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BRIHADEESHWAR TEMPLE : The Immortal Granite Edifice

Feature 5

Situated in the city of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, Brihadeeshwar temple is one of the oldest temples in India. It is the most ambitious granite monument ever built in the world. Many names have been given to this living Chola temple, but the most popular name is ‘Big Temple’ – and that’s because everything about this granite edifice is big – the entrance, the area around the temple, the Shiv lingam , the Nandi and the magnificent vimana or the temple tower.
In ancient days, Thanjavur, which is known as “the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu,” was an important city to the ancient Cholas. Historians say that 1,000 years ago the Cholas combined some of the villages in the region into a major temple centre. They constructed Brihadeeshwar temple in the centre of the city and built up the city around it.
Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this marvelous temple was built by King Raja Raja Chola 1 in the 11th century to celebrate a military victory. The temple stands as a tribute and a reflection of the power of Raja Raja Chola I. It is surrounded by moat on two sides and Grand Anicut river on the other side.
Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Brihadeeshwar temple, which was completed in 1010 AD, is the world’s first complete granite temple. This magnificent stone temple turned 1,000 in 2010.
Interesting Facts about the Big Temple

Feature 4Strange as it may seem, the shadow of Brihadeeshwar temple never falls on the ground at noon. The temple is so designed that the vimana does not cast a shadow at noon during any part of the year.

Besides, this temple is the first all-granite temple in the world. Interestingly, granite is not found in the surrounding areas. There are no granite quarries within a 100 km radius of the temple. It therefore requires logistics of incredible proportions to get the stone to the construction site. Besides, granite is harder to carve. And yet the great Chola wanted the temple to be covered with the most intricate designs.

The temple was built in just 7 years. So, its construction must have involved moving and placing almost 50 tons of rock every day, not to forget carving and aligning it. When the Brihadeeshwar temple was completed in 1003 CE, it was the tallest temple in India. A thousand years later, standing at 216 feet, it is still the tallest temple in India. At the top of the vimana is a capstone that weighs 80 tons.

At the entrance of sanctum sanctorum, one can see two idols of Ganesha in the corridor. When the two are tapped, the sound travels through stone in one idol and through the metal on the other. The main hall of the temple is said to have been used by dancers and musicians performing in service of Shiva. There are some musical pillars that produce different sounds when tapped.

Commemorative currency note and coin

Feature 3On April 1, 1954, Reserve Bank of India released a note of Rs 1,000 denomination to honour the historic Brihadeeshwar temple. This note features Brihadeeshwar temple’s panoramic view and is treasured by numismatists.

As part of the millennium celebrations, a commemorative coin of Rs 1,000 denomination was issued by the Government of India. It weighs 35 gm and consists of silver (80 per cent) and copper (20 per cent). On the obverse side, it bears the emblem of the Lion Pillar with the words Satyameva Jayate below it. The name of the country and denomination are spelt out in Hindi and English. On the reverse side, it bears a figure of Raja Raja Chola1 in a standing posture with folded hands with a figure of the temple and words depicting the 1,000 years of the temple.


Feature 2Plutonic rocks form when molten rock cools and solidifies inside the crust of the Earth without erupting to the surface from a volcano. The crystals of different minerals combine giving these stones a mottled appearance; and as the rock cools relatively slowly, the crystals can grow into mammoth sizes.

The most common types of plutonic rock are granite, granodiorite, tonalite, monzonite and quartz diorite. Granites are the best known of the plutonic rocks. They are popular in the stone trade because they can combine beautiful colours with unbelievable hardness and durability. They also take an eye-catching polish. Plutonic rocks that have properties similar to those of granites, such as syenites, diorites and gabbros, are also known as ‘granite’ in stone industry.

The word “granite” comes from the Latin granum, a grain, in reference to the coarse-grained structure of such a holocrystalline rock. Lacking any internal structures, granite is nearly always massive, hard and tough. This is why it has gained widespread use among people, and more recently as a construction stone. Granites are also an increasingly popular choice for practical and hard-wearing surfaces in today’s home. They make wonderful kitchen countertops and tiles for floors and walls.

Brihadeeshwar temple stands amidst fortified walls that were, it is said, added to the temple complex in the 16th century. The vimana is 216 feet high and is among the tallest of its kind in the world. Blocks of stone have been raised to form thirteen stories. What’s astounding is that there is no joint – not even a fraction of limestone or cement is used to raise it. Besides, the granite pieces used in the construction of this tower are of the same kind. The kumbam or kalasha – the apex or the bulbous structure on the top of the temple – is carved out of a single rock and weighs around 80 tons. There is a big statue of Nandi, the sacred bull, carved out of a single rock at the entrance. It weighs about 20 tons and is about 2 m in height, 6 m in length and 2.5 m in width. The presiding deity of lingam is 3.7 m tall.

The temple is known for its unique architecture. It is believed that the temple is made up of about 1,30,000 tons of granite. There are two gateways, known as gopuras, on the eastern side of the temple to enter.

In addition, many sculptures adorn the exterior of the temple. There is a big idol of Lord Shiva inside the temple. It has three eyes, but the third eye is closed. The entire compound of the temple has 250 Shiv lingams. Also, 108 dance poses, which are known as karmas performed by Lord Shiva, have been sculpted on the inner walls of the sanctum sanctorum.

Brihadeeswara temple consists of a pillared hall and an assembly hall known as mandapas and many sub-shrines. The inner mandapas are the most significant part of the temple. With the help of sculptures and pilasters, the mandapas are divided into different levels.

Idols of ashta-dikpaalakas, or guardians of directions, also find an important place in the temple. Statues of Agni, Varuna, Indra, Yama, Vayu, Isana, Kubera and Nirriti, which are 6 feet tall, have been placed in a separate temple.

Feature 1Brihadeeshwar temple was built to be the royal temple to showcase the emperor’s vision of his power and his relationship to the universal order. The temple was the site of important 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.

The temple complex is made up of many structures that are aligned axially. It 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 main vimana dominates the main quadrangle. Pilaster, piers and attached columns are placed rhythmically covering every surface of the vimana.

The frescoes that adorn the ceilings of the temple are amazingly captivating. This temple surely would have looked spectacular a thousand years ago, when King Raja Raja inaugurated it. The Thanjavur paintings would have been fresh and the temple totally earth-red. The king never allowed the painters to use artificial colours or acrylic colours. So, the painters pounded and powdered naturally-coloured stones, added some water to the powder and then applied it to stone surfaces.

Many people visit the Big Temple – a great and unique place – to worship Lord Shiva.

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