The Brihadeeswara temple built by Raja Raja Chola (985-1014AD) in Thanjavur is one of world’s most famous monuments. Most people believe its claim to fame is its magnificent size and intricate craftsmanship. What is less known is the fact that the temple has the best preserved Chola period murals that date from the time of the construction of the temple.
Hidden from view by Nayak paintings that were painted over them in the 17th century, the murals were discovered in the 1930s and since then, though not all the murals have been exposed, a few panels have been painstakingly revealed while Nayak paintings still obstruct others.
Like everything else in the temple, the canvas is grand. Each panel is on a wall 10 ft by 15 ft and the viewer has just a few feet to admire the paintings since the passage is narrow. This also prevents the corridors from being open to visitors. The paintings have, in the past, been excellently photographed by N. Thyagarajan who had to wrestle with photographing large walls in a narrow space and analysed by the ASI team led by Dr. T. Satyamurthy. It is therefore a rare treat to not only see pictures of the murals but listen to an expert explaining them as well.
It was a feast for the eyes and ears when P.S. Sriraman, Assistant Superintendent Archaeologist, ASI, took listeners on a virtual tour of one magnificent panel at a recent lecture.
Mr. Sriraman chose the panel depicting the story of the Saivite saint Sundarar.
The panels unfolded the story of how Sundarar became a devotee of Siva and finally with the assistance of the Chera king, reached the Lord. Moving to appreciation of the paintings, we could not have got a better guide.
The Chola murals are done in the wet fresco method where the painting is done on wet plaster. The artist cannot afford to make a mistake since it will mean complete re-work. The artist also requires a sound knowledge of the chemical reactions of the pigments on the lime base and what colours the pigments will finally be transformed to.
Magnifying the picture to several degrees, the speaker pointed out to the beautiful details; the panels showed the lifestyle of the people of the Chola times. The preparations for Sundarar’s wedding are executed across two panels. It is interesting to observe that cooking utensils and ovens have not changed over the centuries.
The panel also has guests seated under a canopy that has the look of block printed textile we have today! The representation of temples show an attention to detail and the scene of Sundarar on a flying elephant jumping from the sea shore has many different species of sea life realistically painted.
The artists had a great sensitivity for displaying a realistic image while capturing the entire gamut of human emotions. Light and shade are also masterfully treated. Movement is shown through the fluttering of cloth, necklaces and in gestures.
As the temple approaches its 1,000th anniversary of consecration next year, the talk was a welcome one and will hopefully be the first in a series. One also hopes that the reproductions that were exhibited in the temple, will be re-opened soon for visitors to savour the magnificence of these murals. For more information on the group, contact Prof. Swaminathan on 24611501.
(The author is at present engaged in writing a book on the cultural history of Thanjavur, to be released later this year.)
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