Sculpture from an Author’s perspective

I have been very fortunate to have been under the tutelage of many great souls, who lovingly embraced me and took it on themselves to educate and encourage me. Their list is long and in that long list the forerunner is Mr .Dhivakar. A master story teller and author of three superb works of historical fiction in tamil – Vamsadhara, Thirumalai Thirudan and Vichitra Chitan, i invite him to give us a history author’s perspective to sculpture.
Over to Mr.

I am sure that vijay’s effort at showcasing the art of sculpture in such a splendid manner, will resurrect this forgotten art and place it on the high pedestal that it truly deserves, for how better can we pay tribute to the greatness of these great craftsmen who managed to craft such masterpieces in the hardest stone with just a chisel and hammer.

Tamil Nadu has a had a long foray into this art form, starting from the early 6th Century, sculpture held the sway of the land till the 15th C CE dotting the landscape with thousands of temples, with brilliant sculptures, the countryside resounding with beautiful sounds of chisels hitting stone. Though the art form is still alive albeit in a much smaller spread, lending their art to the new temples that are coming up, but there still exists a wide gap between sculpture of today and then. The ancient works of art were based on strong concepts brought forward in the many myths and moral stories, sung in our literature, these amazing works were art were like moving cinescapes bringing forth the crux of the story, thereby forever etched in our memory. The sculpture would chose a good quality stone to showcase the good moral and hence his creation would stand the test of time, have stood and would still stand if not for the wanton acts of us humans. In comparison the modern works of art are bereft of this liveliness, take this new statue in a temple in Atlanta, its a beautiful work no work with excellent proportions, but something is lacking. It doesn’t move you, evoke a sense of awe inside you, for here lies the mastery of the ancients, to breathe life into stone and make it speak – stories.
The ancient sculptors were not just exhibiting their art but had a deep understanding of our culture, our heritage, literature incl devaram, thiruvaasagam, aazwar works, epics incl Mahabarath, Ramayan – they were multifaceted individuals. They had read and re read these works so as to infer the essence of these works and translate it into works of art, leaving behind a rich repository of sculpture for future generations.

Such beautiful interplay of literature with art is finding its release in this site and based on vijay’s request, i am presenting one such interesting story supported by his pictures.

Bitchandavan ( literally meaning divine beggar)
Shiva means love, shivam means old, one who has no end nor beginning,such are the many epithets that sing the praise of shiva. Shiva means nature as well. for he graced his benevolence on this world by subduing the raging Ganges which threatened to inundate the world in her fury, by catching her in his two locks of hair and then once she was truly subdued let her out as a humble stream to enrich the earth. He who has the moon as a head ornament, is also portrayed with a deer, ax, cobra , holding the flame in his hands, wearing a tiger skin dress and stamping the demon ( muyalagan), is demonic instincts also part of nature ?. How did he get to have so many items from nature as ornaments?

Generally legends and mythological stories are grounds to be threaded with care, for quite often later additions have spiced up the original versions, however there are still some left in their pristine forms –
which educate us not only of intellectual heights of those times but also give us a brief idea on the morals and lifestyles prevalent those days. And if we have the good fortune of the shivaite foursome singing the praise of these in the thevaram – thrivasagam, its a double treat. Their words were spontaneous truths encased in the best of tamil diction. One such is the humbling of the rampant pride of the saints who occupied the forests of Tharukavanam. It was due to this that Shiva adorned himself with these amazing ornaments.
From time immemorial santhana dharma has been the unwritten code so associated with religion in india and no greater souls to preach this than the great saints, who resided in the fringes of humanity, in peaceful groves inside dense forests, where their simple living served as living testaments to the faith and heights of human intelligence mixing with the divine. They were our great ancestors, who lived by the great vedas, propounding the divine knowledge of being one with
God, teaching us the right path. Their selfless yet simple life and pure devotion to God made him reside with them.

Generally speaking, the rishis /saints/ ascetics/monks are all great souls, but at times they too fall prey to the vanity of the human mind, leading to some unwanted disturbances creeping in. One such
excess was what occurred to the saints of Taarakavan.

Their single minded devotion to the vedic culture and the fact that the pure essence of the vedas bestowed on them tremendous power – to control the elements, and with great power comes great evil. They had the ascetic energy to control anything including the devas, and hence sought anything and everything from inside the vedic altar, so much so that they started ridiculing the gods, Shiva and vishnu no longer occupied their senses, for they saw no need in praying to them, for every want of theirs could be fulfilled by their innate power.

when men step out of line, nature has his better half programmed to bring him back to the right path, but the women folk of tharukavan were also so drunk on the fulfillment of their every wish, that they
too sided with their menfolk. The mortal pleasures satiated their every wish and soon they were enjoying these pleasures coming their way without much effort.

Their chastity and the power that their chastity brought on their husbands,filled their every thought. Since the multitudes shuddered to face the wrath of their chasteness, their fertile minds led them to
believe that even if Gods as shiva and vishnu did exist, they too would be powerless against them. This added to their already inflated egos.

Shiva and vishnu decided to bring this spectacle to a halt and teach them a good lesson. So shiva descended on the forest, as a charming ascetic – his brilliant golden body radiant in its nakedness, carrying just a bowl and begging the rishi wives for alms. His charm was so overpowering and the sight of his youthful body sent the women raving, for an instant even forgetting their chasteness and followed his madly.
Vishnu, at the same instant, descended as a charming enchantress, mohini – as she walked her swan step, the Rishi lusted after her, their minds loosing control over their bodies. When they both met each
other, they realised their folly.

The lady’s dropped their heads in great shame, but the rishi’s were mad with rage. immediately they summoned all their powers, and out of their sacrificial fire, they brought forth a tiger ( this was a very sinister and darkest form of yogic practise. As a last resort this was attempted by Indrajith and advised of the dire consequences by Vibeeshana it was stopped by Rama’s arrow)

Back to the forest, the evil tiger was killed by Shiva without as much as breaking a sweat and to add insult to injury, he skinned it and donned it on over his golden sheen body. Immediately the rishi’s
brought forward a horned deer with poisoned horns and a sharp axe -Shiva nonchalantly held them in his two hands. Then they brought forth poisonous cobras – which he wound around his body as ornaments. Finally, not knowing what more to do, the rishi’s threw the sacrificial fire itself at him, which he calmly caught in his begging bowl. On seeing these, their resolve was shattered and they humbly prostrated at his feet.

These deer, ax, fire etc find repeated mention in thevaram and thiruvaasagam verses.

Thus the rishis, in spite of having committed the gravest sins, falling from grace – as they were to be the examples for future generations, yet the lord did not punish them, but only reformed them with his
benevolent grace, so that we may understand the true greatness of him.For what use is the sun without his light, the fire without heat, the flower without fragrance. True sculpture too must be seen – as the confluence of art with godliness. See Bhikshadhana in this context and you would be able to truely appreciate the divine art form of sculpture.


An Intro Post on Tirukurungudi – a guest post Mr. Kannan

For all the long years that was in my motherland, i had not yet discovered by true thirst for my language, thought the love for art was there since long. It was a chance introduction of one of well wishers Sri Divakar who brought me into a forum that made me realise the beauty of my mother tongue and like a toddler learning to walk, i relearnt my mother tongue, trying to find my release through the amazing mintamil forum. I was egged on during those initial stages of just a few lines on sculpture to deeply analysing and inferring literature, bakthi and their interplay with sculpture – was catalysed by the interactions i had with Mr. Kannan. a stunning academic whose love for the language and the great devotional hymns, amazed me. As luck could have it, Mr Ashok my photographer friend came up with a set of amazing sculptures from Tirukurungudi, one look a them and i decided inorder to do justice to the mastery of these beauties, the right person to write about them would be Mr Kannan. Grateful to him for agreeing to do so and come up with such a great post in such a short duration. Read on and enjoy…..

It often amazes me! You and me look at a rock, a barren hill as stone. But an artist sees a temple inside. How else could we have those marvelous cave temples in Mamallapuram, Ajanta and Ellora?
There are plenty of stones around us. But only an artist sees God in a stone. A poetry is hidden in words. Poetry is hidden in stones as well. I shoot a butterfly on the other day. It was so beautiful that I felt that this butterfly is nothing other than a Haiku written by the flower! Can we say this? Yes! we can. Beauty and order are the
essence of creation. Whenever there is beauty there is poetry. Vijay has rightly called his blog “Poetry in Stone”.

But of course most of us don’t see a poetry in rock or a flower. We need to develop those aethetics. Tirumular a saint poet of India says that when you see a wooden elephant, at that moment you ‘see’ only an elephant and not the wood. In the same way, when you see nature, you see only the elements but not the god. This is certainly an art. To see a poetry in stone and God in everything.


Nammalvar, the poet saint of southern India expresses it in a different way. He visited Tirukurungudi. He saw God there. He saw ONLY god and nothing else. Not even the ‘seer’. Only ONE existed. He says
then “If then, how dare I call myself an entity?” I think Nammalvar is correct. After seeing these beautiful sculptures, one forgets oneself. Only the Poetry in Stone Exists.


The popular belief is that Sriman Narayanan decends now and then as Avatars on earth, as it is one of the playgrounds for him (Leela Vibhuti). Among the most popular Dasavatar (ten) Vamana is celebrated by saints and poets. As it reflects the sentiments of Tirumular and Nammalvar beautifully. Pali was a great ruler,in fact, he was referred as ‘Mapali’ the great one! All the worlds under the heaven was his (in fact, he owned the heaven as well). He naturally forgets God, the creator. This story repeats after his great grand father Hiranya who was a tyrrant and egoist. He was slayed by Vishnu for the same reason. However, Pali is also the grandson of Prakalatha, a well known devotee
of Vishnu. So, Vishnu didn’t kill him but he wanted to show him a lesson. He came as a dwarf and asked for three feet of land as alm. Without relizing the fact that he was God himself, Pali promised HIM his land. Next moment HE grew so big that the entire known universe is under one feet and the unknown universe under another feet. Even Brahma the creator of universes got baffled by this enormous BEING. He realized that HE must be the ‘real’ creator and so he washed HIS feet using water in his kamandala. The water flew in the heavens there after as “Akasa Ganga”. Later Siva brought that to earth for earthly uses. The God who resides in Tirukurungudi is none other than this
huge entity. This beautiful myth is captured in stone.


HE appeared once to the call of Gajendra. Under distress Gajendra called for help. He requested the roots of all roots to appear in front of him to remove his distress. So he called “Adi Mulame” (the
one from it everything springs, the undifferentiated ONE). Before THAT appeared everything else such as all the Devas, Trimurthi, Rishis and Munis appeared. Why? They wanted to see who THAT one was? At that moment Sriman Narayanan appeared in his Eagle cart (Garuda vahanam)
majestically. This story is depicted as poetry in stone as well.
However, the most interesting one is Krishna stealing butter. The most popular myth of India and elsewhere. Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu as well. However, with a difference. While rest of all avatars are magnificent and majestic. This one is ‘down to earth’. A playful child, mischievous to the core. Naughty and charming. Nothings escapes his charm. Not even the cattle and trees in Brindavan. Krishna is embodiment of beauty, simplicity and benevolence. He undertook major tasks for the benefit of people around him like a child play (the samhara or the destruction of evil in this avatar is unparalleled) mainly to make himself accessible to his dear ones as a child companion to play with. That’s why Krishna is accepted by everyone without cast, creed and religion. This beauty is etched on stone with the same charm in Tirukurungudi.

When poetry emerges, it charms, it enchants and it mesmerize. At that moment only poetry exists. Paranirvana, Satory, Moktsha. Don’t you feel that at this moment in this blog?

Thirst for Art knows no boundaries – Narthamalai, a guest post

You would have read in the about me section, the yahoo group discussing Kalki’s amazing creation – ponniyin selvan introduced me to host of new friends. One post out of blue in the forum made me stand up and notice ( A post which was not out of place in a forum that discusses one of the greatest work of historical fiction in the Tamil, but coming from an American woman, it sure raised my eyebrow. Maybe it was one of those pseudo blogger names, so i started a conversation – what unfolded left me dumbfounded. Kathie is an American, who possibly has visited more obscure sites ( including ancient sacred places, even ones without much left at the site) than the celebrated back packer, ardent temple enthusiast in India, not just with an eye to see them as a tourist, but to enjoy the beauty of sculpture, to drink in the true pleasure of stone art at its very best – She has been coming to India since ’86 seeking out spiritual places filled with amazing works of art. So when i was thinking of calling someone to grace this site with a guest post, she agreed instantly. Her enthusiasm is contagious and her knowledge makes me wince!! over to Kathie

One site I’d been longing to see, on the strength of one photo in J.C.Harle’s “Art & Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent”, was NARTTAMALAI [Narthamalai].

Legend tells that its great granite pile fell off the mountain of healing herbs carried by Sri Hanuman, flying down to Lanka. It’s true that the area is known for medicinal wild plants.

Winter ’95, I took a taxi down from Tiruchi into Pudukkottai district, wondering if I could find the place. There was the enormous granite hill with a pool at its south end, but where was the temple ?
Doubtful, I walked along the fairly steep rock-face, noting an Ayyannar shrine across the water; then, through the trees, appeared the beautifully balanced Vimana: Vijayalaya Cholisvara Koil

This temple of 866 CE, built by Muttaraiyars — fiduciaries of the Royal Chozhas — shows that their artisans excelled in both architecture & sculpture. The west-facing temple’s round amalaka still had some paint –a soft red–, with 4 side shrines, gentle Nandi, & two caves in the cliff behind.
Murthis on the temple itself was quite worn and hard to see without binoculars.
To my taste, this is the most perfectly proportioned temple in TN.
The several door guardians here were among the finest I’d ever seen, a platform against the rock had a mala of playful elephants & Yalis, , including one with a human face. There were more loose murthis on the platform.

One cave was being used as a storeroom. The other — Samanar Kudagu, once Jain — had interior walls lined with 18(?) carved Vishnus, each subtly distinct.
Beside the koil masterpiece, the view east from the temple courtyard– angled rocks and green paddy — was breathtaking.
in 2007 I visited again with a group of friends. By then the amalaka had lost it’s rosy tint.

This time we continued down the great granite slab slanting to the north, and at its foot, found another Ayyannar Shrine of over a hundred steeds for the village guardians.
A magical place.

There is a newer temple on Narttamalai which we didn’t find.More sculpture from this site can be seen at the Pudukkottai Govt. Museum.

Kathie Brobeck

p.s We will visit this amazing place in more detail in subsequent posts.

Mallai Shore Temple – An Intro Post

Before i start introducing the shore temple ( does it need introduction?) i got to place on record my sincere thanks to two friends i met on – their photography stunned me and when i sought their concurrence to host their pictures here, they gladly agreed. The stunning visuals truly add beauty to the pallava creation and they are from the lenses of Mr. Prabhakaran ( Aadhi arts) and Mr Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan ( Ravages)
Any chennaite and every visitor to Chennai – takes back many interesting memories, but nothing as spectacular as the twin spires of the shore temple.
By the lilting waves of the sea shore, landscaping the skyline, words cannot aptly explain the visual overflow of senses on seeing this magnificent edifice, standing tall for a 1300 years, withstanding the elements, a living tribute to the pinnacle of artistic excellence of the Pallavas. In Art school you are taught the elements of symmetry and how aesthetic beauty comes from symmetric images – you could base the straight profile for that argument, but the greatness of this creation is that the asymmetric towers too appeal very much to your senses.
The structure most often serves the purpose of a photo backdrop and not many know the intricate details of the structure, which is the purpose of this introduction.

The mallai shore temple is actually a three in one temple – an earlier Vishnu shrine
sandwiched inbetween two shiva shrines. The two Shiva shrines
gopurams are built by the great Raja Simha Pallava ( the self styled king of unlimited fantasies – Atyantakama – you can see his trade mark prancing lion pillars – we did see them earlier in the Saluvankuppam post – tiger cave bordering the stage and you will see more of them when we venture to Kanchipuram for his grandest creation – the Kanchi Kailaasanatha temple ). The Vishnu shrine in between, did it have a tower or was it damaged later, is not clear.
But there are references in Vaishanvite Saints ( Alwars) works of Kadalmallai
Talasayana perumal. In Rajaraja’s later inscriptions he mentions the names of the three shrines of at Kshatriyasimha Pallavesvaragriham, Rajasimha Pallavesvaragriham and Pallikondaruliya Devar shrine.
Kshtriyasimha and Rajasimha are ofcourse titles of Rajasimha himself and hence we can conclude that these shiva shrines were built by him.

The shore temple is truly an ode to sculpture

We will see more of the Sthala Sayana, the Vishnu shrine in the coming posts.

The BIG temple – an intro post

After doing the intros of Ajanta, Ellora,thought i should do one for the Big temple in Tanjore. But a post of its sculptures preceded the post, so we take this as a prequel.

This grand exhibition of Chola architecture and its lasting beauty is but a fitting tribute to one of the greatest kings of our land. The great man, as Arulmoli, who was content to let his uncle rule for 15 years, waiting by the sidelines ( after the assassination of his elder brother – the crown prince, Aditya Karikala in 969 AD), and then take on the reigns in 985 AD and user in a glorious period of chola rule.

The exact words are beautifully translated by Sri. K.A. Neelakanta Sastry in his lovely work COLAS ( 1935 – Madras Univ publication) from the thiruvalandadu plates

You can read them here:

but for this verse in particular

(V. 69.) (Though) requested by the subjects (to occupy the Chola
throne), in order to destroy the persistently blinding darkness of
the powerful Kali (age), Arunmolivarman who understood the essence
of royal conduct, desired not the kingdom for himself even in (his)
mind, while his paternal uncle coveted his (i.e., Arunmolivarman’s)

Look at the lovely use of the words desire when it comes to Arulmoli and covet when it comes to Uttama ( his uncle)

Arulmoli took the title Raja Raja on his coronation and his military prowess and administrative capabilities are to be etched in gold – but maybe for longivity he chose Stone – yes, he left behind his illustrious deeds in the form of his Prasithi ( in sanskrit) or meikeerthi ( in tamil ) – mei – true, keerthi – fame – his true fame. That would be another post altogether

We look to another plate that sums up the big temple ( thanks to Sri Nagaswamy’s sir site

To him was born Arumolivarma, who with his long and beautiful arms bore the marks of sankha and cakra in his palms. He conquered the Ganga-s, Vanga-s, Kalinga-s, Magadha-s, Malava-s, Simhala-s, Andhra-s, Ratta-s (Rastrakuta-s) Odda-s (Orissans), Kataha-s, Kerala-s, Gauda-s and Pandya-s. By the wealth obtained through his conquests he erected at Tanjanagari (Tanjore) a very great temple (atyuttamam) named Rajarajesvaram
As you enter tanjore – you are greeted by this – the towering Vimaana ( Vimaana is on top of the main Idol, Gopuram is on top of the outer walls/compound – most south indian temple gopurams are taller than the vimaana, Raja Raja’s tanjore temple and his illustrious son Rajendra’s Gangaikonda cholapuram being one of few exceptions – why ??) – we go nearer in the next post..

The World’s largest open air bas relief sculpture – intro post

The opening picture we put in the introduction pages, raised a few comments. We could have easily put a better picture of the same relief, or a beautiful sculpture but what we wanted to highlight was the lack of awareness about these great works. So inorder make amends, thought we will make not one but a series of posts as a tribute to this greatest marvel of pallava art – the world’s largest open air bas relief sculpture.

There are no parallels to this work before and since, what inspired the pallava artists to let their imagination and skill run riot on a canvas of this size, 200 feet wide by 40 feet tall, that continues to entrall audiences 1300 years after the last chisel blunted its edge on this hard rock face.

The grace of the flying celestials, the majestic elephants, a host of animals and birds, the emaciated book seeker, the benevolent boon giver, the host of attendants, the naga royal couple, well it does call for this series on mallai penance panel.

The giant composition is a giant puzzle, a living testament to the fertile pallava mind, to start with – the name itself is a puzzle. Is it Bagiratha’s penance (the descent of the ganges) or Arjuna’s penance to get the Pasupatha Weapon of Shiva – Descent of Ganges couldn’t be more apt – for the choice of the natural cleft in the rock face, and the deft use of this to frame the relief. But lets look at both the legends and also the subsequent post on the test penance panel.

Bagiratha’s ancestors are cursed to ashes and inorder to resurrect them, he needs to do severe penance ( not he but his whole clan) and it is he in the long list who manages in his persistent best ( even today he, sadly along with Md Gazni, are examples for being persistent to succeed). Ok,he finally manages to please the gods and the Ganges is forced to come down ( we saw her ego being abated in the earlier Shiva Gangadhara post). So the penance panel has been artistically conceived in such a way that during heavy rains the water would be engineered to flow through the crevice ( there are remanents of a catchment tank above the penance panel…maybe used to entertain the kings in the non rainy seasons)

Ok, the second plot in the puzzle is set in the Mahabartha just before the Kurukshetra War. Arjuna is building his arsenal of deadly opps divine weapons. He does severe penance to obtain the Pasupatha Astra from Shiva ( see the emaciated condition of the boon seeker in the panel …cant but compare with the current nuclear deal that India is being so wanting to sign…are we so emaciated !!) compare this with the divine beauty and grace of Shiva ( check out his ornaments – the different ear rings on each ear) ..the astra looks a kind of oversized spear – not like the regular arrow or the trident so associated with Shiva.

There are few more puzzles to be answered, the praying cat, the headless scribe, the forest scene, the belly face in the shiva bootha gana etc etc which we will see in the coming posts