Rajarajesvaram in the Tanjavur district
of Tamil Nadu has often been called `the temple of temples'.
Built round the turn of the first millennium A. D. during
the heyday of Chola rule, it is perhaps one of the best
expressions of artistic excellence that could be conceived
For the Cholas, temple building was not merely an outpouring
of artistic talent but also away of life, for the entire
fabric of the society was woven round the temple.
Built by the greatest of Chola rulers, Rajaraja, the
temple was named after him as Rajarajesvaram, meaning
`the temple of the Isvara (God) of Rajaraja'. Later
on, it became known as the Brihadisvara temple meaning
the temple of the `Great Isvara'. But, in fairness to
the great king who visualized and had this structure
built, I have, following my father, adhered to the original
I have chosen this temple as the theme of this book
because it is a unique monument in many respects.
It attracts the curiosity of not merely the historian
but also the sociologist, not to speak of the dancer
and the painter for, it is perhaps the only temple in
the world which carries on its walls the engraved evidence,
in beautiful calligraphy, of its entire history and
the story of the contemporary society.
Such an exhaustive documentation ranging over almost
a hundred long inscriptions engraved on the walls, pillars
and podium, is rare wealth, indeed of immeasurable value
to the scholar.
The inscriptions give, apart from a comprehensive history
of the times, a full enumeration of all the metallic
images set up in the temple. Numbering about sixty-six,
these icons are referred to with a description of the
minutest details of size. shape and composition. This
alone is a mine of information for the art historian.
The temple also sports a depiction in stone, of eighty
one of the one hundred and eight karanas of Bharata
Muni's Natya Sastra - the first of its kind - setting
the pace for many others to follow in succeeding centuries.
The inseriptional data also abound in mention of the
jewellery of the period; about sixty-six different types
of ornaments and jewellery are listed with all the details.
As if this were not enough for the scholar, there is
a fund of material on the social and cultural life of
the people of the times. This single temple could give
the lie to the erroneously held and oft repeated contention
that the Indian community lacked a sense of history.
We have chosen this subject, not merely because of
our general interest in and involvement with art history
of the Cholas for over three decades along with our
illustrious archaeologist father, but also because no
painstaking attempt has yet been made by any scholar
to place all this treasure of information in a single
capsule for the scholar or the traveller.
The history gleaned from the temple walls will not
make much sense without an idea of the background of
Chola rule and hegemony. Hence I have devoted the first
chapter to `The Rise of the Chola Empire' thus bringing
before the reader the exact historical context of Rajarajesvaram.
The second chapter on `Rajaraja the builder', not merely
enumerates his attainments as a ruler, but also gives
a clue to his personality and the psychological forces
that prompted his building this fine edifice. This is
particularly important in the case of Rajarajeswaram,
for the temple bears the indelible imprint of the mind
that conceived it. In the same chapter, I have also
dealt with the contributions of Rajaraja's great aunt,
Sembiyan Mahadevi and the tremendous influence these
had on Rajaraja and hence on Rajarajesvaram.
The details of Rajaraja's conquests, his army and navy,
his administrative ability and his religious tolerance,
are gleaned from the inscriptional evidence on the temple
The next chapter brings out the detailed description
of the temple itself. An all stone structure of such
stupendous proportions had never been attempted before.
In height, elegance and simplicity of design and plan,
the temple has few parallels.
Chapter IV deals exclusively with murals and dance
panels that stand revealed on the walls, thanks to the
ravages of Time which had more or less peeled off the
late Nayak paintings that had been super posed on the
earlier Chola paintings.
The Bharatanatyam panels have been a source of great
attraction to the curious scholar and the dance theorist,
as also to the performing artiste. To give a general
picture of how these panels correspond to the Natya
Sastra verses, I have illustratively elaborated on six
of the sculptured panels