Original and Historical Development
Chola emperors created for themselves a personal deity (Kulanayagam) to guide them through the trials and tribulations of ruling a far-flung empire. The first one in this chain of temples is Brahadisvara temple, originally known as Rajarajeswaram, named after the builder Rajaraja I (CE 985 – 1012), built in Thanjavur in Tamilnadu. It has rightly been called the Great Temple and Daksinameru as it is mammoth in size, versatile in content, archival in epigraphy, lofty in concept, Dravidian in form and remarkable in execution.
The uniqueness of this temple is that it was conceived and completed in one regent’s period, to such an almost perfection, that not much additions and alternations were necessary as in Tiruvarur or Chidambaram temples. It is one of the few monuments of the world, which has such extensive inscriptions giving complete documented details of political socio-religious life of the period, the gifts and grants made the arrangements for the worship and maintenance of the temple.
Architectural Features and Plan
The architectural concept is a modification of the Pancharama temples of Eastern Chalukyas and the characteristic Chola phase of Parantaka. The whole plan is east oriented.
The temple is surrounded by an inner enclosure (prakara) 800 feet long (East-West) and 400 feet wide (North-South) with Rajarajan Tiruvasal (gopura) on the east and three other torana (gateway) entrances on the sides and rear. Tiruccurru malika is the cloistered corridor along the prakara wall referred to as Krishnan Raman Mummudi Cholan wall with 36 sub-shrines (parivaralayas), Eight Dik and Vidik sub-shrines are placed at four corners and the middle of the four sides. Thee shrines are dvitala (two-tiered) carrying the respective vehicles (vahanas) at the griva corners with Vishnucchanda sikharas. 1008 Lingas are housed in this prakara.
182 feet beyond the first gateway is the Keralantakan Tiruvasal. The outer enclosure should have been approximately 1172 feet by 772 feet which is lost. Beyond this is the Maratha tiruvasal with fortification wall, surrounded by disused moat, which has been leveled up at the eastern axial point to raise the passage of approach even with the courtyard floor of the temple.
As per the agamas occupying the exact centre of the front half of the court is the Nandi-mandapa. (The Nandi and superstructure were added later by Nayaka), with the main sanctum (garbagriha) occupying the exact centre of the rear half.
The footing of pedestal (upapitha) measuring 100 feet on each side rising to a height of 6 feet is divided into five bays which continue to the top. The gala has galapadas. The Padma-bandha adhisthana (basement) rising to a height of a 8 feet 3 inches is 90 feet 9 inches square on top. The vyala-friezes are seen in the lower and upper courses. Above the vyala-frieze is the vedi supporting the foot (padas) of the wall.
The garbagriha is 24 feet 9 inches square surrounded by an enclosed ambulatory passage. The vimana is Sarvatobhadra type (with openings on all four directions providing light and ventilation to the enclosed ambulatory passage housing the wonderful fresco paintings, ad dance sculptures. The total height of the wall portions in two talas (tiers) is 25 feet. The structure rises to a height of 5/6 of the aditala (ground-floor). The garbagriha inside extends for both the talas housing the biggest Linga with enormous pita (pedestal). In the ambulatory passage, the two talas are separated by mezzanine – the lower tala has the paintings and the upper tala the dance panels.
The details of the devakostha (niches) and the images therein in the aditala and the one above are illustrated in figures 2,4,6. The arrangement of the wall decoration is indeed remarkable. They carry a series of devakosthas and beautifully deigned pilasters. This arrangement is seen on both the storeys. This has given ample space for the sculptor to accommodate exquisite images of many divinities which are noteworthy for their iconographic and aesthetic content.
Parallel course of the masonry over the second tala are stepped closer, using a system of corbelling and extending to the third tala. On this the base of the other 12 talas rest. The remainder of the superstructure including griva (neck) and sikhara is hollow following the Kadalika-karana (fig. 3) method of construction. The square plan of the hollow interior becomes octagonal beyond half of the height. The corner slab acts further to brace the superstructure. The neck (griva) is octagonal capped by light ribbed, bulbous kalasa.
The height of the vimana is the eight times the base as the human body is conceived of as 8 spans of the land. With 16 talas (tiers) highest prescribed in texts – the Vimana is considered to be Jati-vimana.
Immediately in front of the sanctum are two large pillared halls (maha and mukha-mandapas). The former comprises of six transverse rows of six pillars each, forming three concentric squares. The four pillars in the south-west corner enclosed by a wall is Thyagaraja shrine. The pillars on the northern side are included for utsava-murtis (processional deities). The later mandapa has a central nave bordered by two rows of ten pillars each, with shorter pillars raised on small platforms on either side. On western side are the steps to reach the terrace. In front of the mandapa is a wide platform reached by flight of steps on north and south.
Along with the main sanctum complex a shrine for Ganapati and a shrine for Candeswara were built in the south west corner and north sides respectively. Ganapati shrine consists of Sri-vimana, square in cross section with tritala (three-tier) superstructure, ardha-mandapa and mukha mandapa (refer phases). The Candeswara shrine is facing the sanctum, showing the importance attributed to him as the controller of Siva’s household.
The other shrines in the courtyard – Subrahmanya shrine, Amman shrine and Nataraja shrine were later additions (Pandyas 1250-1350 CE).
Amman shrine was built by the Padyan king, Tribhuvana Chakravartin Konnerinaikandan and is a masterpiece of Pandyan architecture (1336-1550 CE).
During the Vijayanagar reign, more gifts of gold and silver were made and the temple complex maintained, and the records show that the gifts of Rajaraja I had survived till then.
Thanjavur Nayaka (1550-1664 CE) built the Subrahmanya shrine – Vijayanagara architecture, added a mandapa to the Amman shrine, carried out extensive paintings on the walls of Tiruccuru malika, garbagriha and and Subrahmanya temple and built the superstructure over the Nandi mandapa and housed the existing Nandi inside. Amman was called Brihannayaki for the first time, the temple and the Isvara Brihadiswara from which the temple got its name Brahadisvara temple.
Mahrathas (1675-1802 CE) – In 1793, when Serforji I ascended the throne, as a mark of thanksgiving, donated many jewels and silver-vessels to the Isvara, renovated the garbagriha of Ganapati shrine, carried out extensive repairs to the prakara, recorded the family history of Bhonsle family in inscriptions, commissioned painted portraits of Mahratha rulers in the mandapam of Subrahmanya shrine, narrative paintings of Devi Mahatmyam in Amman shrine, built the Nataraja shrine to the east of the Amman shrine housing Nataraja – (the only bronze available of Rajaraja I) and installed a bronze Nandi in the garbagriha.
The empire of Rajaraja I stretched from coast to coast (east to west) from Twelve Thousand islands and Srilanka in the South to the banks of Tungabhadra in the North including Kalinga in the North-west.
The whole empire was so efficiently organized and administered that the possessions won were retained, with a strong personal monarchy on top and a virile total autonomy and initiative institutionalised at the unit level, that during the second half of his reign (CE 1005-1010) he could devote to building the Brahadisvara temple. All the tributes he levied, the trophies he obtained were offered as flowers at the feet of the Lord Rajarajeswara, as a mark of devotion. The whole management system has been chiseled out in stone for posterity.
The major arrangement was to provide extensive lands spreading over the entire empire as irayilli-devadana (tax free lands) from the revenue of which the expenses connected with the worship and services of the temple were to be set. Decentralised administration, encompassing people from all walks of life, installing in everyone a sense of participation, as ca be seen from the judicious choice of representative selection of temple servants from all villages (treasurers, accountants and other functionaries numbering 196 from 144 villages, 143 watchmen from 1331 villages and 400 women from 69 centre (to mention just a few), to work under the Management of Adityan Suryan (Headman of Poygai Nadu) with the spiritual guidance of Karur Devar and agamic guidance of Guru Isana Siva Pandita and a Committee of nobles as patrons, paved the way for smooth running of the system. (Two social workers to take care of the welfare of the women and the provisions made to import rose-water, musk, camphor, saffron etc., just goes to prove the extent to which every little detail was taken care of.
Again the choice of three level Committees comprising of Udankúttam (brain power mati), Viyayis (executive karma) and naduvirukkum (in between) to decide and/or solve any issue accelerated the management on the right direction.
Never once has Rajaraja I stated that the temple was his or his creation. He has been generous again to record all the donations and contributions, however small it may be, installing in everyone the feeling the temple is theirs. Inclusion of army personnel either as part of the music choir or meykappu and inclusion of Brahmin in the army completed the totality of the picture.
When Rajaraja I ascended the throne in 985 CE, Saivism had already been there for more than 1000 years (mentioned in Sangam literature). During the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries, Bhakti movements heralded the shift of emphasis in literature from heroism to devotional ethos. During the later Chola rule, total submission to their personal duty reached its acme as can be see in Rajarajeswaram.
The avowed Mahesvara oriented articulations of the Thanjavur Great Temple begun with the macro-cosmic Linga with a befitting crown in the form of the biggest Vimana over the garbagriha, continues in the expositions of all the 25 different forms of Siva in sculptures, bronzes and/or painting as revealed by the devakostha images, the massive sculptures in the niches of the inner closed ambulatory passage of the garbagriha respectively of Aghora Bhairawa (seated on the south, Satyajata Tandava Siva (West), Vamadeva represented by Amba (North) and Tatpurusa lingam of the sanctum facing east, the episodes of Sundarar ( a saint), Tripuranta (a form of Siva) and Nataraja depicted in true frescoes, the sculptural representations of karanas as danced by Siva himself, the endless silver, bronze and copper icons).
Rajaraja was also called Sivapadasekhara (he who bears the feet of Lord Siva on his head), was always in the company of Siva-bhaktas becoming Sivayogin (saint) towards the end of his rule, rediscovered the Devaram hymns. He instituted an icon of Devar-e-devar and commissioned (Dina-padiyana) daily ritual of Devaram hymns with Tirumantiram and Vedas. He also encouraged gifts of copper images of Saiva saints canonized later in the Saiva hagiologies.
Rajaraja was again instrumental in bringing of votaries of different schools of thought in Saivism.
The Nataraja (adavallan) (see Nataraja) was the favourite deity of Chola kings. Rajaraja I, a great devotee of Nataraja named even the Brahaisvara as adavallan and all the units of measurements were also named after Him. The only bronze of Nataraja still existing in the temple is again of Nataraja.
Even though sectarian polarization had crept into the Brahmanical fold, a progressive king like Rajaraja made it a point to give clear expression to his tolerant attitude to religion, for example : the Buddha panel on the balustrade leading to Vikramacholan tiruvoil (entrance); the Alilai Krisna (Krisna on ficus leaf) near the tiru-anukkan tiruvoil, the distribution of dasavatharam of Visnu in both Rajarajan tiruvoil and Keralanthakan tiruvoil.
Icons of Vasudeva and Mahavisnu – all in the temple (refer under Rajaraja I for more information on religious tolerance).
Highlighting the importance of education, a sculpture of Saraswati and an icon of Daksinamurti (teacher) had been introduced for the first time in the temple. His reverence for his Guru, Karur-devar can be seen in the portrayal of the Guru in sculpture and frescoes.
Astadikpalakas were given separate shrines for the first time.With so many firsts to its credit, Rajarajeswaram still stands as a veritable repository of all that is great in architecture, sculpture, iconography, agamas, painting, music, dance and the allied fine art proclaiming to the world at large, the merits of kar-seva.