The content and depiction of these sculptures cover a wide range of subjects: acrobats, wrestlers, kings and queens, gods and goddesses, ascetics, warriors in battle, and a wide range of animals.
The most arresting of them all is the acrobat. He is seen balancing a knife on his face while twirling two circular objects with his fingers. There is a dynamic energy in his body as he executes the task, with one leg firmly placed on the ground and other bent at the knee to maintain the equilibrium. His clothes are swirling in the air during the act. All these aspects are meticulously etched in a small panel of just twelve inches!
Such attention to detail is also maintained in the depiction of two wrestlers who are engaged in a bout. It is interesting to see how their limbs are intertwined in the final moment of what is known as a sunset flip in wrestling parlance. There are two hunters, once enticing a bird and the other one hunting down a tiger with a bow. He seems to have just released the arrow which can be seen in the tiger’s mouth!
There is a petite Ganesha and also a beautifully carved Lakshmi holding lotuses in her hands. Ascetics and saints follow in various moments: offering pooja, teaching disciples and blessing the king.
The ceilings are quite low in each of the tiers supported by horizontal wooden beams. These beams are painted with decorative designs above, and below them are a series of rectangular reliefs, each one of them about 18 inches long and 6 inches high. These contain scenes from everyday lives of that era. The most conspicuous are the battle scenes, which are lively and brimming with energy. Interestingly there are depictions of Portuguese soldiers often shown fighting among themselves, watched over by a local king. Elephants and horses are seen in the battle. The portrayal of a soldier on the arched back of a horse holding the harness tightly yet turning his body to ward off the enemy soldier is quite striking. There is also a delightful and captivating depiction of a woman overseeing a bull fight.
In a corner of each tier there are superb life size figures of kings, queens, ascetics, warriors and wrestlers.
In addition, there are many small bracket sculptures in the eaves beneath the ceiling. The craftsmanship evident in these sculptures is awe inspiring. It is replete with figures of warriors, hunters, ascetics, dancing girls and musicians. Do have a close look at each of them and marvel at their intricate detailing.
The most spectacular of them all is a seated figure of a person with matted hair cascading over his face, sitting on an animal which has the face of a crocodile and the body of a fish. Such forms in Hindu iconography are often referred to as Makara. The term in Sanskrit means “sea dragon” or “water monster”, a mythical animal with the body of a fish and the head and jaws resembling a crocodile. The head is sometimes also depicted as an elephant. The person seated on it could be Varuna since he is reportedly the only person who can control it. Is Makara a mythical animal or a real one that existed eons ago? Intriguingly some have suggested that Makara bears a striking resemblance to the approximately 155 million year old Pliosaur fossil. Pilosaur existed during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods during which time it was one of the top predators of the oceans. If this were to be true, how did the authors of Bhagavatam, Ramayana and Mahabharatha where Makara is mentioned, get their information?! Beyond all these speculations, the sheer artistry of depiction is stupendous!
There is a wide array of animal figures deftly sculpted. Noticeable among them are beautifully carved elephants, bulls with stunning humps, ferocious tigers with prey in their mouth, intertwined snakes, doe eyed deer, galloping horses, plump rabbits, hulking camels and gorgeous hamsas. The hamsa being a “noble bird par excellence” is a favorite decorative form in Indian art. In Hindu religion it is taken to be the vehicle of Brahma and the goddess Saraswati and is considered to be superior to other birds owing to its graceful gait, swift movement and virtuous quality. In its ability to separate milk from water, it is also considered as a symbol of the discriminating mind.
Temples, though they are the gateway to the other world, are deeply rooted in the world around us and hence it is not surprising to find animals sculpted within their precincts. The depiction of animals and birds ranges across a wide spectrum in Indian arts. They have always been a perennial source of inspiration to artists to create multiple forms, motifs and designs in decorative arts. Animals are sculpted in their natural forms, as well as divine symbols. Hindu mythology lays enormous significance on the metaphoric significance of animals. For example, snakes figure prominently in the Hindu pantheon: Vishnu slept on it, Krishna danced on it and Shiva wears it around his neck! Hence it is not surprising that animals figure prominently in temple architecture. They assume a spiritual quality as they also serve as vahanas for the god and goddesses.
Animals are also depicted as composite forms in very imaginative ways in sculptures. The composite animals are a combination of the natural and the supernatural, of animal and the divine. Composite sculptures reflect the imagination of the artist and convey a deeper meaning. They are not mere physical forms: they symbolize a thought or an idea. The term Vyala is applied to such imaginative creatures and they can be noticed as decorative motifs in all temples.
The kaleidoscopic variety of wooden sculptures in that small, confined space reflects the ingenuity and creative imagination of the artists. Though frozen in time, they seemed to come alive as I gazed upon them. I was wondering whether the people in the murals and the sculpted figures were looking back at me as I was looking at them!
My entire experience in the dark cloisters of the gopuram at Thiruppudaimaruthur was akin to that of Alice in Wonderland. Instead of going down a rabbit hole, I ascended the dark steps to discover a magical realm, found myself in a fantastical world like her and ended up “curiouser and curiouser”!
It was an endless reverie
In a magical realm
Of unbridled creativity
As I bid adieu
I offer you a seat
To sail along with me
To savor its wonders..
Glimpses At: photos.app.goo.gl/EshvHrQvNmfNEkov6
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