Thursday, 7 July, 2022

Brihadeswar Temple, the world’s first granite stone temple

Chinmay Prasun Biswas

Brihadeswar Temple, the world’s first granite stone temple

Temples are mingled with history, tradition and culture of this sub-continent. Not only religious gravity but these temples are glaring instances of architectural and aesthetic wonder. Such a temple is the Brihadeswar Temple at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, India. Etymologically, Brihadeswar is a combination of two words (both Bengali and Hindi) – brihat meaning big and iswar meaning god. So, Brihadeswar Temple means the temple of big god.

History informs that this temple was built by Chol, the first Tamil king, between 1003 and 1010 AD. It is not only a witness to numerous incidents, but also a source of architectural pride. It is known as the first granite stone temple in the world. Located on the bank of the River Kauveri (Kaberi) and dedicated to Mahadev, this is one of the tallest architectural monuments in the world. History, heritage and culture are intertwined within the layers of this huge temple built in Dravidian architectural style. It has already been declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO as Great Living Chol Temples. In 1954 the Reserve Bank of India issued a Rs. 1,000/- note with photograph of this temple. Initially this temple was known as the temple of Peruvudaiya. Local people used to come to the temple out of devotion and for worship. 

Style of construction of this temple is unique. The entire temple has been built by cutting and arranging huge-sized 1.3 lakh tonnes of granite stones step by step and side by side. Interlock or puzzle system has been applied i.e. no plaster or cement was used to hold two stones together. Slots hold the stones together in a dovetailing technique. The main minaret of the temple known as Gopuram is 216 feet high. The tower weighing around 80 tonnes at the top of this temple has been built by cutting a single stone. Till today it is a wonder as to how such a super heavy stone was drawn upwards at a time when there was no crane or lift or any other mechanical support. It is said that a 6-km long slope was laid from the bottom to the top of the temple. With the help of many workers, elephants and horses this stone was set at the right place. Around six years were required to complete it. Some people believe that it is not possible for human beings to perform such a herculean task. God himself did this big task and for this reason the name of the temple is Brihadeswar Temple.

Below the temple are more than 100 underground passages connected with the Chol Palaces and other important establishments. Members of the royal family used this path on special days of worship. Another wonder of the temple architecture is that the Gopuram is built in such a way that its shadow never falls on the ground during daytime.

There are no hills around 60 kilometres of Thanjavur, but how stones were collected? It is heard that 3,000 elephants were employed to carry stones from far and wide. At the main gate there is a huge 18 feet long X 13 feet high statue of a bull made of three stones. Time has clawed on world famous structures like the Big Ben in London and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but Brihadeswar Temple still stands straight. Wide main floor of this temple is probably the real reason of stiff standing of this temple.

According to archaeologists, this huge Shiv temple was first built by the Tamil Maharaja Raja Raj Chol. This temple, also known as Rajarajeshwar (king of kings) Temple, was built as per Tamil architectural design which is still preserved in the temple archive. Details of splendour, rules and regulations of the temple are recorded in punthi (hand-written book) which are still followed. South Indians sincerely believe that there is no supernatural force behind the construction of this temple. There is respect and hard work of devotees of Shiv towards Nataraj. Thus Thanjavur gained grain-blessing of god.

Architecturally and traditionally similar to other Dravidian temples this temple reflects South Indian pattern with some touch of European art. Architectural and artistic design of the temple resemble the temples built by the kings of Sri Lanka. Oil paintings and bronze statues of different kings and deities are preserved inside the temple. This suggests that Raja Chol was the first to build a temple following the Sri Lankan design. The architect of the temple was Raja Perunthachan. He built the temple on the basis of ancient texts such as Vastu-shastra (book on housing). As a founder of architecture he was very popular then.

Five to six years were required to complete this granite stone temple. Inside the temple there is a 5-metre long idol of Nataraj (dancing form of Shiv) and various images of traditional dance Bharatanatyam of Tamil Nadu in the sculptures of the temple. Although Shiv is the main deity of the temple, there are images of moon, sun and southern idols all over the walls of the temple. There is an 8-metre long idol of Ashta-Dikpalak (holder of eight directions- Indra, Agni, Yam, Varun, Southwest, Vayu, Southeast, Kuber). The 1,000-year old temple is full of sculptures. A total of 81 craftsmanships of dance-style amaze visitors. The roof of the temple is also full of colourful oil paintings. As Shiv is the main deity of the temple, worshipping of Shiv is observed with great pomp on Shivaratri. It is a matter of pride and wonder that this magnificent architecture still stands high facing six earthquakes.


The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes