When the esoteric phrase, ”Satyam Shivam Sundaram”, was translated into poetry on stone, it metamorphosed into the colossal Shiva Linga a.k.a. the Brihadeeshwara at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.
Housed in the Chola architectural marvel, this place of worship has been the essential culmination of divinity, truth and beauty. The fact that this year it has completed a 1,001 revolutions around the sun without so much as a fissure or ado speaks volumes about the quality and quantity of perseverance, dedication, planning and aesthetics that have been ploughed into the spiritual skyscraper. Historians, researchers, architects, archaeologists, artists, mathematicians and laymen alike are awestruck by this immense achievement of the ambitious monarch, Raja Raja Chola, who conceived, designed and accomplished his mammoth project to perfection.
Rajarajeswaram, another synonym for the Brihadeeshwara or the big temple, was completed during the lifetime of Raja Raja during the 12th century AD. The meticulous king made it a point to not only inscribe relevant information in the temple premises, but also carved out details pertaining to the work profile and salary of the temple personnel, right from the head priest to the humble cleaner who happened to work there.
A casual glance at the topography of the Thanjavur plains, which is bereft of hills and stones, stands testimony to the enormous effort invested by the king and his team to translate his gargantuan dream into reality. The double wall which encases the sanctum sanctorum and bears the tall and magnificent gopuram displays the sound common sense of the builders.
The temple, which is a faultless, well-proportioned, unique structure measuring 216 feet in height is testimony to a hoary past. The figures that ensconce the intricate geometry that holds the temple together may be mind-boggling, but the visual effect of the tangible edifice is nothing short of mind-blowing.
It is a museum of sorts which reflects the political, social, historical, economical, cultural, artistic, architectural, agricultural and professional dimensions of the contemporary times of Raja Raja Chola. The sight of the appealing sculptures, murals, bronzes, coins and inscriptions have the ability to transport the beholder to an ancient past and hold him spellbound by the sheer enormity of its size.
The divine sanctuary is a veritable school of sorts as it can give insights into just about any aspect of that period.
Most details about the shrine have been well documented, yet the divine sanctuary has the penchant to reinvent itself and surprise its admirers from time to time. In the year 1931, one Prof S K Govindaswami of Annamalai University noticed paintings underneath the over-lying Nayaka paintings that adorned the temple walls. He announced this fascinating discovery in an article in the Andhra Historical Society journal and also wrote to a newspaper regarding the same.
When the Brihadeeshwara temple came under the protective wings of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a talented and qualified team under S Subbaraman devised a special ingenious technique to carefully strip the 400-year-old Nayaka paintings in panels of suitable size and mounted them on fiber glass, taking care not to cause the slightest damage to both the paintings. Myths and folklore surrounding Lord Shiva, the central theme of the Chola paintings, came alive in the 14 chambers. The story of great saint Sundaramurthi Nayanar, seated on horseback, leading the Chera king seated on a richly caparisoned elephant to Kailasa, Raja Raja Chola and his three queens worshipping Lord Nataraja at Chidambaram, and Shiva as Thripuranthaka Murthy steal the show. The paintings of the Maratha period on the inner walls of the outer enclosure are also quite interesting.
During the millennium celebrations of the temple by the ASI, UNESCO and the Government of Tamil Nadu last year, art, architecture and literature on and about the period were dusted, translated and re-published. Movies and documentaries made on the temple from time to time by various organisations were also evaluated and screened. A postal stamp and a coin bearing the image of the lofty temple were released on the occasion. Several native art forms, music and dance were show cased in the premises of the grand replica of the temple, in the vicinity of the original temple, offering a glimpse of the temple’s glorious past.
The world watched us, as we offered our salutations to a great achiever and his corporeal achievement only last year. The classical minded probably sighed and muttered in Greek — Kalos Kai Agathos — singular balance of the good and beautiful!