Recording the grandeur of one of South India's greatest monuments, the book is a pictorial tribute to the 1000-year-old Brihadishvara temple

In the last week of September, Thanjavur was the place to be in for very special events to mark the consecration of the Brihadishvara Temple a millennium ago by the founder of the Chola dynasty, Rajaraja 1, King of Kings. The grandeur of the Temple, the greatest of Hindu South Indian monuments and a World Heritage site, was matched by the scale and exuberance of the celebrations.

Finer details

Seventy six superb Chola bronzes were on display and, judging by photographs, they alone were worth the trip to Thanjavur. The Nataraj, though shorn of his flying hair, was a stunner, with arched eyebrows, a half-smile, and his perfectly proportioned torso subtly suggesting the twists and turns of the divine dance. A chorus of 108 traditional singers rendered hymns in praise of Lord Shiva and at the spectacular climax, 1000 dancers played out the rhythms of the Bharatanatyam in the space around the Nandi shrine with the magnificent 216-ft. tall Vimana as a backdrop.

This aesthetic recall of a glorious era was a fitting tribute. As we know from the Marg book brought out to honour the occasion, the Chola monarch was a munificent patron, and the performing arts were an essential part of the life of the Temple. One can imagine it in its heyday with drumbeats reverberating as 48 singers, as opposed to 2 in the smaller shrines, chanted, 'How marvellous, how beautiful the form, bright as a hundred million rising suns…of the Lord…whose matted locks are crowned by the moon…'.

Golden trumpets gifted to the Temple accompanied the deities when they were taken out in procession, and 400 dancers, as against 216 prescribed in the agamas, performed on special days, ‘lovely as young peahens, …their brows crinkled like flashes of lightning'.

Thanjavur was the Chola capital from 850 A.D. onwards but grew in importance after 985A.D. when Rajakesari became the king. Over 19 years he expanded his domain into an empire stretching from Kerala to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Then, assuming the title of Rajaraja, he raised the Great Temple as a triumphalist monument in thanksgiving to Lord Shiva.

When his son and successor moved to his own new capital Thanjavur sank into obscurity, and was ruled in succession by the Pandyas and the Vijayanagara kings. Only when the Nayakas took over did it become once again the capital of Chola Nadu and a centre for literature and the arts.

From its inception the Temple was never a purely religious centre. It employed 850 people, ranging from high-ranking civil and military officers, to accountants and jewellers, all the way down the social scale to cooks, washermen, tailors, metal workers, artisans and so on. Its complex economy was supported by a meticulously planned network of goods and services sourced from 369 places in the Chola Empire.

To give random examples, villages endowed by the King provided watchmen for the Temple, and Brahmins invested its monetary assets to bring in a return of 12.5%. Further, selected herdsmen were given cattle to ensure that ghee was always available for the burning of sacred lamps, and a particular Sri Lankan village was singled out to provide the special iluppai oil required for religious rituals.

The Nayakas commissioned The Brihadishvara Mahatmya, a Sanskrit purana text, perpetuating the glory of the Temple and its great Chola builders in mythic rather than historic terms. Apart from 16 kings it told of Somavarma and his clairvoyant son who overcame innumerable obstacles to create the monumental structure. A poor old woman, a stock character in folk tales, did her bit by providing the enormous granite block that crowns the tower, and the Nandi is said to have kept growing larger and larger until a sculptor broke his thigh and released a toad trapped therein. Even today the local tourist guides tell these stories with gusto.

Speculation centres on how the granite block weighing several tons was hauled up to such a height. Was this an engineering marvel of which we know nothing, or was wet sand tamped down to form a long ramp up which elephants dragged the block with the help of ropes? The truth, alas, is more prosaic: no elephants, no ramp, no engineering marvel, and not even a granite block, but smaller stones suitably shaped and plastered together to form a single unit!

The Marathas who seized Thanjavur in 1647 undertook major restoration. The gilded kalash at the summit of the tower was replaced and the superb tableau covering its east face showing Shiva on Mount Kailash was probably added by them.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the armies of Arcot, the French, the East India Company and Hyder Ali came and went, leaving their mark on the Temple. Walled all around it was used as a fort and an arsenal, and the British garrisoned their troops inside while they fought off Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Like the Acropolis at Athens during the Turkish occupation when bombs were made in the Parthenon, it suffered extensive damage.

The nadir was reached in 1808 when the Survey of South India, in order to map the area, grossly insulted the deity by hoisting a half-ton theodolite to the top of the tower. It came crashing down causing extensive breakage, but the locals saw it as a just punishment for hubris.

Serfoji 11, the best known of the Bhosles, was a gifted polymath. Educated by a German missionary he was as interested in European art and architecture as in Hindu rituals, Puranas, and mythic and historical narratives. After the Cholas he was the first monarch to promote the Temple as a royal place of worship. The beautiful Subrahmanya shrine got a makeover, and the one to Ganapati was rebuilt. His gifts to the Temple exceeded the bounds of generosity and his lifelong dedication to it was legendary, yet in local lore he is reviled for surrendering much of his territory to the Company which confined him to the Tanjore Fort as they called it, creating a small kingdom within a larger one rather like the Vatican today.

This book is a work of solid scholarship with an impressive range of references. The appendices consist of a chronology of rulers, a brief constructional history, notes on conservation and the inscriptions, and translations of songs sung in the Temple over the ages. 100 pages are devoted to describing its physical features. Diagrams and superb photographs show that the complex was geometrically planned and executed with mathematical accuracy, what materials were used, and each detail of the architecture, statuary and painting.

Royal engravings

The huge murals in the main temple dating back to its inception are sadly defaced, but the grandeur of conception is still visible, particularly in the scene of angry Shiva with glaring eyes and open mouth, one arm upraised and body poised to slay the Tripura demons. The smaller murals in the Subrahmanya shrine are portraits of Maratha royalty, almost intact.

You cannot absorb this wealth of detail by reading about it. Better to take the genial advice proffered in the Foreword by Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, direct descendant of the Maratha rulers and hereditary trustee of the Temple: ‘Dear reader, if you have not visited the Temple…this volume will surely impel you….Even if you have already visited…,this volume will cause you to return…”. So, arm yourself with it and open your mind to envision the glorious past, and you will hear once again the drumbeats, and the chanting, and the ghungroos jingling as the dancers stamp and sway while you bow down to pay obeisance to Brihadishvara, Lord of the Great Temple that was also a little kingdom.

The Great Temple at Thanjavur: 1000 years; 1010-2010, George Michell and Indira Vishwanathan Peterson, Photographs by Bharath Ramamrutham, Marg Foundation, Rs. 2,500.