Brihadeeswarar Temple – The Big Temple with no shadow in Thanjavur.

Locally, the Brihadeeswara temple is called Peruvudaiyar Koyil or Thanjavur Kovil. This “Great Living Chola Temple” is dated back to the 11th century and the times of the famous Raja Raja Chola. This was after the famous group of monuments in Mahabalipuram (8th century) but before the gorgeous Madurai Meenakshi temple (14th Century). The temple is built using granite and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is in fact, called the Dakshin Meru (South Meru).

The famous Sri Vimana of Brihadeeswarar Temple, Tanjore
During the reign of one of the longest-ruling dynasties of India – the Cholas, the temple was called Rajarajeshwaram. It was a center for all religious functions and festivals. Later, after the Nayakas and Marathas invaded it, the temple became famous as the Brihadeeswarar Temple. It is now a UNESCO Heritage site and one important destination in South India. This stems not just from its history but also, owing to the unusual facets of it.

Unusual Facts about Brihadisvara Temple
Gopurams smaller than Vimana-Brihadeeswarar Temple

Whether by design or by coincidence, the architecture and the design of the Thanjavur Temple have made it quite mysterious. There are quite a few unexplained stories about it that will intrigue every visitor here. Some of them did make my eyebrows disappear into my hairline. No – really – they did. Check them out –

In most South Indian Temples, the gates (gopurams) are taller than the main temple tower (Vimana). Check my post of the Meenakshi temple and you will know what I mean. However, in the Brihadeeswarar Temple, it is exactly the opposite. The gopurams are smaller than the main Vimana.
The entire temple is made of Granite. Evidence shows that there was no granite cutting quarry or even sources to get the stone around Thanjavur. In fact, it is not available even within 50 km of the site. Imagine how they would have carried it all here to be used in the temple – and in those days!
Speaking of Granite, the main Vimana measures 66 m in height. This is 6 stories high and was the largest structure in South India in those days. The astonishing part about this is that the large granite capstone on the top weighs around 80 tons. This is those days, was placed over the hollow Vimana – how? No one knows!’ Upon my 2nd visit, this astonishing fact was explained. My guide told me that they had created inclines stretching to almost 8 km to reach the top of the temple and place the granite there. Close your eyes and imagine how a procession of elephants carried a piece at a time to reach the apex. That itself must have been a jaw-dropping sight.
The tall Vimana is made using interlocking bricks. There is no binding material used. The best part is – it has survived so many centuries and various invasions and calamities like earthquakes
According to my first guide, there is a debate on whether this was really a temple or was it a watchtower. The presence of a moat around the temple and the various underground passages leading to different locations definitely add some weight to this theory. However, my money was on it being a temple for there is other evidence that points to it. And boy! Was I right? Upon my 2nd visit to the Tanjore temple, my 2nd guide explained that owing to the kingdom wars after the Cholas, the Marathas and the Nayaks sought refuge within the temple and consequently used it as a watchtower. The added extra fortifications around the temple – which is the moat and the outer gates and walls.
And here is the whoopiest of all facts about Brihadeeswarar temple. You will never see the shadow of the Vimana at noon – no matter which season you visit it in. In fact, I was super puzzled by it. My first guide through the Golden Chariot insisted on it by pointing the various spaces in the Tanjore temple grounds at noon and saying there was no shadow. However, this myth was debunked by the facts shared by my knowledgeable 2nd guide a few years later. She said that it is true that the shadow of the Big Temple Thanjavur did not fall within the grounds. However, the Tanjore Big Temple did cast a shadow away from the main grounds, towards the periphery. One could not see it owing to the various trees covering the ground.
The 80 ton granite capstone atop the 60 m high vimana at Brihadeeswarar Temple
The 80-ton granite capstone atop the 66 m high vimana at Brihadeeswarar Temple
Pretty cool – right? I am sure that by now you are all geared to take the virtual tour of this unique Indian temple, with one more hidden mystery in its carving. Just don’t want to spoil the fun by revealing it here – time you take the tour!

Layout of the Tanjore Temple

The Dravidian styled Tanjore Temple may seem quite elaborate and daunting when you see it from the entrance. However, it is a fairly simple layout. To help you get your bearings right – you will first cross three Gopurams (gateways) and enter the main square. Here along the perimeter of the wall are open corridors called mandapams. Straight in front of the gopuram, you will see a cow shrine – Nandi Mandapam. This faces the entrance to the main shrine – Sri Vimana. Around the Shri Vimana, are several other shrines. And yes, each of these has a story of its own. 😉 Thus, not surprising if you spend half a day just seeing all this around.

Gopurams of Brihadeeswarar Temple
The outer most gate of the Tanjore Big Temple

Technically, there are three gates but only two elaborate Gopurams. The first one is more like a fort gate that was built by the Marathas to defend the place. It was connected to the moat that surrounded the Temple. It is the 2nd gate – Keralantakan Tiruvasal and the 3rd gate – Rajarajan Tiruvasal that I spend a lot of time admiring.

Keralantakan Tiruvasal
Keralatakan Gopuram at Brihadeeswarar Temple

The gate as the sign informed me, was constructed to celebrate the victory of the King Raja Raja Chola over the Cheras. Tiny figures of the popular Hindu Gods – Ganesha, Shiv – Parvati, Vishnu and more highlighted the entrance arch. Along with these, all through to the top. I could see various mini-stories of mythical beasts, nymphs and humans. I could have figured more out except that from the arched gateway, I could see an even more elaborate gopuram – waiting to be explored. That is what I did – but not before a quick stop to the shoe stand behind the Keralatakan Tiruvasal.


Rajarajan Tiruvasal from Keralatakan Gopuram
Carvings of Rajarajan Tiruvasal as seen from Keralatakan Tiruvasal

Rajarajan Tiruvasal

Rajarajan Tiruvasal at Brihadeeswarar Temple, Tanjore
The third and final gateway was a teaser of things to come. Every inch of the Rajarajan Tiruvasal (Gate of the King) was covered with detailed stone carvings. Two stone guards – Dwarpalikas flanked the arched doorway. As I gazed over the arch, I could make out three distinct tiers of carvings. Stories from the life of Shiva seemed to be the overlying theme for I could make out some that referred to his marriage.

Dwarpalika close-up
Close up of Dwarpalika
There were also, scenes from the Puranas like this one that is said to be of a wishing tree – Kalpavriksha. I remember this one as I first thought it was from the life of Krishna – like this one where he mischievously steals the clothes of the bathing ladies and climbs up a tree. I was corrected by my first guide saying that it wasn’t that – though he could not substantiate his explanation. Personally still, think that it is Krishna and not Kalpvriksha 😉

Kalpavriksha carvings on Rajarajan Gopuram of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Kalpavriksha carvings on Rajarajan Gopuram of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Carvings along the inner walls of the arched gateway of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Carvings along the inner walls of the arched gateway of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Even within the arched gateway, there are complete stories etched along the walls. Once you come out, spare a glimpse along its inner walls. You will see many cows or Nandi figures on it. The ones on the corner have 2 bodies but one head.

Nandi on the walls of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Nandi on the walls of Brihadeeswarar Temple
And finally, the first glimpse of the grand Vimana from the doorway. It was time to move ahead to the next stop – the Nandi Mandapam.

Nandi Mandapam
Nandi Mandapam facing Brihadeeswarar Temple
Nandi Mandapam facing Brihadeeswarar Temple
Where there is Shiva, there is Nandi. For those of you who are not familiar, Nandi is Shiva’s guardian as well as his mount. Every Hindu temple that is dedicated to Shiva, will have a Nandi outside its shrine, with the Nandi idol facing the Shiva Idol. Brihadeeswarar Temple too, followed this norm. However, the interesting thing is that the pavilion with this Nandi was only built later in the 16th century by the Nayaka Kings.

Nandi facing the Shiva in the main shrine of Thanjavur Brihadeesvara temple
Nandi facing the Shiva in the main shrine of Thanjavur Brihadeesvara temple
Nandi at Thanjavur Temple
Nandi at Thanjavur Temple
Maybe, there was a structure earlier or maybe, the Nandis along the Tanjore Temple walls served the original custom of a Nandi before the Shiva. Or maybe, it was indeed a defense post and not a temple. Either way, there was no denying the excellent craftsmanship of the monolithic Nandi here (yes, carved out of a single stone).

Close-up of one of the ceiling murals of Nandi Mandapam
Close-up of one of the ceiling murals of Nandi Mandapam
Pillars of Nandi Mandapa at Brihadeeswarar Temple
Pillars of Nandi Mandapa at Brihadeeswarar Temple
Pillars of Nandi Mandapa at Brihadeeswarar TempleIf you are here and glance up, you will see gorgeous ceiling paintings. Some say that the Nayak dynasty was responsible for these while some credit the Maratha kings. While you admire the Nandi and the ceilings, remember to check out the pillars with the mythical Yellis holding up the Nandi Mandapam. I am sure, you will even notice the old oil lamp in front of the Nandi as you exit it.

Oil Lamp near Nandi Mandapam, Tanjore Temple
Oil Lamp near Nandi Mandapam, Tanjore Temple
Sri Vimana of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Sri Vimana of Brihadeesawara Temple
Sri Vimana of Brihadeesawara Temple
Following the gaze of the faithful Nandi, I made my way across an elaborate courtyard to the main shrine – the Sanctum Santorium – the Sri Vimana. The courtyard was marked out like a car park and a query to my guide revealed that this was where an annual cattle fair was held. Cows were brought here for cow worship and each herd was given a lot for it. However, in the olden days, this same courtyard was used for religious gatherings and functioned as a community hall.

Inside Brihadeeswarar Temple as seen from the entrance
Inside Brihadeeswarar Temple as seen from the entrance
Standing at the entrance of the Brihadeshwara temple, I could see the magnificent Shiva Linga. It was at the far end in a smaller shrine called the Garbha Griha, where only the priests were allowed. No pictures were allowed inside the temple and the only window that our guide pointed out was to take whatever we could from the entrance.

Lakshmi carving as you exit the shrine at Brihadeeswarar Temple
Lakshmi carving as you exit the shrine at Brihadeeswarar Temple
Wall carvings of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Wall carvings of Brihadeeswarar Temple
I don’t remember much about the work inside the temple for I was focused on the glistening Shiva Linga. Also, possibly because it was so dark inside. However, the one thing that I recall my guide telling me – the Vimana which stood over the Garbha Griha was hollow so much that the echo of “OM” chanted in it became a divine sound!

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