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The Buddha at Thanjavur

Temples have not only been centres of worship, but also venues for the expression of the creativity of the human spirit using a range of media ... . S. THEODORE BASKARAN explores the Big Temple.


Most of the books on the Thanjavur temple do not make any reference to these panels.

I HAVE seen the Great temple of Thanjavur in its many moods — in the rain, bathed in moonlight, at noon and reflected in golden light at sunset. But I like it best at sunrise. That is the time to walk around the prakaram, soaking in the ambience.

A couple of months ago I was there early in the morning. In the slanting rays of the sun, the inscriptions on the basement and the pillars of the circumambulatory passage, referred in the epigraphs as thiruchutru maligai, stood out as if having been calligraphed in black crayon. Carrying on a tradition begun when the temple was dedicated, an Odhuvar sat by the steps of the Murugan temple singing a hymn from Thevaram. As his voice resonated along the prakaram, mingling with the call of a distant koel, the mystery of the majestic edifice stood out.

A number of questions surfaced. Why was this temple left incomplete? Only centuries after its dedication did the Nayaks complete it by building the main hall in front of the sanctum. Out of 108 Bharatha natyam sculptures featuring the karanas, 20 slabs are left uncarved. Obviously the work came to an abrupt halt. But why was it dedicated in that incomplete stage? Why did Chola emperor Rajarajan's son Rajendra give up this capital and move to Gangaikondacholapuram? Why did he start building another temple, instead of completing what his father had started to construct? And what is the significance of the sculptures featuring Buddha in this Saivite temple?

My friend and Professor of Asian Art History at Davidson College, U.S., Dr. Job Thomas, was the one who first drew my attention to these Buddha panels on one of our periodic visits to the temple. There are at least two panels featuring the Sakyamuni: one at the base of the second gopuram and the other in the main temple. Here, events are depicted in comic-strip style, using small sequential sculptural panels. This was an artistic convention that can be observed in the temples of the medieval period in Tamil Nadu. You can see similar story-telling miniature sculptures in other temples also. It could be an episode from mythology or depicting a historical event. At the Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Kanchipuram, certain events from Pallava history are told in the manner, while at the Gangaikondacholapuram temple, the story of Bhagiratha is depicted similarly.

The location

In Thanjavur, the first Buddha panel is at the basement of the second gateway (gopuram). You enter and turn left: The panel of relief sculptures, facing west, is at eye level. Here there are two sculptures — one showing the Buddha seated under a tree, with a man holding on to the trunk, while in the other sculpture is a couple in a posture that shows them to be pleading. The man carries a lingam on his head.

The second set of Buddha figures is in the body of the main temple, on the right balustrade of the step leading into the sanctum and on the southern side. There are three sculpture pieces here. The first one shows Buddha seated under a tree, flanked by royalty. The gandharvas are depicted on the upper part of the frieze. The next one shows Buddha standing under a tree, and royalty worshipping him. Behind them are the gandharvas, also in a posture of supplication. The third panel shows a temple being received from heaven. A gandharva in front of the temple carries a lingam on his head, This depiction, I learn, is a repetition of the story narrated in the murals on the north face of the inner courtyard. But I could not see this painting to compare the details.

Most of the books on this temple do not make any reference to these panels, and this includes the official guide of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), titled Chola Temple and written by the doyen of South Indian art history, C. Sivaramamurthy. Of the literature I have checked on this subject, only one scholar has recorded these sculptures and tries to understand them. Dr. Suresh Pillai, art historian, in his Introduction to the Study of Temple Art (1976) refers to these panels. He points out that during the Chola period, Buddhism flourished in the coastal belt of the kingdom while Jainism was active in the delta area. The craftsmen often belonged to one guild and were engaged in raising a temple, or a vihara, or a Jain basdi. The guilds of craftsmen moved in this space freely.

There is one more Buddha representation in the Big Temple. In the passage around the sanctum are Chola frescos at two levels. At the higher level, is a metre-long painting of the Seated Buddha, in ochre. I set my eyes on it only once — in 1966 — when permission to get into this passage was much easier to obtain from the ASI.

What do these panels tell? What is the story? What is the significance of placing them as part of the temple? There are some more unanswered questions about the great temple. This monument awaits a scholar like Shobitha Punja who unravelled the mysteries of the Khajuraho temple.

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