The Brihadeshvara Temple is devoted to Lord Brihadeshvara, an incarnation of Shiva. The temple is a magnificent manifestation of the south Indian (more specifically, Dravadian) style of architecture. Its chief attribute is a pyramid like "vimanam", or tower, whose horizontal part has many stones, piled one over the other gradually tapering towards the top, forming the typical silhouette of Dravidian architecture. Vertically the vimanam is made up of pilasters that break up the front wall of the base, producing spaces for niches and windows in between. But a certain feature of the temple is not in line with the south Indian architectural style. The vimanam is taller than the "gopuram" (gateways) of the temple's walls. In general, the gopurams are taller than the vimanam.
An exclusive quality of this temple is its "shikhara". As far as Northern Indian structural design is concerned, the shikhara stands for the mound of superstructure that rises over the temple's base, but in the South, for instance in places like Thanjavur, the "shikhara" exclusively signifies only the ornamentation of the superstructure (more specifically, the capstones). The shikhara of the Brihadeshvara Temple, which is placed at the top of the vimanam, is engraved out of a single big mass of stone that has a weight of 81 tons. A legend goes that this massive stone was fetched from a place at a distance of six kilometres from the site of the temple, using a specially designed ramp.
The outside of this temple is adorned by a number of stucco sculptures, a majority that are believed to have been original paintings. In the inner sanctum of the temple is positioned an enormous Shiva lingam. It is probably the grandest of the Shiva idols that has ever been sculptured. This image was at first called Adavallan (the one who is good in Dance). One more name was Dakshina Meru Vitanken. The tower above the shrine is called Dakshina Meru following the abode of Lord Shiva at Kailasam, the Uttara-Meru.
Overall the Brihadeshvara Temple has five divisions. These are Garbhagriha or the Sanctum Sactorum and the corridor around it, Ardhana-Mandapam, Maha-Mandapam with the open aisles, Stapana-Mandapam with the shrine of Sri Thyagarajar, Narthana-Mandapam for the temple equipments and servants to wait and Vadya-Mandapam, a portico for the musicians. The chief shrine has three porches named Keralantakan, Rasarasan and Thiru-Anukkan. Dwarapalikas or the guardians of the gate guard these porches. There are a number of these in the temple, seven of them 18 feet by 8 feet.
The temple has many smaller shrines. The Shrine of Sri Subramanya comprises a tower 55 feet in height, draped in delicately carved figures. This shrine has been declared as "As exquisite a piece of decorative architecture as is to be found in the south of India" and "A perfect gem of carved stone work, the tooling of the stone in the most exquisitely delicate and elaborate patterns, remaining as clear and sharp as the day it left the sculptor's hands". The Shrine of Goddess Brihanayaki was presumably constructed in the 13th century. The tall flagstaff in front of the main temple is known as the Dhwaja-Stambha. Its lower segment is sheathed in a square piece with each of the four sides portraying characteristic Saiva figures. Then there is the Shrine of Ganapathy, which lies in the southwestern corner. It has seven images of Ganapathis, 2 in the dancing posture, 3 seated at ease, and the remaining 2 standing. Other shrines include the Shrine of Chandeeswara, Sri Dakshinamurthy Shrine, the Great Nandhi shrine and Saint Karuvurar's Shrine.
The Brihadeshvara Temple is a beautiful piece of architecture. It is also very popular as a place of worship. It draws tourists and visitors in equally large proportions.
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