Thiruvattathurai: of camaras and murtis, a sculptural mystery

Independence Day Wishes to all readers.

Today, we are going to see the third in the series of guest posts from Ms. Liesbeth Pankaja Bennink.

Previously I told two stories out of the many that make up the temple of Shri Arattathurainathar in Thiruvattathurai. My post of 19 april 2011, “A gift to the gifted child”, told the story of the child-poet and saint Thirujnanasambandar, who was honoured by Shiva himself with a palanquin and an umbrella when he visited this temple to sing his songs. The post of 7 june 2011, “Sculptures and stories and the life of a temple”, told the story of the sculptural program. How the sthapatis of old presented various aspects of Lord Shiva to the devotees as they performed their pradakshina.

In this post I will tell the story of one of the details of this sculptural program. The representations of Shiva in this temple are of exceptional workmanship. Their beauty and expression is quite unique. Part of these representations is also a feature which is both interesting and peculiar. This is the presence and depiction of camaras with the murtis in the niches of the shrine.

Although it is just a fraction of all the temples in Southern India, I am fortunate to have seen quite a few. And whichever temple it is, every visit brings new discoveries, new understanding, new beauty. The Shiva temple in Thiruvattathurai is both a treasure and a mystery. A treasure for the exceptional beauty of the sculptures in what is today a relatively small and little known shrine. And a mystery because of one aspect of these sculptures, the representation of camaras with some of the murtis.

A camara is also called a fly-whisk. It is a kind of fan made out of a yak-tail set in a silver handle. It is one of the upacaras or honours offered in worship. It is also part of the protocol with which kings and other dignitaries are honored. We see them often in historical movies being waved by beautiful damsels standing by the side of the king’s throne. And today still as part of the protocol in temple worship and festivals. So it would really not be so very surprising to find camaras depicted in a sculptural panel of a deity. And they often are in narrative panels. Reliefs that tell a story or depict certain events. But I actually do not remember ever having seen camaras depicted above the murtis placed in the niches around a shrine.


Here in Thiruvattathurai we find camaras clearly depicted with two murtis. The Nataraja in the southern ardhamandapa wall is honored with a beautiful set of camaras. And so is the Brahma in the north-facing niche of the vimana. The camaras kind of ‘hang’ above and to the side the head. They are not being held as would be the way they would be used in practice.

The handles are folded against the yak-tail plumes in a peculiar way. The handles of the camaras with Nataraja and Brahma are different, and so is the way they are positioned relative to the murti.

The Vinayaka in the center of the southern ardhamandapa wall is honored by the sculptors with an umbrella as well as a set of camaras. And also above and behind Bhikshatana we see a faint outline of two camaras. These camaras don’t have details depicted, they seem to have been left unfinished. And they have also not been applied with oil.

Also above and behind the Lingodbhava in the niche of the West wall a set of camaras can be seen. Also this set has not been touched by oil and looks a bit unfinished.

Three of the other murtis found in the niches of the shrine, Dakshinamurti, Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara have definitely not been given camaras. The space behind Durga is not very visible, but there does not seem to be space for a set of camaras. Also Bhairava in the wall of the mukhamandapa has not been honored with camaras.


Readers may ask, why is she bothered with this detail? The camaras are nice and they make the sculptures in this temple special, but what’s the point? The point is that I think the presence or absence of camaras in combination with other features tell us something about the art-history of this temple.

As we learned in a previous post four of the six niches in the ardhamandapa wall are cut niches, not true devakoshthas. Vinayaka and Durga are seated in the devakoshthas. Vinayaka has an umbrella and a set of camaras. But they have been left unfinished. Durga does not have this honour of camaras. Look again, you can see the panel with the representation of the umbrella and camaras has been cut a little bit to accommodate the murti of Vinayaka.

Dakshinamurti is occupying a shallow cut niche and is a stone panel placed into the space of the niche-background. So is the Nataraja, but here the camaras are part of the original sculpture. Dakshinamurti has no camaras. Lingodbhava does have camaras, but they are part of the background wall of the niche. The camaras with Brahma belong to the original sculpture which has been fitted into the wall of the niche. The other four sculptures don’t have camaras.

When further looking at details we see all kinds of differences. Brahma has a properly executed kirtimukha as belt-clasp. Lingodbhava has a belt-clasp which is not yet exactly a kirtimukha, as is usual for classical Chola sculpture. His belt-clasp is almost a kirtimukha, but not quite. Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara have very different clasps. Also the yajnopavitas are different between the murtis. The knot as well as the way they hang down across the torso of the murti are different. Again when we compare these four murtis we see that the depth of the relief of the sashes at the hip are deep with the Lingodbhava and the Gangavatarana and also very similar. Whereas the sashes of the Brahma and the Ardhanarishvara are very similar. Do we see an art-historical evolution taking place? Or do we see sculptures on which different sculptors have worked? Two making different types of belts, and two making different types of sashes.




So, again, what is the point? There are four cut-out niches in the ardhamandapa wall. This means four of the six niches were not part of the original design. Two murtis have a set of camaras included within the whole of the relief. Three have a set of (unfinished) camaras depicted on the niche wall outside the actual sculpture.

I suggest these differences in details, together with the presence and absence of camaras points to the possibility these sculptures came from other temples and were made at different moments in time and also introduced to this temple at different moments in time. This in spite of the unity of style and quality these sculptures express as a group.

Durga en Vinayaka occupy the two central niches in the ardhamandapa walls. These niches are rather narrow and high and the murtis fit accordingly. But the wall of the niche has been cut a little bit to accommodate the Vinayaka. An almost sure sign the murti was not originally intended for this niche. Bhikshatana, Nataraja, Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara occupy the cut-out niches. Did these murtis come from somewhere and were accommodated this way after the temple had been build? Or did the architect change his mind half-way the construction? Is it evidence of changes in taste, changes in religious beliefs, or changes in political or economic influences?

Brahma has camaras included in his relief and occupies one of the niches on the vimana wall. Nataraja in a cut-out niche on the ardhamandapa wall has camaras included also. But they are different in style and position. Lingodbhava in the northern niche has camaras in the niche wall. But Dakshinamurti in the southern niche does not. This murti occupies the whole niche and even comes out and in front of the niche and the adhisthana or temple base with his own seat and the Apasmara under his foot.

So here we have our little mystery. One or more sculptors included camaras with the murtis, but this idea seems to have come out of nowhere, and seems to have been abandoned as soon as it was take up.I won’t try definite conclusions as to the why or even the when of it all. It is not possible without further information. This might come from inscriptions, from oral traditions, from a purana. Or from systematically comparing the sculptures with sculptures from other temples. But all in all it makes an interesting story giving a glimpse of what may have happened, all those centuries ago.

Photo Courtesy: Author and our special thanks to Mr.V. Sekar for sharing some of his very wonderful captures.

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.

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.