The Brihadiswara Temple or the Periya Koyil (Big Temple), as it is locally known, is a major landmark in the south Indian temple architecture. The temple is located in Thanjavur, the district headquarters of the same name in Tamil Nadu. Thanjavur is located at a distance of about 332 km southwest of Chennai.
The temple was built during the reign of the imperial Cholas who ruled the southern part of India from ninth to twelfth centuries. The imperial Cholas trace their ancestry to the Surya or the Raghuvansa. However, during the early part of the Christian era, the Sangam age Cholas ruled along with the Cheras and Pandyas in the southern part of India. The Cholas also find mention in the rock edicts of Emperor Asoka of the third century B.C. Karikala, the famous early Chola emperor is famous for having united the entire kingdoms of the south and is also credited to have constructed a stone dam across the River Cauvery. After the third century A.D. the Cholas lost their dominance and soon the Pallavas took over control of south India.
The Cholas again surface as the feudatories of the Pallavas during the 8th – 9th century A.D. It was in ca. 850 A.D. that Vijayala Chola established a small kingdom around Thanjavur, with its capital at Uraiyur. His son and grandson were Aditya Chola and Parantaka Chola who gradually established control over many parts of the southern India. They also were great temple builders and are credited with a number of structural temples, which marked a great deviation from the rock cut temples of the Pallavas. Parantaka was a prominent ruler of the imperial Cholas, who conquered the southern kingdom of Pandyas and also Sri Lanka and assumed the title Maduraiyum Ilamumkonda [one who conquered Madurai (seat of Pandyas) and Sri Lanka].
Rajaditya, the eldest son of Parantaka lost his life on an elephant during a war with the Rashtrakuta Krishna III. Hence his brother Gandaraditya ascended the throne, but he also soon lost his life and hence his brother Arinjaya became the king of the Cholas. Arinjaya also lost his life in a battlefield while fighting the Rashtrakutas to retain the lost territories during his predecessors. Arinjaya’s son Sundara Chola succeeded to the throne and his eldest son Aditya was a great warrior and was the crown prince when he was assassinated. Arulmolivarman, the brother of Aditya Chola, refused to ascend the throne as his uncle Uttama Chola, the son of Gandaraditya was grown up. Arulmolivarman ultimately ascended the throne in 985 A.D. and assumed the title Rajaraja Chola.
Rajaraja Chola was probably the greatest ruler among the Chola emperors. He was a great conqueror, administrator, a great patron of art and architecture only to be surpassed by his son and successor Rajendra Chola. As soon as he ascended the throne, Rajaraja consolidated his throne by successively defeating the Keralas, Pandyas and Simhalas; Gangas, Chalukya Satyasraya. At first, he defeated the confederation of armies of the Keralas, Pandyas and the Simhalas. Later he pursued the Simhala king Mahinda V through a naval expedition and took control of the northern part of Sri Lanka and made Polannaruva as the capital of the Chola province. The Chalukya Satyasraya was repelled by the Chola army under his son Rajendra I, who captured Banavasi and a large part of Raichur Doab. He entered into matrimonial relationship with the eastern Chalukyan king by marrying his daughter Kundavai to Vimaladitya, the brother of Saktivarman the Chalukyan ruler. Rajendra, his son established a pillar of victory on the Mahendra hill in Kalinga. Rajaraja also captured the Maldive islands from the Chera control and established his sway over the islands adjoining Maldives. The Leyden grant of Rajaraja mentions that the Sailendra king of Sri Vijaya (Palembang) and Kataha (Kedah), Sri Mara Vijayaottungavarman was allowed to construct a Buddhist vihara at Nagapattinam, named as Cudamani and Rajaraja granted a village of Anaimangalam for the vihara.
Rajaraja built the Brihadiswara temple which probably is the culmination of the vimana architecture of south India temples.