81 were found while removing weeds on vimana in 1956

While a grand dance spectacle, involving 1,000 Bharatanatyam dancers, awaits on September 25 on the premises of the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur, there is an interesting story behind the discovery of the karana sculptures.

In Bharatanatyam, 108 karanas form the basic movements. There are beautiful sculptures of 81 of the 108 karanas inside the chamber of the first tier of the vimana (tower) above the sanctum. Siva, Lord of dance, is portrayed as performing these karanas.

Eminent dancer Padma Subrahmanyam, who will choreograph the dance event, said the karana sculptures were discovered in 1956 when Balakrishnan, an employee of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), was removing the weeds on the vimana. He found a passage leading to the first tier of the vimana. He reported the matter to K.R. Srinivasan, Superintending Archaeologist of the ASI (Madras Circle), and the latter opened the passage that led to the chamber inside. But bats' excreta had piled up in the chamber to a height of several feet. The excreta had caked up so hard that labourers had to shovel them off. Many workmen fell sick owing to the stench and arduous work.

Dancing Siva

“After a month of cleaning, Srinivasan found that there were beautiful sculptures of dancing Siva on the wall,” said Ms. Subrahmanyam.

Srinivasan sent a note to ASI Joint Director-General T.N. Ramachandran. “Ramachandran came and it is a day to be remembered in the history of the Big Temple. For, it was he who identified the sculptures as karanas portrayed in the fourth chapter of [Bharata's] Natya Sastra,” said Ms. Subrahmanyam, while speaking at a recent seminar organised by the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, Chennai, on the 1,000 years of the temple.

Ms. Subrahmanyam called the karana sculptures Raja Raja Chola's “documentation of the frozen moments of the movements.” Dancing Siva is portrayed in these reliefs with four arms.

Indonesian temple

“The sculptor has shown animation with the intelligent use of the four arms of Siva,” she said. She marvelled at how Raja Raja Chola, who built the Raja Rajesvaram temple, received the idea to sculpt the karanas. Perhaps, he got the idea from the temple at Prambanan in Indonesia, which had karana sculptures.

Ms. Subrahmanyam, who had visited the Prambanan temple, said it was built 150 years prior to the Brihadisvara temple.

There were karana sculptures in the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram and Sarangapani temple in Kumbakonam.

If the karanas in the Brihadisvara temple portrayed one part of the movement of dance, the Chidambaram temple portrayed another and the Sarangapani temple depicted yet another, she said.

Ms. Subrahmanyam, who earned her Ph.D. for her dissertation on the karana sculptures in these three temples.