Devasiriya mandapam was enveloped in darkness when we entered it and we were welcomed by hundreds of bats flying all around us. The floor was littered with layers of dust and bat droppings and the stench was quite overpowering. It was quite disheartening to see the condition of the place, which quickly gave way to one of sheer enchantment when we looked up at the ceiling. Each and every inch was painted in myriad colourful hues, recounting the mythical story of Mucukunda and how he brought the idol of Thyagarajaswamy to Thiruvarur.
Legend has it that the idol of Thygaraja was resting on Vishnu’s chest in the cosmic ocean, moving in tandem with the Lord’s breath. When the demon Varkaliyan continuously troubled Indra, he sought Vishnu’s help. Vishnu handed him the idol of Thyagaraja and asked him to perform pooja to this idol to help him win the battle. With this, Indra was able to vanquish Varkaliyan. Later when another demon Vala bothered him, Vishnu told Indra to seek the help of the mythical Chola king, Mucukunda who had a monkey face. Thanks to Mucukunda’s help, Vala was trounced in a fearsome battel. A delighted Indra took Mucukunda to his abode and offered a boon to Mucukunda for helping him win the battle with the demon. Indra was stunned when Mucukunda asked for the idol of Thygaraja. He asked Vishwakarma to make 6 similar idols. The next day, Indra asked Mucukunda to pick any one of the 7 idols hoping that he would not be able to distinguish the real one. To his great surprise, Mucukunda was able to identify the original idol, which had a distinctive smiling expression. Delighted with his devotion, Indra handed him all the 7 idols. Mucukunda took the idol of Thygaraja and installed it in the sanctum of the temple at Thiruvarur. He then took the other 6 idols and installed them at Thiru Kolili, Thiru Kaaraayil, Thiru Maraikkadu, Thiru Vaaimoor, Thiru Nallaru and Thiru Nagai. Together, these are referred to as Saptha Vidanga Kshetrams. The word "Sapta" means "seven" in the local language, while "vidanga" means "not chiselled.’ The seven Siva Thalams with unchiseled bases were idols of the same image that Mucukunda had received from Indra.
It is interesting to note that Ajapa Natanam, a special kind of dance without chanting (A-Japa: unuttered prayer) is enacted with swaying movements when the idol of Thygaraja is taken out in procession. As Vishnu held the idol of Thygaraja on his chest, these movements mimic the swaying of the idol with his breathing. It is performed with seven sacred steps which are believed to represent the seven chakras or energy centres in the human body. Each step is associated with a specific chakra and is said to activate and energize that particular chakra.
Dating back to the late Nayaka/early Maratha period, these murals narrate this engaging story in several panels. A portion of these have been carefully restored by INTACH with support from Prakriti foundation. This entire process has been beautifully documented by VK Rajamani and David Shulman in a monograph. In spite of this important initiative to conserve these priceless murals, it was sad to see the state of the rest of them which are in varying stages of neglect. Seepage from the ceiling, bats and callous human neglect has taken a heavy toll on these precious treasures.
I fail to understand why these beautiful murals are kept out of ‘public’ purview. No visitor can deface them since they are on the ceiling. The authorities can even charge an entry fee which can help in proper maintenance of the place. Right now there are more bats than visitors in the place!
I photographed these murals (craning the neck up all the time!), in natural light, without flash, thanks to the light sensitive iPhone. I have collated these images in a pdf format and would strongly urge you to have a glimpse of these enchanting paintings. Do mail a request to email@example.com and I would send across the file!
Once you have a look at them, come back to the blog and post your comments here!