History & Culture

Priceless treasures of the Cholas

The bronze idols of Sita, Rama and Lakshmana with Lord Anjaneya at Adambar.  

As one looks at the bronze idols of Paruthiyur Rama, in speechless wonder, one recalls the observation of art critic Havell: “Indian art, soaring into the highest empyrean, is ever trying to bring down to earth something of the beauty of the things above.”How does one describe the beauty of the 10th century bronzes of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana at the Paruthyiur temple? Where does one begin? With Rama’s sharp nose, that gives Him a regal bearing? Or the designs on Sita’s bangles? Or Lakshmana’s beatific smile? Who was the genius who conceived and created these treasures? As always, the sculptor remains anonymous, leaving behind no trace of his existence except his immortal work.

“In the 1960s the Paruthiyur bronzes were stolen,” says Dr. Kudavayil Balasubramanian. But the matter was immediately brought to the notice of the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. A nation wide alert was announced, as a result of which the bronzes could not be smuggled out of the country and were eventually recovered.

Paruthiyur. How did the village get its name? It can only be a matter of guesswork. Ancient Tamils classified land into five categories - Kurinji, Mullai, Marudam, Neidhal and Paalai, depending upon the geographical features.

Marudam, with its rivers that facilitated agriculture, was considered the best for people to inhabit. Hence according to Tamil scholar Ra.Pi. Sethupillai, the word ‘oor,’ which is used to refer to a place of human habitation, whether a village or a town, became a generic suffix for places that fell under the Marudam category. In Sangam literature, the word ‘ooraan’ referred to a chieftain of a place that belonged to the ‘Marudam’ classification. In the Ainkurunuru, a chieftain is referred to as ‘Thandurai Ooranaar.’ Often the name of a bird or animal would precede the word ‘oor.’ Thus we have names like Kurugur, kurugu referring to a bird.

But how did Paruthiyur, a fertile village on the banks of the Kudamurutti river, get its name? Is the word Paruthi a corruption of Parithi meaning Sun? In which case, is Paruthiyur a place that has some legend associated with the Sun God? The word paruthi in Tamil means cotton. So, was Paruthiyur perhaps a centre for cotton textile weaving? The temple at Paruthiyur has no inscriptions to throw light on the origin of the temple, or to provide information about the village.

As for the history of Paruthiyur, the only reference to it is seen in the copper plates in the Leiden Museum, Holland, according to Balasubramanian. A reference to Paruthiyur is seen in the Anaimangalam plate. It talks of Raja Raja making a grant to a temple, while surrounded by important government officials. One of the officials was Varippothakam Paruthiyur Kizhavan Singan Venkaadan, the word Varipothakam indicating that Kizhavan Singan Venkaadan of Paruthiyur was the Chief Revenue officer of the kingdom, the one who maintained the tax register. Every grant or tax exemption from the king would be recorded by this officer. Thus someone from Paruthiyur held this very important office in Raja Raja’s time. And since the bronzes in Paruthyiur date to Raja Raja’s time, there is reason to suppose that they could have been donated by this high ranking official.

Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri (1845-1911), who, because of his Ramayana discourses, came to be known as ‘Ramayana’ Sastri, made the bronze Anjaneya in the temple, all the others being bronzes of the 10th century. The presiding deity in Paruthiyur is Varadaraja, and like the Rama collection, the bronze idols of Varadaraja with His consorts are also of the 10th century, and are just as stunning.

Our next stop was at the Adambar temple. The bronzes of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in Adambar are Chola bronzes too, but of a later period than Paruthiyur. The bronze Varadaraja at Adambar is more arresting than the Rama collection. The visual images remain fresh in memory even after one leaves the temples.

Traditional sculptors did not look for inspiration. Their spirituality was the wellspring of their art. They had the formidable task of giving a finite dimension to God- the Infinite, of giving a physical form to spiritual experience. They had to visualise what form this finite representation should take, and translate the vision to reality, and had to do so aesthetically. That our sculptors succeeded in doing this is evident in our temple art.

Artist Burne-Jones said, “…it is things of the soul that are real—the only real things in the universe.” Perhaps that is why our art survives, in spite of neglect and wanton destruction, for it concerns matters of the soul.

How to get there: Paruthiyur is close to Kodavasal. Both the Adambar and Paruthiyur temples can be approached from Tiruvarur and Kumbakonam.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2020 2:13:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/Priceless-treasures-of-the-Cholas/article14683018.ece

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