Big Temple Painting – Why they are not Sri RajaRaja and Karuvurar

The controversy over the identity of the two people in this famed Chola painting probably overshadows the Big Temple Vimana’s Shadowless myth.

It is true that many great scholars did identify them as to be the Great Emperor and his teacher, but recent arguments do offer considerable evidence that to the contrary. This post is to line up these arguments and present them in a coherent manner as well as offer some possible evidences to the identity of the two.

1. First and foremost: The Emperor waited 15 years before taking on the crown from 969 to 985 CE. The Big temple was completed in 1010 CE, which is known to us from the inscription which states the Emperor donated Gold for making the alloy for the Top Kalasam / Finial on the 275th day of his 25th year of reign. a simple math gives us 985 + 25 to be 1010 CE. The last inscriptions of the Emperor is from his 29th year of reign ie. 1014 CE. So at the time when the paintings were done he must have been in his advanced years and not the strapping youth as seen in this painting.

Further more, inside the same painted gallery of the vestibule in the big temple, we have his portraits in the other panels, showing him as middle aged and with a majestic beard – when he is shown worshiping in Chidambaram standing and seated worshiping the very peruvudayar in tanjore.

2. The second important point to notice and to me the post important is the very structure of a royal portraiture. In the two panels where we have the great Emperor, no other person is depicted larger than him, except the Lord ofcourse.

I think most of the scholars erred maybe because so little was known of the overall smaller panels and we are to thank ASI, Sri. Sriraman Sir, Artist Sri Chandra Sir for the line drawings and Sri Thyagu for the brilliant photography – the two books added invaluable wealth of material to what we know of the famed paintings – One by the Tanjore Tamil University and the more recent one by ASI authored by Sri Sriraman.

3. Now back to the same wall but from a longer perspective. You can see that this is not a central panel ( as compared to the other two portraits of the Emperor where he is at the center of the panel along with the Lord), and there are two more people painted above them and they are proportionally larger than these two.

Obviously you would not want to paint some other mortal above the Emperor and in a larger size than him.

4. So if these are not the Emperor and his Guru, who can they be. On that subject a very interesting puzzle is the Guru’s sacred thread – if it is that. He is shown wearing it over his right shoulder which is very uncommon and usually practised when one does the funeral rites for the departed.

So there is a possibility that it can be perceived to be the Emperor’s son Rajendra with his Guru on his father’s …But then this is on the outer walls of the Sanctum and very very negligible chance for such a portrayal. It can be argued that it is just a cloth ( though vastra yagnopavithams are in vogue during that period).

5. If these are not them, who can it depict. There is an interesting sculpture in the Tanjore Palace Museum which bear a remarkable resemblance to the odd couple. They are Narada and Chitrasena.

Lets try to mix and match

6. Another possible identification comes from studying the famed Sundarar ascending to heaven panel.

Focus on the top left ( as you view it) of the painting

A host of celestials have assembled to view the divine spectacle and there is a particular row which we need to analyse.

Clearer in the line drawing

These are the Dvadasa Adityas, Ekadasa Rudras

Check the two people who are on the extreme left of them.

So, as per above since they form part of the welcome party when Sundarar ascended to the heavens along with Cherman Perumal, an event that happened well before the Emperor’s times – the two cannot be him and Saint Karuvurar.

Images Courtesy: Sri Gokul Seshadri, Sri Thyagu, Sri Sriraman, Sri Chandru and Hindu archives.

20 thoughts on “Big Temple Painting – Why they are not Sri RajaRaja and Karuvurar

  1. Useful attempt.In my opinion they are Rajaraja and Rajendra. I discussed this with Mr. Kudanthai Sehturaman in the line of your argument.When I got a chance to meet Artist Mr Gopulu,We discussed about that particular painting. He also accepted my view.This is 25 years story.

  2. dear Mr Selvaraj, Lots of water has flown under the bridge since then. With due respects, with the new images that have come out and larger schema – it is pretty obvious that the painter would not depict them in this fashion – in one corner much much smaller than the rest of the figures in the panel. Further, the older bearded person has no resemblance to the other two panels where we see the accurate portrayal of the Emperor. rgds vj

  3. I think it’s the context of the theme that we must look at keenly, than the exact time when this panel was made. So we can’t doubt the possibility of the character being The Emperor just because He was at a ripe old age when the panel was made. Also supporting this line of thought is the Nataraja panel where He looks middle-aged like you said.

    If the painter chose to represent Narada with the stringed instrument in the other fresco then why here without one. I think with finite searching we can come up with a few other characters in sculptures with/without beards that have facial resemblance to these two characters just as much as the Narada and Chitrasena from the Palace museum do.

    Can you please identify for me the object in the hand of the older character in the left? A kamandalam ? !

    Humble Regards,

    Ka Na

  4. Thanks for your informative article. Thanks to you, I was able to see rajaraja’s wall panel at Thiruvisallur.

    i had taken a pic of a wall panel from thiruthevankudi, it would be great if you could identify the characters & theme

    Thanks again

  5. அன்பு நண்பரே!
    தங்களது ஒப்பிடலுக்குரிய சிற்பங்கள் காலத்தால் பிற்காலத்தவை. ஆகையால் தாங்கள் மாமன்னுர் ராஜராஜர் காலத்து சிற்பங்களுடன் ஒப்பிட்டு முடிவுக்கு வருமாறு அன்புடன் வேண்டுகிறேன்.

    Ayyampettai J.Balachandran

  6. Dear karthik, thanks for the comments. Exactly the reasons why the young emperor would not be shown without his crown n a jatamakuta/jatabaram. the most important is the relative sizes of this panel vis a vis the other ( lesser) characters in the same wall.

    the Line drawing of the older person shows he is holding something like a small kamandalam in his right hand.

  7. dear Ayyampettai J.Balachandran,

    The Sundarar panel has an interesting incident – depicted in the painting – which is the adimai olai held by Shiva. I have been told that the painting actually has the tamil writing in it ( too small to see in the published works) and its confirmed to be of the same style extant during the Emperor’s times. In all likelihood these paintings were done closer to 1010 CE and hence do not understand what you mean by your comment.


  8. Dear Arasu,

    I have not mentioned that this is something that has been found / discovered/ postulated by me – i am just listing out the current facts since they do not seem to be popular in the web/ public domain as against those which claim/proclaim them as the Emperor n Karuvurar. I have Kudavoil sir’s book but i am not sure he has referenced to the two persons in the sundarar lifestory painting panel resemblance.


  9. Hi there..Vijay

    Pardon my ignorance. I’ll be ever more grateful if you can put more light on things like the other characters(the women, the two men saluting on the top), the various experts’ versions of what’s happening there in the panel as a whole, for the benefit of the likes of me don’t have access to work’s on the Chozha frescos. Are these three units in the layout pictures that you have provided contiguous? ( My concerns are because I think the analysis of relative sizes of characters in a fresco like this, to draw inferences on identity, relative importance of the characters et cetera can be of help only if they are all a single piece describing either a moment or a sequence of events involving the characters…and clearly amongst the two of the sets of characters in the part we are talking of, the bottom one’s a tad bigger. Or am I the only one to see it that way ?

    Thanks in advance and Regards,

    Ka Na

    • Dear karthik

      Sadly only a fraction of the old paintings have survived and even this is thanks to the splendid efforts of the team. There is much in them to warrant many in depth studies and youngsters like you must embark on this.


  10. அன்பு நண்பரே!
    இனறைய (20.08.2013) இந்து நாளிதழில் பக்கம் 2ம் பக்கத்தில் வந்துள்ள நல்லூர் ஓவியங்கள் குறித்தான செய்தி தங்கள் கருத்துக்கு வலுசேர்ப்பதாகவுள்ளது. நான் 15.08.2013 அன்று எழுதிய மறுமொழி தங்கள் மனதை புண்படுத்தியிருந்தால் மன்னிக்கவும்
    Ayyampettai J.Balachandran

  11. Regarding Nallur Painting. The instrument in the picture may be Thambura or Dhundhana,(or Uzhavarapadai)not Veena, I think. The painting with cymbals may be Gnanasambandar.If it is so another one may be Appar,the other two ie Sundarar and Manickavasakar might have been faded away, We can think in another way also.

  12. Dear sir
    Very interesting article with interesting replies
    i some have accept the views of Mr selvaraj that if Naradha means definitely instrument will be represented in the fresco.
    If vijay sir is comparing the picture with Naradha without instrument will throw some authentic lights on the fresco.

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