April 23, 2015

Brihadeeswara Temple

Site Name: Brihadeeswara Temple
Site Type: Hindu Temple
Location:  Tanjore city, Tamil Nadu state, India
Highlights: One of the most important architectural marvels of India
Nearest Railway Station: Tanjore
Nearest Airport: Trichy
How to reach: Well connected by road and rail
Hotel: A lot of options across the entire Tanjore city
Restaurants: A lot of options across the entire Tanjore city

Those who have not heard about Brihadeeswara temple cannot claim to have visited India. Brihadiswara temple is located at the heart of Tanjore (Tanjore is an anglicized name of Thanjavur city) in South India. It is one of the architectural marvels of India. The 1000 years old Chola masterpiece is one of the most popular travel destinations and religious centers in India. I feel blessed to write this article on this great site.

  • Brihadeeswara is also written as Brihadeshwara or Brihadiswara; another popular name of this temple is Periya Kovil which means 'the big temple'. It is also referred as Peruvudaiyar Kovil, Raja Rajeswara Temple, Rajeswara Peruvudaiyar and Rajarajeswaram.
  • God - Brihadeeswara 
  • Goddess - Periya Nayaki
  • Brihadeeswara is also called as Peruvudaiyar, Adavallan or Dakhina Meru Vidankar
  • The temple was built by none other than the most popular Chola Emperor Raja Raja Chola I in 1010 CE.
  • This great living example of Chola Temple architecture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
  • The temple has 216 feet high vimana which is the tallest in South India.
  • The single block of square shaped granite on which the Sikara rests, weighs around 80 tons.
  • The 16 feet long and 13 feet high gigantic Nandi idol is one of the popular attractions of the temple.
  • There are magnificent Dwarapala sculptures found in various places in this temple. 


The temple was built by the great Chola Emperor Raja Raja Chola I in 1010 CE. As per the inscriptions found in the temple, the main architect of the temple was Kunjara Mallan Raja Raja Perunthachan. It is said that the temple work was started in 1004 CE and was finished within five years. 

Temple Layout:


The entire temple complex of this great temple named Brahadiswara stands amidst fortified walls (measuring 240 meters by 120 meters). These walls are not part of original work by the Cholas. They are later additions (16th century CE) by the Maratha Kings who ruled Thanjavur. 

The temple complex is surrounded by a moat on the west, north and east and by the Grant Anicut Canal in the southern direction. 

The east facing temple was constructed entirely of granite similar to that of other ancient temples in South India. However, Thanjavur is not a place where this type of stone can be found. Probably, the stone was quarried and transported from a long distance to Tanjore. 

Siva Ganga Tank, a large water body, is located to the north of the temple structure.

Main Temple:

The main temple is built as per the Dravidian temple architectural style. It has Garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), Ardha Mandapa, Maha Mandapa and Mukha Mandapa. There are two prakaras around the sanctum sanctorum. The outer prakara is surrounded by the fortified walls which in turn is surrounded by the moat. The entire fortified area is called as Siva Ganga Little Fort.

Temple Towers (Gopurams):

There are three entrances, one after the other, for this temple, all facing the east direction. The outermost or the first entrance was constructed by the Marathas in the 18th century CE. The middle or the second tower is called as Keralantaka Tiruvasal. It was built to celebrate the victory of Rajaraja Chola over the Chera (Kerala) King. The innermost entrance is called as Rajarajan Tiruvasal. Both the second and innermost entrances are contemporary to the main temple and they are original works of the Cholas.

First Entrance:

The first entrance has two small shrines dedicated to Lord Ganesha and Lord Subramanya on either sides. There is no tower present in this entrance. Instead, there is a arch with Maratha period stucco images of Shiva-Shakti, Ganesha, Surya, Kartikeya and another unidentified deity.

Keralantaka Tiruvasal:

The Keralantaka Tiruvasal entrance has a two-tiered tower which is carved with a lot of beautiful sculptures. Some of the sculptures in this tower include:

  •  The dancing Kali with eight arms
  • Lakshmi
  • Vishnu
  • Veerabhadra along with the goat headed Daksha
  • Ganesha with his consort Siddhi
  • Uma and Maheswara
  • Shiva with five faces (or Brahma?)
  • Chandrasekhara and Uma
  • The dancing Shiva with ten arms with his left leg turned upwards - Urdhavatandava
  • Gangadhara
  • Rishaba vahana
  • Two wrestlers
  • Shiva marrying Parvati; Vishnu nearby - Kalyanasundaram pose
  • Brahma and Saraswati
  • Dwarapalas - multiple in each layer and in both sides of gopuram
  • Shiva sitting on Rishaba (on the other side of gopuram - another one)
  • Sadasiva (another one, on the other side of gopuram)
  • Gopikas vastrabaranam by Krishna
  • Shiva and Parvati
  • Shiva with two seers on his either sides
  • Two different poses of Narasimha attacking Hiranya
  • Vishnu in the sitting posture
  • Varaha carrying Bhoo Devi
  • Kartikeya with two consorts
  • Bhikshatana
  • and lot more...

Rajarajan Tiruvasal:

The innermost entrance is called as Rajarajan Tiruvasal. It also has a tower richly carved with sculptures. Another unique feature of this entrance is the bas-relief panels depicting many Puranic legends.

Two gigantic idols of Dwarapalas and the sculptures on the tower are very attractive. People generally miss out the relief panels in this entrance. They are supposed to be the unique feature of this entrance.

All these panels depict different Puranic stories such as...

  • Kama aiming his arrow to Shiva, Shiva burning Kama and subsequently Rati's prayer to Shiva; ultimately Kama (after he is back alive) and Rati worshiping Shiva
  • Arjuna's penance - Arjuna and Shiva in the form of hunter fighting - Arjuna getting Pashupatastra from Shiva
  • Valli getting afraid of elephant and marrying Kartikeya
  • Markandeya hugging Shiva Linga out of fear - Shiva attacking Yama
  • Daksha's yagna - Shiva cutting his head
  • Tripurantaka story - three Asuras fighting with Shiva - depiction of Buddha (the Asuras are depicted as followers of Buddha) - very interesting panel depicting Buddha, work of the Cholas
  • Kannappa Nayanar story
  • Big Gaja Samhara Murti - partly damaged
  • Big Kankalanathar - partly damaged

Definitely, the two big Dwarapalas at this entrance are the main attractions. If you carefully notice the Dwarapala to your left side when you enter into the entrance, there is a lion, snake eating elephant and a lizard below the right foot of the guardian. Not sure what Rajaraja wanted to tell the world by placing the lion below the foot of Dwarapala. I am not sure what is depicted in snake eating the elephant.

At the inner side of the entrance, the shrines of Indra and Nagaraja are found.

Some of the notable icons that are found on the tower...

  • Ten armed Ganesha with his consort seated on his lap - a beautifully decorated arch (torana) on top
  • Subramanya with twelve arms seated on an elephant - a beautifully decorated torana on top
  • Ardhanareeswara seated on Rishaba
  • Ganesha
  • Soldier, king or a deity seated on a horse
  • Kartikeya seated on peacock
  • Indra seated on elephant
  • Agni
  • Varaha with four arms in the sitting posture
  • Saraswati (or probably Kaumari) with four arms seated on peacock
  • Urdhavatandava and the dancing Kali with Nandi and Brahma holding musical instruments
  • Dancing girls
  • Rishis (seers)
  • Multiple pairs of dwarapalas in different sizes and postures
  • Three icons of Dakshinamurti one above the other
  • Brahma with two consorts - two icons one above the other - the lowermost icon has just Brahma without any consort
  • Krishna killing Bhutana
  • Vishnu with serpent on his top and is seated
  • and lot more...

Nandi Mandapa:

One of the major highlights of this great site is the huge sized Nandi. Although there are many myths that try to relate this Nandi idol to the Chola Emperor Rajaraja Chola, it was not built by him. The original Nandi of Chola period is placed in the side corridor. This massive Nandi which is facing towards the main shrine and to which pooja is offered belongs to Nayaka period (16th century CE). The Nandi Mandapa is full of pillars carved with sculptures.

The Nandi idol of Brihadeesvara temple is one of the largest monolithic Nandi idols. It weighs around 25 tonnes. It is about 15 feet high and 20 feet long.

The tall flag staff is found in front of Nandi Mandapa. Near that, there are four small sized Nandi idols are placed.

Main Temple:

The main temple is built as per the Dravidian temple architectural style. It has Garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), Ardha Mandapa, Maha Mandapa and Mukha Mandapa. There are two prakaras around the sanctum sanctorum. The outer prakara is surrounded by the fortified walls which in turn is surrounded by the moat. The entire fortified area is called as Siva Ganga Little Fort.

The Garbbhagriha is square on plan. There is a small prakara around the garbhagriha. Inside the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), the large sized Shiva Linga called as Brihadeesvara or Peruvudaiyar is found. The Shiva Linga is 12 feet tall. The Aavudaiyar (the circular portion - the lower part of Shiva Linga) is 55 feet in circumference. The Shiva Linga was originally called as Adavallan and Dakshina Meru Vindankar. 

There are Chola period mural paintings found in the inner prakara around the sanctum sanctorum. The public are not allowed to view these paintings. The paintings were discovered only in the beginning of 20th century CE. The paintings are so popular that there are some books written about them. 

As per the name of the temple (Big Temple or Periya Kovil), everything in this temple is big and huge. It includes not only Shiva Linga, Vimana and Nandi, but even the Dwarapala statues that are found in the main temple. There are three sets of Dwarapalas found in the main temple.

The Maha Mandapa has the sub-shrines of Tyagaraja and utsava idols. Even some mural paintings can be found in the Maha Mandapa.

Near the Dwarapalas in the Mukha Mandapa, the idols of Shaneeswara and Bhairava are located. Also, the idols of Ganesha and Durga are found at the entrance.

The vimana is around 216 feet high and it is the tallest vimana in South India.The temple tower (gopuram) of the main entrance is 30 meter high. It is smaller than the Vimana, which is unusual in the Dravidian temple architectural style. 

The vimana is a tower of fourteen storeys and it is finely decorated with pilasters and has a lot of images of deities, Ganas and Nandis. The basement of the structure on which the entire vimana rests is 96 feet square. The sikara or dome which crowns the vimana is octagonal in shape. The Kalasa over the dome is 12.5 feet high. Although it is generally claimed that the dome rests on a single block of granite which is 25.5 feet square, there are scholars who believed that it is not single block. 

The east facing side of the vimana has the idols of Shiva with Shakti and Ganga on his either sides in all the layers. In some layers, the idol of Ganga is missing. At the top most layer, Lord Shiva is found in a unique asana (sitting posture). The lowermost layer has many images, Shiva with Shakti and Ganga in the middle, Ganesha on his right side, Subramanya-Valli-Devasena on his left side, Brahma, Vishnu and four more deities below.

The south facing side of the vimana has the images of Dakshinamurti. The west facing side of the vimana has the images of Vishnu with Sri Devi and Bhoo Devi. The north facing side of the vimana has the images of Brahma with two consorts.

Niche Sculptures:

The wall around the main shrine has inscriptions in the lower portion. The middle and upper portion has a lot of beautiful niche sculptures. Some of the notable sculptures are:

  • Ganesha
  • Vishnu with Sri Devi and Bhoo Devi
  • Lakshmi
  • Vishnu Anugraha Murti
  • Veerabhadra
  • Kalantaka
  • Bhikshatana
  • Natesa
  • Dakshinamurti
  • Harihara
  • Ardhanareeswara
  • Annamalaiyaar
  • Chandrasekhara
  • Gangadhara
  • Narasimha
  • Saraswati
  • Varaha

Apart from the east facing main shrine, all the entrances in the other three directions too have big Dwarapala idols. Also, the decorated stone windows are found in between the niche images. The side wall of the steps have relief images depicting some legends. In one of the reliefs, we can find Buddha. 

Amman Shrine:

The south facing shrine for the Goddess of the temple is very big and attractive. It enshrines Periya Nayaki, a very big idol. It was built by the Pandya Kings in the 13th century CE. The Goddess is also called as Brihan Nayaki or Ulagum Muzhududaiya Nachiyar.

Ganesha Shrine:

The east facing Ganesha shrine found in the prakara was a later addition and it was added by Sarbhoji, the Marathi King, in the later part of the 18th century CE. This is a small shrine with a front side mandapa. The vimana looks very beautiful with a lot of sculptures.

Subramanya Shrine:

The east facing Subramanya shrine located in the prakara is one of the most beautiful features of this great temple. Though the shrine is not very big, the carvings on the walls of the shrine and the sculptures on the vimana are very attractive. Most of the sculptures on the vimana are of Subramanya in different postures such as Subramanya on peacock, Subramanya with consorts, Subramanya in a stylish posture on peacock, Subramanya on elephant, etc. The Subramanya shrine was built by the Nayakas in the 16th century CE. It is a gem of Nayaka architecture.

The shrine enshrines Subramanya along with his two consorts Valli and Devasena. There is a front side mandapa which is a later addition. 

Cloister Mandapa:

The cloister mandapa located in the prakara was constructed by the military commander of Rajaraja Chola named Krishnan Raman. There are 36 small shrines located in this mandapa. There are few mural paintings and some important inscriptions found here.

Other Shrines:

The Chandikeshwara shrine is contemporary to Brahadeeswara shrine.

There is a separate shrine for Nataraja called as Adavallan.

There is a unique shrine dedicated to Varahi. It is not usual to find this deity separately.

The Guru of Raja Raja Chola Karuvur Devar is found in a separate shrine which was constructed by the Nayakas in the 17th century CE.

The prakara has 108 big sized Shiva Lingas. The idols of Ganesha and Ishana are found near the first and the last Linga respectively.

In the recent past, a museum has been set up inside the temple complex which displays the mural paintings and other artifacts related to this temple.


It is widely believed that the shadow of the vimana never falls on the ground. It is not true.

There is a rumour that Raja Raja Chola committed suicide by falling down from the vimana; it is also not true.

There are legends related to the huge Nandi idol and Raja Raja Chola such as Nandi idol was growing and the King somehow stopped it from growing further. Such funny stories have no basis. The idol was not constructed during the Chola period at all.

Although I am happy to write this article in detail, I know I could not cover all the aspects of this magnificent, gigantic and artistically beautiful big temple. When time permits, I would love to spent at least two weeks in this temple to write a detailed book.

Happy travelling.

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