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A South Indian poem in Architecture by Anand Somarajan

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

It was my passion for classical music that landed me in the land of Thanjavur in Tamilnadu, India. It’s not to take lessons from some eminent Carnatic classical musician, but to locate my thesis project in a site, nearby. My thesis was an International Centre for Classical Music. I only heard of this temple from childhood and studied to draw its plans and views as Dravidian temples were a part of my History of Architecture (HOA) syllabus. But studying the features of the temple became crucial to me as it is the most important landmark near my proposed site to carry out my hypothetic design programme. Thus I landed in the great, Brihadeeswarar temple, which is also famously called The Big Temple. Seeing the temple complex, I was just awestruck with a jaw drop expression! That exiting was its scale, vastness and moreover unmatchable beauty. It just seemed to me as a poem made out of solid rock.

Before reaching there I have done a ground study of the temple from printed literature and also sought informed opinions. The temple was 1004 years old and was built by emperor Raja Raja Chola-I and was completed in 1010 AD. Now the temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as “The Great Living Chola Temples”. Only with that much basic knowledge, I headed to the actual temple for the further study. As taking photos is prohibited within the temple premises, I have only the option of doing sketches of it. But, this lead to a critical examination into the art and architecture, of the temple complex, which dates back to a thousand years. There were no schools of architecture at that time. No qualified architects or no governing bodies to regulate practice. But yet the building stays as an enduring example of excellence in architecture after many centuries. It was a new revelation to me, about true art and heritage of craftsmanship. Beyond degrees, or theories they just did things to stay there intact for many lifetimes.

Beauty in every form through sculptures

The most enchanting feature of the Brihadeeswarar temple is the elegance of stone sculptures. Voluptuous beauty is handcrafted on stone and still radiating the sensuousness in all its vigour. There are countless sculptures depicting many epical moments in the belief of Hinduism. Beyond human figures, many floral patterns and designs are intricately crafted on stone. The acute and perfected craftsmanship of the period finds its reason in the slavery system existed in the early periods. Craftsmen work for their life and for their well being as their life is in the mercy of the king or the ruler. But the aesthetics that motivated the craftsmen lived during those times is so exiting. The intricacy of the design proves their fine craftsmanship by getting inspired from the keen observation over many years.

Thrilling scale and massing

The huge scale of the temple complex is another speciality, with a segregated patterned growth of spaces in accordance to importance in succession. Each of the spaces is well demarcated with level differences which are clearly defined to separate one space from other. Roofed platforms were made for the performance of dance worms or musical concerts. This reveals the importance given to arts and culture during the reign of the Chola kings. Large mass of rock are arranged meticulously to achieve the extended mass of the temple complex. Scale is gigantic, if speaking about critically.

Elements of Serendipity

Every openings or entries have a climax point with an element of serendipity in many zones. In some zones, it will be in the form of a water body and in some zones it will be a hugely crafted statue of the deity. Most water bodies are zoned as the end climax of a series of access ways or a flight of stairs. Such elements are provided intentionally to create a dramatic interest in developing a need of a climax as the spaces proceeds. Such sensible and intentional planning methodologies are unimaginable to be considered a thousand years ago.

Respect to the uniformity in blend

The whole temple complex is built as the extension of a single thread of development. This is seen evident in the design co-ordination by means of the uniformity in design elements. This implies to ornamental detailing to the overall clustering of spaces in space allocation. It is not only constrained to that, the massing, proportion and balance of structures are followed carefully throughout without breaking the mental flow of space appreciation.


Mostly, the reflection of the greatness is the hard work and proper planning behind the construction over a longer time to achieve a very efficient result. It might be starting from the ruler or emperor who envisioned it to the individual craftsmen, who carried out the operation spending innumerable time in carving out the handmade poetic expression into a reality. It’s like dedicating a life for it. The emperor Raja Raja Chola’s reign is clearly marked by the presence of this architectural wonder to establish the unavoidable existence of them. It is a general principle followed by rulers of most cultures to epitomise, their period of reign by building an architectural piece of work to endure its existence. But only very few structures outlived its intended purpose to remain as wonders to the many generations.

Things that cannot be understood

There are a lot of unanswered absurd questions also, felt during my understanding of this magnificent building. I would like to express the most prominent among those undisputable questions arose in my mind after doing through this architectural wonder. Why, I still feel so much of awe and excitement in going through a 1000 year old building?! By this time, the style of construction, the perception of society and moreover the culture and everything grown outward to a very great extend. But still how these buildings can bring its viewers into a poetic realization of beauty, is absurd and strange!

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Anand Somarajan

    Thank you, so much for posting my competition entry as an article. Its an honor to get my article publishes in a web page of the prestigious architects journal.

    Ar. Anand Somarajan

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