Ajanta of the South

Print edition : June 01, 2007

Raja Raja with his teacher Karuvur Thevar.-

Of all arts the best is chitra. It gives the fruit of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Wherever it is established in a house (or otherwise), it is harbinger of auspiciousness. - Chitrasutra of Vishnudarmottara (translation by C. Sivaramamurti)

THERE is no doubt that painting enjoyed a very high position among the arts in ancient India. Ancient texts place great importance on the art of painting as it was considered to be the best form of surface decoration of any structure. Murals were part of all structures; almost all the temples were decorated with paintings. These paintings have disappeared for various reasons, such as the lack of tenacity of the binding medium of the pigments and harsh climatic conditions. Only a fragment is preserved.

Undoubtedly, the Ajanta murals, are the highest watermark of the Indian mural tradition. Next to them are the murals found in the dark pradakshinapatha of the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur.

Exactly a thousand years ago, Raja Raja I (AD 984-1014), the great Chola monarch, was busy building the Brihadisvara temple. He was one of those rare rulers who chose to wait to ascend the throne when it was his turn. He magnanimously allowed his great-uncle to rule though he was the choice of the masses and the latter was suspected to have had a role in the assassination of his elder brother. Possibly, the pressure-free period that followed allowed him to mature as a person and perhaps helped him conceive of the construction of this great edifice.

Raja Raja not only built a great edifice but also created an excellent institution to manage all its activities, endowed massive gifts to the temple and had them meticulously inventoried in long epigraphs and engraved on the walls of the temple. The fine art forms of natya and chitra did not escape his attention. He wanted all the 108 karanas that are fundamental to Indian dance forms carved on blocks of stone. Only 81 are completed and space is left for the rest. This happens to be the earliest visual record of the karanas, and the portrayal on stone closely follows the words of the sage Bharata, who authored Natya Shastra.

He chose the darkest part of the edifice - the pradakshinapatha (circumambulatory path) around the sanctum sanctorum - for his frescoes. These Chola masterpieces differ vastly from the Ajanta murals. The Ajanta artists used the easier tempera technique whereas the Chola artists opted for the difficult fresco technique, covering some 7,200 square feet of wall area. The themes were carefully selected from Saivite mythology. Without doubt, every theme and form was approved by Raja Raja himself, who was a devotee of Siva: his pet epithet was Sivapathasekaran.

The themes depicted in the panels exposed (1,200 sq ft) so far are Siva as Dakshinamurthy, the story of Sundarar, Raja Raja and his three queens worshipping Nataraja (Siva) at Chidmabaram, Tripurantaka, the marriage of Siva and Parvati, Raja Raja worshipping the Linga to be enshrined in the temple, and Ravana at Kailasa. The Nayaka palimpsest covers the rest of the area.

The banyan tree behind Dakshinamurthy is testimony to the imagination of the Chola artists. There are playful monkeys and birds such as peacocks, swans and owls. Enters a ferocious cobra and there is a sudden change in the mood. 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 panel depicting the story of Sundarar has many interesting details. While drawing the cloth roof over the assembly of visitors, the artist has painted mechanically many figures of a bird. Was the Chola artist trying to copy the motif of a contemporary printed cloth?

Not surprisingly, Raja Raja had himself (or Chera king Cheraman to some) painted, with his three principal queens, offering prayers at the shrine of Nataraja, in one of the panels. From the epigraphs we understand Nataraja was the tutelary deity of the Cholas. It was believed that Raja Raja was destined to retrieve the lost collection of great Saivite hymns of Thevaram from Chidambaram. Interestingly, the present shrine, built in the 12th century, shares some architectural features with the one painted here.

Even while depicting a theme of devotion, the artist does not neglect the mundane aspects. The group of highly bedecked royal ladies chatter among themselves, in spite of their being in a holy place. Their costume and jewellery reflect the high fashion of the time. In contrast, the common ladies and benign elders are quite absorbed by the Great Cosmic Dance. The artist's attention to detail captures even the nails on the door. The depiction of Nataraja is a visual treat.

The Cholas had a fancy for the Tripurantaka form of Siva, who subdued the three demons. Strengthened by a boon from Brahma, they played havoc with the gods by building impregnable forts, one each on the earth, in the atmosphere and in the universe. Scholars feel that by depicting Tripurantaka Siva prominently in the temple, the king compares his valour with the immeasurable valour of Siva displayed in this form.

Every face reflects an expression. If vira (valour) is reflected in the face of Siva, it is raudra (unfounded anger) in the demons' faces and karuna (compassion) in the faces of the wives of the demons, who try to stop them from the futile fight with the supreme power. Interestingly, a figure of the Buddha appears on the top of the panel. It does not in any way reflect the compassion of Raja Raja towards other creeds; but the panel followed faithfully the storyline of Tripurantaka as referred to in Thevaram.

The other panels are fragmentary but they, too, contain some marvellously drawn figures, bearing testimony to the skilful brushwork of the Chola artists.

The words of Calambur Sivaramamurti succinctly capture the greatness of the Chola murals: "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... wailing tear-stained faces of their women... suggest an emotion of pity - karuna - and terror - raudra; Siva as Dakshinamurthy... is the mirror of peace - santa; the hands... of the dancer suggests the spirit of wonder - adbhuta... the ganas in comic attitude represent hasya. The commingling of emotions is complete in this which is a jumble of vira, raudra and karuna" (Paintings of South India).

Had he been alive, he would have been immensely happy to see the photographic reproductions, for he meticulously made many line sketches to illustrate his works. Always, his lines equalled those of the ancient artists.

P.S. Sriraman is Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, ASI. He was part of the team that oversaw the photographing of the murals at the Brihadisvara temple.

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