Indian Temples are a bundle of architectural wonders, culture, heritage, and mysteries. Most of them are built by Kings to show their power to the world. Each of them has a special feature and the thirst to explore them accelerates after every temple. From Tirupati temple to the recent sensation – Padmanabhasamy temple of Thiruvananthapuram, each one is a closed book even after years of exploration. One such marvel is The Brihadeeswara Temple of Thanjavur, India aka The Big Temple. Built by Raja Raja Chola I in 1010 AD for Lord Shiva, this massive spectacular is celebrating over 1000 years and is still intact surviving major earthquakes, thanks to Chola’s spectacular engineering skills. It is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage site under ‘The Great Chola Temples’. Let’s see what this magnificent wonder holds, shall we?

Thanjavur Temple Wall
The main entrance of the temple

The Main Entrance of the temple itself is an eye feast. A short yet elegant structure with huge dwarapalakas (guardians) on either side built with granite is so welcoming and will make sure to instantly fall in love with the idols and colors.

Along the main entrance is seen as a huge wall protecting the temple complex with several inscriptions and paintings. Dated 1011 CE, these inscriptions give details about the Chola ministers, the engineer of the temple, the dance postures, and the ornaments used in the Chola reign.

Thanjavur Temple Arena
Nandi Mandapam and entrances seen from the courtyard

A vast courtyard passes through the main entrance along with the huge Nandi(sacred bull) Mandapam and the Main tower both carved from single granite stone. This temple is a platform to showcase the talent and the home of the arts. It is commissioned with the bronze Nataraja – the dance form of Lord Shiva. And 81 of the 108 dance postures in Bharata Natyam(Indian classical dance) are carved on the main tower. It is believed the pillars of the temple resonate with the music. To commemorate the 1000th year of the temple, 1000 dancers from all over the world performed in this courtyard in September 2010 and it sure is so adorable to watch.

Nandi at Thanjavur Temple
Nandi mandapam

Nandi, the official vehicle of Lord Shiva will be seen in all his temples in front of the main mandapam. This Nandi is in line with the other structures of the temple built out of single granite stone inside an open mandapam with beautiful art. It is one of the largest in the world weighing about 25 tonnes. The paintings inside the mandapam are so colorful and most of them are still crystal clear. The paintings all over the temple are still undamaged. Thanjavur Museum has preserved several of these paintings and will help us understand their importance in the world of art.

Brihadeeshwara Temple Gopuram
The Main Mandapam

Then there is Main Mandapam, the heart of the Brihadeeswara temple.

The tower is again made of single granite stone and is about the height of 216 ft. Considering its size and age, it stood intact compared to other famous towers around the world, credit goes to brick-lock technology, and the extraordinary talent of Cholas. This engineering wonder did not use cement or any other binding material. The colors of the tower are so peculiar and are pleasant to enjoy. There are plenty of sculptures around the tower with the importance of its own.

There is a myth that the Brihadeeswara Temple base is built so the shadow of the tower never falls on the ground during the afternoon at any time of the year.

Top of this tower is a cap in the shape of a lotus called a kumbham which weighs about 81 tonnes and is carved of you know what by now, a single granite stone. The significance of kumbham is to store positive energy in the main tower. It is hard to understand how such enormous work is placed on the top of the tower and that Cholas used over 1000 elephants and thousands of workers to complete the construction. Also worth mentioning is that there is no Granite quarry at least within a 100-mile radius of the temple, yet the whole temple used about 1,30,000 tonnes of Granite.

Raja Raja Chola dreamt about Lord Shiva during his visit to Sri Lanka and wanted to pay his respects on a grand scale. He was inspired by the temples there and desired to build one in his dynasty, then, capital – Thanjavur.

Thus a milestone was laid and the temple reflects the grandeur of the Chola Kingdom.

Inside the Brihadeeswara temple are several idols, and paintings along with the main sculpture – huge Shiva Linga(an abstract representation of Lord Shiva) of 29 ft high, which is one of the largest monolithic sculptures. It is referred to locally as periya samy which means great Lord or Big Shiva. And so it is called the BIG temple.

Temple of Thanjavur - Brihadeeshwara Temple
Temple corridor

Around the temple, there are thousands of other lingas each established by several other kings over time. There will be priests around the temple performing pooja(prayers) to several idols. It is not mandatory to tip priests anywhere in the temple.

Layout of Brihadeeshwara Temple
Temple layout

And finally, before you exit receive blessings from the temple elephant in a cute way. But this one only with the tips 😀

Brihadeeshwara Temple Security Guard
Pictured is a temple elephant donated by Shivaji Ganesan in 1960 which died a few years ago

So are you ready to visit the Brihadeeswara temple? Here are a few things to note:

How to reach?

The nearest airport is Tiruchirappalli(Trichy) which is 60 km from the temple. There are multiple buses at any time of the day between these two cities. Also, trains are running from Chennai, the capital of Tamilnadu state to Thanjavur.

Trichy is a destination of its own with Srirangam Temple and Rockfort.

 When to visit? 

Winter (December to February) is the right time to visit when the temperatures are pleasant. Summers can be very hot with temperatures around 30-45 degrees C.

Where to Stay?

Airbnb is not so famous in the area, but Hotel Gnanam and PLA are reliable and affordable options.

Other Tips:
  • Bargaining is the key to hiring local transportation, especially autos and taxis.
  • Be aware of the surroundings while traveling on the roads.
  • Drink only water from authorized water bottles.
  • Street food is not always recommended.
  • Carry sufficient cash only.
  • Talk to local vendors for better directions.

Iniya Payanam!

I should thank Sastra University for the beautiful memories in and around Thanjavur.

India is home to several wonders, yet many left unexplored – either be it one of the best road trips in South India waterfalls in the wilderness, or even the whole region that got the best of everything.

About Author

“Be a Roman when in Rome” is the first travel quote I heard. Soon I realize every place is unique. Wondering how it is? Well that's why the stories here are for. Enjoy reading them!

With so many lovely places on this earth, different cultures and variety of food, exploring one at a time while leading a crazy IT professional life. In short, call me Explorer, be it places, food or IT. See you around!

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