The temple complex is surrounded by a moat on the west, north and east, the Grant Anicut Canal on its south. The temple is constructed entirely of granite like many other temples in south India. However, the Thanjavur area is devoid of this type of stone as it is an alluvium of the River Cauvery. Hence the granite for this temple construction was quarried and transported from a long distance. The stone was quarried as huge blocks and transported to the site of construction place, which was a colossal task as we think of the technology during that period.
The temple is surrounded by an enclosing wall measuring 240 m (E-W) X 120 m (N-S). On plan the temple consists of the
garbhagriha, ardhamandapa, mahamandapa and mukhamandapa and aligned on the east-west axis. The enclosure wall is adorned with a low two-storeyed cloistered structure on the inner side, marking the prakara of the temple. This
prakara is further enclosed by an outer prakara wall, which is further enclosed by a huge fortification wall of bricks. A moat encircles this fortification and the entire fortified area is known as Sivaganga Little Fort. On elevation, the temple consists of the
adhishthana, bhumi (wall) portion divided into the upper and lower bhumis, followed by
prastara (entablature) consisting of thirteen receding talas, griva (neck),
shikara and surmounted by a kalasha.
Three gateways or gopuras could be observed here, namely the Rajarajan-tiruvasal (the innermost one), Keralantakan-tiruvasal (the middle gopura) and the outermost gateway. The Rajarajan-tiruvasal and the Keralantakan-tiruvasal are completely built of granite and contemporary with the main temple. The Keralantakan-tiruvasal symbolises the victory of Rajaraja over the Cheras. The outermost
gopura was constructed during the Maratha period in the eighteenth century. The Keralantakan-tiruvasal is slightly larger than the Rajarajan-tiruvasal. Both the gateways are richly carved and decorated with sculptural depictions of various gods and goddesses and divinities. The Rajarajan-tiruvasal depicts various Saivite episodes like the marriage of Siva and Parvati (Kalyanasundara), Siva protecting Markandeya (Markandeya-anugraha murti), Arjuna winning the pasupata weapon (Pasupata-anugraha murti).
A large water body in the form of a tank, known as the Sivaganga tank is located to the north of the main temple and within the Sivaganga fort.
The vimana which rises to a height of 60.96 m rests on a high plinth measuring 45.72 metre square while the central shrine measures 30.48 metre square. The temple is the highest watermark in Dravidian temple order in terms of
vimana construction. The adhishthana is fully adorned with inscriptions running all around. The
bhumi portion which is nearly 13 metres in height, consists of niches on the south, west and north adorned by deities like Siva, Vishnu and Durga. The lower niches on the southern side consist of Ganesa, Vishnu with Sridevi and Bhudevi, Lakshmi, Vishnuanugraha-murti, Bhikshatana, Virabhadra, Dakshina-murti, Kalantaka and Natesa.
The lower niches on the west consist of Harihara, Ardhanarisvara, two Chandrasekharas, one with and other without halo. On the northern side are Ardhanarisvara, Gangadhara, Virabhadra, Alingana-Chandrasekhara, Siva holding a spear, Sarasvati, Mahishamardini and Bhairava. The upper niches contain a series of Tripurantakas repeated several times. The depiction of Ganesa, Vrishavahana, Bhikshatana, Narasimha, Varaha is also found in the small circular space of the niche-tops.
After entering the temple complex through the inner gopura (Rajarajan-tiruvasal) there is a flight of steps leading to a pillared
mandapa. The mandapa is a later addition and hence the temple originally did not have this provision. The two massive
dvarapalas at the entrance once greeted the visitor. The garbhagriha is square on plan and consists of an interior and exterior wall and a passageway in between them forming a circumambulatory. The corbelled arch ceiling of the superstructure could be viewed from the upper ambulatory of the main sanctum.
The sanctum houses a huge linga. An inscription in the temple records it as Adavallan – one who dances well and Dakshinameru Vitankar, the name of the deity associated with Chidambaram. The deity at Chidambaram was greatly revered and worshipped by the Cholas and hence they named the deity at Brihadisvara with the same name. The deity is also known as Rajarajesvaram-udaiyar after the Chola Emperor and builder of this temple, Rajaraja.
The circumambulatory passage (the pradakshinapata) also houses three colossal sculptures of Siva. The walls of the pradakshinapata once contained narrative wall paintings of the period of Rajaraja I which was later covered by the later period (Nayak period) paintings of the 17th century A.D. These two layers of paintings were noticed during a conservation measure at the temple and the Nayak period painting was carefully removed to expose the Chola period painting by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The Chola period paintings could be easily discernible from the Nayak period ones as the former are highly stylised and painted with subtle earth colours while the latter ones are cruder with black-outlined and executed with bright colours. The theme of the Chola paintings is Saivitie, influenced on the lives of the Saiva saints, the Nayanmars. The Periyapuranam, a major literary work in Tamil, discusses in detail all the Nayanmars. Here, the life of Sundaramurti, one of the Nayanmar, is depicted as a mural on the west wall. In addition to this, on the western wall, Siva as Dakshina-murti is found depicted, shown seated on a tiger-skin in a yogic posture. Adjacent to the above image is a painting in which the devotees are shown depicted in front of a temple with Nataraja enshrined in it. On the other side of the wall is a painting in which a large figure of Nataraja is shown dancing in the golden hall at Chidambaram, while the devotees and priests on one side and a prince, identified as Rajaraja with his three queens along with followers are shown behind him. The painting of Rajaraja with his teacher Karuvur Devar is also depicted a further up on the same wall.
The entire northern wall is depicted with a huge image of Tripurantaka Siva on a chariot driven by Brahma.
The upper ambulatory, directly above the lower ambulatory depicts various dance postures (karanas) of the Natya Sastra of Bharata performed by lord Siva. However only 81 of the 108 karanas are depicted here. The depiction of these karana postures is an important evidence for dance forms as early as Chola period indicating the codification of dance postures.
The temple is added with numerous subsidiary shrines after the construction of the temple. However, the Chandikesvara shrine located to the north of the
garbhagriha and oriented on a north-south axis is contemporary to the main temple. The shrines like the great Nandi and the Nandi
mandapa was added by the Nayaks in the 16th century A.D.; the Amman (goddess) shrine towards the northwest was added by the Pandyas in the 13th century A.D.; the Nataraja
mandapa located towards the northeast and the Ganesha shrine located to the southwest was added by the Marathas in the 18th century A.D. The Karuvur Devar or the Karuvurar shrine on the west and the richly decorated Subramanya shrine on the northwest was added by the Nayaks in the 17th century A.D.
The construction of the Brihadeswara Temple at Thanjavur by Raja Raja I signifies a great transformation in the history of south India in the early years of the eleventh century with Thanjavur emerging as the stronghold of Tamil culture. The rise of the Chola empire and the consolidation of the political power by Raja Raja I resulted in creation of a sacred bhakti centre at Thanjavur with the Brihadeswara Temple dedicated to Shiva as Adavallan (Nataraja), tutelary deity of the Cholas as its nucleus. This nucleus was clearly expressed by the magnitude of the temple complex and the soaring verticality of the vimana in particular. This was built on a monumental scale of which there is neither any precedence nor succession. Considering the outstanding universal value of this temple, this was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in the year 1987. This meticulously planned metaphorical and physical structure envisaged and implemented by Raja Raja I at Thanjavur were followed by subsequent rulers including his son Rajendra at Gangaikonda Cholapuram as a continuing dynamic tradition. Subsequently in the same tradition, a temple was constructed at Darasuram. Each of this temple is a living temple having a well defined system of worship and rituals based on vedic traditions. In recognition of the fact that these three temples formed a unique group demonstrating a progressive development of high Chola architecture and art at its best, the UNESCO has inscribed all the three temples as World Heritage Sites under the caption “The Great Living Chola Temples” in the year 2004.
The Brihadeswara Temple at Thanjavur represents the zenith of the Dravida type of temples in its purest form, precision of conception and execution and magnitude of scale. Besides, it also represents the crytallisation of Tamil culture; in its finest tradition of sculpture, painting, dance, music and literature.