Belief in God is a basic human trait. Though this God may be the infinite cosmic spirit, the human being, encased as he is, in a limited frame and a limited mind, can think of him only in a place of worship or in a temple.
Hindu temples are a very ancient institution. Their development has been spread over several centuries. Though the earliest permanent structures built out of stone and bricks that have withstood the vagaries of time have been assigned to the 4th century A.D., icons of gods and goddesses have been discovered even in the Harappa-Mohenjodaro excavations (2500 B.C.) suggesting the possibility of existence of places of worship.
In the history of the development of the Hindu temples, the Coḷā period (A.D. 900-1200) is one of the golden periods. The Bṛhadīśvara temple of Tañjāvūr (also spelt as Tanjore) in Tamil Nadu is a remarkable structure, perhaps the biggest and the best, belonging to this period. It was built by Rājarāja the First (reign A.D. 985-1013).
The story goes that Rājarāja was a victim of black leprosy due to the sins committed in an earlier life as a hunter. To expiate the sins and to get rid of the disease, he was commanded by his guru Haradatta to build a temple for Śiva after getting a liṅga (emblem of Śiva) from the river Narmadā. When the king went to the river and got the liṅga out of water, it started growing bigger and bigger. Hence the name Bṛhadīśvara (bṛhat = big or large). The temple took twelve years to build and was consecrated during A.D. 1011. The official name given to the liṅga or the deity is Rājarājeśvara.
The temple complex is situated in the southern half of a small fort and is surrounded by a moat on the east and the west. Apart from the main temple, the complex contains temples of Devī called Bṛhannāyakī, Subrahmaṇya, Gaṇeśa, Navagrahas and a number of liṅgas estimated around 252.
The length and width of the actual temple structure is 45.5 metres (150 ft.) and 27 metres (90 ft.).
The most striking feature of this temple is its vimāna or towered sanctuary which rises perpendicularly from a 15 metre (50 ft.) high square base and then tapers off to a total height of 65 metres (216 ft.). There are fourteen storeys, with small pillars, pretty balcony windows and beautiful images carved thereon. The kalaśa or finial is 3.8 metres (12.5 ft.) high and weighs 80 tonnes.
The liṅga itself is quite massive, both in diameter and in height.
Nandi, the mount of Śiva, placed in front is also of generous proportions, measuring nearly 6 metres (20 ft.) in length and 3.6 metres (12 ft.) in height. It is said to be the second biggest in India, the one at Lepākṣi (in Andhra Pradesh) being the biggest.
The corridor of circumambulation just outside the sanctum sanctorum has fresco paintings depicting stories and incidents from Hindu mythology.
Another temple in the campus, dedicated to Subrahmaṇya or Kārttikeya (son of Śiva) deserves our attention due to its being an exquisite piece of architecture. The stone carvings of elaborate patterns are perfect. Its vimāna (tower over the shrine) rises to a height of 16.5 metres (55 ft.). It was probably built around A.D. 1600 by the Naik dynasty.
The religious rituals of the temple are according to the Mukuṭāgama and the brahmotsava, the chief festival, is conducted for 18 days during April-May.