It was 5:30am. Waiting for the sun to clear the tree-line, I stood at the western tip of the humongous Brihadeeswara temple, the cool granite tingling my bare feet. I had spent the previous night in a car shepherded by a maniacal driver who had scant regard for human life, including his own. Having survived that ordeal, alive and in one piece, standing at the footsteps of the temple I wondered what would motivate a king to build a temple of such gigantic proportion?
Was Rajaraja Chola, the patron of this temple and the reigning monarch of South India at the turn of the millennia simply showing off the tremendous economic resources at his disposal? Was this his way to thank Lord Shiva for the tremendous success he had enjoyed in the battlefield and outside? Was he actually repenting the bloodshed he had caused and was trying to appease the deity? Was he wanting to be remembered as the king with great aesthetic sense and engineering brain? Or was it simply the age old yearning for immortality? Or all of these?
Rajaraja Chola led an exciting lifetime. Amongst other things, he had been at the forefront of several successful military campaigns. Not only was the entire Indian peninsula ruled by the Chola regime, he had extended the borders, in the north, all the way up to Kalinga (present day state of Orissa) and to the south, half way across the island county of Sri Lanka.
I could think of two other such kings, who were prodigiously victorious abroad, and returned to their homeland only to go on a construction binge:
Ramses II, the iconic Egyptian Pharaoh of antiquities, led several successful campaigns in Syria, Nubia (Sudan) and Libya before building Ramesseum - his mortuary temple, Abu Simbel - a temple of epic proportions dedicated to his wife Nefertari, Pi-Ramsses – his new capital city and hundreds of other buildings along the Nile.
Then there is Suryavarman II, the warrior king of Kampuchea (Cambodia) in medieval times, who led his armies to the distant lands of present-day Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam. He then proceeded to build the monstrous sized temple of Angkor Wat and Beng Malea amongst several other temples in the Siem Reap area.
Rajaraja Chola was extremely ambitious with the sheer dimensions of the Brihadeeswara temple.
When the Brihadeeswara temple was finished in 1003 CE, it was the tallest temple in India by an order of magnitude of 10. Standing at 216 feet, a thousand years later it is still the tallest temple in India. Atop the soaring vimaana –the tower above the main temple and a word that translates to “airplane”– is a capstone that weighs 80 tons. The stone was delivered to the top of the tower using elephants via a ramp that starts 6km due west and has a gentle 6/1000. The ramp, in itself, is a mean engineering feat.
Rajaraja Chola decided to build the temple using granite. The absence of a granite quarry within a 100km radius of the temple required logistics of epic proportions to get the stone to the construction site. As hard as it was to find, Granite is harder to carve. Yet the great Chola wanted a temple to be covered with the most intricately designs; unlike the pyramid which possesses extraordinary dimensions but nary an artistry. Further, the temple was built at a fair clip, completed in mere 7 years, amounting to moving and placing almost 50 tons of rock each and every day, not to forget carving and aligning it.
It was almost as if Rajaraja Chola was showing how easily he could accomplish the impossible.
And THAT is when the coin dropped.
Ramses, Suryavarman, Rajaraja – tasted the most exulting victories in distant lands. Lands so distant that the arduous journey spanned months and required the most meticulous planning. The battles were fought in unfamiliar terrains and foreign weather with a non-trivial dependency on a supply chain that brought in fresh food, ammunition, soldiers. As the armies marched forward, they had to leave behind self-sufficient units to defend and govern the new territories, systematically weakening themselves to strengthen what they had won. Such stupendous feats were accomplished so far away from “their people” that the armies often felt the need to bring back slaves, exotic animals, curious artifacts and astonishing treasures to prove that the army had actually travelled and won.
I firmly believe that building the Brihadeeswara Temple allowed Rajaraja Chola to show to his subjects, first hand, his enormous capabilities in planning and execution. It is a tabletop demonstration of overcoming extreme constraints, however self imposed, through astute leadership, resource marshaling, will power, foresight, eye for detail and other such skills that are instinctively used on the battlefield.
This monstrously beautiful structure is simply a battle fought at peacetime on home turf.
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