Chola Glories: the Brihadeeshwara Temple

At noon, a large group of birds takes flight and circles the vimana of the Brihadeeshwara Temple- swinging out in a deep arc, then coming very close to the intricately sculpted tower, before disappearing behind it. The birds return- once, twice, thrice, gliding smoothly in what seems to be an orchestrated flight, but must surely come naturally to them? The sight is breathtaking and bystanders squint into the sky, oblivious to the sharp noon sun and the burning concrete underneath.

This visit to the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur coincided with my reading of the English translation of Ponniyin Selvan, the magnificent Tamil serial by Kalki which describes succession intrigues in the Chola Empire. I am not sure how much of it is fiction, but the solid historical backdrop it is set against is indicative of what the Cholas meant to Tamil Nadu, and eventually Sri Lanka and parts of South-East Asia, all those centuries ago. Arulmozhivarmar, the protagonist, was called Ponniyin Selvan- the son of the river Ponni (or Kaveri)- and was to be the highly respected, successful Emperor Rajaraja Chola I. According to Kalki’s story, it wasn’t a smooth ride to the throne: with Arulmozhivarmar’s elder brother Aditha Karikalar the actual Crown Prince, and venerated queen Sembiyanmadevi’s son Maduranthakar staking his claim as well, a messy battle brewed for the kingdom, thanks to the greed of certain other parties. Travelling through Chola country, seeing the rivers that once flowed abundantly and fed the various lakes in the countryside, I can almost feel their spirits in the air.

One of the most significant aspects of Chola rule was the respect accorded to all religions. Though the Chola kings themselves were worshippers of Shiva, they encouraged their subjects to practise their own religions. Buddhism was protected and monasteries and stupas renovated, as were Hindu temples belonging to all sects. Perhaps this helped them win the respect of the subjects and stemmed the tendency to revolt, assisting them in their conquest before their eventual downfall at the hands of other dynasties.

When this temple was constructed a thousand years ago, the Chola Empire extended from Kalinga in Orissa to Sri Lanka. Emperor Rajaraja Chola I wanted the Brihadeeshwara Temple to be “Dakshina Meru”- the Mt. Meru of the south. The 200-foot-tall vimana topping the main shrine, which houses an enormous Shiva lingam, is a spectacular sight. In front of it is a giant statue of Nandi, the bull which is Shiva’s mount. The detail on it, right down to the exquisitely carved hooves, is fascinating. Various other shrines, all with splendidly carved gopurams, lie within the walls of the complex which was once protected by fortress-like walls. I have developed a particular interest in the various kinds of dwarapalas in temples in the south- their sculptures have varying visages, sometimes benignly warning you not to do wrong, often very ferocious and intimidating.

The various influences that shaped Tamil history in the region are evident in the inscriptions on the walls. While some of the inscriptions are in the old Tamil grantha script, others are in Devanagari; paintings in parts of some shrines are an indication of the Maratha influence. More paintings adorn the walls on the outer periphery, many faded but several still quite clear. They tell stories from Hindu mythology, mostly revolving around Shiva and Parvati.

A perennial festive atmosphere must have pervaded the complex several centuries ago. Dance, music and debate must have infused life into the enormous courtyard in this town that was once the culture capital of the region. Though much has naturally changed over the thousand years that have elapsed since, the temple’s power to astound remains. It is a marvel that was engineered without any of the sophisticated equipment and techniques we can boast of today. Will any creation of ours today stand the ravages of time, weather and rule, and continue to astonish a thousand years on?

PS. A family story- the light on top of the main vimana is supposed to have been fixed by my mother’s maternal uncle in the years when electricity first arrived in those parts. If true, what a lovely story to keep for posterity!

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