The Brihadisvara temple is a symbol of greatness of the Chola Empire under its founder, Emperor Rajaraja(985-1012.A.D.), whose splendor it reflects. The long series of epigraphs incised in elegant letters on the plinth all round the gigantic edifice reveals the personality of the Emperor.
The Brihadisvara temple is a monument dedicated to Siva, and he named lord as Rajarajesvaram-udayar after himself. As we gather from the inscriptions running throughout the plinth, the king, on the two hundred and seventy-fifth day of the twenty-fifth year of the reign (1010 A.D) presented a gold-covered finial to be planted on the top of the Vimana of the temple.
The temple is constructed of granite, mostly of large blocks, a rock that is not available in the neighborhood and had therefore to be brought from a distance- itself a colossal task. The plinth of the Central Shrine is 45.72 square m., the shrine proper 30.48 square m. and the vimana 60.96 m. high. On the massive plinth, covered throughout with inscriptions, there are niches on three sides in two rows, containing representations of deities such as Siva, Vishnu and Durga. On the southern wall the lower niches contain Ganesa, Vishnu with Sri-devi and Bhu-devi, Lakshmi, a pair of dvara-palas, Vishnvanugraha-murti, Bhikshatana, Virabhadra, a pair of dvara- palas, Dakshina murti, Kalantaka and Natesa. In the lower niches on the west is Hari- Hara, Ardhanarisvara, a pair of dvara-palas and two Chandrasekaras, one with and the other without halo. On the north, in the lower series, are Ardhanarisvara, Gangadhara, a pair of dvara-palas, Virabhadra (without the usual moustache but with a sword and shield). Alingana-Chandrasekhara, Siva holding a sula (spear), a pair of dvara-palas, Sarasvati, Mahishamardini and Bhairava, of these, the first and last pairs of dvara-palas and the first and last four forms in niches are on the front porch of the temple, while all the rest are on the main walls of the Vimana. The top series shows a number of Tripurantakas repeated in each niche. In the small circular space of the niche-tops are again carvings of deities like Ganesa, Vrishavahana, Bhikshatana, Narasimha, Varaha, etc.
As we enter the temple from the east, there is a flight of steps leading to a pillared mandapa, which is a later addition, so that originally the dvara-palas on both side and the princely warriors in the niches faced the visitor. Apart from the mandapa and the steps leading to it, there are two other flights of steps on the north and south, as also between the front porch and the main shrine on either sides. The Nandis on the vimana, seated side ways but with their heads turned to the front, remind us of their counterparts at Mahabalipuram, a coastal town near Chennai known for its rock-cut temples.
The vast inner courtyard of the temple is about 152.40x76.20 m. and is surrounded by a cloister. At the entrance there are two gopuras, widely separated from each other, the first larger but the second better decorated. The carvings on the second gopura, guarded by two monolithic dvara-palas, illustrate saivite stories like the marriage of Shiva and Parvathi, Siva protecting Markandeya and Arjuna winning the pasupata weapon. Beyond the gopuras, in the court facing the central shrine and under the canopy of a mandapa added in recent times, is a huge monolithic Nandi, indeed a fitting vehicle for the colossal linga installed in the central shrine, the height of which is more than 3.66 m. Assisted in the inscription, this linga was called adavallan, "One who can dance well " and dakshina-meru-vitankan names associated with the deity at Chidambaram whom the Cholas greatly revered, and adopted by them for this linga, which is also known, after Rajaraja as Rajarajesvaram udayar.
The passage surrounding the sanctum of the temple contains important specimens of sculptural art. Here there are three colossal sculptures, respectively located in the south, west and north and representing Siva as holding a spear, seated Siva carrying a sword and trident and with fierce mien and Siva with ten arms dancing in the Chatura pose as Vishnu plays the drum and Devi sits in padmasana with a lotus-bud and rosary in her hands.
The entire wall space and ceiling of the passage were originally covered with exquisite paintings; a coat of paintings, executed during the Nayak period in the seventeenth century, now obscures most of them. The original paintings, as far as they have been exposed, are mainly on the western and northern walls.
On the western side, the entire wall space is occupied by a huge panel in which Siva as Dakshinamurti is shown seated on tiger-skin in a yogic pose approximating the Maharaja lilt with the paryanka-bandha or yoga-patta across his waist and right knee, interestedly watching the dance of two apsarases (celestial nymphs), while Vishnu, dwarf ganas and other celestial musicians play on the drum and other instruments a few princely figures watch the scene and two saints, Sundara and Cheraman, hurry to the spot on elephant and horse. Up and further away is depicted a temple (architecturally a typical early chola one) with Nataraja enshrined in it, outside which are seated princely devotees. Further down is painted the story of how Siva came down in the form of an old man with a document in his hand to establish his right to carry away Sundara on his marriage day to his abode at Tiruvennainallur. Still below is a lively scene of women cooking and food being served during the marriage festivity. Beyond this, on the other side of the wall, is a large figure of Nataraja dancing in the golden hall at Chidambaram with priests and other devotees on one side and a stately prince, obviously Rajaraja, and three of his queens with followers including kanchukis and other attendants carrying rods of office behind them. On the opposite wall are some charming miniature figures of graceful women. A little further up is Rajaraja with his guru Karuvur Devar. Beyond this, on the wall opposite the northern one and facing the passage are five heads peeping out of a partially exposed painting.
Fine arts were encouraged in the service of the temple; the sculptures, the paintings in the surrounding passages of the sanctorum and even the inscriptions in elegant Chola Grantha and Tamil letters give an idea of the great art that flourished under Rajaraja.
Dance and music were greatly cultivated and were equally employed to serve the temple; every evening it was at once an entertainment and a ritual that the towns-folk, assembled in the mandapa, witnessed and enjoyed during the ceremony of the waving of lights and the chanting of the Veda and Devaram hymns. Cooks, gardeners, flower- gatherers, garland-makers, musicians, drummers, dancers, dance-masters, wood-carvers, sculptures, painters, choir-groups for singing hymns in Sanskrit and Tamil accountants, Watchmen and a host of other officials and servants of the temple all are referred to in the inscriptions as having been endowed with adequate grants of land.
The temples of Devi near the Nandi-mandapa and of Subramanya are later additions, the former during the time of Konerimaikondan, a Pandya of the thirteenth century, and the latter during the Nayaka period in the seventeenth century. The shrine of Ganesa and the mandapa of Nataraja are also very late in date. The temple of Subramanya has exquisite carvings and is an excellent example of South Indian temple-architecture in the late medieval period.
The UNESCO & Government of India has declared this temple as a World Heritage Monument.