Rajarajesvaram, or the big temple as it is popularly known, is an architectural marvel, noted for its daring design, copious inscriptions, and historically significant paintings and sculptures. It was completed in 1010 CE and named after its builder Rajaraja I, the illustrious Chola King. ‘Rajaraja', as the epigraphists inform us, is one of the names of Kubera, the Hindu god of wealth, and the Chola king was called as such “on account of his munificence.” This book, a 518- page monograph in Tamil, comes at a time when this magnificent temple complex enters its millennium year of completion.
Many studies on this temple, published mostly in English, have preceded this book and the author himself has, in his earlier work on Thanjavur, looked at some select aspects of it. What makes this work noteworthy is its exhaustive and detailed compilation of facts. Lucidly written, it tries to cover almost everything a reader would want to know about the temple — the inscriptions, iconography, architecture, and religious significance.
One of the interesting sections of the book is where the ‘vimana' —the sanctum and the tower above it — is interpreted as a Sthula-linga (Sthula, gross/manifest ) and as a manifestation of Sadasiva-linga (Sadasiva, Siva with five faces). Such religious and metaphysical interpretations of architecture are commonly provided for both Vishnu and Siva temples. In this case, liturgical texts such as ‘Magudagama' are cited in support of the interpretation. However, what puzzles historians is why the lithic records of temples, including that of Rajarajesvaram, are often silent about the relation between temple architecture and liturgical texts.
A substantial portion of the book is devoted to the temple's sculptures and paintings. This is understandable as they are historically important subjects in their own right. By profusely quoting from bhakti literature, the author establishes that the sculptural programme could have plausibly been drawn from the texts. It is also heartening that the paintings of the later Maratha period, which are usually overlooked, have been given equal importance in the book. The illustrations help in appreciating the narratives of the sculptures and paintings better.
Conspicuously absent, however, are the footnotes. For a historic account such as this, they are necessary not only to acknowledge the sources but also assist the readers interested in the subject to pursue the study. For instance, when the book puts forth the theory that Rajaraja I may have used the northern entrance to visit the temple complex, it does not acknowledge that such an idea was articulated as early as in 1916 in the introductory chapter of South Indian Inscriptions (Volume II). Similarly, in the last section, where the essay of S.K. Govidawamy — the History Lecturer who discovered the Chola frescoes in 1931— is reproduced, details about the publication are missing.