Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu
The Bridhadishwar Temple is one of the largest and best preserved shrines in India that dates from the Middle Ages. Just over a thousand years old, it is also considered to be one of the great engineering feats of the Middle Ages. Among its features are one of the tallest pyramid towers in India (it was one of the tallest structures in the world at the time of its construction). Although not perhaps as religiously important as other temples in Tamil Nadu, it is considered to be one of medieval India’s most important structures from an engineering standpoint.
The Bridhadishwar Temple was the great architectural achievement of Raja Raja Chola I, one of the greatest emperors in Indian history. The Chola Empire was one of the most powerful and most enduring realms in India during the Middle Ages, with its influence extending throughout Southeast Asia. It reached its height during the reign of Chola I, the ‘Raja of Rajas’.
Chola I ruled the Chola Empire for over a quarter of a century at the turn of the last millennium. Under his guidance, the empire was extended throughout all of Southern India and up the east coast of the Subcontinent, and was one of the chief impediments to the further spread of Islam down the peninsula. The remants of some of India’s most ancient kingdoms were absorbed into the Chola realm during his reign.
In honor of the realm (and of his own achievements), Chola I commissioned the construction of a massive new temple in Thanjavur. It was to be among the largest and grandest in India and the world, and the vast wealth of the empire was poured into its construction. It was probably among the largest public works projects in the world at the beginning of the 11th century.
Amazingly, it took less than ten years to build the temple, from the time its foundation stone was place in 1002 until its dedication in 1010. After its completion, it was the defacto royal temple of the Cholas until the collapse of the empire several centuries later. Many Chola rulers were coronated here. Few temples in India survived the tribulations of the last millennium as well as the Bridhadishwar Temple, and it looks today much as it did a thousand years ago. A major celebration was held in 2010 celebrating the anniversary of the temple’s dedication.
The Bridhadishwar Temple is awe-inspring, even by the standards of temples in Tamil Nadu province. To begin with, it is part of an immense, heavily defended fortress, with towering walls that cnlose a huge area in the center of Thanjavur. The (relatively) smaller temple complex is further enclosed in an inner wallsed compound. Despite this, the walls cannot obscure the massive pyramid tower over the shrine, which climbs well over two hundred feet into the sky. The crown of the tower is a single 80-ton carved rock that would make even the builders of Egypt’s pyramids scratch their heads.
The main shrine of the temple is dedicated to the deity Shiva. It is guarded by an absolutely enourmous statue of the bull Nandi. The temple does boast its share of carvings, though these are not nearly so extensive or intricate as most other temples of the era. However, artistically it is much more famous for its colorful murals. Among these are magnificent depictions of Shiva overcoming demonic enemies.
The Bridhadishwar Temple fills the southern half of the Thanjavur Fort on the west side of Thanjavur, a little over 1100 miles south of New Delhi. It is open daily year-round from 6:00am-9:00pm (closed 12:30pm-4:00pm). There is no cost of admission but donations are strongly encouraged. Web: www.thanjavur.tn.nic.in (official tourism website of Thanjavur).
Although not nearly as well known or as well visited, the Bridhadishwar Temple has a near twin (also built by the Cholas): the Gangaikonda Cholesvarar Temple at Ariyalur.