Rajarajesvaram in the Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu has often been called ‘the temple of temples’. Built round the turn of the first millennium A. D. during the heyday of Chola rule, it is perhaps one of the best expressions of artistic excellence that could be conceived of. For the Cholas, temple building was not merely an outpouring of artistic talent but also a way of life, for the entire fabric of the society was woven round the temple.

Built by the greatest of Chola rulers, Rajaraja, the temple was named after him as Rajarajesvaram, meaning ‘the temple of the Isvara (God) of Rajaraja’. Later on, it became known as the Brihadisvara temple, meaning the temple of the ‘Great Isvara’. But, in fairness to the great king who visualized and had this structure built, I have, following my father, adhered to the original name.

Varuna Bhagavan

It is a unique monument in many respects. It attracts the curiosity of not merely the historian but also the sociologist, not to speak of the dancer and the painter for, it is perhaps the only temple in the world which carries on its walls the engraved evidence, in beautiful calligraphy, of its entire history and the story of the contemporary society. Such an exhaustive documentation ranging over almost a hundred long inscriptions engraved on the walls, pillars and podium, is rare wealth, indeed of immeasurable value to the scholar.

The inscriptions give, apart from a comprehensive history of the times, a full enumeration of all the metallic images set up in the temple. Numbering about sixty-six, these icons are referred to with a description of the minutest details of size, shape and composition. This alone is a mine of information for the art historian.

The temple also sports a depiction in stone, of eighty-one of the one hundred and eight karanas of Bharata Muni’s Natya Sastra – the first of its kind – setting the pace for many others to follow in succeeding centuries.
South Entrance to Karpagraham

The inscriptional data also abound in mention of the jewellery of the period: about sixty-six different types of ornaments and jewellery are listed with all the details. As if this were not enough for the scholar, there is a fund of material on the social and cultural life of the people of the times. This single temple could give lie to the erroneously held and oft repeated contention that the Indian community lacked a sense of history.

The history gleaned from the temple walls will not make much sense without an idea of the background of Chola rule and hegemony. Hence I have devoted the first chapter to `The Rise of the Chola Empire’, thus bringing before the reader the exact historical context of Rajarajesvaram.

The second chapter on `Rajaraja the builder’, not only enumerates his attainments as a ruler, but also gives a clue to his personality and the psychological forces that prompted his building this fine edifice. This is particularly important in the case of Rajarajeswaram, for the temple bears the indelible imprint of the mind that conceived it. In the same chapter, I have also dealt with the contributions of Rajaraja’s great aunt, Sembiyan Mahadevi and the tremendous influence these had on Rajaraja and hence on Rajarajesvaram. The details of Rajaraja’s conquests, his army and navy, his administrative ability and his religious tolerance, are gleaned from the inscriptional evidence on the temple walls.

King Rajraja I

The next chapter brings out the detailed description of the temple itself. An all stone structure of such stupendous proportions had never been attempted before. In height, elegance and simplicity of design and plan, the temple has few parallels.

Chapter IV deals exclusively with murals and dance panels that stand revealed on the walls, thanks to the ravages of Time which had more or less peeled off the late Nayak paintings that had been super posed on the earlier Chola paintings.

The Bharatanatyam panels have been a source of great attraction to the curious scholar and the dance theorist, as also to the performing artiste. To give a general picture of how these panels correspond to the Natya Sastra verses, I have illustratively elaborated on six of the sculptured panels.

Chapter V consists of the details of the metallic images gifted to the temple of Rajarajesvaram. A complete list of the images, with the metal used and the persons who made the gifts, has been given. The inscriptional details have also helped to identify some of the existing specimens in the temple.

Temple Sculpture

Rajaraja’s own gifts to the temple form a separate chapter (Chapter VI). They included war booty, apart from other articles the king specially ordered for his beloved Deity. The next Chapter (VII) deals with his sister Kundavai’s impressive additions to the temple.

Chapter VIII contains information on ancient Indian jewellery that has not so far been brought to the attention of the discerning scholar in such detail in one place, as I have been able to garner. My studies in this connection have revealed some fascinating items of jewellery. The types of jewellery, the composition and the content, the highly advanced techniques in fashioning them, have all been touched upon. Indeed, these details alone could be the subject of yet another study, for the Chola inscriptions mention twenty-three varieties of pearls, and eleven very clearly defined varieties each of diamonds and rubies alone; which only shows how exhaustive is the recording left behind for posterity. I have also included a brief chapter (IX) on the vessels and other aids used in temple rituals.

The administrative arrangements for the maintenance of the temple are described in another exhaustive chapter (Chapter X). Once again a wealth of details is contained in the inscriptions. The meticulous engraving of even the names of the streets in which the shepherds and the temple women lived, what to speak of their own names and other details, is a case in point to illustrate the Rajarajan eye for detail and documentation. Nothing had been left to chance.

Temple Fresco

In the last chapter, I have dealt with the fortunes of the temple under post-Rajarajan rulers for, such a stupendous monument could not but attract the attention of later monarchs and noblemen.

Apart from these eleven chapters, I have attached elaborate (thirty-two) appendices dealing with almost every facet of the temple and its context. They include a wide range of material, starting from a list of temples of the period of Rajaraja I, covering inscriptional details, quoting list of icons, ornaments, vessels, streets where temple functionaries lived, names of army units and regiments, villages offered to functionaries as remuneration for services rendered, etc.

I have also included a select set of photographs of the temple besides line drawings illustrating details of jewellery, hair style, sculptural contours and main architectural features.

A temple for the Cholas was not merely a house of worship. It was the fulcrum of life, for the king linked himself closely with the Deity of his choice. War booty was gifted to the temple which was the Treasury as well as the Public Record Office.
The king’s coronation was celebrated in the temple, which was also the patron of music and all other performing arts. The learned scholar, the sculptor and the architect, the dancer and the musician, the blacksmith and the carpenter, and a host of others depended on the temple for their livelihood. Thus, the temple was an institution, the activities of which touched upon every aspect of a person’s life.

In the case of Rajarajesvaram, a concise presentation of all the intense research that has been done in the past and is still continuing is more than warranted. Apart from the importance it shares in general with other Chola monuments, it is a sculptor’s dream, a historian’s mine, a dancer’s vision, a painter’s delight, a sociologist’s scoop [and a devotee’s pleasure], all rolled in one.”