An amazing bronze of Kalinga nardhana

Prasad is no new comer to us, we have seen his gifted art in our pages many times. But today he takes on a new avatar and coinciding with Janmastami – the birthday of Krishna, he teams up with Ashok, who has been kind enough to share his wonderful pictures of an amazing Bronze, to create a post on the famed Kalinga Nardhana of Oothukadu.

There is no introduction required to the immense and sublime brilliance of Chola artisans of the tamil country. Fully knowing that words cannot capture the essence of my experience, I shall try to lead the readers towards having this divine experience themselves. I shall today humbly attempt to describe, share and perhaps motivate some of you to enjoy this immense wealth even more keenly. I begin with an invocation to the almighty and pray to him to bestow upon me the power to describe what I feel as something that can be better experienced than described.

Today we shall see a sculpture of kalinga Mardhana Krishna, an epic dance to subdue a snakes arrogance captured most exceptionally in metal.

Let us look at the sculpture first as a whole, he is represented as performing his divine dance atop the head of Kalinga, evidently teaching a lesson to the monstrous snake about humility and at the same time showing to the world who he really is. The chola artist are masters in capturing action, its force and also encapsulating a story into it. They are so good at it that one look at the sculpture and the ensuing sequence of actions is completely captured in minds eye.

So let us follow an aarthi starting at the sculptures right foot., only in the opposite direction in which an aarthi it is generally performed. Let us start appreciating the mastery of the sculptures by looking at it not just as a static pose. It is actually a part of the sequence of actions and the perhaps captures the force of the moment most magnificently.

Observe the raised foot, can you now visualize how the foot will land on the head of the snake in a few seconds? Can you feel the immense pressure that step is going to exert, not a death blow but something that will send strong message to the arrogant snake.

Perhaps this is how it might land on the snakes head.

Let us now observe the left hand, grasping the tail of the snake ever slow elegantly. Please try to imagine how your hand will be when you are trying to hold something heavy (wriggling uncontrollably) at shoulder height, Imagine how stiff and strained the muscles will be, imagine the discomfort, but what do we see here?

A bent hand, holding the tail of the snake as if it were a piece of silk, can you now vizualize that this very posture indicates child’s play. To him this snake is no big deal, all he needs to do is hold this giant snake’s tail like a small piece of cloth. However, when you see the whole composition in context, you will understand the complexity of depiction vs actual modelling dynamics.

Next we observe the face. The bewitching smile indicates that he is not intending to hurt the snake nor does it show an ounce of arrogance, anger, strain or pride, all it radiates is pure child like glee. Also observe that he is not looking at the snake nor is he looking at anything specific, his gaze spans the whole universe. His face is slightly bent, here again we need to visualize the force or the grace of his dance. His head sways gently behind before he stamps his foot again on the head of the snake.

How the classical dancer’s body moves, the slight sway of the head.

Finally let us rest our eyes upon his abhaya hasta. It is often said that the eye sees what it wants to see. To his cowherd friends it conveys the message not to worry and that he is in control. To the innumerable saints and gods it tells them that he is there to protect. To the arrogant snake and those who seek to destroy peace and harmony it shows a sign of warning! (ready to slap them). To the family of the snake it shows that he has heard their pleas and granted mercy. And thousand more meaning that I am unable to elaborate simply because my language inhibits me.

The dynamics of this unique bronze upon closer scrutiny lends upon the viewer the fact that there is small gap between his left feet and the head of the snake – so the entire weight of Krishna is on the hand holding the tail – a lasting memory of the bronze craftsmen and his amazing craft.

I now complete this post with a faith that I have been able to express what I experienced when I saw this sculpture. Also I wish to take the liberty to put forward a honest plea to the readers. Our heritage is EXTREMELY precious, to have survived the innumerable invasions, greed of men and the force of nature by itself is a miracle. I urge all the readers to henceforth make a determined effort to look at the idols in altogether new angle. Each sculpture has so many things to reveal, each sculpture is abound with energy, pain, toil and passion of the ancient sculptors. To preserve them is not only our responsibility but our sacred duty.

Please appreciate these timeless marvels. Always remember that it is not a gift by your ancestors but a loan given to you by your children. We need to give it back to the future generations with accrued interest. 🙂

Special thanks to Mr Ashok and Ms.Neeraja Srinivasan ( Dancer) for allowing us the use of the photos.

As a special gift Ashok share this.

All the views above are purely based on intuitive feeling of the writer and may or may not agree upon with scientific and actual meaning according to shilpa shastra. The writer apologizes for any mistakes in the content and wishes to declare that they are solely his views and have been caused due to ignorance. Many thanks to Vijay for the providing an opportunity to express my views and a big round of applause for his commendable efforts to bring forth our rich heritage. May this initiative snowball into a big revolution. Vanakam.

The Pride of Panamalai – recreated -part 1

We were overjoyed with the overwhelming response we received for our attempt to recreate the Pallava Somaskandar Paintings in Kanchi Kailasanathar temple which we carried as three parts – part 1, part 2 and part 3. Thanks to the stupendous work of Smt Subhashini Balasubramanian for whom art flows in the blood, coming in the line of legendary artists Sri Maniam and Sri Maniam Selvan, we proceed to attempt another difficult project.

It was in 2009, when we led a team of Ponniyin Selvan enthusiasts up the small hillock near Sengi – Panamalai.

To catch sight of the brilliance of Sri Rajasimha Pallava’s stupendous creation – The Panamalai Talagirisvara temple.

There is something about the graceful symmetry of Rajasimha‘s Vimana’s that give them a lasting allure.

But this one contained something more exquisite inside it. We have already seen how the great connoisseur King, had embellished his entire creation from wall to wall with stunning works of art – yes, every inch would have been painted, in the Kanchi kailsanathar temple – Panamalai was also similarly jewelled – with art. But sadly, only a few remain. But you will see, how even a single brush stroke of the Pallava artist has an unique brilliance in it.

There are hardly any remnants of the art work in the main Sanctum or Vimana, however, as you move around, just on the right side of the Vimana – there is, at a height of about 4 feet, a Sanctum, having a Shiva Linga. There are no steps and you have to brave the climb, for it holds the treasure.

Do not be fooled by the first casual glance, for the inside walls of this shrine hold possibly the most beautiful of maidens in all of land south of the Vindyas.

There is more to be seen, but we start with her today.

The Pride of Panamalai – Umai. She reveals herself to you, as you go near and words fail to even form, as the sensory overload stuns you.

Despite the ravages of time and human neglect, the perfection of the lines, the mastery over color, form, shade and the effects which their confluence create, the emotion that they bring out in so lithe a form.

Much of the plaster had fallen off and what remained of the background was tough to decipher, except for the colorful Umbrella. For eg, the outline seemed to resemble a typical Pallava cave pillar ( to her left)

You would have noticed that Umai is on the right wall, the main back wall too has very faint lines.

On closer study, we realised that it was Shiva dancing his triumphant Alidhanrita dance after destroying the three cities ( Tripurantaka). We will try and see more in a subsequent post, but why we need to know that , is because a similar composition of Rajasimha exists in Kanchi Kailasanthar, not in paint but in Stone.

Here too, we see Umai or Tirupurantaki in a similar ( slightly different) posture

Armed with this knowledge, would it be possible for us to recreate this lost painting and try to show her in all her glory. Well, we let you judge. Over to Subhashini

The colors and texture being worked upon.

Its important to mention here that as with the previous attempt where we got help from Jagadeesh, this time, we got help from another unexpected quarters. For quite sometime, there were very few images of Panamalai on the net and the best were those of Mr Franck RONDOT. I wrote to him explaining our intentions with samples of the previous attempt and he readily sent us his original pictures. They are of immense value to us both for this and also our future attempt for the Alidhanrita, since his were taken many years back and could have more of the original lines and colors !

Our thanks also to PSVP team of Saurabh, Shaswath, Shriram and many others for making the trip and sharing their pictures.

and we start with here

To be continued..

Thiruvattathurai: of camaras and murtis, a sculptural mystery

Independence Day Wishes to all readers.

Today, we are going to see the third in the series of guest posts from Ms. Liesbeth Pankaja Bennink.

Previously I told two stories out of the many that make up the temple of Shri Arattathurainathar in Thiruvattathurai. My post of 19 april 2011, “A gift to the gifted child”, told the story of the child-poet and saint Thirujnanasambandar, who was honoured by Shiva himself with a palanquin and an umbrella when he visited this temple to sing his songs. The post of 7 june 2011, “Sculptures and stories and the life of a temple”, told the story of the sculptural program. How the sthapatis of old presented various aspects of Lord Shiva to the devotees as they performed their pradakshina.

In this post I will tell the story of one of the details of this sculptural program. The representations of Shiva in this temple are of exceptional workmanship. Their beauty and expression is quite unique. Part of these representations is also a feature which is both interesting and peculiar. This is the presence and depiction of camaras with the murtis in the niches of the shrine.

Although it is just a fraction of all the temples in Southern India, I am fortunate to have seen quite a few. And whichever temple it is, every visit brings new discoveries, new understanding, new beauty. The Shiva temple in Thiruvattathurai is both a treasure and a mystery. A treasure for the exceptional beauty of the sculptures in what is today a relatively small and little known shrine. And a mystery because of one aspect of these sculptures, the representation of camaras with some of the murtis.

A camara is also called a fly-whisk. It is a kind of fan made out of a yak-tail set in a silver handle. It is one of the upacaras or honours offered in worship. It is also part of the protocol with which kings and other dignitaries are honored. We see them often in historical movies being waved by beautiful damsels standing by the side of the king’s throne. And today still as part of the protocol in temple worship and festivals. So it would really not be so very surprising to find camaras depicted in a sculptural panel of a deity. And they often are in narrative panels. Reliefs that tell a story or depict certain events. But I actually do not remember ever having seen camaras depicted above the murtis placed in the niches around a shrine.

Here in Thiruvattathurai we find camaras clearly depicted with two murtis. The Nataraja in the southern ardhamandapa wall is honored with a beautiful set of camaras. And so is the Brahma in the north-facing niche of the vimana. The camaras kind of ‘hang’ above and to the side the head. They are not being held as would be the way they would be used in practice.

The handles are folded against the yak-tail plumes in a peculiar way. The handles of the camaras with Nataraja and Brahma are different, and so is the way they are positioned relative to the murti.

The Vinayaka in the center of the southern ardhamandapa wall is honored by the sculptors with an umbrella as well as a set of camaras. And also above and behind Bhikshatana we see a faint outline of two camaras. These camaras don’t have details depicted, they seem to have been left unfinished. And they have also not been applied with oil.

Also above and behind the Lingodbhava in the niche of the West wall a set of camaras can be seen. Also this set has not been touched by oil and looks a bit unfinished.

Three of the other murtis found in the niches of the shrine, Dakshinamurti, Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara have definitely not been given camaras. The space behind Durga is not very visible, but there does not seem to be space for a set of camaras. Also Bhairava in the wall of the mukhamandapa has not been honored with camaras.

Readers may ask, why is she bothered with this detail? The camaras are nice and they make the sculptures in this temple special, but what’s the point? The point is that I think the presence or absence of camaras in combination with other features tell us something about the art-history of this temple.

As we learned in a previous post four of the six niches in the ardhamandapa wall are cut niches, not true devakoshthas. Vinayaka and Durga are seated in the devakoshthas. Vinayaka has an umbrella and a set of camaras. But they have been left unfinished. Durga does not have this honour of camaras. Look again, you can see the panel with the representation of the umbrella and camaras has been cut a little bit to accommodate the murti of Vinayaka.

Dakshinamurti is occupying a shallow cut niche and is a stone panel placed into the space of the niche-background. So is the Nataraja, but here the camaras are part of the original sculpture. Dakshinamurti has no camaras. Lingodbhava does have camaras, but they are part of the background wall of the niche. The camaras with Brahma belong to the original sculpture which has been fitted into the wall of the niche. The other four sculptures don’t have camaras.

When further looking at details we see all kinds of differences. Brahma has a properly executed kirtimukha as belt-clasp. Lingodbhava has a belt-clasp which is not yet exactly a kirtimukha, as is usual for classical Chola sculpture. His belt-clasp is almost a kirtimukha, but not quite. Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara have very different clasps. Also the yajnopavitas are different between the murtis. The knot as well as the way they hang down across the torso of the murti are different. Again when we compare these four murtis we see that the depth of the relief of the sashes at the hip are deep with the Lingodbhava and the Gangavatarana and also very similar. Whereas the sashes of the Brahma and the Ardhanarishvara are very similar. Do we see an art-historical evolution taking place? Or do we see sculptures on which different sculptors have worked? Two making different types of belts, and two making different types of sashes.

So, again, what is the point? There are four cut-out niches in the ardhamandapa wall. This means four of the six niches were not part of the original design. Two murtis have a set of camaras included within the whole of the relief. Three have a set of (unfinished) camaras depicted on the niche wall outside the actual sculpture.

I suggest these differences in details, together with the presence and absence of camaras points to the possibility these sculptures came from other temples and were made at different moments in time and also introduced to this temple at different moments in time. This in spite of the unity of style and quality these sculptures express as a group.

Durga en Vinayaka occupy the two central niches in the ardhamandapa walls. These niches are rather narrow and high and the murtis fit accordingly. But the wall of the niche has been cut a little bit to accommodate the Vinayaka. An almost sure sign the murti was not originally intended for this niche. Bhikshatana, Nataraja, Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara occupy the cut-out niches. Did these murtis come from somewhere and were accommodated this way after the temple had been build? Or did the architect change his mind half-way the construction? Is it evidence of changes in taste, changes in religious beliefs, or changes in political or economic influences?

Brahma has camaras included in his relief and occupies one of the niches on the vimana wall. Nataraja in a cut-out niche on the ardhamandapa wall has camaras included also. But they are different in style and position. Lingodbhava in the northern niche has camaras in the niche wall. But Dakshinamurti in the southern niche does not. This murti occupies the whole niche and even comes out and in front of the niche and the adhisthana or temple base with his own seat and the Apasmara under his foot.

So here we have our little mystery. One or more sculptors included camaras with the murtis, but this idea seems to have come out of nowhere, and seems to have been abandoned as soon as it was take up.I won’t try definite conclusions as to the why or even the when of it all. It is not possible without further information. This might come from inscriptions, from oral traditions, from a purana. Or from systematically comparing the sculptures with sculptures from other temples. But all in all it makes an interesting story giving a glimpse of what may have happened, all those centuries ago.

Photo Courtesy: Author and our special thanks to Mr.V. Sekar for sharing some of his very wonderful captures.

The earliest Vishnu Bronzes and their current state

“Ignorance is Bliss” they say and so too ” A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”! The real meaning of these two dawned on me via the events that unfurled over the last couple of months.

A fortuitous visit to London made me avail of an exciting visit to the Museums in London and the honeymoon with bronzes continued in their splendid confines. The little initiation into Bronzes led me to the smaller exhibits as the early bronzes were diminutive in size but enormous in value – not just in $ terms but the wealth of information they held within them.

The object that caught my attention was an early Vishnu bronze, dated to the 9th C. The beauty of the exhibit was matched by the quality of the display thereby offering it the respect it deserved.

The characteristics of this bronze beauty, the pronounced Srivatsa mark, the Yagnopavitha etc give it a late Pallava or early Chola date. Why early Chola is simple to understand – firstly due to its smaller size, the Prayoga Chakra etc.

Why late Pallava needed further study. ( we will study them all in detail in the coming posts). This is where the pursuit started to find bronzes that would predate the above beauty.

Once again, the 1963 publication Bronzes of South India – P.R. Srinivasan, came to help. The earliest Vishnu Bronzes assigned to the Pallava period – 8th C CE are the Perunthottam bronzes ( Mayavaram region).

The earliest of course is this beauty – dated to the early half of the 8th C CE

The other follows closely – second half of the 8th C CE.

They are so important that their features are studied in 5 pages in the seminal work by Sri P.R. Srinivasan. Before, we dwell into that, the current location mentioned is what sent my heart racing – Tanjore Art Gallery ! It set my mind racing as there was no memory of seeing such an exhibit there. Checked with our friends and the answer again was in the negative. Not willing to give up, i scanned through the entire database of images from the Tanjore Art Gallery and well past 4 am hit pay dirt in Satheesh’s contributions.

Yes, there they were, relegated to the last row of an unnamed cabinet, with just some numbers painted on them, amidst later statues. Do you spot them now?

I wanted to make sure that it was indeed these priceless exhibits that are suffering this ignominy – so I sought the help of friends and Satheesh again obliged by making the trip to the gallery. This time, they seemed in a much sadder state – with some broken plastic thrown into the cabinet as well. But, yes, there is no doubt they are indeed the earliest known Vishnu Bronzes of South India.

What sickens me is the lackadaisical attitude, am sure that any scholar of repute would know the value of such an exhibit. Infact, the above mentioned book is on sale at the Chennai Museum and its first Hindu article are these bronzes ( following Buddhist statues). I hope someone will help to take this to the notice of the authorities and help to set up a proper display befitting the stature of these priceless treasures.

Coming back to study the bronzes, its really an interesting topic. I would first like to throw up some early Stone standing sama bhanga Vishnu’s for your reference – The famous Vishnu from the shrine sculptured in relief in the Mallai great penance panel, the Vishnu from the Adhi varaha Mandabam, The Harihara from the Dharamaraja Ratha ( thanks Saurabh for the two photos), the puzzling Vishnu from Kilamavilangai cave ( Thanks Shashwath).

The last row and last bench has always been my place and we will spend more time analysing these treasures of the back bench shortly.

To be continued….