The divine dancer in miniature

The best-known, most eye-catching temple of the Chola era is the Brihadeeswara (Rajarajeswaram) temple in Tanjavur, built in the reign of Rajaraja I (985 – 1014 AD). Close behind come the outstanding Chola architectural marvels at Gangaikondacholapuram, Darasuram and Tribhuvanam. Not many are aware of innumerable other temples, big and small, dotting villages, towns and cities across Tamil Nadu and some other parts of south India as well, belonging to the reign of various Chola monarchs, before and after Rajaraja I. Among such less-known Chola temples is one dedicated to Siva called the Brahmapureeswara temple in Pullamangai, a small village near Pasupati Kovil, approximately twenty kilometers from Tanjavur and also accessible from Kumbakonam. It is one of the most remarkable temples of the early Chola era. The original name of the temple, according to the stone epigraphs etched on its walls, was Tiru Alandurai Mahadevar.

A Tamil inscription in this temple, datable to 918 AD, belongs to the reign of Parantaka Chola I (907 – 955 AD). It indicates that this temple was built early in the reign of this monarch or perhaps even earlier, in the reign of his father Aditya Chola I (c. 871 – 907 AD). This temple has undergone many structural changes over time. The central sanctum sanctorum (garbha griha) and the mandapa in front (ardha mandapa) are from the Chola epoch, while other additions like the front mandapa (mukha mandapa) were added in later periods.

As in some other early Chola temples, many sculptures on the outer walls of the main sanctum sanctorum in the Pullamangai temple, are miniatures – not more than a few centimetres in height. They depict various interesting episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, various manifestations of Siva, incarnations of Vishnu and also musicians and women in dance poses.

One particularly eye-catching miniature is of Nataraja, the Divine Dancer, with multiple arms and the right leg lifted up in the oordhvajanu pose. One hand is in kari hasta and another is in abhaya hasta while others hold attributes known to Siva – the trident (trisoola), axe (parasu), fire (agni), naga (snake) and kettle-drum (damaru). Siva’s hair, piled high on top of the head (jata-makuta), is clearly visible as also a Sivagana to the dancer’s right, and a musician playing a vertical drum to the left. You are left wondering how beautiful this weatherworn sculpture would have looked when newly carved, since it still enraptures the onlooker more than a thousand years later.

Another exquisite miniature sculpture of Nataraja is carved in the Chatura mode, with multiple arms holding the trisoola, parasu, agni, and naga. The peacock feathers on the head are distinct even today. To the left of Nataraja is the figure of a man playing the ghatam. To the right is carved a Sivagana dancing in joyous abandon (see photo).

In one of the niches (devakoshtas) of the central shrine is an image of Ganesa with Sivaganas carved around it. They are playing on various musical instruments, and one has his mouth agape to show that he is singing! Above this Ganesa niche is a small sculpture of Siva as Chandesa Anugrahamoorti (Siva blessing His devotee Chandesa or Chandikeswara), and around this sculpture, in a semi-circle are very intricate and minute carvings of many more Sivaganas with musical instruments, dancing happily near their chosen deity. Above this is an exquisite miniature sculpture of Siva Tandava. Much higher, just below the roof, there is a row of Sivaganas depicted as musicians and dancers.

In the Brahmapureeswara temple, you do not find the inimitable karana sculptures of the Brihadeeswara temple in Tanjavur, nor the intricate carvings of dancers and musicians as in the Airavateswara temple in Darasuram near Kumbakonam. But, these dance sculptures of Pullamangai are truly eye-catching by way of their brilliant workmanship and attention to detail.

Not only students of art-history and archaeology, but also those interested in the fine arts of music and dance, will find a visit to this hoary temple most fulfilling.

(The author is a historian focusing on temple art and architecture)