Can the situation be set right?

The extraordinary architecture of the Thanjavur Brihadisvara temple, its sculptures, murals and inscriptions are a testimony to the rise of the Chola empire and the consolidation of the political power of the temple’s builder Raja Raja Chola. The Brihadisvara temple portrays the devotion of the emperor Raja Raja Chola (regnal years 985 CE to 1014 CE) to Lord Siva, who was the dynasty’s tutelary deity although the worship of other deities was in vogue. The temple has been built strictly according to Agamic principles, with several unique features.

One of these features is the construction of eight separate shrines for Ashta Digh Balakas, said to guard the eight directions, by Raja Raja Chola inside the temple complex with a separate tower (small vimana) for each shrine. These shrines were built according to Agama, Silpa and Vastu sastras. Raja Raja Chola installed Indira in the east, Agni in the south-east, Yama in the south, Niruthi in the south-west, Varuna in the west, Vayu in the north-west, Soma/Kubera in the north and Isanam in the north-east.

The temple is a protected monument under ASI’s The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010. The temple comes under the Thanjavur Palace Devasthanam and is administered by the Tamil Nadu Government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department.

This article aims at motivating the ASI to allow the Palace Devasthanam to continue the established religious rites in the Brihadisvara temple as given in the Agama sastras. The construction of eight separate shrines for the Ashta Digh Balakas and the installation of their idols in their respective directions indicate the absolute devotion of Raja Raja Chola to them. Out of the eight idols installed by him, only four - Agni, Varuna, Vayu and Isanam – are in place in their shrines but they are in a damaged condition. However, pujas are being performed every day to these damaged idols which should not be the case. The idols in the other four shrines are missing. The ASI should instal new idols in the four shrines of the Ashta Digh Balakas, which (the shrines) are empty now. This will not be in contravention of the provisions of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010. The four damaged idols can be removed without causing any harm to the structures and new ones installed in their place. The damaged idols could be preserved in the museum run by the ASI in the temple complex. The installation of eight new idols will help the cause of Tamizh Isai because there is a distinct “Pann” for each Digh Balaka.

After Raja Raja Chola built this temple, several new structures and shrines were built in the complex by the subsequent rulers. For instance, the Ganapati shrine was a subsequent addition. The original Nandi (Bull) was replaced by a gigantic Nandi during the Nayaka period. The original is now kept in the “prakara” without any pujas being offered to it.

The temple is more than 1,000 years old and so it would have suffered damages due to various factors. The ASI can set right the damaged structures and this cannot be in any way termed violation of the provisions of the 2010 Act and its rules. Even Section 16 of the Act says, “…a protected monument maintained by the Central Government under this Act, which is a place of worship or shrine, shall not be used for any purpose inconsistent with its character.”

The limbs of an idol are divided into three sections - anga, pratyanga and upanga. If there is any defect or damage in the pratyanga or upanga, it can be fixed. If there is any damage in the main anga, the idol should be abandoned. Worshipping mutilated idols is not accepted. It is therefore time for the ASI to take steps to install new idols in all the eight shrines. This will enable the people to resume worshipping the ashta digh balakas.

(The writer is an advocate based in Madurai and appears in cases heard by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court. He appears in legal cases for many temples in Tamil Nadu. He is an activist for consumers' rights.)