The Great Temple at Thanjavur

The Brihadisvara Temple

If you are in Chennai this coming Wednesday, you may enjoy attending this event:


cordially invites you to an illustrated lecture




David B. Truman Professor of Asian Studies,

Mount Holyoke College, USA








Date : Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Time : 6.15 p.m.

(Tea at 6.00 p.m.)


Venue : The C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation

1 Eldams Road, Alwarpet

Chennai – 600 018

In this illustrated lecture, Indira Viswanathan Peterson

illuminates the significant contributions of the polymathic

Maratha ruler Serfoji II ( r. 1798-1832) to the great temple

to Brihadisvara built by Rajaraja Chola in Thanjavur in

1010 A.D. Undertaking major renovations and rituals, and

commissioning poems, dramas and dance pieces in Tamil,

Sanskrit, Telugu and Marathi, Serfoji re-established the

temple as a royal monument and living center for worship

after a long period during which it served as a British

garrison. Dr. Peterson will draw on her extensive research

on and translations of archival documents and literary texts

connected with the temple (e.g., Thanjai Peruvudaiyar Ula),

presented in her recent book, co-authored with George

Michell (The Great Temple at Thanjavur: One Thousand

Years. 1010 -2010, Marg Publishers, 2010), and in her

forthcoming biography of Serfoji II (Scholar-king of

Tanjore: Serfoji II and the Shaping of Indian Modernity).


Dr. Indira Viswanathan Peterson is the David B. Truman

Professor of Asian Studies at Mount Holyoke College, U.S.A.

Her areas of specialization are Sanskrit and Tamil

literature, South Indian religion and cultural history, and

the South Indian performing arts. Peterson’s publications

include Poems to Shiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints

(1989), Design and Rhetoric in a Sanskrit Court Epic: The

Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi (2003), and Tamil Geographies:

Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India

(co-edited with Martha Selby, 2007). Her current research

focuses on literature and culture in Thanjavur under

Maratha rule (1674 -1855).

And if you are not in Chennai – perhaps you will be in Chennai soon? Chennai is such a wonderful place to be.  You can go to Chennai anytime and get there from anywhere. So maybe you can include Chennai in your next travel plans?

It is the city in south India that used to be called Madras.  Many people do still call it Madras.

From there you can travel farther south in the state of Tamil Nadu to Thanjavur, where the magnificent Brihadisvara Temple is to be found.  Thanjavur may come from the name Tanjan, which was the name of one of the asuras (The Sanskrit word “asura” first meant “leader,” but later on meant “demon.”) of Hindu myths.  The city Thanjavur grew up at the site where Vishnu killed the asura, Tanjan.

The gateway to the temple

The long history of Thanjavur dates back at least a couple of thousand years, and the Brihadisvara Temple was built during the time of the later Chola Kings.  It stands in the center of the city, to the southwest.

Serfoji II, a scholar king of the Maratha dynasty , brought the temple back to life in the early nineteenth century after it had been used for a long time as a garrison for British soldiers.

For a thousand years, the Cholas had ruled much of Tamil Nadu, from the third century BCE to the thirteenth century CE. Following the demise of the Chola dynasty, the Maratha kings took over in the sixteenth century.

Serfoji II was the last Marathi to rule effectively, although his descendants do still exist as a family even today.  When his half-brother usurped the throne, Serfoji II was sent off as a young boy to Madras, where he was raised by a Lutheran minister.  As part of his education, he learned ten languages, Tamil, Telegu, Urdu, and Sanskrit—and the remaining six were European – French, German, Danish, Greek, Dutch and Latin—certainly an unusual education for a future Indian king.  Eventually, the British put him back on the throne, in exchange for his ceding much of the actual governing power to them.  His reign lasted for thirty-four years, from 1798 – 1832, during the time of Napoleon and the American War of 1812.

The shrine of Ganapathy

He was a strong supporter of women’s rights, as well as culture and the arts.  Serfoji II brought into being a research institute, the Dhanavantari Mahal, that produced Ayurvedic herbal medicine for both humans and animals, so he must have been fond of animals.  Ayurveda is the traditional medical system of India.

The king performed many eye surgeries himself, specializing in cataract surgery, and was known to carry around with him a surgery bag containing his instruments.  He kept records of the surgeries, which still exist, and he is now recognized as one of the pioneers in the field of cataract surgery.  He supported tolerance towards all religions and generously funded Christian schools and churches, as well as Hindu institutions. When he died in 1832, he was greatly mourned and 90,000 people attended his funeral procession.

It is thanks to the efforts of Serfoji II that the great temple of Brihadisvara is a living temple today.  He restored the temple to its splendor, as one of the greatest temples in India.

In 1010, King Rajaraja Chola had the temple built, and he presented a gold-plated finial to crown the vimana, the temple tower.

A note on vimanas–the Sanskrit word, “vimana” means the pyramid-shaped roof tower of a Hindu temple.  In ancient writings, it also meant flying chariot or aircraft.  Several of the gods in Vedic literature, including Indra, the Storm God, and Surya, the Sun God, used to fly about on great wheeled chariots that hurtled through the sky.  The word “vimana” could be used to refer to anything from a flying palace to a mechanical bird.  “Vimana-vasin” are a class of Jain deities who habitually travel through the sky in “vimanas.”  So, if we are imagining that aircraft are a twentieth century invention by the Wright Brothers, that is not the case at all, since they are a very old concept in India, written about for many thousands of years.

The vimana at the Brihadisvara Temple does, as far as we can tell, stay in one place and does not fly through the air. Consisting of thirteen stories, its height is 216 feet.

The Dravida architectural style was characterized by pyramidal towers.  The temple belongs to Shiva. With a surrounding wall as a boundary, it is built of granite blocks, and was the first temple ever built all of granite.  The layout was, in part, inspired by the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram.

Among the intricate sculptures are 108 poses of Indian classical dance, performed by the God Shiva.  In an inner courtyard is a giant statue of Nandi, the bull who is the vehicle of Shiva.  The temple of Devi was built there at the same time as the Nandi statue, in the thirteenth century. In the seventeenth century, a temple of Subrahmanya was added. The Brihadisvara Temple is on the World Heritage List as one of the Great Living Chola Temples.

The painting by Raji Ravi Varma of Lord Murugan

Subrahmanya is Lord Murugan, who is especially popular in Tamil Nadu and is sometimes called the “God of the Tamils.”  He is a god of war, who fights for righteous causes, and the patron deity of Tamil Nadu.  Like nearly every Hindu god, he has a great many different names, including Skanda and Kartikeya.  Along with Ganesha, he is the son of Shiva and Parvati.  The earliest book written in Tamil, the Tolkappiyam, mentions Murugan as a red god, ever young, riding on a blue peacock.  His two birds were the peacock and the rooster.

So we have skipped around from one thing to the next among the endlessly fascinating history of Tamil Nadu. All this relates in one way or another to the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur.

If you really cannot be in Chennai on Wednesday—or even if you can—here is a link to the book about the Brihadisvar Temple written by Dr. Indira Viswanathan Peterson, co-authored by George Michell:

The Great Temple at Thanjavur: One Thousand Years 1010-2010,

Marg Publishers, 2010


To visit the website of the CPR Ramaswami Foundation


Thanks to Wikipedia for providing much of the information in this blog entry.


First photo: Released into the public domain by Karthikc123 at the English Wikipedia project


Second photo: John Kingsley / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Third photo: Bernard Gagnon / GNU Free Documentation License

Fourth photo: Bernard Gagnon / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Fifth photo: Public Domain in the U.S. / A painting by Raja Ravi Varma of Lord Murugan




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