Here we go – one more tiger belly! Kodumbalur Moovar Koil

Great works of art catch the eye of many. There are numerous studies, research papers, coffee table books that are brought out, thousands of people take photographs of them and a google search would through up hundreds of links. But then there are some offbeat ones, which sit nestled in pristine surroundings, seemingly still lost in time, waiting to be discovered, for their time under the Sun – or do they prefer to remain like that – in total obscurity. But then, its the question of identity – the flutter in the heart, the mist in the eye, the shiver in the goosebumps – the pride of knowing the greatness of the land you hail from. Surely, we got to take better care of them and showcase their beauty for all to see.

Such was the experience for us, as we walked past eye catching greenery and acres of land which was a visual overdose, for these days you hardly get to see the horizon with the array of high rises, suddenly a small structure came into view.

This is Moovar Koyil – or three temples – but hold on, there are only two vimanas left but you do get to see the base remnants of the now lost three vimana. This little gem of a masterpiece of sculptural beauty is the work of Bhuti Vikramakesari – the Irukuvel chief of the Kodumbalur clan, along with his two queens and a monastry of Kalamuka ascetics. The Kodumbalur clan, were political allies of the Cholas for a long time and this particular king was a contemporary ( can i say fiduciary or subordinate) of Sundara Chola – Parantaka II ( i can see the eye brows going up for all Ponniyin selvan fans ..Yes it is he – the father of Raja Raja Chola)

From a distance, the site does tend to fall a bit short of your expectations. But hold your horses, even inch of space of this is a treat.

Maybe to highlight that this site aims to look at things differently, i am going to start this series on the moovar koil treasures, by showing a very tiny but equally interesting sculpture – bypassing the bigger and larger beauties. I do have a vested interest in doing so, for he is one of my cute cuddly favorites.

First, to show you where he is – he is part of the bootha regai ( line of Bootha or goblin freezes)

Lets step closer and see if you can spot my friend.

Ok, let me narrow your search range.

Oh, such a cutie -showing off his belly art.

Did you spot him, yet

He does look a bit grumpy today!!

The question to us is, the bootha regai runs through the entire length of that row around the vimana, and the other vimana as well. There are many bootha ganas depicted doing various acts and many times they are repeated, but this particular fellow is unique. We found him in the Great Penance Panel in Mahabalipuram, in Pullamangai, in Srinivasnallur and now here – always just only once in the site. What is his role and why the tiger face in the belly.

Hang on for the rest of the series, when we look at the `main’ beauties from moovar koil.

Perur – sculptures of the great hall – a tribute. Part 1

Ever since i laid my eyes on this masterly creation, its been a personal crusade to bring out its beauty for all to see. Its taken almost 10 years and was it worth the wait n effort that went into it. I do hope you will agree with me once you complete reading this post.

We are going to see today the truly remarkable sculpture of Shiva in his Urdhva Thandava pose.

For starters, this is a pillar sculpture – meaning the entire composition is of a single piece of stone – the Kanaga sabhai with its collection of 8 such brilliant compositions was commissioned between 1625 CE and 1659 CE in the reign of Rajah Sivathiru Azhagaathiri Nayakkar.

Why all this effort, you might ask, for this pinnacle of artistic beauty, the very epitome of sculptural excellence, is lost to many – hidden behind a steel cage. I hope patrons who read this, could get together and maybe sponsor a glass casing instead of this ugly steel monster.

Its quite late for such a fantastic exhibition of stone work – considering the relatively lesser quality workmanship seen in the post chola, Pandya 13- 14th C CE – but, the sculptures here are proof that this art form survived and thrived till the 16th Century -possibly reaching its pinnacle in this very hall.

To visualise the true grandeur of this amazing structure, we are helped thankfully with a old plate from the British archives.

Thanks to we also found this sketch by great artist Silpi.

Now, that we have a macro view of this mind blowing composition, lets go closeup to view what it hides within itself. Place on record our sincere thanks to the temple EO, who after hours of convincing, felt our passion for this art and not only allowed us to photograph these gems but also opened the grill gates for us….we were in for a true feast – come partake in our pleasures.

This sculpture is unique in many aspects and to truly understand them we need to go closeup – mean real closeup – for , its said that Siva’s dance cannot be comprehended by lesser masters. It is only the great ones like Brahma, Bharata, Hari, Narada or Skanda who can understand or appreciate his dance.

An inscription on the cave temple at Saluvankuppam has a verse to elucidate not only the distinction of Siva’s dance, but also to enumerate the great celestial exponents of natya and sangita and their ability, as the right audience, to appreciate Siva’s dance: yadi na vidhata bharato yadi na harir narado na va skandha boddhum ka iva samarthas sangitam kalakalasya (Epigraph. Ind. 10, p. 12).
From the Book:
NATARAJA – THE LORD OF DANCE – Dr. Sivaramamurti

It is not only these great gods and goddesses, the creators each in his or her own important way, that are the witnesses to applaud the dance of Siva, but they enthusiastically also join in creating the orchestra for him, by playing the musical instruments. At the very sign of his brow, Vishnu takes up the drum mardala, which, with is noble rumbling notes, like the cloud inspiring the blue-throated peacock to dance, starts the musical sound. With his louts hand, Brahma takes up a pair of cymbals, ostensibly to keep time to the dance of the victor of Kama

Whats so special here is the depiction of Brahma.

He is shown here with 5 heads and is holding the attributes of Shiva – the Axe and the deer !!

Like a musician, who, during his song, stops for a while, and draws attention to the tala or the rhythm beat, Siva the great dancer, pauses for a while, to sound the drum himself in between, to show the correct adjustment when necessary

Another uniqueness in this sculpture – was tempted to use the word panel here, but then this is no panel – its a monolith for that matter, is the depiction of Karaikkal ammaiyaar.

Such masterly depiction of the shriveled breasts, the loose folds of skin across the neck and throat – to show an old lady, prematurely aged – giving up her beauty to become a ghost. Read previous links for her !!

ofcourse, we do have a very chubby Muyalagan underneath his foot, cradling his snake.

Its becoming a long post, but its a crime to break it into two or three parts, for the beauty and charm of this piece of art is too sublime to be enjoyed in parts. I will try and use less descriptive words and more pictorial speech.

The face of a youthful shiva – complete with a double chin, the carved curves of the nostrils….

The beauty of the limbs – even to the detailing of the reverse kneecap. Oh, the fingers, lines, nails – cuticles…

Another beautiful aspect to notice – the feet – the toes – top and bottom view, the ring of the sandal and on the other side, the grace of the inwardly turned hand and the delicate mudra of the thumb and forefinger !!

The row of arms on both sides are a sight to behold with the myriad of attributes.

Such detailing in the hands and the attributes, some a quite unique and am yet to find their names and significance.

Especially this one

Normally would get some props to give our readers an idea of the scale of the composition – it would be a key for miniature panels and even went with the elephant for the big temple door guardian, but this natural prop blew me away.

Maybe, the skill of the sculptor fooled our winged friend who is blunting his fangs in vain to draw blood from this !!!

If you like what you have seen and would like future visitors not to be deprived of a chance to drink in this distilled essence of artistic brilliance, please pass on the word – to patrons who can raise funds and the cry – to change the grill to atleast a glass panel.

Pallava Cave Temple at Thiruchirappalli Rockfort – Lalitankura Pallavesvara Griham

The Rockfort – the first of the two caves.

An imposing natural feature and an integral part of the charming Thiru Seera Palli town, it evokes lot of different emotions – there is something primeval about a stone outcrop that is not easy to explain. Anyway, thanks to Annapoorna, this long sleeping draft sees light. Actually, must have posted this long back – self and Arvind had been there in December, but there were a few visitors – couples and some prospective couples, who chose to park themselves in this cave , mistaking its sculpted steps for a chair and the insides for a cozy lounge chair or bed – oblivious to pains we were taking to take in the beauty of this monument while trying our best to avoid capturing their amorous rendezvous. It was not to be so and their patience cum free time cum pursuits cum utter disregard for any count of decency left us with an unfinished portfolio.

Had to wait for Sriram to fill in the blanks. Sadly, even regular visitors ( not the love birds – mean true visitors) look at this monument as a mere pit stop in their ascent to the shrine on top. Thankfully or otherwise the lower cave ( we will see it in a followup post) has just to suffer the ignominy of total neglect alone.

This pallava period multiplex for the less privileged smitten, is a signature contribution of Mahendra Pallava. Known as Lalitankura Pallavesvara Griham, this is the southernmost Pallava cave temple and is one among the ancient sites in the Rockfort complex. Lalithangura was one of many titles of Mahendra and means ‘charming-scion’. Its unique in many aspects – for it consists of an inscription which confirms or rather proclaims that the great Pallava king returned to the faith of worshiping the Linga from a hostile faith !! in his own words. Not sure if these modern day mozarts and Romeos are aware of the jest and pun in the actual verse we shall see in a subsequent post, as we rush on to the sculpture part of the cave to start with.

Iconograhically, there are two signature contributions of the Pallavas – the Somaskanda icon and the Shiva Gangadhara form ( How about Nataraja – check out the post on Seeyamangalam earliest Nataraja form). We are already studying the evolution of the Pallava Somaskanda as a series, but what we are going to see today is maybe the earliest and magnificent Shiva Gangadhara form.

The Tiruchy cave is the southern most cave of the Pallavas – right into Chola heartland – that he came all the way to Trichy to excavate a cave temple in an inaccessible hill is a puzzle ( there is a jain bed also on the hill !!). I am going to take the help of some references from Dr. R. Nagaswamy and Swaminathan sir to explain this series. ” One must try to imagine how this hill would have looked without the Tayumanavar Koil, Uchichi-p-pillaiyar Koil and all the sundry shrines, to wonder how Mahendra chose the site at a height of 200 feet and how his artisans managed the excavation. Like the other Pallava monuments, this cave temple also holds some puzzles” – says Swami sir.

This is a cave supported by four pillars with two pilasters ( half pillars) on each end . The façade is pretty simple and the chunky pillars are early Mahendra style – rather plain, square in cross section at the bottom and top, but eight-sided in the middle. I think its time for us to graduate to learn more about the technical names of these pillar styles. ( thanks to

A simple four sided pillar is called a Brahmmakantha ( Brahma – four faced !!)
A eight sided pillar is called a Vishnukantha
A Sixteen sided pillar is called a Indrakantha
A circular pillar is called a Rudrakantha

A pillar can also be a composite of many styles – like four sides on top and bottom + eight sided in the middle.

There are circular low-reliefs on all the four sides of the pillars.

Very interesting to note the brackets above the pillars – which are fluted. Titles of King Mahendra are inscribed on the faces of these pillars, mostly in Pallava Grantha and a few in the Tamil script.

Beyond the pillars is a mandapa (hall), and in the rear the hall is a series of four pillars very similar to the ones in the front.

As we ascend the small flight of stairs, we are greeted by this majestic panel to our left and to the right ( eastern wall) is a now empty rock cut Garba Graha flanked by two cute door guardians.

We shall study this fantastic bas relief in a detailed post shortly. Its got quite a majestic air associated with it and is very special to me personally – for i met two very important people in my sculptural quest, on the very day i was introduced to this Gangadhara form, Sri Sundar Bharadwaj and Sri Dhivakar, for the pre release of Dhivakar sir’s Vichitracittan – work of historic fiction basing on the life of Mahendra, which incidentally features this magnificent Bas relief on its front cover.

Lets take a look at the two beautiful door guardians – one on each side, they are carved in bold-relief.

Both are in semi-profile ( a specialty of the Pallava sculptor !!) , two armed turned towards the shrine-entrance, standing with one leg bent and raised up and the other planted firmly on the ground, carry a massive club, their palms resting on it – they are less bulky than in Mandagapattu. Their attire is fantastically sculpted, but sadly they are much worn.

The garba graham itself was locked – which was funny in a way, but rather a sign of the times !!! For its empty today ( no bas reliefs or Somaskanda in the back wall – to remind our readers – none of the Mahendra caves have this feature outside of Mallai ) – yet the barred gates are testament to sad plight of such monuments – and the shanty respect shown on it – as a heritage site or at least as a shrine / sanctum. It does hold a puzzle as well – for it has two pits excavated into the floor – one might have held a movable stone Linga ( Pandya caves have as a contrast monolith lingas ) but there is a second pit to its right !! possibly the only cave with this feature.

Some frustrated souls seem to have found a way to tear up the mesh and finding the pits – mistook them for garbage bins and dumped their plastic waste into them. You can see the two pits coming into view towards the bottom of the photo.

We shall continue exploring the beauty of this cave and its spectacles in the next part.

The minute aspects to note in a sculpture – finding a needle in perur

There are many wonderful and awe inspiring sculptures in Perur. But as we saw in the previous post, there was this seemingly innocuous looking pillar sculpture, which we would have totally missed, if not for the genius in Sri Padmavasan.

Many people would have passed this sculpture without even batting an eyelid, and to be honest despite our heightened mortar skills, we too missed to even spend the few seconds to capture it on camera. The subsequent trouble we went through to secure the images, is a lesson for us, not to take any sculpture or artist lightly.

Padmavasan sir, showed me his sketch of this pillar and started explaining its uniqueness.

Lets see if we can make out some basic features from the sculpture first.

Obviously, its an ascetic in deep meditation. Perched on one leg, but there are few signs which help us to identify him

A bow on his shoulder and the boar, show us that its Arjuna, the penance to get the Pasupathaastra from Shiva.

The craftsmen’s mastery in handling the relief in the bow is simply astounding. Take a look at this angle.

But, the uniqueness of this relief sculpture is in the way the sculptor has portrayed the intensity of Arjuna’s penance. How?

Do you notice anything different. Let me give you a clue. Normally the sculptor would strictly adhere to framing guidelines – but in this frame the foot seems to extend slightly out of the lower frame. Why?

Try to spot something under the big toe !! Maybe sir’s sketch can help us take notice.

Yes, he is doing penance on a needle point. Thanks to Praveen for capturing the different angles to truly appreciate the greatness of the sculpture. No better way to explain than this angle.

Perur Series – starting off with a penance

About 9 years back, i visited Perur – was stunned by what i saw – for what it had to show was truly a connoisseur’s delight. As my journey into sculpture matured over the years, my love for these beauties grew manifold. But, every time i ventured to photograph these beauties, i was turned down. I had to be content with some small resolution snaps published in a newspaper. But then, each unsuccessful attempt strengthened my resolve, and visit to Perur Patteswarar and a request to photograph was a standard feature of every visit to Coimbatore.

Late in 2008, on a fateful saturday i was reluctantly accompanying my wife and son to an event organised by the Annalaxmi group in Singapore – it was called
Dance of India, Taste of India……as i tried to find an excuse to make myself scarce, i spotted at a distance some lovely pen and ink sketches of ganesha – immaculate art – somewhat like this ( i am kicking myself for leaving my camera behind that day)

I sped to the stall – and below the sketch was a small signature – Padmavasan. Oh oh – i was overjoyed for – the card next to it said, the artist was present there to do spot sketches ( profiles) for sgd 20. Having never had the good fortune of meeting him before i frantically looked around for help, asked the next stall person – and he pointed to a small very innocuous looking man just standing around – clad in a simple kurtha. I couldn’t b’ve my
eyes, there he was – the artist himself.

i went up to him, introduced myself ( ofcourse ponniyin selvan ……..kalki…..silpi…sculpture ) and he warmed up. we spent about 45 min
chatting away.

He talked of his interaction with the great man silpi – the divine
gift of his – He also talked of Silpi’s mindblowing talent – pointing out that once
when he was sketching the natraja in tanjore – he sketched the front profile ( running out of paper – he took another piece and pasted in the bottom to complete) . and he went on to sketch the back head portion alone – ofcourse the two sketches were in different sizes – but most amazing was the fact that mr
padmavasan later – for a book, tried to resize both the sketches to the same size – and when he placed the front on the back – they fit like a glove…such a gift to visually capture the divine proportions!!.

We exchanged numbers, and he wrote his address and phone number on a small piece of paper in pencil ( still treasure it)…

Dec 2009. Another mandatory visit to Perur, but this time, i had made it a point to get the permission – come what may. Was assisted by some very good friends and well wishers, but all pointed to the hands of the Temple Executive Officer. I was expecting to hit a blind alley once again, when after about an hour – we were still waiting. But then we finally managed to get an audience with the EO, a smart Young man, who recognised the passion in our voices, yet it took about an hour to convince him of our mission. He finally yielded and once he saw that we were only there to promote the temple and its beauties, doors opened pretty fast. We faced an unexpected one final hurdle in the mandatory power cuts – yet we still had a spare day – so we returned the next day to complete the shoot – of what we thought was an extensive aka comprehensive coverage of the temple.

Next week in Chennai: I caught up with Sri Padmavasan again for the second time, in his home in chennai – in Dec 2009. I showed him my photo gallery and you could see the glee in his eyes and he started showing me more of his rare work. I mentioned about perur and he came out with his entire collection of Perur including a spectacular rendition of the Moolavar in color.

I was speechless by seeing the true color rendition – including the color and sheen of the copper vessel on top of the Linga.

But among the many sketches, there was one, which he considered very special, but we had overlooked it – for it felt too simple and we just skipped it. Later, i would kick myself many times over for doing so. It took another 3 months and help from Mr Praveen and the EO once again to get the particular pillar in the right angle.

Whats so special about this pillar sculpture? Looks like some Rishi in Tapas.

Well we see that in part 2 of this post

The unsung Chola painter Vs Da Vinci

In recent times, the Chola fresco paintings of Tanjore have been in the limelight for various reasons. Not many know that these 1000-year-old frescoes, were discovered as early as 1931 – by a 28-year-old historian, S.K. Govindaswami. Thankfully the HIndu did republish the article giving credit to the right person for the find.

An exciting discovery and a 1931 scoop for The Hindu

Sadly, even after 80 years – there are not many published works on these beautiful paintings and some rare attempts have been met with copyright and other issues. Normal visitors to the site are also not allowed permission to view these !! As i write this, i am forced to use already published photos on the net, but then the question lingers that when the artist himself didn’t sign the work,preferring to remain forever immortal yet anonymous, who are we to put copyrights on mere photos, thereby diminishing the great tradition of this land and depriving many of the sheer joy of viewing these.

To truly understand and appreciate the greatness of this artist, i wish to showcase one small panel in a fresco – the ascent of Saint Sundarar ( on Indra’s white elephant) along with Cheraman Perumal ( on a white horse) to the heavens. Much has been already written upon the theme of this panel and i am given to understand a few Phd thesis have been presented on it, sadly as is the case with many of our draconian policies, these are never accessible to anyone !!! Anyway, coming back to the post, we are going to see only a small portion of this panel – to be specific just Cheraman Perumal and the horse.

Photo: Courtesy

Before we dwell further, just a short note on why i wanted to showcase this particular work. Somehow, horses have a certain raw energy in them, the ripple of the muscle, the grace of the arching limbs, the sway of the tail and mane – they are an artist’s delight ( next only to beautiful women)!. No wonder Da Vinci did considerable studies on them. Recently there was a program on Discovery or National Geographic about one of his unfinished works – a collosal 24 foot bronze horse. As i was following up on the sheer effort the great artist had put on the study of horses, there was something familar about it. See his sketches and read on..

Photos: Various sources on the net

We now come to the Chola fresco. Sri C. Sivaramamurthy, one of the greatest connoisseurs of art and chola art in particular, writes about this specific piece thus ( he has sketched the outline as well for us to enjoy)

The picture of the rider on the horse in fig. 2 is equally attractive in every detail. There is a grace in the way in which he holds the reins in one hand and the long wand in the other. The horse though reminding one of the animals the of that species, especially the white one in the centre in the Battle of St. Egidio by Paolo Uccello in the National Gallery, and though appearing to be defective in drawing to some extent in the so-called modern academic sense–one has to bear in mind that many pictures of great masters cannot stand this test so well, which is, to confess the truth, never a test of true greatness and worth–is yet a unique example of the skill in animal drawing in those far-off days, and testimony to this is borne by the magnificent elephant that is painted very close to it.

We will see the mentioned elephant in a subsequent post. Since the sketch is of low resolution, have retouched it for our better enjoyment. ( i wish i could get one of our more talented artists to paint it as per the original color scheme !!)

Sri C. Sivaramamurthy, does mention the resemblance to Battle of St. Egidio by Paolo Uccello in the National Gallery.

The color combinations do bear an uncanny resemblance. But to me, as i look back at Da Vinci’s sketches and this fresco, it slowly dawns on me – every detail – the roundness of the horses back, the detailing of the rear legs, the fullness of the chest, the majestic head, the neatly cropped and braided mane, the prancing of the front legs,the exactness of proportion, the inch perfect joints, the subtly hinted muscularity – though not as pronounced as Da vinci’s studies, the clarity of the hoofs…..leaves me speech less.

Take a bow, O anonymous chola painter, we salute you.

p.s Maybe, on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the Big temple, the authorities can bring out atleast a book on these paintings if not putting these up on their sites for the world to relish.

Where it all began in South India – Stone Circles

The cradle of civilisation – many cultures want to lay claims to this tag. When these claims are not backed by strong evidence, they step back to folklore, mythical storms, lost lands and sea incursions that magically wipe out all traces of civilisation, yet leave intact the memories. While we wait for more technological advances to enable more clear dating techniques, under water explorations etc etc, maybe in the near or distant future, i may be proved wrong on what i propose in today’s post.

Many cultures pride themselves on their antiquity and there is a conscious effort to push back the time frames to gain that extra yardage in terms of publicity. This is prevalent across all cultures and across continents. There is something that makes `yours’ special that you want to feed on it – that you are special and above the rest and want to prove that yours is the most ancient, technologically advanced etc etc. But then, there are certain events, that kind of make you sit up and realise reality – reasoning between the logical thinking of your brain and the vanity that still resides in your heart. Today’s post is one such.

On one side you have the reasoning like above, but on the other side you have things that completely baffle you, logically impossible coincidences. What we are going to see is one such. Stone Circles.


We were driving down a mud road enroute to Malaiyadipatti, inside pudukkottai district, when we chanced on a familiar blue board, albiet in a very shockingly sad condition.

Yes, an ASI warning signboard – but we were a bit perplexed that there were no temples or ruins around. So, i stepped down to investigate.

On closer scrutiny, we realised that this was where it all began…this was a stone circle. Dated to between 1000 to 300 BCE, these marked grave sites. Large urns, containing collected bones were buried in a small pit, and these stones mark the periphery.

The beauty of this is that, this was no random stones bunched together, but these were stones made of laterite – material which is not available in the near vicinity, but in some cases as far away as 10 – 20 kms away. So this was part of some definitive ancestral worship ritual.

The beauty to me lay in their perfect geometry and how they have lasted so many years.

But on the same side, i did realise that they were pretty rudimentary, no markings, no stone workings, no sculptures etc. True the contents of the cists were interesting and even recently the potsherds had a very scripts, Yet…

This comes to where we started with a few questions. True, there are definite accounts of atleast two major sea incursions in South India, destroying and permanently submerging vast tracts of land, swallowing advanced cultures – but even after providing for all those, would you return back to a iron age lifestyle – for this is not an isolated find, scroll through the ASI site and search for megalithic !!

ASI – Megalithic

The puzzle gets more interesting if you google for stone circles and find them all over the world.

But what i wanted to say in the post, would maybe not go down well with even a few of my friends – the Great Pyramids of Egypt had been standing already for 2000 years when our great great forefathers made these stone circles in Pudukkottai.