The most common request from enthusiasts pertains to dating sculptures. Fortunately dating stone sculpture is easier as most of them are found insitu and in larger quantity and readily available for study. Quite often we do get foundation inscriptions that allow us to precisely date them. The same cannot be said about bronzes though, as the ones under worship are not open to study for obvious reasons and the ones in museums are far removed from their original settings. We shall take up the study of stone sculptures of a single form – the Lingothbhava, for it’s the most common and easy to spot – found in most temples on the circumambulatory right behind the main sanctum – ie usually the sanctum faces east, the western side kosta will feature the Lingothbava. We shall pick six distinct examples and try to trace the form’s evolution from Pallava through early Chola and later Chola periods.
Kanchi Kailasanathar – Rajasimha Pallava (700-728CE)
The first one is a typical later Pallava creation ( meaning they have moved on from excavations to structural temples) from the Kailasanthar temple. It is important to notice the ornamentation, especially how the thick sacred thread – the Yagnopavitha passes over the right hand, a very unique Pallava feature. Shiva’s body is a bit stocky but there is no body builder like chest muscles. The pillar of light has not yet taken the form of a linga and the emergence of Shiva is almost like a geometrical rhombus shape. The importance given to the Trishul and its unique shape, the beautiful crescent of the moon and the thin slightly longer upper body of Vishnu and Brahma on the sides as compared to the lower body etc are all pointers. With experience you will get to notice the round shape of the face, thick set nose and the not too muscular chest giving them an almost young adult profile. Notice the Thorana on top of the sculpture as well. Where is this sculpture found in the shrine ? is an interesting question to readers…
Thirumayam - Satyagiri Shiva Cave.
Around the same time or even slightly earlier in Pudukkottai - this wonderful site which has been variously credited to Pallava ( Mahendra) - Pandya and Mutharaiya origins is this masterpiece.
The Lingothbhava murthy is simple yet stunning. If you notice there are flames emanating from the side of the pillar and they have been sculpted in a natural manner burning upward. Shiva is portrayed with only two hands and stands in Sama Bhanga, his left hand is held in Kati Hasta on is hip, while the right hand is graceful in Varada Hasta – the boon bestowing pose. The pillar has a perfect oval cleft revealing Shiva.
The sculptor has masterfully used the depth of the panel to show the right hand’s bend at the elbow giving it a very natural grace. The face of Shiva is radiates calm, the thick set nose and lips lifelike, while his tresses are stylistically bundled up over his head to form the Jata Bhandam. Iconographical texts state that the height of this must be one face length above the hairline and they have been followed perfectly here. The ornamentation is very simple, the most prominent being the rather thick Udara Bandana – the belt that is worn above the belly button. The lower garment though worn ornately, has no ornamental gem set strings and lacks the lion face belt buckle - simha mukha clasp.
The most interesting aspect to note in this masterpiece are the Yagnopavitha,the sacred thread is thick and single stranded and goes over the right elbow is the classic Pallava Nivitta fashion, and the very natural torso – not the bulging chest of a body builder, but a slender beauty of an ascetic. The shoulders and arms however are portrayed with great strength and muscle volume. The iconographical features and minimalistic ornamentation would give this sculpture a late 7th C CE - early 8th C CE date and the presence of fragmentary yet famous Pallava granta inscriptions affirm the same. But it is a great mystery as to why the sculptor did not depict Vishnu and Brahma - either as a boar and swan nor their forms outside !!
Pullamangai – Parantaka Chola I ( 907 – 955 CE)
It is a tough toss up between the next stage in the progression as we step into the 10th C CE between Punjai Nalthunai Eswaram and Pullamangai - Brahmapureeswarar.
The Chola revival spurs temple building all over Tamil Nadu and the artists expressed themselves to the fullest extent in the early stages. We move on to Pullamangai - assigned to Paranatka I
Though the face of Shiva has been damaged, there are no greater stone sculptures than the Brahma and Vishnu on the sides of this magnificent Ligothbhavar. A span of two centuries and you can see that all the extra trimmings have been minimalized, with the central pillar of fire taking center stage, with Brahma shown flying to see the top and Vishnu as the boar burrowing underneath. The top of the pillar of fire is not seen and it has not yet become like a linga - the fire is shown emanating from the cleft.
They are also sculpted on both the sides and their size is (only slightly) smaller than Shiva’s proportions. Shiva is shown with only two pairs of hands, the sacred thread falls straight over the hip and the attributes of the axe and deer are becoming more symbolic and smaller in size but still within the frame inside the pillar whose rather straight edges of the Pallava are now becoming more rounded. The important feature to notice is the very normal depiction of the body, thin waists and chest, with the face getting more naturally roundish oval - Ofcourse the cleft is larger now and more of shiva’s legs are visible but the body form is still slender.
Punjai around 955 CE
Though epigraphy dates Punjai to around Aditya II period ( 965-969 CE) the sculptural style indicates a date closer to first quarter of the 10th C CE - to Parantaka I.
The sculpture itself is crowned by a stunning thorana and we find the Boar ( vishnu - Varaha) and Swan ( Brahma) present. However, forms of Vishnu and Brahma are conspicuous by their absence on the two sides. The Linga is perfectly formed on top with a band of interwoven flowers near the top. The sculptor continues the tradition of flames emanating from the cleft.
The difference between the Pallava n Pallava transition period form of Shiva to the early Chola is very dramatic.- the more filled out chest and the almost circular / round face are clear to see. The Simhamuka belt clasp is very prominent !
Tanjore Brihadeshwara – Sri Raja Raja Chola ( 985 -1014 CE)
Another century and the emphasis totally shift to Shiva while Brahma and Vishnu are shown in very low relief and much smaller proportion. The difference to note is also in the iconography of the pillar of fire, now depicted almost like that of a Linga. The difference in the shape of Shiva’s face and torso is also visible, with the chest broadening and filling out, as compared to the waist.
Tribuvanam – Kulottunga Chola III( 1178 -1218CE)
Another century has passed we come to the last great Chola ruler Kulottunga’s temple in Tribuvanam. The art has become rigid, the pillar of fire is almost a linga now - with the height of the pillar vs Shiva is almost nil - ie there is no blank space in the pillar anymore and Shiva emerging from a perfectly formed oval opening occupies most of the pillar area. Brahma and Vishnu are portrayed slightly larger but overall we can see a drop in creative aesthetics and a certain conformational adherence to rigid standards in the sculpting.
thanks: Ashok, Arvind, Saurabh, Shashwath, Satheesh and Shriram