When I think of Tamil Nadu, I think of the ancientness of its temples. Some, like the UNESCO World Heritage Shore Temple in Mammallapuram, are not used for daily worship. They are places to bear witness to the past. Calm and peaceful, they are thousand-year-old marvels of art and architecture. I especially like to go up close and place my hands on the carvings and imagine the hand that held the chisel all that time ago. We are connected in the minuteness of our lives compared to the lasting forms of these stones and temples. That’s enough to make me bow down and remember my very small place in the universe.
All temples have that sort of power and most have truly remarkable energies. But, not every ancient place still feels alive.
The Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur does not fall into this category. It is a living temple and it is as active as an ant hill from dawn until dusk. Not bad for a place that’s been open for business since 1010 C.E.
When we arrived in Thanjavur, sunset was close. If you can arrange it, this is a magical time of day to visit the temple. Locals, done with their work, are getting in their daily visit—or maybe even a second one. Chai and snack wallah (worker) stalls line the parking lot. Flower sellers with their garlands and one-stop temple offering shops line the long wide walkway to the walled entrance.
If you go, you can simply join in and follow the throngs through the barrel vaulted goparums (gateways). Instead of stopping the flow to stare at those architectural feats, it’s best to carry on with the mundane task of storing your shoes where everyone else is storing their shoes. After this necessary preliminary, you’ll all burst inside the temple walls together and what hits you immediately, beyond the scale and geometry of the place, is that this is the exact same view that has gob-smacked every temple-goer that’s entered for the last thousand years.
The seventh largest Hindu temple in the world, Brihadisvara, which translates to “great lord – big Shiva temple,” is a vast 102,400 square metres. You could fit 19 NFL football fields inside. The Vimana (tower) over the sanctum sanctorum is 66 metres tall and made of solid granite. The fact that this was built between 1003 and 1010 by Raja Raja Chola of the Chola dynasty speaks to the mastery of early Dravidian architects.
This is a Shiva temple
The massive quadrangle holds halls for the Shiva lingum statue that represents Shiva’s energetic presence and for Nandi, Shiva’s ever present transport in the form of a bull (Nandi is the genesis of India’s sacred cows). There’s also a pavilion that serves as a public gathering space. The perimeter boasts walkways covered with verandas and decorative pillars to support them. The Nandi statue is a 25-ton single stone. The Shiva lingum is 8.7 metres high. There are also shrines for Shiva’s wife Parvati and for their children Ganesha and Kartikeya along with many other important deities. The halls are decorated with frescoes and elaborate carvings. A bronze statue of Shiva in the form of Nataraja—lord of the dance—was commissioned in the 11th century.
We spent a few hours here and were reluctant to leave. Though the compound is immense, there are alcoves and steps where one can rest. You can find a quiet spot to meditate. There are many angles to capture the light playing on the structures and faces and many friends to make while you are at it.
Foreigners are not as common here as in other parts of India. All that is needed is a smile and soon you’ll be invited to take part in a mutual selfie fest. Selfies are a cross-cultural ice-breaker and they always lead to mutual laughter. Most South Indians, and tourists from other parts of the country, know some English and even if you only know Namaste, Nammaskaram or Vannakom (Hindi, Mallayallum and Tamil greetings), your willingness to try to communicate in some form of Indian language will be enough to impress your new friends.
Beyond the people and the beauty of the pink rays of the setting sun hitting Brihadisvara’s pyramid-like Vimana, there is another memory that I will always retain from our visit here. It came from the ground up and is stored in every cell of my body.
The granite stones that make up the quadrangle’s courtyard are smooth and pebble free. One of the greatest pleasures in India is to walk bare foot on such stones after they’ve soaked up a day’s worth of solar energy. The transfer of heat travels up through the bones and feels like energy is being radiated from the earth’s core into the core of your being. Never before or since, have I felt the earth’s energy vibrate so soothingly through my being as I did in this ancient place in Thanjavur.
Pauli-Ann and I are both deeply grateful to our Travel XS guide Charles for making sure Brihadisvara was included in one of our visits to South India. We hope, if you go, you’ll find it as enjoyable as we did.
Note: This is an unsponsored post based on an independent visit in 2014.