Fabulous frescoes

Print edition : July 02, 2010

A petrified asura and his consort in the Tripurantaka panel.-PICTURES: N. THYAGARAJAN/CASI

EARLIER, if one wanted to relish the sheer beauty, elegance of execution and the pleasing colour scheme of the Chola murals of the 11th century, one had to turn to three temples in Tamil Nadu: the Siva temple at Tiruppulivanam near Uttaramerur in Kancheepuram district, the Veetruirundaha Perumal temple at Veppathur near Kumbakonam, and the Rajarajesvaram, or the Big Temple, in Thanjavur. But today, only one temple's murals remain.

Vishnu in the Kalyanasundaramurthy panel, in the Ajanta tradition.-PICTURES: N. THYAGARAJAN/ASI

A couple of years ago, officials of the Tiruppulivanam temple sandblasted out of existence all the murals there of the Rajaraja Chola period. In Veppathur, all the murals of the Pallavas of the 9th century C.E., the Cholas of the 11th century C.E. and the Nayakas of the 17th century C.E., which were painted one over the other were lost because of neglect. They exist only in flakes now.

At the Rajarajesvaram temple, the Chola murals in the ambulatory passage around the sanctum are beautiful beyond words. The credit for discovering these frescoes, which were also painted over with murals of the Nayaka period, goes to S.K. Govindaswami, a lecturer in history at Annamalai University. The Hindu published Govindaswami's letter about his discovery on April 11, 1931. In the 1960s, Subbaraman, the Superintending Chemist of the Archaeological Survey of India, employed an ingenious technique to strip the Nayaka paintings off the Chola paintings; the former were then pasted on another mount. A few years ago, T. Satyamurthy, then Superintending Archaeologist, ASI (Chennai circle); P.S. Sriraman, Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, ASI; and N. Thyagarajan, artist and photographer, photographed with great effort four of the several huge frescoes found at the Rajarajesvaram temple ( Frontline, June 1, 2007).

Nataraja of the Chidambaram temple, as portrayed in a fresco at the Rajarajesvaram temple.-

Sriraman says: What makes the Chola murals stand apart is that they were executed in the true fresco method; the artists would have applied thin lime plaster on the wall and executed the murals on the plaster while it was still wet. This would not have been easy, since lime plaster will dry up fast in the Thanjavur climate. He added: Lime plaster frescoes are more durable but their execution is very difficult.

The murals photographed were those depicting Siva as Dakshinamurti; episodes from the life of the Saivite saint Sundarar such as the stalling of his wedding by Siva, who comes disguised as an old man and claims Sundarar as his slave; and Sundarar and friend Cheraman Perumal, the King of Kerala, reaching Kailasa on the elephant Iravatham and a horse respectively; Siva as Tripurantaka; Rajaraja Chola and his three queens worshipping Nataraja at Chidambaram.

R. Nagaswamy, former Director, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, says: The frescoes are depicted in a natural, flowing way. This gives the impression that the artists were not bound by the rigidity of lines. The colours used are appropriate, merging agreeably with the theme, and give a pleasant feeling. The fresco of two beautiful dancing girls welcoming Sundarar and Cheraman Perumal to Kailasa is as good as the murals at Ajanta. There is a twist in their dance.

A dancing apsara welcoming Cheraman Perumal, the Chera king, and Sundarar to Kailasa.-

Opinion is divided on the last mural. Some say it is Rajaraja Chola and three of his queens who are worshipping Nataraja, while others think it is Cheraman Perumal and his queens.

Rajaraja Chola had a predilection for the portrayal of Siva as Tripurantaka. Both the frescoes and bas-reliefs at the Rajarajesvaram temple dealing with the theme show three men worshipping the Buddha. They were originally asuras of three citadels and were harassing the devas. Siva could not destroy them because they were his devotees. So the devas requested Vishnu to convert them to Buddhism, but the ruse did not work.

The asuras did not recant, and so they were pardoned by Siva; others who defected to Mayavada or Buddhism were destroyed by him.

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