Sittanavasal – the zenith of painting – Part 2

Its been quite a while since we featured the first set of Sittanavasal fescos – and this post has been long pending. Before starting to read, would recommend new readers to view part 1 of this post below

Part 1 of this series

Ashok’s steady hands and expertise with the lenses, once again bring the beauty of the these paintings. If not for him, I am pretty sure that we could have just let this beauty pass by, without a second glance. We saw earlier, how the entire roof of the outer mandaba has been converted into a canvas and a splendid pond, brimming with life and activity was brilliantly portrayed by the master artist. How he managed to do it, suspending upside down, working with such subtle color variations, is a tribute to his skill.

The Pond scene, we are seeing today is a continuation of the same scene we saw in part one. If i told you that there are 3 birds, a man and even an Elephant plus a horde of fish swimming in this panel, would you believe me. If you have read the previous part, am sure you would . If you haven’t read it then maybe no !!

Let me try and mark the different things we need to observe in the panel.

Maybe, try the same technique as the previous post, by taking color of the rest to highlight what we need to see.

Can you spot the creatures? Here they line up. See the top left of your screen. do you spot a bird’s eye?

The fish on the other corner?

The pairs of Birds and fishes around them?

The man, in his loin cloth, plucking flowers?

Once again, the master’s line drawing

We will come back to him again, but lets scroll down a bit more and see the Magnificent Tusker !!

He too has a few fish for company !!

And another set of our fishes to bring up the bottom

Whats of interest in this detailed study, is that the man is holding two different flowers in his hands.Lily on right and lotuses on left !!


Not only has the artist shown the differentiation in how the two would flower but also in the nature of their stalks. Take a closer look. This time another set towards the top of the frame

Now, thanks to the internet, let me show you the two types of stalks and you can notice the differentiation

( images are courtesy the internet and just to show you the smoothness of the lily’s stalk while the Lotus stalk is rough and spiny)

Truly remarkable !!

Sittanavasal – the zenith of painting

Everything about Sittanavasal is clouded in mystery. Partly due to the sheer ignorance of common folk and largely due to ridiculous apathy of our system. How else can I describe the continued neglect of this zenith of painting excellence. Had even 1% of what is here, been in any other country, it would be celebrated as a nation treasure !! We have already seen couple of posts which showed the pathetic condition of these fantastic creations. Today, thanks to Mr Ashok Krishnaswamy – who is planning on bringing them out in the medium and in the form that would befit their worth. They are his copyrighted ones. I am forever indebted to him for willingly sharing these with us, so that we might bring out the beauty in this stellar composition and hopefully save what is left of it, at least digitally.

I was first introduced to the magnificence of this particular composition during a session with Prof Swaminathan. From that day, onwards its been more of a penance to bring this as a post, showcasing its true beauty to all. Me and Arvind were there last December, the terrain was harsh and we didn’t have the necessary paperwork to get them on our cameras. Good thing at that, for what we saw needed the expert hands of a professional. ( incidentally This Jaina site and its paintings were first noticed by a local historian S. Radhakrishna Iyer in 1916)

The rockface you see holds two treasures. One on top and one at its bottom. We will see the top one some other time.

We reached the cave front and were immediately taken aback at the site of the front pillars. They were not really the ones you expect of a cave of that date – clear later date additions !!

The rock cut cave could be stylistically dated to the 7th C CE ( notice the chunky pillars ala mahendra style) and was extensively renovated in the 9th C as we glean from an inscription that is on the pillar to the left of the original cave front ( once you step inside – to your right).

The inscriptions is in Tamil and talks of a Jain Ilan Gautaman who renovated the ardta mandapam during the reign of पंड्या king Srimaran-Srivallabhan (815 – 862 AD).

We already saw the location of the two dancers in the previous post, now we go to the main course. The piece de resistance of Arivar Koil ( yes, thats the original name of cave)

The painting style has been done in what is called Fresco Secco – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fresco-secco

The treatise Silparatna by Kumaradeva (8th century) gives an account of the Fresco-secco painting technology in detail. According to this text, a picture should be painted with appropriate colours along with proper forms and sentiments (rasas), and moods and actions (bhavas). White, yellow, red, black and terraverte are pointed out in the text as pure colors. Different shades were also prepared from these original colors. Five types of brushes with various shapes and size (flat, long, medium etc.) made of animal hair and grass fibre are also recommended

Whats great about this work, is the difficulty quotient. Working on raised platforms, the artist would have had to work long hours lying down, mixing colors ( mineral dyes at that) and applying them in that position, would have been such a pain.

I can see some of you getting impatient, lets bring it on. Here come the paintings.

Well, whats so great about this work. Let me take you through this journey – visually. Let me mark the areas where you have to focus on.

Still finding it tough, Ok, let me try another way. This is a lotus pond and is filled with lively fishes.

Lets zoom in on a few frolicking fish and see the detailing of the fish.




There are many more hiding in the pond, take your time, go back and see if you can spot them.

Now, this is a huge pond and there aren’t just fishes. If i were to tell you that there is a bison, a buffalo, a cow, an elephant family and a whole herd of frightened geese in that frame, you are not going to believe me…are you.


Ok, lets start with the biggies first. There is actually a small baby as well, try and spot him. ( very vague though – come on – its a 1100 year old work). The large elephant seems have his trunk around a bunch of lotuses and pulling at them !!

Now to the bovines, focus on the top left of your screen. You can see a massive Bison who is starring back at you, just behind him is his mate.

Notice the construction of his massive horns and differentiation provided to those of the cow.


There is one more, but a different species to the bottom center. Yeah, a water buffalo ( must have been my dad’s favorite for he must have called me with that far more times than my own name !!). Notice how the three are expertly handled by the artist.

Now, there is one more badly faded image, which i presume to be that of a horse.

To add to all this fun, there are a whole bunch of geese as well – you could have noticed quite a few already along with the elephants.

But do you notice something in the eyes of these birds. The expert artist has brought forth a sense of alarm in their eyes.

What is it that is causing their alarm. Take a clue from the painting itself, look in the direction of their gaze.

Except for the bottom pair, who seem to disturbed by the elephant to their left, all the rest are looking at a single point in the pond.

Yes, there are two charming men in the pond, the main subjects of this theme. They are part of the Samava Sarana, a Jaina motiff. They are shown as collecting flowers.


One of them seems to be of a darker complexion and is shown in the process of plucking a lotus flower, while on his other hand hands a wicker basket with plucked flowers. Look at the mastery of the artist, you can see the pressure on the stalk as its been pulled !!

The second monk, behind him, is depicted even more spectacularly. He has this serene calm radiant beauty in his face and a gentle grace in his action of pointing the next flower to his friend.

The last exhibit needs a second look.If you notice the three stalks behind the young monk, you will notice a subtle difference in them. Yes, indeed. There are both lotuses and Lilly’s in this pond – a lily stalk is smooth whereas a lotus stalk is serrated.

Thanks to Doyen Sri Sivaramamoorthy’s sketches, we can also see how the outline would look


Such mastery over his art and total understanding of his subjects. Not to take away the variations of different stages of flowering of each – from bud onwards. But wait, we have only finished half the pond. We will see the other side in part 2 of this post.

The lost art of Sittanavasal – Part 2

Thanks for all your encouraging comments on the previous post on sittanavasal. Today we are going to see another special from Sittanavasal, sadly in total ruin. Viewers are advised caution as the last couple of photos may not be suitable for general viewing ! meaning to the uninitiated as it contains some nudity ( a bit more than a previous one).

Before i present this beautiful maiden, would like to clarify a few points. First of all what you are seeing is not a religious motif but more a piece of art, so please see it as an art form and appreciate it for its artistic beauty and intrinsic value . Appreciating Nude Art is quite a controversial subject but you got to keep in mind that this is not something new or recent. So please differentiate it from Pornography and vulgarity. Nude art has been there since time immemorial and finds pride of place in many cultures and not necessarily Indian art alone – you can find ample evidences in Greek, Roman civilisations as well. Its got nothing to do with the darker side and unfortunately not too many people differentiate between the two. Art is something that transcends the frontiers of mind / soul / heart /class/religion/ intellect – it defies logical reasoning, so much so that its a feeling – an emotion. Nude art thus is something that provokes emotional sensuality and not erotic sensuality. Seeing the human form in its pristine glory is a sublime feeling and the female form with its aesthetically pleasing curves is its finest expression.

That an artist had scaled to this peak one thousand years ago in sittanavasal leaves me spellbound. Now with this introduction, i take you on a tour to savor this bewitching beauty – who despite years of neglect, thanks to help from Ashok, chooses to dance before us once more.

As usual we start with some long shots to show you the location ( and damage}, slowly zooming in

I can hear you guys yelling, what is there? – remember the first post ! do you see the scratch marks – yes wanton vandalism, What was there….here she is

adding some colors

The youthfulness of her body, the graceful extension of her right arm slightly held up with the palm bent down, the lilting tilt of her head, the nonchalant smile, the bewitching eyes, the balance in her right hand, the slender waist – accentuating the euphoric feeling. The assortment of Ornaments, adding highlights without hiding the supple curves, leave you in raptures.

But that she is gone forever leaves you sick at heart, a tear drop forms in the corner of the eye, we have left this wonderful art to fade away…

The lost art of Sittanavasal – part 1

Its been a long pending wish of mine to do this post on a truly remarkable site – Sittanavasal. For today, even a die hard enthusiast will return back with a negative feeling from a visit to Sittanavaasal – the general opinion is, its not worth the effort ?. What is there? The right question to ask is what was there? But first where is it

Its located at a distance of 58-km from Trichy is Sittanavasal, a site of an ancient Jain monastery – rock cut cave ( pandyan), couple of Jain beds, a rare inscription..and the subject of this post.

Ok ,what was there. I am not going into depth into the history of this place, but just want to showcase what we have lost out. Thanks to Sri Swaminathan and Mr. Mohandoss Ilangovan, read on for the first part of the Sittanavaasal series. Now, i see some of you already googling for information, rest a bit. There is very little on the net about what we are going to see today. Why?

Not many people recognise the name of Sittanavasal. Even fewer look at it as a art location. The minuscule number who claim to know about it, know of it from literary references or form some catchy films tunes. Apart from this not much is known of this amazing treasure trove outside of this small and shrinking band of people. It is after a dying or as of now a dead breed. When the whole world is going ga ga over modern art, its sad that no one cares for this small cave rich with art – 1000 years old. Sadder still is the fact that these stood the test of time for a thousand years, seen innumerable conquests , winds of change sweeping over the plains which they overlook, seen the British come and go, sadly, they have been ruined by the hand of man – to be true the very hands of the men from its own soil in the last 40 years. Yes, what you see is what has been left of these spectacular frescos. The paintings on the pillars of the rock cut cave are two heavenly damsels – we will try and see one of them today.

They must have been the crowning glory of south Indian art,some of the earliest frescos of South India, comparable to the beauties in Ajanta, yet they have been neglected, not just neglected but ravaged.

The amazing ladies of Srigriya have managed to live on despite all the ethnic conflict around them, while these have been destroyed. Maybe we are not worthy of being bequeathed such an inheritance – Not fit to savor these treasures.

I am going to split this post into parts and focus on the main paintings – and today we are going to see just one painting, or rather what is left of the painting.



This is what greets you now. Can you make out. can you make out anything.

Hmm, do you see the scratch marks – yes, the hand of man or rather vandals.

We are left with no authentic pictures even – just been left with a few line drawings of some great men. This rare black and white photograph gives you just an indication of what it used to look like. A couple of line drawings illustrate the great loss.

How did it look before. Catch you breath, if you have seat belts put them on. Here goes, line drawings of these amazing dancing women is what is left for us.

I tried to work some colors to imagine how she would have looked in her prime.

The grace with which she is dancing, her fluid yet confident movement rendered masterfully by the artist – such aesthetically appealing work, such perfection of form is remarkable. The sensuousness of the moment has been brilliantly captured – the slightly pouting lip, the eyes that drown you with an avalanche of emotions, the youthful grace of the maiden.

Sadly, we have allowed it to be destroyed – i thought of using the word lost, but what is lost can be found, but this is dead beyond resurrection. Shame on us.