Brihadishwara Temple

sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

Come here twice: in the morning, when the tawny granite begins to assert its dominance over the white dawn sunshine, and in the evening, when the rocks capture a hot palette of reds, oranges, yellows and pinks on the crowning glory of Chola temple architecture. The World Heritage–listed Brihadishwara Temple was built between 1003 and 1010 by Rajaraja I (whose name means ‘king of kings’), a monarch so organised he had the names and addresses of all his dancers, musicians, barbers and poets inscribed into the temple wall. The outer fortifications were put up by Thanjavur's later Nayak and British regimes.

You enter through a Nayak gate, followed by two original gopurams with elaborate stucco sculptures. You'll often find the temple elephant below one of the gopurams, dispensing good luck with a dab of his trunk to anyone who puts a rupee in it. Several shrines are dotted around the extensive grassy areas of the walled temple compound, including one with one of India’s largest statues of Nandi (Shiva’s sacred bull) facing the main temple building. Cut from a single rock, this 16th-century Nayak creation is 6m long.

A long, columned assembly hall leads to the central shrine with its 4m-high Shiva lingam, beneath the superb 61m-high vimana (tower). The assembly hall's southern steps are flanked by two huge dvarapalas (temple guardians). Many lovely, graceful deity images stand in niches around the vimana's lower levels, including Shiva emerging from the lingam (beside the southern steps); Shiva as the beggar Bhikshatana (first image, south side); Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu) on the west wall; and Ardhanarishvara (Shiva as half-man, half-woman), leaning on Nandi, on the north side. Set between the deity images are panels showing positions of classical dance.

The compound also contains a worthwhile interpretation centre along the south wall and, in the colonnade along the west and north walls, hundreds more linga as well as some good Nayak-era murals. North of the temple compound, but still within the outer fortifications, is a park containing the Sivaganga tank and 18th-century Schwartz's Church .