This type of gopuram/tower/vimaana/
shikhara, is found only in this temple which was built by King Rajaraja chozhan I (985 - 1014 AD) and in Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple, built by his son, Rajendra Chozhan (1014 - 1044 AD), in the whole country!
I still remember the pen sketch of the 'Big Temple' in my school history book....right side page! I remember some of the details of the temple too, like 'the shadow of the gopuram never falls on the floor on any side of the temple at any time of the day', how a sloping road for so many miles was erected for rolling the huge stones to the temple site, etc.! I wanted to visit this temple, mainly to see the architecture, for many years now. At last, we planned to attend my niece's college fest in Tanjavoor and we stayed for an extra day and visited the famous Brihadeeshwarar Temple, which is also called Peria koil in Tamil or Big Temple.
First, we visited Oppiliappan koil, which has got a beautiful Venkateshwara deity and it was not crowed too! The gopuram is an ordinary dravidian type with colourful sculptures.
Then we visited Bangaaru Kaamakshi amman temple which is an ancient temple. The deity, Kaamakshi amman, is made of pure gold and we can see the gold one during navarathri time and on the day of the yearly festival, we were told. On other days, it is covered by 'punugu' and the priest told a story to why the deity is covered by punugu! But this post is about the Big temple, I should remember not to divert from this topic!
I was more fascinated by the gopurams of this temple, Brihadeeshwarar koil, than the deity, which is Shiva, a huuuuge one (Brihat means huge, Eashwara)! The front gopuram is of Dravidian culture, but the main gopuram inside is different, kalash type! Have a look:
You can see the Dravidian type of gopuram in many temples like Meenakshi, Chidambaram Natarajar and many others in Tamilnadu. I noticed the sculptures on the gopuram are not in different colours, but just in mud colour. Wikipedia says 'The entire temple structure is made out of hard granite stones, a material sparsely available currently in Thanjavoor area where the temple is located. The temple is made up of 130,000 tons of granite. The 60-metre tall vimana is the tallest in South India. If you are interested in serious architecture, you can read in the wikipedia link given above and others which I am going to quote later, here.
Some say that this place had a temple of goddess Varaahi (this deity is still there in a small sannidhi) and the King was asked to built a temple for Shiva in his dream. His priest, Sama Varma designed this shrine and I saw a small sannidhi for this priest also, inside the temple compound.
This link says, 'The Brihadeeswarar Temple was built to display the emperor's vision of his power and his relationship to the universal order. On the 275th day of his 25th regal year (1010 A.D) Raja Raja Chola handed over a gold-plated kalasam (copper pot or finial) for the final consecration to crown the vimana.
1000th year celebration was conducted in September '10 and the Tamilnadu CM conducted the event. Myth is there that whoever entered the shrine through the front gate, would lose his leadership/his top position, soon, in life! So Karunanidhi entered through the side entrance and did not enter the garbha gruha (sanctum sanctorum) of Shiva (Karuna hates gods!)! Will he lose in this election?!
Now let me show some pictures I had taken which show how our Kings took interest in minute details in building temples.
The ancient temples, mostly, were built like forts with 2-3 layers/compounds, which were used as shelters when enemies invaded.
This moat (agazhi) used to be full of water which surrounded the fort/compound of the temple. Even crocodiles were bred here, to scare the enemies!
The Outer wall...security!
Notice the Nandi figures/sculptures on top of the compound here, which can be seen at Chidambaram Natarajar temple too!
Notice the distance to the next compound! Dwarapalakas (security guards) can be seen here! The temple elephant (check my earlier post about this!) with Shaivaite marks on the forehead is on the left side here - not in the picture, though! The Vaishnaite elephant in the post is from Oppiliappn Koil - Venkateshwara koil!
All Shiva temples have the statue of Nandi which is his Vaahana (mode of travel). This Nandi measures 6m in length and 3.7m in height and faces the inner garbhagruha. This monolith (single stone) weighs 25 tonnes and is the largest Nandi statue in India! You can notice the beautiful murals on the ceiling!
The main deity, the Shiva Lingam is here, a huge 2-storey garbhagruha. The inner wall of the garbhagruha or the sanctum sanctorum has sculptures of 108 dance poses called karnas performed by Lord Shiva himself. The detailed description is here.
I feel, for such a huge temple with such beautiful architecture, the entrance to the main deity, looks very simple!
Side view of the Temple.
The left gopuram was built in the 16th century by the Nayak Kings and the deity inside is Subrahmanya, Lord Shiva's second son. The carvings on the gopuram is unique and the sculpture inside the temple also is beautiful. The contrast between the two gopurams, is clearly visible!
The above sculpture of Dwarapalaka, was inside the Subrahmanya temple. This has got intricate designs of jewels too! Polished granite!
One more picture of the gopuram from a different angle!
Another view of the gopuram...(link)
Old Tamil letters! This link says that the Cholas' history (actually, Chozha is the right word, in Tamil) is written in many walls here, in this temple, even about their lifestyles, clothing, art, etc.
This video about the Big temple is interesting, here, it is. You can see how huge the temple area is, in this video and the guide explains more details of the temple.
I am sorry, this post is too long...I wanted to post more pictures, but had second thoughts later!
Edited to add on 21.4.11: The towering vimanam is about 200 feet in height and is referred to as Dakshina Meru. The octogonal Shikharam rests on a single block of granite weighing 81 tons. It is believed that this block was carried up on a specially built ramp, built from a site 6 kilometeres away from here.
Wikipedia: This temple remains as one of the greatest glories of Indian architecture. The temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Great Living Chola Temples".