Sama Varma was the chief architect of the Chola court and was commissioned by Rajaraja Chola to build the House of God. Sama Varma began his work diligently and took his work seriously. He began to design a structure, which was to stand on a 29m square base and rise up to a height of about 65 m. Like all other Chola temples, the Brihadeeswara temple is also a fully carved structure. A 107 paragraph long inscription on the walls of the Vimanam records the contributions of Rajaraja Chola and his sister Kundavai to the Thanjavur temple. The temple stands within a fort, whose walls are later additions built in the 16th century. The towering Vimanam is about 200 feet in height and is referred to as "Dakshina Meru". The octagonal Shikharam rests on a single block of granite weighing 81 tons. It is believed that this block was carried up a specially built ramp built from a site 6 kilometers away from here. Huge Nandis dot the corners of the Shikharam (also spelt as Shikhara), and the Kalasam on top by itself is about 3.8 meters in height. Hundreds of stucco figures bejewel the Vimanam, although it is possible that some of these may have been added on during the Maratha period. The Shivalingam - Peruvudaiya, Rajarajeswaramudaiya - is a huge one, set in a two storeyed sanctum, and the walls surrounding the sanctum delight visitors as a storehouse of murals and sculpture. The Shivalinga of Sri Brihadeeswara is probably the grandest in existence. This image was originally called "Adavallan" (the one who is good in Dance). Another name was Dakshina-Meru Vitanken. Rajaraja Cholan calls the image Rajarajeswaramudaiya, - The Lord of Rajarajeswaram. The long Prakaram surrounds the great temple (500 feet/250 feet), and the walls surrounding the Prakaram again go back to Rajaraja Cholan's period. The walls house long pillared corridors, which abound in murals, Shiva Lingams and Nandis. The Periya Nayaki temple within the temple is a later addition from the Pandya period, and so does the Saint poet Arunagirinathar sing the Subramanya temple later.
Noteworthy Sculptural Art:
Incidents from the lives of the Nayanmars, several of the 108 Bharatanatyam dance postures, manifestations of Shiva (Aadalvallaan, Nataraja, Tripurantaka, Dakshinamurthi etc.) are depicted in sculptured panels or in exquisite Chola murals. Both the interior and the exterior walls of the temple are replete with images of the kind described above.
The Sanctum, the Ardhamandapam, the Mukhamandapam and the Mahamandapam, although distinct, form a composite unit with an imposing appearance that awes visitors, forcing one to wonder how such timeless architectural feat was executed about 1000 years ago. Entrances to the Mandapams and the towered entrances to the Prakarams are majestic. The grandeur of the architecture and the sculptural finesse speaks volumes of the skills of the Imperial Cholas. The Nandi, which dates back to the Nayak period, is housed in its own Mandapam and it matches up to the grandeur and size of the temple. It is a monolithic Nandi weighing about 25 tones, and is about 12 feet high and 20 feet long.
Sub Shrines Within The Temple:
The various shrines within the temple include the Shrine of Sri Subramanya in the northwest corner, Shrine of Goddess Sri Brihannayagi, Sri Chandeeswara Shrine, Shrine of Ganapati, Shrine of Dakshinamurti in the north eastern corner, the colossal monolith figure on Nandi, the sacred bull, in the central courtyard and the Shrine of Karuvurar
The Shrine Of Sri Subramanya:
The Shrine of Sri Subramanya has been pronounced to be "As exquisite piece of decorative architecture as is to be found in the south of India" and "A perfect gem of carved stone work, the tooling of the stone in the most exquisitely delicate and elaborate patterns, remaining as clear and sharp as the day it left the sculptor's hands". Its correct place in the evolution of Dravidian temple architecture would be modern, giving it a date not earlier than 600 AD and is popularly believed to be of the Nayak period. The shrine consist of a tower 55 feet high, raced on a base 45-sq-feet, covered with delicately carved figured, pillars and pilasters and carried on along a corridor 50 feet long, communicating with another Mandapam 50 feet sq. to the east. Flights of steps lead up to either side of the shrine but the principal entrance is to the east. The walls of the pillared Manadapam are decorated with the portraits of the Mahratta rulers.
The Shrine Of Goddess Brihanayaki:
The Shrine of Goddess Brihanayaki is a later addition, constructed in the second year of a konerinmaikondan-probably a later Pandya of the 13th century. It is said that the original shrine of the Goddess, was located in the adjoining Shivaganga gardens and was later removed to main courtyard of the temple by the one of the Nayaks.
The Shrine Of Ganapati:
The Shrine of Ganapati is in the southwestern corner of the court and is of the time of Sarfoji II. Seven images of Ganapati are said to have been set up by Rajaraha Chola, 2 in the dancing posture, 3 seated comfortably, and the remaining 2 standing.
The Shrine Of Chandeeswara:
The shrine on the north central court is the only one put up contemporaneously with the main temple. Chandeeswara is one of the 63 Saiva saints and is considered to have been made the chief of Saiva devotees by Lord Shiva. He is assigned a shrine and an honoured place in every Shiva temple. He was looked upon as the manager of the temple. Any worshipper visiting a Shiva temple has to appear at the Chandeeswara shrine before leaving the temple premises and clap his hands evidently to satisfy the God that he is not taking away any temple property with him.
Sri Dakshinamurti Shrine:
Sri Dakshinamurti sanctum, with image as originally enshrined in one of the niches of the Vimanam, abutting the south wall of the main temple and approached by a steep flight of 21 stone steps is distinctly a later addition.
The Great Nandi:
The Nandi within an elaborately worked Nayak Mandapam is massive and striking. The Nandi is 12 feet high, 19.5 feet long and 18.25 feet wide. The Nandi is a monolith weighing about 25 tons and the stone is said to have come from a bed of Gneiss at the foot of Pachaimalai near Perambalur. Another version is that the stone was brought over from the bed of the River Narmada in the north. There is a tradition that the Nandhi is growing in size with the progress of time. It was feared it might become too large for the Mandapam erected over it and a nail was driven into the back of it, and since, its size has remained stationery. Two portraits statuesque on the front pillars of the Nandi Mandapam are pointed out as those of Sevappanayakan (the first Nayak ruler) and of his son Achyutappa Nayak.
Saint Karuvurar's Shrine:
Behind the main temple and under the shade of a Neem and a Mandarai is a modern looking shrine, dedicated to a great Siddha, Karuvur Devar, popularly known as "Karuvurar". The Karur Stalapurana narrates how the saint helped Rajaraja Chola in the installation of the great Brihadeeswara Shivalingam in the sanctum sanctorum at the time of the consecration of the temple. A place appears to have been assigned to him for this reason, in the temple court. Thursdays are held sacred for his worship and shrine attracts large crowd of devotees.
The temple is kept open from 5:30 in the morning to 12:00 in the noon. The temple usually remains closed during the noon hours, and reopens in the evening at 4:00 p.m. The temple closes in the night after the last pujas are performed by 8:00 p.m.
Every month, the day on which the ruling star is Satabhishag is treated as a festival as that was the ruling star at the time of Rajaraja's birth. The other festival is Krittika day in the month of Karttika (also spelt as Kartik).
The annual festival for 9 days is celebrated in the month of 'Visaka' (May-June), during which the drama of Raja Rajeswara is also enacted. The deity is daily bathed with fragrant water in which the buds of big Champaka flowers have been soaked. Ghee is used in place of oil for keeping the temple lamps burning. On festival days, the offering consists of eight varieties of cooked rice (mixed with tamarind, coconut, lime, juice, jaggery, gingelly, curd, etc.). Other items include cake made with Dal, rice, pepper and mustard; vegetable dishes, fried vegetables, sugar, plantain fruits, tamarind, curd and Ghee, and other items.
Regular Puja Services:
Every day, regular pujas are performed to the deities in the holy shrine. Pujas include Archana, Abhishekam (also spelt as Abhishek) and Prasad o ffering. The daily offering to the deity consists of cooked rice (rice hulled from paddy stocked for not less than four months should be used for cooking purposes), vegetable dishes, Ghee, Dal, rice boiled in milk, and Pansupari.
HOW TO GET THERE
Air: The nearest airport is at Trichy (65-km).
Rail: There is a railway junction in Thanjavur. It is well connected with Trichy, Chennai, Madurai and Nagore.
Road: Thanjavur is well connected by road with all the major towns and cities in Tamil Nadu and also with Kochi, Ernakulam, and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala and Bangalore in Karnataka. There are regular bus services for visiting all places of interest in and around Thanjavur. Tourist taxis are also available.