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Perfect, stately and tall

If ever a temple was built to make a statement, this is it. The magnificence of the Rajarajeswaram temple, named after Raja Raja Chola in Tanjavur, has remained undiminished over the centuries, says USHA KRIS

‘The Big Temple’ is the colloquial name for it. In Tanjavur, everyone calls it by that name as it really is so big and majestic. ‘Brihadeswara’, meaning the Ruler of the Universe is another name. The original name was “Rajarajeswaram”, named after one of the greatest peace loving kings - Raja Raja Chola who had Tanjavur as his capital. He is said to have built this temple a thousand years ago in a record time of just twelve years.

The temple, an imposing 55-metre high structure stands in perfection, stately and tall, on a large base that contains the shadow within it in the summer months, surrounded by a moat. The cap on the Vimanam, a befitting decoration for the temple, is a single stone weighing 80 tons. They built a ramp seven miles long to pull it up to that height and install it. Visiting the temple every year I have become familiar with the images of Siva, sculpted on the wall of the prahara; Dakshinamurthy, calm and composed sitting cross legged; Nataraja performing his cosmic dance; Lingothbhava with Siva in the pillar of fire defying Brahma and Vishnu; and Siva in various poses of Triuranthathaka carved out in the second tier.

The bust of a man of foreign origin, bowler hat and all, is on the northern side of the Vimanam along with the other figures, showing awareness of a world far away. On the West side, in a deftly carved section of stone you can pass a needle through the bored section. A separate little shrine stands for the doctor ‘guru’ who took care of those involved in the building of the temple, going to show that not a thought or consideration was overlooked by Raja Raja, or King of Kings.

The vast grounds maintained by the ASI are spotlessly clean, and it has never been a popular temple for prayer as much as a temple one ‘must see’. If a temple was built by a king to make a statement, this is it.

At the age of 40, Rajaraja the greatest of the great rulers of all time came to the throne of the Chola Empire. It was but a small one under the rule of the inconsequential Uttama Chola, his nephew. Soon Chola mandala spread from the upper reaches of the Cauvery - the life giving river of the South, to the Southern sections of the Tamarabharani river. He crossed the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka, which then became a part of his empire. His famous fleet of ships reached the shores of Bali, Sumatra, Indonesia and Bangkok, where traces of Hinduism still linger in their dance forms and temples. Thus it was at the pinnacle of his rule that he built this temple to Siva. No invading army has wrecked or defaced it. A magnificent 30 foot lingam stands in gigantic proportion to the Vimanam. 

Anybody would wish to stand where the priest stands and look up and see the tapering Vimanan seeming to reach the heavens. Going up the steps leading to the floors of the Vimanam one can find the two walls that form the base of the vimanam painted with mythological stories that tell of Siva’s greatness. With just enough space to stand with my tripod, and my neck craning at an awkward angle to glimpse the scenes in front of me, I wonder how the artists managed to paint the many scenes that cover the wall from floor to the ceiling. 

Early in the nineteen thirties, when S K Govindaswamy former history professor at Annamalai University, in an attempt to preserve the later Nayak paintings from the water seepage, went into the opening of the vestibules, he discovered the Chola paintings underneath.

Over a thousand temples have been built during the Chola dynasty. Some of them are in ruins, while others thrive with care and attention. Rajarajesvaram temple was built during a time when large temple constructions were simultaneously going on a revolutionary phase all over India. It was during this time that the Kandarya Mahadeva temple at Khajuraho, the Lingaraja temple at Bhuvaneswar, and the Sun temple at Modera were built.

For hundreds of years, so many travellers must have come to Tanjavur to see this tallest building ever at Rajarajesvaram, while they went from Kanyakumari to the northern reaches of Kailash on pilgrimages. I feel fortunate to be standing on the same spot, with the magnificence of the temple undiminished or unmatched over the centuries.

Yet, today, it hardly gets the attention it deserves. Is it because it is too far South and history books and the tourism industry have not cared to draw everyone’s attention to it? 

Why is there no mention of this, asked our friend from the United States. Widely travelled, he stood beside us arrested by the perfection of the majestic temple that towered above us.

Usha Kris is a leading photographer. She has won the Bharat Nirman award for Artistic Photography. She can be contacted at:

Temples and hills

Tamil Nadu, a perfect mix of history, heritage and enchanting landscape, is changing with the times, yet retaining its charm and grandeur

In Chennai there is the Siva Temple of Kapaleeswara, the church of Little Mount in St Thomas Mount, the Varadaraja Temple, the Kamakshi Temple and the Kailasanatha Temple. 

Tiruchirappalli is dominated by an enormous boulder-hillock, the Rock Fort Temple. The rock formation here is believed to be older than the Himalayan Range by a million years. There is Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam. The seaport of Mahabalipuram with its magnificent monolithic ratha-shrines and the famed Shore Temple. Around little cottages dotted around Kanchipuram, are woven the radiant world famous kancheepuram silk saris of myriad rich colours, noted for their shine, finish and lustre. In Thanjavur is the Brahadeeswara Temple.

The Raja Raja Chola Museum holds the finest collection of South Indian bronzes in the world. Chidambaram is known for Bharatanatyam. Pichavaram is over 3000 acres of dense mangroves. Velankanni is known for its Basilica Church of Our Lady of Health. The sprawling temple of Rameswaram is noted for its India's longest temple corridor lined with impressive carved pillars. Few cities in the world can claim a tradition as old as Madurai. Often referred to as 'Athens of the East', it is laid out in the banks of river Vaigai. Kodaikanal, is the high getaway retreat. Here one must also visit the Vivekananda Rock and Saint Thiruvalluvar’s memorial. 

Jungle Trails start from Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, Nilgiris to Ooty the wildlife trails include Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, Mukkurthi National Park, Kalakkad and Mundanthurai Wildlife Sanctuaries, Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary, Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary and Marine Bio-sphere off Gulf of Mannar near Rameswaram to name a few.

Tamil Nadu Tourism Week was celebrated from December 1 to 7 at India Tourism, Church Street , Bangalore

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