BRIHADISVARA TEMPLE, THANJAVUR

Thanjavur attained prominence under the Cholas in the ninth century, Vijayalaya, the first great ruler of the dynasty (850-71), having captured it and made it his capital. The Brihadisvara temple is a symbol of the greatness of the Chola empire under its author, emperor Rajaraja (985-1012), whose splendour it reflects.

By: Diksha Sharma

Posted on: 28/10/2020 View : 234

BRIHADISVARA TEMPLE, THANJAVUR

Thanjavur attained prominence under the Cholas in the ninth century, Vijayalaya, the first great ruler of the dynasty (850-71), having captured it and made it his capital. The Brihadisvara temple is a symbol of the greatness of the Chola empire under its author, emperor Rajaraja (985-1012), whose splendour it reflects. The long series of epigraphs incised in elegant letters on the plinth all round the gigantic edifice reveals the persona¬ lity of the emperor. The Brihadisvara temple (pi. I) is a monument dedicated to Siva, whom the emperor established here and named Rajarajesvaram-udayar after himself. As we gather from the inscriptions running throughout the plinth, the king, on the two hundred and seventy-fifth day of the twenty-fifth year of the reign (1010), presented a gold-covered finial to be planted on the top of the vimdna of the temple. The temple is the most ambitious of the archi tectural enterprises of the Cholas and is a fitting symbol of the magnificent achievements of Rajaraja. The endowments that he made for his temple were numerous and in his munificence he was joined by not only the members of his family but high officials and noble¬ men. Several large images in bronze and gold were presented to this temple, and their ornaments, described in detail in the inscriptions, give a vivid picture of the contemporary jewellers’ art. Even though most of the images and all the jewels have now disappeared.

there are still some exquisite bronzes, representing Nataraja, Tripurantaka, Devi and Ganesa, to give an idea of what great art-treasures were originally housed in the temple. True to his surname, Sivapadasekhara, Rajaraja spared nothing for embellishing and endowing the great institution, and in this his sister Kundavai and other members of his family fully associated them¬ selves. The endowments, together with the mention of even small weights and measures, the custom and method ofreceiving, maintaining and paying amounts or interest on amounts of donation for the regular conduct of special items of worship or for burning a lamp and similar details, give a vivid idea of the economic condi¬ tions of the time. Fine arts were encouraged in the service of the temple: the sculptures, the paintings in the dark passages of the sanctum and even the inscriptions in elegant Chola Grantha and Tamil letters give an idea of the great art that flourished under Rajaraja. Dance and music were greatly cultivated and were equally employed to serve the temple: every evening it was at once an entertainment and a ritual that the towns¬ folk, assembled in the mandapa, witnessed and enjoyed during the ceremony of the waving of lights and the chanting of the Veda and Devaram hymns. Cooks, gardeners, flower-gatherers, garland-makers, musicians, drummers, dancers, dance-masters, wood-carvers, sculptors, painters, choir-groups for singing hymns in Sanskrit and Tamil, accountants, watchmen and a host of other officials and servants of the temple—all are referred to in the inscriptions as having been endowed with adequate grants of land. Taking just a single fact, that Rajaraja constructed two long streets (talichcheri) for the accommodation of four hundred dancing women attached to the temple, we can well imagine the lavish scale on which he endowed the temple and its functions.

The annual income from the lands set apart for the temple alone is estimated as one hundred and sixteen thousand kalams of paddy. The emperor’s presentations in silver, gold and cash, not to mention various other gifts, form a staggering account of liberality. The temple is constructed of granite, mostly of large blocks, a rock which is not available in the neighbourhood and had therefore to be brought from a distance—itself a colossal task. The plinth of the cen¬ tral shrine is 45*72 square m, the shrine proper 30*48 square m and the vimana 60*96 m high. On the massive plinth, covered throughout with inscriptions, there are niches on three sides in two rows, containing representa¬ tions of deities such as Siva, Vishnu and Durga. On the southern wall the lower niches contain Ganesa, Vishnu with §ri-devi and Bhu-devi, Lakshmi, a pair of dvara-palas (pi. II G), Vishnuanugraha-murti, Bhikshatana (pi. II A), Virabhadra, a pair of dvarapalas, Dakshina-murti, Kalantaka (pi. Ill) and Natesa. In the lower niches on the west are Hari-Hara, Ardhanarlsvara, a pair of dvara-palas and two Chandra¬ sekharas, one with and the other without halo. On the north, in the lower series, are Ardhanarlsvara, Gangadhara, a pair of dvara-palas, Virabhadra (without the usual moustache but with a sword and shield), Alingana-Chandrasekhara (pi. II B), Siva holding a sula (spear), a pair of dvdra-palas, Sarasvati, Mahishamardinh and Bhairava. Of these, the first and last pairs of dvara-palas and the first and last four forms in niches are on the front porch of the temple, while all the rest are on the main walls of the vimana, The top series shows a number of Tripurantakas repeated in each niche. In the small circular space of the niche-tops are again carvings of deities like Ganesa, Vrishavahana, Bhikshatana, Narasirhha, Varaha, etc.

As we enter the temple from the east, there is a flight of steps leading to a pillared mandapa, which is a later addition, so that originally the dvara-palas on either side and the princely warriors in the niches faced the visitor. Apart from the mandapa and the steps leading to it, there are two other flights of steps on the north and south, as also between the front porch and the main shrine on either side. The Nandis on the vimana, seated sideways but with their heads turned to the front, remind us of their counterparts at Mahabalipuram. The stone constituting the huge sikhara, which is said to weigh 81.284 tonnes, is popularly believed to have been raised to its present height by being dragged on an inclined plane, which had its base at a place known as Sarapallam (‘elevation from depression5), 6.44 km away. The vast inner courtyard of the temple is about 152.40 x 76.20m and is surrounded by a cloister. At the entrance there are two gopuras, widely separated from each other, the first larger but the second one better decorated. The carvings on the latter, guarded by two monolithic dvdra-pdlas, illustrate Saivite stories like the marriage of Siva and Parvatl, Siva protecting Markandeya and Arjuna winning the pasupata weapon. Beyond the gopuras, in the court facing the central shrine and under the canopy ofa mandapa added in recent times, is a huge monolithic Nandi, indeed a fitting vehicle for the colossal linga installed in the central shrine, the height ofwhich is more than 3.66 m.

As is stated in the in¬ scription, this linga was called adavallan, ‘one who can dance well’, and dakshina-meru-vitankan—names associated with the deity at Chidambaram, whom the Cholas greatly revered, and, adopted by them for this linga, which is also known, after Rajaraja, as Rajarajesvaramudayar. The dark passage surrounding the sanctum of the temple contains important specimens of sculptural art. Here there are three colossal sculptures, respectively located in the south, west and north and representing Siva as holding a spear, seated Siva carrying a sword and trident and with fierce mien and Siva with ten arms dancing in the chatura pose as Vishnu plays the drum and Devi sits in padmasana with a lotus-bud and rosary in her hands. The entire wall-space and ceiling of the passage were originally covered with exquisite paintings, most of them now obscured by a coat ofpainting executed during the Nayaka period in the seventeenth century. The original paintings, have almost been exposed. On the western side, the entire wall-space is occupied by a huge panel in which Siva as Dakshina-murti is shown seated on tiger-skin in a yogic pose approximating the maharajaHid with the paryahka-bandha oryoga-patta across his waist and right knee, interestedly watching the dance of two apsarases (celestial nymphs), while Vishnu, dwarf ganas and other celestial musicians play on the drum and other instruments (pi. IV), a few princely figures watch the scene and two saints, Sundara and Gheraman, hurry to the spot on elephant and horse. Up and further away is depicted a temple (architecturally a typical early Chola one) with Nataraja enshrined in it, outside which are seated princely devotees. Further down is painted the story ofhow Saiva came down in the form of an old man with a document in his hand to establish his right to carry away Sundara on his marriage-day to his abode at Tiruvennainallur. Still below is a lively scene of women cooking and food being served during the marriagefestivity. Beyond this, on the other side of the wall, is a large figure of Nataraja dancing in the golden hall at Chidambaram with priests and other devotees on one side and a stately prince, obviously Rajaraja, and three of his queens with followers including kanchukis and other attendants carrying rods of office behind them. On the opposite wall are some charming miniature figures ofgraceful women.

A little further up is Rajaraja with his guru Karuvur Devar (pi. V). Beyond this, on the wall opposite the northern one and facing the pass¬ age, are five heads peeping out of a partially-exposed painting. The entire northern wall is covered by a gigantic figure of Tripurantaka Siva on a chariot driven by Brahma. Tripurantaka, accompanied by Karttikeya on peacock, Ganesa on mouse and Kali on lion, with Nandi in front of the chariot, is in the alidha pose of a warrior with eight arms, all carrying weapons and in the act of using a mighty bow to overcome a host of aggressive and fearless demons with their womenfolk clinging to them. This painting is the greatest master¬ piece of the Chola artist, distinguished by its power, grandeur, rhythm and composition and unparalleled by any contemporary painting or sculpture. This representation of Siva shows the earlier Pallava tradition, as in the Chola period Tripurantaka generally stands in the abhafiga and sometimes in the tribhanga pose, with one of his legs planted on the head of either the dwarfApasmara or a lion. This great panel portrays several sentiments in one; the heroic sentiment in the expression on Tripurantaka’s face and form and in that of the vigorous rakshasas in action; the emotion of pity in the sorrowful faces of their women clinging to them in despair; the spirit of wonder in the paraphernalia of gods surrounding Siva; and the sense of the grotesque in the attitude ofthe dwarf ganas and of Ganesa hasten¬ ing on his mouse. The Cholas being great warriors and conquerors, and Rajaraja himself the greatest of them all, it is in the fitness of things that the theme of Tri¬ purantaka, the mighty warrior-god, is glorified here, virtually as the keynote of the Chola power.

The colours in the paintings are soft and subdued, the lines firm and sinewy and the expression vivid and true of life; above all, there is an ease in the charming contours ofthe figures. They constitute the most valuable document ofthe painter’s art during the days ofthe early Cholas, and it is interesting to note that all the grace of south Indian classical painting that is seen in the earlier Pallava paintings at Sittannavasal, Panamalai and Kanchipuram is continued in the present series. The highest achievement in plastic art in the Choja period is revealed in the fine series of the one hundred and eight dance-poses carved all around the inner walls of the first floor of the temple. They form an invaluable document in the history of Indian art and are the pre¬ decessor ofthe labelled dance-poses on the Chidambaram gopuras., with the important difference that at Thanjavur, Siva himself, the lord of dance (Nataraja), is depicted as the dancer. The temples of Devi near the Nandi-mandapa and of Subrahmanya are later additions, the former during the time of Konerinmaikondan, a Pandya, of the thir¬ teenth century, and the latter during the Nayaka period in the seventeenth century. The shrine ofGanesa and the mandapa of Nataraja are also very late in date. The temple of Subrahmanya has exquisite carvings and is an excellent example of south Indian temple-architecture in the late medieval period.

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