The Brihadeswara Temple in Thanjore in southern India was built exactly one thousand years ago, and a dance was held in the fall of 2010 to commemorate the event. In early February of 2011, the vimana, the tallest part of the temple, was being cleaned, and so was covered in scaffolding, which did not seem to detract in any way from the beauty and power of the temple.
Built by the king Raja Raja, of the late Chola period, the temple, in downtown Tanjore, is surrounded by a moat and by an outer wall. The vimana is one of the tallest in the world. Part way up the vimana is a sculptural rendition of the sacred mountain, Mount Meru.
The temple belongs to Shiva, who is shown in many forms. The extraordinarily beautiful painting and sculpture of Tanjore, unequaled throughout the world, are visible everywhere. A line of Nandis—Nandi is the sacred bull—are walking along one of the outer walls. Facing the tall vimana is the largest Nandi in the world—of black granite—looking both absolutely magnificent, and at the same time playful and innocent. He has a really lovely face. A person entering the temple always honors Nandi first, as a way of asking his permission and approval to go into the temple and worship the God Shiva.
The temple is filled with smaller Nandis too, of all sizes—as well as many, many variations of the form of Shiva. All things Indian have extraordinary levels of complexity, weaving together layer upon layer of reality, each more beautiful or magical than the last, at least that’s how it seems to many, myself included.
One can go up a very steep, narrow stairway to enter a small shrine where there is sitting Dakshinamurthy, who is the Lord of the South, meaning Shiva of the South. Dakshinamurthy is Shiva the Teacher, who has an extraordinary presence of great peace and kindness.
A larger shrine to one side of the main buildings is dedicated to a female form of Vishnu in his incarnation as Varahi, that is the boar. Vishnu came to earth as the boar, and also as the female form of the boar. Not all the gods lend themselves to written descriptions. If one wishes to get to know them, one can only do that with time and reverence.
There are sculptures of animals everywhere: There is Bhairava, the form of Shiva who is always shown with a dog. In fact, Bhairava is the name of both Shiva and his dog. The peacock who accompanies Murugan, known by many names, is one of the sons of Shiva. Shiva is married to Parvati, and their eldest son is Ganesha, who has the head of an elephant. Ganesha is much-loved throughout India, and is normally invoked in prayer before praying to any other deity, the reason being that he is the remover of all obstacles, just like the elephant who walks through the forest, brushing aside anything that may be in the way, and in that way creating a pathway for the other forest animals to follow.
There are large sculptures of doorkeepers too. One enters the temple complex through a very beautiful Gopurum, which is the gateway. Gopuram means city of the cow.
In one of the buildings there is a collection of gigantic Tanjore paintings—now no longer viewable because it has been hard to preserve them over the centuries, so they are kept out of sight now to protect them from further deterioration. Copies of them are on display in a hall and are genuinely amazing. One can see at first glance how Tanjore painting gained its place among the foremost art of the world. Every detail is captivating, in a way that defies description. They are paintings of extraordinary scenes of myth and magic, which spring to life as one is looking at them. More on these paintings later….
The vimana, the main temple tower, the largest and tallest in India when it was built in 1010, is 66 meters (216 feet) high—or maybe only 61 meters, depending on who one asks. The stone at the top is believed to weigh 80 tons, so there is considerable speculation as to how it was placed there, one of the leading theories being that a long ramp was used to haul the stone. Mount Meru, appearing part way up the vimana, is believed to mark the symbolic and also the real center of the earth.
One of the most amazing architectural sites in India, the Brihadeswara Temple is a living temple, filled with worshippers. The towers and buildings, covered with sculptures are all of granite.
Photos: Sharon St Joan