Rajaraja Cholan, the Great Chola king built The Bragatheeswarar (Peruvudaiyar) Temple, also known as Big Temple. “In the twenty-fifth year of Rajaraja Cholan (A.D 1009-10) on the 257th day of the year the king handed over the copper pot for the finial at the top of the Vimana”. It weighed about 235 lbs., and was overlaid with gold plate of the weight of 292.5 Kalanju or nearly 35 lbs. Troy.
Rajarajeswaram, as the temple was named by its founder, fills a large portion of the small fort (Sivaganga Fort), encircled by moat on the east and west, the Grand Anaicut Channel (Putharu) on the south, and by the Sivaganga Garden on the north. The temple is entered by an imposing gateway on the east, on either side of which stand two small shrine dedicated to Ganapathi and Mrurgan, and further through another Gopuram 90 feet high. This way leads into an outer court. A second and magnificent Gopuram further leads into the main court in which the temple is built. The inner court is about 500 feet long and 250 feet broad, is well paved with brick and stone. The court is surrounded on all sides by a cloister. The western and northern wings have Sivalingams consecrated therein, and there are paintings over these walls depicting sixty-four Nayanmars, sacred sport of Siva. The outer measurement of the temple are 793 feet by 397 feet.
Main Shrine:The main shrine of Sri Brihadisvara, the Great God – a Sanskrit rendering of the original Tamil name Peruvudaiyar- stands at the western end of the main court. It comprises of five divisions –
1. Garbhagriha or the Sanctum Sactorum and the corridor around it
3. Maha-Mandapam with the open aisles
4. Stapana-Mandapam with the shrine of Sri Thyagarajar
5. Narthana-Mandapam for the temple paraphernalia and where the servant wait; and
6. Vadya-Mandapam and portico for the musicians
Main shrine has three portals named Keralantakan, Rasarasan and Thiru-Anukkan. These portals are guarded be Dwarapalikas or the guardians of the gate. They are of huge proportions and of exquisite workmanship. There are several sets of these in the temple, seven of them 18 feet by 8 feet. they are all monolith, and some instances are of very high artistic merit, especially at the entrance at the entrance of Sri Subramanya temple.
The Sivalinga of Sri Brihadisvara is probably the grandest in existence. This image was originally called Adavallan (the one who is good in Dance). Another name was Dakshina-Meru Vitanken. Both the name occur in Thiruvisaipa as the names of the deity at Chidambaram. This possibly indicates that the Saiva creed derived its support at the time mainly from Chidambaram. Rajaraja Cholan calls the image Rajarajeswaramudaiyar, – The Lord of Rajarajeswaram. The tower over the shrine is named Dakshina-Meru after the abode of Lord Shiva at Kailasam, the Uttara-Meru.
Sri Thyagaraja, also called Vitankar, worshiped within a portion of Stapana-Manadapam, is the patron deity of Cholas. The legend goes that their mythical progenitor Chola Muchukuntan helped Indra against the asuras, for which help, he was presented with seven images of Thyagaraja, which he installed in the seven holy places of Thiruvarur, Thiru-nagai-karonam, Thiru-kkareyil, Thirukolili, Thirumaraikadu, Thirunallaru and Thiruvamur which are known as Sapta-Vitanka-Kshetras. Rajaraja Cholan was a devout worshiper of Sri Thyagaraja at Thiruvarur where he built this great temple; and, consecrated Sri Thyagaraja at Thanjavur also, as a mark of his own piety and in commemoration of the exploits of his celebrated ancestor.
The great Vimana is of the Dravidian style of architecture. It rises to a height of abut 216 feet, a tower of fourteen storeys, finely decorated with pilasters, niches and images of gods of the Hindu pantheon. The basement of the structure which supports the tower is 96 feet square. The sikhara or cupolic dome is octagonal in shape and crowns the Vimana. The gilded Kalasa or finial, over it is 12.5 feet high. It is believed the sikhara and the stupi does not throw on the ground. The dome rests on a single block of granite, 25.5 feet square. Two Nandis, each measuring 6.5 feet by 5.5 feet beautify each corner of the stone which is estimated to weigh about 80 tons, and is believed to have been conveyed to the top of the tower by means of a inclined plane commencing from Sarapallam (scaffold-hollow), four miles north-east of the city.
Shrine of Sri Subramanya in the northwest corner, Shrine of Goddess Sri Brihannayagi, Sri Chandeeswara Shrine, Shrine of Ganapathy, Shrine of Nataraja in the north eastern corner, the colossal monolith figure on Nandhi, the sacred bull, in the central courtyard and the Shrine of Karuvurar
The Shrine of Sri Subramanya:
The shrine consist of a tower 55 feet high, raced on a base 45 feet sq., covered with delicately carved figured, pillars & pilasters and carried on along a corridor 50 feet long, communicating with another mandapam 50 feet sq. to the east. Flights of steps lead upto either side of the shrine but the principal entrance is to the east. The walls of the pillared Manadapam are decorated with the portraits of the Mahratta rulers. This shrine has been pronounced to be “As exquisite a peace of decorative architecture as is to be found in the south of India” and “A perfect gem of carved stone work, the tooling of the stone in the most exquisitely delicate and elaborate patterns, remaining as clear and sharp as the day it left the sculptor’s hands”. This shrine is not referred to in the inscriptions, and cannot be contemporous to the main temple. Its correct place in the evolution of Dravidian temple architecture would be modern, giving it a date not earlier than 600 A.D. and is popularly believed to be of the Nayak period. Saint Arunagiriyar has three invocatory versus in price of the Sri Subramanya in his Thirupugzhal.
This shrine is a later addition, constructed in the second year of a konerinmaikondan-probably a later Pandya of the 13th century. It is said the original shrine of the goddess, was located in the adjoining Sivaganga gardens and was later removed to main courtyard of the temple by the one of the Nayaks.
In front of the main temple, stands a tall flag-staff (Dhwaja-Stambha), the covering of which is cast in copper. The lower portion is encased in a square piece and each of the four sides depict characteristic Saiva figures.
The Shrine of Ganapathy:
The shrine is in the south western corner of the court and is of the time of Sarfoji II. Seven images of Ganapathis are said to have been set up by Rajaraja Cholan, 2 in the dancing posture, 3 seated comfortably, and the remaining 2 standing.
The Shrine of Chandeeswara:
The shrine on the north central court is the only one put up contemporaneously with the main temple. Chandeeswara is one of the 63 Saiva saints and is considered to have been made the chief of Saiva devotees by Lord Shiva. He is assigned a shrine and a honoured place in every Shiva temple. He was looked upon as the manager of the temple. Any worshipper visiting a Shiva temple has to appear at the Chandeeswara shrine before leaving the temple premises and clap his hands evidently to satisfy the God that he is not taking away any temple property with him.Sri Dakshinamurthy Shrine:
Sri Dakshinamurthy sanctum, with image as originally enshrined in one of the niches of the Vimanam, abutting the south wall of the main temple and approached by a steep flight of 21 stone steps is distinctly a later addition.
The Great Nandhi:
The Nandi within an elaborately worked Nayak Mandapam is massive and striking. The Nandhi is 12 feet high, 19.5 feet long and 18.25 feet wide. The Nandhi is a monolith weighing about 25 tons and the stone is said to have come from a bed of Gneiss at the foot of Pachaimalai near Perambalur. Another version is that the stone was brought over from the bed of the River Narmada in the north. There is a tradition that the Nandhi is growing in size with the progress of time. It was feared it might become too large for the Mandapam erected over it and a nail was driven into the back of it, and since, its size has remained stationery. Two portrait statuesques on the front pillars of the Nandhi Mandapam are pointed out as those of Sevappanayakan (the first Nayak ruler) and of his son Achyutappa Nayak.
Saint Karuvurar’s Shrine:
Behind the main temple and under the shade of a neem and a mandarai is a modern looking shrine, dedicated to a great Siddha, Karuvur Devar, popularly known as Karuvurar. The Karur stalapurana narrates how the saint helped Rajaraja Cholan in the installation of the great Brigadeeswara Sivalingam in the sanctum sanctorum at the time of the consecration of the temple. A place appears to have been assigned to him for this reason, in the temple court. The saints Thiruisaippa lyrics, sung in praise of this temple and is presiding Lord is a classic on the subject and gives valuable information regarding the temple and its shrines. Thursdays are held sacred for his worship and shrine attracts large crowd of devotees.The Frescos:
The Chola frescos painting discovered in 1931 by Mr.S.K.Govindasamy of Annamalai University within the circumambulatory corridor Aradhana Mandapam are of great interest. They are the first Chola specimen’s discovered. The passage of the corridor is dark and the enthusiast finds the walls on either side covered with two layers of paintings from floor to ceiling. Those of the upper layer are of the Nayak period, as certain labels in Telugu characters mentioned the names of Sevappa and Achyutappa and others. The Chola frescos lie underneath. An ardent spirit of saivism is expressed in the Chola frescos. They probably synchronised with the completion of the temple by Rajaraja Cholan. Saivsm was at its height at that time and the Cholas were preeminently of that faith.