First pubished in “Poetry in Stone” 14th august 2011 (http://poetryinstone.in/?s=liesbeth)
Previously I told two stories out of the many that make up the temple of Shri Arattathurainathar in Thiruvattathurai. My post of 19 april 2011, “A gift to the gifted child”, told the story of the child-poet and saint Thirujnanasambandar, who was honoured by Shiva himself with a palanquin and an umbrella when he visited this temple to sing his songs. The post of 7 june 2011, “Sculptures and stories and the life of a temple”, told the story of the sculptural program. How the sthapatis of old presented various aspects of Lord Shiva to the devotees as they performed their pradakshina.
In this post I will tell the story of one of the details of this sculptural program. The representations of Shiva in this temple are of exceptional workmanship. Their beauty and expression is quite unique. Part of these representations is also a feature which is both interesting and peculiar. This is the presence and depiction of camaras with the murtis in the niches of the shrine.
Although it is just a fraction of all the temples in Southern India, I am fortunate to have seen quite a few. And whichever temple it is, every visit brings new discoveries, new understanding, new beauty. The Shiva temple in Thiruvattathurai is both a treasure and a mystery. A treasure for the exceptional beauty of the sculptures in what is today a relatively small and little known shrine. And a mystery because of one aspect of these sculptures, the representation of camaras with some of the murtis.
A camara is also called a fly-whisk. It is a kind of fan made out of a yak-tail set in a silver handle. It is one of the upacaras or honours offered in worship. It is also part of the protocol with which kings and other dignitaries are honored. We see them often in historical movies being waved by beautiful damsels standing by the side of the king’s throne. And today still as part of the protocol in temple worship and festivals. So it would really not be so very surprising to find camaras depicted in a sculptural panel of a deity. And they often are in narrative panels. Reliefs that tell a story or depict certain events. But I actually do not remember ever having seen camaras depicted above the murtis placed in the niches around a shrine.
Here in Thiruvattathurai we find camaras clearly depicted with two murtis. The Nataraja in the southern ardhamandapa wall is honored with a beautiful set of camaras. And so is the Brahma in the north-facing niche of the vimana. The camaras kind of ‘hang’ above and to the side the head. They are not being held as would be the way they would be used in practice.
The handles are folded against the yak-tail plumes in a peculiar way. The handles of the camaras with Nataraja and Brahma are different, and so is the way they are positioned relative to the murti.
The Vinayaka in the center of the southern ardhamandapa wall is honored by the sculptors with an umbrella as well as a set of camaras. And also above and behind Bhikshatana we see a faint outline of two camaras. These camaras don’t have details depicted, they seem to have been left unfinished. And they have also not been applied with oil.
Also above and behind the Lingodbhava in the niche of the West wall a set of camaras can be seen. Also this set has not been touched by oil and looks a bit unfinished.
Three of the other murtis found in the niches of the shrine, Dakshinamurti, Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara have definitely not been given camaras. The space behind Durga is not very visible, but there does not seem to be space for a set of camaras. Also Bhairava in the wall of the mukhamandapa has not been honored with camaras.
Readers may ask, why is she bothered with this detail? The camaras are nice and they make the sculptures in this temple special, but what’s the point? The point is that I think the presence or absence of camaras in combination with other features tell us something about the art-history of this temple.
As we learned in a previous post four of the six niches in the ardhamandapa wall are cut niches, not true devakoshthas. Vinayaka and Durga are seated in the devakoshthas. Vinayaka has an umbrella and a set of camaras. But they have been left unfinished. Durga does not have this honour of camaras. Look again, you can see the panel with the representation of the umbrella and camaras has been cut a little bit to accommodate the murti of Vinayaka.
Dakshinamurti is occupying a shallow cut niche and is a stone panel placed into the space of the niche-background. So is the Nataraja, but here the camaras are part of the original sculpture. Dakshinamurti has no camaras. Lingodbhava does have camaras, but they are part of the background wall of the niche. The camaras with Brahma belong to the original sculpture which has been fitted into the wall of the niche. The other four sculptures don’t have camaras.
When further looking at details we see all kinds of differences. Brahma has a properly executed kirtimukha as belt-clasp. Lingodbhava has a belt-clasp which is not yet exactly a kirtimukha, as is usual for classical Chola sculpture. His belt-clasp is almost a kirtimukha, but not quite. Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara have very different clasps. Also the yajnopavitas are different between the murtis. The knot as well as the way they hang down across the torso of the murti are different. Again when we compare these four murtis we see that the depth of the relief of the sashes at the hip are deep with the Lingodbhava and the Gangavatarana and also very similar. Whereas the sashes of the Brahma and the Ardhanarishvara are very similar. Do we see an art-historical evolution taking place? Or do we see sculptures on which different sculptors have worked? Two making different types of belts, and two making different types of sashes.
So, again, what is the point? There are four cut-out niches in the ardhamandapa wall. This means four of the six niches were not part of the original design. Two murtis have a set of camaras included within the whole of the relief. Three have a set of (unfinished) camaras depicted on the niche wall outside the actual sculpture.
I suggest these differences in details, together with the presence and absence of camaras points to the possibility these sculptures came from other temples and were made at different moments in time and also introduced to this temple at different moments in time. This in spite of the unity of style and quality these sculptures express as a group.
Durga en Vinayaka occupy the two central niches in the ardhamandapa walls. These niches are rather narrow and high and the murtis fit accordingly. But the wall of the niche has been cut a little bit to accommodate the Vinayaka. An almost sure sign the murti was not originally intended for this niche. Bhikshatana, Nataraja, Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara occupy the cut-out niches. Did these murtis come from somewhere and were accommodated this way after the temple had been build? Or did the architect change his mind half-way the construction? Is it evidence of changes in taste, changes in religious beliefs, or changes in political or economic influences?
Brahma has camaras included in his relief and occupies one of the niches on the vimana wall. Nataraja in a cut-out niche on the ardhamandapa wall has camaras included also. But they are different in style and position. Lingodbhava in the northern niche has camaras in the niche wall. But Dakshinamurti in the southern niche does not. This murti occupies the whole niche and even comes out and in front of the niche and the adhisthana or temple base with his own seat and the Apasmara under his foot.
So here we have our little mystery. One or more sculptors included camaras with the murtis, but this idea seems to have come out of nowhere, and seems to have been abandoned as soon as it was take up.I won’t try definite conclusions as to the why or even the when of it all. It is not possible without further information. This might come from inscriptions, from oral traditions, from a purana. Or from systematically comparing the sculptures with sculptures from other temples. But all in all it makes an interesting story giving a glimpse of what may have happened, all those centuries ago.
Photo Courtesy: Author and our special thanks to Mr.V. Sekar for sharing some of his very wonderful captures.