Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thanjavur - the Brihadishvara Temple

Our next destination was Thanjavur. We only had time to visit its main landmark – the Brihadishvara Temple. Considered the finest example of Chola architecture, this temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was completed in 1010AD, built by Rajaraja Chola I and is a testament to the unrivaled power and might of the Chola dynasty.

Like other Hindu temples, entrance is through the gopura gateways. In front of one of the two gopuras an elephant stood off to the side, blessing people by putting its trunk on their head. Both gopuras were of the same shape and contained carved figures. Dominating the outer fa├žade of the inner gopura mirrored symmetrically on each side were two fanged dvarpala door guardians, directing devotees to the sanctum with their pointed figures. These are considered to be the largest monolithic sculptures of any Indian temple. Other panels illustrated scenes including the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.

In the middle of a spacious courtyard was the Brihadishvara Temple, surrounded by various subsidiary shrines. In front of the temple was the Nandi Mandapa, so named for the monstrous sculpture of Nandi (Shiva’s bull vehicle) carved out of a single block of granite weighing 25 tons. Devotees passed by the side of this calf sculpture with a large underbite, with a length of 6 m (20 ft) and 3.7 m (12.1 ft) high. It is the second largest Nandi in India. The ceiling of the mandapa was painted with bird, angel, and floral motifs, contrasted against a sapphire blue colored background.

Seeing the long lines waiting to get into the temple, we decided instead to focus on the exterior as well as the passage area around the sanctum. The star of the show for most is the Vimana, a 66 m (217 ft) high pyramidal structure made out of granite and built over the sanctum. Unlike most temples, this Vimana is actually taller than its gopuras. On top of the thirteen storeys is an octagonal cupola, carved out of a massive block of granite weighing 80 tons. The shadow of the cupola never falls to the ground, demonstrating the remarkable calculations of the architects. Although historians are unsure of exactly how the cupola was placed on top of the vimana, but the most popular theory is that it was hauled up a six-kilometer long ramp, moved along by elephants that rolled it up the ramp using perfectly round logs. At the top of the vimana is a guilded finial, presented by the king himself. In niches closer to the bottom portion of the temple were life-size sculptures of various gods including Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Ganpati,Ganesh, and Lakshmi. As in the Darasuram temple, remnants of paint were scene, with red and green appearing to be dominant colors.

If one simply gazed and admired the main temple, they would be missing one of Thanjavur’s great treasures – Chola frescos adorning the ambulatory passage around the sanctum. These frescoes were discovered in the 1930s when the inferior 17th century Maratha paintings covering them began to disintegrate. Portrayed in the frescoes were lifelike portraits of royals, deities, dancing girls, and elephants. I was a bit surprised by how vibrant the colors were, made of rich pigments of lapis lazuli, red and yellow ochre, lime and lap soot. Most were in fairly good condition. In front of the frescoes was a row of lingas. Guidebooks said that the frescoes would be closed for viewing, but thankfully they were not. I only had to contend with a fence around its perimeter that was very easy to photograph through (no flash, of course). I do hope that exposure to the elements will not destroy these pieces.
Near the building now serving as an archaeological museum, I once again spotted a group of men and women dressed in all red. I had seen them in Mahabalipuram as well – was there some sort of pilgrimage in which these folks were participating? The bright red of their clothing created a beautiful contrast to the neutral colors of the stone.

With the light already beginning to fade, it was now time to head to Trichy, located 36 km from Thanjuvur. Compounded by a large construction detour in Trichy, it was well into the evening before we arrived at our Tamil Nadu government hotel, which I’ll be sure to never stay at again.

See more photos of Thanjavur on my Flickr site

1 comment:

Bibi said...

Deja-vu! Not only have I really seen this, but finally reached this day on my 2000+ photos....did day 6 or whatever it was last night and again, we have of course similar shots! I loved the frescoes here especially.