Thursday, April 10, 2008

An ode to Engineering - I: Brihadeeswara Temple

It was the first time I changed my ideas on grandeur,colorless beauty and progress in engineering.The jolt came when I had just turned into a civil engineer,cocksure of myself and ready to learn progressive engineering in a country whose noteworthy structures were all built in the 20th century, 1000 years after the construction of this phenomenal tribute to architecture and engineering.A visit to Tanjore,the cultural capital(some say Varnasi) of India is sure to be an invigorating experience of walking through history but on entering the Brihadeeswara temple, one would fail to imagine how this structure came to be.
This timeless piece of Dravidian architecture, declared as one of UNESCO's world heritage sites continues to baffle the enginnering world.
What is visible to the eye and available on numerous websites is it's architectural brilliance and I shall glorify that later. I was priveleged to climb restricted areas of the temple(thanks to an influencial aquaintance) along with the maratha prince(who coincidentally happened to be there that day walking a politician) who is the decendant of the kings who ruled the greatest kingdom in southern India. He enlightened us on many mysteries of the tallest temple in the world and the stories that were passed to him through generations.
The temple "vimana" visible from a few kilometres away towers to a whopping 216 ft. This huge temple was built entirely of granite, which is one of the hardest rocks on the surface of the Earth.How did
people cut these rocks when they had only soft iron tools a 1000 years ago? The Chola king Raja raja who built this temple in about 20 years moved more stone over more distance than the pharoahs who built the great pyramid of Egypt. How did he accomplish it? The perfectly spherical "shikara" or cupola on top of the vimana weighs 80 tons but nobody is still sure about whether it is a single block or whether two perfectly hemispherical blocks of 40 tons each joined perfectly. Nobody is sure how those massive solid blocks were put up there.

The ingeniousness of bygone engineers is evident from the way they could accomplish these seemingly impossible tasks. Using rudimentary hand tools, men chisseled holes trough the rocks along the required path. Having done this, wooden blocks were hammered into these holes and water was poured continously for a period over these wooden blocks. As water seeped through the wood, the blocks slowly expanded propagating a crack along the path until the pressure was sufficient to break it open! For many decades the presence of the massive cupola at that height baffled engineers until the descendant prince revealed a family story that believed the stones to have been pulled along an inclined ramp from a distance of about 6 miles all the way to the apex of the temple by elephants using a roller arrangement. The legend was immediately put to test and the test revealed more astonishing scientific facts. Firstly, elephants were made to drag 80 tons of stone placed on an arrangement of circular logs. The elephants could not drag them...they did it with ease once every single piece of log was perfectly circular in cross section! And remains of a 1000 year old mud ramp was found exactly in line with the temple vimana on it's western side ,directly oppposite the temple entrance in the east.!Nobody knows why the "shikara" never casts a shadow on the Earth.
Nobody ceases to wonder how this structure stands and will forever continue to stand(say experts, not me)even though there is absolutely no mortar/lime/adhesive that holds one block of stone to the
next. Adjacent stones were alternately cut into concave and convex patterns and the sheer simplicity and accuracy of this technique hold the stones together! The central temple is a tribute to all geometric aspects of a structure that would lend it stability. The square base (symbloising Brahma) porgressively narrows to be capped by a regular octagonal storey(representing Vishnu) topped by a sphere, a symbol of perfection , a tribute to the Lord Shiva. I was lucky to have been allowed to walk through a barred passage at the top within the temple. I was lucky because I could see how the octagon was balanced by the square. This passage was created because, at this level of the temple, the structure has two layers of walls sloping symmetrically towards each other and the extra thickness of the inner layer helps balance the additional angles and slopes created by an octagon without any oddities! This vimana was built in the center of a huge rectangular complex. The top of the cupola is off by only 2cms from the center of this plot. This accuracy is remarkable and probably impossible in the 21st century with all modern technology. No wonder, this was the only temple that I have visited that has a separate sanctum for it's engineer...How much has engineering really progressed over the last 1000 years?
The obviously amazing aspects of the temple...The shiva linga is the grandest in existence, 25 ft in circumference and 11 feet high and the nandi, carved from single stone is 13 feet high and 16 feet long.
The fresco paintings by the Cholas on the ceilings remain colorful and beautiful to date.

Every inch of granite on the walls, both interior and exterior are carved with pictures and forms stories narrating the king's rule. The name of even the most insignificant donor to the temple's construction is carved on it's walls. This temple is not only a storehouse of Chola architecture, but additions were made by the Pandyas and the Marathas who ruled Tanjore in later centuries. The corridor I walked through portrays on it's walls the oldest and most accurate version of all 108 bharatanatyam poses of the Lord Nataraja. It also contains the only portrait ever made of one of the greatest rulers of Southern India, Raja Raja Chola...his head bowed in submission to his teacher...the engineer.

Note: Pictures were not taken by me. I pulled them off the internet


Sur said...

Brilliant post Lax! I remember you telling me about this temple and also about its engineering excellence! Good that you put it down in words!
Great attention to detail in this one, that you remember so much from your visit 2 years back is also a great feat! Waiting for more in this series.

Vacha said...

very enlightening post. I like the personal touch, it brings out more than what you'd gleam from reading articles about Tanjore.

rs said...

Beautifully written!

Never mind!!! said...

Amazing post lax.. I remember having gone to Tanjore once, coz it happens to be my native place. I was too young to appreciate the beauty of architecture, but definitely want to go there once more, if only to see this wonder..

ramesh said...


Tanjore is an incredible place to be .I have been to that temple once . Reading through your write up i felt i was seeing the temple being built in front of me. I am great fan of Chola kings. they conquered till Indonesia , they built many great temples , irrigation projects along Caveri river . Each day I find new things about Chola knngs. I wish to be born as a tamilian in my next birth at Tanjore . The captial of great Cholas .

uma said...

Nice post.Tanjore temple is one of the best temple worth to visit

Ravi Krishnan said...

Honestly Mam, your posting is enlightening. We have such a wealth of treasures in India that relate to our past but it appears no definitive studies have been done on them for posterity. We have scholars and experts who have provided insightful and in-depth studies on many aspects of India and her artifacts but as far as I know none seems to be available on the ancient temples. Temples have always been the spiritual and cultural backbone of India and the inscriptions on their walls, I believe, tell tales of history and social life of the people of the past. But I believe no effort has been taken to study them or to transcribe them into modern language as has been done to the inscriptions found in the pyramids of Egypt. It's time we did something to ensure that the writings on the walls of our temples are studied and transcribed in modern language by those who have the knowledge and ability to do this for the benefit of historians and man-in-the-street like me. Thank you.