Massive wonder

A view of the elephant statue of 16-17 century in Azhagar kovil village 6km from Sri Brahadeeswara temple at Gangai Konda Chozhapuram in Ariyalur district in Tamil Nadu. Photo: M. Srinath   | Photo Credit: M_SRINATH

The elephant is majestic, alive or in stone. What if it is 80 feet high? The stucco statue outside a temple in a village near Gangaikondacholapuram stuns you with its sheer size and intricate craftsmanship.

Dating back to the 16th century, it stands in a grove outside the Thuravu Melazhagar (also called Azhagarkovil and Azhagapuri) temple. The scaffolding suggests that repairs are under way.

S. Srinivasan, hereditary trustee of the temple, is determined not to use modern plastering methods to repair the elephant. He brushes aside questions on affordability, with a fierce determination, that one can’t help admiring. He did manage to hire someone to do the repair work, but the man played truant after a couple of days. A determined Srinivasan says that he will not be discouraged by all this.

But how did the worship of village gods, which in turn led to the depiction of animals, originate? Rev. Henry Whitehead, in his book “Village Gods of South India,” published in 1916, wrote: “What the origin of the village deities and their worship may have been, it is difficult to say. The system as it now exists, combines many different ideas, and has probably resulted from the fusion of various forms of religion… But the system as a whole… evidently belongs to a pastoral and agricultural community... and the protection of the villagers, the object for which it exists.”

Dr. Murugesan, Professor Emeritus, Folklore Department, Tamil University, Thanjavur, says that village gods are worshipped in Andhra and Karnataka too. “In North India, we see sculptures of a man on horseback, followed by hunting dogs. The man is identified as Revantha, son of Sun god. Perhaps it is Revantha who is referred to as Ayyanar in Tamil Nadu.” Murugesan has even seen a stucco of Rama and Lakshmana, astride horses, in Ayodyapattinam, Salem. Horses, because of their speed, must have been seen by people as suitable mounts for their gods.

There are historical references to Aswamedha yagas performed by Pushyamitrasunga (2{+n}{+d} century B.C.) and Samudragupta (5{+t}{+h} century A.D.), points out Murugesan. There are references in the Pattinappalai, that speak of the import of horses in Kaveripoompattinam, the famous port city of Tamil Nadu in the Sangam period, indicating that Tamils had a close bond with the horse even in early times.

“V.I. Subramaniam, former Vice-Chancellor of Tamil University, Thanjavur, feels that the preponderance of terracotta horses in the districts of Ramanathapuram, Salem, Pudukkottai, Thanjavur and South Arcot in Tamil Nadu was due to the presence of many warrior classes in these districts. The horses must have been their offerings to the guardian deity of the village,” adds Murugesan. As for the elephant, the sheer size and strength of the animal must have made the villagers think of it as worthy of worship, guesses Murugesan.

Vaishnavism scholar Kidambi Narayanan says that the elephant finds mention in the Gajasuktam, in the sixth ashtakam of the Rg Veda. There are references to the divinity of the elephant in Taittriyam, in the Yajur Veda.

“In the Ramayana and in Tamil Vaishnavite literature there are many references to Maha Vishnu as an elephant,” says Kidambi Narayanan. He quotes from Nampillai’s Tiruvaimozhi commentary, where Mahavishnu is compared to a horse. Nampillai refers to an ancient practice, where the speed of a war elephant would be tested vis-a-vis the speed of a horse. The horse would be given a head start, with the elephant in pursuit. The elephant would try in vain to touch the horse with its trunk, for an elephant cannot match the speed of a horse, the analogy being that the infinite qualities of Mahavishnu (the horse) can never be described by His devotees (the elephant), Kidambi Narayanan explains.

Gazing at the Azhagarkovil elephant, whose majesty even the scaffolding and the thatch are unable to obscure, one cannot help wondering at the technique behind the masterpiece. “Silpa texts describe how the plaster for these stucco figures is to be prepared, and mention 200 types of bricks. Different shapes of bricks are spoken of in the Satapatha Brahmana,” says sthapathy Umapathy Acharya.

Scientific analysis of the Ajanta and Sithannavasal paintings has revealed that the plaster used for preparing the ground for the paintings and the pigments used are all in conformity with the technical descriptions given in texts like Kasyapa Silpa Sastra, Vishnudharmottara and Aparajitapraccha. The same kind of plaster is used in the stucco figures that we see in villages, showing the unbroken tradition in our arts, points out Umapathy.

The decorations on these figures have symbolic significance, according to Veezhinathan. Such care goes into the making of these stucco figures, that just looking at them makes one experience an exultation, that is nothing short of spiritual.

But what about the fate of the Azhagapuri elephant? Lofty ideals notwithstanding, a lot of money will be needed to repair it, and financial aid from the government is necessary. As I leave the place, I learn of a stucco horse and elephant in Melakkaveri, behind the Anai adi bus stop. They are almost completely lost, due to neglect, I am told. Maybe, if it is not too late, they can be salvaged too?

List of ingredients

The list of ingredients that go into making the plaster, is mind boggling - powdered lac, decoctions prepared from the barks of trees such as the banyan, peepul, fig and acacia catechu; the decoction of gooseberries; Belliric myrobalan; sand, pulverised stone and pebble; curd and clarified butter; extract of wood-apple, Bilwa tree; linseed oil, sandal oil, camphor oil and sesame oil; yellow orpiment; powdered barley, black gram and wheat; powdered ginger, black pepper and if possible, gold and silver dust too!

The process of extraction of the required colours from plants, roots, shoots, leaves and minerals in the soil is also explained in detail in the silpa texts, says sthapathy Veezhinathan Acharya. The ribs inside the horse and elephant are made of acacia catechu wood, and bound with processed coir rope and darbha grass.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 8:49:09 AM |

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