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Heritage in a park


Twenty seven sculptures speak of Tamil Nadu's rich literary tradition at the Semmozhi Sirpa Poonga in Mamallapuram.

SLICES OF HISTORY: Tiruvalluvar's statue at the entrance; depiction of elections at Uttaramerur; King Rajasimha paying respects to Poosalar; Appar seeking the blessings of Tirugnana Sambandar; and Madhavi dancing with pots.

A Classical Tamil Sculptures Park (Semmozhi Sirpa Poonga) has come up on spacious grounds at the Beach Resort Campus of the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation (TNTDC) in Mamallapuram, 55 km from Chennai. The park boasts of 27 sculptures, most of them depicting events and scenes from classical Tamil literature.

Also adorning the park are figures of literary personalities (from Avvaiyar of the Sangam age to nationalist poet Subramania Bharati), religious personalities (such as St. Thomas who came to Tamil Nadu, and Karaikkal Ammaiyar) and Saivite saints Appar and Tirugnana Sambandar. The 11 dance poses or karnas of Madhavi, an important character in Ilango's epic ‘Silappadikkaram', also find a place here.

The figurines are arranged in the shape of the Tamil letter ‘zha,' which is unique to the language. The park is a forerunner to the World Classical Tamil Conference that the State Government is organising in Coimbatore from June 23 to 27.

“With the Tamil Conference round the corner, we want to remind our people about Tamil Nadu's heritage and its rich literature,” says V. Irai Anbu, secretary, Tourism, Tamil Nadu, who has been the driving force behind the park. “We want to teach people through tourism.”

Universal theme

At the entrance, visitors are greeted with a sculpture of Tiruvalluvar, who is seated on a globe, holding the Tirukkural in one hand and a stylus in the other. Irai Anbu, who calls the park an open-air museum of sculptures, explains, “Tiruvalluvar is seated on a globe to indicate the universal nature of the Tirukkural couplets.”

The park has been set up at a cost of Rs. 88 lakhs, funded by the Tamil Nadu Government. The sculptures are made of granite by the staff and students of the nearby Government College of Architecture and Sculpture.

“Experience yourself – that is the aim behind the park,” says S. Subramanian, deputy director, TNTDC. “Since Tamil Nadu Tourism Department's prime activity is to preserve and highlight the State's heritage, sculptures of Kannagi, Madhavi and Karaikkal Ammaiyar have been erected. Avvaiyar was chosen because she is a non-aligned literary person and acted as a bridge between feuding Tamil kings.”

A sculpture that instantly arrests attention is the one portraying an election under way at Uttaramerur, in around 920 A.D. The entire village has gathered to cast its ballot in a terracotta pot (the ‘Kuda Olai' system as it is called in Tamil Nadu) to elect the members of the village assembly. Uttaramerur, situated about 90 km from Chennai, had an elaborate and highly refined electoral system even about 1,100 years ago and a written constitution prescribing the mode of elections. The details of this system are inscribed on the walls of the village assembly, a rectangular structure made of granite slabs.

The dance poses of Madhavi are exquisite statements. These include ‘Kodu kotti,' ‘Alliyam,' ‘Thudi,' ‘Mal,' ‘Pavai' and ‘Kudai.' The figure of her balancing pots on her hands, shoulders and head is a sight to behold!

Musical instruments

One can also find sculptures of wind, percussion and stringed instruments that were in use during the Sangam Age, and a coin that belongs to Rajendra Chola.

Two outstanding pieces depict Saivite saints and poets, Appar and Tirugnana Sambandar, who admired each other, meeting between Chidambaram and Sirkazhi.

Another highlight of the park is a carving that shows the Pallava king Rajasimha and one of the 63 Saivite saints, Poosalar. While Rajasimha built the Shore Temple in a dramatic setting on the sea shore at Mamallapuram and the majestic Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram, Poosalar was hard up for finance to build a Siva temple. So he built a temple in his mind's eye.

The sculpture shows Poosalar meditating under a tree and building a temple in his imagination while the monarch Rajasimha stands deferentially next to him. In the background is the relief of the towers of the Shore Temple and the Kailasanatha temple.

A brochure, written in simple Tamil and explaining with literary flourish the significance of the 27 sculptures, has been brought out by the TNTDC. It has been authored by Subramanian.

A pamphlet in English is also available.

A garden too…

Besides the sculptures' park at Mamallapuram, a Garden of Classical Tamil will come up in Coimbatore, the host city of the World Classical Tamil Conference in June 2010. The garden will occupy 165 acres on which the Central Prison, Coimbatore, is now situated. The project is expected to cost Rs. 20 crores. The Tamil Nadu Government will also establish Tolkappiar World Tamil Sangam on 14.15 acres at Tallakulam in Madurai. This Sangam will have a museum of Tamil scholars belonging to the Sangam age, and a convention centre.

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