Overall design of the Temple Complex [16]

The Brhadisvara temple is organized on a linear plan corresponding to the design which was already prevalent at that period. Around the sanctuary-tower in front of the long and low pillared hall, the enclosure describes a spacious rectangular courtyard extending from east to west and accessible by gateways which determine the centre of the eastern face. The major axis defined by this gateway and the main shrine coincides exactly with the symmetrical axis of the enclosure. This represents a noteworthy distinction from the Khmer version of the Indian temple, in which the main shrine and gateway are generally displaced to the north-either imperceptibly and discernible only by accurate surveying; or, more clearly distinguishable, as a Pimay for instance, where the enclosure galleries include an additional window in its northern halves.

The design of Brhadisvara temple is characterised by great clarity. The uncustomarily elongated proportions of the rectangle formed by the enclosure, the length of which extends to twice its width, create an area between the gateway and the main shrine in the east measuring almost half the size of the courtyard, in the centre of which is Nandi, Siva’s mount hewn in large dimensions. The main shrine is, in fact, laid out according to common practice at the centre of the back of the courtyard, and the diagonals of the sanctum coincide with those of a hypothetical square located on the eastern side of the enclosure, a square which is this instance is not entirely imaginary because it corresponds exactly to one half of the courtyard. These proportions are only comparable with those of the Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram, except that the space around the main shrine in the Brhadisvara is much larger, proportionally as well as in terms of magnitude. This spacious area, open over the entire eastern half of the courtyard, appears to have been considered pointless on inordinate, for it was significantly reduced at Gangai…



Volumetric configuration of the shrine

The sanctuary-tower of the main shrine is square in plan and was constructed in alignment with the longitudinal axis of the design. It is preceded by a low and long pillared hall. Apart from dimensions and proportions, this main shrine thus corresponds to the prevalent, not to say only, type of South Indian Temple to have been known in Tamil country since the Pallavas and adopted by Chola architecture from its beginnings.


The architectural design of the Indian temple, reduced to its simplest expression, consists of a sanctum where the representation of a deity resides and which is accessible to the priest by a door. An example is the Draupadi Rathna in Mahabalipuram, dating from the seventh century. However, in the same period the need to shelter the door to the sanctum had already become manifest in the adjacent temple (sculpted in the same rock), the Arjuna Ratha. Although only a small porch in antis, it was to very soon develop into a vestibule treated as a forepart (for instance, the Piravattanesvara temple in Kanchipuram or the Virattanesvara in Tiruttani, (vide Dumarcay 1975) which sometimes exceeded the dimensions of the sanctum as in the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram.

The small vestibule preceding the sanctum (ardamadapa) persisted as a feature of Chola temples, clearly represented in contemporary models. Its progressive development probably correspond to a liturgical evolution. While the dimensions of the sanctum which only the priest entered, scarcely underwent change, the vestibules became wider and expanded to become vast pillared halls in which increasingly large numbers of devotees could gather to view the officiating priest…




The large masses of the lateral elevation of the main shrine have today been greatly modified through the transformation of the pillared hall into a building without an upper storey, as well as through the raising of the vestibule. It is nevertheless possible to precisely determine the original design.

The horizontal lines of the socle and of the base run over the entire length of the sanctuary, only interrupted by the stairways in front of the vestibule. Above, the cornices of the ground floor and the upper storey extend in the same manner around the entire building, but are divided into five very distinct sections on the sanctuary-tower, corresponding to the projections of the plan which differentiates them from the long unbroken horizontals accentuating the design of the pillared hills.

The clear expression of the volumes of the main shrine is reinforced by the treatment of the superstructures. First, the aediculae of the first tower-storey of the sanctuary-tower assertively crown the facades; then, the upper cornice of the deeply recessed vestibule also displays a row of aediculae, but of smaller dimensions; and, finally, the pillared halls are devoid of aediculae.

A question arises concerning the eastern face of the volume of the vestibules, which already stood above the roof of the halls, although more discretely than today. This is the part which, both at Tanjavur and Gangai, was most extensively altered, and its original dispositions are consequently difficult to ascertain. At Gangai, the eastern face is today without aediculae, whereas these were later additions at the Brhadisvara temple. It is, however, probable that a row of aediculae had been foreseen in the original plan, and was again included on the eastern face to ensure the continuity of the superstructures on the vestibules.

The clear difference in size between the aediculae of the tower and those of the vestibules, and their absence on the pillared halls, effectively demarcate the hierarchy of volumes and contribute to the accentuation of the sanctuary-tower. The same principle which was applied to define the volume of the vestibules and arrangement of the lateral stairways is also involved here.

This concern for clarity vanished at Darasuram and Tribhuvanam, where the first floor of the tower is extended above the vestibules by a row of aediculae of the same height and by the cornice surmounting them. Only beyond the vestibules does a caesura appear, above the lateral stairways and before the pillared halls, upon which a row of aediculae once again appears in Darasuram (L’Hernault 1987:pl.VI).

The Socle and the Base

The socle of the main shrine in the Brhadisvara is typically raised to a height of nearly two metres. Its volume represents an abrupt barrier for the visitor, who is held at a distance from the façade of the edifice…




In the expansive courtyard of the Brhadisvara temple, only the Candikesvara shrine belongs to the original project, while all the other structure date from considerably later periods. In Gangai, on the other hand, coeval with the same Candikesvara shrine and framing the central tower are the North and South Kailasas shrines which determined the layout of the enclosure gallery, even though they were probably not foreseen at the inception of the project. Subsequently, over the centuries, as at Tanjavur, several subsidiary structures were built in the courtyard…

The subsidiary shrines at Brhadisvara




The Draksarama and Samarlakota temples, whose influence on the main shrine has already been seen (vide chapter 2), without doubt inspired the design of the wall and enclosure gallery of the Brhadisvara temple, which was similarly reproduced at Gangai.

The temples of the Chalukyas of Vengi illustrate the will to repeat the two storey of the main shrine by means of two levels of pilasters and two cornices superposed on the exterior of the enclosure wall. These two levels exactly correspond on the inner side to the two storeys of the surrounding gallery. At the Brhadisvara, such a gallery is found only on the ground floor; it is however, clear that an upper storey, although never constructed, had been foreseen. This is suggested by the isolated walls above the entrance to several peripheral sub-shrines, and the intention would thus have been to integrate it in a row of pilasters, as on the ground floor. Numerous water spouts were installed beneath the final of the enclosure wall to drain the rain water off the roof of this intended storey. Admittedly, other than a stone protruding on the southern face where the sub-shrine is attached, no arrangement whatsoever to accommodate the architraves of the upper terrace had been envisioned at this level on the lateral faces of the gateway. However, one observes that even the enclosure wall, constructed from the inception on two levels, abuts in equally abrupt manner on the gateway.

The gallery in Gangai appears in any case to have been completed on its two levels, judging by the five spans which are still located around the northern gate and the faces of the adjacent walls of the sub-shrines, as well as those visible on the lateral faces of the eastern gateway. An unresolved question regards the access to this entire storey, because today only the two small, straight staircases leading to the upper storey of the gateway, are discernible – and, there would appear to be no communication between this storey and that of the enclosure gallery.

With a width of 5.61 m and built directly onto the enclosure wall, the Brhadisvara gallery consists of two parallel rows of square monolithic pillars, 38 cm on the sides and 2.02 m high (that is , 2.96 m because it appears that the base of the pillars are at the ground level of the courtyard), arranged according to a quite regular intercolumniation (1.94 m on an average). These pillars are crowned by an element, either monolithic or sculpted on the two layers, which is in fact the addition, or more precisely, the penetration of a capital in a bracket, and upon which rest the two rows of the architraves supporting the butt-jointed stone beams of the floor.

The whole enclosure at Gangai was demolished in 1835-36 by the English engineer A.Cotton, who found there an entire quarry ready-hewn to build the Lower Anicut Dam on the Kollidam, until the opposition of the villagers brought the pillage to and end (Indian Antiquary 1975:274;Nilakanta Sastri 1935:288-9; Balasubrahmanyam 1975: 243)…




It is not without surprise that at first view the urban sites of Tanjavur and Gangai are seen to exhibit a disconcerting similarity. In both cases, the towns are centered around the royal palaces and the major accent of their temples is shifted outside the walls, beyond a corner of the ramparts would a preconceived urban model, strictly applied at the foundation of the Gangai, have also guided the transformations at Tanjavur during the course of a history of different complexity.

Archaeology sheds very little light on the Tanjavur site during the Chola period, testimonies of which have been eradicated by the modern city. The Nayaks, beginning in the sixteenth century, and then their Maratha successors, centered their capital around the new royal palace, framed by the four principal roads which replicated the traditional cart roads around South Indian temples. On the plan vacillating between circle and square, a rampart doubled by a moat encircles the town and joins at its south-western corner a new fortified enclosure constructed around the old Chola temple and the vast basin adjoining int in the North. The rectangular design of this new enclosure is partially superposed on the hypothetical second Chola enclosure, to which today only the gateway attests…



In the grand architectural adventure illustrated by the temples at Tanjavur and Gangai, two tendencies are apparent: bold innovation and patient rigour. Admirable is the fact that the conjunction of these tendencies is more discernible than their conflict, and this at both temples. Certainly, innovation is more clearly asserted at the Brhadisvara, if only because it was the first to be constructed and could scarcely be otherwise. However, innovation was already moderated by the exigencies of rigour and the sobriety which became so evident at Gangai.

In the absence of historical sources pertaining to the origin of the architectural project, to the mechanism of decision process and the organisation of the building activities, any speculation as to the personality of the planner(s), whether the king, the priesthood, an architect or a collective from Tanjavur to Gangai, it is difficult not to perceive the inceptions, development, burgeoning and eclipsing of a concept and a will, whether individual or collective is of little import, but definitely consistent and open to scrutiny when it was incumbent to advance to more satisfactory alternatives…


[ Main Page | Forward Page ]