Chola Murals: Documentation and Study of the Chola Murals of Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur

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Item Code: NAC293
Author: P.S. Sriraman
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9780230330818
Pages: 246 (Illustrated Throughout In Color)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.4 Inch X 8.8 Inch
Weight 1.34 kg
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Book Description

Exactly one thousand years ago, the Chola king Rajaraja, the Great (AD’985-1014) was embellishing his capital Thanjavur wit Rajarajesvaram, popularly known as the Brihadisvara temple. His clarity of vision is visible everywhere in the temple, be it the conceptualising the design, endowing it with numerous gifts, recording them meticulously, etc. The construction was a gigantic logistical effort. It is not surprising that Rajaraja aptly chose to adorn the dark pradakshina-patha, circumambulatory path, with exquisite murals. The array of saivite themes painted was the choice of the king as he was also known as Sivapadasekhara. The Chola painter took the opportunity to compose the murals with extraordinary imagination. Unlike his contemporary sculptors, architects or artists who carved and cast the marvellous stone and metal images, the medium and large spaces provided the Chola period painter the freedom to explore several dimensions. He used this flexibility to impart life to all figures and motifs, making them more alive and communicative with the beholder. C. Sivaramamurti, doyen of Indian art historians and one of the earliest scholars to study the murals, concluded that the commingling of emotions is complete in the murals.

This display of imagery was unfortunately covered by a layer of paintings by latter day Nayakas of circa sixteenth-seventeenth centuries. Ever since their discovery (possibly on 9 April, 1931) by Prof. S.K. Govindaswami of Annamalai University, the murals had attracted the attention of common people and art historians. The lack of space and natural light inhibited the efforts of photographing the murals comprehensively. Therefore, the Survey undertook the very difficult task of documenting the murals. The process involved photographing every panel in forty odd frames and painstakingly montaging them into one single image. Care was taken to produce an image of each panel that was not distorted and to ensure that the actual colours are reproduced. A comprehensive browsing through the digital files will be even more helpful in interpreting the murals.

Way back in 1968, C. Sivaramamurti observed: “These paintings have more than graceful line. They please all tastes…one states in wonder at the wealth of imagination and the inventive skill of those responsible for such glorious creations”. The work now provides an opportunity to all to appreciate these murals in all their richness and complexities. I am very pleased to place this book before the general readers and the scholarly community on the eve of the millennium celebration of the great temple.

I congratulate the author, the printers and all others associated with the project.



Prof. S.K. Govindaswami of Annamalai University, Chidambaram discovered the magnificent murals of Chola period in the dim passage around the sanctum of the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur possibly on 9 April 1931. For over seven decades, the murals were not comprehensively documented, save for one attempt in 1950’s, due to lack space and light. Early in 2004, the author suggested the need for a comprehensive photographic documentation of the murals to T. Satyamurthi, the then Superintending Archaeologist of Chennai Circle. He felt that photographing the murals in bits and pieces, as was done before, did not help in any way in understanding the composition in full. Therefore, the documentation must aim at bringing a whole panel in a single frame. Such output, he felt, should not be distorted in perspective. When I proposed the concept of present documentation, he graciously permitted me to undertake it and provided all administrative support. Later on, he guided me in interpreting the panels with his academic inputs. Without his sustained support this study would have remained a dream for me. I am extremely thankful to him.

Shri N. Thyagarajan, a young photographer and an accomplished painter joined us to take up the challenge. He provided the right technical solution and identified the montaging technique was the best option. He executed the whole project systematically, and with every step, honed his technical skills to achieve the desired results. His perseverance and patience resulted in this wonderful gift to the world of connoisseurs. N. Thyagarajan deserves complete credit for the technical success of this project.

I am deeply beholden to Dr. Gautam Sengupta, Director General, Archaeological Survey of India for recognising the significance of this work and publishing it on the ‘.gust and appropriate occasion of the 1000th year celebrations of the consecration of the Temple. For the past two years, Dr. B.R. Mani, Joint Director General, was mildly cajoling now and then to complete the manuscript at the earliest. I am deeply moved by his encouragement. Dr. P.K. Trivedi, Director (Publication) made the onerous task of publishing this volume at short notice easy by his gentle advice. Dr. Arundhati Banerji, Superintending Archaeologist (Publication) will always be a source of inspiration to me. I owe my gratefulness to her. The manuscript became more readable with the editing Sarva Shri T. Satyamurthi and K.K. Ramamurthi. I thank them for their efforts and valuable suggestions. My special thanks are due to Hoshiar Singh, Production officer, for his untiring efforts in producing this book. From Macmillan, the dedicated team of Suresh Gopal, Jyoti Mehrotra and Rajbilochan Prasad deserve all appreciation for their contributions to get this volume produced at such a short notice.

The digital enhancement of the documentation files led to better understanding and interpretation of the murals, which is incorporated in this volume. There could be more studies on other aspects of the murals like the dress, personal ornamentation, coiffure, social life, significance of dance postures, etc., or an evaluation of the art in comparison to other schools. Utilising the images, these tasks will be done later. The colour reproductions are true as much as possible to the original, as seen under artificial light. I have tried my best to transliterate words of other languages by adopting both the international standards (ISO) and that of the Survey, to make it easy for the readers to understand the words.

I tearfully remember the encouragement received right through my career from my Guru, Dr. B. Narasimhaiah, who would be the happiest man to see this volume. But, destiny is something different as he is no more to guide me. I dedicate this volume to him.

My wife and daughter have always supported me right through. They were happily accustomed to my long absence during the documentation. I am grateful to them as well.




  Foreword iii
  Preface v
  Acknowledgements vii
1. Rajaraja, the Great 3
2. Rajarajesvaram 14
3. Earlier Mural Traditions 25
  The Murals  
4. The Murals – Their Discovery and Documentation 47
5. The Murals – Their Themes and Contents 53
  5.1 Sage Teaching his Royal Disciples 61
  5.2 Story of Sundarar 83
  5.3 Rajaraja Worshipping Nataraja at the Koyil 111
  5.4 Rajaraja Worshipping the Linga 135
  5.5 Siva as Kalyanasundaramurti 159
  5.6 Siva Tripurantaka 177
  5.7 Siva as Ravananugrahamurti 193
6. The Murals – Their Technique and Treatment 21
7. The Murals – Commingling of Emotions 217
  Bibliography 235

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