While medieval Indian kings immortalised their exploits in inscriptions, at times in highly exaggerated accounts, the artists engaged to embellish the temples were humble and remained anonymous, never letting their names appear anywhere. Who was the artist who created that stunning Parvathi in mural in Panamalai? Or the one who sculpted the furious Durga emerging out of live rock to vanquish the demon Mahisha at Mamallapuram?
As I sat contemplating one of my favourite works of art, a Chola masterpiece, the Chandesanugra-murti sculptural panel in Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple in Tamil Nadu, this thought surfaced. Who was the artist who conceived of this awesome composition in granite?
We do not know why Rajendra, Chola emperor Rajaraja's son, decided to give up Thanjavur as the capital of the kingdom and move over to Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Nor do we have any idea why he started building another temple, instead of completing the one his father had left unfinished back in Thanjavur. However, we do know that the victorious Rajendra got the idea of memorialising his conquests in a sculptural work.
The emperor Rajendra looked upon himself as one who received Siva's favour in abundance. The whole temple seems to be a celebration of divine favour: anugraha. As you walk clockwise around the temple, you have sculptures of Ravana-anugrahamurti, blessing the Sri Lankan king who repents his audacious act of lifting Mount Kailas and Markendeya-anugrahamurti, blessing Markandeya and saving him from the Lord of Death and so on.
And the biggest panel of them all is the one that features Chandesa. One of the 63 Saiva saints, he always gets a special place in any Saivite temple and is looked upon as the steward of the Siva household. In big temples he has a separate shrine. When a devotee visits the temple she appears before the Chandesa shrine, claps her hands not only to mark attendance but also to tell him that she is not taking any of the temple property with her. In short Chandesa is special to Lord Siva.
On the Southern side of the temple is a long flight of steps leading to the sanctum. To the right of these steps, in a large niche, is the sculpture. Siva is seated with Parvathi, and below him is Chandesa. Siva is in the process of winding a garland of flowers around Chandesa's head who, with folded hands accepts the distinction. Scholars like C. Sivaramamurthy have suggested that it is Rajendra who is represented here as Chandesa, sitting at the feet of Siva.
Kings featuring themselves in a sculptural panel is not new to Indian art history. Mahendravarman, the Pallava, appears as Gangadhara in a panel in the rock-cut cave he commissioned half way up the rock fort in Tiruchirapalli. Probably more emperors are hidden in such disguises elsewhere.
Here, in Gangaikonda Cholapuram, we see three main figures in the panel, the central one is Siva with intricate jewels and his immense lock of hair done in a crown-like hairdo. To his left is Parvathi, with a jewelled crown. Both have one leg folded up and the other pendent. Below them is the devotee Chandesa humbly receiving the crown of garland.
The sculptor has followed the principle of hierarchical scale: Siva, the central figure is the largest, next in size is Parvathi and then the slightly smaller Chandesa. Behind the divine couple are small relief figures of Surya and Chandra. On the side of the panel the story of Chandesa, who was a cowherd, receiving Siva's favour is told in tiny relief sculptures. One striking feature of this panel is that the three main figures face different directions. As you walk up the stairs you realise that Chandesa is looking at you.
Anugraha, which is the pervading theme here, and the Chandesa-anugrahamurti seems to be the culmination of all other representations. Plastic art soars to stupefying heights in this sacred preserve.