Software professional Arvind Venkatraman is on a passionate mission to catalogue Chola temples through photographs

From the intricately-sculpted miniatures to the domes of single-structure temples, Arvind Venkatraman’s pictures miss no details when it comes to capturing the remnants of the Chola dynasty. A software professional and an ardent photographer, Arvind is on a mission to catalogue 500-odd Chola temples that dot their ancient boundaries — from Nellore down South.

Photographing temples was a hobby, and when Arvind posted his pictures online, he began to get good reviews. “Vijay Kumar of Poetry In Stone (a website that promotes heritage) saw my pictures and used some of them to write his blog. He later invited me to join him when he visited temples and photograph them.” In the last five years, Arvind has found himself taking off on weekends to explore the vestiges of Chola history.

An engrossing world

“I started off with the central places — Kanchipuram and Thanjavur. As I began exploring the temple, the iconography, sculptures and other aspects, one thing led to another and soon, I was engrossed in this world,” he says. “The Pallavas are my favourite. But I find it fascinating how the number of sites of Chola temples is much larger than those of the Pallavas.” Over the years, Arvind has learnt to spot the characteristics of certain Chola kings and queens and the era in which they ruled, based on the temples. “The 8th Century to 11th Century was considered the golden period, and even now you can enjoy the architecture and sculptures of the temples of that time,” he explains. “Most of the temples were built by Uthama Chola and Sembiyan Mahadevi. There were many temples along the Cauvery that existed even before their time, and they spent a lot on rebuilding and renovating them.”

The temples also stand out by their styles. “Chola temples are mostly modest and don’t have large, pillared corridors. Based on their styles, you can usually tell their age. Their size, on the other hand, depends on who built it. If it was a royal patronage, it is obviously very big. The inscriptions also give you some information. But what will help you recognise Chola temples are their miniature sculptures.”

Arvind has catalogued more than 200 temples so far. “We read up about the temple, go there to take pictures and match them with existing documents. Sometimes we repeat places and so it’s a time-consuming process,” he says. “There are a lot of temples in Pudukottai and some of them just lie neglected.” Many are single-structure temples next to lakes and other water bodies. “They’re all simple, beautiful and elegant, but no one even knows about them.”

While it is relatively easier to gain access to temples under ASI, he finds it hard to get permission to photograph others. “Sometimes it’s the temple authorities and sometimes it’s the public who don’t give us permission; they believe a picture will diminish the energy of a temple. The Thirukazhukundram temple has three huge relief sculptures on its inner walls. There are no photographs of them and the only reason we know about them is because they’ve been documented by historians,” he says.

Full of stories

But for now, the temples he has taken photographs of have enfolded him in their fascinating stories. “The inscriptions say so much about grants, the period in which the temple was built, donations made by kings and the disputes solved there.” He talks of a temple near Thanjavur that had an inscription about a case where a man was removed from his post and his land seized by the village gathering. “It’s fascinating to be able to have access to such information. There are so many such stories as temples were built regularly because it was the centre of finance and education.”

Arvind is planning a trip around Dharmapuri to take a look at the temples there. While his efforts hope to rekindle the love for history in many and create awareness about local heritage, he is sceptical about renovation efforts. “It is impossible to replicate the techniques and engineering of those times. It’s painful to see temples being bulldozed or painted over.”