T.S. Subramanian

A project to conserve 400-year-old paintings in Siva temple will take off soon

CHENNAI: An ambitious project to conserve more than 200 ancient paintings in the Siva temple at Kalakkad in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district is to be undertaken soon by the REACH Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, once it is cleared by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department.

The paintings on the inner walls of each of the nine tiers of the temple’s gopuram (tower) are about 400 years old and resemble those of the Vijayanagara and Nayaka school of the 16th/17th century A.D. The REACH Foundation will also strengthen the 185-foot tall gopuram to stop seepage of rainwater and mend most of the 1,500 stucco figures that adorn it on the outside.

The temple, dedicated to Sathya Vageeswarar, belongs to the 13th century A.D. of the late Pandya period, but continual additions were made until the 17th century.

This private initiative comes in the wake of murals in many temples in the State being whitewashed or sandblasted by temple officials. Among the temples where the murals have been whitewashed are the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, the Arunachaleswara temple at Tiruvannamalai, the Siva/Vishnu temple at Tiruvellarai near Tiruchi, the Varadarajaswamy temple at Kanchipuram, the Lakshminarasimhar temple at Sevilimedu near Kanchipuram, the Siva temple at Pattiswaram near Darasuram and so on.

T. Satyamurthy, the former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and one of the founders of the REACH Foundation, called the murals at the Kalakkad temple “an amazing art gallery in each floor for the common man to see and relish the puranic themes in animation.” They depict scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, “Tiruvilayadal Puranam” (Siva Leela), Siva’s marriage to Parvati, episodes from the life of Saivite saints of Tamil Nadu, Parvati riding a Hamsa vahana, Siva as Bhikshadana, the wedding of Saivite saint Sundarar and so on.

“The animation in these murals is so superb that they look like modern visuals,” Dr. Satyamurthy said. They have an influence of Chola school of murals. These masterpieces provide a wealth of information on contemporary life in terms of costumes and ornaments worn by kings and commoners, hair style, musical instruments, and so on. The rishis are shown wearing many types of headgear. Some of the murals have labels belonging to the 17th century.

The nine storeys of the gopuram, built of bricks, are accessible by a flight of steps. The inner wall was covered with lime plaster on which drawings were first made and then the murals were done with vegetable colours and minerals. Another temple where the paintings have been done on the inner wall of the gopuram is at Tirupudaimarudur, also in Tirunelveli district.

But the exquisite paintings at Kalakkad have been vandalised by visitors who have scrawled their names all over them. Cracks have developed in the plaster and in some places the plaster bulges out. In a few tiers, bats have added to the damage.

“The paintings will be conserved by removing the dust, using chemicals if necessary, and re-fixing the plaster and filling the cracks with fresh plaster. Integration of paintings will then be done by removing the scrawls in them. The conservation effort will be supervised by S. Subbaraman and C.S. Jayarama Sundaram, retired ASI scientists,”said Dr. Satyamurthy.

“For strengthening the gopuram and mending the stucco figures, we will engage sthapathis and it will be a stupendous task that will be done using the original material,” he added.

He noticed the paintings when the temple renovation committee members S. Ponniah Pillai, K.R. Chandrasekaran and S.S. Mani approached him for the conservation of the gopuram.

REACH Foundation was set up in Chennai in June 2007 to conserve heritage sites and buildings with the help of local people.

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