Cradle of Culture – The Brihadeeswara temple of Thanjavur


Time is a great leveler and human memory is brutally short. But every stone of the Big temple in Thanjavur still speaks about the foresight of Raja Raja Chola, who built this grand structure more than 1,000 years ago.

Historian Chithra Madhavan believes the Brihadeeswara temple is nothing less than monumental by way of architecture. “Even when a person sees it for the hundredth time, the sheer glory of its architecture blows you away. The inscriptions in the temple are a wealth of information. They have given historians so much data. For the layman, it is the grandeur that is striking. The temple has paintings belonging to the Chola, Nayak and Maratha period.”

There are many aspects about Raja Raja Chola one can find out from the temple. “Firstly, the very obvious fact that he was a devotee of Shiva. Secondly, many aspects of him being an administrator come to fore. The temple also has a series of sculptures showcasing the natya karanas. While there should have been 108 of them, we only have 81 of them and despite that, they are wonderful because they have been sculpted in the same order as given in Natyasastra and it depicts Shiva dancing,” says Chithra.

It is often said that the reign of Raja Raja Chola saw the apogee of the Chola empire and there was a reason behind it. “The temple became the fulcrum of an entire wave of culture. Because of Raja Raja’s interest, there was a ripple effect across his kingdom. So his idea of Shiva worship, singing of sacred hymns in every Shiva temple and treatment of arts as a sacred offering gave the culture an unprecedented glory,” says dancer Lakshmi Vishwanathan, whose interest in the Thanjavur temple started at a very young age when an archaeologist pointed out the names of the 400 dancers who were employed at the temple. “We now know the temples they served, the streets they lived in and the number of their house. The whole history of the temple can be studied by reading the inscriptions in the temple itself. It is not just the story of the royals but also the people.”

Many decades back, Bharatanatyam dancer and guru Sudharani Raghupathy had worked on the temple sculptures of Tamil Nadu for her television series Bharatanjali, which was aired in B&W in 1981 and in colour in 1989 on Doordarshan. “My guru KP Kitappa Pillai is a descendant of the Thanjavur Quartet , whose house still stands there near the temple. What we call Bharatanatyam today was codified by the Thanjavur Quartet and we follow it to this day,” she says.

It was also during the reign of Raja Raja Chola that the singing of Thevarams got a major impetus. “There was a decline in Thevaram singing after the Pallava period (during which the saints lived) and Raja Raja decided to propagate the Thevarams across all the temples after having retrieved them from a locked chamber in the Chidambaram temple. The Nataraja existed in Chidambaram even before his time but Raja Raja gave the deity an renewed importance. He renamed Nataraja as Adavallan and ruled under his name. Everything was named after the deity in the kingdom. The diverse people were brought into the divine stream of bhakti,” says Lakshmi, who has been doing a study on the Thanjavur Nathyam.

As the poetry of the saints spread, so did its music. “The idea of pann raagas had gained ground in Tamil Nadu. The wandering minstrels propagated the musicality of Tamil poetry. Nobody recited poetry; they sang it. They sang it with ecstasy and people picked it up and sang along. In his autobiography, U Ve Swaminatha Iyer (known as Tamil thatha) writes that he learnt Tamil and music together.That spirit of singing bhakti poetry was a part of the Tamil ethos,” she says. Lakshmi strongly believes that today’s dance and related arts find their ultimate source in Thanjavur. “Raja Raja supported the artistes in a way that was never seen before or after him. There was a 100-year dark period when the history of Thanjavur was not known, during the middle ages. Then, the Nayaks came and took Thanjavur back on the path of glory.”

This story was published on February 5, 2020 in The Times of India

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