Let me start this journey with an account of our visit to Thiruppudaimaruthur.
Sri Narambunathaswamy temple at Thiruppdaimaruthur in Papakudi Taluk, is one of the oldest temples in the region. It is situated in a picturesque location at the confluence of the Gadana and Thamirabarani rivers. It was built in 650 BCE by King Maravarman. The presiding deity is Lord Shiva. The Shivalinga is said to have been discovered when Veera Marthanda Pandy was hunting a deer. He found the deer hiding at the foot of tree and decided to cut it with a sickle. doing so, to his great shock and surprise he found a Shiva Lingam. To atone for his act, he built the temple and to this day the lingam is seen with a cut on the head. Because of this, abhishekam is not offered to it. The lingam is tilted to the side and there is another interesting anecdote to explain it. Karuvur Siddhar, one of the most renowned ascetics, wanted to have a darshan of the lord. But when he reached the place, there were flash floods in the Tamirabharani and he was unable to cross the river. Moved by his prayers, an invisible voice guided him to cross the river which parted to allow him to reach the temple. Since the Lord was leaning to listen to the prayers of his devotee, the lingam is seen tilted to the side!
It was a pleasant journey to the temple from Tirunelveli through verdant green fields. I was keen to reach it early to have a glimpse of the murals before sunset. To our great disappointment we found that there was no one at the temple. We went around its deserted precincts, fervently hoping that someone would turn up soon. To our great relief the person responsible to permit us entry came in shortly after.
He opened the iron gates of the main gopuram and we started ascending the steep steps inside in sheer darkness. It was quite an effort to scale the high, narrow steps and when I reached the first tier of the gopuram I was totally unprepared for what I saw. Every inch of the wall was covered with exquisite paintings, the likes of which I had never set my eyes upon. As it was quite dark inside, it was quite a difficult task to have a good look at them, which we accomplished with the lights from our mobile phones!
The paintings are in the five levels of the gopuram. Each level has a cruciform outlay which is bisected by exquisitely carved wooden pillars (more of it in a later post!). The carved pillars and painted ceilings create a perfect sense of rhythm. Four of the five floors in the gopuram consist of hundreds of murals portraying various religious themes and places of worship while the murals on the second floor are narratives depicting scenes from daily life illustrating the culture and socio-economic life of every part of the society, from the king to the common man in addition to battle, in an almost photographic mode. In an extraordinarily lively manner they offer us tantalizing glimpses of the era.
In each panel there is a continuous depiction of various scenes with stylized borders of flowers, decorative motifs and animals. Each one of them requires a detailed account. Some of the exquisite ones include a dancing Siva, Vishnu as Seshasayi, a seated Ganesha, marriage scenes of Siva and Parvathi and episodes from Ramayana. Another spectacular painting, two metres tall and 3.6 metres wide, portrays a sail-ship with Arab traders bringing horses. Cavalry formed an important wing of the army and thousand of horses were imported. One can see these horses in action in the battle scenes.
Perhaps the most vivid ones are the battle scenes, which are replete with dynamic energy. They portray warriors on horses and elephants, fighting each other with spears and sword. One can see sepoys with long topees and men holding flags, blowing trumpets and playing drums. These paintings have baffled art historians for several decades and they have debated on what was the war fought and who the adversaries were.
There is a suggestion that these murals portray the Tamirabarani battle in 1532 between the King of Travancore, Bhoothala Veera Udaya Marthanda Varma and the Emperor of Vijayanagara, Achyutadeva Raya. As per records, the battle was at Aralvaimozhi Pass, near Thovalai in Kanyakumari district. The war erupted when the king of Travancore Udaya Marthanda Varma after refusing to pay obeiscence to Achyutadeva Raya, annexed much of the territory of the Tenkasi Pandya ruler Jatila Varman Sri Vallabhan, who in turn approached the Vijayanagar emperor for help. To teach them a lesson the emperor himself undertook a 'Dhikvijayam' with his enormous army. The joint armies were defeated by Vijayanagar army and Marthanda Varma and was produced before Achyutadeva Raya at Srirangam who pardoned him after a light punishment.
These paintings date from second half of 17th century and bear resemblance to those at Lepakshi which I had described in an earlier post. The style is characterized by sharp angularity of the figures with elongated hands, fingers and feet. Deities are usually shown frontally whereas the rest are depicted in profile. Great care is taken in the depiction of different costumes and textiles with very captivating designs. The colour palette is quite varied with a judicious mixture of green, red and black. Interestingly a few of them have a sepia tone as one would see in period photographs.
I also wondered as to why these murals have been painted inside the gopuram (like the Chola murals in Brihadeeswar temple at Thanjavur) and not in the pradakhina passage around the sanctum where devotees would have greater chance to see them. Yet at the same time, safely ensconced inside the dark interiors of the gopuram, they have withstood the travails of time well.
The paintings do not bear the names of the artists. Given the extent of the work, several artists must have worked in unison to create these magnificent paintings. What sets these paintings apart is great thematic diversity, boldness in depiction and brightness of a rich palette of colors. These unknown artists are also magnificent storytellers! They have succeeded in creating an enchanting, enlivened space. As I walked through the five tiers, absorbing the myriad paintings, I was transported in time and space. It was a transformational experience.
To a large extent the history of painting in South Asia has focused on earlier works such as the murals at Ajanta and the North Indian courtly paintings of the Rajasthan and the Mughal empires. Though the Chola murals have attracted some attention, the paintings of Nayak period have been relegated to the background.
With my own personal involvement and passion in visual arts, I keep wondering as to what draws me to artistic creations like these. What is their mysterious pull? Is it just the attributes of the artworks itself or the way it resonates within me? Perhaps artworks are intertwined with our personal interests, predispositions and a larger world view. Something that is often referred to as ‘rasanubhava’: a delicate interplay between the observer and a work of art. Such moments often encompass within it a sense of intimacy, belonging and intense closeness with works of art which I continue to experience in many a place I visit, like this one.
The dusk was settling in and it was time to leave the company of these treasures. As I descended the steep steps, with much reluctance, after one and a half hours, these words of Kandinsky resonated deeply within “Color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers and the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
As I wander among
These paintings from the past
In flickering light
I find myself pulled inside
Their colorized world
Where paintings meet poetry…
Savor these painting…slowly…and there are scores of them at: photos.app.goo.gl/JinMXUCTkji1Yz8P6
It was indeed quite difficult to photograph them in darkness and I was keen to avoid using the flash from my regular camera. Two of my friends who accompanied me were kind enough to shine light from their mobile phones for me to have a glimpse so that I could photograph them with my iPhone!
Look forward to your comments here…and not in google photos!