Great Living Chola Temples

This world heritage site comprises three temples; I visited the greatest and earliest of them, the Brihadisvara Temple in the town of Thanjavur. It was built in the early eleventh century by Rajaraja Chola I, a ruler of the medieval Chola dynasty whose empire lasted between the ninth and thirteen centuries and controlled a huge swathe of southern India (and offshore territories including Sri Lanka and the Maldives) at its height.

Brihadisvarar Temple

Brihadisvarar Temple

The temple is dedicated to Shiva and sits within a large enclosure, along with a number of subsidiary temples, surrounded by high fortified walls added later.

Brihadisvarar Temple - entrance gate

Brihadisvarar Temple – entrance gate

The enclosure is reached through two tall gates, the steep roofs of which are covered with a wonderful mass of carved figures and architectural embellishments.

Brihadisvarar Temple - entrance gate detail

Brihadisvarar Temple – entrance gate detail

Inside, the is soaring main temple is the main attraction for worshippers, along with the pavilion in front of it housing a large statue of the sacred bull Nandi who always appears at Shiva temples.

Brihadisvarar Temple - Nandi

Brihadisvarar Temple – Nandi

The temple buildings have some interesting detailing plus some nice figurative carvings.

Brihadisvarar Temple

Brihadisvarar Temple

The tower over the main sanctuary (55 – 65m high depending on your source, certainly one of the tallest in India) is a massing of receding small repeating elements, rising to a massive capstone that is thought to weight around 80 tonnes.

Brihadisvarar Temple

Brihadisvarar Temple

I happened to look into the temple during the part of the day when the sanctuary door is open to allow worshippers to file past and see the large stone lingam within and leave offerings with the priests. I joined the queue and had a quick look but declined to give any money (and didn’t have any flowers on me).

Brihadisvarar Temple

Brihadisvarar Temple

Taking photographs within the temple is forbidden,  so for the interior you’ll have to make do with this one of the outer pillared hall, taken from the doorway.

Brihadisvarar Temple - lots of lingams

Brihadisvarar Temple – lots of lingams

But photographs of stone lingams are no problem; around the periphery of the enclosure is a continuous covered (and therefore blissfully shady) walkway, housing mass groupings of them, with some rather jolly wall paintings behind some of the bigger ones.

Brihadisvarar Temple - more lingams

Brihadisvarar Temple – more lingams

There were also a couple of wooden mounts for deity statues stored here, presumably used for taking the gods out for a spin during festivals. I love the expression on this one’s face.

Brihadisvarar Temple - mount for a deity

Brihadisvarar Temple – mount for a deity

As the name of the world heritage site implies, this temple is an active place of worship rather than just a heritage site. Although an atheist myself, I am fascinated by the beliefs and practices of others and I was intrigued to see that behind the main temple there was a tree onto which were tied little fabric bundles, yarn, ribbon and bangles.

Brihadisvarar Temple - offerings tied to tree

Brihadisvarar Temple – offerings tied to tree

The whole inner enclosure is a shoes off area, which later in the afternoon, when the sun had had plenty of time to heat up the stone and brick paving, made for quite a painful experience. I caused a large family group much hilarity when I dashed towards them, shouting “ouch” at every step before leaping onto the shady grass they were sitting on. 

Brihadisvarar Temple - elephant balustrade

Brihadisvarar Temple – elephant balustrade

For the Lego model, there was no way I could manage an approximation of the main temple, so I chose this little building next to it.

Brihadisvarar Temple

Brihadisvarar Temple

Which I still had to simplify a lot to build.

Lego Brihadisvarar Temple

Lego Brihadisvarar Temple

And finally, a picture of the temple’s real elephant:

Brihadisvarar Temple - elephant

Brihadisvarar Temple – elephant

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