About 290km south of Chennai, Tamil Nadu
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987


Early in the 11th century, king Rajaraja I, the restorer of the Chola Dynasty, constructed the Brihadishwara Temple, with the highest Vimana in south India, in his new capital Thanjavur. It informed later ages of the hegemony of the Chola Dynasty, the empire of Dravidian people that had prospered from ancient times to the 13th century in the Tamil land in south India.
In the 1930s, wall some paintings were discovered under the thick stucco in the Vimana of this temple dedicated to Shiva, one of the two great Hindu gods. They are Chola paintings depicting fascinating dancers and musicians in the heavenly realms.


When the Brihadishwara Temple dedicated to Shiva was completed in the capital of the Chola Empire in the early 11th century, its priests went around the country to seek unmarried pretty girls to make them ‘Devadasies,’ which means ‘God’s servants.’
They belonged to the temple with the role of dedicating dances to the main god Shiva, for the purpose of which they had to be virgin and come from a good family, for they would hold the matrimonial ceremony with the God after finishing their education.
These selected Devadasies entered this great temple before puberty, mastered dancing, and entertained the God by singing and dancing every evening, revering their future husband.

The wall paintings, from the age of the foundation of the temple, discovered in the 1930’s at the Vimana of the Brihadishwara Temple, depict Apsaras (celestial nymphs) dancing in the heavens with Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. The famous dance of ‘Bharata Natyam’ performed by Devadasies, just as in these well preserved wall paintings, is now danced not only in the Tamil region but also all over India.

Wall painting at a cloister, Nayaka period

It is at the Pradaksina-Patha surrounding the Vimana that these paintings were found. A pradaksina-patha is a circumambulatory passageway around a sacred image or building in which people walk while reciting Sutras in a clockwise direction. The walls and ceilings were covered with paintings in the Nayaka Dynasties in the 17th century over the top of far older paintings from the 11th century, which have now emerged to be seen again.

On the south wall of the Pradaksina-Patha Shiva is depicted preaching under a sacred tree, on the north wall Shiva is shown exterminating demons residing in three cities, and on the west wall is Shiva welcomes a saint on Mt. Kailasa in the Himalayas. In one scene, Shiva with eight arms is on a chariot being lead by the god of creation, Brahma, and in another scene, he practices yoga on a tiger skin, wearing a serpent on his neck and upper arm. There is also a drawing of Rajaraja I standing with his Guru (teacher) Karuvur Thevar.
In spite of the passage of long period of time, these paintings are in a good condition thanks to the protection from outer air, provided by the covering of thick stucco. They are quite precious as the only surviving Chola paintings.

Whole sight of Brihadishwara Temple


Brihadishwara Temple was completed in around 1010 in the southeastern part of the new capital Thanjavur constructed in the basin of the Kaveri (Cauvery) River by the king of the Chola Dynasty, Rajaraja I (r. 985-1014). It has also been called Rajarajeshwara Temple after the king’s name. It is one of the two greatest templesfrom the age of the Chola Dynasty together with the Rajendra-Cholishwara Temple built in the next new capital, Gangaikondacholapuram, which was constructed by his successor Rajendra I. Those constructions were prodigious national projects showing the Chola Empire’s hegemony in south India.

The delta area on the pivot of Thanjavur was a fertile granary since ancient times, called the ‘garden of south India.’ The successive Hindu kings erected a lot of temples in this area, the largest among which is the Brihadishwara Temple. Rajaraja I was the restorer of the weakened Chola Dynasty, extending his power from south India to Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean, and even to the Laccadive Islands in the Arabian Sea.

Plan of the Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur
( from "The History of Architecture in India" by Ch. Tadgell )

It is said that the Brihadishwara Temple was erected in only seven years. Its precincts are surrounded with cloisters covering an area of 120m by 240m and is also surrounded outside with heavy brick walls for an area of 350m square including a large tank (reservoir).
There is a Nandi Shrine, two continuous extensive Mandapas (worship rooms), an Antarala (antechamber), and a Vimana with a high tower, all in line on the east-west axis. On the same axis stand Gopuras (temple gateways) of the early phase at the eastern center of the cloister and the brick wall. They are the sole entrance spots to the temple precincts.
Though they are embellished with sculptures, they look much lower than later Gopuras of huge temples in south India, as the height of the Vimana is great in contrast.

The second 'Gopura' (Gateway)

The second Gopura on the line of the cloisters is 24m in both width and height, lower than the first Gopura, but its sculptures are larger, with a pair of Dvarapalas (guardian figures) on both sides of the doorway.

In the cloisters surrounding the precincts is a line of Lingas (phalluses), symbol of Shiva, and wall paintings from the Nayaka period on the rear walls delight the eye of pilgrims.

This Brihadishwara Temple made of granite and brick is the greatest work of the Dravidian (northern) style in its grand scale and high degree of perfection, alongside of the great temple in Gangaikondacholapuram. The development of stone temples in the southern Indian style, having started at the small temples at Mahabalipuram, reached their summit here. It became the model of the temples to be built in south India and Southeast Asia in the period of the Chola Dynasty.

However, after the end of the Chola Dynasty in the 13th century, temple style would change dramatically. Huge Vimanas would not be built anymore, rather temple precincts would be expanded, surrounding the temple in fold upon fold, and constructing only Gopuras in a colossal scale on the four sides. The outer Gopuras would be erected higher, and would eventually attain more than 60m. The relationship of height between the main shrine and its gates would be completely reversed. From this point too, the Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjavur is the best representative of orthodox south Indian temple architecture.

Inside of Entrance Porch


In Hindu society, a temple fills a central role socially and culturally, symbolising the images of a mountain, in which dwells divinity, and a mother’s womb that produces life. The especially venerated sacred mountains are Mt. Kailasa, the abode of Shiva, and legendary mountain Meru, the center of the cosmos. A temple, where gods visit the human world, is the representation on the earth of a sacred mountain, a place for people to meet gods, and also the center of all nature.

On the top of a Vimana soaring in a pyramidal shape is set a hemispherical crown stone forming a boundary between the human world and the celestial world. It is referred to as a Shikhara (mountain summit) in southern India, while in northern India, the term Shikhara refers to the entire tower over the sanctuary including the crown stone.

On the top of the Vimana of the Brihadishwara Temple is also set a monolithic Shikhara, which is presumed to weigh 80 tons. It is an enigma even nowadays how this gigantic heavy granite rock was lifted up to the height of 60m. According to one theory, a sloping scaffold must have been constructed 6km long.
This Shikhara takes the auspicious shape of an octagonal chalice, which is surmounted with a finial called ‘Kalasha’ (water pot) which is made of copper covered with gold leaf.

Tower-like 'Vimana' capped with 'Shikhara'

The cave-like Garbhagriha (sanctuary) inside the Vimana symbolizes a mother’s uterus, from the word ‘Garbha,’ meaning womb. In the sanctuary of a temple dedicated to Shiva, a Linga is enshrined instead of a statue of the god.
The Linga enshrined in the Brihadishwara Temple is so colossal a scaffold is needed to spray holy water onto it. It is supposed to be the largest Linga throughout India.

The plan of the Brihadishwar Temple’s Vimana is about 25m square with a pyramidal tower of 13 steps above the sanctuary. The tower soars up steeply without grand horizontal articulations despite being a southern style temple. The outline of this stepped type tower is quite rectilinear.

The vertical walls under the pyramidal tower are divided into two stories. Pilasters and niches, typical of the southern style, give a complicated artistic pattern to the extensive walls. There is a window in the center of the four sides, surmounted with a shrine-like roof, showing the existence of the Garbhagriha inside.
The niches on the walls are adorned with the statues of Hindu gods and most of them are images of Shiva. On the south side wall of the lower story is carved Shiva in the form of Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, in a pose of Bharata Natyam.

On the base of the whole temple, an imaginary animal resembling a lion, called a ‘Yali,’ is carved repeatedly and continuously in line. There is sporadically a monstrous crocodile-like animal, called a ‘Makara,’ from the mouth of which emerge warriors of the Chola Dynasty.
Each step of the tower consists of miniature shrines in neat order in the style of the Pallava Dynasty, previous to the Chola Dynasty. On the four corners of the top step are sculpted, a pair of crouching Nandis (bulls), faithful servants of Shiva.

Vimana wall
Wall Base of 'Vimana,' Brihadishwara Temple


A lot of inscriptions were carved on the basal stones of the Brihadishwara Temple, not only praising the achievement of its builder, Rajaraja I, but also depicting the society of the temple city, Thanjavur.

In the precincts of the Brihadishwara Temple, in addition to hundreds of priests, there lived more than 600 people such as dancers, flutists, drummers, Vina players, conch players, canopy holders, water sprinklers, lamp keepers, laundry women, and so forth. These people worked for the temple for half a day, and spent the remaining time on farm work, on land which was lent gratis by Rajaraja I. The contract with the temple was carved on a stone.
In exchange for using the farm land, it was their duty to engage in the construction work of the temple and to pull glittering festival cars on festival days.

From the temple inscriptions, one can know how much gold, silver, and jewelry, the Brihadishwara Temple possessed. The temple financed shipbuilders, village communities, craft guilds, and so forth, charging interest up to 30%. Even during the period of decline of the Chola Dynasty, the temple could raise large funds for expansion and ornamentation.

Wall of Subrahmanya Shrine

Thus, many buildings were added in the temple precincts. The shrine of Devi, spouse of Shiva, was constructed at a right angle to the main axis in the 13th century and the shrine of Subrahmanya with fine granite carvings was built in the 17th century on the right behind the Vimana. There was also a temple library for around 20,000 Sanskrit manuscripts near the Ganesha Shrine.

In front of the main temple, a large Nandi shrine was erected. The huge interior image of Nandi made of black granite is 6m in length and 4m in height, the largest in India. It glitters like bronze, since it has been polished with large amounts of oil every day.

© Takeo Kamiya
E-mail to: kamiya@t.email.ne.jp