Day 3 Continues: Evening
On day 3 of my adventures in Southern India, my two hosts and I were driven to Tanjore (Thanjavur) in the evening. Since the temple grounds remained open until 9 pm, we went in for a short tour. Tanjore was the capital of the Chola Empire during its heyday and is now a hectic, crowded, nosy, modern Indian town. It is known for its silk, carpets, jewelry, musical instruments and art.
The Brihadishwara Temple, also known as the “Big Temple” is a UNESCO World Heritage site, built between 1003 and 1010 by Rajaraja I. This is one of the largest temples in India (you can certainly see it from a long distance) and one of India’s most prized architectural sites. A special celebration in 2010 celebrated the temple’s thousandth anniversary.
During its height, the temple maintained a staff of 1000 people in various capacities with 400 being temple dancers. Besides the Brahmin priests, there were record-keepers, musicians, scholars, and craftsman of every type as well as the housekeeping staff. In those days the temple was also the hub of business activities for the flower, milk, oil, and ghee merchants, all of whom supplied their respective goods for the temple.
I passed through two gateway towers, each with such finely chiseled statues and backgrounds they reminded me of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze doors in Florence, called the Gates of Paradise. The first structures I saw within the inner courtyard contained a sculpture of a gigantic bull (called a Nandi) facing the main temple. This sacred bull is second only to the largest one at the Lepakshi temple in Andhra Pradesh, India. It was created from a single piece of rock, measures 16 feet long and 13 feet tall and weighs 25 tons. The bull has a very pleasing face and you are immediately drawn toward it. A very young priest, or perhaps one in training, was performing a ritual around the bull with a lot of incense and smoke.
All the temple structures are made out of granite, so this site remains in remarkable condition. Logistically, obtaining all this granite this must have been difficult as the nearest sources were about 40 miles west of Tanjore. What is much more fascinating, a conundrum really, is how the immense granite bulb or cap (one solid piece weighing 82 tons) was placed on top of the temple tower. The prevailing belief is that a mud-slope was constructed and elephants were used to drag the monolith up the slope. The incline was supposed to have started about three miles from Thirukoilore (the birthplace of Rajaraja’s mother). This temple’s vimana (or pyramid shaped tower) is 216 feet high and among the tallest of its kind in the world. To say one feels dwarfed is an understatement.
Moving on, I started to climb the stairs up to the main temple which rests in the center of the quadrangle containing the sanctuary, the Nandi, a pillared hall, an assembly hall, and many smaller shrines. The most important part of the temple is the inner mandapa which is surrounded by massive walls that are divided into levels by pillars. Sculptured figures, such as Shiva in different forms and dancers demonstrating positions of classical dance, are scattered throughout. The inner most sacred sanctum santorum is the focus of the temple. Here an image of the primary god Shiva resides, a huge stone linga. Only priests are allowed to enter this inner-most chamber and interior photos are not permitted .
The temple was surprisingly busy in the evening with worshipers of all ages. We didn’t linger as we knew we would return in the morning to take photographs under better light. While leaving, I took note of the the fort walls surrounded by a moat, and the Sivaganga Tank, constructed by the Nayaks of Tanjore of the 16th century who succeeded the Cholas. The fort walls enclose and protect the temple complex.
Early on day 4, we found the entrance or gateway shimmering with golden rays. The structure looked like it was singled out by beams from heaven. All eyes were attracted to this spot. Once inside, I was again drawn to the large bull. During daylight I could see thousands of names inscribed outside the temple base and many paintings lining the walls of the halls.
I also watched as a group of older people struggled, but were determined to climb the temple stairs. I then followed them as they went to each of the smaller shrines. They stayed a while at the place where a number of linga were resting.
We also ran into an extended family that had come to worship and celebrate a marriage taking place that day. The temple remains a living, active shrine and an inseparable part of life of the people even after a thousand years. Incredible India!