In the years following 1946, after Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took charge of the conservation of Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur, conservationists noticed that the jambs and lintels of all the doorways in the tower were systematically damaged by gun fire (caused in the 19th century). The intent behind this wanton destruction, the conservationists observed, `was perhaps to let the whole structure collapse by itself.’

None of that happened. Good design and sound structural logic served in good stead and for the last thousand years the structure firmly stands. The Brihadisvara temple, completed in 1010 CE, for good reasons is celebrated as a towering example of architectural excellence.

A monument was in order after Rajaraja I, (985-1014) the Chola emperor had vastly expanded the limits of the empire and brought immense wealth. It had to be ambitious and befit the imperial vision. By that time, temple architecture in South India had significantly advanced. The Pallavas of Kanchipuarm, in the 8{+t}{+h} century, demonstrated how multilevel functional temples could be built. There were also examples of temples with more than three tiers. These structures offered a broad template, but it was clear to the architects of Rajaraja that the temple at Thanjavur should far exceed all of them.

Rajarajesvaram, as the temple complex was known in the inscriptions, when completed was 40 times larger and five times taller than any average temple that preceded it and consumed 130,000 tons of granite. The 60 metre tall vimana (tower over the sanctum) built in fifteen tiers appeared like a huge mountain and remains the tallest in South India.

This conception and construction, as Pierre Pichard, the architectural historian justifiably describes, is an `architectural audacity.’ The unusually tall vimana alone weighed about 43,000 tons and supporting it was a challenge. Though the pyramidical shape of the vimana is self stabilizing, the architects could not afford to make the base appear wide and loose out on the visual appeal.

A proportionately large sanctum with double walls and circumambulatory passage in-between was designed. It rose to two tiers and merged at the third and held the tower.

Simultaneously, the vimana and the structures in front were consciously separated by a constriction in the elevation so that the tower could visually stand out.

Architectural studies show that a larger forecourt measuring 241 by 121 meters was specially designed to spatially hold the tower. The court was made of two equal square parts and the vimana was placed at the centre of the rear square. This provided the necessary foreground to view the elegance of the tower in full.

If the vimana was exceptional, the gopuras or gateways of this temple are milestones in architecture history. James Harle’s seminal work demonstrates that Rajarajesvaram was ‘the greatest single step forward’ in the development of gopuras in South India. Their axial placement frame the view of the vimana impressively and visually anchor the visitor. Though many structures and shrines were added to Rajarajesvaram till 19th century, they have not fortunately cluttered the complex and the original design intent could still be appreciated.

What is not well known, despite abundant inscriptions, are the names of the architects who designed it and methods of construction adopted.

It is popularly believed that a linear ramp stretching to a distance of seven kilometers was built and stones were hauled to the top. Few others suggest that short ramps around the tower were constructed. There is no final word yet on this. However a few of the myths have been proved wrong. The cap-stone on tower is not a monolith, but made of many parts. The belief that shadow of the temple does not fall on the ground turns out to be incorrect. Even the Thanjavur District Gazetteer, published in 1915, could not resist the stories. It footnotes that a European like figure carved on the vimana probably foretold the arrival of the British.

Building a temple as large and as magnificent as Rajarajesvaram was a stupendous effort. Men and materials were mobilised from far of places. Whether it took six or 30 years to complete the structure is still debated. Answers to questions why Rajendra, the illustrious son of Rajaraja, instead of completing the temple after his father’s death commenced a new temple to rival it and why he moved the gifts and proceeds from the Thanjavur temple to his temple are yet to be fully known. The story of Rajarajesvarm, it looks, is not yet fully told.