Thursday, June 17, 2010

Frontline: Thanjavur Rajarajesvaram Temple

Chola Splendour

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

The Rajarajesvaram temple in Thanjavur is an architectural marvel that has survived the ravages of time.

D. KRISHNAN
The 1,000-year-old Rajarajesvaram temple with its towering vimana.

THE first sight that greets a visitor to Thanjavur is the majestic vimana (the tower above a temple's sanctum sanctorum) of the Rajarajesvaram temple. The vimana and the gopurams (towers above the gateway) soaring skyward add to the temple's resplendent glory in the early morning sun.

A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Monument, the 1,000-year-old temple is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. Although it was originally called Rajarajesvaramudaiyar temple, it came to be known as Brihadisvara (brihan in Sanskrit means big), or the Big Temple, during the Nayaka and Maratta rule because of the gigantic proportions of its vimana, linga, Nandi (sacred bull) and dvarapalas (doorkeepers).

Exactly 1,000 years ago, emperor Rajaraja Chola I, the greatest monarch of the Chola dynasty, ordered the building of the "imperial monument" of Rajarajesvaram. It was on the 275th day of his 25thregnal year (1010) that Rajaraja Chola (who ruled from 985-1014 Common Era) handed over a gold-plated kalasam (copper pot or finial) to crown the vimana. An inscription in Tamil in the temple talks about the handing over of the pot.

D. KRISHNAN
The two gateways, with the Keralantakan Tiruvaasal in the foreground and the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal behind it.

Surprisingly, the 59.82-metre vimana is hollow in the interior. It is the tallest vimana ever built and has 13 receding tiers. It is an architectural marvel built of interlocking stones.

The Rajarajesvaram temple is dedicated to Siva, and the main deity is a massive cylindrical linga in a double-walled, box-like sanctum. The monolithic linga is 1.66 m in diameter and is mounted on an "Avudaiyar" ( yoni-pitha), which is 5.25 m in diameter. The linga rises to a height of two storeys.

D. KRISHNAN
The Dakshina Meru created on the vimana shows Siva and Parvati seated on a mountain with their sons and boothganas in attendance. The vimana with its 13 receding tiers looks like the mythical Maha Meru mountain.

The beautifully carved Nandi is of epic proportions. It is 3.66 m in height, 5.94 m in length and 2.59 m in breadth.

Many books and monographs have been written on the temple's grandeur. The historian K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, in his book The Colas (Volume I), calls the Rajarajesvaram temple "the finest monument of a splendid period in south Indian history and the most beautiful specimen of Tamil architecture at its best… remarkable alike for its stupendous proportions and simplicity of its design".

The art historian C. Sivaramamurti assesses it thus: "As the Chola's most ambitious architectural enterprise, the Brihadisvara temple is a fitting symbol of Rajaraja's magnificent achievements."

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Nandi, the sacred bull of Siva, in the temple.

S.R. Balasubrahmanyam in his book Middle Chola Temples A.D. 985-1070 (Thomson Press, 1975) calls the Rajarajesvaram "the grandest of the Chola monuments" and a "devalaya chakravarti" (an emperor among temples). About the temple's vimana, Balasubrahmanyam says: "The gradual upward sweep of the vimana towards the sky is breathtaking…. The srivimana is pyramidical in form and not curvilinear…. The 25-tonne cupola-shaped shikhara and the golden (no longer so) stupi give a fitting crown to an all-stone edifice, which is a marvel of engineering skill unparalleled by any structure anywhere in India built during that period. It is the grandest achievement of Indian craftsmen."

Balasubrahmanyam's son, B. Venkataraman, in his book Rajarajesvaram, the Pinnacle of Chola Art, calls Rajaraja "an astute politician, a military genius and a great administrator". He adds: "When one tries to recall the reign of Rajaraja, it is not his wars of conquest, not his naval expeditions, not his revenue administration nor his military strength that come first to one's mind. It is the magnificent Siva temple, the Rajarajesvaram, he had built at the Chola capital, Tanjavur, which stands to this day as a finished memorial to the grandeur of his rule."

The temple continues to fascinate both the serious researcher and the layperson. It is a virtual gallery of inscriptions, sculptures, frescoes, dance panels, bronzes, and so on. The entire history of how the temple came to be built is available in the inscriptions.

As R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, says, "This is the only temple in the whole of India where the king specifically mentions in an inscription that he built this all-stone temple." The king uses the word "katrali" – kal and thali in Tamil mean a temple built of stone. This epic inscription, running to 107 paragraphs, describes how Rajaraja Chola, seated in the royal bathing hall on the eastern side of his palace, ordered that it be inscribed on the base of the temple's vimana, how he followed through with his temple plan, a list of the gifts that he, his sister ("em akkan") Kundavai, his queens and others gave the temple, and so on.

Nagaswamy, who has authored several books and monographs on the Rajarajesvaram temple, calls this inscription "a fantastic order". He explains: "It reveals the clarity of mind with which Rajaraja Chola did everything. A careful study of all the inscriptions in the temple shows that Rajaraja Chola had a great administrative and aesthetic sense. The only other king who revealed his mind through his inscriptions or edicts is Asoka Maurya of the third century B.C. The inscriptions in the Rajarajesvaram temple encompass all activities of Rajaraja Chola's kingdom – the administrative machinery, economic transactions, survey of lands, irrigation system, taxation, accounting, organisation of a huge army, rituals, music, dance, the king's fondness for Tamil and Sanskrit literature, and so on. They also show that he had defined and classified the duties, responsibilities, qualifications and service tenure of each functionary of the temple."

D. KRISHNAN
A karana panel in the upper ambulatory passage of the sanctum.

The inscriptions provide interesting information on drummers, tailors, physicians, surgeons, carriers of flags and parasols during festivals, torch-bearers, cleaners and sweepers. The temple had singers of Tamil hymns (called "Devaram") and Sanskrit hymns, and a large number of vocal and instrumental musicians. It had on its rolls 400 accomplished danseuses called "talippendir" to perform dances during daily temple rituals and in festival processions.

Thanjavur's history

The earliest reference to Thanjavur occurs in a sixth century C.E. inscription on the Rock Fort in Tiruchi town, about 45 kilometres away. The inscribed text calls it "Thanjaharaha", that is, one who captured Thanjavur, but it does not say who captured it. Subsequently, the Thanjavur region came under the sway of Mutharaiyars, and its rulers included Perumbidugu Mutharaiyar alias Kuvavan Maran, and Suvan Maran. The town and its outskirts were probably under the control of the Pallavas in the seventh and eighth century C.E. This is evident from a fragmentary inscription of the Pallava king Dantivarman dating back to 800 C.E. and built into the front mantapa wall of the Rajarajesvaram. This inscription was a later-day addition, for the front mantapa built by Rajaraja Chola was an open one and it was later converted into a closed mantapa by the Nayaka rulers.

M. SRINATH
The hollow interior of the vimana, a view from below. Built of interlocking stones without any binding material, the vimana has not developed a crack or tilted even a few centimetres in all these years despite six earthquakes.

Vijayalaya Chola (who ruled from 850 to 871 C.E.) captured Thanjavur from Ko-Ilango Muthariyar around 850 C.E., which led to the founding of the Imperial Chola empire. Vijayalaya built a temple for goddess Nisumbasudani in Thanjavur, and she is still worshipped under the name of Vadabadrakalai, near the eastern gate of the present-day town.

The discovery of an 85 copper-plate charter of Rajendra Chola I (who ruled from 1014 to 1044 C.E.) at Tiruindalur, near Mayiladuthurai, in May this year provided for the first time valuable details about the capture of Thanjavur by Vijayalaya.

Down the Imperial Chola line, Rajaraja Chola I built the Rajarajesvaram, or the Great Temple. The temple faces east. It was built in accordance with the "Makuda Agama Sastra". The chief architect-sculptor of the temple complex was Veera Chola Kunjara Mallan alias Rajaraja Perunthatchan. The deputy chief architect was Kunavan Madurantakan alias Nitha Vinodha Perunthatchan.

D. KRISHNAN
A similar view of the hollow interior of the gopuram of Rajarajan Tiruvaasal.

Pierre Pichard, the architectural historian, who has done a detailed study of the measurements of both the elevation and plan of the Rajarajesvaram, says in his work Tanjavur Brhadisvara, An Architectural Study (published in 1995 by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi) that meticulous pre-planning went into the layout of the entire temple complex and the articulation of its various architectural embellishments.

The basic unit of the temple's layout, says Nagaswamy, was taken from the main deity, the linga itself. The inner sanctum, the height of the vimana, the intermediate space between the vimana and the cloistered enclosure (Sri Krishnan Tiruchuttru Maaligai), and the distance to the two gateways called Keralantakan Tiruvaasal and Rajarajan Tiruvaasal were all proportionate to the linga in a remarkable way. For instance, the height of the vimana is exactly twice the width of the outer base of the adhistana (plinth) of the sanctum. Nagaswamy says: "The mathematical calculations were advanced to a great extent at the time of Rajaraja Chola."

D. KRISHNAN
Saraswati sculpted on the outer wall of the sanctum.

The temple's outer gateway topped by a gopuram was called Keralantakan Tiruvaasal to commemorate Rajaraja Chola's conquest of the Chera country. While the lower portion of Keralantakan Tiruvaasal is built of stone, the superstructure is built of brick and mortar. This is a fine example of a multi-storeyed brick structure erected in Rajaraja Chola's time. The stucco figures on the gopuram were redone in the 19th century during the Maratta rule.

Some distance away is the next gateway called the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal, which has a tall gopuram too. The gateway is guarded by two huge, awe-inspiring dvarapalas, six metres tall and sculpted out of single blocks of stone. The dvarapala on the southern flank is portrayed differently. He rests his right leg on his club ( gada), which is entwined by three coils of a python, which is in the act of swallowing an elephant.

The huge dvarapala at the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal holding a club that is entwined by a python, which is swallowing an elephant.

A paper titled "The Peruvudaiyar (Brihadisvara) Temple, Tanjavur: A Study", by the late K.R. Srinivasan, who retired as Deputy Director-General of the ASI, explains that "the great silpacharya who designed and constructed" the Rajarajesvaram had made use of vyangya, or implied suggestion ( kuripporul in Tamil), in sculpting this imposing dvarapala.

Srinivasan says: "If the elephant is enlarged in one's mind to its real life size, the size of the python that can swallow one such would be suggested as the next step in the mental visualisation. And if such an enormous python could entwine the club only by three coils from head to tail, the magnitude of such a club could be imagined next, and from it the enormous stature and strength of the colossal doorkeeper who can wield such a gada, and from his size, the mental concept of the magnitude of the linga (deity) in the sanctum which he guards, from which again, the ultimate size of the vimana which can enshrine such a colossal linga, a size that would ultimately transcend the limits of mental conception."

D. KRISHNAN
The bas-relief panel on the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal depicting Arjuna's penance to obtain the Pasupata weapon from Siva. The sculpture showing Arjuna standing on one leg with hands clasped above his head has an uncanny resemblance to the Arjuna's Penance bas-relief at Mamallapuram near Chennai.

The base of the Rajarajan Tiruvaasal has superb bas-reliefs narrating the story of Arjuna's penance to receive the "Pasupata" weapon from Siva; the wedding of Siva and Parvati; the legend of Kalasamharamurti (the story of Markandeya), and so on. Interestingly, the Arjuna's Penance here bears an uncanny resemblance to the one in the huge bas-relief at Mamallapuram near Chennai.

The temple complex measures about 240 m east to west in length and about 120 m north to the south in breadth. It consists of the sanctum with the linga, the vimana towering over the sanctum, the ardha mantapa in front of the sanctum, the maha mantapa before it and then the mukha mantapa. Then comes the seated Nandi inside a mantapa built by the Nayaka rulers.

M. SRINATH
Sculpture of the temple's creator Raja Raja Chola (second from left) worshipping Nataraja.

There is a courtyard running all around. On its south-eastern side is a shrine for Ganesa, and on its northern side are shrines for Chandikesvara, Amman and Subrahmanya. There is a modern-day shrine for Varahi on the southern side. Around the courtyard runs a cloistered enclosure named after Krishnan Raman, Rajaraja Chola's Minister-General.

In the niches of the outer walls of the sanctum are life-size sculptures of Siva in his various forms – as Bhikshatana, Virabhadra, Vishnu Anugrahamurti, Harihara, Ardhanarisvara, Nataraja in Anandatandava, Chandrasekara, and Uma-Mahesvara. There is an exquisite sculpture of him in Lingodbhava on the western wall.

M. SRINATH
Two bas-reliefs of the Buddha, seated under a tree and standing under a tree, in the episode dealing with Siva as Tripurantaka, found on the side wall of the steps leading to the temple.

Although the Thanjavur region has no hills or rocky outcrop, the temple complex was built of stone. Which means that huge rocks of stone were quarried from Mammalai near Tiruchi and hauled to the site. Pichard estimates that the vimana alone has utilised 17,000 cubic metres of masonry. The entire temple complex with its vast enclosure and two gateways amounted to almost 50,000 cubic metres, which is 130,000 tonnes of granite.

T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, said the temple's architects paid special attention to the selection of its site, the preparation of drawings (of the plan and elevation) and selection of materials including stones of different varieties. For the vimana, they chose charnokite from Mammalai. Massive stone sculptures were made at Pachchamalai region, near Tiruchi. A huge stone from Tiruvakkarai (near Tindivanam) was selected for the linga.

D. KRISHNAN
The key inscription on the base of the vimana where Rajaraja Chola says he built the stone temple and records the gifts that he, his sister, his queens and others gave the temple.

The vimana has not developed even a minor crack in all these years. In order to achieve stability, architects of the 13-tiered vimana had positioned it on another two-tiered double-walled plinth. Each of the lower two tiers of the vimana has a pradakshina pada (corridor) running all round with an inner and outer wall. The inner and outer walls of this corridor have a 1.5-m wide masonry wall, made of brick and mortar, running between them. The 13 tiers have stones stacked up with perfect balance and equilibrium. No binding material is used, and they are made to stand on their weight.

"The wonder is that the vimana has withstood six recorded earthquakes – in 1807, 1816, 1866, 1823, 1864 and 1900," Satyamurthy said.

D. KRISHNAN
R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, pointing to a 10-foot-tall inscription in Tamil at the entrance of Rajarajan Tiruvaasal, which deals with the festivals conducted in the temple.

No wonder Pichard called the vimana an "architectural audacity".

Courtesy_

http://www.flonnet.com


Also read the related stories

Lost treasures

M. SRINATH
The bronze idols of Nataraja and Sivakami in the Rajarajesvaram temple.

BE it in the art of making bronze figures, painting frescoes or sculpting intricate "karanas", the fundamental dance movements of bharatanatyam, the Tamil country had reached the acme of art and architecture during the rule of Rajaraja Chola.

The Rajarajesvaram temple in Thanjavur stands testimony to the great ruler's contribution. The inscriptions in the temple provide a list of 66 beautiful bronze images that he, his sister Kundavai, his queens and officials gifted to the temple; they also provide information about the many pieces of jewellery given by Rajaraja Chola and his queens to adorn the bronzes. These bronzes were processional deities that were taken out only during temple festivals. But today, only two of the 66 bronzes are available – that of Nataraja (the dancing Siva) and his consort Sivakami – while all the jewellery has disappeared.

"If the form, line and expression of the two surviving bronzes are any indication, the others too must have been outstanding products of the Chola period. They reflect the height to which the art of metal casting must have reached," says R. Nagaswamy, former Director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department.

In the book Rajarajesvaram, the Pinnacle of Chola Art (Mudgala Trust, 1985), B. Venkataraman says: "The flow of massive metallic icons from the various ateliers of the Rajarajan period must indeed have been unprecedented, if the sixty and odd metal images that had been set up in the Rajarajesvaram temple alone are any indication."

A Marathi inscription on the Nataraja idol's pedestal mentions that Kamakshi Beebi Bai, the queen of Shivaji II, the last of the Maratta rulers of Thanjavur, had arranged to have it mended in 1895. The repair of the idol, broken at the ankle, was dexterously done; a coiled serpent was sculpted around the ankle to strengthen it.

The inscriptions reveal that Rajaraja Chola had consecrated an outstanding bronze image called Maha Meru Vitankar. The Maha Meru or the Golden Meru was a mythical mountain in the north of India, and Rajaraja Chola wanted to create a Meru in the south. So he called Rajarajesvaram Dakshina Meru. The vimana with its receding tiers looks like the Maha Meru mountain. The Maha Meru Vitankar showed Siva and his consort Parvati seated on a mountain, and surrounded by sons Ganesa and Subrahmanya as well as boothaganas and a banyan tree with branches and leaves. The whereabouts of this massive metal sculpture is not known.

Rajaraja Chola had visualised the dancing Siva, called Adavallan in Tamil, to be the main processional deity of the temple, and so he named it Dakshina Meru Vitankar. The temple is built according to Maguda Agama, which says that Siva in his dancing form is the supreme deity.

The measurements – height, girth, number of arms, and the symbols held in the hands – of each of the 66 metal images are catalogued in the inscriptions. There are references to the art of metal casting – solid casting, hollow casting, riveting, gilding with brass or gold, precious gems in the eyes of the images, and so on. These bronzes were decorated during festivals with numerous gold jewels studded with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, pearls, corals, and so on.

The temple employed highly specialised gemmologists to grade the gems according to their quality. Pearls were classified according to their variety – twins, flat, round or white. Some jewels had several thousands of pearls set in them – the pearls were part of the war booty obtained by Rajaraja Chola. The cost of making each piece of jewellery and its measurements is mentioned in the lithic records.

Rajaraja Chola and his queens gifted golden vessels for use in the temple, and the inscriptions mention their size and weight. There is even a reference to a small spoon for scooping ghee (called "Nei Muttai" in Tamil).

"It shows the care with which the temple property was entered in the register and the responsibilities fixed for handling them. In every aspect of the temple management, we find the personal directives of Rajaraja Chola who was an extraordinary administrator," Nagaswamy said.

The heights reached by dance is reflected in the 81 "karanas" (of the 108 karanas that form the alphabetical system of Indian classical dance) sculpted on the walls of the floor above the temple's sanctum sanctorum. One can see that space was earmarked for the remaining 27 karanas.

The sculptures portray Siva as performing the karanas. The first of them is Talapushpaputam where the danseuse begins her performance by offering imaginary flowers to Nataraja. The karana sculptures were painted too.

T.S. Subramanian

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Fabulous frescoes

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

PICTURES: N. THYAGARAJAN/CASI
A petrified asura and his consort in the Tripurantaka panel.

EARLIER, if one wanted to relish the sheer beauty, elegance of execution and the pleasing colour scheme of the Chola murals of the 11th century, one had to turn to three temples in Tamil Nadu: the Siva temple at Tiruppulivanam near Uttaramerur in Kancheepuram district, the Veetruirundaha Perumal temple at Veppathur near Kumbakonam, and the Rajarajesvaram, or the Big Temple, in Thanjavur. But today, only one temple's murals remain.

PICTURES: N. THYAGARAJAN/©ASI
Vishnu in the Kalyanasundaramurthy panel, in the Ajanta tradition.

A couple of years ago, officials of the Tiruppulivanam temple sandblasted out of existence all the murals there of the Rajaraja Chola period. In Veppathur, all the murals – of the Pallavas of the 9th century C.E., the Cholas of the 11th century C.E. and the Nayakas of the 17th century C.E., which were painted one over the other – were lost because of neglect. They exist only in flakes now.

At the Rajarajesvaram temple, the Chola murals in the ambulatory passage around the sanctum are beautiful beyond words. The credit for discovering these frescoes, which were also painted over with murals of the Nayaka period, goes to S.K. Govindaswami, a lecturer in history at Annamalai University. The Hindu published Govindaswami's letter about his discovery on April 11, 1931. In the 1960s, Subbaraman, the Superintending Chemist of the Archaeological Survey of India, employed an ingenious technique to strip the Nayaka paintings off the Chola paintings; the former were then pasted on another mount. A few years ago, T. Satyamurthy, then Superintending Archaeologist, ASI (Chennai circle); P.S. Sriraman, Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, ASI; and N. Thyagarajan, artist and photographer, photographed with great effort four of the several huge frescoes found at the Rajarajesvaram temple ( Frontline, June 1, 2007).

Nataraja of the Chidambaram temple, as portrayed in a fresco at the Rajarajesvaram temple.

Sriraman says: "What makes the Chola murals stand apart is that they were executed in the true fresco method; the artists would have applied thin lime plaster on the wall and executed the murals on the plaster while it was still wet." This would not have been easy, since lime plaster will dry up fast in the Thanjavur climate. He added: "Lime plaster frescoes are more durable but their execution is very difficult."

The murals photographed were those depicting Siva as Dakshinamurti; episodes from the life of the Saivite saint Sundarar – such as the stalling of his wedding by Siva, who comes disguised as an old man and claims Sundarar as his slave; and Sundarar and friend Cheraman Perumal, the King of Kerala, reaching Kailasa on the elephant Iravatham and a horse respectively; Siva as Tripurantaka; Rajaraja Chola and his three queens worshipping Nataraja at Chidambaram.

R. Nagaswamy, former Director, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, says: "The frescoes are depicted in a natural, flowing way. This gives the impression that the artists were not bound by the rigidity of lines. The colours used are appropriate, merging agreeably with the theme, and give a pleasant feeling. The fresco of two beautiful dancing girls welcoming Sundarar and Cheraman Perumal to Kailasa is as good as the murals at Ajanta. There is a twist in their dance."

A dancing apsara welcoming Cheraman Perumal, the Chera king, and Sundarar to Kailasa.

Opinion is divided on the last mural. Some say it is Rajaraja Chola and three of his queens who are worshipping Nataraja, while others think it is Cheraman Perumal and his queens.

Rajaraja Chola had a predilection for the portrayal of Siva as Tripurantaka. Both the frescoes and bas-reliefs at the Rajarajesvaram temple dealing with the theme show three men worshipping the Buddha. They were originally asuras of three citadels and were harassing the devas. Siva could not destroy them because they were his devotees. So the devas requested Vishnu to convert them to Buddhism, but the ruse did not work.

The asuras did not recant, and so they were pardoned by Siva; others who defected to Mayavada or Buddhism were destroyed by him.

Courtesy_

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