemed Brihadeeswarar Temple special stamp, the first of which was received by G K Vasan, Cabinet Minister of Shipping.

Mumbai Mint issued Rs 1000 Commemorative Coin with the same picture as on the Rs 5 coin. It was the first 1000 Rupees coin to be released in the Republic of India coinage. This coin was a Non Circulative Legal Tender (NCLT).[31]

On 1 April 1954, the Reserve Bank of India released a 1000 currency note featuring a panoramic view of the Brihadeeswarar Temple marking its cultural heritage and significance. In 1975, the then government led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi demonetised all 1,000 currency notes in an effort to curtail black money. These notes are now popular among collectors.[32]

In 2010, the then Tamil Nadu chief minister, M Karunanidhi renamed Semmai Paddy, a type of high productivity paddy variant, as Raja Rajan-1000 to mark the millennial year of the constructor of the temple, Raja Raja Cholan.[33]


Brihadeeswarar temple finds mention in many of the contemporary works of the period like Muvar Ula and Kalingathuparani. The temple believed to have emerged as a centre of social, economical and political activities. Cultural activities like music, dance and art in the form of bronzes were encouraged and staged in the temple.[34]

Experts believe that the Dravidian architecture attained its supreme form of expression in the temple and it successor, the Brihadeeswarar Temple, Gangaikondacholapuram.[35] The temple is declared as a heritage monument and administered by the Archaeological Survey of India as a protected monument. The temple is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Tamil Nadu.[6] The temple is declared a CE UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the Brihadeeswara Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram that are referred as the Great Living Chola Temples.[15] The temple was added to the list of Great Living Chola Temples in the year 2004. All of the three temples were built by the Cholas between the 10th and 12th centuries CE and have a lot of similarities.[36][37] The temples are classified as "Great Living Chola temples" as the temples are alive in cultural aspects and worship practises in modern times.[38]

Kalki, a renowned Tamil novelist, has written a historical novel named Ponniyin Selvan, based on the life of Raja Raja Chola I.[39] Balakumaran, another Tamil author has written a novel named Udaiyar themed on the life of Raja Raja Chola I and the construction of the Brihadeeswarar temple.[40]

Car festival

The Temple car was rolled out on its trial run from opposite to Sri Ramar temple on 20 April 2015 witnessed by a large number of people.[41] Nine days later, the maiden procession of the temple car was held, with the deity's idols on top on 29 April 2015. This was the first such procession in this temple held in the past hundred years.[42]

See also


  1. South Indian Inscriptions – Vol II, Part I & II
  2. Keay, John (2000). India, a History. New York, United States: Harper Collins Publishers. pp. xix. ISBN 0-00-638784-5.
  3. "Tanjavur Periya Kovil Tamil Nadu". 5 December 2012.
  4. "The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)".
  5. 1 2 Encyclopaedia of Political Parties By Ralhan, O. P.
  6. 1 2 Gopal, Madan (1990). K.S. Gautam, ed. India through the ages. Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. p. 185.
  7. "The Chola Dynasty 300 B.C. to 1250 A.D.". Retrieved 22 January 2008.
  8. 1 2 3 Thapar 2004, pp.43, 52–53
  9. 1 2 Mitchell 1988, pp. 145–148
  10. "Great Living Chola Temples". UNESCO. Retrieved 21 January 2008.
  11. 1 2 Man 1999, p. 104
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Various 2007, pp. 65–66
  13. Branfoot, Crispin. "Imperial Frontiers: Building Sacred Space in Sixteenth-Century South India". 90 (2). The Art Bulletin: 185. JSTOR 20619601.  via JSTOR (subscription required)
  14. Ching 2007, pp. 338–339
  15. 1 2 3 "Great Living Chola Temples". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2004. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
  16. "Pagoda at Tanore, India". Wesleyan Juvenile Offering. IV: 132. December 1847. Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  17. "Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent – Glossary". Retrieved 24 January 2007.
  18. "Strong ground to dismiss popular belief". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 30 March 2004.
  19. Kumar, Vijay. "Does the Tanjore Big Temple Vimana cast a shadow?". Poetry in Stone. Retrieved 1 October 2015.
  20. Balasubramaniam, Kudavayil. Rajarajecharam.
  22. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "ASI restores 400-year-old paintings". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 28 February 2010. Retrieved 22 June 2010.
  23. Written in stone – Big Temple's inscriptions reveal a King's passion, T.S. Subramanian, CHENNAI, 24 September 2010, The Hindu
  24. BBC News augue (25 September 2010). "India's Big Temple marks 1,000th birthday". Retrieved 25 September 2010.
  25. PS. R. Balasubrahmanyam (1971), Orient Longman Publications. "Early Chola temples:Parantaka I to Rajaraja I, 907–985 A.D".
  26. Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute (1984), Rāja Rāja, the great:seminar proceedings
  27. Rediff News. "India's Biggest Temple turns 1000-years". Retrieved 20 August 2010.
  28. Subramanian, T. S. (1 August 2010). "A grand dance spectacle at the Thanjavur Big Temple". The Hindu. Chennai, India. Retrieved 20 August 2010.
  29. Deccan Herald (26 September 2010). "Stamp, coin release mark 1,000 years of Big Temple". Retrieved 26 September 2010.
  30. "Release of a special postal stamp and a five- rupee coin". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 27 September 2010. Retrieved 27 September 2010.
  31. "Release of Commemorative Coin" (PDF). 3 July 2012.
  32. Express Buzz, The Indian Express (26 September 2010). "INR 1000 note of 1954 popular in Tanjavur". Retrieved 27 September 2010.
  33. MSN News (26 September 2010). "Semmai Paddy as "Raja Rajan-1000"". Retrieved 27 September 2010.
  34. Vipul, Singh (2009). Longman Vistas 7. Pearson Education India. pp. 14–15. ISBN 9788131729090.
  35. Roma Chatterjee, ed. (2016). India Art and Architecture in ancient and medieval periods. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. p. 32. ISBN 978-81-230-2080-8.
  36. Ayyar, P.V. Jagadisa (1993). South Indian Shrines. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. p. 316. ISBN 81-206-0151-3.
  37. T., Ramakrishnan (7 July 2004). "World Heritage Site status for Airavatesvara Temple". The Hindu. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
  38. Srinivasan, Pankaja (4 June 2012). "Inside the Chola Temple". Coimbatore: The Hindu. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
  39. A., Srivathsan (19 October 2011). "Age hardly withers charm of Ponniyin Selvan". Chennai: The Hindu. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  40. "Special Coin to Remember Rajendra Chola". Express News Service. Chennai: The New Indian Express. 4 February 2014. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  41. Trial run of Big Temple car, Rolls; out after 100 years; maiden run on April 29, The Hindu, 21 April 2015
  42. Big temple chariot festival held after 100 years, The Hindu, 30 April 2015


  • Ching, Francis D.K. (2007). A Global History of Architecture. New York: John Wiley and Sons. pp. 338–339. ISBN 0-471-26892-5. 
  • Mitchell, George (1988). The Hindu Temple. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 145–148. ISBN 0-226-53230-5. 
  • Man, John (1999). Atlas of the Year 1000. United Kingdom: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-7946-0011-5. 
  • Thapar, Binda (2004). Introduction to Indian Architecture. Singapore: Periplus Editions. pp. 43, 52–53. ISBN 0-7946-0011-5. 
  • Various (2007). Tourist Guide to Tamil Nadu. Chennai: Tourist Guide to Tamil Nadu. ISBN 978-81-7478-177-2. 

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