Category Archives: Indian Painting

The Legacy of Chitrasutra- Fifteen – Shri S Rajam – continued

[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 .

This is the concluding part of a series that attempted to trace the influence of Chitrasutra, the ancient text and its recommended practices, from the days of the Ajanta to the present period.

In the concluding part of this series we admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times.

The part – One of this article briefly outlined Shri S Rajam’s achievements in the field of music and in the music related arts.

In this concluding article part let’s look at a few of the general principles of the Chitrasutra and Shri Rajam as an artist who brought to life the traditional art style of India.]

 Continued from S Rajam Part One

Rama pattabhishekam S Rajam

1.1. The Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara, an ancient text dated around sixth century AD, states that one needs to understand music to be a good painter. That might be because the rhythm, fluidity and grace of music have to be transported to painting, in order to make the painting come alive and open its heart to the viewer (sah-hrudaya). That ideal requirement found its fulfilment in Shri S Rajam an eminent musician who is also blessed with a unique gift of creating sublime art works. He practiced both the arts with devotion and dedication over long years of his fruitful life.

1.2. I mentioned earlier that Shri S Rajam has been a true exponent of the Chitrasutra tradition in the modern era. Let’s get to know a bit more about Shri S Rajam’s art, mostly through his own words and pictures; and about his inspiration and guidance..

2. The Early years

2.1. Rajam took to art quite early in his life. By the time he was about fifteen years of age (when he was in Eighth grade) he was sketching fairly well. His father, Sundaram Ayyar as also his friends and relatives who too were artists, encouraged Rajam to hone his skills. He thereafter discontinued formal schooling in his senior year in High school to join the Government School of Arts and Crafts in Madras (1935). He appears to have had a great time in the Art School. He not only had a brilliant academic career but also enjoyed the friendship and support of his friends and teachers.  The Principal was so impressed by Rajam’s talent, that he allowed the boy to complete the six-year course in just four years


Later in his life, when he was in his eighties, Shri Rajam while talking about his technique of water-wash said, “I learnt it all from my teacher Shri V. Doraisamy Achari”. Rajam’s Art – school-mates included KCS Panicker, Dhanapal and Kodur Ramamurthy who also flowered into great artists.

3. The quest


3.1. The young Rajam’s visit to the caves of Ajanta was a turning point in his life; it had a profound effect on him; and changed his life and artistic career forever. The ancient art of Ajanta brought about a sea change in Rajam’s outlook of art; his style of depiction in painting; and his attitude to life in general. He realized, painting was not just a technique of putting paint over a surface; it was a way of understanding and expressing your emotions about the life around you; it was a way of looking beyond the forms and appearances that meet the eye; and above all,   it was about giving expression to a deeply spiritual experience that springs from the artists very inner being. The practice of art, he said, was a Sadhana, to be pursued with dedication and reverence.

3.2. The traditional style of the ancient murals at Ajanta so overwhelmed S Rajam    that he suspended his painting activity for a while and got immersed in search of a style of his own that would at once be creative, traditional and soulful. He did eventually, after years of practice, succeed in his search and came up with a unique style that answered his quest and prayer.

Mr. Lewis Thompson (1909-1949)  of England — a poet turned philosopher and Sanyasin  – was also instrumental in Rajam adopting the Oriental school approach in his painting techniques. “I owe it  to  Lewis Thompson who came to Sri Ramana Ashram, where I used to sing occasionally. He was an English poet, deeply interested in Indian philosophy, ten years my senior. He used to write his verses in tiny books. He was responsible for my development and growth in Indian art. He moulded me. He would say, “Art must represent nature, not reproduce it. That’s why you see that Akbar is bigger than the horse in the miniatures. Learn perspective but ignore it once you have mastered it.. The size of the figures depends on their relative importance. “

The following is a brief note on Mr. Thompson.


[ Lewis Levien Thompson was born on January 13, 1909 in Fulham, England. He received a good conventional education in private schools, despite the modest circumstances of his family.  He was a good singer and accomplished pianist. In his teens, Lewis developed a fascination for the scriptures of the East. He taught himself the Eastern classics, in translations. He also read extensively in anthropology and psychoanalysis. He was greatly influenced by the French poet of the symbolist school Rimbaud (1854-1891) and his wish to discover the soul and the truth.

Like many western intellectuals of the early twentieth century who travelled East in search of spiritual wisdom, Lewis Thompson too abandoned his attachments and allegiances; and plunged into the depths of Eastern philosophy and spirituality. He departed from England when he was 23 years young (July 26, 1932) and lived in India for the remaining seventeen years of his short life. While in India, he wandered the country living off of what others would give him in the form of food and lodging. Thompson was not interested in finding a guru; but he came into close contact with various luminaries, including Sri Ramana Maharishi, Anandamayi Ma, Aurobindo, and Krisha Prem.

During his wandering years in India, Thompson practiced severe self-discipline of an iterant monk and produced some hundred-odd poems; an endless stream of aphorisms; maintained journals over his life in India as a marga, a spiritual discipline; wrote a large number of letters, and various miscellanea.

On June 19, 1949, Lewis Thompson was found wandering dazed and penniless by the River Ganges. Taken to a small room, he languished for two days, writing the last entry in his journal and his last poem, Black Flower, before lapsing into a coma. He died alone in Benares on June 21, 1949.

His journal and a collection of his poems Black Sun were published posthumously during 2001, with an introduction by Richard Lannoy. Lewis Thompson’s work is deeply spiritual, lush with Hindu imagery; and is sensitive, mystical and erotic. He was later described as ‘one of the most original, brave, brilliant and prescient of the pioneers of our contemporary mystical Renaissance’; and,’ as one of the century’s most intrepid spiritual explorers and a ravishing mystical poet’ ]

3.3. It is said; the curious scratch the surface, and, it is only the resolute that overcome the obstacles and delve deeper into learning of enduring value. The quest is always more challenging than curiosity but it surely is rewarding. Shri Rajam’s quest for a unique idiom and a style of expression took him far and wide into ancient caves and temples spread across the country and into the study of varied forms of ancient art-creations, such as the murals, frescos, miniatures, Chola bronzes etc. He spent week after week in the caves of Ajanta, Ellora, Amaravathi, Sittannavasal and Sigiriya (Sri Lanka); as also in the ancient temples of South India and Orissa.

S Rajam at Mahabalipuram

3.4. He took thousands of photographs of the sculptures and the bronzes. He was particularly fascinated by the three-dimensional comeliness and grace of the bronzes. He poured over his photographs and turned them into countless sketches and drawings, learning the art and skill of translating his observation into visual poetry; and coining fresh idioms, phrases and similes of art-expressions to stamp his individuality.

shiva dance

3.5.   He learnt to visualize his design clearly before giving it a form.  “I contemplate on the photograph for many days,” he says, “and form a clear picture in my mind. Then, much later, I transfer the image to the surface of the painting”.Thus, imagination, observation and the expressive force of rhythm became the essential features of his paintings. Through sustained practice,he learnt to make his pictures come alive with rhythm and expression.

In addition , he also studied the ancient texts on painting and sculpture such as the Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara, the Kashyapa shilpa sutra etc, along with the epics, puranans and countless dhyana-shlokas which describe precisely the form , appearance , countenance , proportions and the nature of each deity. These texts became his guiding influence; and helped to enhance the authenticity to his depictions.

He also read extensively on the contemporary art-historians and scholars such as Ananada Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch, Gopinatha Rao and others. These helped Rajam as an artist to gain a broader perspective of Indian art.

shiva skanda

In 1939, Rajam met Sri K.V.Jagannathan – the editor of “Kalaimagal”. Rajam’s first published work depicting a Guru and his disciple appeared in Kalaimagal the same year. It was the first of the many that would follow.

His illustrations on the themes based on literature, mythology and philosophy became a regular feature in Kalaimagal and other published works of Sri K.V. Jagannathan. It was a matter of time that his works were sought by other publications such as Dinamani, Kalki etc. The special issues like Deepavali Malar gave him ample space to explore his subjects in depth.

4. An unusual Maverick


4.1. The initial years of Shri S Rajam’s art-career were stressful; and acceptance did not come easy. He was branded a maverick, perhaps in the sense that he painted like no one else did.  And, not many shared his philosophical perspective on art. He was criticized, mostly, for not belonging to a school of painting. But, that did not deter him in the least. He did not succumb to the trend of the day just for the whim of it. He was convinced that his style was authentic, creative and rooted in the tradition of our culture. He asserted he was not a ‘copier’, but one who painted in his own way. He said, “My art is in representing nature and not in reproducing it”.  It is our fortune Shri Rajam stood his ground. Since then, he has been composing his own one-of-a-kind masterpieces for more than six decades.  And, today his classical genius is not merely well accepted but revered as an icon of creativity and grace rich in tradition.

shiva dance 2

4.2. Even so, Shri Rajam is disappointed with the drift of the times. “Hindu heritage and tradition is ancient and priceless,” he laments, “but devotional art is dying in India and almost extinct. Unfortunately, we Indians ape the Westerners. This attitude wounds me a lot. In tradition, only good things should remain; the bad should be ignored and not continued. This is tradition. The art schools in India have failed to bring forward tradition…., Artistic creation is lacking in arts schools. The training imparted is purely technique oriented, and this by itself is not of much use.”

4.3. His message to the young and budding artists of India is this: “Study scriptures to improve your knowledge. Be modern; there is no problem with that. But know the beauty and elegance of your culture.”

5. Shri Rajam’s art and the Chitrasutra

5.1. Outlook

shiva meditation

(i ). While talking about his approach to  art, Shri Rajam said,”  my art is not, nor was it ever meant to be, realistic or photo-like replicas of life, but rather intuitive perception  of life”. He asserts that in his paintings and line drawings, he attempts to imprison the important moments of the subject’s life to help the contemplative spirit of the observer.His pictures might depict the resemblance but, more importantly, as he said, they aim to bring out the essence or the soul of the subject.

(ii ) . When Shri Rajam said that, he was not merely making a statement but also was echoing the prescriptions of the Chitrasutra which stressed that the concern of the artist should not be to just faithfully reproduce the forms around him. The artist should try to look beyond the tangible world; and beyond the beauty of form that meets the eye. He should lift that veil and look within. The Chitrasutra suggested, the artist should look beyond “The phenomenal world of separated beings and objects that blind s the vision of the reality”.

(iii ). The Chitrasutra emphasizes that art expression is not about how the world appears to one and all, but how the artist would experience and visualize it. Art is an expression of his unique creative genius, imagination, enterprise and individuality as an artist. Its purpose is to present that which is within us; and to evoke an emotional response (the rasa) in the viewer’s heart.

(iv). Shri Rajam’s art creations are excellent illustrations of these principles of the Chitrasutra in the modern times. In his mission, Shri Rajam followed the approach of the classical Indian Art rather that of the west where art directly reproduces the nature and its physical form as it appears to one and all.

5.2. Abstract & Symbolism


(i ). While explaining the special features of traditional Indian art, Shri Rajam in his interviews and articles stresses the point that the traditional Indian art relies more on symbolism than on realism. He says, an artist’s power arises from observation translated into visual poetry through similes and suggestions. The eloquent expression of a painting, that is, its Bhava, according to him, consists in drawing out the inner world of the subject. It takes a combination of many factors to articulate the Bhava of a painting; say , through eyes, facial expression, stance , gestures by hands and limbs, surrounding nature, animals , birds and other human figures. Even the rocks, water places and plants (dead or dying or blooming or laden) can be employed to bring out the Bhava. These aspects gain greater importance in narrative paintings, which demand special skills to depict the dramatic effects and reactions of the characters, in its progression from frame to frame.

(ii ). The concept of the abstract and with it a whole set of symbols and symbolisms, that Shri Rajam was discussing, were also the concern of the Chitrasutra. The text suggested the means to render the absolute and the undefined into tangible visual forms.  It said, the objects in nature could be visualized or personified endowing each with a distinct personality in order to illustrate the essence of their character. Accordingly, in the traditional Indian art, the elements of natures like rivers, sun, moon etc   were personified, bringing out their virtues and powers through eloquent symbolisms.  Birds and flowers, trees and creepers too were depicted with a loving grace and tenderness. In certain cases, idyllic nature scenes were created just to convey a sense of joy and wonder.

Shri Rajam’s art abounds in such symbolisms.

5.3. The preparation


(i). Shri Rajam talks about the way he prepares before commencing on a painting. It is highly interesting. His approach is methodical, thorough and a classic example for others to follow. He studies every available material about the subject, such as the epics, scriptures, the legends; and, archived documents, earlier paintings and photographs in case of personalities. He visualizes his design, contemplates on it and lets it sink into him. He explains “The subject should be visualized with absolutely clarity in the mind’s eye, before setting pencil to paper. I let the preliminary sketch ‘sit’ for a few days, then review, making corrections and changes. Initially I color the background using a soft wash technique originating from the Santhiniketan School, a special feature in all my paintings. Then I define the main figure through light and shade, with highlights in white. I aim to bring out the grace of the human form and poses, for example tribhanga, with the drapery serving to accentuate form as exemplified in Buddhist sculpture.”

shiva dance 3 shiva nrtta2

(ii ) . Even to this day, after nearly seventy years of painting, Shri Rajam visualizes his design after careful study and research into the subject; and only then attempts to draw. He says, “I form a clear picture in my mind. Then, much later, I transfer the image to the surface of the painting.”

5.4. Rekhas, the lines


(i) . The Chitrasutra regards the lines – Rekhas – that articulate the form of the figures as the real strength and virtue of a painting; and the ornamentation and colouring as its decorative aspects. Chitrasutra favours employing graceful, steady, smooth and free flowing  lines. The Chitrasutra does not favour straight or harsh or angular or uneven lines. Its masters valued the effects best captured by least number of lines. The economy of lines and simplicity of expression were regarded as the sign of the artist’s maturity.

S_RAJAM_1_31335gS Rajam Antha Rama Sowndharyam

 (ii) . These too are the characteristics of Shri Rajam’s paintings.  The first thing you notice in his works is the strength of the lines that defines precisely the form of the figure. He says, “The line is the life of a painting. I developed my own style, taking from the model of our ancient culture.” He explains that in the oriental traditions, the lines – the Rekhas- are of prime importance unlike in an oil painting. It is the lines that define the substance and form of an oriental painting. He describes his style as closest to Shantiniketan style, emphasizing the lasya – lyrical – aspects.

[The Shantiniketan School of art, sphere headed by the renowned artist Abanindranath Tagore, was a revivalist movement that was started by around 1905. It strived to revive the traditional Indian techniques of art and art styles, deriving inspiration, mainly, from the murals of Ajanta. Its style was, basically, a refined and harmonious blending of simple beauty of expression brought to life by graceful lines and an essential Indianness. The Shantiniketan art done mostly in watercolours depicted Indian religious, mythological, historical and literary subjects. Its style, endowed with the beauty and vigour of its lines, sense of proportion, grace and charm soon became an authentic idiom of Indian art expression.

Shri S Rajam derived inspiration from this tradition too. ]

(iii). The lasya – the lyrical – aspect which Shri Rajam was talking about refers to delineating beautiful figures and their delicate inner feelings through graceful, steady, smooth and free flowing lines that capture their essence. His line-drawings are full of grace and vitality. The delicate touches and intimate details that he deftly adds enliven his figures.

lasya 1lasya2

(iii) Following the tradition of the Chitrasutra , Shri Rajam has depicted nature as in summer; Rainy season; Autumn ; early winter ; and, winter :


AutumnEarly WinterWinter

(iv) Shri Rajam has also sketched some rather ‘non-traditional’paintings :

Amorphous Man with Red CloudsTrimurthy

Moonlit Mountainscape with YogiSmall Temple in Himalayan Foothills

5.5. Simplicity which is natural and pleasing


(i). Shri Rajam says, he aims to infuse into his paintings a simplicity which is natural and pleasing. He stresses the economy of lines and simplicity of form as central to his approach. It is upon this background, he says, he is able to introduce “personal innovations” into his works. That is the reason; his paintings are a rare blend of traditional styles with his unique touch.

(ii). It is because of that approach you find a natural quality and grace in Shri Rajam’s paintings; they almost seem effortless. The vigor, the strength and the power of a heroic figure are brought to life by the vitality of its lines; not by his fat muscles or his sheer size. With use of shading different parts of the body, it produces three dimensional effects in the images.  Even the demons in his paintings are never muscular or excessively fat. The outlines are strong and very sure; and there is an easy and natural depiction of volume, evidencing a good understanding of the rhythm and the structure of the human body.

rakshasa2 s

(iii). His figures are never rigid and static. Their stances are always suggestive of flowing movements of languid grace and charming rhythm. Their distinctive display of smooth motion and the sense of balance are lovely. The painted figures of the “heroes” present a profound sense of peace and joy even while placed amidst activities and contradictions of life.

shiva everywhere

Shri Rajam’s works are excellent illustrations of the principles and aspirations of Chitrasutra.

5.6. Colours

devi green

(i). Another distinctive feature of Shri Rajam’s works is the use of soft color schemes, uniquely decorated costumes; and delicate, deft cultural “touches” that lend authenticity to the context, period and the status / nature of the subject. He often lets elements drift partially off the canvas. But above all else, there is a flow of curve in all of his designs that projects a certain distinctive grace of smooth motion even in stillness.

siva devi

(ii). The other is the use of proper colours:  soft and subdued, the lines firm and sinuous and the expressions true to life. The colours, at times contrasting and at times matching are artistically employed to create magical effects. That effect is enhanced by skilful shading of the body-parts; giving them a three dimensional appearance; and providing depth to the picture. These were precisely the principles that Chitrasutra too recommended.

(iii). The Chitrasutra aptly remarks, when a learned and skilled artist paints with golden colour, with articulate and yet very soft lines with distinct and well arranged garments; and graced with beauty, proportion, rhythm and inspiration, then the painting would truly be beautiful.

How very true that is in the case of Shri Rajam..!

5.6. Eyes

dikshitar. 2 jpg

The Chitrasutra tradition regarded the eyes as the windows to the soul. And, it said, it is through their expressive eyes the figures in the painting open up their heart and speak eloquently to the viewer. It therefore accorded enormous importance to the delicate painting of the soulful and expressive eyes that pour out the essence of the subject. The lively sets of lustrous pools of eyes continue to influence generations of Indian artists; those eyes are, in fact, a hall mark of Indian art works.

One finds a vindication of these principles in Shri Rajam’s paintings.

5.7. Gods & Goddesses


(i). A lot of figures depicted by Shri S Rajam are of gods, goddesses, sages and demons; as also of the kings, queens and the composers of the bygone eras. His involvement in their creation was total; he not merely researched into their every available detail but also tried to get into their spirit. “Practically speaking, to paint the Gods and Goddesses, you must imagine them aggressively,” says Rajam “There are rigid rules of grammar regarding proportions. Yet, the artist has to assume the freedom to compose his picture according to his aesthetic sense. There may not be a physical resemblance to the subject; but one should surely try to bring out the essential nature of its character.”

(ii). You will, therefore, find in Shri Rajam’s paintings the virtues and powers of the gods and demons made explicit by employing varieties of forms, symbols and abstract visualizations. That artistic liberty, freedom and felicity of expression is a characteristic of classical Indian art, as also of Shri Rajam’s art.  He quotes the text (Chitrasutra) and says, “Rules do not make the painting; it is the artist with a soul and vision who creates the art expressions”.

(iii). Many of his creations have now turned into objects of worship; and adorn the walls of the temples and puja-rooms. That might be because, Shri Rajam’s art awakens the divine presence within us; and we respond to the sublime images brought to us in his art. When that happens, we are filled by grace and there is no space left for base desires and pain: we have become that deity.

sankara trinity

Shri Rajam’s art has that magical quality, which brings out the essence of life and the grace that permeate the whole of existence.

5.8. Secular art

Even his secular art is rich in expressive realism, reminiscent of the paintings at Ajanta, Bagh and Sittannavasal. They testify to his love of naturalism – in the depiction of the human form and in the depiction of nature.  Yet, his pictures always seem to suggest to something beyond the obvious, stimulating the senses and igniting the imagination of the viewer.

secular 1secular2


6. The technique

SRajam2rajam painter

(i). Shri Rajam says, he first paints the outlines , then colours and goes on to finish  with lines.

His themes often required meticulous research. After research, he created the entire painting with the all details in his mind. He started off the paintings with a pencil outline depicting the central figure. The actual painting is done around this central figure thereby creating the required depth. 

(ii). The medium used by Shri Rajam is watercolor on cured plywood, veneer, handmade paper and silk (not the mulberry silk but the tussar silk, the non- violent silk, at the suggestion of The Paramacharya of Kanchi). It is said that in his earlier days Shri Rajam made the paper himself. As regards silk, he says one has to be very careful while painting on silk, because mistakes and wrong lines cannot be corrected or erased easily.

(iii).He used layers of transparent colors. Each color is applied only to be washed away with water using a brush. Upon drying the next layer is applied and washed away. It is this series of washes and the combination of the colors that eventually gave the desired color scheming that was originally envisioned. After the application of the transparent colors, the opaque colors are applied over it. Finally, his characteristic ink outlines (rekhas) were done using a Fine liner pen.

Each painting of his will have about 25 layers of colour; and will be washed ten to twelve times before it is completed. His technique involves washing the paper by dipping the brush in plain water and dabbing it all over the painting. This he does every time after applying a couple of layers of colour. “Do you know why I do it,” he asks. “It is to remove the excess colours from the painting. Only the subtle brush strokes and effects remain and all that is garish is washed away. Do you know I lose more than 30 per cent of the paints this way? It is a loss. But my painting will survive without problems and its life will be as long as the medium on which I do it”.

(iv) . Shri Rajam calls this process “water-wash”, which according to him is an oriental technique, unique to Indian and Chinese painting. The Chinese method, he says, is also the same but the number of washes is not as many as in the Indian method.  He explains, “A wonderful quality of this oriental wash technique is that the painting can be washed in water and no colours will come off except the final touches of tempura colours “.

(v) . He says, such repeated washing –treatment helps the colour stay on the surface and last longer, because through the process, all the colours are absorbed by the handmade paper on which the pictures are painted.  Luckily, the handmade, rag paper etc. that he uses can withstand his water-wash treatment. Not only that, strangely the paintings do not smudge and they emerge all the more beautiful after being subjected to water- wash.

(vi). He uses transparent watercolor while building the layers, and applies opaque colours in the final stages of highlighting and finishing. As colours are applied from light to dark, it enables the undertones of previous colours to be visible. This gives, according to him, a misty and toned effect suitable to portray the imaginative subjects.

(vii). The process is laborious and takes nearly ten washes and about a week to ten days to finish a painting. But, he says, it worth doing it because the method ensures that colours last longer and stay bright. And, even in case the painting gets wet, the colours remain unaffected.

Clearly, this technique requires immense patience and (depending on the size) each painting can take from a few weeks to a few months for completion. It was Rajam’s disciplined approach and incredible ability to multitask that allowed him to simultaneously work on several paintings. It was his capacity to quickly mentally switch from one theme to the other, as the paintings were drying, was the main reason for the volume of work he could produce.

(viii). Shri Rajam recommends that the watercolors be preserved behind glass and ensured that no fungus develops between the painting and the glass.

7. Phenomenal output

shiva devi dance

(i). Considering the volume of study, research and work involved; and the time taken to complete a painting, the prodigious output of Shri Rajam is totally amazing. For this scholarly-painter phenomenon who has entered his nineties, his work is his worship. His zest for work is enormous; and says he is “just beginning”. Even at his age, he is as inspired and enthusiastic about his work as he was in 1940 when he took to painting seriously; and he is no less prolific. Shri Rajam now in his nineties paints for about three to four hours every day.  Art and music are his passions and they keep him young.

(ii). His art work has adorned several books .The paintings produced by him over the years, I reckon, run into a few thousands. I am not sure whether either Shri Rajam or anyone else has kept a count of his artistic output.  Some of his works have also been compiled as books. Notable ones are the Chitra Periya Purana – depicting the legends of the 63 Nayanmars and the Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam – depicting the 64 divine plays of Shiva. Another book titled “Dancing with Shiva” published by the Himalayan Academy, Hawaii , USA has over 300 hundred works of Rajam reproduced with exemplary production value .

Pl see: –
Pocket Booklet of 72 Melakarta Ragas
‘A Confluence of Art and Music’ –

(Please see

It is said , the Himalayan Academy Publications has scanned 923 of Shri Rajam’s creations. Please click here for the web-page:

Apart from that, as I understand, there have not been serious attempts to put together a sizable number of his paintings. There have not been many formal exhibition of Sri. S. Rajam’s works either, except perhaps the one held in Los Alamos, NM, USA in 1981.

(iii). The arrays of subjects chosen by him are vast and diverse. They range from the gods, goddesses, demons, Vedic sages, characters from puranas, literature, history, planetary deities, music composers, Nayanmars , Thirthankaras  and Acharyas of various periods and inclinations  ; festivals , fine arts folk arts and so on and on.

(iv). His works are distributed over book- covers, countless magazines published in various languages, book illustrations, compilations, chronicles, life histories etc. Yet, he feels he has not done quite enough and could have done more; “There is so much more I can do” he rues even at ninety.

(v). Anyone,  even vaguely familiar with his paintings cannot help but wonder how a person, amidst his various interests , pursuits and preoccupations in life, could achieve so much in various other fields of his activities  and yet  produce countless  sublime and soulful precious works of  art .. And, all that in one life time…!

(vi). That was the genius called Acharya Shri S Rajam, the very incarnation of the Vedic seers he admired and adored.



Resources & References


S Rajam

An afternoon with S Rajam

Aesthetic and faithful depiction of character

Visual poetry

Ajanta Cave Paintings

All the pictures of Shri Rajam are from internet


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Legacy of Chitrasutra – Fourteen – Shri S Rajam

[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 

This is the concluding part of a series that attempted to trace the influence of Chitrasutra, the ancient text and its recommended practices, from the days of the Ajanta to the present period.

In this article we move on to the 20th and 21st century   and admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times.

The present article briefly outlines Shri S Rajam’s achievements in the field of music and in the music related arts.

In the next part we shall look at Chitrasutra and Shri Rajam as an artist who brought to life the traditional art of India.]

Continued from  The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Thirteen – The Murals of Kerala (Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces)

1. Shri S Rajam

1.1 Sangita Kalacharya Vidvan Shri S Rajam is a many splendored jewel of Indian art and music. He is the musicians’ musician; held in very high esteem by the connoisseurs of Carnatic music; he is the creator of sublime art in the pristine and ancient tradition of Chitrasutra; he is an excellent photographer who produced outstanding photographs of temple architecture and sculptures; and, in his youth a hero of early South Indian films who composed songs and sung them too.

The most amazing aspect of his involvement in several branches of arts is that he excelled in each of them; created a unique niche of his own; and , yet remained unaffected by his success.

And, above all , he is a remarkable human being with a flame-like imagination ; and, a teacher with an understanding heart. He is often, aptly, described as a simple man of singular achievements in a plurality of fields. It is hard to cite anyone, in the contemporary world, as comparable to Shri S Rajam. He is a rare gem; and, like any precious gem he is away from public gaze.

1.2. Even as he is mellowing sweetly into his nineties, he retains  the sense of wonder and awe at the marvels of life. He continues  to work with zeal, regularly, at his art; and says with a child-like delight : he is discovering and learning a few new things each day. As regarded music, his other passion in life, he is active as a teacher and as a guide; and  participates in academia and in the discussions at various  Sabhas .

[ Sad to say that about two years after this article was posted, Shri Rajam passed away at the age  of 91 , on 29 Jan 2010 . Please click  here  .

But, prior to that , in January 2009 , Shri Rajam had seen this article; had it read it to him; and, had conveyed his appreciation through his disciple Smt. Vijayalakshmy Subramaniam (please see the comments section) . He had also made certain suggestions/corrections. I gratefully acknowledge  that as his approval and blessings.]

1.3. I have special regard, appreciation and reverence towards Shri S Rajam; because I view him as one of the few gifted artists of the twentieth century who breathed fresh life into the ancient tradition of Chitrasutra – not by talking or writing about the ancient art but by diligently practicing it with devotion and sincerity , over a long period of more than sixty years.

My admiration of him is heightened because he is perhaps the sole true representative and votary of the Chitrasutra in the modern era. To use a favorite phrase of Sri Shankara-bhagavatpada , Shri S Rajam is a Sampradaya-vit, the one who understands Sampradaya  the good tradition.

Shri S Rajam pointed out, “In tradition, only good things should remain; the bad should be ignored and not continued. This is tradition”. And he also said, “Be modern in outlook; there is no problem with that. But, learn to appreciate the beauty and elegance of your culture. Safeguard it; develop it; and, carry it forward for the benefit of the next generation “.

The present article aims, mainly, to talk about that aspect of Shri Rajam’s artistic genius.

But, before we resume discussion on Shri Rajam as an artist, let’s take a quick glance at a few of his life-events  and his  achievements.

2. Early years

S Rajam as babyA Rajam as adolecent01rajamS Rajam as young man

2.1. S Rajam was born at Madurai on 10.02.1919 to Smt. Parvathiamma (also called Chellammal) and Sri V Sundaram Ayyar, a leading advocate of Madras. Sundaram Ayyar was a scholar, a person of culture and a lover of Carnatic music. He, as a connoisseur and patron of music, wrote music-reviews for ‘The Hindu‘; and , his views were respected by artistes such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and others. S Rajam later in his life recalled, “In case my father felt that a particular sangati was out of place, Iyengar would drop it”.


It is said; at the suggestion of Sri Pudukkottai Dakshinamoorthi   Pillai (1875 – 1925), a noted mridangam and khanjira vidwan of those times, Sundaram Ayyar constructed a spacious hall on the first floor of his house at Mylapore , in order to hold the concerts of the musicians he admired, such as Ariyakudi Ramanujam Iyengar, Madurai Mani, Ambi Deekshithar, Muthiah Bagavathar and Karaikudi Sambasivam. Sundaram Ayyar, it is said, supported and sponsored a young and talented musician Ramaiya who had come to Madras in search of a career in music. Ramaiya later flowered and flourished as a noted singer and a composer of great merit; and gained fame as Papanasanam Sivan (1890 – 1973).

Rajam house Rajam house 2

2.2. Musicians, writers and scholars frequented Ayyar’s household which was a sort of cultural hub in Mylapore of those days. The atmosphere at home was conducive for nurturing love for art and culture in the young hearts of the children at home. Rajam’s younger brother, by about eight years, S Balachender (1927-1990) grew into a larger- than – life personality; a remarkable veena player, with a unique style of his own; a forceful writer; an accomplished actor and an eminent director. Rajam’s two sisters: Jayalakshmi and Saraswathi too were very good singers. Shri Rajam had another younger bother S Gopalaswamy and another younger sister S Kalpakam Balakrishnan who was an accomplished veena player. These two were twins and were the youngest in the family,

2.3. Rajam had his music training at a very young age. Sundaram Ayyar had engaged Ramaiya (Papanasanam Sivan) to train Rajam and his sister Jayalakshmi. Rajam was thus  among the earliest disciples of Papanasanam Sivan. The talented disciple performed  as early as in his 13th year.

Rajam who was then in P.S. High School was an avid movie fan; he hardly missed a silent movie that ran in the tent cinema behind his school. Little did he realize then he himself would very soon be a movie star. The year 1934 proved to be a very important year for Rajam , a handsome lad of fifteen years; as also for his teacher Papanasam Sivan who in his mid-age (say about 44) was in search of a stable career in music. The year saw them launched into successful careers in films and music.

The noted film critique historian Madabhushi Rangadorai who gained fame under his pen-name Randor Guy has described the circumstances that led Papanasam Sivan as also Rajam and family into the world of films. Rajam’s first film was Seetha Kalyanam (1934), a Prabhat Talkies production directed by the well known Marathi and Hindi filmmaker of his day, Baburao Phendharkar

The strikingly handsome fifteen year lad Rajam  of  sharp features and slim figure played the leading role of Sri Rama, while his sister Jayalakshmi played the leading- lady Seetha. (That raised quite a few eyebrows).

The film, in a way, was a family venture, as Rajam’s father Sundaram Ayyar played Janaka, while  Rajam’ s other sister  Saraswathi played Urmila and Rajam’s kid-brother Balachender played a child musician in the court of Demon King Ravana. The music was provided by Rajam’s teacher Papanasam Sivan.

[For more on the Seethakalyanam Film, please check the following link and the references listed on the page. ]

seetha kalyana

The film Seetha Kalyanam and its music was a huge success. It launched Rajam and his teacher Papanasam Sivan on their way to stardom. Some songs set to music by Papanasam Sivan ; and, sung by Rajam became hits. To mention a couple of those: ‘Nal vidai thaarum…’ (Raga Kalyani – based on Saint Thyagaraja’s ‘Amma Raavamaa…’); and, ‘Kaaranam ethu swami….’ (Raga Kaanada – based on Saint Purandaradasa’s composition ‘Sevaka kana ruchirey…).

Following that success, Rajam’s second film was Radha Kalyanam (1935), produced by Meenakshi Movies and directed by C. K. Sathasivan (better known as Saachi). Rajam played the lead role of Krishna while Radha was played by the beautiful looking star of those days M.R. Santhanalakshmi who perhaps was elder to the hero Rajam. The music to the film was provided by the noted singer-composer Sri Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar.

Rajam’s third film as hero was Rukmini Kalyanam (1936); and, Rajam played Krishna again. The film was directed by the famous Marathi filmmaker, actor and Baburao Phendharkar’s brother Balji Phendharkar.

Of the three films in which Rajam played the leading role, it appears, the first film Seetha Kalyanam, was true success; the other two were not so successful. But, by then the handsome brothers S. Rajam (18) and Balachander (10) had gained fame as ‘Prabhat Prodigy Stars‘ and ‘South Indian Prodigies‘. They toured several cities in India and in Sri Lanka, performing duet-concerts. It is said, like the legendary Lav and Kush, the two handsome and talented young lads were the darlings of art-lovers and the cynosure of all eyes.

Rajam 1Rajam 2Rajam 3

2.4. Shri Rajam played leading roles in three Tamil films Seetha-kalyanam, Radha-kalyanam and Rukmini-kalyanam; and also sang. By then Rajam was married and  his wife was not in favour of his acting in movies. Shri Rajam later humorously remarked, all his three films were Kalyanams ; and , after his own Kalyanam there could not be any more Kalyanams.

Shri Rajam’s association with the world of films was relatively brief ; but, it was highly successful.

In the years thereafter, Shri Rajam   visited many temples in India and Sri Lanka; and, stayed for a while in the 7th century temple of Sri Kailasanathar at Kanchipuram.

S. Jayalakshmi

Shri Rajam did however , later in 1942,  played a supporting triple role of Lord Muruga; the boy-Murga; and, the hunter-Muruga in a hit movie Sivakavi in which the doyen of Tamil films Tyagaraja Bhagavathar the singer- actor played the lead role. Rajam’s sister Jayalakshmi played the leading lady in the film; while Rajam’s father Sundaram Ayyar played guru, the teacher of young Sivakavi.


Later in 1948, Shri Rajam composed music and also sang the song ‘Kaathal puyalthaniley thurumbupol…’ in V. Shantaram’s ‘Nam Nadu’ the Tamil remake of his Hindi film ‘Apna Desh’.

Shri S Rajam thus was a pioneer in the development of the Tamil films. Shri Rajam blessed with an agile mind and good health is today the senior-most living hero, the leading-man, of the Tamil film world. His contribution to Tamil films is recognized by one and all  with pleasure and gratitude.

Please click here for a video on Sri Rajam’s life and achievements

3. Music


3.1. Shri S Rajam is a well recognized, much admired and an honored performing musician. In his home state, Tamil Nadu, he enjoys more fame in the world of music than in art. In one of the interviews to a music journal, Shri Rajam quietly remarked towards the end of the interview “Not many may know that I am a painter; and, I do original classical paintings. I divide my time between painting and music.” Such is the child-like candor and humility of the grand-old man of Indian arts and music…!

3.2. Shri S  Rajam served for about 35 years as music supervisor and a Grade A artiste at the All India Radio (AIR), where he popularized Carnatic Music and also Thirukkural singing . He performed full duration kutcheris based on Tirukkural couplets.  During his tenure, he recorded rare compositions of the Vaggeyakars, produced many operas and musical plays.  He later mentioned that his most cherished program with AIR was the presentation of Silappadikaram as an opera with a huge orchestra. “Our culture is a very ancient one; and, we have the responsibility of passing it on to the next generation in its truest form. I shall strive to do my best in this regard; and , I may even write a book”.

Between 1970 and 1982, while serving AIR, he led a team of artists on a music tour to Africa , presenting a percussion ensemble; and, also toured USA performing 32 musical concerts in various cities. He also performed in Burma, Sri Lanka and Canada.

His lecture demonstration on rare Ragas and kritis, vivadi Ragas, as also on the compositions of Koteeswara Iyer are admired by the connoisseurs. His special interest in vivadi ragas, as also Lakshana and Lakshya aspects of Carnatic music is well known.

[Please check the following for Shri S Rajam’s rendering of Dikshitar’s Navagraha kritis

Rajam S – Music India Online :   Album: Navagraha Krithis ]

Sri S Rajam was best known for very aesthetic renditions of ‘vivaadi ragas’, which need a balanced and delicate handling.  Please listen to his rendering  Sri Muttuswami Dikshitar‘s  composition ‘kalavati kamalasana yuvati’ in Raga kalavati, (One of the vivadi ragas). Please click on :

rajam u tube

3.3. Shri Rajam continued to serve , till his last days ,  on the expert committee of the Music Academy at Chennai.  His simplicity and willingness to help anyone who approaches  him on subjects related to art and music has endeared him to all ; and , to the young, in particular.

rajam old

3.4. Over the years, many honors have been showered on Shri Rajam. Just to name a few of those: He was awarded the title “Isai Kadal” (ocean of music) by the Tamil Sangham, Karikudi in 1988. He was accorded the Sangeetha Nataka Academy award in 1992; and , the Kala Acharya in 1996. The only significant honor he received from the Madras Music Academy (to which he contributed so much) has been the title of Sangeetha Acharya. Probably the best way to describe him is: Acharya.

It is interesting that as early as 1947 when Shri Rajam was still a young man of about 28 years, the late K.V. Ramachandran (well known Art critic), wrote him: “You know I am not given to praising anyone, still less over praising. If it were in my gift to give a title, and if any one deserves it in India today, you deserve the name of Acharya — the master in painting. I don’t flatter. “Shri Ramachandran (1898-1956) , it is said , was in his day  regarded   the foremost music and art critic in the country. He was not easily pleased; and a ‘good-word’ from him was considered a high reward even by merited artists. His high praise of Rajam signified the eminence that Shri Rajam enjoyed even as a young person.

I understand that at the 76th South Indian music conference and festival of Indian Fine Arts Society to be held in Chennai during Dec 18, 2008 to Jan 4th, 2009, Shri S Rajam would be honored with the title, ‘Sangeetha Kalasikhamani‘. No honor is too high for Vidvan Shri S Rajam.

rajam honour

3.5. While reminiscenceing his musical training, Sri Rajam fondly recalls how his father Sundaram Ayyar took him, while still a lad of ten, to the well known musician Sri Ambi Dikshitar  (son of the renowned Sri Subbarama Dikshitar) for music lessons. Talking about his Guru, Shri Rajam mentions that Sri Ambi Dikshitar had a deep voice of low sruthi that could easily touch the panchama in the lower octave; and Ambi Dikshitar’s voice was well suited for rendering, with clarity, the grand and slow paced compositions of Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar. Rajam was amused that his teacher , a descendant of the Mutthuswami Dikshitar lineage , should commence his lessons with a composition of Sri Thyagaraja (enta nercina in shuddha dhanyaasi). It was a rare privilege, he remarked, and a great fortune. Later, of course, Sri Ambi Dikshitar taught Rajam many compositions of Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar, most notable being the Navagraha kritis.

3.6. He had the privilege of being trained in music by a galaxy of stalwarts. He recalls with gratitude and pleasure, “I have undergone training from many Gurus. I learnt Dikshitar kritis from Sri Ambi Dikshitar. It is from Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar that I attained Pathantara suddham and perfection in singing fast tempo. I learnt depiction of vakra, varjya ragas; and swaraprastara from Madurai Mani Iyer. Papanasam Sivan, though a composer himself , taught me lots of Tyagaraja Kritis… Madurai Mani Iyer taught me Nagumomu with chatusruti dhaivata; while Papanasam Sivan taught me in suddhadhaivatam, the correct way…. Although I have learnt from many gurus, I crave to express what we have not heard from other musicians.”

musicians.1 jpgmusicians.2 jpgmusicians.3 jpg

One of the musicians he admired most in his youth was Smt. Veena Dhanammal (1867-1938),  renowned for adherence to traditional values and profundity of music expression. He heard her in the latter years of her life. He spoke of her  from his heart “It was Dhanammal’s music that haunted me in my early years.  Dhanammal was Sarasvathi incarnate – she sang and played the veena alternately. I was fortunate to attend her Friday soirees , some 40 times. I would sit very close to her; and when she sang Akshayalinga vibho, she shed tears while doing niraval on the line ‘padarivana’. Shouldn’t we have the same intensity of feeling while performing? How can you be a real singer if you are not a rasika yourself?”

3.7.kotesvaraiyer S Rajam’s favourite composer is Koteeswara Iyer (January 1870 – October 21, 1936) popularly known as Kavi Kunjara Dasan. “I am deeply interested in Koteeswara Iyer’s compositions” S Rajam said, ” I do not compare any other composer with him, I find great pleasure in singing his compositions”. Koteeswara Iyer was the first composer, after Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar, who composed krithis in all 72 Melakartha-ragas. His monumental work, “kanda ganamudam” has songs, in praise of Lord Muruga, composed in all the 72 Melas. The songs are in chaste Tamil .

[Please listen to Sri Rajam speaking about Sri Koteeswara Iyer]

3.8. Shri S. Rajam has the distinction of being the only musician to have sung all those 72 compositions; each kriti being accompanied by raga-alapana, neraval and kalpana-svaras. He said,” It is vital to understand the meaning and bhava of a composition to make an emotional presentation or render the song with insight “. His rendering of Koteeswara Iyer’s songs is recorded in a set of ten tapes / nine CDs.  Sri  S. Rajam has also published a book giving notations for all the 72 songs.

3.9.The noted scholar, Prof .N. Ramanathan , in the March 2019 issue of Sruti , writes about the Music of Sri S Rajam:

The music and personality of S. Rajam made a great impression. It is not possible to separate music and his nature.

He was blessed with an enviable voice while very few male singers from Tamil Nadu have a melodious voice. From the panchama in the mandra sthayi to the tara panchama, he had a voice of uniform evenness and steadiness. He did not croon, nor did he use a false (head?) voice. His voice production was clean.

It is common for musicians to set some musical preferences for themselves. The thrust among Carnatic musicians is usually on the madhyama kala or medium tempo. Gamakas like kampita, jaru and vali characterise the melodic line in abundance, but in their performances, we do observe a fundamental incompatibility between the kala-pramanam and the Gamakas.

In other words, when there is an acceleration from the madhyama kala to the druta kala, the Gamakas are intensified instead of being sobered up, resulting in a kind of melodic jarring and confusion.

Rajam gave preference to madhyama kala but maintained a certain restraint in the extent and tempo of Gamakas and kept the melodic expression from getting out of control. As a result, his music might have given the impression of lacking a ‘Carnatic melodic depth’, but the richness of the voice was not sacrificed and the beauty of melodic expression was well maintained.

Dwaram Venkata Swamy Naidu too, as we observe in his recordings, in order to avoid any compromise with the tonal quality of the violin, curtailed the intensity of some Gamakas and also simulated them through ‘viraladi’, the dexterous movement of different fingers, instead of quick up-and-down sliding movements on the string. These could be referred to as aesthetic preferences of artists.

By nature, Rajam was fond of extended plain Svaras devoid of heavy oscillatory tonal movements. Hence, we can understand his liking for and embracing of Mela-Karta-ragas, especially the vivadi ones, and consequently his preference for the kritis of KotiswaraIyer.

As a result, in Cutcherries—both on stage and in All India Radio, the voice came out clear and majestic. He did not exploit or abuse his gifted voice. He was like G.N. Balasubramaniam in his capability of rendering druta kala phrases and briga phrases with ease, but he never indulged in them. In fact, he did not adapt music to project his voice and instead gave primacy to melodic beauty. It is no wonder that even in the later years, his voice did not lose its mettle and remained fresh, despite his continued smoking habit.

Even in the All-India Radio cutcherry performed in his 87th year, the music and voice appeared bright and did not display any signs of ageing. Except on one or two occasions, that too only in the last two years of his life, I have never heard him being troubled by voice or straying off shruti. Today however, we come across many singers with a penchant for harmonium-type brigas, abusing their voices and tragically losing them at a very early age.

At the same time, Rajam did not allow his voice to dominate his music. This is where we see his nature being reflected. He never made any effort to impress the audience through his performances, never played to the gallery. Hence a large number of his performances were those broadcast by All India Radio and not at sabhas. The radio medium was best suited to his nature.

Rajam’s main professional career was as an employee in the Music section of All India Radio, Chennai. He was the architect behind the production of many features like devotional songs, musical dramas and contribution of specific vaggeyakaras. Mi. Pa. Somasundaram and T. Sankaran were his colleagues and they often teamed up in preparing, producing and executing valuable musical features. All three prided themselves on having worked under the legendary G.T. Sastry, Station Director of All India Radio, Trichy, and later Chennai.


3.10 Listen to Shri S. Rajam singing the popular kriti, Sri Valli:

…and to Shri S. Rajam speak about Papanasanam Sivan and Natabhairavi:

4. Music & painting

Rajam painting

4.1. Shri S Rajam is the golden link (svarna setu) between music and art. He provided a visual identity and a tangible idiom of expression to Indian classical music through his paintings. For instance; just to mention a few, his series of paintings Origin & Classification of Svaras (inspired by Sangeetha Kalpadrumam of Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavatar), illustrating the origins and characteristics of each of the seven notes of Indian music, explaining their nature and their relation to the Hindustani and Western music systems, is a remarkable work of great learning and sublime art. I have not come across a like of it anywhere else.

Similarly, his series of twelve paintings illustrating Venkatamakhi’s Melakartha scheme by classifying the 72 Mela ragas into 12 Chakras or segments; associating each Chakra with a month of the year (from April- March) ; and, illustrating them through soulful and imaginative paintings is a marvelous example of the delightful amalgam of innovation , scholarship and superb artistry. It is a unique piece of visual poetry and music. This series was also meant as a tribute to Venkatamakhi the great musician-musicologist (1635-1690).


And, his series of paintings illustrating the kritis and particularly the  Navagraha kritis of Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar are, of course, legendary; and have passed into the folklore of music, astrology, and tantra traditions; and also have become idioms in  classical school of painting.

rajam ramaSRajam

4.2. In each case, he poured into puranas, epics and ancient texts searching for details and for the right idioms of expression. His involvement was complete; and , he was totally absorbed into his work. While recalling his experience while painting the Navagraha series, he mentions, “Inexplicable incidents occurred, a reminder that Dikshitar’s compositions are invested with awesome power. While painting Surya, gusts of wind would snatch the paper away from my hands.  while embarking on Rahu, I found a snake skin hanging from a creeper;  and, even a live snake coiled beneath the finished painting.”

purandaradasa kshetrayya

4.3. His portraitures of the composers in the classical traditions of Indian music are benchmarks; and now, after his advent, one can scarcely visualize the hoary composers but through the eyes of Shri S Rajam. His portrait of the trinity of Carnatic music (Saint Thyagaraja, Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar and Sri Shyama Shastri) which he painted when he was barely twenty years of age is a true classic; it is a universally acclaimed archetype and one that is even worshipped.


4.4. Hallmarks of his portraits are their authenticity. He studied and researched into his subjects thoroughly, grasped the essence of their character and achievements. His portraits therefore bring out not mere the physical resemblance of the subjects but more importantly the essence of their very inner being.

4.5. There are some interesting stories associated with his portraitures of the Music Trinity. In the case of Saint Thyagaraja, the old drawings available at that time (before 1940) showed a weak, melancholic person with his chest bones protruding and having a rather sickly countenance. Shri S Rajam felt offended by the old portraits; and was hurt the saint was shown in a poor light causing injustice to his genius. Shri S Rajam strongly felt that the portrait should aptly project the character and greatness of the person, his achievements, his genius and his mellow glowing sattvic nature;   and not just his physical resemblance.


Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar was an Upasaka of Sri Chakra and the Devi; he was an advaitin in his outlook. There was always a certain serene detachment about him; and in his eyes. In Shri S Rajam’s portraits, Sri Dikshitar comes across as a calm, composed, handsome young person of lime-color (golden hue) complexion. He always wears a green  (or a blue) shawl over his left shoulder, and sports rudraksha -mala around his neck. His veena is upturned; with the face of the yali looking up.


His portrait of Sri Shyama Shastri which eventually turned into an Indian postal stamp has an interesting story around it. Sri Shyama Shastri too was a Devi Upasaka, but charged with intense devotion and a poignant longing for the Mother. He was a deeply religious person who adhered to the prescriptions of the scriptures. He always had a dash of vermilion (Devi –prasada) right between his eye brows and stripes of Vibhuthi across his forehead; he sported a tuft (Kudumi) and appeared with stubble on his chin, because he shaved only once in a fortnight just as an orthodox Brahmin would do. Sri Shyama Shastri – was a dark, handsome, serious looking person, rather absorbed in himself ; and , had a slight rotund around his waist. He was always dressed in a gold-laced (zari) dhoti and a red upper garment (uttariya). He was fond of chewing betel leaf (paan); his lips are depicted dark red (He is occasionally shown with a paan petti, a small box to hold leaves and nuts). Sri Shyama Shastri’s tambura had a yali-mukham, not usually found in other tambura depictions.


Another interesting  incident came up  when Shri Rajam had to paint the picture of Venkatamakhin [1635-1690, the great musicologist who devised the Melakartha  system of  classifying ragas in the Carnatic music] as an introductory painting for the Apr 2008 – March 2009 calendar brought out by L&T, he had no earlier pictures of Venkatamakhin to guide him. His research into the archives of Kanci mutt led him to an interesting detail showing that Venkatamakhin who was also a skillful vainika wore his long hair in a coil such that it did not touch his body; he coiled it atop his head. Shri S Rajam then pictured Venkatamakhin with coiled locks of hair, rudraksha-mala; and surrounded by musical instruments such as veena, tambura etc. as also scrolls of ancient manuscripts, lending the picture an air scholarship and a spiritual aura.


4.6. It is said, nowhere is the bond between the arts stronger than that binding painting and music (Svarna Sethu) . As sister arts, music and painting share a common vocabulary. Both arts are often referred to as compositions; both talk in terms of tones and shades; and, there is a certain rhythm and fluency in both. In the present Indian context, nowhere do both the arts find their fulfillment, in creative as well as traditional sense, in one person than in Vidvan Shri S Rajam.




Continued in part Fifteen

—Chitrasutra and Shri S Rajam

Resources & References

S Rajam

An afternoon with S Rajam

Aesthetic and faithful depiction of character

Visual poetry

Ajanta Cave Paintings

S. Rajam – a rare gem

All pictures are from Internet


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Thirteen – The Murals of Kerala (Mattancherry and Padmanabhapuram Palaces)

[This Twelfth article in the series; and , it  follows the one on the murals of Kerala which talked, in general,  about some of the main features of the traditional mural art of Kerala, which has a unique style of drawing and depiction; and colour schemes.

The present article looks at the murals at Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces, as particular instances of traditional Kerala mural art..

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 ..

In the next article we shall move on to the 20th and 21st century   and admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra- Eleven- The Murals of Kerala

A. Mattancherry Palace

49.1. Mattancherry , in Cochin, had been the former capital of the erstwhile rulers of Kochi. It was a bustling sea port to where the Portuguese and the Dutch traders were drawn by the lure of the legendary spices of the East, especially the black pepper. They established business houses and built large warehouses, at Kochi.

49.2. It is said; the Portuguese traders, in order to seek favours, beguile or appease the then king of Kochi, Veera Kerala Varma Thampuran (1537-61), built for his use (in 1552/1555) a palace at Mattanchery and also gifted him a golden crown. The Dutch, who later arrived on the scene by 1663, promptly displaced the Portuguese and took over the spice trade. The Dutch,   for reasons similar to the ones that prompted the Portuguese, refurbished the king’s palace at Mattanchery. Since then, the Mattanchery palace has come to be known as the Dutch Palace. It had been the residence of the Kochi royal family for about two centuries.

49.2. There is a certain medieval charm and simplicity about the Mattancherry Palace .The palace is a blend of Portuguese architecture and Kerala style of construction,; a ‘Nettukettu’ (four buildings) with a shrine of Pazhayannur Bhagavathy, deity of the royal family, in the central courtyard. Its   interiors are made beautiful with rich wood work and exquisite flooring that looks like polished black granite; but it is actually made of a mixture of charcoal, burnt coconut shells, lime, plant juices and egg whites. The palace has within it two other temples, dedicated to Krishna and Shiva.

The Mattancherry Palace is  included in the ‘Tentative list of nominations‘  in India , under the World Heritage List of the UNESCO.

50. The Murals

50.1. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the walls in some rooms of the palace were painted with scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata and other epic poems. Most of the murals are adorned with decorative textile design borders filled with figures of the flowers, creepers, birds, animals etc.

The paintings are massive and are spread over a total area of almost 1000 sq. ft.

50.2. The palace is a treasury of the 16th-17th century Kerala art. It is an artist’s delight. It is said; the late Amrita Sher Gill, the well known painter who visited the palace in 1937 was fascinated by these ‘perfectly marvellous old paintings’. In a letter to her sister, she said she was surprised by the technique and the amazing knowledge of form and the power of observation of the painters. According to her, the Mattanchery paintings were more powerful than the Ajanta frescoes; but the latter were superior from the painting and artistic aspects.

50.3. The earliest paintings of the 16th century are on the theme of Venugopala (Krishna as the divine flute player). These panels were, in later years, interspersed with paintings depicting episodes from the epic-poem the Ramayana. Some say that the Mattanchery palace Ramayana murals are the visual interpretations of the Adhyatma Ramayana of Ezhuthachan, the great Malayalam poet of the 15th century.


50.4. The Ramayana murals

The Ramayana murals of Mattanchery palace depict the story of Rama, commencing from Dasharatha offering a yajna praying to gods to grant him sons; and it concludes with Rama returning, triumphantly , to Ayodhya , along with his beloved Sita and brother Lakshmana. The Rama-story is rendered in about 48 paintings covering nearly 300 sq ft (28 m2) of wall surface. Rama’s nobility, unsullied character and composure even while placed in adverse situations, comes through serenely.

The narration of the episodes flow smoothly, each panel theme lucidly leading to the next. The themes are separated from one another by decorative borders, unique to the Kerala mural tradition. Besides giving a subtle form of relief to the pictures, they seem to convey a sense of motion.

50.5. Besides the Ramayana paintings there are portrayals of Krishna holding aloft Govardhana hill, another of a flute-playing Krishna (Venugopala) in jewel-like green.

There is also a mural of Krishna in reclining posture, surrounded by gopis,. His languid pose belies the activity of his six hands and two feet, caressing his adoring admirers. Apparently, these panels were later additions.

50.6. The themes from the epic poem Kumara-sambhavam of the poet Kalidasa depict Shiva and Uma in their snow abode atop the Mount Kailas.

A painting on the walls of the Raja’s bedroom depicts Shiva and his consort Parvathi in embrace. They are surrounded by their son Ganapathi and other admirers. Interestingly, a guard wearing a Portuguese helmet and wielding a halberd, slaves and sages stand nearby. These paintings belong to a much later period than the Ramayana scenes; some of them to the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries.

50.7. Among the depiction of Vishnu, his portrayal as Vaikuntanatha and Ananthasayanamurti are well known.

The seated Vishnu (Vaikuntanatha) under the canopy of five-hooded Anantha-naga is a rare depiction of Vishnu. It is said to be a replica of the deity at the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple at Tripunithura, the family deity of the erstwhile Kochi dynasty. The Vishnu image at Tripunithura was, in turn, perhaps inspired by the Vishnu sculpture at the 6th century rock – cut temple of Badami.


There is also a composition of Lakshmi seated on a lotus. These are among the latest works in the palace.

50.8. According to the website of the Corporation of Cochin, many of these murals were painted in the traditional style by one Shri Govindan Embranthiri of Narayana- mangalam. No details are given.

51. True to the Kerala tradition

51.1. The beautiful and extensive murals of Mattanchery palace are fine examples of traditional Kerala mural art. Some of them are hailed for their style of depiction.

51.2. The murals are packed with details in gloriously rich colours; the style is never strictly true-to-life; the treatment of facial features is trimmed down to the simplest of lines for the mouths, and aquiline noses.

51.3. True to the Kerala tradition, the murals at Mattanchery are characterized by   the warmth and grandeur of rich colours, elaborate ornamentation, sumptuousness of the outline, depiction of volume through subtle shading, a crowding of space by divine or heroic figures;   a strong sense of design and well defined picturization.


B. Padmanabhapuram Palace

54. The palace

54.1. Padmanabhapuram palace, the exquisite wooden palace was constructed in the early years of the seventeenth century (say, around 1602) during the reign of by Iravipillai Iravivarma Kulasekhara Perumal who ruled Travancore State between 1592 and 1609 A.D. It is said to have been built upon an earlier mud palace in the Nalukettu style of architecture, constructed during the 14th Century.

The Padmanabhapuram palace is a splendid illustration of the traditional Kerala architectural style. it is unlike any other palace in India. Replete with intricate wood carvings and ornate murals, the Palace is an exceptional example of indigenous building techniques and craftsmanship in wood; a style unparalleled in the world and based on historic building system, Taccusastra (the science of carpentry) unique to this region.

The 6.5 acres of the Padmanabhapuram Palace complex is set within a fort of 185 acres located strategically at the foot hills of Veli hills, Western Ghats. The palace complex, which includes fourteen function specific independent buildings surrounded by a 4 km-long stone fort, is located virtually at the land’s-end. The fourteen denoted structures include Kottarams (Palaces); Pura (House or structure); Malikas (Mansions); Vilasams (Mansions) and Mandapams (large Halls).

The Palace structure is constructed out of wood with laterite (locally available building stone) used very minimally for plinths and for a few select walls. The roof structure is constructed out of timber, covered with clay tiles.

54.2. The Palace served as the secure official residence to the Travancore Kings for about two hundred years from 1550 to 1750.

 It is said, the reign of the King Marthanda Varma (1729-1758), was a glorious period in the history of Padmanabhapuram palace. He provided a serene and secure ambiance to the palace; and gave it its present name – Padmanabhapuram palace (c.1744) in honour of the State’s patron deity. Its earlier name was Kalkulam.

The Padmanabhapuram palace was the centre of political power during the years 1600 to 1790, that is till the time the state capital was shifted to Thiruvananthapuram (also known as Trivandrum).

[ There is an interesting sidelight concerning Martanda Varma and the Dutch.

On February 4, 1741, the Dutch forces launched an assault hoping to unseat Marthanda Varma. In response, Marthanda Varma’s army surrounded the attackers; and, laid a siege , cutting down their supply lines. The siege ended on August 5, 1741, with an unconditional surrender  of all the Dutch forces.

Dutch surrender to Martanda verma Aug 5 1741

The Dutch East India Company commander and his lieutenant were captured; and, were later employed to train; to modernize the Army of Travancore ; and, to  build forts. The Dutch signed the treaty of Mavellikara, formalizing their defeat.

The Dutch trained Travancore Army was later absorbed into the Indian Army ; and, formed the 9th Battalion of the Madras Regiment. The battalion still celebrates July 31 every year as Colachel Day . ]

In 1993, a Museum building was set up in the Southwest corner of this Palace complex, and houses numerous invaluable stone inscriptions and copper plate inscriptions, sculptures in wood and stone, armoury, coins, paintings, and household objects pertaining to the history and heritage of the region.

Padmanabhapuram Palace is the oldest, largest and well preserved surviving example representative of the traditional wooden architecture in India. It is an testimony to the traditional architectural knowledge and skill of Kerala. It is , therefore, included in the ‘Tentative list of nominations‘  in India , under the World Heritage List of the UNESCO.

55. The Murals

55.1.One of the structures in the Palace is an outstanding example of the Mural art form. 

The splendid antique interiors are adorned with intricate rosewood carvings and sculptured décor; and the elegance of the palace is enhanced by some beautiful 17th and18th century murals


55.2. The murals at Padmanabhapuram are exceptional. Besides the depiction of scenes and characters from Hindu mythologies, there are murals also on secular themes which reflect the socio political conditions, fashions and customs of the times.

The UppirikaMalika or the four-storeyed building, constructed in 1750 CE, includes the treasury chamber on the first floor, Maharaja’s resting room on the second floor, and the revered prayer room on the third floor the walls of which are replete with traditional Kerala mural art work.

The walls of the chamber in the topmost floor (Upparika malika) of the palace are covered with beautiful murals painted in the traditional Kerala style; and, they resemble the paintings at the Sri Padmanabha Swami Temple of Thiruvananthapuram. About forty-five of those murals occupy almost 900 sq ft of wall surface, depicting Vaishnava themes, such as: Anantasayanan, Lakshminarayana, Krishna with Gopis, Sastha etc.

The murals at the Padmanabhapuram palace – executed in the traditional style invoking rich and vivid realism and infusing grace and beauty of the figures – are the best preserved in the State .

The depiction of the Krishna theme (Krishna – leela) is inspired by Sri Krishna Karnamrutham, a collection of divine verses charged with intense love of Krishna, attributed to Biva-mangala (c.1220-1300 AD).


55.3. Shri Benoy K Behl, the scholar and art historian, remarks,” Unlike the Mattanchery paintings, the gods (in the murals at Padmanabhapuram palace) are presented in their iconic forms and not in narrative situations. The paintings again reveal the close relationship between the styles of art in diverse regions of India. The beautiful textiles as well as some of the forms recall the paintings of Alchi in Ladakh.”



We shall move on to the 20th and 21st century   and admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times.


References and sources

Murals of Kerala by M G Shashibhooshan, Dept. Of Public Relations, Kerala State.

 All pictures are from Internet


Posted by on September 26, 2012 in Art, Indian Painting, Legacy of Chitrasutra


Tags: , , ,

The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Eleven – Jaina Kanchi

 [This is the Tenth 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 not-so-well-known Jain temple of Trailokya-natha-swami (Vardhamana) at Jaina Kanchi. It is one of the few surviving ancient Jain temples in Tamil Nadu.

This article presents the case of an overzealous and yet a wrong way of conserving the ancient murals. The Department of Archaeology of the State Government, in their wisdom, laid a fresh coat of paint over the sixteenth century murals drawn in Vijayanagar style, in order to keep the paintings fresh and bright. The art experts and art historians were shocked and angry; and described the action of the Government Department as thoughtless; and a disaster.

There surely must be a sensible way that falls somewhere between total neglect and overzealous reaction, which either way harms the ancient art-objects.

In the next article we shall look at the traditional mural paintings of Kerala. These 16th-17th century murals painted over the walls in temples and palaces have a unique style of depiction and colour schemes. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra – Ten – Lepakshi

40. Jainism in Tamil Nadu 

40.1.  It is believed that Jainism entered Southern India in around fourth century BC, when Acharya Bhadrabahuswamin, the last Shrutakevalin (433 BC- 357 BC), along with a body of twelve thousand disciples, started on a grand exodus towards the South; migrated to the Sravanabelagola region, in Karnataka, as he feared a period of twelve years of severe drought was about to hit the North India. The Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta, abdicating his throne in favor of his son Simhasena (according to Jain work Rajavali-Kathe) took Diksha and joined Bhadrabahuswamin on his exodus. As foretold by Bhadrabahuswamin, a terrible famine  did brake out in the Northern country.

[ Please also read Studies in South Indian Jainism by Ramaswami Ayyangar, M. SSeshagiri Rao, B , 1922 ]

Some time after reaching Shravanabelagola, Bhadrabahuswamin felt that his end was approaching; and, he then initiated Visakhamuni into a higher order. The Sruta Kevalin Bhadrabahuswamin , thereafter, entrusted the rest of the disciples to the care of  Visakhamuni; and, instructed them all to move further South.

And, soon thereafter, the monk Visakhacharya, at the behest of Acharya Bhadrabahuswamin, moved over to the Chola and Pandya countries along with a group of Sramanas (Jain monks), in order to propagate the faith of the Thirthankaras.

It is said; Visakhamuni, in the course of his wanderings in the Chola and the Pandya countries, worshiped in the Jain Chaityas and preached to the Jains settled in those places. This would suggest that the Jains had already colonized the extreme south even before the Sallekhana of Bhadrabahuswamin, i.e., before 357 B.C.

40.2. Some scholars argue that a sizable number of Sravakas (Jain householders) were already present in the Madurai, Tirunelveli and Pudukottai regions; and , they lent support and care to the emigrant monks.

However, the exact origins of Jainism in Tamil Nadu are unclear.

Some scholars claim that Jain philosophy must have entered South India some time in the sixth century BCE; and, that Jains flourished in Tamil Nadu at least as early as the Sangam period.  

According to other scholars, Jainism must have existed in South India, at least,  well before the visit of Bhadrabhuswamin and Chandragupta. There are plenty of caves as old as the fourth century found with Jain inscriptions and Jain deities around Madurai, Tiruchirāppaḷḷi, Kanyakumari and Thanjavur.

The ancient Tamil history , culture and literature depict  a rich legacy of the Jains

[Some scholars believe that Tholkappiar the author of the celebrated earliest Tamil Grammar Tholkappiam (estimated to be written between the 3rd century BCE and the 5th century CE) was a Jain.

And, Saint-poet, Thiruvalluvar, the author of  the celebrated Tirukkurral (dated variously from 300 BCE to 7th century CE), one of the finest collections of couplets on ethics, political and worldly-wisdom, and love, was also a Jain.

Apart from these, the three other major works in Tamil of the ancient times – Silapaddikaram, Civaka Cintamani and Valayapathi – were written by Jain authors.

It is said, that in these texts, in the ancient Tamil regions, the Jain Thirthankaras   were addressed as Aruga or Nikkanthan.  And, the religion of Jains was called: Arugatha or Samanam.  The senior Jain monks were called as ‘Kuruvattikal‘ (Guru), Atikal (Yati), Periyar or ‘Patarar‘ (Tamil form of Bhattara) .

The place where Jain monks lived was called as Aranthaanam and Aravor (Manimekalai. 3:86-112, 5:23); and, as Nikkanthak Kottam (Silappatikaram.9:63). The generous land donations made to the Jain monasteries  (Palli)  were  called Palliccantam ( however, the exact meaning of the term Cantam , is much debated). 

The more important cities where the Jains flourished in sizable numbers were said to be: Kaveripoompattinam (also known as Poompuhar or Puhar), Uraiyur, Madurai, Vanchi (also known as Karur or Karuvur) and  Kanchi (Kanchipuram).

They all had monasteries  (Vihara) which also functioned as schools (Samana palli) run by the Jain monks (the bigger Pallis were called Perumpalli) . Silappatikaram (11:1-9) mentions a Kanthan school and temple at Uraiyur as also in Madurai, the capital of Pandya kingdom.

Even though Manimekalai was a Buddhist, she went to Jain monks at Vengi, the Chera capital; and, learnt about the Jain concepts of morality (Manimekalai 27:167-201).  And, Vengi was also the city where lived the celebrated Jain monk Ilango Adigal – the brother of King Cheran Chenguttuvan and the author of Silappatikaram, which is one of the five Epics of Tamil literature.

Sittanavasal Cave (Sit-tan-na-va-yil) – the abode of great saints – is a second -century  complex of caves in Pudukottai District of Tamil Nadu. It is a rock-cut monastery that was created by Jain monks. Its name indicates that it was the abode of the Siddha (the monk or monks).  It is also called Arivar Koil – the temple of the Arihants.  

The first century Tamil-Brahmi inscription, found therein,  names the place as ‘Chiru-posil’.  It records that Chirupochil Ilayar made the Atitnam (Adhittana, abode or a dwelling place) for Kavuti Itan who was born at Kumuthur in Eorumi-nadu.

[A fairly large number of stone-inscriptions, etched in Tamil-Brahmi , are found in several caves in Tamil Nadu. And, most of such inscriptions are around Madurai , the capital of the Pandyas.  The noted scholars like Iravatham Mahadevan and Ramachandran Nagaswamy, have made extensive studies of the early inscriptions. It is explained; the script of the inscriptions are named as ‘Tamil-Brahmi ‘, because it is , basically, Brahmi, but with slight modification to facilitate insertion of Tamil terms. For instance; in these inscriptions, the Prakrit term ‘Gani’ ( leader of a Gana , a group) becomes “Kani’; ‘Acharya’ becomes  ‘Acirikar’; names like ‘Nanti’ become ‘Nattai or Nattu’;  sacred images Prathima (Patima) be comes ‘tirumenai’; and,’Sranana’  ( a Jain monk) becomes ‘Amanan’.]

The Sittannavasal cave temple belonged to a period when Jainism flourished in Southern India. And, it  served as a shelter for Jain monks till about 8th century when Jainism began to fade away in the Tamil region.

Sittannavasal has the distinction of being the only monument where one can find, in one place, Tamil inscriptions dating back from 1st century BC to the 10th century AD. It is virtually a stone library in time  Sittanavasal is also renowned for remnants of its rare Jaina mural paintings

It appears there were Jain Nunneries too. Silappatikaram (10:34-45 ) mentions that when Kovalan and Kannagi went to Madurai,  on their  way, they secured the  blessings from Gownthiyadigal  , situated close to  Kaveripoompattinam, on the northern bank of the  river Kaveri.  It is said; Gownthiyadigal was a sort of Jain Nunnery. The Jain nuns, it appears, were variously called as Gownthi; Aariyanganai; Eyakkiyar; or Gurathiyar, the female Guru. It is also said , the Sanskrit term ‘Guru‘ and its plural form ‘ Guruvah‘  became in Tamil ‘kuru‘ and ‘Kuruvar‘.  Its polite form was Kuruttiyar or Kuruttikal ]

Some scholars believe that Jainism became dominant in Tamil Nadu in the fifth and sixth century CE, during a period known as the Kalabhra interregnum. And, after the fifth century A.D, Jainism became so very influential and powerful as to even become the state-creed of some of the Pandyan kings.

[ I think , it needs to be mentioned that religious affiliations , say during the fifth century, were rather fluid. For instance, in the Silappadikaram , you find  , sometimes, each member of a family followed her/his own favorite religion : Kovalan’s  father Masattuvan became a Buddhist; and,  Kannagi’s father Manyakan became an Ajivaka. And, while Appar , in the early part of his life, was attracted to Jainism and became a Jain monk  , his sister continued to be a staunch devotee of Shiva. Manimekhalai, the daughter of Madhavi, a dancer by profession (Parathiyar),  becomes a  Buddhist nun. And, Kovalan  and kannagi continued , till end, as Nagarathars – the merchant  community.

Even as late as in the Eleventh – Twelfth Century, the wife of the Brahmin Chandramouli – a minister in the court of the Court of the Hoysala King Veera Ballala II – Achala Devi (also called Achiyakka) was a devout Jain. She caused the construction of a Jain temple (Basadi), at Shravanabelagola, in 1181 A.D, devoted to the twenty-third Jain Tirthankaras Parshwanath.

sravana belagola

It was only when the Bhakthi movement took hold , large numbers of families finally became Vaishnavas or Shaivas. Those that continued to adhere to Jainism were reduced into  small and a minor community of Jain laymen – Samaṇar, Nayiṉār (around 0.13% of the population of Tamil Nadu. ]

However, Jainism began to decline around the 8th century A.D., with many Tamil kings embracing Hindu religions, especially Shaivism. 

Thus, during the middle half of the seventh and the beginning of the eighth centuries A.D., the Jains sustained a series of reverses both in the Pallava and the Pandya country. The Chola kings did not encourage during this period the Jain religion, as they were devoted to the worship of Shiva

In any case, there is evidence to indicate that Jainism came into existence in Tamil Nadu, at least, by about fourth century BC. Thereafter it took roots in Tamil Nadu and flourished till about sixteenth century when it went into decline, due a combination of reasons. It is estimated there are now about 50,000 Tamil – Jains or Samanar who have a legacy that is more than 2,000 years old; and that most of them are engaged in farming in the North Arcot (Thondai-mandalam) region.

40.3. As regards Kanchipuram, the capital city of the Pallavas and a renowned centre of learning, the Jainism flourished there because of the recognition, acceptance and encouragement it gained from the ruling class, as also from common people. It is said; the Pallava King Mahendra-varman I (600 – 630 CE), in the early part of his life, caused the construction of two temples dedicated to Thirthankaras Vrishabdeva and Vardhamana.

40.4. The Jain scholar-monks such as Acharyas Sumantha-bhadra, Akalanka, Vamana-charya Pushpa-danta, Kunda- kunda and others, were highly regarded for their piety and scholarship. Under their guidance a number of Jain temples and educational institutions (samana-palli) were established in the Tamil country, especially in its Northern regions.

[Palli is a Prakrit term, which by extension came to mean, in the Tamil – Brahmi inscriptions, a Jaina monastery or a temple or a rock shelter where the Jaina monks stayed and studied  . Some say that the Tamil term for a school –“palli”- has its origin in the ancient samana-palli of the Jains].

40.5.The recognition accorded to Jainism is evidenced by the fact that a sector of Kanchipuram, along the banks of the Vegavathi , a  tributary of the Palar River, was named as Jaina Kanchi. It is now a hamlet (Thiruparuthikundram) on the southwest outskirt of the present-day – Kanchi, a little away from the Pillaiyaar Palayam suburb. Jaina Kanchi does not ordinarily attract many tourists.

40.6. Jaina Kanchi is now of interest mainly because of its two temples:  one dedicated to Chandra-prabha the eighth Thirthankara; and the other dedicated to Vardhamana the twenty-fourth Thirthankara who is also addressed as Trailokya-natha-swami. And, the other reason of interest is the ancient paintings in the Vardhamana temple.

The Chandra-prabha temple is the earlier and the smaller of the two. It was constructed during the reign of Parameswaravarman II, the Pallava king who came to throne in 728 AD.


According to Dr. T. N. Ramachandran, the Trailokya-natha-swami temple was built perhaps during the end of the Pallava period; that is, in the eighth-ninth century.

41. Trailokya-natha-swami (Vardhamana)


41.1.  The Trailokya-natha-swami temple enjoyed the patronage of Pallava kings as also of Chola emperors Raja-raja chola II (reign ,c.1146–1173) ; Rajendra II (reign , c.1163 – c. 1178 CE) ; Kulottunga I (reign , 1178–1218 CE);  and Raja-raja III (reign , c.1216–1246 CE) during whose periods some improvements were made and a front pavilion (mukha mantapa) was added to the sanctum. The Vijayanagar kings too supported this Jain temple.

During the year 1387, Irugappa, a disciple of Jaina-muni Pushpasena; and a   minister of Vijayanagar King Harihara Raya II (1377-1404), expanded the temple by adding a larger pavilion- the Sangeetha mantapa.

Later additions were made by Bukka Raya II (in 1387-88) and Krishna Deva Raya (in 1518). It is also said; Krishna Deva Raya made a “land-grant” to the temple.

41.2.  The Trailokya-natha, thus, developed into a complex of three shrines: One for Vardhamana and Pushpadanta; the other for Padmaprabha and Vasupujya; and the third for Parshvanatha and Dharma Devi. Each shrine has its own sanctum, ardha-mantapa and mukha-mantapa. The temple is also a repository of a large number of icons.

trilokyanatha 2

During the 14th and 16th centuries, the ceiling of the sangeetha – mantapa were decorated with beautiful paintings, in Vijayanagar style.

It appears Jainism was active in the Kanchipuram region at least till around the 16th century.

42. The Paintings

Sri Sridhar, T. S.- Former Commissioner of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Tamil Nadu , writes :

The ceiling of the Mukha-Mantapa and the Sangeetha-Mantapa in the Trilokyanatha temple bears a series of colorful paintings which illustrates the life stories of three out of the twenty-four Tirthankaras- Rishabadeva, the first, Neminatha, the twenty second along with his cousin Krishna, and Vardhamana, the twenty fourth. The paintings date back to the 15th century CE. 

They are arranged in convenient groups, two running from north to south and two from east to west on the ceiling of the Sangeetha-Mantapa, and one group running from north to south on the ceiling of the Mukha-Mantapa. They are in rows of panels with a narrow band between every two rows for labels in Tamil Grantham explaining the incidents.

 The paintings contain the life stories of Rishabadeva, the first Tirthankara, Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara, his cousin Krishna and Vardhamana or Mahavira who is the 24th Tirthankara. They depict different facets of the Tirthankaras life from birth to coronation, celebration of monkhood to renunciation and attainment of World Teacher status. The celebrated procession of Vardhamana and his return to the city and anointing ; the rows of animals with the elephant Airavata leading the procession, are beautifully depicted in vivid detail

jaina paintings

42.1. The paintings drawn on the ceiling of the Sangeetha-mantapa during the period 14th and 16th centuries were in Vijayanagar style of painting; and they depicted the legends of the Thirthankaras, particularly those of Rishabha Deva and Vardhamana.

42.2. A narrative panel relates the story of Dharmendra, the serpent king, who offered his kingdom to the relatives of Rishabha Deva in exchange for their consent not to disturb the meditation of Rishabha Deva.

jaina paintings 2

42.3. Such narratives were alternated with scenes depicting processions of elephants, horses, soldiers, standard bearers and musicians.

jaina paintings 3

jaina paintings 4

42.4. The sequence of the narratives and the court scenes was broken by depiction of Sama-vasarana the adorable heavenly pavilion where the eligible souls gather to receive divine discourse.

The term Sama-vasarana (Sama avasarana) means an assembly which provides equal opportunities for all who gather there. Samavasarana, in Jain literature denotes an assembly of Thirthankara.  At this assembly different beings – humans, animals and gods – are also present to behold the Thirthankara and hear his discourses. The common assembly, at which different beings are gathered for one purpose, treats all alike overriding the differences that might exist among them. A  Sama-vasarana is thus, a tirth, a revered place.

The Sama- vasarana is pictured in a very interesting fashion. Each panel is depicted with eight concentric rings having miniature figures, trees and shrines painted along their periphery. A Thirthankara is enshrined at the core of the Samava-sarana theme.

42.5. There are a few panels that resemble   the Krishna- Leela, the legends of Krishna. But, they in fact, depict life events of Neminatha, the twenty-second Jain Tirthankara. According to Jaina lore, Neminatha was the cousin of Krishna of Srimad Bhagavatha; and he is Krishna’s counterpart in the Jain tradition.

jaina paintings 5

[Please also see ‘ The Paintings of Vijayanagar Empire’ by Dr.Rekha Pande]

43. The other side of bad maintenance

43.1. The pictures posted above are not as they were painted by the artists of the 14th and 16th centuries.

A few years back, the State Archaeological Department of Tamil Nadu repainted the 14th-16th century murals on the ceilings of the Trailokya-natha-swami temple. A fresh coat of  paint was laid over the old murals. The repainting was done allegedly by untrained artists, who were not familiar with the techniques of conservation or restoration of ancient murals. As a result, the murals now dazzle in bright colors.

Sri Sridhar, T. S – Former Commissioner of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Tamil Nadu , writes in his article Conservation of Murals in Thirupparuttikundram temples of Jina Kanchi   

Before proceeding with conservation of paintings in Trilokyanatha temple, we studied carefully the base on which they were etched. The granite roof had a thin layer of lime plaster on which the paintings were done, depicting the life stories of the three Tirthankaras. After studying the history of the paintings, which date to the15th Century, we also looked at the condition of the paintings.  At the time of taking up conservation we found that the murals were intact in some places, but most of them were in a state of considerable damage. The colours had changed, the lime mortar had peeled off in many places, the plaster had fallen off and the labels were unclear in parts.

Overall, the condition of the murals was such that they required extensive conservation work. Accordingly, experts were consulted and it was finally decided to bring in a team from Karnataka. Since there are not many who are trained in Mural conservation it was found necessary to get the expert team from a neighboring state.

Next, we looked at the materials used for the paintings. Lime mortar was the base material; the colours were provided by the use of varied materials matching with the original paintings. For example, herbs like ‘Shank Pushpam’, ‘Neela Amary’ and green leaves to produce green; ‘Manja Kadambai’ for yellow; ‘Red Sandstone’ and ‘Lacquor Bee’ and ‘Wax’ for red; and, black color from burnt lamp waste etc., were used to derive different colours. A mixture of these ingredients was also applied to derive different shades of the above colours.

On studying the condition of the murals, and after detailed discussion with experts, we identified the several areas for restoration. The outside of the paintings was checked for cracks or lack of adhesion due to water accumulation or formation of bird nests. These were arrested and the conservation began. Cracks and fissures in the painted plaster was fixed to the support base by adhesives like Plaster of Paris, Fevicol or PVA solution mixed in Toluene. Wherever there was a bulge, a hole was made in the bulging plaster, and adhesive solution injected into the hole and kept pressed for some time. Later, the holes were filled with plaster of Paris mixed with suitable colors to match the base paintings

The entire mural conservation effort took nearly six months to complete; but it was well worth the trouble. The finished paintings looked stunningly beautiful and added considerably to the footfalls in subsequent months. On the whole, it was a very challenging, yet, satisfying experience.


The pictures you just saw were those of the “re-painted” art works.

jaina paintings 6

43.2. The art experts and art historians were aghast, pained and angry at the thoughtless action, in violation of conservation norms, by the very Department that was entrusted with the task of protecting and maintaining the ancient murals.

Dr. David Schulman, an Indologist, (currently the Professor, Department of Indian, Iranian, and Armenian Studies, Hebrew University, Jerusalem) who has studied mural paintings of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, said “The paintings of the Trilokyanatha temple at Tiruparuttikunram have been ruined by over- painting. This is quite a common thing in Tamil Nadu. If you repaint it instead of conserving it, the subtlety will be lost; the old colors will be lost. This is disaster. These paintings have to be preserved as they were at their height. The way people do it in Europe.”

The other experts too remarked that repainted murals resemble neither the Vijayanagar style nor the present style.

K.T. Gandhirajan, who has studied murals in 35 temples in Tamil Nadu over a period of six years, said “Only experts can do that. The State government should give up repainting the faded murals because there are not enough trained artists to do the work. Instead, it can use the resources to conserve them.”

43.3. At an international seminar titled “Painting Narratives: Mural Painting Traditions in the 13th-19th centuries”, held near Chennai during Jan, 2008, the participating experts expressed their shock and disappointment at the state of conservation of ancient art in India.

According to the experts, the ancient paintings in India are threatened with destruction through negligence and desecration both by the public and, unfortunately, by the very persons entrusted with the task of preserving them. To cite an example , in a major “renovation “ exercise at the Meenakshi temple of Madurai an important series of Nayak murals from the 16th century were covered with cement paint. The ancient paintings are lost forever.

The mural paintings  of Tamil Nadu have a long, rich and continuous tradition, ranging from the Pallava period to the Nayaka period. It was during the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods that the art of painting in temples in Tamil Nadu flourished. Most of the murals in the State belong to the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods. A few belong to the Maratha period of the 18th century.

Even in the temples where a few murals have survived, they have been whitewashed. In some cases, ignorance led to the neglect of the works of art. In many other cases, soot from oil lamps settled over the murals; electrical cables and switchboards were installed over them; or nothing was done to prevent cracked ceilings and sunlight endangering the murals.

44. And, now…

44.1.   I have tried to present in this post the other side of the bad conservation. There are countless cases where the ancient art works are ruined because of neglect or wilful harm. There are also cases, as in Jaina Kanchi, where either by ignorance or by over enthusiasm, the authenticity of the ancient works is degraded. Between these extremes, somewhere, there surely must be a sensible way of taking care of our heritage. As Dr. Schulman remarked, “These paintings have to be preserved as they were at their height. The way people do it in Europe”.

44.2. These mural paintings are not mere bunch of drawings; they are the repositories of our art, culture, history and heritage; they are a part of our very being. It is essential that the general public in India and also the trustees of our art works are educated of the value of our heritage and their historical importance.

44.3. Doubtless, there are problems in taking care of our ancient wall paintings, for want of proper conservation facilities; dearth of trained and qualified conservators; paucity of resources etc.  But what is more worrying is the absence of a  plan or  policy  in place; and lack of a  perspective  vision to conserve even those wall paintings that are under the  care and custody of the governments.

44.4. It is a task, which the government alone cannot handle well; several institutions, Universities as also traditional artists need to take part in this endeavour. I wish we had a sort of National Project for Conservation of Wall Paintings, which would comprehensively address the issues of research, training, creating special curriculums in art-schools, and mobilization of various sorts of resources; and above all an effective management and monitoring system.

Jain tablet from Mathura


The traditional mural paintings of Kerala

References and sources

Tiruparuttikunram and its Temples.–By T. N. Ramachandran, M.A

Bulletin of the Madras Government Museum,

Printed by the Superintendent, Government Press, Madras.

Seminar proceedings

Jainism in south India by  T. K. Tukol

Recent discoveries of Jaina cave inscriptions in Tamilnadu by Iravatham Mahadevan

Ravaged murals

Conservation problems of mural paintings in living temples by S. Subbaraman

Overview of the conservation status of   mural paintings in India

All pictures are from Internet


Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Art, Indian Painting, Legacy of Chitrasutra


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Nine –Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple at Hampi

[This is the Eighth 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 is about the murals painted on the high ceiling of the ranga-mantapa (the hall) at the Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi (Karnataka).The 15-16th century art and architecture in Hampi represents the flowering of the Vijayanagara School.

In the next article we shall look at another set of Paintings at Lepakshi (AP), which represent a much advanced stage of the Vijayanagara art.]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra – Seven – Brihadeeshwara

28. Pampa-Hampe-Hampi


28.1. The temple of Sri Virupaksha at the foot of the Hemakuta hills, along the southern bank of the Tungabhadra, is the oldest shrine in Hampi; and it is still in active worship. It is a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva who is addressed and worshiped here as Pampapathi and Virupaksha. Its  towering Gopura stands tall and alone amidst the ruins of Vijayanagar, the forgotten empire (1336-1565).


Hampi layout

hampi aerial view 2

hampi arieal view

Hampi temple

28.2. The earlier name of the river Tungabhadra that meanders through the rocky terrain of the ancient ruined city was the Pampa. And, the lake nearby was Pampa–sarovara; and the area surrounding the river was called Pampa-kshetra (the region of Pampa). The Lord of this kshetra, the sacred space, is Pampapathi. The Pampa is also identified with Parvathi. Thus,   Shiva, in either case, is Pampapathi the Lord of Pampa.

The area around the Pampa, surrounded by amazingly rugged massive boulders and craggy hills of Malyavantha, Matanga and Hemakuta, is identified as the Kishkindha, the capital of the Vanaras, of the Ramayana era. As if to justify its claim to that distinction, the hills are menacingly populated with ferocious long -tailed, dark- faced langur monkeys.


Hampi virupasha

Hampi Narasimha

28.3. With the establishment of a Kingdom (c.1336) by the Sangama brothers – Harihara Raya (Hakka) and Bukka Raya (Bukka) – the rocky wilderness came to be known as Vijayanagar or Virupaksha-pura (after its presiding deity Lord Virupaksha, one of the many names of Shiva).

28. 4. Hampa is the archaic Kannada name for the Sanskrit term Pampa; and its later Kannada form is Hampe, which    eventually got anglicized into Hampi. But today, Hampi, in effect, is the Ruins of Hampi, a UNESCO protected world heritage site .

Hampi Ruins

Encased within the amphitheater of tough and defiant rocky landscape, the imposing 160-foot spire of the Sri Pampa-Virupaksha shrine stands tall overlooking the ruins strewn around it; a magnificent -mute-witness to history, glory and the  ruin.

Vijayanagara, earliest example of imperial city

29. Sri Pampa Virupaksha

29.1. The Pampa-Virupaksha shrine predates the foundation of the empire over which it came to preside. It is said; the sanctum per se belongs to about seventh century. The inscriptions of 9th-10th centuries suggest that some additions were made to that structure during the late Chalukya and Hoysala periods. The Sangamas rulers (1336-1485) too effected other improvements to the temple. It was particularly during the reign of Deva Raya II (r. 1425–1446 CE)the greatest of the Sangama dynasty rulers that huge temple was built under the supervision of  the Nayaka or the chieftain Lakkana Dandesha.

It was, however,   during the reign of the Tuluva dynasty (1491 -1570:  a dynasty founded by the Tulu speaking Bunts hailing from coastal region of Karnataka) , the modest sized shrine was greatly extended and transformed into a sprawling major temple complex with many sub shrines, pillared halls, flag posts, lamp posts and towered gateways. A narrow channel of the Tungabhadra River   was diverted to flow along the temple’s terrace and then led into the temple-kitchen; and finally exited through the outer court.

29.2. The major improvements to the temple, such as the 50 m tall towering eastern gateway (Gopura) and the Ranga-mantapa were added around the year 1510, during the reign of Krishna Devaraya (1509-1529) the most celebrated of the Tuluva dynasty and of the entire line of the Vijayanagar rulers. Inscriptions on a stone plaque installed next to the pillared hall (mantapa) record his contributions to the temple.It is recorded that Krishna Devaraya commissioned this hall in 1510 AD to mark his accession. The Mantapa is in the Vijayanagara Style of architecture, with its exterior walls decorated with many bas-reliefs and with multi-petalled lotus motif.

The Kings of Vijayanagar promulgated State orders in the name of Lord Sri Virupaksha ; and , affixed signature to the documents as ‘Sri Virupaksha ‘.

30. Paintings on the high-ceiling

30.1. The high ceiling of the Rang-mantapa as also its supporting beams were, at onetime ( early 16th century)  , decorated with painted panels depicting themes from the epics as also from events of contemporary life. The Vijayanagara style of painting, as it came to be known later, was a combination of the Chalukya, Chola and Pandya styles. The characteristic features of the Vijayanagara art were the simplicity and vigour in their depiction. There was an attempt to capture the sense of movement and energy in the painted figures. They marked the flowering of Deccan art and culture.

30.2. The murals were arranged on the high-ceiling of the Ranga-matapa, within rectangular panels having richly decorated borders.  Sadly much of the painted panels have faded away or were destroyed. Only the panels on the central portion of the Ranga-mantapa are now visible; and they are the only few remains of the Vijayanagara mural art.

30.3. The story of the Vijayanagar Empire and its early kings is intertwined with stories of the Indian epic heroes. Both shared a deep religious belief and an ambition to establish a new and a just world order. The prime impulse for establishing and building Vijaynagara kingdom too was born out of a deep-rooted aspiration to protect and perpetuate the Hindu way of life and its values, the Dharma. The inspiration for that bold initiative was provided by the founders’ preceptor Guru Sage Sri Vidyaranya. He was the 12th Jagadguru who presided over Sri Sharada Peetham at Sringeri (Karnataka) from 1380 to 1386 A.D.

30.4. The glory, the virtues, the valour and the deeds of the gods and the epic heroes, naturally, formed the subject of Vijayanagar art. Those themes were depicted with pride, devotion and great skill in all Vijayanagara sculptures and paintings.

30 .5. The themes depicted in the paintings were mainly from the puranas and the epics. They include several of Shiva’s manifestations (Kamadahana-murti and Tripurari); Girija-kalyana (Girija’s wedding with Shiva); the ten incarnations (Dashavataras) of Vishnu; the figures of the Dikpalas (the protectors of all directions/regions); as also the classic scene of Arjuna shooting the fish device (matsya yantra) to win Draupadi’s hand in marriage.


30.6. Along with the epic themes, there is also a scene depicting Sri Vidyaranya the spiritual founder of Vijayanagar being taken in procession. Some scholars say, the founders of the Vijayanagara submitted the new- kingdom to their Guru, Sri Vidyaranya, of the monastery at Sringeri, as an act of intense devotion and gratitude. Sri Vidyaranya was thus the de-jure king ; and the State, in its early stages, was administered in his name. It is because of that tradition, it is said, the Gurus  of Sringeri are entitled to the royal prerogatives of a throne, sceptre and crown.It is in practice, even to this day.

30.7. The Sri Vidyaranya panel is one among few in traditional Indian art, which depict scenes from contemporary history. The panel extant on the temple ceiling has, sadly, become old and hazy. It depicts the scene of Sri Vidyaranya seated in a palanquin and taken in a procession. The sage is seated in a decorated palanquin with a backrest carried by four bearers ; followed by several men on foot  weaving chowries (fly-whisks) or carrying long knotted staves. The long procession is led and followed by decorated elephants. The tilt of the palanquin hinted movements negotiating the uneven ground-surface.

The portrayal is one of grace and rhythm; and there is an air of calm and respectful silence in reverence to the Guru.

There is another painting (dated around 15th century) which depicts Sri Vidyaranya seated in a palanquin (adda-pallaki) and carried in procession , with the Kings of Vijayanagar attending on their Guru.

 Please also see the images of Kubera and Sri Lakshminarayana

Hampi Kubera Hampi Lakshminarayana

[ Please do visit the website of the “ Vijayanagara and post Vijayanagara Murals: A digital heritage project Centre for Cultural Heritage and Tourism Studies, IIACD; Supported by Department of Science and Technology, Government of India for a collection of the reproduction of the Vijayanagara Murals; and the lucid explanations provided by Ms. Vijayashree  C S ]

31. The Technique

31.1. As regards the technique adopted, it was seeco technique where a surface was prepared with three or four layer of plasters and finally with a crystal soft lime plaster or the paste of the conch shells. Then, sketches were made on the smooth surface of dried plaster. This method of preparation of the surface was much different from the one adopted by the artists of Ajanta, which was more elaborate and spread over a much longer stages of preparation.

31.2. The sketches were made in red ochre; and the colours of the paints used were delicate and sometimes soft and smoky. Only three or four colours were used; and they were mostly earthen and sometimes mixed with glue or any other vegetable binders. The background was usually in red and the figures were in lighter tones are blue.

Please also read The History of Vijayanagar – The Never to be Forgotten Empire by  Bangalore Suryanarain Row ; Addison & Co., Madras – 1905

Hampi 4

[ The British Council has since taken up The Vijayanagara Research Project, which  aims to examine both the Visual Arts collection of material (prints, drawings and photographs) related to Hampi , Vijayanagara.

Please click here for the details :  ]

[Please also see ‘ The Paintings of Vijayanagar Empire’ by Dr.Rekha Pande]


We shall look at the paintings at Lepakshi (Andhra Pradesh) which represent a much advanced stage of the Vijayanagara School of art.

References & Sources

Pictures are courtesy of internet


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Appendix to Seven – Brihadishvara – Part 8

 The Maratha Nayak paintings in Brihadishvara temple

The following is an appendix to Part seven.

1. During the reign of King Vijaya Raghava Nayak (1645-1673), the restoration and improvement works were undertaken in the Brihadishvara 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 ham-handed and overdid their task.

2. The Department of Archaeology, during the 1980s, did a remarkable conservation of the 11th century Chola paintings, by scientific cleaning. And, they at the same time achieved to retain intact the upper layer on which the Nayak paintings were drawn.

3.  The Maratha Nayak paintings (18-19th century) can be seen on the ceiling of the adjoining great-hall (maha-mantapa); on the west and north walls of another pavilion (tiruchchurru-maaligai); as also on the walls of the mantapa in front of the Subramanian shrine.

4. Since the pictures of these beautiful paintings, looking fresh, could not be posted along with the Chola paintings, I am posting a few of them here as an Appendix to the main post. Please look at them.

brihadishwara appendix 1

brihadishwara appendix 2

brihadishwara appendix 3

brihadishwara appendix 4

brihadishwara appendix 5

brihadishwara appendix 6

brihadishwara appendix 7
All pictures are courtesy of internet.

Continued in Part Nine

Paintings on the ceilings of the Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi (Vijayanagar )


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Seven – Brihadishvara

[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. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra – Six – Sri Kailasanatha of Kanchipuram

23. The Big Temple

The greatest of Chola emperors Rajaraja-I (985 A.D – 1012 A.D) the son of Sundara Chola (Parantaka-II) and Vanavanmaha  Devi, built a magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at Rajarajeshwaram near the head of the Cauvery Delta; and called their Lord as Rajarajesvara udaiya Paramasami (The Great God who resides at Rajarajeshwaram).

Thanjavur Brihadishwara3

Rajaraja 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). 

Tanjore temple by Capt. Trapaud - 1788.

Watercolour of the Brihadishvara temple at Thanjavur with a tank in the foreground, by  Col. Elisha Trapaud (1750-1828), c.1785.

Thanjavur pagoda

Pagoda at Thanjavur,  – 1797 Coloured etching by William Hodges

Thanjavur pagoda.3 jpg

 Thomas and William Daniell’s ‘Oriental Scenery’-1798

Thanjavur pagoda.2 jpg

Pagoda at Tanjore – 1809- from Salt’s ‘Twenty Four Views ‘

In the early eighth century, the Rājasiheśvara (Kailāsanātha) temple at Kancipuram was probably the largest structural temple complex; with the highest Vimāna thus far built anywhere in India. It was successfully completed 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.

Tanjore temple William Daniell 1798

by William Daniel -1798

The central temple located in the western part of a large rectangular Prākāra (walled enclosure), which is encircled by more than 50 Devakulikās (subsidiary shrines).The surface of these sub shrines as well as the spaces between them are carved with hundreds of sculptures, all related to Śhaiva iconography, thus assembling the largest pantheon of Śhivamūrtis perhaps ever created in India. Also the temple’s main body (Vimāna) with originally at least seven Parivāra shrines built against its outer walls is carved all over with different forms of Shiva.

The layout of the temple follows a very precise and well-planned concept.  The outer walls of the two-storied vimāna, Ardhamatapa and Mukhamatapa are embellished with niches all containing Shiva-mūrtis; whereas the niches of the first storey show different forms of Shiva, with a Tripurāntaka placed in the northern niche inside the Ardhamatapa facing east. All the 32 niches of the second storey are exclusively filled with images of Tripurāntaka. Thus, there are, in all, 33 life-size standing stone sculptures of Tripurāntaka, the largest number of a single Mūrti   ever installed as niche figures on the walls of a single temple.

The whole central temple (Vimāna-chariot of the gods”) at Tanjavur with its overwhelming presence of Tripurāntaka images could be regarded as symbolically depicting Lord Tripurāntaka’s chariot.

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.

Tanjore temple

23.3. The crowning glory of the temple is the staggering cupola of the Vimana comprising two huge, sculpted, granite blocks weighing 40 tons 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 façade of the base creating spaces for niches and windows in between, must have been way ahead of their times. The entire structure is built employing the interlock method; where no cement, plaster or adhesive was used between the stones.

It is said, over 130,000 tons of granite was used to build the Temple. Legend says that the stone was brought from Sarapallam (scaffold-hollow), transported by 3000 elephants over a distance of four miles north-east of the city.  The monolithic stone Kumbham, weighing over 80 tons, was placed atop the 200+ feet Vimana, using a specially designed ramp. 

Brihadeeswarara Vimana . jpg

The basement of the structure which supports the tower is 96 feet square. It is said that nearly 100 underground passages existed below the temple-structure; most of which were sealed off centuries ago. 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).

brihadeshwara dwaja

24. The Paintings

Brihadeshvara painting

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 circumbulatory 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.

Brihadeshvara. 3 jpg

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.

Researchers have discovered the technique used in these frescoes.  A smooth batter of lime stone mixture is applied over the stones, which took two to three days to set. Within that short span, such large paintings were painted with natural organic pigments.

During the Nayak period, the Chola paintings were painted over. The Chola frescos lying underneath have an ardent spirit of Shaivism is expressed in them. They probably synchronized with the completion of the temple by Rajaraja Chola.

Thereafter, attempts were made  by the Researchers to bring to light the Chola murals; and at the same time to preserve the paintings of the Nayak period.


       The passage

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 `de-stucco’ process to remove the upper layer of Nayak paintings and display the same on fiberglass boards. For a report on that, please check:

[ Incidentally, etched on the  Gopuram  of the Brihadeshvara temple , there is a figure of a man wearing a hat and a coat. There is no clear explanation about who this person was; and, how he came to be illustrated on the temple Gopuram. ]

Brihadesvara Tanjore man with a hat

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.

( For the paintings of the Nayaks’ period : please see the Appendix posted as Part 8 )

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.

sundaramurti sundaramurti.j2 pg

25.6. The scene of Indra (the king of gods)   worshipping the Linga is on the opposite wall.

sundaramurti.j3 pg

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.

king guru

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.

tripurantaka.j 2 pg

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 : ] 

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. email_work_card=view-paper



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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Six – Sri Kailasanatha of Kanchipuram

[This is the Sixth article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on Art of Painting in Ancient India 

The present article looks at the surviving mural (early-eleventh-century) at another Pallava temple viz. the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu) . This temple is one of the earliest constructed by the Pallava kings; and, it served as a model for the other bigger temples.

In the next article we shall look at the Paintings at the magnificent Chola temple of Brihadeeshwara at Thanjavur.]

Continued from

The Legacy of Chitrasutra –  Five  –Panamalai

 Sri Kailasanatha of Kanchipuram



19.1. Kanchipuram located along the banks of the Palar has a glorious history. In the ancient times it was reckoned among the seven primer Sacred cities (Saptapuri) that granted liberation (moksadayikah):  Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya (Haridwar), Kashi (Varanasi), Kanchi, Avanthika (Ujjain), Puri, and Dvaravathi (Dwaraka) .

Ayodhya Mathura Maya Kashi Kanchi Avantika | Puri Dvaravati chaiva saptaita moksadayikah ||

And the great poet Kalidasa (4th century CE) lauded Kanchi as the best among those cities (Nagareshu Kanchi).

Kanchipuram was the holy city not only for the various sects of the Vedic religion but also for the Jains and the Buddhists. The city was earlier known as Pancha-Kanchi (Five Kanchipuram-s); being the abode of five religious faiths of : Jaina, Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Of these , the divisions of Jaina-kanchi, Shiva-kanchi and Vishnu-kanchi still survive.

19.2. Even much prior to that, Kanchi located in the region referred to as Tondaimandalam in ancient Sangam literature, was described as the city of Kachchi surrounded by forests, lovely like the many-petalled lotus.

Manimekalai, a Buddhist epic from the later Sangam age, recounts Kanchi as the graceful city where the most beautiful, golden-hearted dancer Manimekalai, causes to build a delightful garden in honor of the Buddha; places the Amuda Surabhi at  the lotus seat of the Buddha  ; and,  welcomes all living beings, including the lonely, the neglected, the hungry, the defeated, and the maimed to gather and partake food offered by her and bless her. The beloved Manimekalai enters the Sangha under the guidance of her teacher Aravana Adikal; and dedicates the rest of her life to Dharma.


Kanchi developed into a center of Buddhism in South India, from where the Dharma spread to other regions in India and also to Far-East and China. It was the home of many eminent Buddhist scholars, such as: Buddhaghosha (fifth century CE) and Aniruddha (author of Abhi-dhamma-ttha-sangaha); and of revered monks such as: Venudasa, Vajrabodhi, Sariputra, Sumati and Jotipala.

Among the Buddhists of Kanchi was the renowned scholar Dignaga (c. 480 – c. 540 CE), one of the founders of the system of Logic (Hetu Vidya) which developed into the deductive logic in India ; and,  as the cornerstone of Buddhist system of Logic and Epistemology (Pramana).


Kanchi was also the home-town of the remarkable and matchless Bodhidharma (470-543 CE), a Pallava prince, the third son of Simhavarman II; and a contemporary of Skandavarman IV and Nandivarman I. He came under the influence of the admirable Buddhist teacher Prajnatara who trained him in the techniques of meditation. Later,  as per the wish of his teacher, Bodhidharma left for China to spread Dharma in that land. He arrived at the port city of Kwan-tan (Canton), along the southern coast of China, during the year 520. He was honoured by the Chinese emperor Wu-li in whose court was the great translator Paramartha. Soon thereafter, Bodhidharma headed north, crossed the Yangtze River and reached the Ho Nan Province.  There at a temple, Bodhidharma meditated for nine years facing a wall, not uttering a sound for the entire time.

Bodhidharma in China

Bodhidharma is revered as the Adi – Guru, the first patriarch, of the Chinese Cha’n (Skt. Dhyana) School, which later developed into the system of Zen meditation – a way to awakening through self-enquiry.  In order to ensure that his disciple –monks are physically strong enough to withstand both their isolated lifestyle and his demanding training methods, Bodhidharma trained the monks in the ancient Indian style of armless combat, called Vajramusti (diamond-fist).  That later  gave rise to the now famous  martial art , the Shoaling style of fist fighting ch’uan-fa (literally ‘way of the fist’).


Another remarkable Buddhist monk-scholar, the master of Vajrayana, who helped transmit Buddhism to China, was Vajrabodhi (671–741). He also lived in the city of Kanchipuram. Vajrabodhi, it is said, at the request of Pallava King, set sail to China via Java. Vajrabodhi accompanied by his disciple Amoghavajra arrived in China in 720. Here, they settled down at the Jianfu Temple at the Chinese capital, Chang’an (present-day Xian).


Vajrabodhi, aided by his disciple Amoghavajra, produced two abridged translations of the Sarva-tathagata-tattva-samgraha (Symposium of Truth of All the Buddhas), also known as the  Tattvasamgraha. This work and the Mahāvairocana Sūtra became the two basic Chen-yen texts.

[For a detailed account of the Life of Vajrabodhi, please check here.]


It is also believed that Bodhisena, who was invited by the Emperor of Japan to inaugurate the 8th century temple of Todaiji in Nara, was also from Kanchipuram.

Jaina Kanchi

19.3. Kanchi was, in a similar manner, a prominent center of Jainism. It is believed that Jainism entered Southern India in around fourth century BC, when the monk Visakhacharya, at the behest of Acharya Bhadrabahu, moved over to the Chola and Pandya countries along with a group of sramanas (Jain monks), in order to propagate the faith of the Thirthankaras.

The Jain scholar-monks such as Acharyas Sumantha-bhadra, Akalanka, Vamana-charya Pushpa-danta, Kunda-kunda and others, were highly regarded for their piety and scholarship. Under their guidance a number of Jain temples and educational institutions (samana-palli) were established in the Tamil country, especially in its Northern regions.

The recognition accorded to Jainism is evidenced by the fact that a sector of Kanchipuram is known as Jaina Kanchi.  It is said; the Pallava King Mahendra-varman I (600 – 630 CE), in the early part of his life, caused , in that sector , construction of two temples :  one dedicated to Chandra-prabha the eighth Thirthankara; and the other dedicated to Vardhamana the twenty-fourth Thirthankara who is also addressed as Trailokya-natha-swami. The ancient paintings in the Vardhamana temple are renowned for their artistic qualities.

vaikunta perumal

19.4 . Kanchi is also a sacred center for the Vaishnava faith. It is the home of the Pallava temple of Sri Vaikunthaperumal, built by Nandivarman II in the late 8th century CE, dedicated to Vishnu. It is one of the latest surviving temples built by the Pallavas . It, again, is  dominated by a huge tower. The temple is also exceptional for its triple shrine, one on each story ; and,  each containing an image of a form of Vishnu.

Vaikuntha Perumal Temple layout

mantapa with eight columns leads to the sacred shrines within where there are two ambulatory passages on the first floor. The interior walls of the temple are decorated with relief sculpture depicting scenes from the history of the Pallava dynasty.  

Kanchi was also the home of the Saint philosopher Sri Ramanuja (11th to 12th century CE).


19.5. Even today, Kanchi is an important religious center.  The town has over 120 temples, including several smaller Pallava shrines of which the Muktesvara and Matangesvara are the biggest. The small Cokkisvara temple dates to the 12th century CE. Finally, the Varadaraja temple , built in the early 17th century CE has a massive gopura and outstanding sculpture on its exterior, notably the rearing lions of its mantapa columns. Besides the abundant sculpture adorning the various monuments of the city several excellent figures of yoginis have survived, typically in green-stone and dating to the 9th and 10th centuries CE.  


19.6. It is said; the history of Kanchipuram is lost in obscurity almost from the days of Karikala (Ca.190 CE), recognized as the greatest of the Early Chola kings who ruled in Southern India during the Sangam period, to its occupation by the Pallava kings under Sivaskandavarman (perhaps the beginning of the fourth century). It is probable that during this period  the city of Kanchi was in the hands of the Chola princes, some of whom are mentioned in the Manimekhalai to have built Buddhist temples.

Kanchi was the imperial capital of the Pallavas for over five hundred years from 4th to 9th centuries. Though Kanchipuram was taken over by to King Pulakesin II (r. 610-642 CE) in the 7th century CE; and, later again by the Calukya ruler Vikramaditya II (r. 733-746 CE) , the city regained its glory rather quickly.

The Pallava power and the city of Kanchipuram were at the zenith of their glory during the 7th and 9th centuries, when the Pallavas had established supremacy over their southern rivals and ruled over the territory extending from the Krishna in the north to Cauvery in the south. During this period the Pallava kingdom enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity; and, during which literature, art and architecture flourished. The Pallavas fortified the city with ramparts, moats, etc., with wide and well-laid out roads and fine temples. 

Kanchi was also the home of the famous 6th century CE poet Bharavi who wrote the Kiratarjuniya . Hsuan Tsang, the Chinese-Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler and translator who visited Kanchi during the 7th century, wrote glowingly about the splendor of the city and its intellectual wealth. He records that there were as many as one hundred monasteries with ten thousand Buddhist monks in Kanchipuram.

Further, they were a great maritime power with their chief Port at Mamallapuram .The might of the Pallavas was such that they had established diplomatic and trade relations with China, Siam, and Fiji etc.


The religious enthusiasm and devotion during the Pallava rule were manifested in the magnitude of the temples and the highly sculpted temple forms. The Pallava kings were keenly aware that the intersection of these two aspects, the religious and the commercial, made their capital a highly desirable destination, and they used stone temple architecture to cultivate Kanchi’s multifaceted reputation. The fame of Kanchi’s temples spread through long-distance networks connecting India with Southeast Asia and China. Ekambaranatha is among Kanchipuram’s oldest temples; but, the city itself has a much longer history.

Four distinct periods of Pallava history are recognized, the earliest covering roughly two centuries, the 3rd and 4th century CE, the second period covering the 5th and 6th century CE, the third and fourth periods together, extending from the latter part of the 6th century CE down to almost the end of the 9th century CE In the latter half of the 9th century the kingdom fell to the Cholas who ruled Kanchipuram till the end of 10th century CE .

The late period consists of two phases. In the first phase, structural temples were built of sandstone.  These monuments are situated in Kanchipuram town and are the first structural temples of South India, with great refinement in architectural style and intricate features. In the second phase of the late period, the temples were made of composite materials. The lower portions of the temples are built of sandstone and the upper portion i.e., the tower of the temple is built of brick with lime plaster.

After the collapse of the Pallava kingdom around 900 CE, temples were built by their successors – the Chola kings in Kanchipuram. The construction of these temples was slowly shifted from sandstone to granite during the early Chola period, the reason probably being the durability of granite. Monuments built after the early Chola period is made of granite or brick with lime plaster .

Out of the six temples under the ASI, those of Kailasanatha, Iravathaneswara, and Piravathaneswara were built by Narasimha Varman I between 700 – 728 CE Mukteswara, Matangeswara, and Vaikuntha-Perumal temples were built by Nandivarman II from 732 – 796 CE Of these temples the Kailasanatha and Vaikuntha Perumal temples are on a larger scale.

All monuments are of the typical Pallava style-externally, a lofty tower built over the central shrine rising, in tiers, diminishing in size as they approach the summit; in front of this shrine is a large pillared hall or Mantapa approached through a small porch. The Piravathaneswara temple is an exception in that it has a pyramidal tower over a central shrine without a porch or a pillared hall. A characteristic feature of these Pallava temples is the typical pillar found in them. The base of the pillar is carved in the shape of a conventional lion sitting in an erect position and carrying the shaft of the column on top of its head . A granite slab was introduced at the plinth level of the monuments to act as a structural tie as well as to prevent water seepage into the super structure. This structural detail is typical for all sandstone monuments –royal temples and community temples – built during the Pallava reign .

[ Source : Nagareshu KanchiMagnificent Cultural Urban Center in South India by  Vellore Ramabrahmam, Raghu, Y. & J. Narayana ]

Muktheshvar Temple Kanchipuram

19.7. Thereafter, the city came under the rule of Cholas from 10th to 13th century; and of the Vijayanagar kings from 14th to 17th century. By then the city had lost its primer status and was steadily on the downward slope.  Kanchi’s decline was accelerated by the drying up of the Palar River. 

Under the Company rule, Kanchipuram turned into a battlefront for the British East India Company in the Carnatic Wars against the French East India Company; and , also in the Anglo-Mysore Wars fought with the Sultan Mysore. Thereafter, during the Second Anglo-Mysore War of 1794, the territory came under the direct control of the East India Company.


Kanchipuram is one of those sad cases where a thriving urban populace forced by neglect and paucity of resources rapidly reverts to rural life styles. The city could no longer sustain itself, particularly after the near-demise of the Palar. Kanchi is now a little more than a weavers’ town.

The other instance of that nature that quickly comes to my mind is the city of palaces and mansions located on the Ganga that once was the seat of a mighty imperial power, the Pataliputra which now has degenerated into squalor and dirt ridden dust-bowel called Patna .

[Please check here for papers presented at a seminar devoted to The Pristine Glory of Kanchipuram]

20. Sri Kailasanatha

kailasanatha 2

20.1. The Kailasanatha (or Rajasimhesvara) is one of the largest and most ornate ancient temples in the whole of India. And, Kailasanatha , the oldest among the ancient temples in Kanchipuram is  dedicated to Lord Shiva. It was earlier known as Raja-simheshwaram. The temple is credited to the initiative and enterprise of the Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman II or Rajasimha (also known as Ajiranakanta, Ranadhira and Kshatriya Simheshvara) who reigned between 690 to 728 AD. His Queen Rangapataka is said to have actively collaborated i9n the construction of Sri Kailasanatha. A foundation inscription states that he erected this great house of Shiva “to reflect his own glory and the laughter of the Lord.” 

In the early eighth century, the Rājasiheśvara (Kailāsanātha) temple at Kancipuram was probably the largest structural temple complex thus far built anywhere in India. The central temple located in the western part of a large rectangular Prākāra (walled enclosure), which is encircled by more than 50 Devakulikās (subsidiary shrines).The surface of these sub shrines as well as the spaces between them are carved with hundreds of sculptures, all related to Śhaiva iconography, thus assembling the largest pantheon of Śhivamūrtis perhaps ever created in India. Also the temple’s main body (Vimāna) with originally at least seven Parivāra shrines built against its outer walls is carved all over with different forms of Shiva.

Kailasanatha Kanchipuram original ground plan

said to be original ground plan of Kailasanatha temple

kailasanatha-temple drawing-

Sri kailasanathaswamy temple drawing by Sri B Sathish

The Kailasanatha temple is the finest structural project of the Pallavas. It looks as if a chariot from heaven has descended on earth. The exterior of the temple is more piercingly and vividly carved in comparison to the interiors. The niches have some of the most splendid sculptures/forms of Shiva and his family. 

The sandstone structure is enclosed within a highly decorative wall which has interior niches forming fifty-eight separate shrines containing figures of Shiva, Parvati, and Skanda. The sanctum enshrines a shodasakona (sixteen-cornered) lingam of black colour. The vimana rises over the sanctum like a pyramid.

Shiva in Linga

” The main temple has three main components: the outer corridor with the enclosure wall running around; the main shrine with the sanctum tower; and , the pillared Mantapa in front. The walls of the Vimana and the attached shrines are a house of absolute riches of Śaivite iconographic forms. This can be called as the richest of all Pallava shrines in terms of figurative decoration. Sculptures occur not only in the main niches but also on their flanks. The sculptures are found carved not only inside the attached cardinal and corner shrines but also are on each shrine’s outer walls. In the wall facing south has Uma-Mahesvara, Lingodbhava with Varaha below in the main niche.

kailasanatha Lingodbhava

The west wall has Sandhya-nrtta-murtti and Urdhva-Tandava-murti with dancing Ganas below. The wall facing north has Tripurantaka and Durga in the main niche. Apart from the more prominent forms of Shiva which are carved in the main niches, the flanks show Harihara, Ganeśha, Durga, Skanda and Vishnu.

In front of the main Vimana is Rajasimha’s Mantapa. It is flat topped with corner piers and paired pillars on the main openings. While the façade pillars are of sandstone, the inner pillars have shafts of granite. Dvarapalakas appear in niches with makara-toranas on the east, Lakśhmi and Saraswathi on the south and Durga and Jyeśtha on the north.”


The noted filmmaker, art-historian and photographer Benoy K Behl says

The entire complex of this royal temple is grand and lavishly sculpted. The rampant lions and a  royal symbol of the Pallavas are made everywhere. They display the vigor and courage of the spirit within us, to fight the demons of our ignorance. They also display the glory of the Pallava king, who made the temple. It has many images of Durga as Mahishasur Mardini. It is one of the most expressive images of Indian art. Durga personifies the energy and power within us to face and to destroy the demon of our ignorance,”.. ”  The panel of Ganas, only thirty inches in height, running along the base of the temple, depict the joyous spirit of the worship of the Lord. These display the high quality of carving everywhere in the temple.


Sri Kailasanathar

20.2. The Somaskanda panel, depicting Shiva and Parvathi with their son Karthikeya is the main iconographic motif of the temples built by Rajasimha in particular and the Pallavas in general. The term Somaskanda (Sa-Uma-Skanda) literally means (Shiva) “with Uma and Skanda”. The rear wall of the sanctum in Kailasanatha is adorned with the Somaskanda panel. The Pallavas seemed to be very fond of the theme of Shiva’s family. In endless varieties of depictions they celebrate Shiva as regal and yet a loving family man with a beautiful wife and a playful child.

somaskanda.2 jpg

The Pallava depictions of the Somaskanda are usually large sized. Shiva is three eyed; four armed, splendidly ornamented; and his complexion resembles the rising sun (udaya bhanu nibha) or the coral (mani vidrumabha).His matted hair is done up as a crown adorned with crescent moon and Ganga. He wears a patra-kundala in his left ear; and makara kundala in his right ear. His upper hands carry tanka or cane (vetra), and an antelope; and his lower two hand gesture benediction and assurance. He sits with his one leg bent and kept on the seat (sayanam padakam); and his other leg stretched down (lambaka padam).

Parvathi sits to his left. She has two hands; and holds a blue lotus in one of her hands. She too sits with her one leg bent; and the other stretched.

Both have a pleasant countenance; and sit in a relaxed posture (sukhasana).The playful child Skanda is between the loving couple. The child Skanda, in these depictions, has one face, two hands; and holds a flower in each of his hands. His complexion is blue


20.3. The Kailasanatha has one of the largest and most complex Vimana . The stories  (Vimanas) are decorated with architectural designs . The Kailasanatha is a four-storied structure containing two walls providing an ambulatory  passage (pradakshina –patha).The three exterior walls of the garbhagriha have seven lesser shrines placed around them and each contains an image of Shiva. The whole of the exterior of the temple is covered in a mass of relief sculpture, notably of rearing lions (yalis), Nandis, attendants of Shiva (ganas), Shiva, and other deities.

The temple built almost entirely of sandstone is integrated into a coherent complex. The modest scale of the temple, and the closeness of its enclosing wall, lends a sense of intimacy to the surroundings.

20.4. The Kailasanatha temple is perhaps the biggest sandstone temple structure in the world. Among the ancient temples in Kanchi, the Kailasanatha is the only temple whose structure has not been meddled with or re-constructed. It still retains its pristine form and structure. It’s another unique feature is the 58 devakulikas (mini-shrines) that run round the main temple. They had murals that portrayed scenes from the Shiva- Lila, the legends of Shiva. Sadly, most of those paintings are no longer visible.

20 .5.  The Gopuras were not an essential feature of the early temples. At the Kailasanatha there is just a suggestion of a Gopura- dwara. It was only by about 11th century that tall, colossal and overwhelming Gopura emerged as a unique feature of the South Indian temple architecture.

20.6. The Kailasanatha appears to be the earliest structured temple constructed by the Pallavas. It surely served as a forerunner and a model for the later temple structures including some Chalukya temples. Some scholars opine that Rajaraja –Chola I was inspired by Kailasanatha to build Raja-Rajeeshwaran temple at Tanjore. Kailasanatha contains in embryo many features of the emerging South Indian style, such as: gopuras, pilastered walls with ornamental columns, a pyramidal shikhara, and a perimeter wall enclosing the complex. Many of the ornaments depicted in the Chola and Vijayanagar sculptures and paintings owe their origin to the Pallava period.

20.7. Perhaps the greatest tribute paid to the graceful magnificence of Sri Kailasanatha temple was by the victor and conqueror of Kanchipuram. Vikramaditya II (reigned 733 – 744 AD) son of King Vijayaditya of the Badami Chalukya in his military career conquered the Pallava kingdom on three separate occasions. Vikramaditya ‘s third campaign against the Pallava kingdom ( around  735 AD) was to support the cause of a young Pallava prince Chitramaya against the Pallava king Nandivarman II Pallavamalla . Besides, by defeating Nandivarman II, Vikramaditya avenged the defeat his ancestor Pulikeshin II suffered (during 642 AD) at the hands of the Pallava king  Narasimhavarman I.

Vikramaditya II was very gracious in his victory. Unlike many conquering kings, he ensured that the city and its residents were not harmed in any manner .Even amidst battle violence he did not lose his sensitivity and love of art. As a connoisseur of art and architecture, he was captivated by the beauty of the Kailasanatha temple then known as Rajasimheshwaram. Vikramaditya II not only returned the war-booty but also liberally donated considerable gold and jewels to the temple. He also gifted in charity to city’s Brahmins and to its weak and forlorn. His acts of benevolence are inscribed, in archaic Kannada, on a pillar erected in front of the pavilion (mantapam) at Sri Kailasanatha temple.

 [Prof. R. Gopalan in his History of the Pallavas of Kanchi (Published under the Madras University Historical Series III; 1928) beneath the head – The Chalukyan Invasion of Kanchi. – pages 121-122  & page 189 – writes:

The Kendur plates of Vikramaditya II describe an actual invasion into the Pallava dominions (Tundakarashira) and the capture of the city in somewhat graphic terms: –

Being resolved to uproot completely his natural enemy (prakrti-amitra) Vikramaditya II (A.D. 733 to 746) reached Tundaka-Vishaya, ‘beat and put to flight, at the opening of the campaign, the opposing Pallava king named Nandipotavarman, took possession of particular musical instruments called Katumukhavaditra, the Samudraghosha, the khatvankladvaja, many excellent and well-knon  intoxicated elephants (matta-varana)  and a heap of rubies which dispelled darkness by the brilliancy of the multitude of their rays. . . entered without destroying the city of Kanchi, which was as it were a girdle adorning yonder lady, the region of the south … rejoiced the Brahmanas, and poor and helpless people by his uninterrupted liberality … acquired high merit by restoring heaps of gold to the stone temple of Rajasimhesvara, and other gods which have been caused to be built by Narasimhapotavarman … distressed by the Pandya, ChoJa, KeraJa, Kalabhra and other kings

The above extract from the Kendur plates distinctly makes it clear that Vikramaditya II actually captured the city of Kanchi from the Pallava king Nandipotavarman, that is, Nandivarman Pallavamalla, and occupied it for a period of time during which he endowed some of its temples with grants. This occupation of the Pallava capital by Vikramaditya is further confirmed by the discovery of a Kanarese inscniption of Vikramaditya engraved on one of the pillars of the mantapa in front of the Rajasimhesvara shrine.

This inscription (said to have been inscribed by the engraver Niravadya Srimad Anivarita Punyavallabaha – aka Anivarita Achari), which has been published by Dr. Hultzsch records the fact that Vikramaditya Satyasraya, after his conquest of Kanchi, did not confiscate the property of Rajasimhesvara temple, but granted large sums to the same, and ends with an imprecation that those who destroy the letters of the record and the stability of the king’s charity, shall incur the sin of those who killed the men of the assembly of the city (Ghatikaiyar) – (as mentioned in Appendix A .p 189)

The Chalukyan attack on Kanchi was therefore apparently different in character from the raid of the Pllava king Narasimhavarman I on Vatapi which involved much destruction if the Periyapuranam account is to be believed. ]

The inscription reads:

Vikramaditya IIHail Vikramaditya –sathyashraya, the favourite of Fortune and of earth, Maha-rajadhiraja Parameshwara Bhattara having captured Kanchi and after having inspected the riches of the temple, submitted them again to god of Rajasimheshwaram.

It is also said that Vikramaditya II took along with him, to his imperial city Vatapi (Badami), the temple architects (sthapathy or sutradhari) Sarvasiddhi Acharya and Anivaratha Acharya ; and as desired by his queens Lokamaha Devi and Trailokyamaha Devi, caused construction of two temples, in Dravida style , dedicated to Shiva as Lokeshwara (now known as Virupaksha temple)  and Trailokeshwara (now known as Mallikarjuna temple).In addition, the queens caused construction of two other temples, at Pattadakal,  in Rekha-Nagara style, dedicated to Papanatha (Shiva) and Durga Devi. These temples were in celebration of King Vikramaditya’s victories over the Pallavas. The sthapathys were generously remunerated and honored with gifts and titles Perjarepu, the great architects; and sent back to Kanchi.

Of these, Lokeshwara temple (now known as Virupaksha temple) at Pattadakal is said to have been modelled after Sri Kailasanatha (Rajasimheshwaram) temple of Kanchipuram. That was Vikramaditya’s expression of appreciation and his tribute to the graceful Rajasimheshwaram.


 Sri Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal

20.8. It is remarkable; while the cave temples of Badami influenced the carved structures of Mahabalipuram, about a century later the Pallava temples influenced the style, structure and depiction of the Chalukya temples. Over a period the two rival schools enriched each other giving place to composite styles of sculpture and architecture.

21. Paintings


21.1. Though the sculptures of the Rajasimha are fairly well preserved, its paintings have almost vanished. It is said that the walls of the pradakshina -patha of the Kailasanatha temple were once covered with paintings of brilliant colours. But most of that has turned into faint traces .None of the surviving paintings at Kailasanatha is complete; only fragments have remained.


21.2. The problem of aging was exacerbated by the coat of white wash applied by the temple authorities on the ancient murals. The conservation work, to rescue the underlying paintings,  was taken up during 1936-40 by Shri S.Paramasivan, an archaeological chemist, who was a curator at the Madras museum. And; he encountered a number of serious problems in restoring the paintings in the cells of the Kailasanatha temple. He remarked said, “Since mechanical removal is the only possible means of removing the whitewash, it had to be done with great patience, not just skill”. Thanks to the efforts of Shri Paramasivan a few fragments of paintings at Chittannavasal, Thanjavur and Kailasanatha, Kanchipuram, have survived.

fragments.j2 pg

21.3. The fragments at Kailasanatha along with the remnants at Talagishwara temple at Panamalai are however quite significant. Because, these are the only two surviving examples of the Pallava mural paintings. Further, they represent an important stage in the history of development of South Indian paintings. Sadly, there has not been much discussion about these paintings.

fragments3 pg

21.4. Benoy K. Behl, the scholar and art historian remarked, “The fragments at Kailasanatha reveal the tenderness and grace that come from the tradition of Ajanta; as well as the glory of great kings. The theme of the family of Siva is also, at another plane, a representation of the royal family. There is an impressive quality in the crowns and in the painted figures, which are not seen in the earlier gentle beings of Ajanta. The idiom, which begins to develop here, is seen to blossom later into a grand imperial style of painting under the Cholas. The ancient Indian murals were also the foundation of the later manuscript paintings and Indian miniatures.

Here we see the high quality of painting of the classical Indian style, with a beautiful rendering of form and volume.”

22. Technique

22.1. While explaining the technique of Pallava murals, Shri Theodore Baskaran says the painting surface consists two layers of plaster. The first layer was a rough layer of lime and sand.  Over this a thin lime plaster was applied and this stuck on to the first layer firmly. Then the plaster ground was given a gentle polish with a trowel or stone.

22.2. He also mentions that the Pallava plaster – fresco –technique was superior. “The plaster from Kanchipuram was 2 to 3 mm in thickness and the two layers of plasters adhered to each other firmly. Because of the high degree of purity in the lime used, gypsum content was negligible and there was no efflorescence on the surface of the paintings”.



We shall look at the remains of the early 11th century Chola murals on the corridors around the sanctum of Sri Brihadeshwara at Thanjavur.


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Five –Panamalai

[This is the fifth article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on Art of Painting in Ancient India 

The present article is about the surviving mural (ninth-century) at the Talagirishwara temple in Tamil Nadu. This temple is one of the earliest constructed by the Pallava kings; and it served as a model for the other bigger Pallava temples.

In the next article we shall look at  the  Paintings at another Pallava temple –  Sri Kailasanathar of Kancipuram]

Continued from

The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Four – Sittannavasal



Panamalai situated about 7km to the south of the famous heritage fort at Gingee ( Tamil Nadu) is renowned for the ancient temple dedicated to Shiva as  Talagirishwara , the Lord of the Talagiri. (It is his earth abode here). The exquisite temple still has a few remnants of beautiful paintings.

talagisvara16.1. The Talagirishwara temple on top of the rock-hill overlooking a placid lake is dated around seventh – eighth century, based on the inscriptions found in the temple. The temple is attributed to the creative genius and enterprise of the great Pallava king Narasimhavarman II aka Rajasimha (son of Parameshwaravarman I), who ruled for more than three decades from c.690 to 728 AD. By the time Narasimhavarman II ascended to the throne, the Pallavas had gained supremacy over their rivals – Chola and Pandyas; and were established as the dominant power in Southern India. The Pallavas had even established trade and diplomatic relations with China. The long reign of Narasimhavarman II was free from conflicts with the neighbouring states; and was blessed with a fairly long spell of peace of prosperity during which literature and arts flourished.

Narasimhavarman II, the Pallava King

16.2. It is said, Narasimhavarman, in particular, was a great patron of art and literature. Dandin, the great scholar was his court – poet. Narasimhavarman himself was an accomplished playwright and poet; and had to his credit many works in Sanskrit and Tamil. Though most of his works are now not extant, his plays on Ramayana and Mahabharata themes continue to influence the traditional theatre. For instance, his plays kailasodharanam and kamsavadham, in Sanskrit, are still a part of the repertory of Kutiyattam, the ancient School of drama in Kerala.


16.3. Pallavas were the pioneers of south Indian architecture; and, laid the foundations of the Dravidian school which blossomed during the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar kings and the Nayaks. Among the later Pallavas, the contribution of Narasimhavarman was phenomenal. During his reign he caused as many as fourteen major temples to be constructed. The prominent among those were: the Kailasanatha and the Airavatesvara temples of Kanchipuram; the shore temple of Mamallapuram; the Atiranacanda temple of Saluvankuppam; and, the Talagirisvara temple of Panamalai. He is also credited with the construction of the Buddhist Vihara commonly known as ‘China-pagoda’ at Nagapatam, for benefit of Chinese merchants, mariners and visiting monks. Marco Polo who visited the monastery in 1292 AD wrote about it.


shore temple at Mahabalipuram datable to late 7th century

Tiger Cave complex in 2005 led to the excavation of a Sangam Period

   Saluvankuppam Yali Cave, façade 

16.4. The architecture of his time was versatile and innovative. While the Mamallapuram temple was located on seashore, the kanchi temple was in the plains and the Panamalai was atop a rocky hill. Architecturally, each temple was distinct in its style and in its depiction of the details.

While the sanctum of the Kanchipuram temple was decorated with sculpture, the one at Panamalai was painted with the Somaskanda murals. It is also said, Narasimhavarman’s shilpis (sculptors) displayed a great deal of imagination and artistic liberty; and, did not strictly adhere to the prescription of the Agamas.

shiva talagisvara

Shiva at Talagirishwara 

Panamalai temple

Panamali_temple_viewITNTG004general view

( It is believed that the modest sized graceful looking Vimana of Talagirishwara temple, with its sharply recessed corners leading up to the stupi (top point)   served as a prototype for the more intricate vimanas of the later Pallava temples.)

17.1. The temple at Panamalai is smaller in size; its inner and outer walls are plain unlike that of the other Pallava temples of its time. The inner walls of its cells and the sanctum were, at one time, covered with paintings of exquisite beauty. Interestingly, it is said, the Panamalai murals resembled closely with the sculptural details on the inner walls of the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram.


Somaskanda panel at Kailasanatha-Kanchi

17.2. The Somaskanda murals on the sanctum walls and other paintings in the pavilion front of the sanctum have all but vanished, leaving behind few traces of paintings.


The lone painting

umbrellaPanamalai Parvathi

18.1. The only identifiable figure now visible on the temple walls is that of a beautiful looking, well adorned graceful young lady standing beneath a royal parasol, wearing a tall bejewelled kirita (tiara)and jewellery, typical of the Pallava period. The skilful shading has endowed the figure a three dimensional appearance. It is regarded one of the most beautiful paintings of ancient India. 


Detail of the parasol

18.2. She, with the parasol, resembles Parvathi of the Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram, and the Vakataka women of Ajanta. She is identified by some as Parvathi, the consort of Shiva; but she could be any beautiful woman of refinement and elegance. In any case, the influence of Ajanta is unmistakable. The enraptured gaze and the tender grace are inherited from the Chitrasutra and Ajanta tradition.

ajanta tradition

18.3. The idiom of Pallava painting, which began here, later blossomed into a grand imperial style of painting under the Cholas.


The Pallava temple – Sri Kailasanatha of Kanchipuram.




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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Four -Sittannavasal

[This is the fourth article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on Art of Painting in Ancient India 

The present article is about the Jain murals (ninth-century) at Sittanvaasal caves in Tamil Nadu. These are perhaps the earliest surviving Jain murals

In the sections to follow we shall look at   Paintings at Panamalai and Kailasanathar of Kancipuram]

Continued from  : The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Three – Badami


12. 1. As Benoy. K. Behl  (the well known art-historian, filmmaker and photographer who has written extensively on Ajanta ) remarked “If Badami and Ajanta represent the earliest surviving Hindu and Buddhist murals, Sittannavasal caves are the earliest surviving Jain murals”.

12.2. Sittanavasal, near Pudukkottai in Tamilnadu is renowned primarily for its rock-cut cave temple with its rare Jaina mural paintings. The name indicates abode of the Siddha (the monk or monks).The first century Tamil-Brahmi inscription names the place as ‘ChiRu-posil’.  It records that Chirupochil Ilayar made the Atitnam (Adhittana, abode or a dwelling place) for Kavuti Itan who was born at Kumuthur in Eorumi-nadu. The territorial division of Eorumi-nadu is   identified with the present-day Mysore region.

The cave floor, in fact, provides slightly elevated beds and pillows carved out of rock, for use of the monks.  There are about seventeen beds, rectangular even-spaces; each with a sort of stone pillow. It is likely that on these rock beds the Jain ascetics performed austerities such as kayotsarga and sallekhana (voluntary starvation leading to death).

An inscription of 7th century AD,written in Tamil Brahmi, in 7 lines, mentions some names (perhaps of Jain monk residents):

Kadavulan Tirunilan of Tolakkunram, Tiruppuranan, Tittaichchanan, Tiruchchattan, Sripurnachandiran, Niyatakaran Pattakkali and Kadavulan.

[There is mention of another inscription written in vattelettu script dated 5th – 6th centuries AD, found in another natural cavern in the same hill.]

[Sittannavasal has the distinction of being the only monument where one can find, in one place, Tamil inscriptions dating back from 1st century BC to the 10th century AD. It is virtually a stone library in time].

It is likely that the Sittannavasal cave temple dated around first or second  century (based on the Tamil-Brahmi inscription found on the cave floor) belonged to a period when Jainism flourished in Southern India. And, it  served as a shelter for Jain monks till about 8th century when Jainism began to fade away in the Tamil region.

12.3. Sittannavasal, a natural cave, located on top of a modest granite hill, called Eladipattam, served in the ancient times, as residence for the Jain monks. The cave temple is quite spacious and has a low roof. But, Sittannavasal is rather small in size in comparison to Ajanta with which its paintings are often compared.

13.1. The importance accorded to Sittanavasal is not because of its size or grandeur, but because of its significance in the history of development of Indian art and also because of its exquisite style of depiction, as evidenced by the fragments of its remnant murals. The Sittanavasal paintings are regarded as a surviving link between the Ajanta paintings (c.6th century) and the Chola paintings of Thanjavur (11th century). They are also classified with the Sigiriya (Srigiri) frescoes of Sri Lanka (fifth century) and the Bagh frescoes in Madhya Pradesh (sixth and seventh centuries).

Sigiriya-Sri Lanka                Bagh caves- Madhya Pradesh

13.2. Sittanavasal is the earliest example of Jaina paintings. These paintings gathered attention of western world after an inscription was published during the year 1904.Though the cave and its interior carvings are dated to around 2nd century, the surviving remnants of the beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the sanctum and the ardha-mantapa (front pavilion) are dated around seventh century, as they appear to be based in the classical Ajanta style. Some scholars say, the pillars and cave paintings belong to the period of the  Pallava king Mahendra-varmanI (580-630 CE).

13.3. Another reason for dating the Sittannavasal murals around 6th -7th century is that they exhibit some Pallava features. Further, the temple in its architectural style resembles the cave temples built by the Pallava king, Mahendra-varman.

As regards the wall-surface and its preparation, they closely resemble that of Ajanta. The base of Sittannavasal paintings is well consolidated, firm yet thin with lime plaster used as binding agent. The painted plaster is made up of three layers: rough plaster, fine plaster and a covering layer of paint, as in Ajanta.

The paintings 

14.1. The paintings that were on the temple walls have almost completely perished. Only the fragments of the paintings that were on the   ceilings, the beams and the upper regions of the pillars have partially survived.

I understand, these remnants too are eroding fast clouded by the fine granite dust emanating from the nearby quarries. And, this ongoing disaster might eventually emaciate the rock-hill, weaken the ancient temple structure and bring the whole of it crumbling down.

14.2. Of the remaining fragments of paintings, those on the pillars and the lotus pool scene on the ceiling of the ardha-mandapa (pavilion) and the carpet canopy on the ceiling of the inner shrine are the most important.

sittanvasal ceiling design

Design on the ceiling

14.3. Among the pictures painted on the pillars, the figures of the dancers adorned with ornaments and distinctive hair styles; and displaying graceful dance postures are very attractive. They closely resemble the Apsaras (celestial maidens) of the Ajanta. 


There are two dancers painted on western face of the two pillars, greeting those who enter the cave. However, the images are much weathered now; and, only upper the portions of the dancers remain. Apsara’s hair is tied together and is adorned with varieties of flowers. She wears necklaces around her neck. Her upper body is bare (as in the classical style of depicting the aristocracy) . It is likely that the full figure was depicted   with elaborate clothes below her waist.

14.4. A painting on the southern pillar of perhaps the king and his queen has somehow survived. The benign looking male figure is adorned with an elaborate crown, ear-rings set in gems (patra-kundala and makara kundala). The female figure behind him is rather simple.

14.5. Canopies of vivid patterns are painted on the ceiling over the images of Thirthankara Parshvanatha a Jain Acharya (preceptor) employing the lotus motif.

15.1. The most important mural of Sittannavasal is the exquisite composition depicting the delightful Jain heaven. The painting depicts Sama-vasaranathe adorable heavenly pavilion with theBhvyas, the eligible souls fortunate to receive divine discourse in the Samava-sarana.

The termSamavasarana (Sama avasarana) means an assembly which provides equal opportunities for all who gather there. Samavasarana, in Jain literature denotes an assembly of Thirthankara.  At this assembly different beings – humans, animals and gods – are also present to behold the Thirthankara and hear his discourses. The common assembly, at which different beings are gathered for one purpose, treats all alike overriding the differences that might exist among them. A  Samavasarana is thus, a tirth, a revered place.

According to Jaina faith, the Bhavyas have to pass through seven bhumis or regions before they gain eligibility to listen to the divine discourse. Among these bhumis, the second bhumi is the khatika-bhumi (region-of-the-tank).

The Sittannavasal mural depicts the joyous scenes at this divine lotus tank.  It pictures bhavyas amusing themselves in the delightful lotus tank full of lotus flowers, fishes, birds and animals.

It is a picture of sublime happiness, where the Bhavyas happily gather, with tender care, lotus flowers larger than themselves, while elephants appear to smile; and the bulls, birds and fishes are in playful mood. The figure of the bhavya is made with a lilting grace, like the stalks of the lotuses he gathers. It is a gracious world.

Line drawing

the detail

15.2. The lotus with their stalks and leaves, and the birds, fishes, bulls and elephants are utterly simple and beautiful in their natural charm. Some art critiques have remarked, this might be one of the most beautiful depictions of flowers in ancient Indian art.

These flowers attract viewer’s attention due to their sheer size and bright colours. This bright colour fades gradually towards inside of flower. These flowers are depicted in various stages of development, from a bud to a well blown flower. The bright red lotus with green leaves and thin stem presents a very pleasant sight.

There are three buffalos in this lake, one totally submerged and two in state of getting out of the lake as men approach. There are three men in the lake who are shown collecting flowers. Elephants are shown carrying lotus stems and in process of handing those to nearby men. One of them is holding a basket to place flowers into it. These men probably represent Jaina monks who are getting flowers for offerings to their teachers. Smile on their faces suggest that they are happy and content.

15.2. The unique features of the Indian art are seen here, where humans share the joy of life with the animals, birds and plants. It is a celebration of life, even in after-life. It echoes the spirit of life immortalized in an inscription at Ajanta: “The joy of giving filled him so much that it left no space for the feeling of pain.”

It seemed to convey “Every leaf, every flower, every ant, deer, elephant and human form is filled with the same joyous spirit that flows through and connects all that there is in the world”.

Please see reproductions of some of the ancient paintings of Sittanvasal




The Panamalai temple of the Pallava times

Resources and References

All pictures are from Internet


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