One armed sculptors and other tales

By shash

11 March 2012

Along with the sounds of Vedic and Bhakti hymns, the trance-like state that your neighbor gets into when the priest conducts the aarthi, the tasty prasadam given out for free, and the astrological details involved in an archana, an important part of a traditional temple visit is to hear the sthala puranam – literally the legend of the place – from somebody. This could be the priest himself, in temples that aren't very crowded, a friend or relative either during, before or after the visit itself, a book sold outside for ten or so rupees, or increasingly, on the internet, that repository of all trivia however small...

As you visit more places, and listen to the puranams of different sthalams, a pattern starts to emerge. There are three or four standard templates, which seem to get repeated. Sometimes, the details are different, but quite often, they're pretty much cut-and-paste jobs. Of course, some are quite unique and interesting, like that of Triconamalee (tri-kona-malai) in Sri Lanka, which was supposed have been a request from Shiva and Parvatai to Ravana after they encountered him meditating in the place. Tiruchy's Ucchi Pillayar and Srirangam have a similarly interesting story associated with both of them involving Vibeeshana and Vinayaka, which would be familiar to us all.

Other temples, the ones without too much claim to antiquity make do with the standard templates. These fall into a few general categories:

  1. The king, his wife or his child, minister, or whomever, has an incurable malady – black leprosy is a favourite of this genre, and has to build the temple to be cured of it.
  2. The king or associated family member has a dream in which the Lord appears, ordering him to go find a long-abandoned/unknown idol of his somewhere, maybe in an ant-hill, a tank, or just buried somewhere, and build a temple for him at that spot.
  3. The sthapati himself, upon finding a slight defect in the temple, takes his own life or limb; again, he often goes on to master the art again with the off-hand and build another just like it, but this time, without the flaw.
  4. The king orders a temple built, and then to preserve its uniqueness, orders the sthapati who built it to be killed, or have his hand chopped off in a fit of aristocratic pettiness, and the stapathi who is thus handicapped nevertheless goes on to build an even more beautiful temple somewhere else, after mastering the use of the chisel with his other hand. This is obviously related to the previous one very closely. This one even transcends religions, affecting the Taj Mahal, where Shah Jahan, is supposed to have put to death the entire work-force in order to preserve the uniqueness of his creation. Typical Mughal overkill!
  5. There are a few more such templates, but the last one is particularly interesting right now, because such a story has been doing the rounds, with the Tanjavur Big Temple as the subject of the story, circulating over the Internet, and propagated by those who ought to know better. If it were to be believed, there should have been an entire army of one-armed, one-eyed or otherwise maimed and mutilated sthapatis roaming around southern India, between about the 9th century and the 16th century.

    It seems to me, that when there is no chance of a truly ancient story for a place, especially when such a place is built by a known king, and there's no way to associate a mythological builder like Vishwakarma or Ravana with it, one of these templates are used, because you see, a temple has to have a sthala puranam. It's almost a doctrinal requirement, approximately equal to the garba griha in importance, and is a fundamental part of the business model of such parikara sthalams where people with the same or similar malady as the king who built it, are recommended to go and perform some kind of penance, donate a particular form of something (golden cradles, for example), often by an astrologer , mother, mother-in-law, or other authority figure.

    Rajarajeswaram – Brihadeeswara, the Big Temple, Peruvudayar... The names are numerous, and the temple is hardly inconspicuous. When entering Thanjavur, it's the first thing that pops out at you, sitting at the heart of the town in a fortified area with its own moat and huge compound. Such an imposing edifice surely has such a puranam?

    Well, as it happens, Rajaraja, the great Emperor, seems to have viewed future historians with great favour, and has left us a gift, in the form of elaborate inscriptions on the temple walls, right from the founding, to the consecration, to the gifts and endowments left by him, his “revered elder sister”, his wives, and others to the temple. In one case, a servant woman from the palace leaves an endowment, which the king himself helps out by adding onto it and has it inscribed on the walls along with those given by royal personages. The administration of the endowments, their tax status, the villages granted for their maintenance, the recipients (among the temple staff) of these endowments, all these are recorded in minute detail on these walls. The longest inscription anywhere in India belongs to this temple. It records the provision of more than four hundred dancers, who's names, home-towns, address in the temple's client streets, salaries and duties. Thanks to archeologists and epigraphists, we can actually read these inscriptions, written in old Tamil script with a few Grantha characters interspersed, and correlating them with the astronomical details given, the titles and regnal years of the king, and with other inscriptions in other temples, we can form a fairly good picture of the temple as it stood a thousand years ago, when it was first built.

    However, during the intervening millennium, some of this knowledge was lost. Various invasions and changes of rule left the temple bereft of its grants, and it was often closed. At one point, even daily puja was not happening in this deserted complex, and the tradition was lost. Nobody read the inscriptions anymore, or could make out their import. There was no knowledge of the beginnings of the temple. Even the name of the great emperor, Rajakesari Varman Raja Raja Chola, was lost to history. His very dynasty was wiped off the face of the earth, their capitals of Uraiyur, Thanjavur and Gangaikonda Cholapuram either destroyed or in the hands of other dynasties. Thanjavur changed hands – first falling to the Pandyas, then to the Nayaks of Vijayanagar, and ending up with the Marathas before the British finally took over the whole place and established a district with its headquarters in this town.

    During the later Nayak and Maratha times, sthala puranams gained more and more importance. Having a suitably miraculous purana meant more donations to the temple, from people who wished to be cured of sundry ills, from kings wanting to appear pious and so on. The Big Temple, bereft of any other legends associated with it, duly had one of the standard templates used to create a story for it. This is the all-but-forgotten Brihadiswara Mahatmayam, written during Maratha times. According to this story, it was Karikala Chola who built the temple, because he needed to be cured of (you guessed it) black leprosy. Written at a time when the knowledge of the old Tamil script was lost, it made great use of imagination and poetic skills. In short, it had nothing to do with reality. With the rediscovery of he inscriptions during the 19th century, this story has been abandoned, because not even the willing suspension of disbelief can reconcile this blatantly made-up tale with reality. The story of the Mahatmayam is hardly important anymore, except as a footnote in history.

    But the death of this tale has left a sort of a puranam vacuum; apparently, for many people, the real story is insufficient. After all, it's quite mundane. It's just the story of a brilliant emperor of a powerful empire – an advanced society with advanced technology, highly developed science, refined arts and an elegant culture. A people at their golden age, at the pinnacle of which they built one of the grandest structures in the history of grand structures. A monument to rival the cathedrals of Europe, or the mosques of the Islamic world. They built this temple with faith and dedication, with extreme precision, which barely deviates by a few centimeters in over hundreds of metres. And then they filled every square inch of it with the most beautiful works of sculpture and painting.

    This story, as I said, is too mundane for many. It lacks the soap-opera quality of a cruel king, or a beautiful princess in distress, mutilation and grievous bodily harm. It also lacks any of the supernatural pizzazz of a good sthala puranam. No deities appear in dreams, no demons terrorize the population, no demigods descend to place stone on stone magically... This is boring!

    Some people are quite fond of tacking on their own bits to the historical story, to provide the missing elements that they so crave. There are several such additions to the temple's story; generally heard from a friend, who heard it from an old man whom he met somewhere, who heard it from his father, who heard it from... Or so everyone claims. Here are some – along with the reasons that they are not true (or at least, not acceptable).

    There is the story of the Nandi: According to this tale, when it was built, the Nandi started growing, larger and larger. It threatened to grow so large that it would break the mandapam in which it is kept, and become larger than the temple itself, possibly swallowing up the whole of Tanjore even. At their wits' end, the people go to a great sculptor/saint/someone else (there are variants), who knocks a nail into its head (in some versions) or breaks its knee to release a toad (in other versions – this one is another clipart sthala puranam template), and it stops growing. Sufficiently mythological, for a sthala puranam, and I'm sure everyone's heard this one a few times. I believe that the provenance of this tale can actually be traced back to the Mahatmayam...

    It's not true (obviously), for various reasons before we even get to large pieces of stone growing in size. To begin with, the present Nandi and its mandapam did not exist during the time that the temple was built. They were placed there by the Nayaks, sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries to replace the original Nandi, which had developed cracks. The new Nandi, indeed, is slightly out of proportion with the main temple and its Lingam; it's a bit too large. However, the original Nandi is still around. It can be seen in the Prakaram, where the Nayaks moved it, rather than destroy the original. Thoughtful of them! This Nandi, of course, is in perfect proportion to the rest of the temple, and shows no signs of growing or shrinking. Nor are there any convenient nails on its head or broken knees that could lend credence to the story. The slightly large size of the present Nandi can be attributed to the fact that it's not even original. The Nayaks had rather... inconsistent standards of sculpture, and this is quite normal for them...

    Now, we get to some darker stories...

    It's a fact that the temple is slightly unfinished. Of the 108 dance karanas in the upper story of the Vimanam, only 81 are finished. The rest are bare panels bereft of any kind of carving. There are several speculative reasons given for this by competing bands of historians, but no good answer has been found yet. This lack of knowledge has given some people an opening, and they have gleefully created a wonderful tale worthy of the most shocking of pulp fiction authors!

    The story goes that the original sculptor was either killed by the king or committed suicide after being insulted. Since sculptors wear the sacred thread, this caused a Brahmahatha Dosham, or a sin of killing a Brahmin (not that the sculptors are Brahmins, but then, logic isn't a big point in this story anyway) to fall on the temple, which was therefore left unfinished, unconsecrated and abandoned without daily worship being conducted. The other version of course, is that the sthapati was killed to preserve the uniqueness of the temple (which in any case, ultimately failed – for proof, look to sort of north of the Kollidam, a few kilometres from the Lower Anicut).

    I'd like to go into some detail about this one, because it came up recently in various forums. It requires an answer...

    First, the facts, as derived from the temple's inscriptions are these: In 1010 CE, on the 275th day of his 25th year, Rajaraja gives a gift of the gold that was to be used as the finial (which is called a Kalasam in Tamil and Sanskrit – the word used in the inscription is Pon Surukki). This is traditionally only given on the day of consecration, and there's no reason to doubt that he deviated from this practice; what motive would he have for it, in any case? Apart from this, there are several inscriptions detailing the precise nature of the administration of the temple, the daily, and special rituals to be performed, the salaries of various functionaries and officials, along with the large one I referred to earlier about the four hundred dancers. All this points to a) the temple having been consecrated, and b) daily rituals being performed for a long time after its consecration.

    There is another inscription – in its sister (or maybe daughter?) temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram, which seems to indicate that much of the grants in the form of tax-free lands given to this temple by Rajaraja were transferred to the Cholapuram temple by his son Rajendra. But that was twenty years later, and in any case, the interpretation of this inscription is rather controversial among historians. It still doesn't point to any doshams – brahma hatha or otherwise – falling on the temple.

    Apart from this, there's a little logic to be answered on the subject of dead sthapatis. We actually know the names (and titles) of the architects – Vīrachōḻan Kuñcharamallan Rājarāja peruntachan was the chief architect, and his assistants were Mathurāntakan alias Nittavinōdap perumtachan and Iḷaththi Saḍaiyan alias Gaṇḍarāditta perumtachan. These people were among those provided for along with the dancing girls in that inscription. This inscription is dated to the 29th year of Rajaraja. Now, for the chief architect to be insulted and (one assumes) jump from the Vimanam before consecration (which happened, or rather, didn't happen though it was duly recorded) in the 25th year, I think a time machine has to be involved, at the very least. Hence, the consecration happened, and the architects were very much alive four years after it.

    Apart from this, there's the more circumstantial argument, which I would use to discount every single appearance of this story in any temple anywhere.

    It happens far too often.

    Here's the deal on sthapatis of the time in question: unlike today, these people were the main architects in society, for building anything – houses, palaces, hospitals, barracks for soldiers, official buildings, whatever. Trained sthapatis of the calibre who could plan and execute a stunning temple complying with the agamas, and filled to the brim with wonderful art and sculpture, were a non-renewable commodity. Traditions are passed down within families, and the loss of any link in the tradition would quite probably mean the death of that particular line of knowledge. The king would definitely need good master craftsmen of high calibre for various other projects he would be undertaking at later points. Killing them would not just be a waste of lives, but also of the very knowledge the kingdom would need to survive and thrive.

    Besides, even if there was a surplus of master architects, who'd come and work for a king who was as idiotic as to kill a man for doing a good job? Or his son, for that matter, since said junior would practically be the regent for a king nearing the end of his life...

    Needless to say, all this evidence and logic doesn't dent the enthusiasm of the proponents of this story one bit. They still cling to fantasy, instead of history. It's really a pretty annoying habit!


    Here are some reasons I can offer:

    First, as I suggested above, it may be that people feel the need for something mythological or supernatural to be associated with a temple. Otherwise, what's the point, worshipping a god who doesn't even perform any miracles?

    For others, though, there seems to be a thread of political ideology involved also. To the self-proclaimed “non-conformists”, kings by their very nature, are cruel and capricious. No matter what gory stories are told about them, they must be true, because they are kings, and by definition, cruel. No matter what the economic, political or other considerations, a king will go about beheading sthapatis, because that's what kings do. Believing this, the non-conformist gets a warm fuzzy feeling inside, secure in the knowledge that he is better than the petty kings of the past. Looking at the real evidence would kill this simple black-and-white view of the world. Naturally, there were cruel kings, and there were kings who were veritable saints, and kings of every flavour in-between. And most kings, being after all, but ordinary human beings, were most probably somewhere in-between, shades of grey rather than black and white. But to the true believer, any evidence to the contrary of his position can never exist. And any “evidence”, no matter how flimsy or ridiculous, that supports his position is to be taken as the Gospel truth. In formal logic, this fallacy is called a “confirmation bias”.

    And so, those of us who actually want to know the truth have to be resigned to the fact that we can never be rid of these stories and claims.



1 injamaven says...

1 - esp. associated with kalyanas. Gwalior comes to mind.

Ravan setting down lingas to relieve himself.

4 - very funny, of course told about the Taj Mahal - all shilpis blinded, etc.

Good post, Shash

Posted at 7:48 a.m. on March 12, 2012

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