Once the capital of the Chola empire, the city of Thanjavur in south-eastern India is now popular amongst tourists. Its main claim to fame is the Brihadeshwara Chola temple, thought to have been constructed by King Rajaraja I during his 19th regal year (1003-1004 AD). The idea for the temple came to the King in a dream, and he quickly ordered its construction in honour of his reign.
Dedicated to Shiva, the temple is one of the largest in India, and was the first of the three ‘Great Living Chola Temples’ in Southern India to be proclaimed a UNESCO heritage site. Like its UNESCO siblings, it is remarkable in combining historical and living culture; locals today practise rituals which were established during the Chola period, from the 9th to the 13th century. The temple is also notable for its Dravidian architecture. Its defining feature is the Vimana, the pyramid-shaped sanctum which stands at one end of the court, soaring to an impressive height of 60 metres.
Inside the sanctum, rare statues of the Ashtadikpaalakas (the Gods of eight directions) Indra, Agni, Nirrti, Varuna, Kubera, Isana, Yama, and Vayu can be found. According to Hinduism, each of these Gods is the guardian spirit of one of the eight regions of the universe, and they are often symbolically represented as elephants. Also encased in the Vimana is an enormous Shiva lingam (phallic statue), which is around 8.3 metres in height and usually adorned with flowers and sandalwood. Smaller lingams can also be found in the corridors which border the open court, whilst behind them stretches an expanse of intricate mural paintings, depicting Shiva as well as important events during the Chola empire. Though these murals are faded in places, their bright colours are striking, conveying vivid memories of their former glory.
The temple has, for a long time been shrouded in mystery. There are no granite quarries to be found within a 50-mile radius of its walls, and yet it is constructed from enormous, heavy, granite slabs, which sit atop one another with no binding materials to solidify their structure. Furthermore, the designs carved upon their surface are unbelievably intricate given the toughness of the rock. The most likely explanation for these phenomena is that thousands of elephants were used to transport the granite, and to haul it up ramps to the top of the Vimana. Meanwhile, the carvings were created by making incisions in the granite for rainwater to run through, which then split the rock along its crevices. However, though its mysteries can be explained, the temple can never be robbed of its grandeur; it remains one of India’s most majestic temples and treasured piece of culture.