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The Brihadeshwara Temple located in Gangaikondacholapuram is a sacred Hindu shrined dedicated to Lord Shiva. This popular pilgrimage center in Ariyalur district, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu is a heritage monument and comes under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India as a protected monument. It has also been declared a CEUNESCO World Heritage Site, signifying its importance as an important tourist attraction. Referred to as one of the Great Living Chola Temples, it is one of the largest temples in India. Even though the present day structure is a little dilapidated, it still attracts tourists and devotees from all over the world.
The temple is believed to have been constructed in 1035 A.D by Rajendra Chola to emulate the feat of his father, the famous Chola king, Raja Raja Chola 1, who built the Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur. The temple took nine years to complete and was built to commemorate the accomplishments of a victorious king who wanted to enshrine his achievements for posterity. The same craftsmen were used to build the temple as the Thanjavur temple and the likeness is apparent in the structure of both the shrines. The endowments of the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur were redirected to this temple and it gradually emerged as a hub of social, cultural and political activities.
The Gangaikondacholapuram Brihadeeswarar_Temple was a thriving center for music, dance and art, with regular cultural activities being conducted in the premises. The temple was a beehive of activity in those days and renowned for several socio-economic pursuits. Along with the the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur and Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram, the temple was added to the list of Great Living Chola Temples in the year 2004. All three shrines were built by the Cholas in roughly the same period and are strikingly similar in structure & design. Several new modern structures were constructed inside the temple premises by the Archaeological Survey of India in 2009 for the convenience of visitors, including a museum, restaurant, shops and restrooms.
The temple is a fine example of Dravidian architecture built by the Chola Dynasty and reflects the exquisite craftsmanship of the builders. It is situated on an elevated platform within a vast courtyard and flanked by two guardian deities (Dwarpalas). The presiding deity in the form of an enormous Lingam is housed in the central shrine and is considered the largest in South India. The path to the Sanctum leads through a columned prayer hall, which then leads to another hall used for sacrifice. The shrine has concave contours, divided into eight zones. The image of Nandi the Bull faces the Sanctum and constructed with such great precision that it reflects the rays of the Sun on to the Sanctum. A unique stone named Chandrakanta is laid on the Sanctum which is said to regulate the temperature inside the shrine. The walls and ceilings of the shrine are replete with magnificent sculptures and bear a silent testimony to the creativity of the craftsmen. Several other shrines dedicated to various Gods are located within the temple premises, along with the images of Navagrahas, the nine planetary deities. Numerous bronze statues depicting Chola art prevalent in the 11th century are also found within the temple complex.
The worship practice conducted in the temple follows the same pattern as other Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu. The rituals are performed according to the Shaivite tradition, with Pujas being offered to the Lord during festivals and also on a daily basis. Four major rituals are held every day, along with decorations, food offerings and waving of lamps. Weekly, fortnightly and monthly rituals are also performed to the deity. The shrine hosts many festivals dedicated to Shiva and many yearly festivals are observed. Aipassi Pournami, Thiruvadirai and Annabhishekam are prominent festivals celebrated with great fervor in the temple. Maha Shivratri is also celebrated annually and the temple literally comes alive during this grand festival. Devotees from far and wide frequent the temple during festivals and other days, making it a much sought after destination.
Devotees visiting the temple worship the Lord and seek salvation from worldly bonds. Many pray to the Lord for wealth creation and to get relief from diseases. People who wish to purchase vehicles also offer prayers here and seek the Lord’s blessings. Those in the pursuit of knowledge are also said to benefit by praying to Lord Brihadeeswara.
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The temple is open from 6 am to 12.30 pm and 4.30 to 8.00 pm on all days. Being a major tourist attraction, it is accessible by various modes of transport.
By Air: The nearest Airport is located in Tiruchirapalli, which is approximately 95 kms away.
By Train: The Railway Station at Kumbakonam is the closest and about 30 km away from the temple.
By Bus: Several buses operate to and from the town of Kumbakonam to the temple.
Kumbakonam being a famous temple town by itself is well connected to the rest of the country by bus and rail.