The murals of the Tiruvarur Thyagarajaswamy temple have gained a new look after a restoration exercise that lasted three years.

Among the unparalleled riches of the Thanjavur region are the 17th century paintings of the Tiruvarur Thyagarajaswamy Temple's Devasiriya Mandapam. For three years, a team of dedicated conservationists from INTACH have worked to restore these magnificent paintings and this January the mandapam was opened to the public. A book released on the occasion documents and explains the paintings, and chronicles their restoration.

The first copy of The Mucukunda Murals was offered with an aarti at the sanctum, and the best of the evening's many delights was hearing the author talk of his personal connection to Tiruvarur.

Desperate efforts

Prof. David Shulman, renowned Indologist and Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, first saw the paintings in 1976. He studied the panels on the ceiling of the Devasiriya Mandapam, the vast pillared hall in which the deity rests during festival processions, as an account of the legend of Thyagarajaswamy but also as a vivid record of social and religious practices. For years the mandapam was used as a storeroom and workshop. On each recurring visit, Prof. Shulman recalled, he found the paintings had been further damaged by water, bats, nesting birds, beehives, cement dust and neglect. "They were disappearing in front of my eyes, year after year."

Together with the photographer V.K. Rajamani, who lay on his back in the debris to photograph each panel, he began to document the paintings. In 2006, in what Prof. Shulman poignantly described as “an act of despair”, the two came to take what they thought would be the last photographs and to map the sequence of the panels before they were to be whitewashed. “These paintings were on the verge of being lost forever,” said Prof. Shulman, and they wanted at least to record that such masterpieces once existed on the ceiling of the Devasiriya Mandapam. “Then, the miracle happened.”

Worn down by eight years of petitioning by Ranvir Shah, industrialist and founder-trustee of the Prakriti Foundation, along with others deeply committed to the cause, the authorities finally allowed a team from the INTACH Chitrakala Parishath Art Conservation Centre to restore the paintings. Among their many tasks, the restorers removed dirt and fungus, reattached fallen sections of the art, and traced out the missing parts of the images.

Idea of images

The paintings show Thyagarajaswamy's journey from his first home on the breast of Vishnu to the heavenly court of Indra and then to earth. It is Mucukunda, the king with a monkey's face, who brings him to Tiruvarur. Mucukunda had helped Indra defeat his enemies and was feted in the heavens, where he saw the deity worshipped by Indra. During the night, the king dreamt that the deity wanted to be taken to earth, and the next day he made this audacious request to Indra. Indra sent Mucukunda to ask Vishnu, who had first given him the image. Meanwhile, he had six more images made, identical to the first. When Mucukunda returned with Vishnu's approval, he was faced with seven identical images and challenged to pick out the original Thyagarajaswamy.

How did Mucukunda choose the right image? The storytellers say he just knew. Prof. Shulman added, “Sometimes they say the god smiled at him. Sometimes they say he winked.” The lord wanted to come to Tiruvarur, and he chose Mucukunda to bring him here.

As he chose this team, perhaps, to restore the paintings. Miracles don't just happen, according to Prof. Shulman. “We all were drawn to the work at Tiruvarur. But also, all of us here have the privilege of being chosen to do this work.” Between seeing Thyagarajaswamy, gazing up at the divine paintings, and hearing the professor tell the story, we all felt a bit chosen.

The joys of the evening did not end there. Like Mucukunda, many of us took Thyagarajaswamy home.

In The Mucukunda Murals, we find the legend in rich detail. V.K. Rajamani's incomparable photos take us from the Ocean of Milk to the heavens and to Tiruvarur, where devotees sing and dance, under a perpetual rain of heaven-sent flowers, to welcome this smiling, winking god.

Dance has a special place at Tiruvarur. The image of Thyagarajaswamy resting on Vishnu's body moves up and down as Vishnu breathes, in a rhythm known as ajapatandava or silent dance. Added to that is the breath of Adisesha, on whom Vishnu rests. And they all — image, god and serpent — sway together in the tides of the Ocean of Milk.

On the day The Mucukunda Murals was released, the temple's hereditary nadhaswaram players and the dancer and scholar Saskia Kersenboom united the chinna melam and periya melam of old times. They offered a padam in which the poet muses on the unseen feet of Thyagarajaswamy. Tilakkamma, a kuravanji choreographer now in her 80s and also a hereditary performer of the temple, sang hymns in a voice of undiminished melody.