Royal touch

Print edition : September 23, 2011

Chandesa-Anugrahamurthy panel in the Gangaikondacholapuram. -

The sculpture portraits of south Indian rulers and their depiction as deities give us an idea of the appearances of kings.

THERE has been no tradition of portraiture in medieval south India, unlike ancient Greece and Rome. Although Indian kings commissioned the construction of numerous temples, rarely do we find their portraits in any of these edifices. However, there are exceptions, and these representations give us a good idea of the dress and appearance of these royal figures.

In the Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) complex, one of the earliest sculptural monuments we have in India, there are at least three royal portraits. Two of them are inside the Adivaraha cave-temple that has been scooped out of the western side of the rocky outcrop. This rock-cut temple was excavated by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I, or Maamalla, and is one of the few finished works in Mamallapuram. Incidentally, this cave shrine is in worship, and the visitor may find it locked after the morning and evening prayer hours. Inside the temple there are two life-size portraits, in the form of relief panels. One is that of Simhavishnu (A.D. 550-580), flanked by two of his queens, and the other is that of his son Mahendravarman (A.D. 580-630), also with two queens. There is a lone portrait of Narasimhavarman I (A.D. 630-668) in Dharmaraja Ratha (one of the five monolithic temples). Thus, there are portraits of three successive generations of the Pallava dynasty, each with a clear identification.

Simhavishnu's portrait sculpture, with the two queens on either side, is on the northern wall of the Adivaraha cave. A Sanskrit inscription above the sculpture reads: The illustrious Simhavishnu Pallava, Supreme King. He is seated on a throne with one leg folded and the other pendent leg placed firmly on the ground. His right hand is held in chin mudra (the index finger touching the thumb) and the left hand is resting on his thigh.

A REPRESENTATION OF Narasimhavarman I, or Maamalla, in the Dharmaraja Ratha at Mamallapuram.-ASHOK KRISHNASWAMY

In his book Pallava Art (2001), Michael Lockwood argues that this figure of Simhavishnu has served as the standard model for Siva in the subsequent Somaskanda (the seated posture of Siva with Parvati to his left and Skanda in the middle) panels of the Pallavas. He quotes a few inscriptions from the Kailasanatha temple (built by Narasimhavarman II, or Rajasimha) in Kancheepuram to support his argument that the image of the king and the deity sometimes overlapped. Another scholar points to the Somaskanda panel in the Kailasanatha temple and argues that they are actually portraits of Narasimhavarman II, the builder of that temple. As evidence, he draws attention to the fact that both the male and female have only two hands each and that the figures of Skanda and Ganesa are absent.

In the Adivaraha cave, on the southern wall, there is the second portrait which is less formal and features Mahendravarman. Here the king is shown standing and holding the right hand of one of the queens. Here again, an inscription made above the panel announces the identity of the king. Mahendravarman is depicted as drawing the attention of the queen to the Durga panel on the adjacent wall. On palaeographic grounds, Lockwood concludes that these two label inscriptions over the portraits were engraved nearly a century after the making of the cave temple. In a communication e-mailed to this writer, he says he arrived at this theory after comparing the shape of the various letters in the three label inscriptions with the various titles of the king [Narasimhavarman I] found on the Dharmaraja Ratha and his splendid Badami rock inscription.

On the south-west corner of the exterior wall of the Dharmaraja Ratha is an impressive portrait of Narasimhavarman I standing. He sports a cylindrical crown and a pearl necklace. A calligraphic inscription above the sculpture declares the identity of the king. Reliefs on the outer walls of the Arjuna Ratha also feature the royalty, but we have no clue as to who is represented in them.

THE SCULPTURE OF Mahendravarman with his two wives on the southern wall of the Adivaraha cave temple in Mamallapuram.-ASHOK KRISHNAMSWAMY

The Chalukyan king Vikramaditya II (A.D. 733-747) installed a portrait sculpture of himself along with his two queens at the temple complex in Pattadakkal (in present-day Bijapur district of Karnataka), which was built to commemorate his victory over the Pallavas in Kancheepuram.

Kings featuring themselves in sculptural panels that depict deities is not new to Indian art history. Mahendravarman, the Pallava king, appears as Gangadhara in a sculptural panel in the rock-cut cave he got excavated halfway up the rock fort in Tiruchirapalli. A poem chiselled on the side of this panel suggests that it is Mahendravarman Pallava himself who is shown as Siva. The royal jewels that Gangadhara sports confirm this. Probably, there are more emperors hidden in such disguises of gods and the attendant deities elsewhere in other temples. Scholars such as C. Sivaramamurthy have suggested that in the massive Chandesa-Anugrahamurthy panel in the Siva temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, near Thanjavur, it is Rajendra Chola himself, represented as Chandesa, sitting at the feet of Siva. He is honoured by Siva with a crown of garland, presumably for his achievements in extending the frontiers of his empire. This practice, of kings placing themselves as deities, gives us an idea of the nature of kingship in India.

One has to bear in mind that most medieval temples were extensively decorated with murals. In fact, the sculptural features such as the gopuram and vimanam in these temples were once painted in vivid colours. The 7th century treatise on painting titled Dakshina Chithra indicates the height to which the art of painting had evolved in ancient south India. It is possible that the murals in temples contained portraits of not only royalties but also nobles and devotees. Although we do not know the identity of the person, the torso of a monarch depicted on the pillar at the rock-cut Jain temple in Sittannavasal in Pudukottai hints at such a tradition. Similarly, in the frescoes of the Brhadiswara temple (also known as the Big Temple) in Thanjavur, Rajaraja Chola and his mentor Karuvur Thevar have been depicted. The king is shown without a crown, wearing a conical hairdo ( jatamandala).

A sculpture in the same cave of Simhavishnu with his two wives.-ASHOK KRISHNAMASWAMY

We see a continuation of the portrait tradition in the Tenupuriswarar temple at Patteeswaram near Thanjavur. In the murals belonging to the Nayak period, there is a portrait of Madalavalli, a Devadasi, depicted standing in front of the sanctum, holding a veena, and her name is written in Tamil. The story is that she lived in Patteeswaram and sang in praise of Siva in the temple for several years. These murals featured not only the royalty but also commoners.

However, wherever the names of persons featured in a sculptural portrait were painted and not engraved beneath the figures, the painting has weathered, leaving one with no clue about who is depicted there. For instance, on the niches of the exterior wall of a sanctum of the Nageswaraswami temple, built by the early Cholas in Kumbakonam, we have eight exquisite sculptural representations of royalty, including two queens whose identity we do not know. All the eight sculptures, placed in niches, remain tantalisingly anonymous. About one of the portrait of royal ladies, Suresh Pillai observes, Its execution betrays its style as directly inherited from the Buddhist schools, especially the treatment of the curls of the hair and the semi-circular brows.

During the Vijayanagara period, there was hectic temple-building activity. New temples were built and mandapas were added to old ones. In all these constructions, a number of portrait sculptures of royalty and donors, particularly as projections in pillars, were chiselled. The Nayaks, who followed, kept up this tradition. In the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, Vijayaranga Chokkanatha Nayak, who built a mandapam in A.D. 1730, had his life-size statue erected on a pillar on the southern side of Thirukalyanamedai. The temples built by the Vijayanagara kings and the Nayaks feature a number of portrait sculptures, including some of devotees, but it is difficult to establish their identities. Bronze portrait sculptures of kings, nobles, saints and donors were sometimes kept in the temples.

GANGADHARA PANEL IN the rock-cut cave halfway up the rock fort in Tiruchirapalli.-ASHOK KRISHNASWAMY

The inscriptions on the walls of the Big Temple refer to certain portrait sculptures that were dedicated in the temple. Presumably, they were all used for ritual purposes. Statues of Saivite saint-poets, or Nayanars, Gnanasambandar, Sundarar and Appar, and Sundarar's wife Paravai Nachiar are exhibited in the Thanjavur Art Gallery. In the Tirumala-Tirupati Venkateswara temple, there is a bronze portrait sculpture of Krishnadevaraya and his queen.

In these portraits of royalty, the sculptors had cut down on details. The convention of bare torso helped in this development. The portrayal of jewellery is minimal. In depicting royalty, the sculptors are not bound by the rigid canons of iconography. So the postures of these sculptures, like those in the Nageswaraswami temple, are relaxed and natural as opposed to the stylised sculptures of deities. An analysis of these portrait sculptures can provide insights into the nature of kingship during the medieval period in south India. For instance, what is the significance of the distended ear lobes in the portraits of Rajaraja and Karuvur Thevar?

Professor Gift Siromoney, who was the head of the Statistics Department in Madras Christian College, wrote a seminal article on the costumes and jewellery of Pallava royalty, based on a study of the sculptures. He even tried to date them by noting the slightest changes in style. The art historian T.G. Aravamuthan points out that since a second portrait of a king is unavailable, it is difficult to check whether the sculptures depicted the individual's likeness or whether they were merely imaginary representations with conventional features.


Aravamuthan T.G.; South Indian Portraits in Stone and Metal; London, 1930. Suresh B Pillai; Introduction to the Study of Temple Art; Thanjavur, 1976. Lockwood M. (Ed); Indological Essays; Commemorative Volume II for Gift Siromoney; Tambaram, 1992.

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