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Believes in past, lives in future

Dr. Kudavayil M. Balasubramanian takes OLYMPIA SHILPA GERALD Centuries back in time

Photo: M. Moorthy

INFORMATIVE Historian Kudavayil M. Balasubramanian

He treads across the stone floor of the 1,000 year old Rajarajeswaram temple, as his hands caress the stone walls. He walks barefoot in the precincts, pausing to decipher ancient inscriptions, dwelling on murals and frescoes, marvelling at the innumerable untold tales of the temple. He fits in here perfectly; in fact, it is here that he is at home.

After all, the Thanjavur Big Temple or the Rajarajeswaram has been Kudavayil M.Balasubramanian's fixation for 40 years now. With the magnificence and mysteries of 100 decades surrounding us, I listen fascinated.

“I have something to show you,” he says and leads us to a room with a black stone idol. This is Agni, a rare manifestation in stone.”

The countenance of the statue is beautiful to behold, but parts of it are knocked off. “An illustration of vandalism,” he rues.

Former curator and publication manager at the Saraswati Mahal Library, Thanjavur, Balasubramanian, now devotes all his time to research on temples of South India. Accredited with discovering more than 100 inscriptions, coins, copper plates, sculptures and paintings which grace museums and temples over the State, the historian and epigraphist is an authority on temple art and architecture. Besides, he has in-depth knowledge of paintings and ancient music instruments of Tamil Nadu.

Growing fascination with relics

Born in Kudavayil, (also known as Kudavasal) near Kumbakonam, the Zoology graduate switched to History for his post-graduation, inspired by the articles on archaeology by Dr. K.Nagaswami, former Director of State Archaeology Department.

He attributes all his learning to the tutelage and guidance of Dr. Nagaswami, his ‘guru', and advocate T.R. Ramachandran who imparted indispensable knowledge on religion and Tamil literature that enhanced his understanding of temples.

With his Ph.D thesis focusing on ‘Tamizhaga Gopura Kalai', Balasubramanian's repertoire lies in Temple architecture, art and sculpture.

His first brush with history was as a little boy in Kudavayirkottam, when he stumbled upon a copper coin from the Chola period. Monsoons spelt magic for the little boy. “Every year, after the rains, I rushed to Kottam, only to discover ancient coins and relics unearthed by the rainfall. One day, I was thrilled to discover a commemorative gold coin issued by Raja Raja Chola after his conquest of Ceylon.”


The noted epigraphist has penned around 25 books, that have won him laurels and accolades. “Whenever I write about temples, I ensure I cover every aspect. In my books, you will find A-Z information on a particular temple like painting, sculpture, philosophy, art, architecture and administration.”

His passion clearly lies in the past but his vision is rooted in the future. He is keen on passing on the wealth of information he has accumulated. “The books are my gift to the coming generations. In future, if someone wants a comprehensive detailed account of a temple, these books hopefully will be ideal.”

‘Kudavayirkottam' his first book, was based on his findings as a student and his other books include treatises on Tiruvarur Temple and Thiayagarajar Thirukoil. He has written in detail about Panchamugavadiyam, a rare percussion instrument with five ‘faces', bound with deer hide in his book, ‘Kudamuzha' and on King Konerirayan, who ruled during the reign of the Pallavas. In his book, ‘Nandipuram,'an INTACH publication, he records his discovery of Nandipuram, a Pallava capital for a short period, where he unearthed over 200 lingams.

Balasubramanian has held the office of editor for various temple souvenirs and has published more than 250 research articles in journals and dailies. In his forth coming book he hopes to record the glory of Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram temples.

The Big Temple: Enduring appeal

His latest offering, ‘Rajarajeswaram' coincides with the 1000th anniversary of the Big Temple and is a detailed narrative of the temple.

“The Big temple has withstood six earthquakes and is an architectural marvel. It is a representation of Tamil architecture in all its glory,” he notes. “This is perhaps the only living monument that archives thousand years of changing traditions and influences,” he says, explaining the Big Temple is a repository of treasures reflecting the influences of the Cholas, the Nayaks, the Vijayanagar kings, the Marathas and the British.

“We believe surrealism to be a modern art form, but it is not so. Here is an illustration of surrealism,” he points to the stone carving at the entrance of the sanctum sanctorum.

“An elephant is swallowed by a snake that is trampled by a gargantuan doorkeeper who points to the universe and to the sanctum, signifying the magnificence and greatness of the divine.”

The precision and detailed planning of the Chola kings amazes you as he points out how the temple integrates divinity and technical brilliance. He debunks widely believed ideas that the vimanam does not cast a shadow and the kalash is carved out of a single stone as myths. He adds the ‘vimanam' was gold plated, according to the inscriptions in the temple.

Learning from the past

Balasubramanian laments that we have lost much of our traditional systems including ancient methods of irrigation, brick making and construction.

“Today we are simulating the techniques of Western architecture without realising the glory of our own architecture that has stood the test of time. These temples are timeless as the bricks were baked after four months of tempering. Our architecture was also designed to suit our climate and landscape.”

“Rain water harvesting techniques were perfected by the Cholas 1,000 years ago,” he indicates the channel emptying water from the sanctum, which is carried through underground ducts into the temple tank outside the temple.

He insists, “History is not about learning the past, it is learning from the past.”

Balasubramanian is anxious that epigraphy and temple architecture is not an option preferred by the young. “Theoretical knowledge cannot help in this field. Practical knowledge is the best way to learn. You need to live the experience.”

Civil engineers who work on temple architecture need adequate knowledge of traditional architecture. Temple architecture could be a part of the syllabus for civil engineering.”

He also implies on the need for a comprehensive course in temple study that combines inscriptions, art and architecture.

Restoration and preservation

The historian who has visited over 100-odd temples, calls for immediate attention to a few monuments in Tamil Nadu including temples at Manambadi, Thukkathi, Kumbakonam and the Madurai Alagar Koil ‘mandapam' ceiling. He suggests that strengthening around the base of the Srirangam temple would avert an impending disaster.

“In the name of renovation, horrors are unleashed,” he grieves.

“Tiles in ancient monuments give the appearance of a washroom to temples and sandblasting weakens the sculptures. Commercial complexes in proximity to the temples, with vendors generously scattering their stuff over the edifice, ruin the temple.”

He adds public awareness on conservation of heritage monuments must be augmented. Grafitti is a major threat to monuments, he says citing Sittanavasal inscriptions being ruined by local artisans who etch the names of visitors for a minimal fee.

“Temples are our treasures. They are also major attractions for tourists. We need to preserve and cherish them, chiefly by removing vegetation growing on the edifices. It is not enough to remove them, they need to be uprooted completely using appropriate chemicals. An expert committee of archaeologists, historians and civil engineers must be consulted before any restoration.”

Balasubramanian's quest for information rests incomplete. “The more you research, the more you discover. A lifetime will not suffice to unlock the knowledge these temples hold,” he acknowledges humbly.

“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!”

Kudavayil Balasubramanian like Tennyson's Ulysses will not rest in his quest but ‘follow knowledge like a sinking star.'


For architecture:

Big Temple, Thanjavur

Darasuram, near Kumbakonam

Gangaikondacholapuram, Ariyalur district

Tirubuvanam, near Kumbakonam

For art:

Mahabalipuram Temple

Pullamangai temple, Thanjavur district

Nageswaran Temple, Kumbakonam

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