Sivapuram Somaskanda – the untold story

The title of this post should raise a few eye brows – for the popular topic should be Sivapuram Nataraja – but no, it is no typo. What you are going to see today is the untold story of the “other” bronzes from the same temple. It is the dark side of what is considered to be a landmark judgement – of returning antiquities.

The case of the famed Sivapuram Nataraja is too easy to google – the jist is this….

1951: The Nataraja along with 5 other bronzes were found during renovation works carried out in the Sivapuram temple . and as per the Indian Treasure Trove act they were given to the temple ( ownership vested with the State).

“In 1951 Annamuthu Padayatchi of Sivapuram, Thanjavur unearthed 6 idols viz., Natarajar, Thirugnanasambandar, Somaskandar, Pillaiar and two Amman from his field.”

The Collector of Thanjavur, handed over the 6 idols to the temple authorities of Sri Sivagurunathasamy Temple of Sivapuram as per G.O.Ms.No. 2987/Revenue Department dated 29.10.1953.

1954-56: The Nataraja was sent for restoration to a local Stapathy ( afflicted by Bronze disease?). They were masterfully faked and originals stolen then.

The trustees of the temple wanted to repair the idols and this work was entrusted to Ramasamy Sthapathy of Kumbakonam in the year June 1954. In the year 1956 Thilakar of Kuttalam and his brother Doss induced Ramasamy Sthapathy to part with the original Natarajar and 5 other idols and to substitute the same with fake idols. Thilakar dispatched the original Natarajar idol to Lance Dane of Bombay, an Art Collector, arranged by Doss who kept the idol for 10 years

1963: an important clue and event – which we will see later.

1965: Mr Douglas Barret of the British Museum visits the temple. He denounces it as a fake and records it in his book. He also reveals that the original was with a dealer in Bombay.

Dr.Douglass Barret of British museum, in his book on ‘South Indian Bronze’ mentioned that the Natarajar idol in Sivapuram was a fake one and the original was with a private Art Collector. Tr.P.R.Srinivasan (curator of the Museum) alerted the Director of Museum and the Government of TamilNadu. An enquiry conducted on this resulted in registration of a case in Natchiarkoil
P.S.Cr.No.109/69 U/S 406 IPC. The Crime Branch C.I.D took up the investigation.

1967: The Nataraja idol came into the possession of Boman Behram, a Bombay collector of art, who sold it to Ben Heller, a New York art dealer.

Doss who kept the idol for 10 years and sold it to Bomman Beharan of Bombay who in turn sold it to Menu Narang. Benn Haller of New York bought it for 6 Lakhs rupees in 1969 and sold it to Norton Simon Foundation for USD .9 Lakhs

1973: Ben Heller sold the idol to the Norton Simon Foundation for a reported $ 900,000.5

1973: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York began planning an exhibition of the Norton Simon Foundation’s Indian art collection. Through the publicity surrounding the show, the Indian Government learned about the statue’s presence in the United States. This was the first time that the Indian Government had traced the object since its theft. Consequently, the Indian Government wrote a letter of protest to the MET and, with the help of the United States Department of State, blocked the show’s opening.
1973: The Nataraja idol was shipped to the British Museum for further restoration.

1973: The Indian Government filed suit in Los Angeles (the domicile of the Norton Simon Foundation) and New York (the domicile of Ben Heller) seeking restitution.Furthermore, it exercised political pressure on the Government of the United Kingdom, consequentially leading to Scotland Yard impounding the statue. The Norton Simon Foundation refused to return the Nataraja idol by asserting that India had no rights or title to it.

1975: India voluntarily interrupted the litigation for a set one-year period in a hope to facilitate an out-of-court settlement.

1976: The Norton Simon Foundation and the Government of India settled the case out-of-court by way of a mediated agreement.

The official Indian versions are the one’s in bold including below

A special party arrested Lance Dane, Thilakar, Doss, Ramasamy Sthapathy. Tr. S. Krishnaraj, the then D.I.G, CB-CID, TamilNadu visited United States and gathered evidence as to smuggling of the Idol. The Scotland Yard found that the Natarajar was sent to Mrs.Anna Plowden of London by Norton Simon Foundation for repairs as the idol developed corrosion and impounded it.

The Government of India filed a civil suit against the Norton Simon Foundation in England, New York and Los Angles claiming the Natarajar Idol. Thiru.K.K.Rajasekaran Nair, I.P.S, I.G.P (Crime), Madras sent a letter to the Government of TamilNadu to request the Ministry of External Affairs to get the Idol back. Dr.M.S.Nagaraja Rao, Director-General, Archaeological Survey of
India, NewDelhi got the Idol from the Indian Embassy, Washington and now the Idol is in the safe vault of Kabaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai. All accused arrested and convicted.

There is no information about the remaining idols

This is where it gets interesting – what happened to the remaining 5 bronzes?

“In 1951 Annamuthu Padayatchi of Sivapuram, Thanjavur unearthed 6 idols viz., Natarajar, Thirugnanasambandar, Somaskandar, Pillaiar and two Amman from his field.””

Remember the year 1963. This was the year when Sri. P. R. Srinivasan brought out his magnificent volume – Bronzes of South India – P.R. Srinivasan (F.E. 1963, L.R. 1994)

Fortunately he had taken photos of not only the Nataraja but also the Somaskandar. He also clearly notes the location as “under worship in the Sivapuram temple”

Now things get interesting as there is this exhibit in flickr dated dec 20th 2008. pertaining to an exhibit in the Norton Simon Museum.

The plate giving the provenance is “interesting”

Even to a lay man the comparison is obvious.

The Museum’s site also features the same bronze but without the plate

Now a little more help from google reveals interesting additions to the same Museum’s collection in the year 1972 ans 1973

Saint Samabandar :



“In 1951 Annamuthu Padayatchi of Sivapuram, Thanjavur unearthed 6 idols viz., Natarajar, Thirugnanasambandar, Somaskandar, Pillaiar and two Amman from his field.”

The information of the case are from the website of the State = which ends as “All accused arrested and convicted. There is no information about the remaining idols “

What exactly were the terms of the out of Court settlement reached? That too with someone who quote:

Simon’s comments on the Nataraja published in The New York Times: “Hell, yes, it was smuggled,” he was quoted as saying. “I spent between $15 and $16 million in the last two years on Asian art, and most of it was smuggled.”

Did the Dancing Lord leave behind his consort, son and devotee behind !!!!

Note to audiences: Antiquities, Global auction houses and Museums are a tricky subject and it is easy to brand them – but it is important for all concerned to take in the sentiments involved. The objective of this post is not to slander but to bring to light the truth. As noticed above the sums involved are huge but these are our ancestral treasures – embodiments of God. The condition of the hundreds of bronzes in the State godowns in our own country cry for attention – the threat to them make their return to their abodes risky as well – it is time for the best brains to get together and think of a solution.


A gift to the gifted Child – Thiruvattathurai

Last year, i accidentally chanced on a brilliant work on Melaikkadambur. I had seen some of authors previous researches on the Spinx of India but this article on Melaikkadambur was special. The wealth of information it brought forth and ease with which they were explained were stunning. However, i was unfortunate to miss the opportunity of having the great scholar doing a guest post for the site – fate intervened and even though Sri Raja Deekshithar had indicated that he would do so, he left us before we could interact more and feature some of his fantastic articles here. However, today that we are fortunate to have his sishya Ms. Liesbeth Pankaja Bennink, contribute via a special series and am ever grateful to her for this fantastic post.

As long as I remember I have always been attracted to beauty and mystery, especially when it is from somewhere far away. A combination of choices and coincidences brought me to India. It is a long story. And so one fine day I came to an ancient temple on the bank of a river in the company of Kandhan, Jayakumar and Shankar, the sons of my great friend and teacher Raja Deekshithar. A quiet village, some children playing, a few people working. The temple was being renovated, but it was being done in a careful, non-intrusive way, as far as I could tell. Nothing of the ancient structure seemed to have been disturbed.

Everything tells a story. In the case of an ancient south Indian temple there are always many stories creating a kind of fabric, a weaving. There is the story of the building, the structure. What shape is it? How many talas or stories does it have? When was it build and who build it? Was it the first temple in this site or was it a renovation or reconstruction in stone? Another story is told by the sculptures. Which deities are presented in the niches? What other sculpture is decorating the temple and what is this telling us? There is the history told by inscriptions. Who donated what and for what purpose? How was the temple administered? And of course there is the story told by the sthala purana, the temple’s mythology. Through which divine intervention did this sacred place come into being? Who was the first to worship here? What are the special powers of this place? We need to understand all these stories if we are going to understand the temple as a whole. Each story is part of the puzzle that together is a sthala. A sacred place and a temple.

When I started preparing this presentation I thought it would be just one short article. But as I progressed I realised the material told so many stories, and I could not tell them all at once. It would just be very confusing. So it is becoming a series of articles about some of the stories that are part of the Shiva temple in the small village of Thiruvattathurai

The Lord of the temple is called Arattathurai Nathar, which just means ‘the Lord of Arattathurai’. This almost forgotten temple presents us with some truly magnificent examples of Chola sculpture

It is situated a short distance from the Pennadam – Tittakudi road on the bank of the river Vellar. The shrine belongs to the Early Chola period. Online I could find almost nothing about it. Adisesha (the snake on whom Vishnu rests) and the Saptarishis (the seven rishis are the constellation Ursa Major) are said to have worshiped Shiva here. These two things is the only information I could find about the sthala purana.

The only other story I could find about this temple is about Jnasambandar, the saint-child-poet from the 7th century. This temple enjoys fame as the place where Shiva offered a palanquin and parasol to the saint-poet Jnanasambandar. He was a small boy who traveled from temple to temple to compose and sing beautiful songs for Shiva. When he approached this temple he was very tired and Shiva gave the inhabitants of the village a dream telling them to give him a palanquin and umbrella decorated with pearls. Both are a sign of honor and distinction. Jnanasambandar composed several songs for the Shiva of this temple.

This story is depicted three times. We see it for the first time as we enter through the renovated gopuram

On the second tala on the right corner the stucco work shows the palanquin with the child inside and the umbrella on top being welcomed with music

Also the second tala of the main shrine depicts this story

And in the central medallion of one of the makara-toranas this story is depicted as a miniature.

This is without doubt the earliest depiction. We see Jnanasambandar and his father on the right side. The palanquin carried by two sturdy persons is approaching from the left towards the father and son on the right. The Umbrella bearer, shown underneath the Palanquin, amazes us as he holds up the umbrella’s bamboo handle , in a manner that can be seen to this day in temple processions. The boy and his father express happiness and a sense of gratitude for the blessing offered by the Lord through the people Arattathurai. The Jnanasambandar raises his arms and his father gestures his thanks and maybe also surprise with arms stretched out, palms up. Above this scene Shiva dances His Ananda Tandava together with Sivakami, blessing the whole scene as it were. The sculptor catches the emotions in this small panel brilliantly. After a thousand years we still experience the happiness and gratitude of the little boy and his father for this offer of transport and honor for the tired little poet. The palanquin is of a different design then what we are used to today. It is rectangular and flat with the umbrella offering protection from the sun.

The other two depictions of this legend show the saint poet sitting in the palanquin and being carried and received with music. Here the palanquin is depicted as we know it today, with a curved roof protecting the passenger from the sun and rain. The umbrella is depicted as fixed on top of this roof, where it looses its function of giving shade and protection from the rain. It is not possible to tell whether these narrative panels were added recently or not. But it is interesting to see the differences between the two narratives. One is as old as a thousand years. The other must be of more recent times. Both show the love and respect for the traditions of this village. I have only one possible regret. The renovations of the gopuram and vimana seem to have been made with a kind of cement and not with the traditional stucco or lime work. I hope I am wrong. Traditional materials last much longer.

A mistake at the seat of knowledge – time to set it right

This December, our trip took us to a lot of wonderful sites and was an eye opener in many ways – we learnt lot of things and more importantly realised how little we know!!. There are a lot of positive things to write about, but there was one instance which was an eye sore. Hence, thought will write about it first.

It is just a mistake but a mistake which finds in place in a site which is meters away from the greatest edifice to the regions art, literature and culture – Madurai. As one of the oldest sites and a seat of learning, Madurai is synonymous with Sangams and the lore of Shiva’s work itself being evaluated in its famed assembly. Thus this error, which is being witnessed by so many visitors is bound to be looked at as an himalayan blunder.

To set things in perspective, its was a long day for us, when we landed in Madurai ( me ,Arvind, my wife Priya and son Prithvi ) – we left early noon to be in time for the temple opening post lunch break and clicked away at the magnificent gopurams of Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. Then we ventured inside, thanks to a helpful local guide and 4 hours flew inbetween. With our backs and arms aching, sore from trying to jostle with the hundreds of enthusiasts to capture the right view in the fading light ( somehow, people do know how to jump into frame just as you waited for 5 min for the crowd to move on …and just as you press the button, someone jumps into frame and you get their bald frame !!)

It was close to 7 pm, and we had almost packed up our bags, promising to return the next day morning for another encounter with the gopurams ( east side….for better sunlight) – when i remembered that we had not got the pillar sculptures from the mandabam. The guide brushed us off saying there are only 4 or 5 there and can be skipped. But the presence of the ticket counter and a cop at the gate, got our curiosity growing and we went in. The pillars were ok, not great, but my gaze fell on a dimly or rather unlit dusty area of the hall. There were curious pedestals with smoky glass boxes. Was in for a shock when i went to investigate. Amazing bronzes, lined on both sides – over 50 of them. We were just then warned that we had less than 20 min before they shut down the place ( by 8 pm)….What a pity. The lighting was so poor and the glass was dusty – no way to get even decent quality snaps. Yet, the very first row of exhibits was disappointing.

Take a look yourself.

The first image ( identified as # 70 – Nirthana Sambandan)

I hope you have read the post on identification of Sambandar bronze.

Lets zoom in to see the clear mark

Such a clear mark, left behind by the sculptor – the Srivatsam, to show its Narthana Krishna – yet the bronze has been identified as Sambandar and that too in a museum housed inside the Meenakshi Temple !! What a pity.

Even trained guides arent aware of such a treasure inside this beautiful temple. Hopefully, someone can help reach this to authorities and correct this mistake.

First year Anniversary post – you need experts to understand Bronzes

Friends, Its with great pleasure that we present to you our anniversary post. Exactly a year ago, urged on by friends and well wishers we embarked on this remarkable journey on uncharted ground. For us, it was a modest start but with lofty ambitions. Its been an eventful 365 days, not restricting to South India and temple art, we have traversed almost the whole of South East Asia, spanning Stone sculpture, Bronzes, Cave art, in the process compiling 150 bi lingual posts covering wide gamut of subjects,sharing a common goal – to spread art awareness.Its been a journey of learning and discovery to us and am sure to our loyal readers as well. Along the way, we met many interesting friends, many who contributed to the richness of this pioneering effort. In our small but significant way, we believe we have succeeded in instilling the love to appreciate sculpture in our readers by presenting them a unique perspective of temple art. A lot of work goes into these posts, sometimes months are spent in researching for the posts, waiting for freinds to share the right photos, the right angles, experts are consulted, rare books are sourced from good friends, the essence of all these are distilled and shared with you in a form that can be appreciated easily by all. As we step into our second year with all your wishes, blessings and support, we present to you another of our special posts.

This is one such post which starts off as a nonchalant conversation and blossoms into a beauty, while emphasizing the need for experts. While discussing with Vairam on the previous post, we discussed the iconography of two very similar looking bronzes. One a dancing Balakrishna and another a dancing Sambandhar. See this exhibit in Tanjore museum ( they are identified properly and exhibited side by side – thankfully – Picture courtesy Satheesh)

To the untrained ( even many museums and sites are not clear) eye, both look very similar and are often mistaken for one another, or given both the titles to be on the safe side.

Take a look at these two bronzes. At first glance, they both seem the same.

But here comes the need for expert advise. Spurred by the doubt, we wrote to one of the foremost experts on bronzes today, Dr Nagaswamy, who replied to us sameday! That advise from the great man himself, who takes time to indulge and educate novices like us, is this post.

Lets look at the bronzes one more time,there seem some subtle differences especially with the pose of the right hand !

We first look at this sculpture of dancing Balakrishna – the clues lie in his right chest. Do you notice the triangular Srivatsam mark just above the right chest !! refer the earlier post on the same. No doubts, its confirmed that this is Krishna. Notice how the right hand is facing the viewer – Abhaya hastam, offering protection to the devotee.

Now, lets see the other sculpture. ( Many thanks to Stuart Lee – the left hand – spectacular capture – from chennai museum and Sakthis for patiently assiting with the others from singapore asian civilisations museum )

This is the more popular bronze, of Saint Sambandhar. The Chola kings were great patrons of Shiva,the very first verse of the Thevaram Hymns were sung by Sambandhar and aptly this sculpture depicts that scene.

According to legend, when Sambandhar was three years old his parents took him to the Shiva temple where Shiva and his consort Parvati appeared before the child.”parvathi fed her milk in a golden cup” . His father saw drops of milk on the child’s mouth and asked who had fed him, whereupon the boy pointed to the sky and responded with the song Thodudaya Seviyan – the first verse of the Tevaram.

Thodudaya seviyan song

the Lord has an ear on which a lady`s ear-jewel is worn.
He rides on a bull.
having worn a spotlessly pure white crescent moon of a single phase.
He smeared himself with the ash in the cremation ground which has the nature of a forest.
the thief who has captivated my mind
this person is really the great one who resides gladly in Piramapuram possessing greatness, where the Lord bestowed his grace on Piramaṉ who is seated in a (lotus) flower having petals, who bowed to him and worshiped him, in the distant past.

For a better understanding of this scene and to hear the verse being recited in this video capture.

Thodudaiya seviyan video
Now, that you have visualised the scene, think of how the sculptor showed this in bronze. And that is the clue to the identity of this bronze as well.

“The father asked who had fed him, whereupon the boy pointed to the sky”
Notice the right hand of the bronze. The index finger.

Let me get you the right photo angle to highlight this point of movement in chola sculpture.

Notice that the index finer is at an angle and gives you a visual impression of being in the process of pointing upwards, its not yet finished traversing to the point of pointing vertically up. Such finesse in sculpting this image. Truly masterclass.

Here are some more splendid bronzes from Delhi Museum, Chennai museum, Freer Museum.

Now, from above its pretty clear to identify the bronzes

Auckland Museum

The srivatsam is quite visible, so its krishna

Hindu wisdom site

This is clearly Sambandhar – as can be seen from the right hand and also the distinct ornamentation of similar bronzes.

Nice article on sculpture but..

The sketch below, while doesn’t show the srivatsam, the right hand index finger does points to the sky. So it should be Sambandhar as per reasoning above.

we thank you all once again for your continued patronage of our site and we look forward to receiving more photos and information from your temple / museum visits.

We take this opportunity to wish all our supporters, well wishers and guides who have stood by us, motivated us and continue to inspire us to do more. The list is endless but our thanks rise from the bottom of our hearts individually to all of you.