History & Culture

How ancient Indian sculptures tell the story of our ships

A sculpted panel depicting a scene from The Ramayana at Kumbakonam Nageswaran Kovil

A sculpted panel depicting a scene from The Ramayana at Kumbakonam Nageswaran Kovil   | Photo Credit: VK Srinivasan by Special Arrangement

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India’s history of maritime prowess can be traced through sculptures across the country, explained Chennai’s Lighthouse Man in a talk

Did you know that the only cave sculpture of a boat is at the Kanheri Caves in Mumbai? “It is located on an island called Salsheti, that is now connected to the mainland. The sculpture dates back to the 2nd Century AD and represents a shipwreck with two men praying to the god Padmapani, the first-ever indication of maritime voyage through sculpture,” narrated D Hemachandra Rao while speaking on Indian Antiquity – Boats and Ships in Sculptures, as part of Tamil Heritage Trust’s monthly talk at the Arkay Convention Centre.

Though his passion for the topic was ignited at a young age, Rao practised as an architect until 2001. After that, he dived into the subject of ancient ships, boats and lighthouses, initially chronicling the history of bridges and canals in the city. As misleading information pushed him to find more, he spent many years poring over books at the Tamil Nadu Archives, finally embarking on a tour across India with Vincent D’Souza. The two stopped at temples, historical sites and lighthouses along the western and eastern coast, searching for heritage in lesser-known villages and temples.

With a compilation of personal photographs and historical facts, Rao weaved in rich anecdotes from his travels, exhibiting postcards from every location as an effort to personally document his journey, “This is not my original work and I have merely tried to compile and verify the various sources of information.” Fondly known as the Lighthouse Man, he is also the founder of the city’s first Maritime Heritage Museum, a collection of dhow models, anchors, coins, ship lanterns, postcards, and stamps, that is set up in his home.

How ancient Indian sculptures tell the story of our ships

Rao began his talk with memories of the journey, and then took his audience through the chronological order of of excavated sites, rock art, caves, temples, seals, numismatics and sculptures, emphasising on the significance of the depiction of maritime voyages in Indian sculpture as an indication of our maritime prowess. In frescoes at the Ajanta Cave, one can see four types of sailboats or ships, while the stupas of Sanchi and Amaravati present relief panels on the gateway, each symbolic of the cultural and religious significance of their time.

Closer home

Five temples in Tamil Nadu depict boats through sculptures, predominantly on the walls and pillars. At the Thirubhuvanai temple near Puducherry, a panel on the outer wall of the Sri Vardharaja Perumal temple depicts a boat with a raised and upturned prow, a raised stern which is seen higher than the prow. The famous river crossing scene from The Ramayana also makes an appearance in the temple of Pullamangai, as carvings of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and their boatman Guha crossing the Ganges form a part of the panels that run around the temple. However, the panel is damaged, and Rao brought his talk to the topic of vandalism and the lack of maintenance, “In many places, there are poor conditions surrounding these sculptures, usually through a lack of awareness. In many cases, I have had to resort to line diagram illustrations, a method used to document and project what the original artwork could have looked like.”

This talk was the 127th in the monthly lecture series by the Tamil Heritage Trust, a 10-year-old organisation that promotes and documents the different aspects of heritage through workshops, study tours and seminars. Their upcoming Pechu Kutcheri will be a two-day event about Pandya heritage. Speaking to Badri Seshadri of the Trust, Rao concluded, “Often, experts or enthusiasts present lectures on history, temple architecture, religion and iconography in heritage. We feel it is important to introduce lesser known topics to people, so that it builds interest and awareness among the youth.”

Centuries hence Sculpted panels depicting scenes from The Ramayana at (top) Pullamangai village temple and (above) Kumbakonam Nageswaran temple; (left) D Hemachandra Rao

Centuries hence Sculpted panels depicting scenes from The Ramayana at (top) Pullamangai village temple and (above) Kumbakonam Nageswaran temple; (left) D Hemachandra Rao   | Photo Credit: VK Srinivasan by Special Arrangement

D Hemachandra Rao can be contacted at 9840870172. Tamil Heritage Trust can be followed on their Facebook page.

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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 2:14:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/ancient-indian-sculptures-and-maritime-history/article29878881.ece

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