Brihadisvara Temple: Unmasking the Dual Murals and their Time-Traversing Essence

Nestled in the lush Kaveri delta lies the enchanting city of Thanjavur (anglicized as Tanjore). Just 314 km southwest of Tamil Nadu’s bustling capital Chennai, Thanjavur, a thriving agricultural hub, has believably acquired its name from ‘Tanjan’, a fabled asura from Hindu mythology. The city reached its zenith as the state’s capital during the medieval Chola empire. Owing to the reign of Cholas, Thanjavur is home to the legendary UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Great Living Chola Temples, which boasts the iconic Brihadisvara Shiva Temple built by Raja Raja Chola I. 

The Brihadishvara Temple, then called Rajarajesvaram (Lord of Rajaraja) by the Emperor, came to be locally known as Thanjai Periya Kovi (Thanjavur Big Temple) and Peruvudaiyar Kovil because Rajaraja affectionately addressed his god as Peruvudaiyar (the great lord or the great master). According to the epigraphic evidence, the construction of this Shavite temple began in the 19th year of Rajaraja’s reign. It was successfully completed on the 257th day in the 25th year of his reign (c.1010 AD). The original monuments of this 11th-century granite temple were built around a moat, featuring an impressive array of gopuras, inscriptions, shrines, and sculptures predominantly dedicated to Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism. The stunning vimana tower above the shrine commands attention as one of the tallest in South India. The temple complex houses a massive collonaded prakara (corridor) and one of the largest Shiva lingas in India. 

In addition to the architecture, the breathtaking murals adorning the walls of this UNESCO heritage site leave the visitors in awe. Chola artisans used the fresco technique to create these murals by applying a smooth batter of limestone mixture over the walls without adding any binder to organic mineral colours. The wet plaster would react with carbon dioxide in the air, creating a calcium carbonate layer that securely fixed and dried the pigments. Despite the challenging process of painting on wet plaster in the humid weather of Tamil Nadu, this integration of paint and plaster resulted in a technological wonder as the murals stood the test of time. Depicting scenes from mythological stories of Shiva, Krishna, Durga, and Vishnu, the Brihadishvara temple became a benchmark of South Indian art and architecture highlighting devotion, grandeur and power of the Chola Empire. 

The Chola Empire of Early Medieval India has fallen, but the story of the Big Thanjavur Temple doesn’t end there. Over the next 1000 years, renovations and maintenance kept the temple alive. In this article, we will explore the art of the Brihadishvara temple, and attempt to uncover some of the secrets shrouding the temple murals. 


Brihadeeswara Temple Gopuram at night


In the 15th and 17th centuries of the declining Vijayanagara empire in Early Pre-Modern India, the Nayaks transitioned from Vijayanagara deputies to independent rulers of provinces like Thanjavur and Madurai. Under the patronage of Thanjavur Nayaks, the city emerged as a fundamental cultural, religious, and economic center. The Chola murals and painting style on Vijayanagara monuments influenced the migrated painters of the fallen Vijayanagara Empire. Thus, the development of a famous painting form known today as Thanjavur wall paintings proliferated under the Nayaks.

As great patrons of art and architecture, Nayaks encouraged temple renovations and the new painting style. During the reign of the last Nayak ruler, King Vijaya Raghava Nayak (1645-1673), restoration and improvement were undertaken in the Great Chola Temples. At this time, the central temple became known as Brihadisvaram; its presiding deity was Brihadisvara, and the temple city became known as Thanjavur. 


Nayaka era ceiling mural in the Nandi shrine


Owing to the constant exposure to smoke and soot from the lamps and camphor burning the sanctum sanctorum over centuries, certain parts of Chola frescos on the circulatory passage walls of the temple had been severely damaged. Now, it is not entirely clear whether the Nayaks intended to preserve the murals when they painted over the Chola frescoes in the Brihadisvara Temple. Some scholars suggest that the artists of the Nayak period may have painted over the Chola murals during their renovations of the Brihadisvara Temple in the 16th century. In contrast, others believe they may have only painted over parts of the murals that had already deteriorated beyond repair. 

Plaguing archaeologists with restless nights, a perplexing challenge arose when the Nayaks decided to employ Chola frescoes as the canvas for their own paintings. These latter creations, crafted with temperas utilizing manmade glue as the binding medium, posed a potential threat to the underlying ancient murals. Ultimately, about 400 years ago, the Nayak paintings completely covered the existing Chola frescos with Shaivite themes, including the stories of Samudra Manthan and the life of Saint Kannappa, who offered both his eyes to Lord Shiva. Looking back, R. Kalaikovan of the Rajamanikar Centre for Historical Studies considers this task of the Nayaks as a blessing in disguise. Surprisingly, the upper layer of Nayak paintings protected the Chola frescos underneath, preventing further damage.



Chola Paintings in Thanjai Periya Kovil (Credit: Indrani Ghose |


Only in 1931 the underlying Chola murals saw the light of the day when late historian and Professor S.K. Govindasami of Annamalai University, then 28, discovered the 1000-year-old Chola frescos hidden under the Nayak paintings. In 1930, during the inspection of the seven-foot-wide dimly lit ambulatory (pradakshina patha) around the sanctum of the Brihadisvara, the cracked plasters on the western wall drew his attention. He scraped the peeling flakes of the paint, revealing the painted surface that he joyfully described as “a fine series of frescoes palpitating with the life of other days”. Govindswami went on to publish his findings about the Chola frescos hidden underneath the Nayak paintings in the Journal of the Annamalai University, Vol. II, 1933. 



Chola Paintings in Brihadeshwara Tanjore Temple Raja Raja Chola worshiping Lord Shiva. (Credit: Indrani Ghose |


The discovery of Chola frescoes in 1931 “extended the frontiers of the history of Indian painting,” setting the scholarly world abuzz and expediting conservation efforts at the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur. Thereafter, in the 1980s, the Archaeological Survey of India’s chemical branch developed a revolutionary technique for preserving murals. Using an Italian conservation technique called ‘destucco’, they could clean the exposed portions, revealing the scientific Chola paintings while retaining intact layers on which Nayak paintings were drawn. The upper layer of Nayak paintings was removed and displayed on fiberglass boards.

Around 16 paintings have been painstakingly restored from the early 2000s. The original Chola paintings, so far brought to the surface, are mainly in the corridors of the secret passages around the sanctum that connect the temple with the Raja Raja Chola palace. They are on the sanctum's South, North, and Western walls. The Nayak paintings are on the ceiling of the adjoining great hall (maha-mandapa), on the west and north walls of another pavilion (tiruchchurru-maaligai), and on the walls of the mandapa in front of the Subramanian shrine. The displays in the temple offer a glimpse into the remarkable preservation and restoration work done on these precious treasures of the Nayak paintings as well.

Former Deputy Superintending Archaeological Chemist G. Ramachandran famously dubbed this legendary discovery in the 1990s as “a rare meeting ground of art and science.” It is a testament to the interdisciplinary achievement of history and science that traced the artistic legacy of Chola frescoes in the Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur, and the Thanjavur paintings of the Nayak period. From uncovering hidden murals to pioneering innovative conservation techniques, this journey of exploration and preservation is a true marvel of human innovation and dedication.



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