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Karnataka and South India - 05 Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience


Brihadeshwara Temple (locally known as Tanjai Periya Kovil) is a temple dedicated to Shiva located in Thanjavur in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is one of the largest temples in India and was built by Rajaraja Chola Chola I.  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 and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Great Living Chola Temples".

The Brihadeshwarar temple was one of the first great Tamil Chola building projects, the temple's foundations were laid out in 1002 CE and it was completed in 1010 CE.  It is both an example of the Dravidian style of temple architecture and representative of the Chola Empire ideology.  It was at one time, the centre for cultural activities like music, dance and art, all of which were encouraged and staged in the temple.

The temple has also  been declared a heritage monument by India and is administered by the Archaeological Survey of India as a protected monument.

The site

A first rectangular surrounding wall, 270 m by 140 m, marks the outer boundary. The main temple is in the centre of the spacious quadrangle composed of a sanctuary, a Nandi, a pillared hall and an assembly hall (mandapas), and many sub-shrines.  The prakaram (outer precincts of the temple) measures 240m by 125m.

The temple complex sits on the banks of a river that was channelled to make a moat around the complex's outer walls.  In effect, the symbolism of the island is used, the bridge and walls.  The complex is made up of many structures that are aligned axially.  An axial and symmetrical geometry rules the entire temple layout.

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 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.

The Pyramids

The gopuram of the main entrance is 100 ft (30 m) high. The Kumbam (the apex or the bulbous structure on the top) weighs around 80 tons.

The massive size of the main Vimanam (Shikhara) is ca. 60.96 meters high, with numerous elaborately articulated stories, it dominates the main quadrangle. Pilaster, piers(a raised structure), and attached columns are placed rhythmically covering every surface of the Vimanam.  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.

There are 4 stories on a square pattern representing the Elements – Fire, Air, Water, Earth; then the tower proper starts.  The number of levels and layers may not be significant here, the number of levels may simply have been needed to give the necessary height.  There are 12 altogether – and they could be representing the Signs of the Zodiac, but strictly speaking the signs should not ascend in this way in a sacred geometry.

The solid base of the temple rises about 5 metres (16 feet), above which stone deities and representatives of Shiva dance.

Inner sanctum


If we remember the symbolism of sacred architecture, the largest pyramid represents Shiva.  It is a sacred mountain symbolically and of course a hollow mountain too. 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.  The word Karuvarai means "womb chamber" from the Tamil word karu for foetus. Only priests are allowed to enter this inner-most chamber.

The inside chamber housing the image of the god is the sanctum sanctorum, the garbhagriha. 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.

Inside is a huge stone linga, 3.7 metres tall.


Bulls and cows

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.  The statue of Nandi, the sacred bull, was carved out of a single rock and measures about 16 ft (4.9 m) long and 13 ft (4.0 m) high.


The ‘Shrine goddesses’

The outer wall of the upper storey is carved with 108 dance karanas – postures of Bharathanatyam, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu.  Bharatanatyam is described in the ancient Tamil epic Silappatikaram and is ‘quite possibly the oldest classical dance tradition of India.’  The dancer keeps a fixed upper torso, with a straight back, but has her legs bent and her knees flexed out, almost like a yoga sitting posture.  This is “combined with spectacular footwork, and a sophisticated vocabulary of sign language based on gestures of hands, eyes and face muscles”. The dance is accompanied by music and a singer, and typically her guru is present as the director and conductor of the performance.


At the time of its consecration, in 1010 AD by Raja Raja Chola I, the temple maintained a staff of 1000 people in various capacities, record-keepers, musicians, scholars, and craftsman of every type as well as housekeeping staff.  Significant, however, is that 400 of those people were ‘temple dancers’. 

There is no doubt that the dancers would have danced, but the term ‘temple dancer’ is another phrase for a High Priestess and this is a significant number for a temple to have, indicating that this was once an exceptionally important temple for attaining spiritual experience via the sexual methods, hence the number of extra staff required.

The inscriptions on the compound wall of the temple, indicate that the temple served as a platform for dancers who excelled in the traditional dance form of Bharatnatyam.  Bharatanatyam or Bharathanatiyam (Tamil: பரதநாட்டியம்) is a major genre of Indian classical dance that originated in the Shiva temples .  It was a solo dance that was performed exclusively by women, and ‘expressed spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism, but also of Shaktism.’


The temple has some interesting Chola frescoes on the walls around the sanctum sanctorum.  The current explanation says they portray “Shiva in action, destroying demonic forts, dancing and sending a white elephant to transport a devotee to heaven.”  Further explanations then go on to say the scenes “portray the mythological episodes of the journey of Saint Sundarar and the Chera King to heaven, and the battle scene of Tripurantaka (Lord Siva) with Asuras (demons).”

Myths keep history alive and it is certain that the Scythians, all those years before, when they drove out the Dravidians from their homeland of the Indus valley, would indeed have seemed like demons.  The Scythians were not an unattractive people and after the carnage, the peoples did merge and inter marry.  As Wikipedia says “The Chola artists have proved their mettle by portraying even the Asura women with a sense of beauty.”

The Gods

The temple is decorated with a great number of statues of deities.  The "moolavar" or prime deity of the Brihadeeswarar Temple is of course Shiva, but this is one temple where there are statues to the Intelligences in the Intelligence hierarchy.  Each deity was originally represented by a life-sized statue, approximately 6 feet tall – a personification.

There are deities placed in the niches of the outer wall (Koshta Moorthigal) as well as the temple itself.  The years have not been helpful when it comes to identifying the Gods.  At one time – as with the Greek system where there were seven main Intelligences [the planets], 12 signs of the zodiac and then a host of sub-Intelligences, the Shaivist system had the same.  In fact the two systems had a common source and correspondences existed.  But the constant renaming and re-attribution of the gods in the Hindu system has caused a great deal of confusion.

There should be the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the 7 planets and one deity for each of the Elements – Earth, Water, Air and Fire. 

  • Agni – representing the element of Fire is there. 
  • Yama the lord of the underworld, in the Greek system Pluto or Hades, in the Zend-Avesta of Zoroastrianism, "Yima" is also recognisable.  The ‘underworld’ is the sum total of all the Elements.

Unfortunately it now gets very confusing, because the recent texts written presumably by Hindu scholars and not Shaivist scholars, now use the Hindi names for the other statues.

 Indra, for example, is the leader of the gods in Hinduism. He is the god of rain and thunderstorms.  He wields a lightning thunderbolt known as vajra and rides on a white elephant known as Airavata.  So he is, in the Greek system, Zeus and in the Roman system Jupiter.  Shiva and Indra are also to all intents and purposes, the same.  Nirṛti निरृति is mentioned in a few hymns of the Rigveda, and is thus a Hindu, not a Shaivist god.  Surya is one of the planets and Hindu.  When the attribution of planets took place in other systems, the name given was ‘the sun’,  - but this is most confusing and actually incorrect.  The Greeks knew the god as Apollo.  Chandra is Hindu and in other systems is the Moon, in the Greek system Artemis; and so it continues. 

It is worth mentioning that only Agni, Varuṇa, Vāyu and Īśāna are preserved in situ, and it is more than probable as we saw above that the names have been changed.  Somebody has swapped the gods!!


The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Activities and commonsteps