How do you define the essence of Bhakti – in bronze !

Many before and many henceforth will attempt to describe the dancing form of Shiva – Nataraja. The concept of his dance has inspired many and many more are drawn to it by the craft of the master artists who immortalised the form, as they captured his swirling movement in solid mediums – be it stone or metal.

Today, we see but a sample of the masterly craft, of portraying emotions that will take reels of print to even to try to describe.

Thanks to arvind’s expert captures, we see the Lord of Dance, in all his finery, not in a Museum Showcase but as an object of worship. The infinite grace of the form, the power of the pose, the soothing gesture of the hands, bring a sublime calmness as your mind seeks out his gaze.

As you ponder on the manifest and the unmanifest, you loose track of time, before you realise that you are not alone. His consort Sivagami too stands there, awe struck, by her beloved’s pose.

The appreciative smile pushing up the cheek and the pride swelling in her chest, she stands in all her feminine charm.

That is not all, there is one more person in the composition.

Karaikkaal Ammaiyaar

We have seen many of her forms before in stone
, there are also a few museum exhibits of hers.

courtesy: From the Internet

The above bronzes while doing justice to the life story, lack a crucial ingredient. What made her unique was her Bakthi.

Bhakti or True devotion is more than just a state of mind, for it transcends existence. The primordial urge of any creation is to survive, not just to exist but to procreate. leave behind a progeny or maybe just make a ` dent’ in the universe. However, very few attain a state a state of total surrender to the supreme, where you stop seeking divine support to survive, to heal, to cure or just material richness or well being but instead submit in soul, spirit and beyond to become one with the supreme. Such a state of mind is so difficult to describe in words, the emotion of sheer bliss as you commune with the omnipotent. We can maybe comprehend the greatness of Karaikkal ammai with a ref from her 12th Tirumurai which condenses the essence of her bhakti in a stanza.

” I wish for the immortality of my love of you, for I do not wish for rebirth, however, if i were reborn, I want to be born again as your devotee, never forgetting you, and above all those wishes i pray for this wish – i want to see you dance to my joyful singing and that i want to witness seated at your beloved feet”

Now, take a look at the bronze.

The greatness of the craftsman to be able to capture the essence of that very emotion, of her going into rapture seeing her Lord Dance, the way her hands hold the cymbals – keeping beat while at the same time showing the appreciation, the uplifted face and the extended neck – showing her yearning, the face, the slightly flared nostrils showing the spontaneous outburst of emotion and the eyes, seemingly acknowledging the fulfillment of her wish.

That is Bhakti for you.

The embracing couple

It was pouring heavily and i was not sure of where I was headed. The London bus driver’s knowledge of Museums did not seem to earn them much credits or they were eager to get rid of a rotund man carrying a weird package slung over his shoulders – yeah, was lugging a newly bought English willow cricket bat and thank God this was before all the unsavory incidents in London. But still, a few roads seemed to be blocked for repairs ( yeah in London too) and was misdirected twice before making up my mind of switch on my handphone’s GPS and checking the route. Unfortunately it too didn’t pick the difference between the British Museum ( where i was headed to) and the Museum of London. After soaking in the rain and seeing the glorious history of London, managed to get the right directions and headed towards the British Museum.

Finally landed at the imposing facade of the British Museum and was immediately stopped by the guards – thanks to my special attribute ! They were really amused for in their long service they had seen many a weird object being brought along but this was a first – a cricket bat to a museum ! That said the tryst with the bat and the Museum security continued right through the day. Not that i was helping it – trying to peer behind exhibits and trying different angles to try and capture the grace of bronzes from behind glass. But let me explain.

This particular exhibit had me all excited

The name plate gave it a 11th C CE date and called it ” the marriage of Shiva & Parvathi” – technically a Kalyanasundara Murthy. However, we have seen the bronze from the same period in the previous post and its easy to note the striking stylistic differences.

For starters the size of this bronze is about 1/3 rd of the tanjore bronze, the features are more rounded. i wish we could get a good portrait of the famed Pallava period bronzes of Vadakkalathur to compare. I am no expert on dating bronzes, but to me the features are not Chola and definitely not this late into Chola. The aspects of Parvathi as a young maiden are so realistically carved and the suppleness in the legs and arms of both of them indicate a strong 9th C CE date for this bronze.

The interesting feature to note is the pendant / chain worn by Parvathi. We have not seen this before and the characteristic absence of the panigrahanam pose narrows done the identification to Alingana murthy ( the embrace).

I was advised very early in my journey to understand Bronzes to focus not only on the front but also on the rear. I wish all galleries and Museums would exhibit bronzes separately allowing the viewers to admire them with a 360 degree view. It was not easy getting behind this particular exhibit.

But it was worth the effort ( and the trouble – as i accidentally leaned on the glass and caused the alarm to trip and another lengthy explanatory note on why i was mimicking a contortion artist)

…for it was not a single embrace, but a double embrace – double Alingana and to imagine this a 1000 years ago, the kind of intimacy that the divine couple are shown to be sharing and the contemporary appeal of the same, left me simply stunned.

A miniature mirrors a Bronze – Gangaikonda Cholapuram

It was a very rainy day when we reached Gangai Konda Cholapuram. Fortunately the rain stopped giving us a brief window to complete our tasks on the outside. The rain swept temple gleaned in all her pristine glory as we entered her.

As usual we were subjected to some rants by the ‘ authorities’ on cameras and photography, and we put forward the same arguments that any ASI site – Photography is allowed and free of charge – except for the Sanctum. ( providing of course you cannot use a tripod – some weird logic of ASI !). We wanted to cover a few miniatures inside the main Vimana but the arguments got us nowhere. We faced the prospect of one more unsuccessful attempt to cover them, when we were shocked to see that there was a big family function happening inside with full videography ! We threatened to bring hell and after much persuasion and promise that we would not shoot the main Sanctum, managed to get our equipment out.

The power went off right on cue just as we took in the sight of the gargantuan door guardians guarding the main sanctum.

How massive are these guys?

do you notice a small black speck in the photo towards the base??

Yeah, its the Cannon lens cover

As we walked past the dynamic duo to the next chamber, a very dimly lit wall showcased a brilliant miniature, quite in contrast to the massiveness of the occupants of the other side.

Sadly, we were clicking blind due to the power outage and the most important area of the relief was missed out. But still we could make out the panel. Apart from a whole host of distinguished rishis, we could spot Brahma officiating a ceremonial gathering.

And on top, was the marriage of the divine parents – Shiva as Kalyanasundara taking the hand of Meenakshi, with Lakshmi and Vishnu giving her away on both sides.

The immediate reaction was the recollection of the splendid Kalyanasundara Bronze which we saw earlier. .

The resemblance is remarkable

The stance and posture of Lakshmi

Vishnu seems to be little more bent forward than the bronze

But the clincher were the shy stance of Meenakshi

and the kati Vasta of Vishnu ( if you notice the way the waist cloth is worn by Vishnu – you see a characteristic U ), which is absent for Shiva.

We saw this in the previous post,

Compare the depiction in the bronze

Two different mediums, each with its complexities – the miniature with its size, yet the sculptor adheres to his Canons !

In search of Angada – no not the Vaanara Prince

God knows when mankind’s obsession with ornaments began. From cowry shells to pottery beads to Palm lead ear rings, there has been quite a steady progression, till the yellow metal with its gem stone companions decided to up the ante. After that there was no looking back but today we are going back in time, when Rulers donated elephant loads of Gold and not stopping at seeing how their lockers would look like, we are going to look at how they dressed up their Gods. Why this sudden obsession you may ask, the objective is to seek out a rare ornament, a reclusive jewel, that shares its name with the famous Prince of Kishkindha – Angad.

We are aided in our search by two magnificent Chola bronzes – both from Newyork – one from the Metropolitan Museum and the other from the Brooklyn Museum.

Both are dated around the 10th C CE, we have Shiva as Chandrasekara and Vishnu – both are in Samabanga ( straight profile) with their characteristic attributes in their upper hands ie. Shiva his Axe and Deer while Vishnu has his Discus and Conch.

The Brooklyn Museum has a interesting account of how it sourced this fantastic bronze ( thanks to the link for the photo credits)

We will start with the Vishnu from the Met first.

The crown – Krita is exquisite and there is a small band that goes just at its base – this is called the Pattika. Depending on the kind of embellishments that go on it – it can be called a Rathna Pattika etc.

Being a Chola bronze, assigned to the 10th C CE ( 970 CE – am not sure how such a sure date can be assigned), the sacred thread falls in a pretty straight forward manner over the chest to the waist ( compare with the early Vishnu Bronzes post where the thread goes over the right forearm – called the niveeta manner of wearing it )

Then comes the characteristic stomach band – not essentially a belt to hold the lower garment but more like fashion accessory worn just around the floating rib – the Udara Bandana,. ( btw, the belt is called the Kati Bandana)

We cross over to the hands to see if we can spot the elusive ornament. This arm band is called the Keyura.

Thanks to Rajesh & karthik’s excellent illustrations on their site Aakruti , we have access to some wonderful Iconographic illustrations to help us understand them better.

The things to note are the belt buckle – the Simha Mukha and the lose stylishly flowing U shaped lower garment is the Kati Vastra.

Notice the right hand held in the protective Abhaya Hasta

The left hand hangs loosely and rests on the left hip in a stylish mudra – called the Katyavalambita pose with the hand resting as the Kati Hasta.

Still no sign of the Angada?

Let us see if we can spot it in the Chandrasekara Bronze.

The right hand is held in the Abhaya Hasta as in the Vishnu bronze but the left hand is different.

There are two very similar poses, the Kataka hasta and the Simha karna Hasta.

There is not much between the two, except for a slight extension on the middle finger in the Simha Karna. The Kataka Hasta however, is normally seen in bronze figurines of Goddesses, usually to hold a flower ( fresh flowers inserted in the hands of the deity). So, when we analyse the posture, we do spot the slight extension on the middle finger, we could possibly identify as Simha Karna. ( Sri Gopinath Rao in Elements of Hindu Iconography kind of uses both almost interchangeably – need to refer more works to differentiate / define)

Now for our elusive Angada – its a arm ornament, but we did not spot any so far. Well, its because it is well hidden. We actually need to go behind to notice it.

Do you spot it – yes, its the Angada. An upper arm ornament !

Picture courtesy: Aaakruti, Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum.

Identifying Suchi and Tarjani

People have been pointing fingers for long and the inferences from them seem to be infinite. Imagine trying to infer intent from a pointed forefinger of a stone sculpture ! Yes, ideed, a pleasant chat on one such, lead to a wonderful lesson on Iconography. Take a look at these beautiful door guardians from Thakkolam ( thanks to kathie for bringing them up for discussion and Arvind and team for photographs and Mrs Subhashini for the sketches)

There are myriad of hand poses, but today the question is centered on two different hand postures – Hasta mudras, which look very similar – the Suchi and Tarjani.

We turn to Elements of Hindu Iconography by Sri Gopinath Rao for assistance.

“Suchi-hasta has been misunderstood by some Sanskrit scholars to mean the hand that carries a suchl or needle. ……………………….. But, like the Tarjani hasta, the Suchl-hasta, also denotes a hand-pose, in which the projected forefinger points to an object below, whereas in the tarjani-hasta the forefinger has to point upwards, as if the owner of the hand is warning or scolding another”

Let us take a closer look at the two door guardians.

Its really sad that such magnificent masterpieces in stone cannot be cleaned and maintained properly – infact one of the doorguardians seems to be pointing at the cockroaches troubling him while the other seems to point away from the ungainly intruders.

This seems a positive identification of the Tarjani hasta. How about the famed doorguardians of the Tanjore Big temple?

The distinction when comparing them to the sketches, seems a bit vague.

Are they pointing or warning or both?

We head back to the book to refer – Suchi hasta where the forefinger points to an object below

Let us try this on some classic examples.

The famed Kalarimurthy of Kodumbalur Moovar Koil.

Positively Suchi !

How about the famed Sculptural Monalisa – Darasuram Gajasamharamurthy?

Again its Suchi.

Now comes the trickier parts. These two exhibits from the V&A Museum London.

Obviously both are in the process of giving a discourse and we cannot take it as a threatening or warning gesture. Returning to refer again from the book, this interesting mention caught my eye. The description is of the famed Umasahita panel from Ellora

“Siva is herein holding in one of his left hands the upper part of the garment of his consort and keeps one of his right hands in the suchi pose and the other appears to be carrying a book. He is evidently giving out to Uma one of the puranas…….”

Now, the hand is evidently not pointing downwards. Now is Siva warning or scolding or just pointing out to his consort? Why is he holding her garment – maybe she is not attentive and he is….

A lesson on Ear Rings – Halebid

We take time away from Tamil Nadu into the delightful jewels of Hoysala land, into the Hoysaleshwara temple in Halebid, for a quick lesson on ear rings. But before embarking on the lesson let us pray respects to him guarded by his ever faithful door guardians.

Being used to hefty rock cut Pallava relief carved door guardians and the slightly more demure early Chola ones, the Hoysala ones must have had a better pay package ! Either the state paid for their Uniforms or their emoluments must have been simply awesome to afford such finery. But we must compliment them on their fashion and dressing sense.

Coming back to the topic, we have already seen the mismatched earrings of Shiva, here too we see his door guardian with a set of mismatched earrings.

On his left ear he had an exquisitely crafted Makara Kundala. Thanks to Sri Umapathy Acharya we now understand the Makara

But what interesting me was what he wore on his right ear. For the uninitiated – ear ornaments are generally called Kundalas.
Refering to Sri Gopinath Rao’s Elements of Hindu Iconography, he lists 5 different kinds of Kundalas. Patra kundala ( early palm leaf style – later replaced by gold leaf), the nakarakundala (same as the makarakundala), the Shankapatra Kundala ( a conch shell cut in profile to form a kind of spiral), a Ratna Kundala and a Sarpa Kundla.

The Sarpa Kundala is what interests us now. Normally the Sarpa or snake is a cobra as seen from the Garuda in Belur.

But what was interesting in this door guardian was the detailing of the multi hooded snake.

The work was so finely executed that you almost feel as if the central serpent has got a smile on his face.

Just on the topic of the intricacy of the carving, wanted to show you a piece of the ` head’ gear.

The Skulls have been carved hollow on the inside, considering the size and margin for error, cannot but salute these master craftsmen.

When Siva rested

We had earlier seen how Shiva contemplates to consume the poison . This post is a continuation of that act, with a brilliant sculpture from Surutuppalli about 60 km from chennai near Uthukkottai. The narrative for this post is courtesy Mr. Shankar Kumar, a medical doctor currently in USA[North Carolina] and a blogger since 2006 (, and and photos are thanks to our expert Mr Ashok Krishnaswamy.

‘ No, means no ! How much ever you plead its going to be the same answer from me’ Nandhi was animated in his refusal as he swung his huge head from side to side.

The dejected crowds let out a collective moan of desperation.

A tense air prevailed as it was no ordinary crowd, for it had Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, Vayu the god of wind, Agni the god of fire, Varuna the god of rain, Narada, Mahalakshmi, Saraswathi and along with them countless devas, rishies.

‘ Its all because of him’ murmured a irritated Vayu.

Indra knew it was directed at him. ‘ Did i do this for me ? I did it for all of us, is it not ?’ so saying he glanced around at the hundred eyes looking at him.

‘ Ok, ok. No point in crying over split milk now’ Brahma tired to pacify everyone.

‘ Well, how to just leave it. What Vayu is saying is right. He asked for Amrit and it is what led to all these events!’ Narada as usual was upto his tricks to flame the fire.

‘ Come on, we were getting bashed right left and centre by the Asuras. Unable to bear this and with no other option in sight, we all agreed to churn the milk ocean to obtain the Amirt. Even then, our limited strength was not enough and we had to enlist the support of the Asuras as well. At that time it sounded like a good idea. Who would have known it would end up like this?’ Indra found his voice once more.

‘ Yes, ofcourse. We are not disputing that. But did we use Vasuki like a normal rope. Scared to hold the head of the snake, we gave it to the demons and held the tail. The savages, they must have used all their strength to squeeze the poor creatures head, that out of extreme pain it spit out its deadly poison. Seeing the frothing deadly poison, all of you ran away for your lives’ Brahma was really angry now.

‘ Didn’t I tell you guys……my dad needs just a little encouragement and then no one can stop his ranting’ would be right words that go with Narada’s sly smile, But he didn’t utter a word, lest his father might blow his top.

Brahma ignored that and continued

‘ The Venom leapt across threatening to devour the three worlds and beyond. I didn’t know what to do, who to seek shelter. Who else to seek refuge under but Shiva’

‘Then too, this same Nandhi blocked our paths, as we sought an audience with Shiva. We half pleaded half begged him to let us through and somehow managed to gatecrash. Finally as we stood in front of the three eyed one, he gave us his all knowing smile and turned his glance at Sundarar who was next to him. In an instant he vanished and returned again with the condensed Poison in his hand. Oh my, such strength in those hands, they didn’t shake even a little on the prospect of carrying the most potent venom ever as he offered it to Shiva. ‘

‘ You guys were not around when it happened, that is why i am giving a detailed account now. Shiva took the entire contents off Sundaramurthy Nayanar’s hand and before we could even contemplate what he was about to do, he swallowed it in one stroke.’

‘ What love he has on this world, knowing that the continued presence of the venom would destroy entire creation, he had a difficult choice. Where to discard the poison, every second he delayed could be catastrophic, he took the decision to consume it himself. We were all taken aback at his selfless act, when…..’ he paused for the effect to sink into the crowd.

Everyone looked at him, open mouthed, gaping at the enormity of the sacrifice that had played out in front of them.

Brahma for once was happy that he was the center of attraction. Narada once again smirked at his dad.

‘ Tell us, what happened next?’ Varuna could not stand the suspense.

‘The poison that he drank had not yet passed his throat, when Uma who was seated next to him, caught his throat in her hands, not allowing the poison to pass through. It finally condensed at his throat’

‘ The enormity of her act dawned on us, as we realised the implications of the aftereffects of the deadly poison if inhaled by shiva, whose very dance fuels the cosmos and dictates its every move. If the poison were to reach him then there is no point of taking it from the outside.’

‘And the only person who knew the implications and had the presence of mind to act instantly was the mother herself. The divine mother, with her overflowing affection over all beings, used all her power to stop the poison from descending and hence by the divine miracles of the couple, we live to tell this tale’. You could see the gratefulness in his eyes and it reflected in those of the assembled crowd.

‘That miracle has no precedent or comparison, nor will there ever be. But we are waiting her for something that happened after this.’ Brahma brought them all to the present from his tale.

‘Yes, ask this Narada. He is the one who told us’ said Brahmma.

‘It is as i told you all. The poison unable to come out or go in, has stuck in the Lord’s throat. He is feeling a bit tired and has rested on Umai’s lap. He has now closed his eyes and in deep sleep’ said Narada

‘ What, He is sleeping. That is my patented posture ! If he were to close his eyes and ly down, what will happen to this world. No wonder the whole universe is darkening and slowing down. I have to see him and my sister Meenakshi and congratulate them on their bravery and selfless act, but this Nandhi is not allowing me in.’ Vishnu was getting agitated.

‘ Sir, It is not a big thing. He just felt a bit dizzy and rested his head on mother’s lap. When he is resting, how can I let everyone in. Please understand, even I cannot go in now. So saying, he turned his head to listen to the sounds inside. ‘ Hang on, I can hear them inside. Let me go in and check’

Hearing the commotion, Surya, the Sun god decided to peep in as his shift was almost getting over.

‘ I too have some time to rise, before that let me get a seek the blessing of Shiva’ felt Chandra the moon god.

They were both just in time to get the darshan of the divine parents in all their splendor as they came out of their chambers, rested and in all their brilliance.

Thiruvattathurai: sculptures and stories and the life of a temple

Today, we are going to see another splendid guest post from Ms. Liesbeth Pankaja Bennink. In the last post she had expertly described the Palanquin and parasol for Gyanasambandar. Today she dwells deeper into this remarkable temple and takes us on a guided tour of how the joy of a temple visit is to be savored.

Just like the temple itself, each murti or sculpture of a deity tells several stories. Each murti represents a purana, a myth. And it also tells the story of the time it was sculpted. How the sculptor depicted the myth in his time. Although a depiction of a murti is directed by the doctrine, by the shastra, there was always the genius of the sculptor who gave shape to this doctrine through his own genius, vision and inspiration.

This post will be about the murtis in relationship to the structure of the temple: what is sometimes called the sculptural program. The stories of the individual murtis I prefer to present separately, in order to give them all due attention.

Entering a temple compound for the first time is always an exciting experience. Every temple has its own energy, and also its own treasures. Some temples are very well known and many photos or books about these can be found. When we enter such a temple we have an expectation. Or even a pre-concept. But the actual experience is always different and unexpected. Entering an unknown temple is like entering a treasure trove full of mysteries waiting to be discovered.

Entering the Shiva temple in Thiruvattathurai was truly such an experience. We walked through the first Gopuram into the outer prakara or courtyard. To our left was the entrance to the courtyard of the Devi shrine. To our right a Nandi and flagpole belonging to the Devi temple and ahead the flagmast and Nandi belonging to the Shiva temple. It was an open space, still cool under the December sun. Crossing the second Gopuram we entered the central courtyard where our view was immediately blocked by the walls of a half-closed mandapa.

We turned left to follow the pradakshina, the circumambulation holding the shrine on our right hand side.

The mandapa was pleasant and quite old. The pillars looked like belonging to the Later Chola to early Nayaka period, somewhere in the 14th century. This mandapa opened towards the South. It was attached to the mukha mandapa which was looking considerable older. It too had a porch opening to the South. After rounding this porch only the courtyard opened wide and we could see the shrine.

What we saw was a temple obviously belonging to the Early Chola period. With niches which housed depictions in stone of murtis or deities. I am not sure, but I think I was kind of stopped right there. Because before me I saw one of the most beautiful Bhikshatana or Shiva as mendicant I have ever seen.

Almost life-sized, shining deep black, caught in movement, a mysterious smile on his lips. Shiva as Bhikshatana or mendicant refers to the myth of Shiva’s dance in the Daruvana.

In the Shivakamasundari temple in Chidambaram we find a beautiful painting depicting this purana.

He holds his trident in his upper left hand and slung over his shoulders. From the trident hangs a bundle of peacock feathers . His left hand holds the skull which is his begging bowl. His lower right hand reaches towards the deer that follows him. In the painting we can see he is holding a little bit of grass with which he feeds the deer which accompanies him. On his left side he is accompanied by a dwarf who holds up a large bowl. In Thiruvattathurai one of the rishipatnis is depicted in a side-panel .

At the conclusion of his confrontation with the rishis is the Daruvana forest Shiva performed his Cosmic Dance. The eight corners of the universe shook, and the river Ganga (streaming through Shiva’s hair) trembled with fright. Parvati joined her husband. There, right next to Bhikshatana in another niche is the Ananda Tandava Murti, Shiva dancing his Dance of Bliss together with Shivakamasundari .

This Nataraja is also remarkable. And it is strange it has so far not been illustrated anywhere, as far as I know. Because of its quality, but also because of the place it may hold in the history of the depiction of Lord Nataraja.

In between Nataraja and Bhikshatana the Remover of Obstacles, Lord Vinayaka, is offering us his blessings. Thus Bhikshatana, Vinayaka and Nataraja are the three murtis presented on the South facing ardhamandapa wall.

As we proceed clockwise around the prakara we next come before Shiva as Dakshinamurti. Once again the sculpture is of exceptional quality and beauty .

Surrounded by four rishis and offering us his blessing with the chin-mudra here Shiva is the Supreme Teacher. The niche in the southern wall of the grabhagriha is the traditional place of Dakshinamurti.

As we continue our round we turn the corner to find Lingodbhavamurti in the western wall. This murti represents the myth which is said to have taken place in Tiruvannamalai. Shiva as Lingodbhava in the Western niche is worshiped by Brahma and Vishnu in slightly smaller form.

It is thought the Western niche is the traditional place where we find this murti of Shiva. But was this always so? Just look up at the roof of the vimana. There on the second tala and on the shikara it is Vishnu who occupies the honorable Western direction.

On the second tala Vishnu is seated on Adisesha, the cosmic snake, together with his two consorts, Shri and Bhu. On the shikara Vishnu is also seated accompanied by his two consorts, but without his throne. We may ask, when and why this change in the sculptural program took place? Today we find few Vishnu murtis in the Western niche of Shiva temples. But sometimes Vishnu continues to occupy this position on the temple elevations proving that this was the position of Vishnu in an earlier time. For instance in the Nageshvara shrine in Kumbakonam. Although Ardhanarishvara graces the western niche Vishnu is found depicted on the second tala and on the shikara

Rounding the corner into the norther part of the prakara it is four-faced Brahma who is occupying the northern niche as his traditional position.

Again the northern wall of the ardhamandapa is graced by three murtis. Two forms of Shiva, Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara on respectively the western and eastern side of Durga, occupying the central niche . All the murtis are beautifully carved, telling their story through the spiritual vision and with elegance.

The structure of a sculptural program of 3-1-1-1-3 niches on the walls of the ardhamandapa and the vimana is not uncommon for Early Chola temples. But the walls of this temple have an extra niche situated in the north-facing wall of the mukha mandapam, which is very unusual.

The murti in the tenth niche is Kalabhairava. He occupies a single niche in between panjaras.

The single niche in each of the vimana walls is actually standard in most Early Chola temples. We find Dakshinamurti in the niche of the South wall, Vishnu (earliest), Ardhanarishvara (a little later, and only applied for a short while) or Lingodbhava (standard in a later phase, till today). Brahma is always found depicted in the North facing wall. Sometimes other murtis also find a place on the vimana wall, for instance in Kamalasavalli or the Nageshvara in Kumbakonam.

Three niches in an ardhamandapa wall is also not uncommon. But this temple tells a different story. Because four of the six niches are not proper niches. They are niches cut in the temple wall, without the normal structure of a niche: a lintel with a makara-torana on top, and a discontinuation of the vari.

This shows only the central niches in the ardhamandapa walls housing Vinayaka and Durga respectively are genuine niches. What story does this tell? Did the architect decide half-way the construction he wanted to give a place to more murtis? Or the donor? Where does this temple fit in the evolution of Early Chola temples? The Vinayaka and Durga murti can now be understood as having a different style and structure from the other four murtis. Especially the Durga seems to have been sculpted almost in the round. The Mother standing on th head of Mahishasura creates a narrow and tall composition fitting perfectly in the rather high and narrow niche.

The cut niches are shallow, broad and high. They rest on the vari whereas the proper niches are cut through the vari, as is usual in Chola temples. Were the secundary niches cut at a later date, perhaps to give refuge to murtis brought from somewhere else, possibly another temple? Can we discern any differences or similarities between them which can help us understand better. In a following post we will study these murtis further to see if we can find an answer to these questions.

250th post. Someone has to swallow the bitter poison

It has been an extraordinary journey for me and must thank all those who have stood by me and traveled along with me on this incredible odyssey. Yes, we are coming up with the 250th post today. They are all in my hearts and though i mention only one today – each and everyone of them is dear to the cause. Sri Maravanpulavu K. Sachithananthan is the force behind the effort to see the Thevaram verses translated into so many languages via his site and many a times, have used his search engine to pickup verses to compliment posting here. So it was my honor to ask him to pen a few words about the spectacular event which is captured in the Bronze sculpture we are to see today.

In the previous post, we saw the churning of the Milk ocean. Such a massive operation akin to today’s multi billion dollar projects would not have gone without hindrances. One such instance was as the intensity of churning increased, the mountain going round back and forth, the Devas signifying all that is good pulling it on one side and the Asuras or demons pulling from the side of the bad. Though the mind yearns for oneness with God, the mortal pleasures pull you back into their midst. The mind never rests in peace permanently, as it is under the control of the senses and ego. We learn from a mistake and even before we repent, the next desire seems to engulf us. Such is the state of our lives as we swing from good and bad.

This is brilliantly captured in the Verses of Sri Abirami Battar in verse 7 of Abhirami Andadhi

Ruling my life, you always have,
Churn it like curd,
Birth after birth,
In miseries great,
And take me to salvation great,

This could be a divine game as well and the interplay gets repeated many a time. So too in the churning episode, instead of the immortal life giving portion, out came the deadliest venom, threatening to end all the worlds. So what does Shiva do ?

Lets look at this rare and magnificent bronze currently in the Chennai Museum. Its that of Vishapaharana and is stylistically dated to the 9th Century – Pallava change over phase to Chola.

We had earlier seen the Pallava Somaskanda bronze of a bronze that is dated older to this current one. we shall see as to why this is considered a later work.

The expression on the face of Siva is what makes this bronze such a beauty.

The contemplation on his face replaces the usual bliss and joy, as he is evaluating his next action. the third eye is clearly seen.

The formation of an almost conical head dress or jatamakuta gets this bronze a slightly later date than the somaskanda as do several other features. The Dathura flower and moon are present, as well as a new stylistic ornament – a king of multipronged lance in the center of the headdress is seen for the first time.

The Torso is delicately modeled with the slight curves of waist aesthetically captured. The yagnopavitha is beautifully knotted in the front and splits into three with one prominently passing over the right arm ( as per some scholars a definitive Pallava feature)
The Udrabanda is embellished with simple repeating motifs.

The upper part of arms is fashioned more like thick tubes and when compared to the lower part – which is splendidly crafted, shows the early nature where the craftsmen is battling the problem of multiple arms.

However, the lower part of the arms are exceptionally crafted and the arm bands ( keyuras) are matched to the crest jewel. We saw the rather plan looking ornaments of the Okkur Nataraja earlier. Compare that to this,

The two upper arms hold the Axe and the Deer respectively and see how the Axe is now held in the palm rather than with just the two fingers earlier.

The deer is quite a darling, clasping its front legs to pray to its Lord – is it asking him not to do the act that he is contemplating or knowing what he is about to do, praying to him for that ?

The artist has shown his masterly understanding of form, of skin, cloth, supple muscle with tender skin, its folds in the waist and legs. The right leg extended downwards is quite a masterly study.

We see a intricately carved ukramuka belt clasp with the edges of his dress flowing out of it. The image itself must have been cast for use as a processional deity,as you can see the strong base and attachments on the side to secure for ease of lifting.

The flowing tresses of Shiva fall beautifully over his shoulders and he has stylistically anointed himself with two flower on each.

The brilliance of the styling of the hair is seen more splendidly as we swing to the other side of the bronze.

Once again, the appearance of the Siras chakra – a later feature helps the craftsmen to ply the locks into a magical spread. He even make one lock of hair flow over the clasp of the neck chain.

They continue right up to his shoulder, beautifully curling up.

All that apart the most vital aspect of this bronze is shown in the two lower hands.

The left hand is holding a magnificent Cobra which has his huge hood open and is looking up at him.

Maybe signifying the potent nature of the poison which he is holding on the right hand.

The gravity of the situation warrants the serene calm of the whole composition.

He is ready to swallow the bitter poison for the good of all. He is Shiva as Vishapaharana. The blue poison is passing through his neck, coloring his tonsils. The Thevaram Hymns abound in the references to his blue colored neck.

What happened next, we will see in the next post.

Our salutations to the team behind the effort and do show your support for such noble efforts of Sri Maravanpulavu.

Possibly the earliest depiction of the Ananda Thandava of Shiva in bronze- Okkur Natesa

The study of bronzes is an addictive passion. Once you have laid you eyes on an exquisite Chola bronze, there is no antidote. But, the flames of this passion are difficult to feed, for its not easy to lay your eyes on them – when in worship they are brought out clad in all sorts of paraphernalia leaving almost next to nothing to view, and when they are back in their abode – they are jailed ( for safety!). That leaves out museum visits as the best possible places to study them, and thanks to the hundreds of buried bronzes that have been found in treasure troves, most Museums have a few on display. While a few lucky museums are bestowed with the custody of hundreds…One such is the Chennai Egmore Museum. Sadly, the problem posed by the lighting and the glass cases remain a hardy deterrent, but then the largest problem – is the lack of awareness and information on how to enjoy them – what to look for, how to look. So, today, thanks to the wonderful book – Bronzes of South India ( once again) by Sri. P. R. Srinivasan, we embark on a study of the famed Okkur Natesa – possibly the earliest attempt by a bronze stapathi at refining the Ananda Thandava form of Shiva and a precursor to the now famed Chola Nataraja.

The dating of this bronze ( as usual) is a point of contention with experts giving early 9th C CE dates to mid 10th C CE. But the consensus is that this is possibly one of the earliest forms of the Dancing Aspect of Shiva signifying the Ananda Thandava. So lets, see the characteristic features of this bronze that justify this ` early’ tag.

The two most distinct aspects of this bronze are the appearance of the Orb or Prabha – beautifully encircling the main form and the lotus pedestal.

Before we go into the specifics, lets study the Ananda rasa in this composition – so beautifully brought forth by the artist – despite the 1000 years and wear n tear…you can still see the divine sublime smile.

its very interesting to note that there is a suggestion of a third eye and the mismatched ear rings – there is a large Patra Kundala on the left ear while the right ear seems to have a very small ear clip ( the book mentioned above doesn’t talk of this ear clip)

The headdress of Shiva is very similar to the one we saw in the Pallava Somaskanda – with the Datura flower and crescent moon.
The round protrusion on the crest would be a skull and above it an ornament of feathers ( peacock?)

The neck ornaments are pretty ordinary with two necklaces, but the center piece of the second one is interesting. The larger necklace is obviously made of Rudraksha beeds with a very rare animal ( tiger) tooth pendant.

We will deal with the spreading locks in more detail later on, but what is interesting to note that this is the first time ( in bronze) the locks of Shiva spread out as he dances. They are pretty plain with no ornaments and noted absence of the depiction of any form of Ganga ( mermaid). They are intelligently fixed to the Orb for greater structural strength.

Shiva is shown with four arms and the arms separate at the shoulder joint itself ( not at the elbows – this is stated as one of the early characteristics of Pallava bronzes and hence a later date – Chola period – for this particular bronze). The raised feet has still not come very high up as the later depictions.

The anklets are cute with small bells attached to them and maybe you can actually hear them clang as he dances.

The clothing is pretty simple, with a two stringed sacred thread ( yagnopavitham) and a thick waist cloth ( uttariya) which is simply knotted over the stomach. The designs on the cloth are visible to this day !

The upper hands are stunningly crafted, one holding the Drum and the other the pot of fire – see how realistically the pot is delicately held in the tips of the fingers.

The lower right hand has a ascetically coiled snake around it and is in Abhaya Hasta.

If anyone should point out anything in this wonderful bronze – it could be the modeling of the lower hands and the thin thighs, which is more than made up by the beautiful depiction of Muyalakan sporting playfully with a large cobra.

However, the true beauty of this bronze lies when we go around to the back.

The fantastic portrayal of how the locks of hair form and flow is stunning. You can even see the clasp used to fasten the necklace.

Here comes the other clue as to the early nature of this bronze. The lack of Siraschakra or the ring behind the head holding the hair locks.

Interesting also to note the way the lion cloth is wound and yet he is wearing a kind of shorts as well.

The thing about the orb is the way the flames are naturally depicted – even though they sprout around the orb, the flames shoot straight up like how a natural flame would point vertically up even when held to oneside.

Truly a masterpiece.