An amazing early Chola Miniature – Punjai

It is not often you get a chance to witness an early Chola gem in its pristine form – throw in a few miniatures and your trip is made. Such is their allure that quite often, much like school children making a dash for the candy man – we do a dash – as soon as we are through the main entrance doors, we run around to the side to see if there are any of these ( left !). Imagine our glee as we rushed into Punjai with similar anticipation.

The panels in the base are easier to spot as they have a clear boundary and also depict scenes from the epics – however, there are good chances that a few miniatures on these odd pillars are missed to be spotted.

As any accomplished artist or art critic – the most difficult forms to depict are forms that depict action – movement. Imagine the skill that is required to depict dance and music – in stone, in relief?

The artist manages to use every inch of space to suggest the mood – these ganas are not much bigger than a nail head and yet you can sense the feel of gaiety – of their gay exuberance.

The beauty of this depiction is in the grace of form and complexity of pose.

Thanks to acclaimed artist Muralidharan alagar for masterfully sketching this miniature so that we can fully appreciate its grace.

The class of the sculptor is revealed in how the weight of the drum pulls on the players neck via a sling and how she balances it on his thigh ! and to do so at this miniscule scale is mind blowing.

Coming to the dancer – imagine having to depict a dancer, but not a frontal pose but depict her from behind ! To show the folds of her garments, the ornamentation and to do it in stone that is less than the width of a car key..

A true masterclass miniature from the early half of the 10th Century dancing for a thousand years and still managing to hold its grace !

Alignment of Kosta devatas in a late Pallava Vishnu shrine – Thiruvidanthai

It was a chance trip to try and fill an ” empty” evening in an otherwise crowded calender that landed us in Thiruvidanthai. It was peak holiday season and we were surprised to see the rather light traffic on the scenic ECR – though a few overzealous drivers made a mockery of the 40 km/hr speed limit boards and there was no sign of any enforcement let alone for some divine ones – in a few shattered glass sherds every 200 mtrs !! A leisurely stroll of 45 min led us to the now familiar stretch of casuraina groves that lead straight to the famed beaches of the ECR ( some had acquired some really fancy names plus notorious media coverage as well!) told us to slow down and look for the right turn into the temple town – made famous by the Super Star ( much before he had catapulted the Temple town of Tiruvanamalai into glitzy heights !).

The temple came up immediately and we were surprised to find it desereted. Not even a Maxicab, no Mahindra van , no Tempo’s or even an SUV. It must have been a great relief to the flower vendors to see us drive up – you could actually see her eyes light up on seeing me get off alone ( my better half being away), thinking that she could surely sell me two garlands – why two?? Read on to learn more. Better than to try and explain to her that i was here to see just the sculptures of this beautiful Pallava period, i just shook my head and walked on. A iconographically poor later Nayaka mandapa and entrance Gopura led us down a dimly lit main shrine. My eyes lit up on seeing the main deity albeit at quite a distance – its easy to make out the sheer Pallava metrics and an amazing Varaha reminded of our sheer penance to see the Adivarahar in Mallai. Even before the priests started their mantras, came the educative – no photography caution and if needed buy the copy of the painting outside. I am sure you can google it anway. !! He is ofcourse made of Sudhai ( not stone) and 100% Pallava period ( 8th C CE).

We, having feasted enough on his beauty it was time for the Sthala purana – sure to keep the coffers ringing by sending droves of unmarried hopefuls to this sanctum. Friends have sworn by his power and the boys n girls keen to keep their single status refusing to even step into the village’s boundary even ! such was his prowess, that we had a few of the applicants finally arrive – each were given strict instructions on what to do with the garland – you got to go around the temple wearing one and keep the other vacant and God will do the rest – legend has it that in this very place to please a devotee rishi he married each of his 365 daughters – for every day of the year – so he is called Nithya Kalnayana perumal. So we had a 25 odd boy and a few 20 odd girls do the rigmarole of the dual garland ritual !

So much for all the loose talk, back to basics – it is always rare to a see a Pallava Vaishnavite shrine and was hoping to seek some clues on the arrangement of the Koshta devatas – and praying no modern intrusions at that. With great trepidation steeped out for the first Kosta – not expecting to see – who else but the Elephant trunked one.

He did not look modern at all, the slightly elongated trunk and the attributes were stately – yet clearly of a later style than the early Ganesha’s found in the shore temple or even in the Kanchi Kailasanatha.

Need to find a typical early Pallava Kosta Ganesha sculpture to compare as comparing with the already debated Vallam Ganesha would be difficult to yield clear answers.

What period is this deity from and did it find its place in the original scheme of things? References in texts are vague with Vakratunda being referred with placement to the left of the door guardians position for varaha shrines. One thing is for sure – the huge Nama on his forehead and naming him as Tumbikkai Alwar did happen quite a while later but we will visit the rest of the Kosta sculptures to attempt to see if we can fix the date before placing more of our arguments.

As we moved on our ambulatory path – the next Kosta was occupied by Sathyan. This is where it gets interesting, completely new placement of Kosta figures – with forms of vishnu occupying the niches and my pulse raced on seeing the prayoga Chakra and classic pallava lines in the sculpture.

The next niche was occupied by Achyutan. There seem to be some very subtle differences in the styling and ornamentation with the major one being the chakra turned to the side and no longer in prayoga mode !

The next niche we found Aniruddan and back to classic prayoga chakra !

The last niche would usually be Vishnu Durgai and here we have Vaishnavi – unfortunately did not have the necessary permissions to check more – especially the feet / where bull head there or not. But once again clear depiction of Prayoga chakra is found.

So it is very clear that it is most likely that the Kosta sculptures are Pallava and could be later additions ( when the stone work came around the main sanctum) – but is definitely not post 10 th C CE – iconographically they cannot be later than say 900 – 920 CE. There are two kostas on each side and one in the back –

Ganesha , Sathyan
Aniruddhan, Vaishnavi.

So it is quite likely that in the Pallava period or in the interim phase between the Pallava Chola transition – in this particular temple Ganesha was included as one of the Kosta devatas – it is covered in Vaishnava iconography and hence should have been left as such. That later day trials and tribulations have forced him to sport an “acceptable” name and “signs” to again acceptance or maintain his place in the scheme of things is something that mature minds have to work on !!