Saturday August 18 2007 11:43 IST
‘‘By far the grandest temple in India’’ — that is how the ‘‘Encyclopedia Britannica’’ describes the Bragadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur.
THANJAVUR: Built by King Rajaraja I (985-1014 AD), the “Big Temple” as the shrine is better known, is famous for its majestic vimana, architectural perfection and balance and sculptural reliefs. A popular myth about the temple is the use of a single stone slab, weighing 80 tonnes, atop the main tower. The Mandapam in front of the sanctum partially collapsed shortly after its construction and misconceptions persist about the causes of the collapse too, notwithstanding the engineering facts.
The tower remains the dominant element in the Big Temple complex. With its two lower floors and 13 upper storeys, the tower is estimated to transfer a load of around 45,000 tonnes, but the team of architects in the other era was experts in dealing with stones and did not appear to have been deterred by the massive load.
The tower is seated on an isolated but carefully chosen patch of hard migmatic granite and the foundations are shallow, not more than 1.5m deep, to keep the number of joints in the foundation beds to a minimum. The adjacent stone beams 12m long and 1.2m wide are interlocked by the traditional ‘‘kumizh and kuzhi’’ method to prevent lateral movement.
It is not known how the architects assessed the safe bearing capacity of the underlying rock but by modern standards the tower foundations have ample safety. It is possible that one or more ramps were used.
To start with, a straight-on earthen ramp approaching the tower at right angles took off from Karambai near Mariammankoil directly on the east where large blocks of stones and beams were rafted down the river Vadavaru and were probably offloaded.
This earthen ramp could not have been taken beyond a height of 20m without risking failure. A second spiral ramp with a structure somewhat similar to the Great Wall of China ran on all the four sides of the tower. The central sanctum (7.9m x 7.9m) had to be roofed over before construction on the tower could commence and it was here that the architects encountered a major difficulty.
The maximum span cleared by a stone beam at Thanjavur was only 5.1m. With the giant monolithic linga already in position and the excessively long span of 8m, the architects had to switch over to wooden beams and joists to provide a roof over the sanctum.
Work on the mandapam and its upper floors appears to have been taken up only much later though the base of the mandapam was contiguous with that of the tower and had been laid in Phase I itself. Shortly after construction there appears to have been a partial collapse of the western walls.
The tower and the shrine at Thanjavur continue to inspire generation after generation, with a dignity and serenity of their own. The Big Temple will be completing one thousand years in 2010 and it is hoped that all lovers of art would join and pay a fitting tribute to “Team Rajaraja” for having bequeathed to posterity a truly outstanding masterpiece in imperial Chola art.
A.Sargunan (The author is a former Head of the Department of Civil Engineering, Anna University, Madras).
THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS