In an important partnership of individuals and organizations, a project to restore exquisite historical murals in a pavilion at the Tiruvarur temple in Tamil Nadu has brought alive a fascinating visual record. Geeta Doctor writes of this beautiful temple and the murals that have found a renewed existence.

At Tiruvarur, the processional image of Thyagaraja is carried on the shoulders of the priests with a rhythmic bouncing gait. It’s as if the image itself were filled with a desire to dance and to mingle with the throng of devotees who have come to witness the spectacle.

This year has been special for the image of Thygaraja. A new chapter has been added to the God’s journey through myth and legend. The story has been told in stone, and song and in rituals enacted by the guardians of the temple during their daily worship that keep alive the temples of Tamil Nadu in the fertile belt that has been watered by the tributaries of the Cauvery River known as the Thanjavur delta. At Tiruvarur, the image of Thygaraja, also known as King of the World, Shiva is shown with his consort Uma, and their son Somaskanda seated between them. The three of them are so ornately decorated with special flowers grown in the temple garden, that you see just the one image of Shiva. As explained by David Shulman, a scholar of Indian languages who has written an introduction to a book on The Mucukunda Murals at the Tiruvarur Temple, “Some say he gave up the world, or the cosmos, in order to be at home at Tiruvarur. In this he was aided by a human king, with a monkey’s face named Mucukunda, whom the Cholas claimed as one of their ancestors.”

 Each temple is unique of course. Each temple has a story to tell with legends reaching back to the time when gods and demons strode through the three worlds. The special feature at Tiruvarur are a series of murals created in the late l7th century on the ceiling of a splendid stone hall, or mandap, that documents how the main deity came was installed. It whirled its way past the claims of its heavenly owners, gods such as Vishnu and Indra who staked their claim upon the sacred image of Thygaraja until such time as the monkey-faced claimant Mucukunda finally brought it down and placed it within the sanctum of the temple, where we may still see it today. The murals were all but destroyed through the ravages of time and neglect.

At the eleventh hour, the determination of a young, Chennai based entrepreneur, Ranvir Shah helped to rescue the murals from certain decay with the aid of a dedicated band of donors, artisans and scholars and the local INTACH group. This forms part of the story that is elaborated in the book. There are superb pictures of the murals that show the arduous process of the renovation taken by V.K.Rajamani. Initially, all that Shulman and Rajamani hoped to do was to pay a tribute to the past by documenting it with meticulous zeal. It’s at this point that Shah came into the picture. He had already felt an affinity to the temple, when a scholar took him to Tiruvarur and Shah decided to rent a place in the priestly quarters close to the temple. It was during one of his longer stays that a priest at the temple inspired him to think about saving the murals.

The journey, once Shah embarked upon it, was a long and lonely one with struggles with the bureaucracy, and different views on whether to save, preserve or re-negotiate the murals with newer paintings. It was to take him twelve years to reach the point where the book by Shulman and Rajamani, published by the Prakriti Foundation, of which Shah is the founder trustee could be published and the saga of the murals unveiled in the midst of an emotional gathering of the priests of the temple, of dancers such as the Dutch scholar Saskia Kersenbomm, of the artisans who helped in the cleaning of the paintings and most significantly, the gleaming black face of Mucukunda himself peering down from the stone painted ceiling. As Shah said very simply: “Miracles continue to happen and, this book and the mandapam frescoes have proved, the Divine is here amongst us.”

It is a sentiment with which Mucukunda would be in agreement. As Shulman describes him, Mucukunda plays many roles at various stages of his existence. Part of his life cycle is interlinked with the exploits of Krishna. Other stories tell of a monkey, or a langur (mucu) living in the vicinity of Mount Kailas, the abode of Shiva and his consort. Being a monkey, he showers the flowers of the bilva tree upon the couple much to the irritation of Uma. She wants to punish the impertinent creature. To pacify her and protect the monkey, Shiva tells the langur, that he would be born in his next life as a virtuous human being, a King no less in the royal line of the Cholas and that he has a plan that will make him remembered forever.

Shulman observes how the Mucukunda figure is “a kind of Rip Van Winkle, sleeping through the transition from one age to the next. He bridges a major temporal gap.”

For alongside the story of Mucukunda, the murals also paint the story of how the god Vishnu acquired the image of Thyagaraja. Vishnu was desperate to have a son born to him. To this end, he prayed to Shiva, but ignored the all important presence of Uma, the female principle behind all procreation. She was incensed. Seeing his mistake, Vishnu worshiped the whole family of Shiva, Uma and Skanda, the son. In a state of mystical union, Vishnu takes the image and places it on his chest, where the movement of his breath creates the sensation of the deity gently throbbing.

 Or as Shulman writes so poetically, “Tyagaraja is fixed in place, yet he moves rhythmically, up and down, according to the in-breaths and out-breaths of his sleeping host. This movement is a dance, which will later be known as ajapa-tandava, the soundless dance. It is at the very centre of the Tyagaraja concept; a defining feature for this god who adapts himself to the physical and psychic processes of his devotee, the organic rhythms of the latter’s life.” It resembles the idea of “Dasein” proposed by the German scholar Martin Heidegger, or what others have simplified as the concept of “being-there/there-being, or yet again to some others, as “being-in-time”.

Meanwhile, another demi-God, Indra is in deep distress on being attacked by a demon. Vishnu offers him the talismanic image of Tyajaraja. Indra accepts the intervention and is not only victorious, he keeps the image in his kingdom for many successive eons, until such time as human beings inhabit the earth and Indra is attacked again. This time, he is helped by none other than Mucukunda and Indra allows him to worship his own special deity, Tyagaraja. Once again, their paths cross, according to the poetic verses that describe this moment, there is a profound sense of déjà vue between the monkey faced King and the image of Shiva that brims with a hidden message, “Take me with you!” he seems to be saying.

When Indra asks the monkey faced one what he might like as a reward, he points to the image of Tyagaraja. In a moment of mystical union, Mucukunda has already received the blessings of both Shiva and Vishnu. That leaves Indra his host in a delicate position. He does not want to part with his image, so he makes six more similar forms and asks Mucukunda to make his choice from them. Each time, Mucukunda rejects the image that Indra places before him, but as the seventh one is brought out, the legend has it that the god, Tyagaraja himself smiles at Mucukunda and the image is brought to its earthly home at Tiruvarur. That moment of speechless silent communion is also a part of the message that rings out as the sound of the temple bells, the drone of the musicians stop resonating through the dark stone corridors. The form of the real dancers merge with the ones portrayed by the artists on the ancient ceiling as fireworks lighten the sky in another century, in the realm of Mucukunda and the throng of people who stare down from their stone chambers and chariots seem more alive than those who are sitting below them.

Or to quote Shulman once again: “This matter of the transition, from one existential state to another; more specifically, from a divinity at home to the farthest reaches of the cosmos to a god who has chosen a particular terrestrial residence, lies at the heart of the Mucukunda story and its stunning pictorial presentation at the Tevaciraya Mandapa.”

At that moment, the image of the Tyagaraja seems to be smiling. Or is he just beginning his cosmic dance?


Photograph by V.K. Rajamani