Trip to Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, and Kumbakonam – Part 2
Posted on: July 20, 2018.

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Thanjavur Palace & Saraswathi Mahal Library, and Brihadeeshwara “Big” Temple

We left Srirangam late, at around 1.30 p.m., and reached Thanjavur at 3:00 p.m. As we still had an hour left until the Brihadeeshwara Temple opened, we decided to visit the Thanjavur Palace & Saraswathi Mahal Library complex, meantime. Amongst the interesting things there was a highly-detailed yet engaging half-hour movie on the historical, architectural, cultural, and aesthetic significance of ancient Thanjavur and the life and rule of the great Chozha king Raja Raja I, narrated in Tamil Language, and the various assorted collections of statues and artefacts of the 300-year-odd Chozha Period. We were there for nearly an hour.

However, we did not immediately head out to the Big Temple, as we had to make a stop at Poompuhar Handicrafts at Gandhiji Road nearby. Thereafter, it was 6:00 p.m. by the time we reached the Big Temple and immediately looked about hiring a guide. We found a person named Raja who liked being called “Thanjavur” Raja which meant “King of Thanjavur”. When we inquired him about facts regarding the Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple, he explained that the Srirangam Temple is the biggest Hindu temple in the world, occupying an area of 156 acres, housing a total of 63 sannidhis, and is also the world’s oldest, continuously functioning temple for more than 3,000 years, built by five dynasties—the Vijayanagar Empire, the Cheras, the Chozhas, the Pandiyas, and the Hoysalas. He further explained that while the prostrating Lord Venkateshwara in Tirupati was 18 feet long, Lord Sri Ranganatha Swamy at Srirangam was 21 feet long.

Now continuing the tour of the Brihadeeshwara Temple, Thanjavur Raja explained that it was its construction was designed and supervised by Arulmozhivarman “Raja-Raja I”, the greatest king of the Chozha Dynasty that ruled the land for about 300 years. Raja-Raja I was a great conqueror who governed the entire regions of South India, Ceylon, Malaya and the Maldives Islands. His meticulous observations of the lengths and breaths of his vast overseas empire provided him the references and techniques with which he conceived the temple that he originally named “Rajarajeshwaram”. The great king commissioned the temple intending it to be the centre of all recreational, economic, and traditional activities. The Marathas and Nayakas who later invaded Tanjore renamed the monument as Brihadeeshwara temple.

The temple occupied an area of 36 acres and was built in just over a period of 7 years—construction started in 1003 and was completed in 1010. The Temple’s monolithic Nandi “Bull”, 13 feet tall and 16 feet long is the world’s fourth-largest stone statue of a Nandi. Interestingly, the dimensions of the vimana or central temple tower—216 feet tall with base 12 feet x 18 feet—signifies the number of letters in the Tamil Language (not including the “Aaytha Ezhuthu” that makes it a total of 247 letters), which is the product of “12” vowels and “18” consonants, i.e., 12 x 18 = 216!

The massive scale of the vimana earned it the epithet “Dakshina Meru”, or “Mount Meru of the South”. The inside of the vimana is hollow with an oculus on top through which the sun shone in. While the Brihadeeshwara at this temple is 13 feet tall, the Brihadeeshwara at Gangaikonda Chozhapuram is slightly taller at 13-and-a-½ feet!

The most technically significant part of the temple is the 80-ton dome at the top of the vimana carved from a single block of stone, a monolith. Surprisingly, all stone used to build the temple was brought from a distance of 60-70 kilometres, as there was no supply of stone for a radius of that distance at the time construction started. Ingeniously however, the 80-ton stone block was transported to the top of the 216-foot-tall vimana, using a makeshift spiral roadway supported by pillars, on which the stone block was rolled on wooden logs pulled by elephants using ropes, and pushed from behind by human labour!

Raja-Raja I had also patronized 107 paragraphs of inscriptions on the exposed surfaces of the temple walls that divulged some crucial information—daily rituals to be conducted in the temple, details of offerings and decorations made, with specific descriptions of all the jewels donated to the temple, the methods of special worship on important days—and secrets regarding temple construction and its different features. The inscriptions had been etched in such highly detailed manner, unprecedented in the featured history of any other Hindu temple in the world. All 107 paragraphs had been personally dictated by King Raja-Raja I, seated in the royal bathing hall at the eastern side of the palace.

Construction was achieved by the “inter-locking” style of stonemasonry and no binding materials like mortar or cement were used in the process. Finger-like structures at both centres of a stone block locked perfected into holes in the centre of adjacent stone blocks sealing them together so perfectly, one could not slip a blade of grass in-between. The temple has ably survived the extremities of weather, six major earthquakes and a major fire accident.

We eventually finished our worship and tour of the temple at around 7.30 pm, and at length, visited the nearby workplace of the temple’s statue-and-art-makers who had been carrying their lineage for the 10th generation currently, proceeded to collect our packaged merchandise from Poompuhar Handicrafts, and at 8.00 p.m., headed straightaway to our accommodation near Swamimalai, for our visit of the Airavateeshwara Temple at Darasuram, Kumbakonam…

…continued in the next part

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