How Rajaraja Chola's Brihadeeshwara Temple Built a Pan Indian Hindu Cultural Complex
Read the first part of this series
Śivapada Śekhara Rajaraja Chola didn’t merely build a magnificent temple, he built an entire civilisation and a pan- Indian cultural complex that radiated the resplendence of the Brihadeeshwara Temple all the way up to Sri Lanka. The Saiva Pantha not only touched its zenith during his rule but outlasted him for several centuries; its enduring vestiges are visible till this day in Tamil Nadu.
The waves of this glorious Shiva Bhakti in Thanjavur were carried by the waters of Kaveri all the way to northern India as well, in a manner of speaking. We have a remarkable inscription of Rajaraja Chola’s, son Rajendra Chola dated 1033-34 CE, which records a generous grant of 2,000 Kalams (24 Kalams = One Quintal) of paddy per annum dedicated to the Shishyas (disciples) and Prashishyas (disciples of disciples) of Sarva Shiva Pandita, the main Archaka of the Brihadeeshwara Temple. The brilliance of this grant lies in the following fact: these disciples could be residing anywhere in the entire country, be it the “Aryadesha (typically, Aryavarta), Madhyadesha (Middle India) or the Gaudadesha (the Bengal region).” Rajendra Chola placed this entire grant under the trusteeship of the Shaiva Acharyas of Sarva Shiva Pandita’s lineage. Close your eyes for a moment and think of all the implications of just this one grant. Which government, which policy can conceive or bring about such national and cultural unity? Where is the school that teaches this kind of thing?
Rajaraja Chola’s grandson, Rajendra Chola II continued this selfsame, illustrious cultural and spiritual tradition. Owing to his abiding reverence towards his grandfather, he made a grant in 1058 CE. A daily allowance of paddy had to be given from the treasury of the Brihadeeshwara Temple to a troupe of actors who had to perform a drama titled Rajarajeshwara Nataka during the Vaikasi Festival (Vaishakha: May/June in Tamil Nadu) in the Temple premises. Extant historical records tell us that the Rajarajeshwara Nataka presented scenes depicting the story of the construction of the Brihadeeshwara Temple narrated in a popular format (Janaranjakam) so it appealed to the masses. I am not aware what the condition today is, but a research paper of the Benares Hindu University published in 1932 says the following:
Sadly, the original Rajarajeshwara Nataka has not survived.
And now we return to where we began this essay series: Rajaraja Chola’s anxiety about the future fate of his invaluable Brihadeeshwara Temple, and what he did to preserve it for all of us till date.
Unmatched Foresight of Rajaraja Chola
In the final year of his reign, Rajaraja Chola made elaborate and farsighted endowments in perpetuity for preserving the extensive and expensive daily routine needed to merely run the Brihadeeshwara Temple. The details of these endowments are truly stunning and makes us speechless with admiration. I have given a mere summary in the following paragraphs.
Needless, Rajaraja was himself the largest donor to the temple. He lavished enormous quantities of gold, diamonds, pearls, rubies, necklaces, coins, and all sorts of precious stones on it. Much of it came from the tributes he extracted from the Pandyas and Cheras. This is the other marked contrast between the Islamic notion of kingly rule and the Sanatana theory and practice of Rajadharma.
Without exception, the Sultan or Nawab was the sole master of everything and everyone in his dominion and he could confiscate property, wealth and women merely at his whim. And he had no obligation or moral or ethical restraint to share his wealth with anyone: the only time he shared his wealth was when he distributed the plunder obtained during Jihad in accordance with the sharing formula laid down by Prophet Muhammad. In direct contrast, almost without exception, every Hindu king used the spoils of war and tributes for Praja Hita, or welfare of the people. Invariably, this took the form of building temples, tanks, irrigation systems, hospitals, charitable rest houses, and other Dharmic activities.
The second largest donor to the Brihadeeshwara Temple was his elder sister, the famed Parantakan Kundavai Alvar. The third largest donors included Rajaraja Chola’s queens. Fortunately, Rajaraja and his son Rajendra took delicate care to record meticulous details of all these bequests. With the scrupulousness of a traditional accountant, he carved these details into the walls of the temple as inscriptions. Similar details are available in copper plates belonging to the era.
The details are truly breathtaking. The following is just a sample of this lavish whole.
The first item deals with the hundreds of vessels and utensils of gold and silver of varying sizes and shapes, each of them listed with great care in the inscriptions.
These apart, from his personal treasury, Rajaraja gifted various golden articles weighing about 490 pounds. Next were jewels worth 10,200 Kasu (coin) in gold followed by silverware weighing 600 pounds.
Then, his sister, Kundavai gave gold weighing about 10,000 Kalanju (1 Kalanju is roughly 8 grams), and jewellery and utensils valued at 18,000 Kasu.
Similarly, Rajaraja’s queens, ministers and other top ranking government officials donated according to their capacity.
If these are the hard details of money, precious stones and metals and jewellery, the civilizational bequest that Rajaraja Chola made makes us go mute.
The first is land. The land belonging to the Brihadeeshwara Temple were clearly marked off from neighbouring lands by erecting boundary stones. These boundary stones bore the distinctive signature of the respective presiding deity: Shoolam (trident) in case of Shiva and Chakram (discus or Ali in Tamil). Although a highly devout worshipper of Shiva, Rajaraja also patronised Vishnu Bhaktas, thus puncturing the secular balloon of Shaiva – Vaishnava hostilities. He also presented an exquisite Vigraha of Mahavishnu to the Brihadeeshwara Temple and ordered the sculpting of Vaishnava and Buddhist decorations in the Vimana and basement.
Next, he endowed vast tracts of agricultural land in hundreds of villages throughout his sweeping dominions that included Sri Lanka. These lands yielded an annual income of 58,000 Kasu of paddy plus a cash income of 1,100 Kasu.
Then he built two long streets named Talicceris, roughly meaning, “street of the Temple.” The Northern and Southern Talicceris ran from east to west and was populated by the homes of four hundred danseuses. These artists were flown in from various parts of the Chola country and accommodated for perpetuity in Thanjavur in service of Brihadeeshwara. Rajaraja provided a house to each one of them plus a grant of one Veli (6.5 acres of agricultural land). This land yielded an annual income of 100 Kalam (1 Kalam=125 Kgs) of paddy, known as Pangu (share). In turn, 180 such Pangus were set aside for the maintenance of about 215 male servants of the temple who practiced different professions such as dance-masters, musicians, drummers, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, barbers, tailors, accountants, and flower-makers to name just a few. Of these, three musicians were specially appointed to sing Sanskrit hymns (Ariyam) and four, to sing Tamil Kritis to Brihadeeshwara.
Rajaraja’s other provision in the realm of perpetuating this Bhakti tradition also includes setting up a Mela (roughly, choir) comprising 48 persons. This included two drummers for reciting the sacred Tiruppadiyam Vinnappanjeyya. All were given three Kuruni (or 24 measures) of paddy per day. Then Rajaraja formalised this arrangement by constituting them into a self-regulating corporation which, as an independent body, was free to take decisions beneficial to them. This corporation was for perpetuity. According to Rajaraja’s orders, if anyone in this community died or migrated, the progeny or a relative would take the place of the deceased in the choir. Or if the progeny or relative was unfit or incompetent, the corporation was free to appoint a suitable person from outside. The last name of all members of the corporation was “Shiva.”
Indeed, an honest study of all aspects of the Brihadeeshwara Temple and other similar temples is a study of an entire civilisation built on the enduring foundations of unalloyed Bhakti. The Rajasa of his military conquest, sublimated in the Sattva of the Brihadeeshwara Temple. Rajaraja Chola had nothing to lose if he didn’t build the Brihadeeshwara Temple but by building this masterpiece, he not only enriched the Sanatana civilisation but has left behind a lasting inspiration and an eternal hope of rejuvenation.
Doubtless, the lasting misfortune of the Sanatana civilisation is the unnecessary infighting among Hindu kings. It showed its impact on the Brihadeeshwara Temple as well. In 1772, the outer court of the temple was used to store arsenal by the French. By 1800, the British had converted the whole temple as a military camp. Thankfully, in 1802, Raja Serfoji took it back from the British, performed purifying rituals and re-consecrated it. Currently, it is administered by Babji Bhonsle, the titular head of the Thanjavur Maratha royal family.
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