The truth versus hype about Raja Raja I and the famous temple he built in Thanjavur has reached a crescendo with the making of the film Ponniyin Selvan. Now known as the Brihadeeswara, the temple was originally called Rajarajeswaram ( Raja rajeccharam in Tamil). As a researcher of the history of Bharatanatyam, I have been privileged to study all aspects of this monument. Renowned archaeologists, epigraphists and Tamil historians have covered just about everything one needs to know about the great Chola king and this temple.
Let us start with the dome-like structure at the top of the 216 ft high spire or vimana — it is not one big rock. Several heavy stones were carried to the top and the mystery of achieving such an unbelievable task a thousand years ago continues to puzzle many an expert engineer to this day.
The shadow of the vimana does fall on the ground around the main structure, although for long people believed the contrary.
Raja Raja employed 400 Devaradiyars (devadasis), many of them from Tiruvarur, at the temple. Their names and other details are inscribed on a wall inside. All bronze icons, gold lamps, etc., donated by queens and nobles are also mentioned in the inscriptions. But only the Nataraja icon, Raja Raja’s favourite deity, remains. This icon was referred to as Adavallan and was the symbol of his empire. It was restored by Kamakshi Bai Saheba, the last Maratha queen of Thanjavur (one of Shivaji’s wives). A couple of statues believed to be of Raja Raja and his queen were retrieved from a private collector and now stand near the sanctum.
Raja Raja knew the stories related to the Nayanmars, the Saivite saints, who lived before his time. The lost hymns (Thevaram) were literally rediscovered and propagated throughout his empire by him. The temple has a statue of Kannappa Nayanar, while Sundaramurthy Nayanar’s image is painted as a mural inside the vimana. It shows the saint riding a white elephant accompanied by Cheraman Perumal on a horse.
The earliest and largest illustration of dance movements and postures, described in the Natya Shastra, are sculpted on stone in this temple.
The foundation for this huge edifice is a wonderfully built double wall. It has held the weight of stone and bricks despite mild earth quakes having occurred a few miles away. It is believed that the perfect, tall vimana symbolises the holy Meru, Mount Kailash, the sacred abode of Shiva. That is why it was referred to as Dakshina (southern) Meru, and the Lord was known as Dakshina Meru Vitankar.
The Shivalinga in the sanctum is one of the biggest. It did not see any worship for decades when British troops occupied the temple and made it a fort and garrison for canon and ammunition.
A kumbabishekam was performed by Raja Serfoji, who lost the Thanjavur kingdom to the British. You can find details about his reign in old Marathi inscriptions.
The original Nandi, which is smaller, sits sadly alone in the outer covered pathway. The big Nandi, occupying centre stage, was a later addition during the Nayak period. And it does not grow in size every year as it is believed. Sevappa, the first Nayak ruler of Thanjavur, built the intricately carved Subramanya shrine.
Through the Doctrine of Lapse which the British imposed on Indian maharajahs, they seized everything from Shivaji, the last Maratha king, who had no male heir. Like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes, his queen, Kamakshi Bai challenged this annexation. She fought the British with the help of a British advocate John Bruce Norton, took the case right up to London to the Privy Council, and retrieved all the palaces and properties and 88 temples.
Today, one of the Maratha descendants is the affable prince Babaji Rajah Bhosale, who not only looks after Brihadeeswara but a lot more.
The writer is a veteran Bharatanatyam dancer and scholar.