Lost treasures

Published : Jul 02, 2010 00:00 IST

The bronze idols of Nataraja and Sivakami in the Rajarajesvaram temple.-M. SRINATH

The bronze idols of Nataraja and Sivakami in the Rajarajesvaram temple.-M. SRINATH

BE it in the art of making bronze figures, painting frescoes or sculpting intricate karanas, the fundamental dance movements of bharatanatyam, the Tamil country had reached the acme of art and architecture during the rule of Rajaraja Chola.

The Rajarajesvaram temple in Thanjavur stands testimony to the great ruler's contribution. The inscriptions in the temple provide a list of 66 beautiful bronze images that he, his sister Kundavai, his queens and officials gifted to the temple; they also provide information about the many pieces of jewellery given by Rajaraja Chola and his queens to adorn the bronzes. These bronzes were processional deities that were taken out only during temple festivals. But today, only two of the 66 bronzes are available that of Nataraja (the dancing Siva) and his consort Sivakami while all the jewellery has disappeared.

If the form, line and expression of the two surviving bronzes are any indication, the others too must have been outstanding products of the Chola period. They reflect the height to which the art of metal casting must have reached, says R. Nagaswamy, former Director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department.

In the book Rajarajesvaram, the Pinnacle of Chola Art (Mudgala Trust, 1985), B. Venkataraman says: The flow of massive metallic icons from the various ateliers of the Rajarajan period must indeed have been unprecedented, if the sixty and odd metal images that had been set up in the Rajarajesvaram temple alone are any indication.

A Marathi inscription on the Nataraja idol's pedestal mentions that Kamakshi Beebi Bai, the queen of Shivaji II, the last of the Maratta rulers of Thanjavur, had arranged to have it mended in 1895. The repair of the idol, broken at the ankle, was dexterously done; a coiled serpent was sculpted around the ankle to strengthen it.

The inscriptions reveal that Rajaraja Chola had consecrated an outstanding bronze image called Maha Meru Vitankar. The Maha Meru or the Golden Meru was a mythical mountain in the north of India, and Rajaraja Chola wanted to create a Meru in the south. So he called Rajarajesvaram Dakshina Meru. The vimana with its receding tiers looks like the Maha Meru mountain. The Maha Meru Vitankar showed Siva and his consort Parvati seated on a mountain, and surrounded by sons Ganesa and Subrahmanya as well as boothaganas and a banyan tree with branches and leaves. The whereabouts of this massive metal sculpture is not known.

Rajaraja Chola had visualised the dancing Siva, called Adavallan in Tamil, to be the main processional deity of the temple, and so he named it Dakshina Meru Vitankar. The temple is built according to Maguda Agama, which says that Siva in his dancing form is the supreme deity.

The measurements height, girth, number of arms, and the symbols held in the hands of each of the 66 metal images are catalogued in the inscriptions. There are references to the art of metal casting solid casting, hollow casting, riveting, gilding with brass or gold, precious gems in the eyes of the images, and so on. These bronzes were decorated during festivals with numerous gold jewels studded with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, pearls, corals, and so on.

The temple employed highly specialised gemmologists to grade the gems according to their quality. Pearls were classified according to their variety twins, flat, round or white. Some jewels had several thousands of pearls set in them the pearls were part of the war booty obtained by Rajaraja Chola. The cost of making each piece of jewellery and its measurements is mentioned in the lithic records.

Rajaraja Chola and his queens gifted golden vessels for use in the temple, and the inscriptions mention their size and weight. There is even a reference to a small spoon for scooping ghee (called Nei Muttai in Tamil).

It shows the care with which the temple property was entered in the register and the responsibilities fixed for handling them. In every aspect of the temple management, we find the personal directives of Rajaraja Chola who was an extraordinary administrator, Nagaswamy said.

The heights reached by dance is reflected in the 81 karanas (of the 108 karanas that form the alphabetical system of Indian classical dance) sculpted on the walls of the floor above the temple's sanctum sanctorum. One can see that space was earmarked for the remaining 27 karanas.

The sculptures portray Siva as performing the karanas. The first of them is Talapushpaputam where the danseuse begins her performance by offering imaginary flowers to Nataraja. The karana sculptures were painted too.

T.S. Subramanian
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