Big Temple paintings book release – was defintely worth the wait!

April 9, 1931.

“Close upon the discovery of the Pallava paintings in the Kailasanathaswami Temple at Conjeevaram by the French savant, the indefatigable Prof. Jouveau Dubreuil it has been my great good fortune to bring to light the hitherto unknown frescoes of the Imperial Chola period, in the Brihadeswaraswami Temple, popularly known as ‘the Big Temple of Tanjore.’

“It was almost a year since I visited that noble fane [temple] one evening, in the company of my friend Mr.T.V.Umamaheshwaram Pillai, when in the dim religious light of a small oil lamp I felt, as it were, the existence of some kind of paintings on the walls on either side of a dark narrow circumambulatory passage around the sanctum sanctorum.

“But it was only yesterday I found it convenient to examine the place more thoroughly with the help of a ‘Baby Petromax’ whose bright light revealed paintings indeed but paintings of an undoubtedly very late and degenerate age, whose linear contortions and chromatic extravagances shattered in a moment all my wonderful dreams of discovering there the best and the only example of the art of Chola mural paintings.

“Still I chose a part of the western wall for close inspection and found the painted plastering there cracked all over and threatening to fall down. A gentle touch and the whole mass crumbled down, exposing underneath a fine series of frescoes palpitating with the life of other days.”

S.K. Govindaswami in The Hindu, April 11, 1931

Hindu article

Its taken 80 years for the above effort to reach its end, I would be wrong to say it as the end, for this is indeed a new Dawn. The famed Chola Frescos, hitherto seen only by a privileged few, with lesser mortals having to put up with the OOhs and AAhs of scholars and seeing low resolution faded prints in newspapers and magazines, have been given a new life. Thanks to the efforts by the TN Government, The Tamil University Tanjore, Mr Rajendran, Mr Thyagarajan , Mr Rajavelu, Mr. Chandru – we get to see them in new light.

There has been lot of talk of such efforts earlier, and when Sri Badri of Kizhakku Pathippagam showed a sneak preview of the book on facebook, my pulse raced in anticipation, but somewhere there was a bit of dread – would the book do justice to the paintings, will the quality of photographs compare with international publications, would the presentation falter, would the quality of paper be compromised ( more so since the price was just Rs 500). Not wanting to take chance, I rushed through two sources to order the book. And 3 weeks ago, the books reached me, thanks to Sri Raman. Normally, i would finish a book of this size in a day or two, but then this was no ordinary work. It took me weeks to finish studying a page – Every inch of the Frescoes have been faithfully captured on Camera and not stopping with that – Artist Sri Chandru has faithfully drawn every line and curve as line drawings. I showed the book to Oviyar Sri Maniam Selvan and he was mighty pleased and impressed as well and showed me a few of his father’s ( Sri Maniam’s sketches of the frescoes as well !! – felt blessed)

Let me explain what i mean, by showing you a sneak peak of the books contents – the famed Dhaksinamurthy panel.

( have to use low resolution so it doesn’t really do justice to the work, but don’t want to infringe on the book !!)

Now, comes the book specialty – the line drawings

There is so much to study in these Frescos and I am sure this book would spawn many Phd’s. For eg, take just one part of the panel, towards the top left hand side.

Notice the highlighted part – its a fantastic Asta Buja ( eight armed) Bairvar form.

The detailing on the paintings is stunning. Take a look

But the Bairavar looked very familiar, so immediately set about looking into my database. The first one that came up, was this Kstera Balar ( special Bairava from without the Dog mount – favorite of Sri Raja Raja’s queen Lokamadevi!) who is currently stationed just outside the entrance of the Big temple entrance.

Though the style matched, the placement of the Trishool – on the right hand compared to the one in the painting – where its holstered ( forgive the pun) to the left waist – showed this was not a match.

Next on the scanner, was this fantastic bronze from the Tanjore Art Gallery. ( imaged courtesy Sri Raman and my cousin Sri Prasanna Ganesan)

The gallery board read 11th C CE, Tirvengadu

I went back to my books and found the reference in Bronzes of South India – P.R. Srinivasan (F.E. 1963, L.R. 1994 – Price Rs. 386), to dig out what they thought of the bronze.

In respect of workmanship, this is in the same style as the bronzes of the Rishabantaka.
But its iconography has necessitated the introduction of some new details not met with in any of the figures previously examined.

The eight armed Bhairava is another interesting bronze of this period, the like of which has not been met with. It stands erect, ie, in sama Bhanga posture. The other details peculiar to this figure are the following:

The braided locks of hair are arranged in the forms of heart and it serves the purpose of a Bha manadala ( halo) too. a knob like projection is seen on the head. On one side is seen a serpent and on the other the crescent and the Datura flower. ( there are two serpents and the crescent and flower are on opposite sides !)

Six tassels are seen, three on each side of the Jata – mandala. The fillet with the gem consists of flower designs. Patra kundalas are seen in both the ears. The raudra or terrific aspect associated with this icon, is attempted to be depicted by means of the knitting of the eye brows, wide open eyes and the small canine teeth. But as was customary with ancient stapathis to introduce benign qualities in the representation of terrific themes, here too the stapathi has depicted the details in the same fashion which goes to make the bronze pleasant looking rather than terrible looking. Even the knitting of the eye brows, in the context of features expressive of joy, seems to add charm to the expression rather than striking terror.

The necklaces and the pendant ornament on the right shoulder are of the same type as those of the above figures ( Rishabantaka post) and thus affords a proof of its grouping with them. The Yagnopavita is made of two strands, twisted like a rope. Besides, along mala – a string made up of small globules is seen. Perhaps they represent severed heads, in which case thus becomes a Munda – Mala.

Arms are displayed in fan-wise series on either side, and the manner of their attachment to one another is beautiful. The armlets are actual naga-valayas and in no other bronzes armlets of this kind are seen – this is where this bronze started differentiating with the one in the Fresco. Its does not have this feature

Except, the three hands, namely the upper most right hand, the corresponding left hand and the lowermost left hand which hold respectively, a damaru, a bell and a bowl, the rest are in kataka poses. The series of arms seen one below the other in the depth of each side is impressive.

No tassels are present in the Udara bandha. This figure shows two serpents with their bodies twisted and wound round the waist. Further their heads are converted into decorative pieces adorning the thighs. The manner of showing them hanging on the thighs is superb.

Now, comes the definitive clue. There are two snakes in the bronze, but only one in the painting ! So this is not the bronze shown in the painting !

Now, you will understand, how important documenting our heritage is and Kudos to the team behind this spectacular book. Cannot call it a collector’s item, for its something that has to be studied and taught in art schools and subject of many Phd’s.

Dhakshinamurthy Worship – A guest post by Dr. N. Ganesan

One of the most intriguing forms of Shiva, as Dhakshinmurthy is being analysed by one of our foremost scholars, who has been kind enough to allow the article to posted in our site. Dr. N. Ganesan from Houstan, needs no introduction:

oTTakkuuttar, who lived in 3 Chola kings’ reigns, sings two laudatory poems at the Chola court upon becoming the Poet Laureate ‘kavichakravarti’. Ottakkuuttar mentions 5 legendary Tamil teachers and Pothiyil mountain. An essay detailing
‘who is Patumakkottan2 referred to in Ottakkuuttar poems’ is at:

Reading a scholarly book from Tamil university professor, Raju Kalidos, Sectarian rivalry in art and literature, 1997, Sharada Pub. House (Papers, chiefly with reference to South India, presented at the XVII International Congress of History of Religions, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas, Ciudad Universitaria, Mexico.)

He quotes some Naalaayirat tivviyap pirapantam poems associated with Dakshinamurti. See the sectarian poem where it is claimed that all that dakshinamurti teaches is worshipping of vaTapatrasaayin – vishNu sleeping on the tiny banyan leaf who also has taken visvaruupam as trivikrama.

Ala nizaRkIz aRaneRiyai nAlvarkku
mElai ukanturaittAn2 meyttavattOn2 – njAlam
aLantAn2ai aazik kiTantaan2ai aalmEl
vaLarntAn2ait taan2vaNaGku mARu.
(tirumazicai aazvaar, naan2mukan2 tiruvantaati, paacuram 17).

A second example,

neRivAcal tAn2Eyaay nin2Raan2ai aintu
poRivaacal pOrkkatavam caartti aRivaan2aam
aalamara niizal aRamnaalvark kan2Ruraittaan2ai
aalamar kaNTattu aran2,
(poykaiyaazvaar, mutal tiruvantaati).

My query: Do we have any more poems describing
dakSiNAmUrti in naalaayiram? Thanks for your help.


I have always wondered about dakSiNAmurti images in the southern niche of Vaishnava temples in Tamizakam.

“DakshiNaamuurti is viewed in four different aspects namely, as a teacher of yoga, of viiNaa, of jnaana and also an expounder of other ‘saastras (vyaakhyaanamuurti). Of these, the last form is the one which which is most frequently met with in temples. It has already been mentioned elsewhere that in all Hindu temples, both ‘Saiva and VaishNava, the niche on the south wall of the central shrine should have the figure of DaksiNaamuurti enshrined in it.”
(page 273, T. A. Gopinatha Rao, Elements of Hindu iconography, vol. 2, First edition, 1914).

Daksinamurti is a speciality in ancient Tamizakam temples, not found in the north of Tamizakam. Usually LakuLiisa of Karvan (= KaayaarohaNam) will be found in the Saiva temples in Karnataka, Andhra, Orissa … in D.’s place. T. A. Gopinatha Rao quoted a Nara-Narayana image of Deogarh as Daksinamurti, evidently wrong because the image faces west, and depicts Vishnu. In certain temples (eg., Ellora), the presence of dakSiNAmuurti can be explained in terms of Tamil royal matrimonial alliances. Daksinamurti is described in sangam texts, and profusely found in temples irrespective of the sectarian divisions all over Tamizakam from Pallava and all subsequent dynasties.

Preliminary observations of the linkages between PadmapaaNi avalokitesvara and Dakshinamurti iconology and references from Tamil literature are given in my tamil paper,

A discussion about the oTTakkuuttar poem mentioning “Patumakkottar” in the Chola imperial court is given.

It is very interesting that many early Dakshinamurtis have lotus flower in their hands (top left). I will list them – a beautiful one is at Kanchi kailasanatha, Tiruvisaluur and so on. This lotus flower with a stem is so clear. This is in accordance with the aagamas that require lotus flower (taamaraippuu). In later periods, the lotus flower with the stem sometimes gets changed to fire ‘agni’ with a stem.

This is probably because the earlier notion of padma coming from Padmapani Avalokita is forgotten after few centuries. But still the lotus flower persists as seen in Suchindram temple even in that late period. The maharajalilasana, the akshamaala and lotus flower in two top hands in Pallava and Chola dakshinamurtis undoubtedly tie him to Padmapani avalokita’s iconography.

P. Schalk (pg. 555) writes, “So we get the impression that Mulavasam was a Mahayana monastery, which is not impossible, but the impression is based on an inference, namely that the Lokanatha statue in Gandhara/Nepal is a copy of a Lokanatha statue in Mulavasam. This statue has not been found. What has been found and Rav refers to are buddha statues in stone, none of which depicts Lokanatha.”

But S. Padmanabhan has located two large, beautiful Chola sculptures (Avalokita in rAjalIlAsana posture & Tara) in worship at Theroor village near Cape Kumari. Thera + uur is Theroor. Avalokita there is called “iLaiya-nayinAr” at Theroor. (Cf. dakshnamurti always depicted as young teacher of aged rishis like Sanakaadi munis). Compare the Therur Avalokita and Tara sculptures with Siva in Rajalilasana pose with Umaa in Darasuaram granting Paasupatam to a worshipping Arjuna. I think Therur images predate by 1 or 2 centuries the Darasuram imagery. For Dakshinamurti as a couple, the famous image is
of course from CuruTTapaLLi (a Pallava one?). KavimaNi TecikavinAyakam PiLLai was born in Therur. It looks we should look into N. P. Unni’s book, and in particular, the VaTTezuttu (10th century) inscription which mentions Vikaramarama.

Schalk misses out on the “ancient god” of Potiyil/Malaya and the patronage to it by Ay kings of VeNaaD in sangam times, and the mention of Muulavaasam in the 9th century inscription. “ten2n2an2 peyariya tun2n2arun tuppin2 tol mutu kaTavuL pin2n2ar mEya varai tAz aruvip poruppin2 poruna”
(maturaik kAJci),

“kaliGkam aalamar celvaRku amarntan2an2 koTutta cAvan tAGkiya
pular tiNi tOL Arvam nan2mozi Ay” (ciRupANARRuppaTai).

In the ninth century, the Ay king VarakuNan2 donates “paLLiccantam” to Tiru-muulavaacam temple, “maRRum kOyiRkuriyatu ellaam akappaTa tiru-muulavaatattu paTaarakku aTTik kuTuttatu”. This reference is to the “temple” (kO-il) to Avalokitan/Lokanathan (with a Saiva background), that finds a place in
Nepali manuscripts also.

N. Ganesan

GaNDavyuha text mentions that Avalokita lives in Potalaka, southern India. This is depicted in Borobudur, Indonesia with Avalokita in a frontal, cross-legged pose with rosary beads in his hands. In south India, we see Avalokita with padma lotus and aksamala in 10th century. See the Chola bronzes (968 AD) stored in Majunatha temple at Mangalore on the west coast. Lotus and aksamala in Nagapattinam Avalokita bronzes. 10th century example (Pl.19) 17th century example (Pl. 20) in Nandana Chutiwongs’ book.

In south India, where Buddhism was a minority religion and Buddhist images are numerically small when compared with Shaiva and Vaishnava sculptures, Buddhist iconography had a large impact on Shiva Mahesa images.

For example.
In Karnataka, Andhra and Orissan temples, a Mahesamurti image is seen in the southern side wall of a Siva temple. This will be a Lakulisa, seated in a meditative pose, a form of Mahesvara in the Chalukyan and Orissan temples. “It may seem unusual for Lakulisa to be the first fully manifest body of god on the rAhA. From the foregoing, Mahesa is to be expected and not Lakulisa, the historical teacher who founded the Pasupata order. It must therefore quickly pointed out that by the seventh century, the Orissan cult of Lakulisa-Pasupata no longer considered him to be a human teacher. Lakulisa was deified and recognized by the sixth-seventh centuries as an incarnation of Mahe’svara. Already in the Gupta age, his deification was acknowledged.” … (pg. 131,

Doris M. Srinivasan, From transcendency to materiality: Para Siva, Sadasiva, and Mahesa in Indian art, Artibus Asiae, 50, 1/2, 1990, 108-142). The Lakulisa image is adaptation of Buddha sculptures (with additions of urdhva retas and a stick for Lakulisa): “These images of Siva as Lakulisa, seated in a yogic position, obviously owe much to images of the Buddha” (p. 501, J.C. Harle, Art
and architecture of the Indian subcontinent).

Further south, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Lakulisa in the southern walls of Shiva temples are not there as Mahesamurti. Instead, another Mahesamurti image was chosen – the South-facing Dakshinamurti images are present in Pallava, Chola, Pandya and Chera periods. There are iconographic relationships अवलोकिएश्वारा with Siva Dakshinamurti. They are usually shown in maharaja lilasana pose with a lotus and aksamala.

The ascetic with matted locks (Dakshinamurti) and Padmapani Avalokita are mentioned as teachers to sage Agastya at mount Potiyil / Potalaka.

Recently, Cleveland Museum purchased a beautiful 1000-year old Chola sculpture of Siva Mahesa (4 million $). Some newspapers call it as Brahma or Brahma as Siva. It is not correct as there is no reference for Siva as Brahma or Brahma with a third eye etc., in silpa texts or in Indian sculpture. This is also a Siva Mahesa image (see Doris Srinivasan’s paper for details). A high resolution photo of the Cleveland purchase is at,
Note the lotus flower and akshamaala rosary on this Mahesmurti, typically seen on Avalokita images.

An interesting cave temple from Vizhinjam – Trivandrum

I was discussing Pallava rock cut sculpture and showing ( off) my site to a few friends over the weekend, when a friend from Trivandrum commented he had seen similar in a cave in Vizhinjam near Trivandrum. This set me off to search for that cave, and surprisingly very few information is available.

While i did manage to locate the cave and its amazing sculptures, very little information is available on the same. Some sites mention of it as a 18th C creation, while to me the style resembles pallava sculpture more ( kathie please help). Guess, i need to go back to reading more about cave sculpture in south india and when the tradition stopped. I was of the opinion that is stopped with the structural temples gaining prominence closer to Rajasimha Pallava. Anyway stylistically this looks much much ancient that whats its credited with.

Some anomalies though, instead of the standard door guardians at the entrance we see sculptures of Shiva holding a bow ( surmise as Tripuranthaka ) and Shiva with Parvathi ( in a sad state). the main deity i head is that of Vinadhari Dhakshinmurthy, which however, is not carved out of the bed rock – but is a separate sculpture.

Please have a look at the sculptures below.

Chanced on this lovely video as well.

A lovely detailed video of the cave

Picture courtesy: Mr. Hari