A Hiddern cavern with a Pallava beauty

It actually happened during one of our extended tour / journeys – we had hired a tourist cab and an experienced driver. He was with us for 5 days at the end of which he literally gave up on us. He had been handling clients for 12 years in that area and was pretty confident that he knew every known attraction / street/ gully etc – till he met us. In those 5 days possibly he had to ask directions so many times that he would have been taken as a novice driver – not taking anything away from him, our interests were such. Most baffling to him was the fact that we would spend hours together on a ‘ small cave’ while exiting a large temple complex under 30 min. We tried our best to explain our iterated preference for offbeat locations to no avail – the last time i bid him goodbye in a train station he was still shaking his head, dismissing us as a group of nut cases !!

In our continuing quest to showcase the hidden gems of sculptural art, we are going to see one such best kept secret. 23 kilometers from Senji, in Panamalai is Rajasimha Pallava’s magnificent creation,the 8th C CE structural temple of Talagirishwarar.

Built on top of a small hill, the walls of one of its outer subshrines hold remnants of a rare dancing form called Alindhara Siva and a graceful Parvathi looking on. Sadly we have completely lost the Shiva except for a faint outline, however the Parvathi has survived. The sureness of the hand evidenced by the graceful lines combine fantastically with the brilliant ornamentation and use of color shading, especially the green show the mastery of not only the art , of human anatomy, expressions as well as handling of colors. View her here.

The temple gets very few visitors but even those few, miss the other attraction, for it is not found inside the confines of the structural temple, but at the base of the hill. We would have missed it too, had not the arduous yet exciting, exhausting but enlightening climb, virtually left us drained or rather wanting to drain…well, we had to relieve ourselves and boys being boys – and we being good boys did not want to do it on the holy mountain but chose the first opportunity that showed itself at the base. A few well worn goat trails led us around the hill and a short walk to the left of the stairs leads us to a naturally formed rock cavern. Deep inside this cavern, in such a confined space, in the fading light – we chanced on the beauty – that required the true genius of our expert Photographer – Mr Ashok – to bring to light – that the e Pallava sculptor has managed to carve a beautiful relief of Durga as Mahishasuramardhini.


The Natural cavern with the relief

The great king Rajasimha Pallava had a particular fascination for the Lion, as can be seen from the profusion of them in all his creations, and hereto the strength of the mount of Durga is shown prominently with its muscled fore limbs dominating the composition.


Mahishasuramardini relief

The eight armed goddess is a personification of feminine grace, as she strikes a casual pose, but the warrior attributes and strength are seen in the way her right leg is held up high and steady on her mount – Urdhava Janu and the sinuous curves of her hip break the straight lines of her right feet. The volumes of her wait cloth pass under her hand, held in Kati hasta, and fall gracefully alongside. She wears multiple bangles on all her wrists while the long bow is slung casually in front and the superb prayoga Chakra and a heavy straight sword are prominent amongst her various attributes. The interesting feature seen here is the presence of a three headed snake to the extreme right, though the snake is listed as one of the attributes of Durga we do not see this featured prominently as is done here. The Pallavas also seem to prefer having their sword scabbards on their backs instead of at the waist ? Here we see the goddess having a quiver and a scabbard on her back or is it two quivers? check out similar accessory in the Kanchi Kailasanathar kirata arjuna panel.

It should be mentioned that Rajasimha Pallava was not a King who would leave his creations anonymous, for he does make the task easier for historians to identify his creations, after all he embellished the entire base of his Kailasantha temple in Kanchipuram with his 244 Birudas ( Titles) not once – but 4 times, one below the other. He has forever stamped this cavve as his creation with his inscription, with his name and favorite birudas – Sribhara and Ranajeyah.


Rajasimha Pallava Granta inscription.

Have we missed describing something more in the relief? double up and examine the panel closely and let me see if you can spot…..

Photo credits: Mr Ashok krishnaswamy, Mr Shaswath

The Pride of Panamalai – recreated -part 2

Thanks for the overwhelming support for the first part of the post. Before we begin the second part, must thank Mr. K.Srinivas of The Chroma Academy, for enlightening us about the first person to have discovered this amazing fragment of Pallava art. He shared the relevant extracts from the book ‘Art I Adore’ by Shri Amal Ghose – ‘A book on art based on interviews with K. Ramamurty’

The account starts with an artist proudly showing off a receipt – a receipt for a fine fresco painting of the seventh century origin, copied by an unemployed artist, just four years after India achieved Independence. It read as below

” This is to certify that his Museum purchased from Shri K. Ramamurti, artist, a copy of the mural painting of the Pallava period from the temple at Panamalai. Mr. Ramamurti was the very first artist to copy this interesting mural. – Superintendent, Government Museum, Madras. ”

The account of how he found the amazing work is heart rendering. Mr Ramamurti chanced on a newspaper (The Hindu) article about a foreigner camping at Pondicherry Ashram throwing a hint that there were faint lines indicating a vanishing Fresco on the temple wall in a temple he visited in Panamalai hills.

He saw his chance to discover a piece of history and set himself on the task. He had to pawn his wife’s jewels to undertake the journey, but when he landed there – the priests and local had no knowledge of such a fresco. He did not deter and went ahead to search every inch of the temple, sleeping there itself. On the 15th day of his search, he found a faint line in one of the inner shrines. Was it indicative of a head? He painstakingly started removing the layers of plaster that had been put on the original painting to reveal the Umai of Panamalai.

He then remembered the wet process his Guru Deviprasad had taught him, for mastering the water color. Applying the same process slowly but accurately, he produced the marvelous Panamalai Parvati for proper preservation for Posterity’s immense happiness.

Many years later when he was asked if he remembered anything more about the discovery he says

” Nothing but the heavenly joy I tasted at those unforgettable moments of the discovery of the Panamalai fresco has remained fresh in my heart.’ He was Kora Ramamurti

I am not sure where the said reproduction exists in the Madras Museum. It would be great if we can find it. In order to truly appreciate the greatness of the artist – i take you closer to view how the artist has used the shades of green to provide the contour of the face and then the clear highlight to bring out the nose.

A big salute to the discoverer and a bigger salute to the master artist, we continue our own effort at recreating the masterpiece.

Smt Subhashini the artist, talks of the challenging task

Recreating Panamalai Umai was a wonderful experience. Starting with what was available and slowly discovering the lost pieces turned out to be an enjoyable process. Especially when you have Mr Vijay helping with required references and hi resolution images, everything falls in place perfectly.

When arrived at the first complete sketch of umai the amount of happiness we had can never be explained with words. But the best part of it was when I started painting. This time, I have used acrylic paint on canvas. Starting from the textured background and slowly revealing her layer by layer was like opening a very special gift wrapped in many layers.

Everystep was a discovery and it did have some guess work. And making this guess work look authentic was challenging.

On the whole, you see the development stage by stage here and I hope you will enjoy this as much as we did making it.

A feast for our eyes. The completed work.

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..