Chola Murals

in Article
Published on: 09 November 2018

P.S. Sriraman

P.S. Sriraman is a historian and assistant superintendent archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India.


The Chola royalty zealously built many stone temples all over their kingdom. The Rajarajesvaram is the grandest of all Chola temples. The exact year in which Rajaraja I (AD 985-1014) commenced the massive exercise of constructing Rajarajesvaram is not recorded anywhere. Apart from conceptualizing and executing this architectural splendor of gigantic proportion, Rajaraja I also embellished it tastefully and carefully, with an array of sculptures and murals. The foremost aspect about the Rajarajesvaram is its incredible scale and perfect execution. There was no previous model for Rajaraja to learn from, or to emulate, therefore, the source of inspiration for constructing such a grand temple, as this remains a mystery. Undoubtedly this temple assimilated several elements that might have been borrowed from other temples.


Rajaraja’s clarity of vision is evident everywhere in the temple. It is not surprising that Rajaraja aptly chose to adorn the dark pradakshina-path or the 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 carved and cast the marvelous stone and metal images, the medium and large spaces provided the Chola period painter the freedom to explore several dimensions. Rajaraja used this flexibility to impart life to all figures and motifs, making them more alive and communicative with the beholder. 


The seminal text Vishnudharmottara, aptly places paintings on a high pedestal when it states that ‘ just as Sumeru is the best of  mountains, as Garuda is the foremost of the birds, as the King is the chief among men, similarly the best of Chitra is the most praiseworthy among the fine arts’. Ancient Indian texts on paintings emphasize the aesthetic and auspicious values of the murals (bhittichitra) as they are considered harbingers of virtuous qualities. All kinds of structures like palaces, noblemen’s houses, courtesans’ residences, dwellings of the masses, and most importantly, religious edifices were tastefully embellished with murals, of which very little survived. This tradition developed into a cognate and coherent convention with depiction of religious themes in the murals. A symbolic relationship was shared between the practitioners of religion and painters, which resulted in gains for both.


In tune with this mandate, the Buddhist chaityas and vihars, excavated in the Deccan from the second century B.C. onwards, were vividly painted. Among the remains, murals of Ajanta are undoubtedly the most significant. The cessation of painting activity in Ajanta probably triggered the migration of painters to other places where they could find patronage like the ancient Vatapi (Badami).


The legacy of mural painting in Tamil Nadu can be dated back to the early centuries of the Common Era, as indicated by numerous references in the coeval Sangam literature. The works of this period often mention the existence of mansions and halls embellished with fine murals. However, such structures did not survive the vagaries of nature, because they were built of perishable materials. Obviously, the murals too did not survive. While describing the structures of the City of Puhar, the celebrated port city of the Chola country, Pattinappalai expresses concern over the dust that was generated by the ‘swiftly-running wheels’ of the chariots spoiling the murals painted on the exterior of the walls. Maduraikanchi refers to the painted walls of a Jaina temple (amanarpalli) which were ‘captivating like a polished copper plate’. (Maduraikanchi is a Tamil poetic work in the Pathinenmaelkanakku anthology of Tamil literature) the poems were written by the poet Mankuti Maruthanar in praise of the Pandyan king Nedunjeliyan II on the occasion of his victory at the battle of Talayanankanam.  


A Pandyan king supposedly came to be known as Chittiramadattu-tunjiya Nanmaran after his death. The title means that a Nanmaran, who died in a chittirmadam (painted pavilion). This also indirectly indicates the taste and fancy that royalty and nobles had towards paintings, which seemed to have flourished with patronage of a wealthy connoisseur and also appealed to the common man’s fascination. Kunramputanar in Paripadal, a collection of poems by several poets, speaks about the graceful paintings found in the Murukan temple located on the venerated hillock of Tirupparankunaram, near Madurai. Nappannanar provides a graphic description of a mandapa (eluttunilai mandapam) embellished with murals in the same collection of poems.


The mural paintings were executed on perishable materials like cloth and leather. Painted curtains called eilini were used by women as camouflage while bathing in the river Vaigai. Nedunalvadai refers to a wax-treated painted cloth that was tied over the cot. Several terms like kannul vinainar, vallon, oviyan and vittakar could be found in ancient Tamil literature referring to the painter while the paintings were referred to as ovam, oviyam and cittram. The painter or vittakar is someone who possessed a very fluent and deft hand, and who produced works, which entranced the beholder with exuberant colours and made him feel as if he was watching tapestry on walls.


The Sangam literature gives some information on the materials used by the painters of the period. There are ample references to the use of stucco (sudai) and brushes (tukilikai and vattikai). The brushes were very soft as the patiri (stereospermum colais[Buchanan- Hamilton ex Dillwyn] Mabebrley, Sanskrit- patla), a soft yellow or white flower. Another epic, Sivaka Chintamani indicates that painting was the favourite activity of women. For instance, it mentions that they dropped the palette for mixing colours, when they heard that Sivakan, the hero was taken to the royal court.


The aforementioned instances amply prove the influence that the painting traditions of ancient Tamil Nadu had on the people. Tradition of painting that perpetuated from ancient Tamil Nadu through its history blossomed into a great mural practice during the Pallava period, circa seventh to ninth century A.D.


The early decades of nineteenth century saw a mounting interest prompted by the release of several well-illustrated publications on Ajantha murals in exploring monuments to uncover the remains of paintings particularly in the Deccan region. The publication of a treatise on ancient Indian paintings further stoked interest. Consequently, the remains of murals of early Chalukya, Pallava and Pandyan schools were discovered at Badami, Ktanchipuram and Sittanavasal respectively, indicating the spread of the mural painting tradition beyond the western Indian caves. Taking this cue, in 1930, Prof. S.K. Govindaswami of Annamalai University, Chidambaram examined the pradakshina path of Rajarajesvaram in the ‘dim religious light of a small oil lamp’ looking for the murals of the Chola period but only succeeded to ‘ get a mere glimpse of the existence of a few patches of paintings’. However, on his next visit to the temple on 9 April 1931, he was better equipped with a ‘baby petromax’. He reported in The Hindu:


‘’…but paintings of an undoubtedly very late and degenerate age, whose linear contortions and chromatic extravagances shattered in a moment all my wonderful dreams of discovering there the best and the only example of the art of Chola mural painting’’.


The paintings that he described as of an ‘undoubtedly very late and degenerate age’ are the Nayaka period murals, while the ones he discovered below them belong to the Chola period. In his article titled ‘A New Link in Indian Art’ that appeared in The Hindu illustrated Weekly in June 1931, he examines the various aspects of the paintings. He observes the absence of a clayey layer and opines that the paintings were executed in the ‘combination of the tempera and fresco’ technique. He appreciates the intricacy of the execution of figures and the brilliant use of lines and colours to infuse a sense of volume to the figures by the painter. The themes are Saivite and Siva in his several manifestations.


 The discovery of the amazing remains of Chola murals persuaded the Archaeological Survey of India to bring the temple till then maintained by hereditary trustee, the senior prince of the erstwhile Maratha ruling family of Tanjavur, under its complete control. S. Paramsivan, a chemical curator with the government museum, Madras (Chennai) was deputed by the Survey to examine the paintings and attend to their chemical conservation immediately. The earliest graphic documentation of the murals appeared in The Hindu Illustrated Weekly as part of Govindswami’s article. This was followed by line sketches prepared by C. Sivaramamurti, who had the practice of preparation of his own line illustration, which are indeed a marvelous reproduction. During the 1950s the Lalit Kala Academy undertook a project to duplicate the murals to ensure that a faithful record remains at the site as it was feared that further deterioration was likely to take place in the years to come.


Once the murals of this temple were brought to light, their importance realized and beauty admired, the art historians and photographers focused their attention on them. Understanding the need for an accurate photographic documentation of the murals, T.N. Ramachandran, the art historian commissioned a professional photographer, C. Nachiappan. It is rather unfortunate that the set given to the Archaeological Survey of India was lost permanently and the documentation was altogether forgotten.


The appreciation of Chola murals of the Rajarajeshwara temple pose unique problems because of their large size and location in the dark and narrow pradakshina path. A major portion of the depiction is located well above the eyelevel. The circumambulatory passage is divided into fifteen chambers. The sixteenth on the east is the passage to the sanctum. There are three median chambers along the other axes of the sanctum, four corner chambers and eight chambers in between the median and corner chambers. The division into chambers was achieved by way of sills, jambs with conjoined offsets and segmental walls above a particular height, all done with the purpose to enhance the visual quality of the depictions.


Each chamber has two surfaces for executing the murals-the outer surface of the inner wall, and the inner surface of the outer wall of the vimana. The outer surface of the inner wall is cantoned with a series of offsets at either end to create a large recessed space in the middle. The recessed surface, where the themes are painted, measures 3.05mx 4.57m and the offsets 0.15m, 0.30m and 0.15m. The other surface, the inner wall, is continued on the offsets and perhaps on the door uprights too. The segmented wall, measuring 2.03mx1.32m, over either doorframe too was utilized to continue the depiction.


Similarly there are faint patches of murals clinging here and there on the plain walls above the sculptures depicting karanas or dance poses mentioned in Bharat’s Natyasastra, along the passage located above the one running around the sanctum.


As one goes around the passage in the usual clockwise direction, chambers 1 to 3 have Nayaka murals. Chamber 4, aligned to the southern median opening, contains a massive sculpture of a seated form of Siva. In chamber 7, the first panel of the chola period depicts a sage teaching his royal disciples’. In chamber 7, there is grand depiction of the Story of Sundrar.


Crossing chamber 8, aligned to the western median door opening, the visitor enters Chamber 9, a chamber with panel of the chola period on either wall. On the outer surface of the inner wall of the sanctum, there is a gigantic depiction of Nataraja (Adavallan) at the shrine of Tillai (Chidambaram) and Rajaraja along with his queens and others worship him. 


On the opposite wall, there is a heavily damaged panel. It nevertheless depicts two significant events which happened during the life of the king, and the painter had recorded them with his brush. In the upper portion of the panel, Rajaraja is shown worshipping the linga of the temple before its consecration in the sanctum. Next in line is Chamber 10, the north- western corner chamber. In this chamber, there is a portrayal of Siva‘s marriage with Parvati, witnessed by gods, devotees and women. On the offsets around this chamber are depiction of royal women and the popularly identified figures of Rajaraja and his preceptor Karuvur Devar.


In the following chamber, Chamber 11, the depiction of Siva as Tripurantaka and Ravana‘s wanton adventure of Kailasa, have been painted on the inner and outer walls of the vimana respectively. Chambers 12, 13, 14 and 15 and all other chambers that have not been included earlier, contain Nayaka murals in various stages of preservation.