Masterpieces at Iyyarappan temple, Tiruvaiyaru, run into more than 200 ft.; were done during Maratha period

In an act that specialists say violates the canons of conservation and preservation, 17th century C.E. murals on the wall of the second ‘prakara' (corridor) at the Iyyarappan temple at Tiruvaiyaru, 12 km from Thanjavur, painted using natural colours, are being repainted with the most garish colours, including electric blue, red and magenta.

The latest onslaught on these materpieces comes at a time when exquisite Jaina murals at the 1,000-year old Trilokyanatha/Chandraprabha temple complex at Tiruparuttikunram, near Kancheepuram; Jaina paintings at Karanthai, 30 km from Kancheepuram; and works done around 1725 C.E. at the Ramalinga Vilas palace, Ramanathapuram, have been vandalised after being repainted with modern-day water colours and poster colours.

In all 50 temples in Tamil Nadu are facing a similar threat.

The Iyyarappan temple at Tiruvaiyaru is more than 1,300 years old. Saivite saints Tirugnana Sambandar, Tirunavukkarasar, Sundarar and Manickavasagar sang in praise of Siva, the presiding deity. The temple comes under the Dharmapuram Adheenam, a private mutt.

In the temple's second corridor wall are the 17th century C.E. murals running into more than 200 feet. Artistes belonging to the Maratha period painted them using mineral dyes.

They portray a king, with his subjects, in his court; men wielding swords and blowing conches; temple processions with deities and men holding aloft torches; a woman bathing her baby; men playing percussion instruments; monkeys vaulting from a temple tower to a nearby tree branch; men running after an elephant; birds; animals and so on.

In 1971, when the temple's kumbhabhishekam was performed, many of these murals were re-painted using gaudy colours. Some, however, remained in their original state. The paintings have now come under renewed attack under the guise of temple renovation, which is under way.

Specialists in murals allege that water colours and poster colours are being used in repainting them. Murals, running into several feet have already been ruined by being painted over again, they point out.

Says R. Nagaswamy, former Director, Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology: “There is an urgent need to make a list of ancient paintings that still survive in temples in Tamil Nadu and declare them as heritage relics under Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation ) Act, 2010, so that nobody will vandalise them. All these murals are State heritage.” He advocates penal action against those destroying murals.

T. Satyamurthy, founder, REACH Foundation, which has conserved several ancient temples in Tamil Nadu, says that when he approached an official of the Dharmapuram Adheenam for conserving the Iyyarappan temple murals, the official said that he was not interested in technical knowhow or suggestions from the REACH Foundation for preserving the murals but wanted sponsors who could finance their repainting.

Inscriptions belonging to the Parantaka Chola (reign 907 - 955 CE) etched on the plinth of a shrine in the temple were buried when the floor level was raised, says Dr. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (Chennai Circle).

When contacted, a top official of the Dharmapuram Adheenam denied that any repainting was on. “A person, who had worked for the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department, is using herbs and re-creating, on the same basis, the old murals,” he claimed.

He denied that water colours and poster colours were being used but admitted that sandblasting, which is banned, was under way “all over the temple,” and “oil is being applied to granite sculptures.”