It is said that there are at least 24 temples of antiquity in Thanjavur Town. However, only three are being suggested in the selective itinerary below.
True to its more popular name, the Periya (big) Kovil (temple), everything about the shrine to Brihadeesvara is BIG. Brihad itself means big. Being part of the historical Sivaganga Fort, the temple is surrounded by a (now dry) moat, and with its enormous entrance arch, looks awesome even from a distance. With a sandstone-colour finish (no gaudily painted sculptures here), this is a peaceful temple that looks both grand and understated. Do pause at the entrance to be blessed by the temple elephant. For a token coin, you will receive a moist blessing on the top of your head.
Built by the Chola emperor Rajaraja Chola in the 11th century, the construction of this magnificent temple began in 1003 CE and was completed in 1009 CE. Unlike in most South Indian temples, the entrance tower is shorter and less ornate than the one over the sanctum. The latter is 13-tiered and 197 ft tall. The single block of granite that perches atop this tower weighs 80 tonnes. In an unparalleled feat of engineering, a 4-mile long ramp was built to roll the cupola into place. Fascinatingly, the shadow of the cupola never falls on the ground. Facing the main sanctum, in its own stone mandapam, is a splendid 12-foot tall monolithic idol of Nandi. The imposing lingam in the main sanctum is also 12 ft high and has a circumference of 54 ft.
The shrine of Goddess Brihan Nayaki (brihan = big), to the north of the sanctum, is noteworthy not only for the beauty of the idol but also for the exquisite stone frescoes on the walls outside the sanctum. Also here is the shrine of Saint Karuvurar, who consecrated the temple, which has been built to resemble a cave. The Murugan shrine nearby is built like a chariot, with intricate stone carving. Unlike in other Shiva shrines, the Navagrahas (the nine planetary gods) are not depicted in their usual forms, but as lingams. The Navagrahas are seen in the outer corridor, behind the main sanctum. Altogether the Big Temple houses 252 Shivalingams. It's said that if you circumambulate the temple four times, it is equal to circumambulating one lingam 1,008 times! The shrine of Rahu (one of the Navagrahas), located to the left of the main entrance, was erected specially by Raja Raja as the planet ruled his star, Sadhayam. Those who are born under this asterism do propitiatory rites in this shrine for any dosham (a horoscopic drawback) connected with Rahu.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the Big Temple, which, after its initial years of glory, had fallen into a long period of neglect, is now pleasingly renovated with landscaped gardens. In the southern, outer corridor is a small museum set up by the ASI, displaying pieces of sculpture. This temple is the first in a set of three similar Shiva temples built by successive Chola kings, the other two being at Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram. The latter are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites and all three take your breath away with their sheer size and the complexities of their architecture and sculpture.
*Location 4 km west of railway station Timings 7 am-noon, 4-8.30 pm Temple Tel 04362-223384 Website www.thanjavurpalacedevasthanam.com
*Related info The temple celebrates three major festivals in a year: the Maha Shivaratri Festival in Masi (Feb-Mar), the Navaratri Festival in Purattasi (Sep-Oct), and the Rajarajan Festival in Aippasi (Nov-Dec). The twice-monthly Pradosham pujas draw hundreds of devotees and the milk abhishekam done for the gigantic Nandi and lingam is a magnificent sight to behold. Video and still cameras are allowed. Non-Hindus are allowed only up to the sanctum
Goddess Mariamman, a manifestation of Shakti, was worshipped here in the form of an anthill for a long time. It was only in the 18th century that a temple was built here. The seven-tiered gopuram came up a year ago. It is still maintained by the descendants of the royal family of Thanjavur. The Thanjavur Devasthanam is involved in the maintenance of some 88 temples, including the Big Temple and the Airavateeswara Temple at Darasuram. This Shakti temple is credited with curative and healing powers. Devotees come here to pray for relief from measles, chicken pox and skin sores. The goddess is also called Muthu Mariamman because of the belief that drops of moisture, like pearls (muthu), appear on the face and head of the idol from time to time.
No abhishekam is performed on the idol ' it is coated instead with punugu, the oily, perfumed secretion of the civet cat. For Rs 400, you can see the idol adorned in a golden pavadai (long skirt) and blouse. The skirt, as beautifully pleated and etched as if it were made of fabric, is a truly magnificent piece of adornment.
*Location 5 km from Brihadeesvara Temple, in Punnaianallur suburb Timings 6 am-8.30 pm Temple Tel 267740 Website www.thanjavurpalacedevasthanam.com