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A temple's triumph


PAST GLORY: While the faithful have always prayed at Brihadisvara, things have changed in the past decades. Now, say temple authorities, they have to sometimes resort to crowd control

Most major faiths have had immense longevity. Shrines haven't been as lucky, though - looted, demolished and desecrated through history. But Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur has been one of the great exceptions. As it celebrates 1000 years of existence and live worship, an equal number of Bharatanatyam dancers have gathered to commemorate the marvel - of both architecture and piety.

Forty-five minutes is all she will get. But 50-year-old Janaki Srinivasan is thrilled to bits about dancing again after a gap of 15 years. "I decided to start practicing as soon as I heard that around 1, 000 dancers will pay tribute to the Big Temple in Thanjavur on September 25, " says Janaki, editor of a Chennaibased magazine. "It is a momentous occasion for me to be part of the temple's millennium celebrations. "

Janaki will join the dancers, led by renowned artiste Padma Subrahmanyam, from all over India and abroad in a special Bharatanatyam performance which will be held at the historic temple - in front of a huge, monolithic Nandi (or bull) in the inner courtyard. This is part of a larger five-day celebration that began on September 22.

And sleepy Thanjavur has woken up to greet the thousands of devotees, artistes and scholars descending on the ancient city to mark the millennium of a temple that has remained "live" and has been a centre of excellence in Dravidian art and architecture.
The Brihadisvara temple, or Peruvudaiyar Kovil (Big Temple), also known as Rajarajesvaram, evokes awe at every stone used, every arch drawn, every element fused. Situated in the ancient city of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, it has towering gateways and a hard-won Unesco world heritage site-tag as one of the 'Great Living Chola Temples'. The huge granite slabs have not lost their sheen or power as they soar to a dizzying 59. 82-metre, encasing the main deity - a massive Sivalinga - in its hollow chamber.

Surrounding the pyramidal sanctum tower are numerous pillars, walls and courtyards with exquisite carvings, sculptures and detailed inscriptions. And most of them have stood to tell the tale of an empire, its arts and the vision of its patron, the great Chola king Raja Raja Chola I, despite powerful earthquakes, fierce foreign invasions, fires and neglect.

"It is still a living, vibrant temple, " says writerscholar Kudavayil Balasubramanian, as families and foreigners mill around the main mandap in time for the evening puja. This was not the case 30 years ago. Sunset meant darkness and an abandoned temple in a huge complex. "There would hardly be 10 people during the evening arati and it was quite scary to remain here after darkness, " recalls Balasubramanian, who has been studying the temple, particularly its detailed inscriptions, for the past 40 years.

But the days of neglect are far behind, says the temple's hereditary trustee S Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, a descendant of the Maratha kings of Thanjavur. Till recently the shrine was supported by finances from Mariamman temple in nearby Nagapattinam, says the prince. "But now we have to do crowd management, especially during the festive seasons. "

It is not just the religious-minded who are back at the temple, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Rajarajesvaram is a regular stop for those on a south India culture trip. Nacho Salamanca and Luisa Gutierrez from Spain stood spellbound, inspecting the stone work all over the lofty sanctum tower that steadily tapers as it reaches the pinnacle. "Unlike other temples I have seen in north India, this one is really big, " says Nacho.

The sheer dimensions of Rajarajesvaram stun any visitor, triggering curiosity in scholars, archaeologists, scientists and researchers. The sanctum tower has 13 tiers built using granite that was probably brought from Manamalai in Tiruchi, says T Satyamurthy, former superintending archaeologist, ASI. "The topmost octagonal stone piece or sikharam, made of multiple stones, is very heavy. Hoisting it to that height itself is a great engineering effort. An incline ramp to carry stones must have been part of the meticulously planned construction. "

The king and his team of temple architects strengthened the structure with three sets of interlinked walls that bear the weight of the superstructure and make it more quake-proof, Satyamurthy adds.

The inner sides of these walls provided a safe haven for housing beautiful frescoes and 81 finely carved Bharatanatyam 'karanas' (poses that show synchronised hand and feet movements), says R Kalaikovan, director, Dr M Rajamanickanar Centre for Historical Research. "This is the first temple where the karanas are in serial order and are being performed by Lord Siva as described in the classical Natya Sashtra text. "

What remains mystifying is why the king went through with all this trouble. "Even now we don't know why Rajarajan took it upon himself to rally people to transport material like the hard granite slabs from far-off land and engage artisans for close to six years," says Kalaikovan.

Was it just quest for everlasting glory? He achieved more than that, according to Balasubramanian. "With construction of this mammoth project, the king saw to it that the whole of Cholamandalam, his empire stretching from Andhra Pradesh to Sri Lanka, participated. He ensured the involvement of his citizens by inscribing the names of all those who contributed to the construction and later works, even on rocks supporting the basement. "

In the process, the temple became not just a spiritual centre but a hub for those seeking to understand architecture, engineering and the fine arts. It was in 2004 that Unesco declared it one of the 'Great Living Chola Temples', along with Gangaikondacholisvaram in Thanjavur and Airavatesvara in Darasuram (Tamil Nadu) for its "outstanding creative achievement in the architectural conception of the pure form of the Dravida type of temple. " The UN agency also noted that these temples are 'live' in the sense that traditional religious rituals continue to be performed through an active participation of the public.

As dusk falls, devotees rush to the inner sanctum at Rajarajesvaram, offering prayers to various deities on their way. Trustee Babaji says he didn't realise the temple's easy connect with people till an Italian visitor pointed it out to him a couple of years ago. "The lady told me that unlike monuments in Europe where you buy tickets and go around, many here are able to relate to the temple by a simple offering of a garland. It is a great living monument, " he says.


The great Chola emperor Raja Raja I declared open the Big Temple, known as Brihadisvara temple and Rajarajesvaram, in 1010 CE
Located in the ancient city of Thanjavur, the capital of the Cholas (10th-12 th century), the Nayaks (16th century), and the Marathas (17th-18 th century)
Considered the greatest of Chola temples and one of the largest structures in the world at the time
A living monument for 1000 years and one of the 'Great Living Chola Temples' as designated by the Unesco
The 13-storied sanctum tower is 59. 82m tall and built using granite stones that are locally unavailable
It is considered an architectural and engineering marvel that has withstood earthquakes and foreign invasions
Home of rare Chola frescoes, there are 81 carvings depicting Bharatanatyam 'karanas' (stances)

Bharatanatyam virtuoso Padma Subrahmanyam will be leading 1, 000 dancers at a spectacular show in the inner courtyard of the Brihadisvara temple tomorrow. The Chennai-based dancer heads the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India(ABHAI) and has a long history of painstaking research into historical sources. Known for her flamboyant and energetic style of dancing, she has choreographed a whole host of new items. She, in fact, calls her own version of the dance Bharata Nrityam. Readying to leave for Thanjavur for the big day, she spoke to TOI-Crest about her plans for the dance extravaganza

Why a collective performance to mark this occasion?
I thought this was an occasion for the whole Bharatanatyam dance fraternity to come together from not just India but also from the US, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. We will be dancing in unison, and I will be just one of the 1, 000. Since May this year I've been working on the massive logistics of the show: compiled the lyrics, put them to music and recorded them, choreographed the songs and put them down on a DVD. This was given out to gurus across the world so they could train their shishyas in the choreography. Incidentally, we all will meet and dance together for the first time on the day of the show, there will be no special rehearsal.

What significance does the Brihadisvara temple hold for Bharatanatyam?

It is very special to all Bharatanatyam dancers since it is dedicated to Shiva, the god of dance. Raja Raja Chola (985-1014 CE) supported 400 dancers and 250 musicians, all attached to the temple and living in quarters around it. He even made special endowments for them. In fact, it was during his reign that Thanjavur emerged as the cultural capital of the region and continues to be so after 1, 000 years. This temple also has the earliest extant sculptural codification of the stances described in the fourth chapter of the Natya Shastra.

What are the choreographies you have planned?

We will start with a traditional invocation to Ganesha and then perform to the lyrics of Karur Thevar, who was the spiritual guru of Raja Raja Chola. The song is in chaste Tamil, has 11 verses and reflects the events at the first consecration of the Brihadisvara temple. I found the lyrics while doing research at the famed Saraswati Mahal library in Thanjavur, one of the oldest in Asia. The song will have a lot of significance for lovers of the temple's grand architecture. After all, they will be listening to the same words that described the temple at the start of its 1, 000-year-long life.

What do you hope to achieve through this programme?

I run the Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture and have put together through the foundation a small booklet on Raja Raja Chola's connection with dance with material provided by the well-known archaeologist R Nagaswamy. These will be given to all the dancers. This will help spread awareness about the cultural and historical significance of the Brihadisvara temple.

— Malini Nair

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