Thursday, January 12, 2023

Periya Kovil (Big Temple) - Scaling New Heights

 I have now come to the crowning jewel of the Chozha temples - Periya Kovil. The name says it all. It is Big! It is said that Rajaraja was inspired by the Pallava temples, especially the Kailasanathar temple (to which he donated considerably) in Kanchi and decided to take that form to new heights. Once again, I recommend that people watch this interview with Dr.Kudavayil Balasubramian (in Tamil) as he is the source for pretty much every piece of info in this blog. His book titled "Thanjavur" is hard to find but worth hunting down a copy. 

There are so many myths about the temple and its construction but I am not going to do myth-busting here as Kudavayil has done it many times in his lectures. The temple as it stands today has only certain portions of the original construction as is. The rest has become a palimpsest of sorts as the Pandyas, Nayaks and Maratas have all left their mark. I will focus on things I saw and loved. I should have taken a pair of binoculars with me and for anyone planning a visit I strongly recommend carrying it so you can admire the sculptures on the vimanams and gopurams up close.

It was raining on the day we traveled from Kumbakkonam to Thanjavur and it made the greenery of the landscape pop-out even more - paddy fields on either side of the road, lots of sugarcane harvest (as it is going to be Pongal in a few days). On a side note, these were the scenes I was looking for in the PS-1 movie and found lacking. This is the food-belt of Tamil Nadu known for its rivers and fields and greenery and even in 2022 it did not disappoint. Maniratnam's movie missed an opportunity here!

Back to the temple. While Rajaraja I oversaw the temple building there were at least 10 other people who were instrumental in executing the king's wishes. I am going to list a few of them here (most likely my spellings in English are going to be wrong): Kuncharamallan (the chief architect), Mathuranthagan (Second architect), Kundavai (his sister), the General Krishnan Raman, Esana Sivapandithar (Rajaraja's Guru), Rajendra (his son), Moovendha Vellan (the temple's revenue officer). The reason I list these people is that Rajaraja is famous for giving credit where credit is due and all these people have their names inscribed. Even common-folk who contributed single boulders, the 400 dancers associated with the temple, the 1000+ permanent workers, the people who washed the workers' clothes, the ones who did hair and makeup are all named and inscribed in the foundation stones of the temple. Says something about the king and his governance.

Keralanthakan Entrance Gopuram

The first gopuram is called "Keralanthakan Entrance" and was built by Rajaraja to celebrate his victory over the Chera kings. It has 5 stories and must have been the tallest structure in the Tamil kingdom when it was first built. Made mainly from Black stone (granite), it is also covered in Sudhai (Lime mortar). There are a number of interesting sculptures of the pantheon at the first level. Here is a zoomed in version and you can see Shiva & Uma, Vishnu, Brahma, Kali, Ganesha etc

Kudavayil calls out a special sculpture of Shiva in Padmaasana called Sadasivamoorthy. Rajaraja had commissioned this for his guru who belonged to the Pasupath sect. I think it is this sculpture but I could be wrong - this is where I missed taking my binoculars.

Much better view of Sadasiva Moorthy (not sure if I saw this one in the Rajarajan Gopuram)


Once you go through this first entrance you see the next gopuram called "Rajarajan Thiruvayil" (Rajaraja Entrance). It is smaller than the Keralanthakan entrance and has only 3 levels. This one is particularly famous for its guardian figures.

Rajarajan Entrance

Guardian Figure on the Left
These guardian figures are legendary. On close inspection you can see a snake devouring an elephant under the feet of the figure. Normally snakes are shown devouring rats. Here, the artist is trying to give you a sense of scale - imagine the size of the snake if it has to devour an elephant. Now, note that such a mammoth (devouring) snake is being trampled easily by the guardian figure which shows how powerful he is. And he is pointing you the way to the God inside who must be all-powerful to be guarded by these guardians.

As you go through this entrance you see the giant Bull built by the Nayak kings. Then you get a glimpse of the main Vimanam also called Dakshina Meru. Here are some breathtaking views of the same.

From the ground to the Kalasam on top it is 60.4m

There are 21 niches that house amazing sculptures surrounding the garbagraha. Here are some of the sculptures. You can now see how these are the forerunners to what are seen in Darasuram and GKC.

Vishnu with consorts



I loved the riders on the Yali-like figurines at the bottom of each niche. Nice touch!

Kalakala Moorthy

Also note the narrative sculptures to the side of the Kalakala Moorthy above. It tells the story of Markendeya escaping from Yama. Yama is shown wielding his death lasso on the left while Markendeya hugs the Shivalinga on the right



Umai Oru Paagan (Ardhanadheeshwar)



The Original Bull

There was a major ceremony going on that I couldn't get close to the Bull, but shown here from a distance is the original bull built by the Cholas. The Bull is to the side of the vimanam and Kudavayil has a beautiful explanation as to why nothing blocked the sun rays hitting the main sanctum in the morning and evening. There is a closed room in the main temple which houses a dancing sculpture of Shiva and during sunrise and sunset it is supposed to be beautifully illuminated.

I missed seeing the 81 dance sculptures and will have to go back for those. Also the most beloved image besides the dancing Shiva was that of the Victor of Three Forts - Tripuravijaya where Shiva is shown with a bow and arrow. This icon was adopted by the Cholas as their most beloved image as it symbolized their own victories in wars with the other kingdoms. If I am correct, the vimanam has a number of sculptures of Shiva as Tripuravijaya

Inside the temple complex are numerous shrines. The Ganesha shrine constructed in 19th century by Marata kings, the Subramanya shrine built in the 17th century by the Nayak kings and an Amman shrine constructed in the 14th century by the Pandya kings.There are a number of paintings by the Nayaks and Maratas that I am not going to go over as I am not very familiar with those.  I loved the Subramanya shrine which also had some amazing sculptures. Just one example here - Valli's marriage to Muruga as the hunter.

Valli's Marriage

I haven't written much about the Lingas in all 3 temples because there is already a lot of information out there. However, for those who haven't watched Kudavayil's lectures here is a snapshot of the view from the inner sanctum and the effect that Rajaraja was going for in constructing his temple this way. He is making the connection between the form and the formless as the linga reaches out to the Universe.

Pic Courtesy: "Thanjavur" by Kudavayil Balasubramanian

One final sculpture before I close - this is the famous hat man. It took me 3 rounds around the temple before my brother spotted him!

The Hat Man of Thanjavur

Who is this mysterious Man in a Hat? Here is a link to Kudavayil's 6 min short on the mystery man. For those who don't speak Tamil - here are some quick notes: He is European, this statue is not made from stone, it was added during the Nayak time, According to Kudavayil this is an emissary from Holland. There are other theories too but I am going to go with Kudavayil's theory.

Final thoughts:

This is a temple that has a lot more treasures than I covered here. I did not go over the other shrines and walkways, the paintings etc as I don't know much about those and will need another visit to cover all that. However, I did go to the Palace Art Museum to see more missing sculptures and the Bronze statues. Unfortunately my brother and I had both left our wallets at the hotel and the Museum did not take google pay and only accepted cash. We borrowed Rs100 from our driver and went in. Since we didn't have cash to pay for the camera I didn't take any pictures. There are some amazing bronzes that are worth seeing and many more stone sculptures too. For Chozha bronzes I recommend Vidya Dehejia's books and lectures on Youtube. The 6-part lecture is completely worth your time.

One can spend a lifetime looking at Chozha temples and exploring the Tanjore/Kumbakkonam area. Someday I will go back and look at other temples. For now I came back happy and satisfied that I was able to visit these heritage sites and took the time to learn more about them. It felt like I time-traveled to the 11th and 12th centuries for those 3 days. Now I plan to re-read Ponniyin Selvan before PS-2 hits us!

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