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Archives by Month: April, 2011

The study of bronzes is an addictive passion. Once you have laid you eyes on an exquisite Chola bronze, there is no antidote. But, the flames of this passion are difficult to feed, for its not easy to lay your eyes on them - when in worship they are brought out clad in all sorts of paraphernalia leaving almost next to nothing to view, and when they are back in their abode - they are jailed ( for safety!). That leaves out museum visits as the best possible places to study them, and thanks to the hundreds of buried bronzes that have been found in treasure troves, most Museums have a few on display. While a few lucky museums are bestowed with the custody of hundreds…One such is the Chennai Egmore Museum. Sadly, the problem posed by the lighting and the glass cases remain a hardy deterrent, but then the largest problem - is the lack of awareness and information on how to enjoy them - what to look for, how to look. So, today, thanks to the wonderful book - Bronzes of South India ( once again) by Sri. P. R. Srinivasan, we embark on a study of the famed Okkur Natesa - possibly the earliest attempt by a bronze stapathi at refining the Ananda Thandava form of Shiva and a precursor to the now famed Chola Nataraja.

okkur+natesa

The dating of this bronze ( as usual) is a point of contention with experts giving early 9th C CE dates to mid 10th C CE. But the consensus is that this is possibly one of the earliest forms of the Dancing Aspect of Shiva signifying the Ananda Thandava. So lets, see the characteristic features of this bronze that justify this ` early’ tag.

The two most distinct aspects of this bronze are the appearance of the Orb or Prabha - beautifully encircling the main form and the lotus pedestal.

lotus+base+asana

Before we go into the specifics, lets study the Ananda rasa in this composition - so beautifully brought forth by the artist - despite the 1000 years and wear n tear…you can still see the divine sublime smile.

natesa+face
natesa+face+smile

its very interesting to note that there is a suggestion of a third eye and the mismatched ear rings - there is a large Patra Kundala on the left ear while the right ear seems to have a very small ear clip ( the book mentioned above doesn’t talk of this ear clip)

natesa+face+ear+ornament+suggestion3rdeye
patra+kundala+left+ear
ear+clip+rightear

The headdress of Shiva is very similar to the one we saw in the Pallava Somaskanda - with the Datura flower and crescent moon.
The round protrusion on the crest would be a skull and above it an ornament of feathers ( peacock?)

head+ornaments
head+ornaments+details

The neck ornaments are pretty ordinary with two necklaces, but the center piece of the second one is interesting. The larger necklace is obviously made of Rudraksha beeds with a very rare animal ( tiger) tooth pendant.

neck+ornaments
neck+ornaments+tiger+tooth

We will deal with the spreading locks in more detail later on, but what is interesting to note that this is the first time ( in bronze) the locks of Shiva spread out as he dances. They are pretty plain with no ornaments and noted absence of the depiction of any form of Ganga ( mermaid). They are intelligently fixed to the Orb for greater structural strength.

hair+locks+attached+to+prabha

Shiva is shown with four arms and the arms separate at the shoulder joint itself ( not at the elbows - this is stated as one of the early characteristics of Pallava bronzes and hence a later date - Chola period - for this particular bronze). The raised feet has still not come very high up as the later depictions.

composition

The anklets are cute with small bells attached to them and maybe you can actually hear them clang as he dances.

the+uplifted+feet+anklets

The clothing is pretty simple, with a two stringed sacred thread ( yagnopavitham) and a thick waist cloth ( uttariya) which is simply knotted over the stomach. The designs on the cloth are visible to this day !

waist+cloth+knot
waist+cloth+knot+detail

The upper hands are stunningly crafted, one holding the Drum and the other the pot of fire - see how realistically the pot is delicately held in the tips of the fingers.

hand+holding+drum
hand+holding+flame

The lower right hand has a ascetically coiled snake around it and is in Abhaya Hasta.

abaya+hasta
coiled+snake

If anyone should point out anything in this wonderful bronze - it could be the modeling of the lower hands and the thin thighs, which is more than made up by the beautiful depiction of Muyalakan sporting playfully with a large cobra.

apasmara+muyalakan
beautiful+muyalakan
left+leg+on+muyalakan

However, the true beauty of this bronze lies when we go around to the back.

beauty+reverse

The fantastic portrayal of how the locks of hair form and flow is stunning. You can even see the clasp used to fasten the necklace.

arrangement+of+the+locks
perfect+symmetry

Here comes the other clue as to the early nature of this bronze. The lack of Siraschakra or the ring behind the head holding the hair locks.

Interesting also to note the way the lion cloth is wound and yet he is wearing a kind of shorts as well.

loin+cloth+shorts

The thing about the orb is the way the flames are naturally depicted - even though they sprout around the orb, the flames shoot straight up like how a natural flame would point vertically up even when held to oneside.

okkur+natesa

Truly a masterpiece.

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Last year, i accidentally chanced on a brilliant work on Melaikkadambur. I had seen some of authors previous researches on the Spinx of India but this article on Melaikkadambur was special. The wealth of information it brought forth and ease with which they were explained were stunning. However, i was unfortunate to miss the opportunity of having the great scholar doing a guest post for the site - fate intervened and even though Sri Raja Deekshithar had indicated that he would do so, he left us before we could interact more and feature some of his fantastic articles here. However, today that we are fortunate to have his sishya Ms. Liesbeth Pankaja Bennink, contribute via a special series and am ever grateful to her for this fantastic post.

As long as I remember I have always been attracted to beauty and mystery, especially when it is from somewhere far away. A combination of choices and coincidences brought me to India. It is a long story. And so one fine day I came to an ancient temple on the bank of a river in the company of Kandhan, Jayakumar and Shankar, the sons of my great friend and teacher Raja Deekshithar. A quiet village, some children playing, a few people working. The temple was being renovated, but it was being done in a careful, non-intrusive way, as far as I could tell. Nothing of the ancient structure seemed to have been disturbed.

Everything tells a story. In the case of an ancient south Indian temple there are always many stories creating a kind of fabric, a weaving. There is the story of the building, the structure. What shape is it? How many talas or stories does it have? When was it build and who build it? Was it the first temple in this site or was it a renovation or reconstruction in stone? Another story is told by the sculptures. Which deities are presented in the niches? What other sculpture is decorating the temple and what is this telling us? There is the history told by inscriptions. Who donated what and for what purpose? How was the temple administered? And of course there is the story told by the sthala purana, the temple’s mythology. Through which divine intervention did this sacred place come into being? Who was the first to worship here? What are the special powers of this place? We need to understand all these stories if we are going to understand the temple as a whole. Each story is part of the puzzle that together is a sthala. A sacred place and a temple.

When I started preparing this presentation I thought it would be just one short article. But as I progressed I realised the material told so many stories, and I could not tell them all at once. It would just be very confusing. So it is becoming a series of articles about some of the stories that are part of the Shiva temple in the small village of Thiruvattathurai

11_arattathurai_LPB

The Lord of the temple is called Arattathurai Nathar, which just means ‘the Lord of Arattathurai’. This almost forgotten temple presents us with some truly magnificent examples of Chola sculpture

13_arattathurai_LPB

It is situated a short distance from the Pennadam – Tittakudi road on the bank of the river Vellar. The shrine belongs to the Early Chola period. Online I could find almost nothing about it. Adisesha (the snake on whom Vishnu rests) and the Saptarishis (the seven rishis are the constellation Ursa Major) are said to have worshiped Shiva here. These two things is the only information I could find about the sthala purana.

The only other story I could find about this temple is about Jnasambandar, the saint-child-poet from the 7th century. This temple enjoys fame as the place where Shiva offered a palanquin and parasol to the saint-poet Jnanasambandar. He was a small boy who traveled from temple to temple to compose and sing beautiful songs for Shiva. When he approached this temple he was very tired and Shiva gave the inhabitants of the village a dream telling them to give him a palanquin and umbrella decorated with pearls. Both are a sign of honor and distinction. Jnanasambandar composed several songs for the Shiva of this temple.

This story is depicted three times. We see it for the first time as we enter through the renovated gopuram

25_arattathurai_gopuram_LPB

On the second tala on the right corner the stucco work shows the palanquin with the child inside and the umbrella on top being welcomed with music

22_arattathurai_jnasambandar_01+LPB

Also the second tala of the main shrine depicts this story

15_aratthurai
23_arattathurai_jnanasambandar_02_LPB

And in the central medallion of one of the makara-toranas this story is depicted as a miniature.

21_arattathurai_LPB
24_arattathurai_jnanasambandar_03_LPB

This is without doubt the earliest depiction. We see Jnanasambandar and his father on the right side. The palanquin carried by two sturdy persons is approaching from the left towards the father and son on the right. The Umbrella bearer, shown underneath the Palanquin, amazes us as he holds up the umbrella’s bamboo handle , in a manner that can be seen to this day in temple processions. The boy and his father express happiness and a sense of gratitude for the blessing offered by the Lord through the people Arattathurai. The Jnanasambandar raises his arms and his father gestures his thanks and maybe also surprise with arms stretched out, palms up. Above this scene Shiva dances His Ananda Tandava together with Sivakami, blessing the whole scene as it were. The sculptor catches the emotions in this small panel brilliantly. After a thousand years we still experience the happiness and gratitude of the little boy and his father for this offer of transport and honor for the tired little poet. The palanquin is of a different design then what we are used to today. It is rectangular and flat with the umbrella offering protection from the sun.

The other two depictions of this legend show the saint poet sitting in the palanquin and being carried and received with music. Here the palanquin is depicted as we know it today, with a curved roof protecting the passenger from the sun and rain. The umbrella is depicted as fixed on top of this roof, where it looses its function of giving shade and protection from the rain. It is not possible to tell whether these narrative panels were added recently or not. But it is interesting to see the differences between the two narratives. One is as old as a thousand years. The other must be of more recent times. Both show the love and respect for the traditions of this village. I have only one possible regret. The renovations of the gopuram and vimana seem to have been made with a kind of cement and not with the traditional stucco or lime work. I hope I am wrong. Traditional materials last much longer.

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