Only a few monuments of global importance have received the kind of attention the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur has from historians, archaeologists, artists, dancers, and epigraphists alike. The grandest of South Indian temples, an architectural masterpiece, enters its millennium year in 2010 — an occasion to celebrate its importance and contribution to world heritage. The monumental scale, clarity in design, and structural innovations set it apart from all other temples. When Rajaraja I, the illustrious Chola emperor (985-1014 CE), completed the building of the temple in 1010, it far exceeded anything that was built before. The high point of design is the vimana (tower over sanctum). This unusually tall vimana was a structural innovation of the first rank. Designing a 60-metre-tall tower was a great challenge that was ingeniously resolved. For the first time in temple history, a double-walled sanctum that coalesces at the third tier to support the tower was built. On top of good design, the choice of granite contributed to its endurance. About 50,000 cubic metres of granite were utilised to build this complex. This was a stupendous effort considering that there was no granite quarry in the surrounding region.
Debates on the construction of Rajarajesvaram, as the temple was known during the Chola period, remain inconclusive. Stories abound about how a simple linear ramp stretching to a distance of seven kilometres was built and workers dragged the stones to the pinnacle. Alternative versions that suggest the construction of concentric short ramps around the tower are also in circulation. However it was built, there is no disputing the unsurpassable precision of the temple’s layout and the perfection of design compliance. The abundant and richly detailed inscriptions found on the temple walls make it a treasure-house of historical information. Various aspects of medieval society and temple management were revealed by assiduously studying these inscriptions. The sensational discovery of Chola frescoes in 1931 in the dark passage around the sanctum, under the light of a ‘Baby Petromax,’ enhanced the importance of the temple. Seven panels were revealed when later-period paintings hiding them were removed (and safely transferred for conservation elsewhere). Rajarajesvaram’s contribution to the history of dance is no less important: it is the only temple to have 81 of the 108 karanas or dance postures carved on its walls. Happily, the conservation efforts within this world heritage site, one of the wonders of the medieval world, are commendable. However, the experience of the diligent heritage-tourist can be enriched if the site museum can be designed better and comprehensive information provided in an accessible manner.