History & Culture

On facts less known about Big Temple

PERSPECTIVE: George Michell with his book. Photo: R.Ragu  

Patience and perseverance could well sum up the personality of George Michell, who talks about the book he has recently co-authored with Indira V Peterson illustrated with photographs by Bharath Ramamrutham.

Now, how did an Australian find his way to India and to Thanjavur?

India was Michell’s first visit abroad and after his 1965 visit to Madras and a degree in School of Oriental and African Studies, the U.K., this architect decided it would be his area of research as well. His Ph.D got him closer to Badami and from there Hampi. For more than two decades, he and John Fritz mapped out the entire 25 sq. km. of the imperial capital and as his interest deepened he began to look at other parts of the Vijayanagar empire.

Struck by the lack of research and documentation in the 14-16 th century India, Michell chose to delve deep. In stead of taking up the oldest, Michell decided to work backwards and discovered interesting movements of architectural styles from Tamil Nadu back to Hampi during the Vijayanagar times and then those styles coming back south after the Vijayanagar kingdom collapsed in 1565 and the local Nayaks in Tamil Nadu asserted their powers.

With a whole slew of books and presentations on Thanjavur’s Brihadeeswara temple, is there need for another? There are not many in English and much less of those that deal with the post-Chola phase is Michell’s answer. It was Indira Peterson’s idea and the authors seek to bring about a balance through the book.

The first part deals with the conceptual underpinnings, a quick history of the dynasties associated with the temple and the artistic, architectural and symbolic interpretations. The second deals with the different parts of the temple and the final part has information on chronology, conservation, inscriptions and an interesting one on literary references, including those from the Maratha times.

In a lecture organised by the Madras Book club and Prakriti Foundation, the co-author shared some interesting lesser known facts of a temple that has many unanswered questions to its credit. Dr. Michell shared his reasoned opinion on some questions that have engaged scholars in lively debate. Most have ignored the true royal portrait of Raja Raja paying obeisance to Nataraja at Chidambaram, focussing on that of a painting of two sages. Clearly the former is the earliest known royal portrait painting. The latter being two sages, one younger and the other older.

An interesting observation was the obvious disproportion between the images within the koshtas or alcoves in the outside wall of the temple and the images, many being larger than the alcove. It appears that the sculptor was not always in synchronisation with the architect of the alcoves and made the sculptures much too big for the alcoves.

The Subramania temple can be dated to the time of Sevappa Nayaka and the mystery of the horse’s missing wheel traced back to the wheels in the Thanjavur Art gallery. If the wheels were placed behind the horses in the plinth of the shrine, the temple will once more resemble a chariot drawn by horses.

The current Kalasa or finial is from the 18 th century and the stone finial is itself not a single block but many stones covered with an expert layer of plaster. Other hypotheses, though logically presented, deserve more investigation. For instance, theories of the upper storey used as a shrine/gallery for the bronze images that had a wooden floor, or another that the temple may have in some way been a Saivaite equivalent of the Vaishnavite Ashtanga vimana (a temple with three shrines one over another in different storeys). Others were incongruous, such as the identification of an image that looked live Veenadhara Dakshinamurthy as Tripuranthaka.

The lecture and the question-and-answer session that followed reiterated the need for many more such volumes that looked at old themes in a new light with beautiful illustrations.

“The Great Temple at Thanjavur – One Thousand Years, 1010-2010” George Michell & Indira Viswanathan Peterson, Photos – Bharath Ramamrutham. Publisher – The Marg Foundation. Price – Rs. 2,500.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 4:25:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/On-facts-less-known-about-Big-Temple/article15457035.ece

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