First published in “Poetry in Stone” 7th june 2011 (http://poetryinstone.in/lang/en/2011/06/07/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.