Thursday, February 17, 2011

Brihadeeshwarar Temple - Thanjavur

The town is bustling with people and vehicles. It's twilight time. The paved road bifurcates and branches to the right. My eyes stumble upon a  wooded landscape lit by street lights. Above the trees rises a tall monument made of granite that tapers inwards along its height. We are near one of the largest Shiva temple ever to be built on earth - Brihadeshwara Temple; We are in Thanjavur.

Brihadeshwarar Temple
This ancient temple dating back to 1011 AD was built by the then King of Chola dynasty - Raja Raja chola. Now after a 1000 long years, the much revered structure stands tall with all the majesty that was imparted  to it by its architect.

A rumor that runs in these part of the country says that whoever offered oblations to this shrine have lost their throne or power or money. This renders it unpopular. Despite this derogatory rumor thousands throng the temple daily  to earn the blessings of Lord Shiva and other Gods enshrined here.

A wide moat  runs around the temple. This is as unusual and strange as leaves in the desert. A moat is a  strategic deep and broad ditch usually built around a fort or castle to provide the structure with a first line defense. When an enemy attacks, the water in the moat is either poisoned or filled with dangerous crocodiles so as to topple the thirsty enemy. So the only conclusion we can draw is that this temple also acted as a fort to the then King who ruled from the Thanjavur Palace miles away.
The water has all dried-up. Nor does it have any importance in the present times. Now, the moat merely exists as a place where weeds and grass flourish, a place where plastics and other litters are dumped.
The outer walls of the temple testifies its dual role.  It has got a height considerably more than what we generally come across in other temples in this part of the country.

In the facade, a granite paved yard leads us to the Gopura  - Gateway to the Gods. As we inch closer towards the structure, we get carried away by the aesthetic beauty of the architecture and sculpture like a kite in the wind. No doubt, in the unsophisticated world of those times,  paintings and sculptures enjoyed a good audience among the Royal ellites. 

Two Dwarapalakas(standing on either side in a mythical dance pose) guards the Gopura .The Gopura opens into a wonderful manicured green lawn that surrounds the temples within the temple complex. Each temple has an idol representing a particular deity. Hindus believe that Gods are incarnate in their temple images.

The Vimana of the main temple rises above 200 feet. The Vimana tapers inwards along its height. The tapering angle is such that the shadow of the sun never falls on the yard on the other side of the building. 
An intricate but beautiful pattern carved on the Vimana stills all the rolling eye-balls. This pattern is replicated in shape throughout the Vimana - size and count decreasing along its vertical height.

The Vimana also encompasses many rooms. They have been built in the hope that the King and his courtiers could hide inside them in case of a war  or any other emergency. They presumed that  no one (mainly rebel army) would dare to attack the temple as it is revered as a sacred place. The King's job was never easy in those times though it appears to be highly glamorous.

Lord Shiva is the  deity  in the Main temple.  He is enshrined in the form of a huge black Shiva Linga (male mating part) regarded as the  most powerful of all the deities in the Hindu religious philosophy. To contain its enormous power a Yoni (female mating part) is always attached to the bottom part of Shiva Linga. The Linga is watered by the divine process of Dhara where an inverted tumbler filled with water is suspended from the ceiling just above the Shrine. The tumbler has a small orifice at its bottom so that the water leaks through it down on to the Linga thus by cleansing and cooling it. People say that on a particular day in an year sun's rays fall directly on the Shiva shrine  for a brief span of time.

The attendant Priests offer Vibhoodhi (ash smeared by Lord Shiva) to the devotees. Devotees smear it mainly on their forehead, neck and their trunk. Mythology regards Vibhoodhi  as Shiva's favorite and is believed that  it possesses divine healing powers.  In some places it is even used to cure wounds and insect bites. Shiva is portrayed as an ascetic in Mythology and is said to have developed intense dislike for  most of the worldly possessions.  Vibhoodhi makes it to much shorter list of Shiva's worldly likes. Shiva is unlike the other Hindu God - Vishnu who according to myth leads a luxurious life and is looked upon and revered as a God of prosperity.

Nandi, The Sacred Bull
and the paintings above
Opposite to Shiva, facing him, there is a huge idol of Nandi - Shiva's Vehicle. - commissioned within a pavilion. Old Thanjavur paintings are the main attraction of this pavilion. History says these paintings made use of natural colors extracted from the pigments of leaves , animals and stones. 
The significance of Nandi augments manifold every fortnight when a ritual called Pradosham is observed close to the Amavashya (No moon day) and Pournami (Full moon Day). During this time, the devotees whisper their wishes into Nandhi's ears so as to make them more heard to Lord Shiva. It is said that on these days Shiva develops a preference to Nandhi.

Towards the right of the main shrine is commissioned the shrine of Dakshinamoorthy (Brahaspathi)- in Hindu Philosophy, the guru of Devas who is much similar to Jupiter God in Greek Mythology. Some devotees believe that Shiva himself personifies as the Guru  - Teacher of Universal Knowledge. Though the beliefs contradict, it really doesn't matter in a country where people have learned to cope with  different stories, perceptions, views and beliefs. Well, believers just need a reason to believe and they have it. Stories are always cooked up but when you come down right to the versions of different stories, you unearth a clean content.

Towards the left of the main shrine is Chandeshvar  - an ascetic and devotee of Lord Shiva who is believed to have sacrificed his own body to the superior purpose of devotion to Shiva and consequent Moksha (Spiritual Salvation). As philosophy has it, all attachments bring pain & suffering with it. There is a need to renounce all the attachments  and bondage to attain Spiritual salvation.
Chandeshvar temple
Chandeshvar is regarded as an intermediary between the devotee and the Lord Shiva. Devotees consider him to be much closer to Shiva than they themselves are. He sits in a cross-legged position in the shape of a lotus, impassive to any worldly calls, completely locked and focused in deep meditation. Such is the profundity of his meditation that the devotees first wake him up by rattling with their fingers before offering him their prayers and wishes. They believe that  he carries them to Shiva and Shiva answers to it without fail.

Temple of Parvati is also commissioned  to the left of Main Shiva temple. In all temples Parvati is placed to the left of Shiva as she is his better half. This tradition could be seen followed even in the Hindu Marriages in these parts of the country. Throughout the marriage ceremony the bride stands to the right of the groom. Here the bride is more her father's daughter than a prospective wife. From the next day onwards she is bound by the tradition to occupy a place left to her husband - let it be pooja or any other ritual. She is now more a wife to her a husband than her father's daughter. She is now her husband's better-half.

Ardha - Nareeshwar
In all the mini-temples stairs lead us to the deities. Occasionally on the stairs could be seen Tamil inscriptions -  a peculiar writing which i believe is not followed in writing these days.
We also find numerous Shiva Lingas lying in a covered passage  that surrounds the courtyard. Granite pillars support this covered passage. 
There are also references to Ardha-Nareeshwara and ashtadikpalakas (protectors of  Eight Directions as per Hindu Mythology) in the sculptures in the temple.

It was 9o clock in the night when I left the temple premises. I am not a believer rather i am not a person who believes in the myths the way the other people do. Nonetheless there was something inexplicable and mysterious, beyond my reasoning capacity that spelled  a divine magic on my conscience and  held me firmly to the temple aura. I wanted to explore more and more and listen to the myths and stories and observe the concomitant temple rituals. I was reluctant to leave though the purpose of my journey had more to it than covered. Thanjavur temple still lingers in my mind.