‘The Great Living Chola Temples’ is the name given to a group of three architectural wonders built in the Medieval Chola period, that remain intact till date at Thanjavur, TamilNadu. These three temples, viz., Brihadiswara, Gangaikondacholapuram (<click) and Darasuram (<click) are unique for their dravidian architecture, advanced scientific knowledge and incredible artistic skills.
During my journeys through the reminiscences of Chola empire, I could witness the birth, growth and death of a dynasty that ruled almost all of Southern India for the longest duration. Though the exact origin of Chola dynasty is not known, it is believed that they were contemporaries of Ashoka during 300BC and continued the reign until 1279 AD. Like most of the remarkable civilizations built around rivers, Chola land was also developed around the Kaveri river basin and their glorious past is still evident from the mighty temples they left behind in the region. Raja Raja Cholan and his son Rajendra Cholan were the most prominent among them all who marked the golden period during the 460 years of Chola rule. Cholas possessed one of the best Naval powers of their time and that helped them conquer the Northern half of SriLanka in 996 AD . Later towards the end of his rule, Raja Raja occupied the neighbouring islands such as Andaman & Nikobar, Lakshadweep and the Maldives as well. Raja Raja Chola was in constant war with nearby kingdoms like Chera/Pandya/Pallava in the west coast (current Kerala region), Hoysalas, Gangas and Chalukyas in the present Karnataka/Andhra regions and conquered most of them.
The mighty Brihadiswara temple at Thanjavur (also known as The Big Temple, Brihadiswara , Peruvudaiyar Kovil தஞ்சைப் பெருவுடையார் கோயில்) was completed in 1010 AD by Emperor Raja Raja Chola-I (இராஜராஜ சோழன் : 985–1014 AD). Brihadiswara temple which turned 1000 years old in 2010 is one of the biggest temples in India and a World Heritage Monument of UNESCO. This magnificent and mysterious architecture, much older than the Taj Mahal must have been included in the wonders of the world.
To commemorate his victories, Raja Raja Cholan laid the foundation stone of Brihadeeshwara Temple in 1002 AD, the construction began in 1004 and completed within 5 years in 1009. According to the scriptures, the master architect of this amazing building was ‘Kunjara Mallan Raja Raja Perumthachan’ who is believed to be the legendary Perunthachan from Kerala ( പെരുന്തച്ചന് or Master Carpenter) In Tamil and Malayalam languages, ‘Perum’ means Big and ‘Thachan’ means Craftman) mentioned in Malayalam folklore who built hundreds of temples in the region. Though several families claim to be descendants of Raja Raja Chola and Perunthachan , there is no way to confirm authenticity of these claims without DNA finger prints or proper documentary evidence It is least of my intentions to start another controversy on that subject.
The fortified temple complex once had a trench around it, which got filled in the recent past. It is protected by large boundary walls on all four sides with a grand entrance (Maratha Gate) with a gopuram (tower) on top which was built during the Maratha period Once you pass through this main gate, there is another granite entrance with a decorated gopuram called Keralantakan Tiruvasal which was built after winning a war over the Cheras who ruled Kerala. The pachyderm at the entrance blessed us for a small tip. Then comes another elaborately carved gate and gopuram called Rajarajan Tiruvasal. Foot wares are not permitted inside this entrance, after which comes the Nandi Mandap housing a large monolithic bull statue.
Construction of this1000 year old temple still remains a mystery. The main structure (Gopuram) is 216 feet (66 Mtrs) tall and constructed using interlocking granite blocks arranged in the shape of a pyramid without the help of any mortar or sealing agents. The structure stands absolutely vertical even after being shaken by earthquakes and other natural forces. Due to its special architecture, the shadow of the gopuram does not fall on the ground at noon. A more interesting fact is that the massive cap-stone (dome or kumbham) placed on top of the structure weighs 81.28 tons and it is still not known how could they lift that kind of weight without the help of modern machinery at that time. There are several theories that explain the super human effort, but as per the most convincing one, a ramp of 6.44 Kms length was constructed by the side of the gopuram and the massive stone was dragged along by the help of elephants and human strength. Perhaps they placed the weight on rolling tree trunks and pushed and pulled it up like they lifted the stones during the construction of Egyptian pyramids. In fact, the spherical dome is made of 4 pieces, joined together with precision . A total of 130000 tons granite had been used in the construction of this massive temple complex. Another interesting fact about the construction is that the stones were not mined locally, but sourced from various quarries 20-30 Kms away from the temple site.
The main temple is built on a large rectangular platform that measures 270mtrs X140 mtrs, with the Nandi mandap situated in the front at a distance of 100 Mtrs from the main shrine. The monolithic Nandi statue is one of the biggest in India, which is 16ft long and 13 ft tall and weighs 20 tons. The inner most chamber or GarbhaGriha houses a massive Shiva Linga that is 3.7 Mtrs tall. The pyramid shape of the hollow gopuram is designed to concentrate the energy into the linga. The walls of the main temple is decorated with murals depicting Raja Raja and stories from epics. Since photography was not allowed inside, I was unable to capture those marvelous paintings.
There are adjoining smaller shrines for the Goddess (Parvati), Ganesha, Subramanya, and other gods placed around the main temple. A walk around the temple complex would take you to the world of Chola craftmanship. Outer walls have been decorated with exquisite sculptures, murals and inscriptions. Many of the smaller buildings were added by Maratha, Vijayanagara, Pandya & Nayak rulers in later stages.
There are nearly a hundred secret tunnels underneath the temple complex . The network of crisscrossed underground pathways leading to different temples, palaces and markets were once used by kings, saints and priests for easy access .and emergency escape. These have been sealed by the government and not accessible by the public now.
However the death of Raja Raja remains as another unsolved mystery even today. I have learned that he met with an unnatural death and probably the reason for leaving it undocumented ( It was considered inauspicious) Legend has it that Raja Raja fell down from the 8th floor of Brihadiswara temple tower while supervising the construction and died on the spot. According to a more detailed story, it was between 991 and 993 AD that Raja Raja conquered Northern half of SriLanka and made the King Mahinda-V of Sri Lankaflee to the south. The defeated King Mahinda was waiting for an opportunity to take revenge on Raja Raja and sent a Buddhist woman to India, who apparently pushed him from behind and murdered him. As per recent findings, the burial place of Raja Raja he has been discovered at a place called Udayalur in Tamilnadu . It seems there is a temple with a half-submerged Shiva Linga and an inscription that reads it is Raja Raja Chola’s tomb. Apart from the locals who conduct worship here, nothing much is known to the external world. However, soon after the death of Raja Raja, the construction of Brihadiswara temple stalled ; it was left incomplete at 87% and still remains like that.
Let the reason for his death remain buried in history. Raja Raja Chola was one of the greatest rulers of India, who was a generous king, fierce warrior, conqueror, art lover and much more. Achievements of a King, written on solid rock will remain intact till the end of the world.