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Temples in South India >> Tamil Nadu >> Brihadeeshwara Temple

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 of.

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 name.

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 walls.

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