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TAMIL NATIONAL FORUM
Selected Writings - N.Nandhivarman
Pallava Iconology - a Study
6 December 2007
The Ecole Francaise D'Extreme Orient[ EFEO] is a place where silently lot of research is done but it is all in French. "To know about all Saiva agamas one had to go to Paris University which had done extensive and intensive research", says Dr.Vijayavenugopal of the Epigraphy section of this French Institute." There are lots of Tamil scholars knowing French, but they don’t translate all these researches into Tamil. This results in French people having better knowledge on our culture than we” he says.
As I frequent this institute I found the photographers Ravindran and Ramasamy Babu equally knowledgeable on all Temple Art of Tamil Nadu. They were showing in computer screen a pillar with a sculpture, and a young French lady immediately said it is from Kailasanatha temple of Kanchipuram. I was dumbfounded.
Most Tamils may have visited temples, but just by seeing a sculpture they won't be in a position to recapture its identity and history.
[The narrative panel of Lord Lingodbhavar at Kailasanathar temple in Kanchipuram]
I got introduced and enquired about her mission. She is Valerie from Paris University who had come all the way from France and had stayed here at Pondicherry for 8 months. Miss Valerie is doing her PhD on Pallava iconography under the guidance of Ms.Nalini Balbir who works at University of Paris. Ms.Nalini Balbir, her Professor is specializing in Jainism. She had sent her two students to stay in Pondicherry to undertake researches. That is how Valerie, a French girl had come here.
Another Srilankan Tamil girl Udaya Velupillai is doing research on Sirkazhi temple. It is needless to say that Mr.Jean Deloche took 6 years to do a research on Gingee. The time taken, efforts put in to make a research and the dedication of these scholars makes them excel in their findings. In another rare feat to the team of scholars is that the 11,000 manuscripts collected meticulously and preserved by EFEO Pondicherry had been declared last week as world heritage having been accepted by UNESCO.
Miss Valerie says that the " Pallavas invented new iconography in 7 to 8 th centuries, which never existed before. According to Miss. Valerie it is the beginning of South Indian iconography. Of particular mention is that of Saivite iconography for which no parallels are found in the North India. But when it comes to Vaishnavite iconography we find similar evidences in North India. The best of Pallava iconography belongs to the period of Rajasimha Pallaveshwaran. Kailasanatha temple of Kanchipuram is a temple with very rich evidences of art”.
The idol of Lingodbhavar at Kailasanathar Temple Kanchipuram may appear to be depicting a myth about ego clashes between Hindu pantheons of gods. It shows Lord Shiva coming out of Lingam and Lord Vishnu in Varaga form digging the Earth to trace his feet. Lord Brahma assumes the bird form of “annaparavai”.
And goes to find Lord Shiva’s head. In midway he returns with failure, whereas the efforts to reach his foot also did not bear fruit. Explaining the inner meaning of this myth it is said Brahma denotes mental power and Vishnu physical power. The message of the sculpture is that you can’t reach god by either mental power or physical power. This narrative panel of mythology is a remarkable piece of Pallava art.
[The idol of Lord Nataraja in a different posture at Kailasanathar temple]
A picture or sculpture is worth a thousand words. Iconography is the traditional art of portraying figures in pigment that symbolically mean more than a simple depiction of the person involved. Icons have been used by different religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. “In the case of the various Hindu gods almost everything is considered symbolism. The figures are blue-skinned (the color of heaven) with multiple arms holding various symbols depicting aspects of the god (the drums of change, the flower of new life, the fire of destruction, etc.). The many heads, eyes, feet, and arms do not have to be taken literally” opined a scholar. Iconography had grown into a new science called iconology. Nowadays study is devoted to all hidden aspects and meanings with the origins of such art forms, hence new name of iconology gained currency.
Soviet scholar Sergei Tokorav in his History of Religion writes “The cult of cross has nothing to do with the supposed instrument used for Christ’s execution. The Romans did in fact crucify people on crosses but they were in the form of letter “T”. The Christian cross was extremely an ancient symbol that can be found in Egyptian, Cretan and other art work. Its origin is hard to establish, but it is certain that cult of cross had nothing to do with the legend of the crucification of Christ”.
As in West in India too nowadays scholars are looking for hidden meaning and roots of various symbols in the art. The snake on Lord Shiva denotes the Snake cult of the early Naga society. There is a debate among scholars about the origins of Saivism. One school claims it emerged from the lost continent of Lemuria. Other school argues that it came from Kashmiri Saivism.
Near Baroda there is a place called Karom, which is shortened form of Kayaroganam. It is from this place, a sect of Saivism Kayaroganam emerged. In Tamil Nadu Nagapattinam is called Thirunagai Kayaroganam., indicating the spread of that sect here. Kaya aroganam, indicates we have to reach upwards to God. Kaya avaroganam means God descending to Earth. These two sects of Saivism differ on this point. From this sect the musical term aroganam and avaroganum came, says Dr.Vijayavenugopal. There is also an opinion that Chola emperor Rajarajan brought pasupatham sect of Saivism from North.
All these researches done in French will help Miss Valerie get a doctorate from Paris University. She refuses to talk about her research thesis, which is justifiable. But after this thesis is submitted until it gets translated in English and Tamil, people of Pondicherry or Tamil Nadu will have to remain in dark about its content. The time difference will result in Tamil scholars lagging behind in updated knowledge on iconology.