Jean Delcohe, former head of the centre for History and archaeology, Ecolefrancaise d’ Extreme-Orient in Pondicherry, has devoted his entire academic career to the study of Indian History, He is presently a Senior Associate member of the Ecole francaise d’extreme – Orient and of the Institute Francais de Pondichery.
The Carvings and paintings of Tiruppudaimarudur bring ‘flesh and blood’ to the dry bones of the published histories of the Madurai Nayakas. In an extraordinarily lively manner, they show us the culture and socio-economic life of almost every part of society, from the king to the common man. They are, as it were, the photographs of the era!
The methodology followed in this book is almost entirely based on a careful and systematic analysis of the range and multiplicity of the styles of dress and ornament worn by the figures represented in the scenes that have been painted and sculpted on the five tiers of the temple’s gopura. We can thus identify the people, determine their ranks and discern the relations between social groups, whether officials, administrators, soldiers or commoners. This study offers us a veritable mirror of Nayaka times.
The historiography of the Tamil country in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is rather meagre. Regarding the Madurai Nayakship, the main sources of information are native chronicles and memoirs compiled with references to the existing records which throw some light on the state's affairs but must be utilised with caution. To these, should be added the annual reports to Europe by the Jesuit missionaries of South India on the administration of their various ecclesiastical centres,' in which passing remarks are found on the religious, social, economic and political conditions of South India.
These documents only furnish very general and scant information and give a very poor idea of the life of the people.' This is why the discovery by Indian scholars three decades ago of the paintings and carvings of the gopura of Tiruppudaimarudur temple has been an event of exceptional importance.
In this monograph, through careful investigation, we have selected the most Significant images found on the walls and pillars of this gateway tower, and we have classified them in a series of living tableaux depicting the various aspects of life in the Nayaka kingdom at the end of the medieval period. Our aim is to add a new chapter to the social history of South India.
Tiruppudaimarudur (Tirupputaimarutur) is a village situated in Amba- samudram taluk, Tirunelveli district, on the southern bank of the Tambraparni River.
Its old temple, dedicated to Sri Narumpunatacami and goddess Gomati-ampal, is probably of early Pandyan origin, later expanded during the Vijayanagara period. Among the additions carried out through the centuries, there is a magnificently decorated gopura.
This gateway tower is in five tiers, each one consisting of a pillared hall with a beautifully carved wooden ceiling and walls completely covered with exquisite paintings.
All the tiers are reached by a flight of steps. Each tier consists of the
principal longitudinal area flanked, in the centre, by two pillared aisles of less breadth provided with a window. The first floor is 11 m long and 4 m broad, and the dimensions of each structure decrease gradually from the first to the fifth floor, the last of which is constructed with a barrel vault.
Inside, the rooms are dark because only two windows allow light in; this shortage of light explains why the paintings are well preserved, except on the edge of the openings where they are partially faded. A powerful torch is needed to see the paintings properly and photograph them. The wooden structures, pillars and lintels and the coffered ceilings are made of precious wood: iruppai (Bassia longifolia) or South Indian mahua and tekku (Tectona grandis), teak.
Regarding the paintings, we don't know the precise technique practised by the local artists on the murals. From broken fragments, we can see that the brick walls are covered with a layer of lime on which colour is applied. It consists of a layer of rough lime plaster, measuring 2 to 3 mm on which is smooth plaster 0.5 mm thick with paint film thereon. Apparently the technique used is that of fresco secco, i.e. mixing the pigments with limewater and Applying it on the dry plaster on the wall. On the nature of the pigments (red, green black, white, yellow and violet ) we do not have any information.
Paintings do not bear the names of the artists. However, it would be interesting to distinguish special characteristics in the art of different masters; the various styles of the panels show that many people collaborated on this work, but the element of individuality has to be determined. Was there a system of division of labour, a method of joint work involving two or more experts, one for sketching and the others for colouring? We are not in' a position to answer this question.
In any case, from an artistic point of view, the workmanship in the whole gopura is superb. The sculpture is robust and sober with a marked propensity towards naturalistic representation; the painting, characterised by a great thematic variety, a boldness of expression and brightness of colour, shows a richness and a vividness of experience, which forms a class distinct from other styles in South India, except perhaps Lepakshi.
As for the historical interest of these murals, they are an invaluable body of documentary evidence: the Tiruppudaimarudur painters are not only superb artists, but also profound illustrators and magnificent storytellers.
When was the decoration of the gopura carried out? S. Hariharan thinks that the paintings are ascribable to the late Vijayanagara period (late 16th century).' This dating appears to be too early.
The palaeography of the labels below some of the paintings does not help us in this matter. However, an analysis of the technological level of certain devices gives us some clues as to the period when this work was executed.
The depiction of handguns does not contradict Hariharan's dating, since we know that firearms were used in South India by the middle of the 16th century. But the presence of (S-shaped) curb bits in the bridles of all the horses represented raises a problem because, as will be seen infra, only snaffles (simple bits) are found in the carvings of all the temples of South India until at least 1633.
Therefore, the widespread use of curb bits in the southern extremity of the peninsula shown in the paintings cannot be earlier than the first quarter of the 17th century. To be on the safe side, let us assume that the decoration of the gopura dates from the second half of the 17th century.
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