Thyagaraja Temple, Thiruvarur – Gopurams
The first of the most arresting features of the Thiruvarur Thyagarajaswami temple to greet the devotee is the architecture of the great entryways, Gopurams, at the four cardinal directions. Each of the four exterior perimeter walls of the Thiruvarur temple has a large big Gopuram with reinforced wooden gates at its center. Of these four Gopurams, the Eastern Gopuram on the outermost perimeter wall called the Rajagopuram because it conforms to the Vastu Shastra concept of a Maha Dwara (great entrance) is by far the most exquisite.
This is a massive 118 feet tall 7 tier Rajagopuram with plenty of sculptures. After Devendhran had to part with his Thyagarajar to Muchukunda, he was unable to bear the loss and came to Thiruvarur requesting Thyagarajar to come back with him. The Lord had told him to wait at the Eastern gopuram to take him. It is considered that Devendhran is still waiting at the Eastern entrance but Thyagarajar is yet to come out through that entrance. He comes out for all the festivals through the other entrances only.
Built between the 12th and 13th Century by the Cholas, the tall doorway of the Rajagopuram is characteristically a granite structure up to the lintel level. This humongous granite base has several rearing Yali figures, each mounted by a rider. The elegant slender bodies of these horse-like creatures that sport the face of a lion and the delicate relief carving on them are unique to the Chola artisans. These Yalis are mythical animals created to represent different stages of life. The six story, tapering superstructure above is constructed with deep red brick and mortar.
Each of the six levels is proportionately smaller than the tier below, hollow, and set with proportionate window apertures aligned along the inner and outer facades. The Rajagopuram is a not only a work of art, a repository of visual cultural history, and religion, it is also a result of ancient South Indian politics and a bearer of political history for future generations. The construction of the Rajagopuram is associated with interesting history. In 1202 A.D., there was a great war between the Cholas and the Pandyas.
The Chola king Kulothunga Chola III caused great havoc on his enemy Sadaiyavarman Kulasekara Pandya and in the end, the Pandyan king ran away from the battlefield. The victorious Chola king celebrated his victory by crowning himself again in the Pandyan capital of Madurai as the Thirubhuvana Veerathevan (the victorious warrior of the three worlds). He then used the vast treasures of the Pandyan kingdom to raise a new temple at Thirubhuvana Veerashwaram and used some of the funds to construct this Rajagopuram at Thiruvarur.
In addition, the historical book Kulothunga Meykirthi and the Thirubhuvanam inscription attest that Kulothunga III assigned villages in the Pandyan and Chera countries to support this temple at Thiruvarur and offered all spoils from the war to the Deity, Thyagarajaswami, affectionately known as Thyagesa. A lasting image of this warrior benefactor, Kulothunga Chola III with his guru Easwara Shivar, has been sculpted in the second tier of the Rajagopuram.
While structurally and aesthetically similar to the Eastern Rajagopuram, the Western Gopura has some beautiful figurines of dancing women and other old sculptures. Interestingly, there are no figurines that depict Demi-Gods, Devas. The Eastern side of this Gopura has several beautiful fresco murals that have not been the dated yet. While it is dated as built in the 15th century A.D, there is unfortunately no clear evidence with regard to the patron who had it built.
A Thanjavur Nayaka King, Sevappan, built the Northern Gopura. This Gopura is constructed using granite blocks up to the base level but does not have any sculptures on it. On the second level off this Gopura, there are figurines of this King and the manager of the temple of that time. Sevappan has left some inscriptional record on this Gopura. Apart from this exterior perimeter wall, the inner sanctum of the temple has two other concentric squares of perimeter walls that separate it from the busy streets outside.
Two Gopurams on the first inner wall and another, smaller one on the second inner wall beautify the temple. Successive kingdoms that added these grand entryways to the sanctum have done so keeping in mind the overall aesthetics of the temple and have ensured that their contributions have enhanced the breathtaking impact of the entire complex. Muthu Kaviarasar in his drama on the Deity and Manuneethi Cholan, Thiyagesar Kuravanjiyam describes the tall Gopuram that reaches with a crescendo of energy into the eastern sky.
“Marainangum Gopuramai Vann Kizhakkum Vasalithu”
As we enter the outer walls and proceed towards the Sanctum, the Eastern Gopura that opens into the second compound belonging to an earlier Chola period stands stark, without any distinguishing or significant artistic sculpture. The corresponding Western Gopura on the same wall appears to have been constructed with granite blocks. It was re-built during the time of Vijayanagara King Devaraya II (1422-1446 A.D.).
Tamil and Kannada inscriptions on this Gopura say that a man called Nagarajar built it under the patronage of Dakshina Samudradipathi Lakkana Thanna Nayaka who was a feudal king of the Vijayanagar Empire. The innermost wall and final barrier to the sanctum has only one entrance and the Gopura on this entrance was from an earlier Chola period. This Gopura has been upgraded many times by different kings; the artistic additions belong to many emperors.