The Indian Analyst

   The Great God of Rajarajeshwaram


The Cholas were one of the three Adiraja (primary royal dynasties) of old Tamilagam (Tamil Nation). Tamilagam itself was defined as the land South of the River Thungabandra bound by Thiruvenkadam (modern day Thirupathi hills) in the North East and the Indian Ocean in the South. The other two Adirajas were the Cheras and the Pandyas. All the three Adirajas feature in much earlier Indian epics of Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The antiquity of these kingdoms is also available Chinese, Roman, and Greek documents, literature, travelogues, and anecdotes. Other ancient Tamil poetry and literature also refer to these dynasties in glowing terms.

The Chola history can be divided into three broad categories. One is the period well before the birth of the Christian era (CE). The sources of history are limited to Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The second period, known as the Sangam period, is about two centuries before the birth of the Christian era to about four centuries after. The sources for this period are from Indian Sangam literature and external documents of trading nations in China, Rome, Greece, and Egypt. The third period is from the 6th Century CE. There is a strange silence for about two centuries from the 4th Century CE and 6th Century CE.  Just prior to this period of silence, is the destruction of the port cities of Kaveripumpattinam and Mahaballipuram by the sea. At that time, it was believed that these port cities were destroyed by a cyclone.

However, based on modern data, it can now be deduced that the destruction of these cities was due to a tsunami. While Sangam literature Manimekkalai talks about the destruction of Kaveripumpattinam in Chola country, its forerunner Silapadigaram talks about the destruction of the Pandyan capital Madurai due to a curse by Silapadigaram’s heroine Kannagi as that king had delivered a wrong verdict that killed her husband. It is known from Manimekkalai that Cheran Senguttovan (the Chera King and grandson to the great Karikala Chola) conquered all the lands to the North up to the Himalayas and constructed temples in many places to further the legacy of Kannagi. Thereafter, a civil war broke out in the Chola country followed by a tsunami that destroyed that nation’s economy.

Followed by two centuries of silence when South India was overrun by a tribe called the Kalabharas, it was only after the Pallavas assumed power in Kanchipuram that South Indian literature, poetry, history, and art brought life back to this part of India. The Pallava dynasty itself has unknown antecedents. Some say that the Pallavas were Phalavas of Iran while others say that they were the remnants of the Chola dynasty. The word Phalavas or Pallavas is mentioned in the Mahabharata as one of the countries that joined the Great War. What we do not know is where this country was located.

However, we do know from the Saivaite literature Thiruvillayadal (The Great or Holy Games of Shiva) that there was a Chola king at Kachipuram called the Aayarithu Parikonda Cholan (the Chola king with a thousand horses meaning cavalry). Therefore, we could deduce that there must have been a branch of the Chola family that lived in the North of the traditional Chola country in the Kaveri delta who rose to power with the vacuum of power further south. This is not unlikely because several centuries later we see the rise of Telugu Chodas or the Nayakas or the Wodeyars (or Udaiyars as the Cholas called themselves) of Mysore emerging as local kings with different names but with strong Chola antecedents and history.

After the golden age of the Pallavas, South India witnessed the rise of the Cholas again with Vijayalaya Chola. From about the mid-eighth Century to about the mid-Thirteenth century, the Cholas ruled large parts of land as far as modern day Malaysia, Sumatra, Bali, and parts of Myanmar (parts of the erstwhile Sri Vijayan, Arakan, and Mataram kingdoms).   


Built about a thousand years ago by Rajaraja Chola I, the Periyakovil (Big Temple) is a monument dedicated to Lord Siva at Rajarajeshwaram (now called Thanjavur). The name of the deity as established by the emperor was Rajarajesvara udaiya Paramasami (The Great God who resides at Rajarajeshwaram).  The inscriptions of this temple reveal that Rajarajesvaram was exclusively a royal temple conceived, designed, and managed by the Emperor himself.  The Emperor was also able to inspire the royal family, officers, and feudal kings to voluntarily participate in this national exercise; apart from their participation, their generous gifts are also recorded in inscriptions of this temple.

According to the inscriptions in the temple, Rajaraja gave away gifts to the architects, workers, artists, artisans, and helpers. He gave numerous gold vessels for the use in worship and jewelry to decorate the Linga and other idols. He consecrated the Uttsava Murthy (processional deity) and his sister, queens, officers, and feudal kings consecrated other panchaloga uttasava (idols made with five basic metals) idols and gifted several jewels for them. Per the Emperor’s wishes, the Commander-in-Chief of the Chola army, Krishna Raman, built a thirucchurrumaaligai (an enclosure adjoining the inner wall) surrounding the garbha graha (sanctum sanctorum). The Emperor’s Rajaguru (spiritual adviser), Esana Sivapanditar, helped the Emperor through the consecration of the temple.

Demonstrating the far-reaching vision of ancient kings, the Chola Emperor not only endowed the temple with capital and art, he also provided a way for the temple to function through guaranteed revenue. He gifted the revenue from several villages in a scheme called the devadana (Gift to the God). The villages were responsible for providing paddy, its shepherds to provide milk and ghee (clarified butter) to light the hundreds of lamps in the temple. In another scheme called Bhrahmadeya (Protecting the God’s Honor), he assigned numerous villages to depute guards to protect the wealth of the temple. Villages were asked to provide men to serve as accountants, treasurers, and cleaners. To promote poetry, he funded salaries and expenses for 50 Thevaram (old Tamil poetry created by the four great Nayanmars or Shivaite saints) singers to be present and regularly chant these hymns. To promote performing arts, he also appointed 400 dancers and over 100 instrumental players to perform everyday at the temple. To promote drama and demonstrating his non-parochial view of languages, he arranged for the performance of Sanskrit dramas accompanied by Sanskrit and Tamil musicians. By encouraging jewelers, gem setters, tailors, architects, and other merchants to use these facilities, he also made this temple a central market for traders and merchants from all over the Chola country. He also funded monthly (Pradhosham) and yearly festivals (Chittirai masa thiruvizha).  An office was also instituted to manage the inscriptions on the temple walls.

The Imperial Army and the feudal armies swore to support and protect the Periya udaiyar (The Bigger King) and the other ancillary temples. While the officers of these armies held the responsibility of the idols within the temple, the overall administration was under Aditan Suriyan (also known as Tennavan Muvendavelan). He was possibly the Commander of the Southern Army and came from the family of Illagovellars of Kodumbalur (modern day Puddukottai and Ramanathapuram). It is probably Illangovelar Bhoodi Vikaramakesari himself. The Chief Acharya of this temple was Bavana Pidaram. The chief architect and assistants were Kuncharamallan (also known as Rajaraja Permataccan literally Rajaraja’s Superintendent Architect and also with the title Taccacaryam meaning Architect’s Superintendent or Teacher), Nittavinota Perumtaccan (possibly Deputy Superintendent Architect—literal translation is the Architect who managed the daily miraculous work), and Gandaratita Perumtaccan. Since the titles took the name of the king, it is interesting that one Architect from the time of former Chola Emperor Gandharaditya (Rajaraja’s great uncle) is mentioned—obviously a very old man. 

Brahadisvaram or The Big Temple

Although Rajaraja I called the temple Rajarajeshwaram, it is now called Brahadisvaram in Sanskrit and Peruvudaiyarkoil in Tamil (meaning The Big Temple).  Brahadisvaram was a later name probably called from the time of Maratta rulers of the 17th to 19th centuries.

The historic Thanjavur city was a large fort at that time while the Brahadisvaram temple is in a smaller fort surrounded by moats.  The Nayaka rulers of Thanjavur created the present fortifications and the moats of Brihadeshwaram during 16th century.  Situated in the southeastern corner of the small fort, the Big Temple occupies an area measuring 800’x 400’. The vast inner courtyard of the temple is 500’ x 250’ and is surrounded by an outer courtyard.  Separating the two courtyards are two large gopuras (entranceway).

The first gopura has five tiers and named as Keralanthagan Tiruvayil by Rajaraja and the second gopura with three tiers was named as Rajrajan Tiruvayil.  In addition to these two main gates, there are four more small gateways without gopuras in the thiruccurrumaaligai (the covered enclosures) along the inner courtyard wall.  In the inner-courtyard is the tallest temple granite structure Srivimana in the whole world stands gigantically. The mahamandapa (the great enclosure) is attached to the Srivimana structure.  As per the Agama shastra, the original Chola Chandikeshvara shrine is located on the the northern side of the Srivimana.

The Devi shrine located North East side of the Srivimana was built by a Pandya ruler of the thirteenth Century CE. The nandimandapa (the large enclosure housing the large Nandi) and the Subramanya shrine are later additions by Nayaka kings.  The Ganapathi shrine located Southwestern side of the Srivimana was the contribution of the Maratta ruler Serfoji in 1801 CE.

During the Chola times, the thiruccurrumaaliga contained 36 panchaloka or bronze idols. In modern insecure times, these have been replaced by shivalingas. The Nataraja mandapa (also known as or the Murti Ammal Mandapa ) further North East from the Srivimana and the Mallappa Nayakar Mandapa in front of the Subramanya shrine was built by are the mandapas of Nayaka period (16th century CE).

Keralanthagan Tiruvayil (The Gateway of The King Of Kerala)

Rajaraja I conquered Kerala by defeating the Chera King Bhaskararavivarma by destroying his seaport near modern day Thiruvandapuram and by land invasion through the Palghat pass. Inscriptional evidence shows that Keralanthan is one of the titles of Rajaraja I to commemorate this victory.

This gateway is a square, massive five-tiered structure adorned with what is known in Dravidian Temple Architecture as salas, rides and karnakudus in each tier (tala).  The structure was made with a stone masonry foundation raised upapita (base to the structure) element and an adhistana (carved awning) with many moldings.

The gopura is 90’x 55’ in the base and about 15’ wide. Granite is used up to the middle of the second floor and the upper reaches are built with brick plaster and stucco.

At about 40’ from the ground, Rajaraja I has used two massive single stone door jambs of granite measuring 5’x 5’.  There are two sub-shrines facing south and north. While the one facing south is clearly Dakshinamurthi, the one facing north is a scholarly figure with a beard speculated to be Brahma.

Rajarajan Tiruvayil (The Gateway of Rajaraja)

Per inscriptions found in the temples, this gateway is called Rajarajan Tiruvayil or The Gateway of Rajaraja. This temple three-tiered granite structure is full of sculptures and stucco figures. In the raised upapita there are sculptures from the puranas (loosely called mythology).  The southeast corner features the story of Sundara and Cheramanperumal.  Then in the right side of the eastern face are the stories if Chandekeshwara, Siva’s divine marriage to Uma, and the story of Markandeya. 

Saint Chandikeswara, was a great devotee of Siva who defied the Vedic and Brahmanic traditions of his father to worship Shiva. He would use up the milk from his father’s cows to bathe and use up his father’s resources to decorate the Shiva Linga. Once as he was bathing Shiva with milk, his father tried to stop him. Not realizing that this was his father, and incensed because he was stopped from worshipping Shiva, Chandesha cuts the leg of the person who tried to stop him (his father). Moved by his love for him, Shiva shows himself to Chandesha, grants him an Eshwara (God) status, promises to makeover to him a portion of all the offering made to him, and restores his father’s leg. That is why, the Chandikeshwara shrine is placed by the Lord’s shrine to receive part of the offerings that come out of the garbha graha.

In the marriage scene of Shiva with Parvathi, Vishnu is shown as giving her away and Brahma as the one who performs the ceremony. Parvathi is born as Uma, the daughter of Himavan, and is desirous of marrying Shiva. She undergoes the toughest practices of worship in defiance of her father. Wanting to demonstrate to the father the divinity of Uma and her love for Him, Shiva shows up as a handsome man and performs many games of love, bravery, and valor. After demonstrating to her father the sincerity of his daughter’s love for Him, Shiva shows himself in his manifest form to the world and marries her.

Markhandeya is born to an austere Rishi and his wife after many years. However, on the day he was born, a voice proclaims that the boy will die when he attains 16 years old. Although saddened by the omen but overjoyed by the son that they got after many years of worship, the couple raise him to be an ardent Shiva devotee. The boy excels in study, philosophy, and above all his devotion to Shiva. Nearing his sixteenth birthday, his parents tearfully reveal the omens at his birth. The boy cheerfully says that even death cannot take him away from Shiva and enters the temple of Shiva at Thirukakavur (near modern day Swami Malai). Yama’s, the God of Death, servants try to enter the temple but are repeatedly rebuffed by Nandi (Shiva’s first devotee) every time he tries to enter the shrine. Smarting at this barrier, Yama come to the scene. On seeing Yama, Markhandeya panics and hugs the Shiva Linga. When he threw his Pasa Kayir (rope of death) at the boy, the rope inadvertently goes around the Shiva Linga too. Since he was trying to kill the Lord Himself that cannot be done, Shiva in rage at Yama’s insolence kicks him away.

On the left side of the eastern entrance, miniature sculptures of the story of Subramanya’s marriage with Valli, Kirardarjuna, Kamadakana, and the story of Saint Kannappa are depicted.

After defeating Sura Padman, Subrahmanya comes to >>CHECK Vralli malai (near )<< to rest. At that point, He sees a tribal girl called Valli intensely praying to Him seeking marriage. Intrigued by this behavior, Muruga shows up as a young handsome man and proposes marriage. He is rebuffed. He shows up as many different forms but is always rebuffed. However, he learns that this girl is not afraid of anything except elephants. Muruga prays to his brother Vinayaka (The God with the Elephant head) and asks him to help him win this girl over. Vinayaka and Muruga hatch a plan. Muruga shows up as an old man and seek the girl’s help. Respectful of older people, Valli helps him around and gives him all the material comforts he desires. The old man asks her to marry him infuriating Valli. She threatens him of dire consequences and praises Muruga. At that time, Muruga disguised as the old man, prays to his brother who shows up as a large rutting elephant. Valli panics and asks the old man to help him. The old man promises to get rid of the elephant only if she agrees to marry him. She agrees knowing well that she will go back on her word. The old man makes the elephant disappear. With the elephant gone, Valli tries to escape from the lecherous old man. Muruga gets His Brother to confront her again. This time Valli faints but into the hands of Muruga who brings her around and reveals himself to her. Overjoyed in finding her true love, she marries Him. 

The Kiradarjune scene is a bigger one and it depicts the Pandava hero Arjuna performing austerities to obtain a Pasupatha weapon. Shiva is shown as a hunter accompanied by Uma as a Huntress and Ghanas as a host of animals. While Arjuna is performing his penance, a Rakshasa, unknown to Arjuna takes the form of a boar and comes to kill him. His concentration broken, Arjuna takes up his bow, Gandiva, and fires an arrow at the boar. At the same time, Shiva fires an arrow from his bow, Pinaka. The Rakhshasa could not be killed by anyone except Shiva but Arjuna does not know this. He picks up a quarrel with the “Hunter” and gets into a fight. He shoots his arrows at the Hunter but they seem to fall off the body of the large man. Soon he runs out of arrows from even his inexhaustible quivers. His arrows and his bow ineffective, Arjuna fights with the “Hunter” using the Gandiva as a stick. The Hunter plucks the Gandiva from Arjuna’s hand with a laugh. Incensed with rage, Arjuna now tries to wrestle the Hunter down but is picked off his feet as if he was a weakling. In despair, Arjuna prays to Maheshwara to restore his honor. The “Hunter” then reveals Himself along with Uma and his retinue of Ghanas. Happy with Arjuna’s bravery and devotion to Him, Shiva grants Arjuna tha Pashupatha weapon and several other weapons.

In the same eastern face of this gopura, above the panels depicting puranic stories, there are two monolithic Dwarapalakas (gatekeepers) measuring 20 feet each all the way up to the level of kapotha.  These two sculptures have exquisite workmanship.  A huge snake is shown swallowing a mighty elephant under the foot of the Dwarapalaka on the right side of the entrance.

As in the Keralanthagan Thiruvayil, there are also two monolithic door jams.  Similarly, this gopura also has a pair of two storey vestibules with access to the second storey through simple open staircases.  The massive architraves dividing the vestibules and the columns that support them are plain.

There are two sub-shrines facing western side of the gopura.  The southern one is a shrine for Nagraja (the snake-King) and the northern one is supposed to be one for Indra (the protector of eastern direction).  However, the image of Indira is missing. Three sculptures on the Western side of the Indra sub-shrine are identified as Tripurantaka, Gajasamhara and Bhiksadana. The scenes from the story of Tripurantaka are carved in miniature forms in the upapita portion near Nagaraja shrine. Shiva is shown on a chariot driven by Brahma holding the arrow to destroy the three Asura cities.

Eight goshta images on the all four corners of the wall are speculated to be the gods of eight cardinal directions. Another theory, which seems less plausible, is that they represent the eight vasus (Asta vasus).  The numerous stucco figures of this gopura belong to the Nayaks and Maratta period (16th-19th century).

The Srivimana or the Main Temple

The main temple itself is made up of a grabhagraha (sanctum sanctorum) on which there is a tower called srivimana or srikoil. A big rectangular mandapa with an intervening vestibule called mukhamandapa is placed before the garbhagraha.  The srivimana itself is made up of a basement at the ground level (upapitha), the base (adhistana), the wall (bhitti), the roof cornice (prastra), the garland miniature shrines (hara), the storeys (tala), the neck (griva) the crown (sikara) and the finial (stupi).

A theory on the architecture is that the basement (upapitha) is introduced in temples to increase the height of the main tower, add to structural stability, and to make the temple tower majestic.  The basement of Brahadisvara Temple with the height of 116 feet magnificently fulfills these purposes.

The main base is decorated with well-defined courses including the lotus moulding adospadma, and the kumuda moulding. They are topped with a frieze of leogriffs and riders.  On top of this base is the flooring of the grabhagraha.  The wall that rises above the main base to the roof cornice is called the bhitti or kal.  This is the principal element that encases the main sanctum and carries on it a number of niches housing various deities. 

The wall itself is divided into two horizontal courses by an intervening cornice. The lower course has an equal number of niches on all the sides.  On the vertical axis the wall surfaces are well defined by intervening recesses forming a rectangle in the centre and squares at the corners.  Each is made up of a central niche housing a deity, flanked by a group of small sculptures. Pilasters as simulating pillars in turn flank these. 

The mukhamandapa abuts the eastern wall of the vimana.  There are two niches in the lower level. The sculptures in the lower courses of the Srivimana depict various aspects of Siva.  The entrance to the sanctum guarded by massive doorkeepers, Nandi and mahakala.  On the northern side niche near the Dwarapala is the image of Siva in the form of Tripurantaka and on the southern side Siva stands as Tatpurusha.  Just outside the mukhamandapa of the eastern wall of the srivimana niches are found Surya and Vishnu Anugramurti.

The row continues on the southern wall of the srivimana with the sculptures of Bikshadana, Agora, Kalakala, and Nataraja.  The western wall niches are adorned by Harihara Lingotbava, Satyojata, Chandrasekara and in the northern side by Ardhanaresvara, Gangathara, Vamadeva, Gouriprasada and in the northeastern side with Esana and Chandra.  On the top row of niches the beautiful sculptres of Vidhyesvaras (Ananda, Sukshma, Sivathama, Ekanethra, Ekarudhra, Trimurti, Srikanda and Sikandi), Murthiesvaras (Bavan, Sarvan, Pasupathi, Ukran, Rudra, Bima, Esana and Mahadeva) and eleven Rudras are found.

The roof cornice consists mainly of three parts. The Bhutha Ghanas (an Army following of Shiva) are at the bottom with a cornice forming the out edge of the ceiling roof. This is topped with a frieze of leogriff. The cornice is decorated with plain spade like ornamentation.

The main tower (called the Vimana), which has a pyramidal shape, consists of 13 haras.  The Vimana converges upwardly by means of a square base of 26’ x 26’ width.  The tiers of the south, west and north are centrally adorned by the sculpture of Daksinamurthy, Vishnu, and Brahma respectively.  On the eastern side, the mountain Meru(parvatha) is decorated with the seated figures of Siva and Parvathi, worshipped by the Devas and Ganas.  This Siva form is called Mahameruvidanka.

The neck is provided with four nitches in the cardinal directions and eight bulls (which is the ride of Shiva) at the corners.  Four Siva figures adorn the niches.  The niches are topped by arch like embellishments called krithimukhas.

The spherical element on the top (the capstone), called Sikhara is, according to tradition, thought of being made with a monolithic stone weighing 80 tonnes.  However, with the plaster coming apart, it has since been found to be made by several pieces of cut dressed stones made to appear as one stone.

The finial (stupi) is a metal vase with a lotus bud design at the top.  It is plated with gold and carries few inscriptions of Thanjavur Maratta Kings and other donors. It is not known whether the stupi is the original and probably plated by Maratta kings or is a newer addition.

An inner wall of 11’ width encases the garbhagraha enshrining the main deity.  Between the inner wall and the outer wall of 13’ width, there is an intervening passage running all around with a width of 6’.  The two walls are joined at the top by a series of corbelling.  They are provided to support the massive super structure.

In the corridor of the ground floor (sandhara) and the first floor there are four entrances in all the four directions.  There are deities that face the south, west, and northern openings. The nine feet tall seated Rudramurthi face the southern wall, Santhyanirthamurthi with ten arms faces the western opening, and a seated Monomani face the northern opening.

The Sanctum Sanctorum

The inner sanctum houses a very big Sivalinga, rising to a height of 13’.  The lower half of the sripitha is of nine pieces with lotus carvings.  The upper half of the sripitha, with urthuva padma decoration is a 60’ circle with the length of 6’ komugai in single stone.  Above this linga bana stands.  This main deity is mentioned as Raja Rajesvaramudiya Paramasami in the inscriptions of Rajaraja.

The entrance to the sanctum is guarded by massive door keepers, Nandi and Mahakala.  In the south and north entrances of vestibule (mukha mandapa) and the south, west and north entrances of the sandhara there are 10 massive Dwarapala images.  These sculptures are the 10 Ayudapurushas (Vajna, Sakthi, Dhanda, Dwaja, Sula, Ankusa, Gatha, Pasa, Kadga and Chakra) of Siva.  Out of these 10 images five are in good condition without any damage.  Sakthi in the south, Gatha and Sula in the west, Kaga nad Dwaja in the north are of those images.

The mandapa immediately preceding the sanctum is approached by steps leading to it from the north and south sides and also from the great mandapa in the east.

On the eastern side of the southern stairway of the vestibule, there are beautiful sculptures of scenes from the Tripurantaka story and of the divine marriage of Siva with Uma.  The western side of the same stairway is adored by the sculptures of Gangathara, Kamadhokana, Trimurti, Daksha with the goat’s head, Narada, Indra, Surya and the ganas.  The western side of the northern stairway of the vestibule has the sculptures from the complete story of Daksha yaga.  Sculptures on the eastern side of this stairway depict scenes from the stories of Chandesa, Kiratarjuna and Bikshatana.

The Mahamandapa

Only a part of the original mahamandapa (the western half) survives today. The current sidewalls, pillars, and ceilings may have been reconstructed during the Nayaka rule in the 16th Century. It is speculated that the original structure may have been lost to vegetation growth from neglect or plunder from invaders. From the surviving portion it may been seen the roof (prasada) of the Mahamandapa was in level with the prasaa of the ground floor (adi bhumi) of the main vimana.  Like the walls of the main vimana a horizontal cornice divides the outer wall of the mahamandapa into two parts.  They carry a series of niches both in the upper and lower courses.

There is speculation that sculptures of Vidyesvaras, Vasus, Adityas and other subsidiary deities were enshrined in those niches.  As mentioned earlier, the main vimana has two floors inside the sandhara passage, the intervening cornice forming the intermediate floor level.  There is a belief that the mahamandapa should have been a two storeyed pavilion, quite fitting with the mahaprasada of the temple.  There are large holes on the Srivama that probably housed crossbeams to support this theory. Also, since the dwarapalakas guarding the entrance to the mahamandapa are so tall, the central passage should have had only the upper ceiling without the intermediate flooring.  Thus the central passage was flanked by two storied structures resembling the storied (now in ruined condition) cloister of the enclosure.

Again, the front entrance of the mahamandapa can be approached from the steps in the North and South.  Serfoji added the steps found in the eastern side later in 1801.  The entrance to mandapa is guarded by massive dwarapalakas.  The idols of Ganapathy and Durga near the entrance are later installations.  As the flooring of the mandapa is on a high elevation, the steps rise to considerable height forming a high platform in the front.

A series of sculptures are shown with two arms, holding a sword and a shield in the outside niches of the mahamandapa.  They may be the eight vasus described in Agamic texts.  Ganapathy, standing Vishnu with Sridevi and Bhudevi, Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Durga and Bhairava, enshrines the other niches of the mahamandapa.

The Chandikeswara shrine   

The small temple to the northeast of the central shrine enshrines Chandikeswara. It is a stone temple built on a raised basement, with a storied superstructure.  The sanctum can be approached by side steps.  Inside the sanctum there are two small images of Chandikeswara of later period.  The original image with suitable height of the proportion of the shrine now is missing. 

The outer walls of this sanctum have niches on all the three sides, carrying sculptures of standing Chandikeswara coeval with the temple.  Chandikeswara is the principal subsidiary deity in Siva Temple and all the transactions relating to the temple were made in his name.  Hence, a separate shrine is provided for him in the temple complex.  This shrine is coeval in time and style with the main temple.

Tiruchchurru Maaligai 

The big prakara (courtyard) of the temple is about 500’ x 250’ and is surrounded by circumambulatory Tiruchchurru maaligai (the sacred wall of enclosure).  There are three inscriptions found (same text) in two places in the south wing and one in the west wing of the circumambulatory mandapa.  They all confirm that this tiruchchurru maaligai was raised according to the oral instruction of Rajaraja by the famous military general named Krishnan Raman alias Mummudisola Brahmamarayan who hailed from the village of Amangudi, otherwise called Keralanthaka Chaturvedimangalam of Cholamandalam. 

The wall of enclosure rises to a height of 28’ and runs round to the entire temple complex. Hugging the wall inside the enclosure is a long corridor supported by two rows of pillars.  It is two storied and rests on a upapita.  The different levels are demarcated by a cornice which is about 10’ from the floor of the courtyard.  Over the flat roof of the upper storey of this cloister, the wall of the enclosure rises another 9’.  A large number of decorative Nandis in stone are placed at intervals over its ridge. 

There are 36 peripheral sub-shrines in the tiruchchurru maaligai which can be divided into four types.  The first type consists of two small square sanctums are symmetrically incorporated in the gateway and are accessible from its inner face. The second type is a set of 27 small sub-shrines with square sanctums. The third type is a set of nine larger sub-shrines in the rectangular sanctums.  Finally, there are four corner sub-shrines with small square sanctums preceded by vestibules.  The four gateways apart from the eastern gopura (Rajarajan Tiruvayil) are perched in the enclosure wall.  The gateway in the north western side is mentioned as Anukkan Tiruvayil in one of the Rajaraja’s inscriptions of this temple.

On the four corners of the Tiruchchurru maaligai and also in the middle of the three sides, there are seven shrines in the decorative vimanas over them.  The seven shrines were meant for seven of the eight Dikpalakas or guardian deities of eight directions. In the cell of south east corner is Agnideva (fire), south is Yama (Death), southwest is Niruthi, west is Varuna (Rain or Ocean), northwest is Vayu (Wind), north is Soma (Moon), and northeast Esana (Shiva) are found.  As mentioned before, the Indra shrine in the eastern gopura does not have a deity.  Except the Dikpalas, Parivara Ganapathy, Nagaraja and the Nagadevadas, several Lingas are housed in the tiruchchrrumaaligai.  They are the later additions of the Nayak and Maratta rulers.  The original deities housed in the 36 parivaralayas during Rajaraja’s period were removed or ruined by the looters in the 14th century.

The Amman Shrine

The amman (Goddess Periyanayaki) shrine which is in the north side of prakara (courtyard), just opposite to the big Nandimandapa is a later addition during 13th century by one of the Pandya rulers (proably Jatavarma Sundrapandia).  We know from inscriptions that Rajaraja in one of the shrines in the northern tiruchchurrumaaligai installed the original Devi statue in the name of Parivaralayattu Uma Pattaraki. The large entrance hall of the Amman shrine is a later addition during Vijayanagar period (15th century A.D.).  The inner ceiling of this mandapa is adorned with the Maratta paintings of Serfoji’s period (1799-1835 A.D.)

The Subramanya Shrine

The large Subramanya shrine is located in northwest corner of the courtyard.  It is one of the best examples of temple architecture of the Nayak period.  It stands in striking contrast with the main shrine Rajarajesvaram.

Sevappa Nayak, the first Thanjavur Nayak ruler, constructed this structure in the early half of 16th century.  This shrine consists of the garbhagriha, the arthamandapa and the mukha mandapa.  The sculptures in the outer wall and in the mandapa have unique features.  One can enjoy the complete iconography of Skantha (Lord Muruga) in kudus of the kapotha (cornice). 

The front mandapa known as Mallappa Nayakar Mandapa of the same age, was connected with the Subramanya shrine by steps during 19the century by Serfoji II.  This mandapa stands as one of the best art galleries in the temple.

Big Nandi and the Mandapa 

In the front courtyard (in the eastern prakara) before the main temple is the Nandi Mandapa.  It is a plain open hall with a flat roof, housing the recumbent mount of Vrishaba (bull), a prodigious monolithic sculpture of realism and beauty. 

It has the measurement of gigantic 3.66 metres in height, 5.94 metres in length and 2.59 metres in breadth.  The mandapa as a plain, uncluttered 16 pillared structure and the bull is the contribution of Thanjavur Nayak kings in 16-17th centuries.

Murti Ammal Mandapa

The present Nataraja Mandapa is mentioned as Murti Ammal Mandapa by one of the inscriptions of the Amman shrine.  It was the contribution of the Nayak ruler Sevappa in the name of his wife Murti Ammal in the early 16th century.

Ganapathy shrine 

In the southwest corner of the couryard, the Ganapathyshrine is a small temple built at the end of the 18th century A.D. by Serfoji II.  The small sanctum opens to the east and can be entered through a vestibule.  The vimana is adorned with stucco figures.

The Keruvurdevar shrine 

The last addition inside the courtyard is a small shrine built at the beginning of the 20th century to on our Karuvurdevar who write Tiruvisaippa, the sacred hymns to praise the Lord of Rajarajesvaram during the Chola period. 


The famous series of paintings in the Rajarajesvaram are the fine examples of the Chola, Nayak and Maratta skill in this art.  Chola fresco paintings of about 1000 A.D. and the Nayaks tempora paintings of 17th century are seen on the four sidewalls of the central cell along the circumambulatory passage. 

Thanjavur Maratta’s paintings (18-19th century) are adorning (i) on the mahamandapa ceiling, (ii) on the west and north walls of tiruchchurrumaaligai (iii) on the north, south walls of the big mandapa in front of the Subramanyaswami Temple.

Chola Fresco Paintings

The garbhagraha of the Rajrajesvaram has a circumbulatory hall having a width of 6’ between the two parallel walls.  In 1930 A.D. some remarkable paintings were discovered in the interfacing walls of that hall by the late Professor S.K. Govindasamy (Journal of the Annamalai University, Vol II, 1933).  He, however, found on close scrutiny that the entire wall surface was covered with paintings belonging to the days of the Nayaks of Thanjavur and that in places the painted surface had crumbled, exposing to view exquisite paintings of Rajaraja Chola.  Trying to preserve both Chola and Nayak paintings, the Department of Archaeology has done a remarkable conservation of scientifically cleaning the exposed portions revealing the excellence of the Chola paintings and at the same time retaining in tact the upper layer on which the Nayak paintings are drawn.

The original fresco paintings, as far as they have been exposed are mainly in the south, north and western walls.  On the southernside, a huge panel in which Siva as Dakshinamurti under a banyan tree is found occupies major portion of the wall space.  Bhairava with dog and the Sanagathi Munies (disciples of Siva) are also seen in the panel with animals and birds.

In the south side of the western wall the most complete and chronologically arranged is the thematic panel depicting the episodes in the life of the Saint Sundara.  The total panel is divided into three portions.  The lower most one is the marriage scene of Saint Sundara.  In this portion one can witness the arrangements of Sundara’s marriage.  Lord Siva as an old man appears with a document to prove his claim to the beautiful bridgegroom Sundara, whom he brought away with him to Tiruvennainallur Sabha, at the very day of his marriage.  After examining the document the Sabha members confirms the old man’s claim.  Sundara singing hymns in the temple of Tiruvennainallur is also found.

In the middle portion of this panel we can see Sundara and Cheraman.  They are traveling on Siva’s elephant Airavanam and a horse to Mount Kailash.  Celestial dancers and musicians are also depicted in this scene. 

In the uppermost scene Siva and Parvathi are shown seated intiger skinwith devas, ganas and other celestial dancers and musicians.  Sundara and Cheraman also witness the music and dances in Mout Kailas a longwith Siva and Parvathi. 

In the next panel of the same wall is a large figure of Nataraja dancing in the golden hall at Cidambaram with priest and other devotees on one side and Rajaraja and his three queens on the other side.  The entire Cidambaram temple with the four gateways (gopuras in Chera style) is beautifully depicted. 

On the opposite wall, the scene of Rajaraja worshipping the Linga in the Thanjavur Temple is found.  There are also some charming miniature figures of graceful women. 

The next panel in northwest norner is the scene of four disciples who are akasanthana Kuravars (Sanga, Sanathana, Saanathana and Sanathkumara) of Lord Dakshinamurthy.  Among the four two were wrongly identified as Rajaraja and Karuvurdevar by some scholars. 

The northern wall has the most magnificient of the murals. The principal figure is Tripurantaka Siva on the chariot drawn by the four Vedas transformed into horses, with Brahma as the charioteer.  Karthikeya accompanies him on peacock, Ganesa on mouse and Kali on lion, with Vrishapa in front of the chariot.  He is in a lidha pose of a warrior with eight arms, all carrying weapons and in the act of using mighty bow to overcome a host of aggressive and fearless Tripura demons with their womenfolk clinging to them.  This painting is the greatest masterpiece of the Chola artist distinguished by its power grandeur, rhythem and composition and is unparalleled by any contemporary painting or sculpture.  One can enjoy two bhavas (expressions) in the single face of Tripurantaka i.e., the ferociousness in the eye and the sweet smile in the lips.