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Opulent sculptures

Published : Oct 24, 2008 00:00 IST

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Epigraphist V. VedachalamS forte is the study of Jaina sites.

A COUPLE of hundred metres from the Jaina bas-reliefs at Kazhugumalai, in the same chain of hills, is Vettuvan Kovil, a wondrously beautiful, monolithic rock-cut temple of the early Pandya period.

It is hewn out of a granite hill, starting work from the top. From above, the temple looks like a rising lotus surrounded by the hill on three sides. The sight gives one an ethereal feeling and drives home the sheer magnitude of the work that went into its making.

There is a folklore about why the temple remains unfinished. A rivalry between a father and his son, both sculptors, resulted in both sculpting two different temples.

The father began sculpting the temple on the hill and the son at the foot of the hill. When the son claimed that the father would never finish building his temple, the father, in a fit of rage, killed his son. Ironically, the Subrahmanya temple, sculpted by the son, is alive today, while the Vettuvan Kovil is abandoned.

Another story is that the sculptor-father asked his son to bide his time until he learnt the trade. But the son was in a hurry. When the father was sculpting the temple outside, he heard the sound of the chisel inside. Angry that his son had ignored his advice, the father killed him. Significantly, Vettuvan Kovil in Tamil can mean the sculptors hill or the slayers temple.

It is on the vimana of the temple that the sculptor has lavished his attention the ganas, Dakshinamurti playing the mridanga, Siva with Uma, amorous damsels, Nandis, monkeys, rampant lions, and so on.

Sivaramamurti, former Director, National Museum, New Delhi, describes the two long friezes of ganas sculpted on the vimana, in his work Kalugumalai and Early Pandyan Rock-cut Shrines thus:

The smiling faces beaming with enthusiasm give away their frolicsome nature. The drummer evidently listens with unsurpassed joy to the loud music produced by him. His companions on either side of him nod their heads in approbation, with fingers beating time, or bodies swaying to the tune. The flautist forgets the world around and is engrossed in the reed which he holds tight on his lower lip while his fingers play the merry waltz.

Another gana plays the urdhvaka type of drum, keeping time to the flute. There is appreciation of music writ large on the beaming face of the gana seated next.

V. Vedachalam, retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology, has this to say about the Uma-sahita sculpture: Siva and Uma look natural, like any man and wife. They seem to be chatting. There is a spontaneity about this sculpture.

Another important sculpture on the vimana is Dakshinamurti playing the mridanga. This is probably the only instance of Dakshinamurti as Vinadhara Dakshinamurti playing not only the vina but also the mridanga, Sivaramamurti writes in his book.

On the sculptures of nymphs, he has observed: Sometimes carrying a lily, resting her hands on the ground, loosening her waist cord in amorous dalliances, or drying her hair after her bath, the chisel steals our heart by sheer beauty.

T.S. Subramanian

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 24, 2008.)

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