Sittanavasal – the zenith of painting

Everything about Sittanavasal is clouded in mystery. Partly due to the sheer ignorance of common folk and largely due to ridiculous apathy of our system. How else can I describe the continued neglect of this zenith of painting excellence. Had even 1% of what is here, been in any other country, it would be celebrated as a nation treasure !! We have already seen couple of posts which showed the pathetic condition of these fantastic creations. Today, thanks to Mr Ashok Krishnaswamy – who is planning on bringing them out in the medium and in the form that would befit their worth. They are his copyrighted ones. I am forever indebted to him for willingly sharing these with us, so that we might bring out the beauty in this stellar composition and hopefully save what is left of it, at least digitally.

I was first introduced to the magnificence of this particular composition during a session with Prof Swaminathan. From that day, onwards its been more of a penance to bring this as a post, showcasing its true beauty to all. Me and Arvind were there last December, the terrain was harsh and we didn’t have the necessary paperwork to get them on our cameras. Good thing at that, for what we saw needed the expert hands of a professional. ( incidentally This Jaina site and its paintings were first noticed by a local historian S. Radhakrishna Iyer in 1916)

The rockface you see holds two treasures. One on top and one at its bottom. We will see the top one some other time.

We reached the cave front and were immediately taken aback at the site of the front pillars. They were not really the ones you expect of a cave of that date – clear later date additions !!

The rock cut cave could be stylistically dated to the 7th C CE ( notice the chunky pillars ala mahendra style) and was extensively renovated in the 9th C as we glean from an inscription that is on the pillar to the left of the original cave front ( once you step inside – to your right).

The inscriptions is in Tamil and talks of a Jain Ilan Gautaman who renovated the ardta mandapam during the reign of पंड्या king Srimaran-Srivallabhan (815 – 862 AD).

We already saw the location of the two dancers in the previous post, now we go to the main course. The piece de resistance of Arivar Koil ( yes, thats the original name of cave)

The painting style has been done in what is called Fresco Secco –

The treatise Silparatna by Kumaradeva (8th century) gives an account of the Fresco-secco painting technology in detail. According to this text, a picture should be painted with appropriate colours along with proper forms and sentiments (rasas), and moods and actions (bhavas). White, yellow, red, black and terraverte are pointed out in the text as pure colors. Different shades were also prepared from these original colors. Five types of brushes with various shapes and size (flat, long, medium etc.) made of animal hair and grass fibre are also recommended

Whats great about this work, is the difficulty quotient. Working on raised platforms, the artist would have had to work long hours lying down, mixing colors ( mineral dyes at that) and applying them in that position, would have been such a pain.

I can see some of you getting impatient, lets bring it on. Here come the paintings.

Well, whats so great about this work. Let me take you through this journey – visually. Let me mark the areas where you have to focus on.

Still finding it tough, Ok, let me try another way. This is a lotus pond and is filled with lively fishes.

Lets zoom in on a few frolicking fish and see the detailing of the fish.

There are many more hiding in the pond, take your time, go back and see if you can spot them.

Now, this is a huge pond and there aren’t just fishes. If i were to tell you that there is a bison, a buffalo, a cow, an elephant family and a whole herd of frightened geese in that frame, you are not going to believe me…are you.

Ok, lets start with the biggies first. There is actually a small baby as well, try and spot him. ( very vague though – come on – its a 1100 year old work). The large elephant seems have his trunk around a bunch of lotuses and pulling at them !!

Now to the bovines, focus on the top left of your screen. You can see a massive Bison who is starring back at you, just behind him is his mate.

Notice the construction of his massive horns and differentiation provided to those of the cow.

There is one more, but a different species to the bottom center. Yeah, a water buffalo ( must have been my dad’s favorite for he must have called me with that far more times than my own name !!). Notice how the three are expertly handled by the artist.

Now, there is one more badly faded image, which i presume to be that of a horse.

To add to all this fun, there are a whole bunch of geese as well – you could have noticed quite a few already along with the elephants.

But do you notice something in the eyes of these birds. The expert artist has brought forth a sense of alarm in their eyes.

What is it that is causing their alarm. Take a clue from the painting itself, look in the direction of their gaze.

Except for the bottom pair, who seem to disturbed by the elephant to their left, all the rest are looking at a single point in the pond.

Yes, there are two charming men in the pond, the main subjects of this theme. They are part of the Samava Sarana, a Jaina motiff. They are shown as collecting flowers.

One of them seems to be of a darker complexion and is shown in the process of plucking a lotus flower, while on his other hand hands a wicker basket with plucked flowers. Look at the mastery of the artist, you can see the pressure on the stalk as its been pulled !!

The second monk, behind him, is depicted even more spectacularly. He has this serene calm radiant beauty in his face and a gentle grace in his action of pointing the next flower to his friend.

The last exhibit needs a second look.If you notice the three stalks behind the young monk, you will notice a subtle difference in them. Yes, indeed. There are both lotuses and Lilly’s in this pond – a lily stalk is smooth whereas a lotus stalk is serrated.

Thanks to Doyen Sri Sivaramamoorthy’s sketches, we can also see how the outline would look

Such mastery over his art and total understanding of his subjects. Not to take away the variations of different stages of flowering of each – from bud onwards. But wait, we have only finished half the pond. We will see the other side in part 2 of this post.

28 thoughts on “Sittanavasal – the zenith of painting

  1. மனிதனைக் கண்டுதான் மற்றவை மிரள்கின்றன. மற்றவை மிரள்வதால் கலைஞன் மகிழ்கிறான். அருமையான இடுகை விஜய்..

    இந்தியாவில் எத்தனையோ அற்புதங்கள் உண்டு. இவை கண்டும் காணாமல் போவது கூட இந்தியனுக்கு சகஜம்தான்.

    அடுத்த பாதிக்கு ஆவலில்..

  2. அற்புதம்!!! ஒரு வேளை நேரில் சென்று பார்த்திருந்தாலும் இத்தனை விஷயங்களை கூர்ந்து கவனித்திருப்போமா என்பது சந்தேகமே! ஒரு ஓவியத்திற்குள் எத்தனை விஷயங்கள், அதிலும் மேல் சுவற்றில் வரையப்பெற்றது. ஓவியரின் திறமையே திறமை! மேலும் இதனை எங்களுக்கு விளக்கமாக எடுத்துக் காட்டிய தங்களின் இடுகை மிக அற்புதம். இதன் அடுத்த பகுதியை விரைவில் எதிர்நோக்குகிறோம்.

  3. Wonderful Vijay. It was a sight to behold and i couldnt come out of its impact for a few days when i visited the place last year.
    But the way it is maintained needs no mention. Thankfully, i guess ASI has put up a locked up enclosure to prevent reckless youth from vandalizing the already vandalized treasure.


  4. Thanks so much for making it possible to study the ‘lotus pond’, & helping us w the details. [where do you find the time, you must work so quickly!] where photog. isn’t allowed to
    most mere mortals. [with good reason]

  5. நன்றி திவாகர் சார்

    வர்தினி,கண்டிப்பாக நேரில் சென்று பாருங்கள். அந்த ஆவலை தூண்டவே இது போன்ற பதிவுகள். தங்களை போன்றோர் சென்றால், அங்கே சுற்றுலா வணிகம் பெருகும். கிராமத்தில் காசு புழங்கும். அதற்காவது இந்த அற்புதங்களை பராமரிக்க மனம் வரும்

  6. @ annapoorna – yes, work of humans only, the reward for total dedication to one’s craft..mastery

    @ Mouli – yes, was able to sleep peacefully last night. a big burden off my chest, been wanting to do this post for years..

    @ Kathie – ashok is working on a master plan – hopefully this post will help him get closer to it…

    @ PNS – thanks

  7. Stunning Revelation. Superb presentation. Sad Indifferenceof authorities. Shocking Government apathy. Semozhiyana Thamizh mozhiya idhu ?

  8. @ Neelakantan – I dont think its correct to pile everything on the authorities – its the attitude of the common man that causes the vandalism. protection – how much can one guard and a natraj lock do – the feeling must come from the inside.

    If at all i were to point a finger, i would lament that despite such advances in technology and publishing advances – not many have taken the steps to bring them out in a medium that will showcase them for ever.

    Swami sir and under his tutelage Ashok is working towards this goal. hopefully some donor will come up to extend a helping hand…soon.


  9. Awesome post Vijay…enjoyed thoroughly 🙂 and the sketch is superb. how wonderful if kids would want to colour and draw sketches like these instead of cartoons.

  10. அருமையான பதிவு விஜய். பாராட்டுகள் & நன்றி.
    இரண்டு வாரங்களுக்கு முன் தான் சித்தன்னவாசல் சென்று, ஓவியங்களை ரசித்து வந்தேன். புகைபடங்கள் எடுக்க அனுமதி இல்லாதது தான் ஒரே வருத்தம்.
    அடுத்த பதிவுக்காகக் காத்திருக்கிறேன்.

  11. I remember visiting this place as a kid… Thanks to you today I am able to understand and see these paintings again.
    How beautiful these paintings are. The outline shows the absolute dedication and masterful work of art this is. It is beautiful! Fortunate are we to have such works of art among us. This one painting can inspire artists for ages to come…

  12. this is absolute beauty….i wish our state was in Europe..they would have promoted this as one of worlds best…and the paintings would have got some respect they deserve

  13. excellent; i don’t know what the govt dept will do without seeing this; they r all educated know; india; jai hind; thiruchitrambalam

  14. Excellent! The final painting has really come out well, and reminds me of my favorite artist and illustrator, ‘MANIAM’.He followed the same style in almost all his illustrations, especially historical stories.

  15. Hi…. can u please tell mr the exact bus route from pudukottai to sittanavasal?
    coz im planning for a trip in november.

  16. hi preethi, Not sure of the bus routes, but the distance is only 15 kms. if u can hire a transport u can cover more areas…narthamalai etc


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *