[This is the Seventh article in the series.
This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the Art of Painting in Ancient India .
The present article looks at the surviving Chola murals (earlyeleventh -century) at the magnificenttemple of Brihadishvara, Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu.) This temple is a jewel among the Indian temples; and is the best of the Chola temples.
A brief mention is also made of the paintings of the Nayak period (17th century)
In the next article we shall look at the Paintings at the historic temple of Pampa Virupaksha at Hampi (Karnataka) , which belongs to the Vijayanagara School of art. ]
23. The Big Temple
The greatest of Chola emperors Rajaraja-I (985 A.D – 1012 A.D) the son of Sundara Chola (Parantakaa-II) and Vanavanmaha – Devi, built a magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at Rajarajeshwaram near the head of the Cauvery Delta; and called his Lord as Rajarajesvara udaiya Paramasami (The Great God who resides at Rajarajeshwaram).He also affectionately addressed his god as Peruvudaiyar (the great lord or the great master) and his temple as Peruvudaiyar-kovil. The epigraphic evidences suggest that Rajaraja commenced his temple building project in the 19th year of his reign and completed it successfully on the 257th day in the 25th year of his reign (c.1010 AD), in just a matter of six years . A remarkable feat; especially when you consider that the hard granite stones that went into the construction of the huge temple were not found anywhere nears the project site.
23.2. The inscriptions at the temple indicate that Rajarajesvaram was exclusively a royal temple conceived, designed, and managed by the Emperor himself. The Big – Temple was, in a way, an expression of the devotion as well as the power and grandeur of Rajaraja Chola. It also became a benchmark in the south Indian architecture, highlighting the maturity and technical excellence achieved by the Chola architects and sculptures.
23.3. The crowning glory of the temple is the staggering cupola of the Vimana comprising two huge, sculpted, granite blocks weighing 40 tonnes each. The engineering skills and the expertise that mounted these huge stones atop the fourteen story high tower structure, standing over 216 feet tall organized by pilasters that break up the facade of the base creating spaces for niches and windows in between, must have been way ahead of their times. Legend says that the stone was brought from Sarapallam(scaffold-hollow), four miles north-east of the city, using a specially designed ramp. The basement of the structure which supports the tower is 96 feet square. The architects and engineers attribute the stability of the massive temple to its pyramidal structure, more robust than the complex curvilinear profiles of other styles.
23.4. In course of time (17th to 19th centuries) the territory came under the rule of the Maratha Nayak rulers .They added various shrines and gopuras within the temple complex. During their time, the temple came to be known as Brihadisvaram; and its presiding deity as Brihadisvara. The temple-city came to be known as Thanjavur. In Tamil, the temple is the Thanjai Periya- kovil (the Big-temple of Thanjavur).
24. The Paintings
24.1. During the reign of King Vijaya Raghava Nayak (1645-1673), the restoration and improvement works were undertaken in the temple. Due to constant exposure to smoke and soot from the lamps and burning of camphor in the sanctum over a period of centuries, certain parts of the Chola paintings on the circumambulatory passage walls had been badly damaged. The artists of the Nayak period tried to set it right, as they thought it fit; and decided to replace the old paintings with paintings of their own. They went on to paint their pictures over the thousand year old Chola murals; covering the old murals completely. The modern day scholars could not help remark that the artists of the Nayaks’ rather overdid their task.
24.2. How the underlying Chola murals again saw the light of the day after incarceration of about four hundred years, is an interesting story. It is said that, during the year 1930, while late Professor S.K. Govindasamy of Annamalai University was inspecting the walls of the six-foot wide dim lit ambulatory (pradakshina patha) around the sanctum of the Brihadisvara, he noticed that the painted surfaces on the walls on either side of the ambulatory had, at places, crumbled exposing some exquisite ancient paintings. He examined it further; and was thrilled when he discovered that the paintings hidden underneath the Nayak paintings were the thousand-year-old murals of the time of Rajaraja Chola. Professor S.K. Govindasamy published his findings in the Journal of the Annamalai University, Vol. II, 1933. Thereafter, attempts were made to bring to light the Chola murals; and at the same time to preserve the paintings of the Nayak period.
24.3. The Department of Archaeology has done a remarkable conservation of scientifically cleaning the exposed portions revealing the excellence of the Chola paintings and at the same time retaining intact the upper layer on which the Nayak paintings are drawn. It is said that during the 1980s, the chemical branch of the ASI came out with a unique `destucco’ process to remove the upper layer of Nayak paintings and display the same on fibreglass boards. For a report on that, please check:
25. The Chola panels
25.1. The magnificent temple of Brihadisvara at Thanjavur is a splendorous jewel of Indian temple art and architecture.
The original Chola paintings, so far brought to surface, are mainly in the corridors of the ambulatory around the sanctum. They are on the South, North and Western walls of the sanctum.
The Maratha Nayak paintings (18-19th century) are on the ceiling of the adjoining great-hall (maha-mantapa); on the west and north walls of another pavilion (tiruchchurru-maaligai); and on the walls of the mantapa in front of the Subramanian shrine.
25.2. The themes depicted in the panels so far exposed (1,200 sq ft) are : Shiva as Dakshinamurthy; the story of Sundarar; Rajaraja and his three queens worshipping Nataraja at Chidambaram; Tripurantaka; the marriage of Shiva and Parvathi; Rajaraja worshipping the Linga to be enshrined in the temple; and Ravana at Kailasa mountain.
Sadly, none of these is panels is complete. The figures too are not very clear; and it is difficult to make out the details. But for the efforts of ASI these ancient wall-paintings would have been totally lost.
Let’s take a brief look at some those panels.
25.3. The Dakshinamurthy panel
The Dakshinamurthi panel is rather huge and occupies almost the entire space on the southern wall. It is often cited as an example for lucidity and display of imagination in Chola paintings. It depicts Shiva as Dakshinamurthi under a banyan tree.
However, the figure of Dakshinamurthy is barely visible. The panel is very rich in details; it is populated with sages, Bhirava as dog, playful monkeys and birds such as peacocks, swans and owls.
There is a stillness of body and reverence on the face of the sages worshipping Dakshinamurthi, in contrast to the vivacious animals. Flying apsaras and gandharvas (celestial beings)complete the scene .But as a cobra enters the picture; there is a sudden change in the scenery. A monkey rushes away while another stares at the new entrant. Another, on a faraway branch, is not yet aware of the danger. A few sensitive swans flutter their wings in fear. The owls do not react as the whole thing happens in daylight. A peacock bends his long neck to watch. A squirrel, unmindful of all this, happily bites into a nut. Below the tree is a herd of elephants; one ferociously breaks a branch and another runs uphill with its trunk coiled around the branch. Another one calmly enjoys the peaceful surroundings.
The other panels are fragmentary but they, too, contain some marvellously drawn figures, bearing testimony to the skilful brushwork of the Chola artists.
25.4. There are also the graceful pictures of the Apsaras.
25.5. Saint Sundaramurti Nayanar
The panel on the west wall depicts the episodes in the life of Saint Sundaramurti Nayanar. In this panel the scenes of Sundara’s wedding are depicted in detail. These include scenes of Lord Shiva appearing in the guise of an old man clutching a document proving his claim over the bridegroom Sundara, an angry Sundara in a white coat , examination of the document by the villagers assembled there, and Sundara appealing to the mercy of Shiva etc.
25.6. The scene of Indra (the king of gods) worshipping the Linga is on the opposite wall.
25.7. The next panel in northwest corner is the scene of four disciples who are now
identified as disciples (Kuravars: Sanka, Sananda, Sanathana, and Sanathkumara) of Sri Dakshinamurthy. Two figures among them were earlier assumed to be that of Rajaraja standing behind his Guru, Karuvurdevar, portraying a sense of humility. Now, the scholars seem to doubt that plausible explanation.
25.8. Tripuranthaka theme of Shiva raiding a chariot like a warrior, going into a war fully armed and wielding a bow, followed by an army of his supporters was a favourite of the Cholas. The Brihadisvara too has a panel dedicated to Tripurantaka. It must have once been a magnificent and awe inspiring painting, bringing to life the power, glory and the grandeur of the imperial Cholas and their Lord. It is said that Shiva in the mural had a twin expression: the ferociousness in the eye and the sweet smile on the lips. The daemons too have been depicted in detail. The panel, sadly, has not survived in its entirety.
The demon with his consort on the Tripurantaka panel.
25.9. There is a picture of Ravana at Kailasa the snow-abode of Shiva; labouring hard to destabilize mountain peak.
26.Prof. C. Sivaramamurthy , a scholar and art historian of great distinction, described the Chola frescoes of the Thanjavur Big Temple as a masterpiece of Chola art, distinguished by power, grandeur, rhythm and composition, and unparalleled by any other contemporary painting. What is significant about the Chola paintings of Thanjavur is that there is great emotion in all the faces, whether it is the compassion of the guru counselling Rajaraja, or a contemplative rishi, a devout queen, an animated dancer or an angry Shiva.
26.1. Those who have examined the Chola paintings closely have observed that even while depicting a sombre theme of devotion, the artist does not neglect the mundane aspects. The bedecked royal ladies continue to chatter among themselves, in spite of their being in a holy place. In contrast, the common ladies and elders seem absorbed in the performance.
26.2. According to Prof. C. Sivaramamurthy, “If expression has to be taken as the criterion, by which a great art has to be judged, it is here in abundance in these Chola paintings. The sentiment of heroism – vira rasa– is clearly seen in Tripurantaka’s face and form; the figures and attitude of the Rakshasas (demons) … wailing tear-stained faces of their women… suggest an emotion of pity – karuna– and terror – raudra; Siva as Dakshinamurthy… is the mirror of peace – shanta; the hands… of the dancer suggests the spirit of wonder – adbhuta… the ganas (Shiva’s followers) in comic attitude represent hasya. The commingling of emotions is complete in this which is a jumble ofvira, raudraand karuna” (Paintings of South India).
27. The Chola artists of the Brihadisvara murals were the inheritors of the hoary tradition of Chitrasutra. They preserved and practiced the concepts and the techniques of the Chitrasutra. The delineation of lines, use of colours and shades, arrangement of the figures on the canvass and treatment of the subject strongly resemble the murals of Ajanta. Its figures are alive with rhythm and movement.
The saints, kings and queens are celebrated in their idealized forms; the emphasis was on the ideal person behind the human lineaments rather than on their physical likeness. They figures of humans, animals, birds and vegetation always seem to suggest to something beyond the obvious. Its gods and goddesses too are full of virtue, vitality and grace; and have a universal appeal. They not merely stimulate the senses but also ignite the imagination of the viewer and set the viewer free from the confines of place, time and ego (self).The Chola murals of Brihadisvara have that magical quality, which brings out the essence of life and the grace that permeate the whole of existence.
[ I gratefully acknowledge the corrections and improvements suggested by Shri Vijay Kumar the creator of the delightfully articulate website on Shilpa and other related subjects : http://www.poetryinstone.in ]
For the paintings of the Nayaks’ period : please see the Appendix posted as Part 8
The Vijayanagar period paintings on the ceilings of the Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi (Karnataka)
References and Sources:
The Big Temple
The Great God of Rajarajeshwaram
Restoration of Chola paintings by ASI
A.A.S.A.I: Paintings Preservation
Legends across panels by Nandtha Krishna
The Swami as photographer
Tanjavur Paintings in Koviloor, Sittannavasal, Panamalai, Tanjavur Early Chola Paintings;
Photographed by C. Nachiappan (Koviloor Swamy), Kalakshetra Publications.