Interview with T.N. Ramachandran

Interview with T.N. Ramachandran

in Interview
Published on: 09 May 2016
Tamil scholar and translator of several Saivite scriptures, Dr T.N. Ramachandran, speaks about the Chola temples, the Agama texts and the dance and music tradition of Tanjavur.

Sahapedia: Could you talk about how the inscriptions were found in Brihadisvara temple?


T.N. Ramachandran: Thanjavur became the capital of the Chola kingdom during the reign of Raja Raja Chola's grandfather. Urayur in Trichy was the capital until then. Of course, Kaveripattanam was the summer capital of the Chola kingdom. The temple at Thanjavur is called the temple of Lord Brihadisvara, meaning 'the great and grand lord'.


The Thanjavur temple was built by Raja Raja Chola and the consecration was performed in A.D. 1010, and its millennial celebrations were held here recently.


Everything was recorded in the inscriptions in the temple. They were closely followed for some time and gradually, people forgot about it. Then for almost 800 years, they didn’t know how to read the inscriptions and forgot that Thanjavur was the capital of the Chola kingdom during the reign of Raja Raja Chola's grandfather.


Then in 1858, a Protestant missionary, Dr. G.U. Pope (George Uglow Pope) from England—he was well-versed in Tamil─was commissioned to photograph the temple at Thanjavur and other shrines near Tiruvaiyaru. He brought out a book titled Photographic View in Tanjore and Trivadi. (Showing the book) Trivadi is what the British called Tiruvaiyaru, the birthplace of Tyagarajara swamy, celebrated for his compositions in Carnatic music. Dr G.U Pope made local enquiries and came to know from the locals about a certain king by the name 'Kadu-vetti-chola' had built the temple in Thanjavur. He noted it down in his book. There is no mention of Rajaraja Chola. Kadu means forest, vetti means cutting, so the book talks about a king who deforested the area and built the temple.  


That the inscriptions are in Tamil was discovered by a German archaeologist called Hultzsch (Eugen Julius Theodor Hultzsch). He did it towards the end of the 19th century. He discovered the inscriptions that were long supposed to be lost. He brought the truth to light that the temple was built by Rajaraja Chola.


The tower of the sanctum sanctorum (vimana) is taller than that is in the front of the temple (rajagopura). This is the only temple where the vimana is taller than the rajagopura. That is its special feature. The temple is built on the principles enunciated in the Saivagama and all the festivals and ceremonies are observed based on the rules and rituals laid down in the makudagama, an old copy of which is preserved to this day in Thanjavur Saraswati Mahal, which is the world's greatest library of Sanskrit manuscripts.


The temples in south India, especially in Tamil Nadu, are built on the principles of Agamas, be it a Vaishnava or a Saivite temple. There are 28 Agamas. Mukudagama is one of the agamas. The Vedas do not talk about temples. It may come as a surprise. The selection of the site, the construction of the temple and the rituals practiced are contained only in the Agamas. All the Saivite temples are built according to the Saivagamas.


Sahapedia: Could you tell us when the Agamas were written?


T.N.R.: The Agamas are very ancient. They were written in the same period as the Vedas. But the Agamas are more important for the Saivites because while the Vedas talk about Siva, Vishnu, Brahma and so many other deities, the Agamas talk only about Siva. 


Sahapedia: Now if we come to the temple in Gangaikondacholapuram, it seems to be incomplete.


T.N.R.: Gangaikondacholapuram was built by Rajendra Chola, the son of Raja Raja Chola I with the intention of creating a capital with more grandeur than his father's. But he abandoned it later because of unknown reasons. He wanted to fashion it after the Brihadisvara temple.


He wanted to make Gangaikondacholapuram as his capital as it was near Chidambaram temple and Rajendra Chola was an ardent devotee of Lord Nataraja.


He had built huge walls, all of which were dismantled during the British rule to build a dam in the area. Gangaikondacholapuram also served as an arsenal for the army as it has a history of frequent attempts of invasion. The path leading to it is winding and narrow.  To capture the arms you have go up this path. Before anyone could reach the top he could be struck down easily. So the temple at Gangaikondacholapuram was a place for safeguarding the weapons. The sanctum sanctorum at Gangaikondacholapuram is cool during summers and slightly warm during winters. I don’t know what type of stones are used.   


Sahapedia: The Airavatheswar temple or the Darasuram temple is also a Chola temple.


T.N.R.: The canonical works of Saivites are called Tirumurals which are 12 in number. The 12th Tirumural is called Periyapuranam. Periya means big and the Darasuram temple is conceived as the periya kovil after the Periyapuranam. It was renovated by Koluthunga the Second.


One can find the figurines of 63 great saint-leaders or nayanars on the walls of the Darasuram temple, which is a very authentic source for Periyapuranam.


Sahapedia: What about the 108 pillars in the temple?

T.N.R.: For a mandapam you need pillars—50, 100 or even 1000 sometimes. Nootukaal mandapam means a mandapam with 100 pillars while ayirakaal mandapam means a thousand-pillared mandapam. There needn’t be 100 pillars. Even if there are only 85 or 90 pillars it can be called a hundred-pillared mandapam. These pillars have to be carved with great aesthetic sense. They can convey many messages. Figures are etched on them and sometimes contain coded secrets.  



Sahapedia: Could you talk about the Maratha contributions to Thanjavur?


T.N.R.: The Marathas fostered dance, music, arts and literature in Thanjavur. Some of the kings were poets and composers themselves. They maintained the tradition. Towards the end of their reign they lost their importance.  


Sahapedia: What are the specific contributions of the Marathas apart from their nurturing the tradition of Thanjavur?  


T.N.R.: Before the Marathas, the Nayakas ruled. The Nayakas gave us the Telugu language. All our music compositions are in Telugu. Tyagaraja’s body of compositions is in Telugu. Dikshitar wrote in Telugu and Sanskrit. Syamasatri too wrote in Telugu and Sanskrit. The Nayakas patronized dance and initiated the Bhagavatha Mela in Melattur. All were done by the Nayakas. The Marathas nurtured them.


Sahapedia: One aspect of the Marathas is their painting tradition. We can find some faded paintings on the temple walls.


T.N.R.: As far as I am concerned, there is nothing unique about the paintings.



Sahapedia: Is there any reason why when there is such a flourishing of others arts, the art of painting did not excel?  


T.N.R.: The painting was good. But the attention was on dance, music and sculpture. So the painting remained in the background. 



Sahapedia: The art of sculpture becomes subtler as we go down from Brihadisvara temple to the Darasuram temple. Why is it so?  


T.N.R.: In Rajaraja’s temple the sculptures were grand, majestic. The Subramanyam temple specializes in miniature art.  When you do miniature sculptures you have to be careful. It demands immense concentration and better execution.  


Even today, the sculptors in Chettinad make such sculptures. Even now certain families in Chettinad make excellent bronze sculptures.


Sahapedia: Could you talk about the music tradition of Thanjavur─nagaswaram and thavil tradition?   

T.N.R.: When a temple flourishes, several art forms also flourish along with it. The temple serves as a university to learn art forms like dance and music. It employs several people. It is the nucleus of the society. The periya kovil served as a bank, hospital, an Agama school, a training school for dance and so on. One good temple can employ hundreds of people and foster hundreds of artists. When the government takes control, everything is lost.



Sahapedia: How did it serve as a hospital?


T.N.R.: There was a hospital in its premises, treating patients and preparing medicines.



Sahapedia: My question is, how did nagaswaram contribute to the scene of Thanjavur music?


T.N.R.: Tamil music preceded Carnatic music. Not many would agree. But the principles of Tamil music was absorbed by the Carnatic music. The language changed to Telugu. Telugu became popular, there were Telugu compositions but the methods adopted by the singers were taken from the Tamil music. We had the pann (melodic mode). Many ragas can be contained in pann. Even today the Tamil singers sing in pann. Ultimately it was the temple that fostered all these things. To begin with everything was named only in Tamil. And then when the Nayakas came, the Tamil names were changed to Telugu. Brihadisvara temple was called Thanjai Peruvudayar in the beginning. Naturally when the Nayakas came, they had to translate the name into their language. 'Peru' means 'brihat' (big), 'udayar' means 'ishvar' (God). Hence the name Brihadisvara. Tamil Ezhisai was absorbed by the Carnatic music. Those were the days when the Music Trinity flourished. Their compositions are immortal. Slowly there was a return to the old way, and gradually Carnatic music and Tamil music have come to subsist side by side, each influencing the other and living in harmony.       


Sahapedia: The pann music was the nagaswaram music, wasn’t it?

T.N.R.: Yes, Carnatic music came much later. It was not in existence 800 years ago. But pann is there in Silappadikaram that is at least 1500 years old. Pann is there in our canonical work, Tevaram, in Thiruvacakam, in the Divya Prabandham. There is no mention of raga in them. Because ragas came much later. Raga is pann in a different guise. Basically they are the same.