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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Furniture Turns Flooring

The noted collector of paintings and artefacts Sri Kuldip Singh of New Delhi invited Raghu and me to join him on a whirlwind three day- tour of the monasteries and temples in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam districts of Tamil Nadu. Sri Kuldip Singh is a senior architect who has during his early career acquired a fantastic collection of traditional Thanjavur and Mysuru paintings.

It was in this connection that we were in Thanjavur to view surviving specimens of frescoes and Thanjavur paintings. On the very first day, I was able to view at leisure the magnificent Chola period paintings along the pradakshina patha (the traditional cirumambulatory path that the devotee treads) of the Brihadeshwara temple. Normally this is not allowed as the temple is under the control of the Archaeological Survey of India’s Monuments Protection laws. But thanks to the senior prince of the erstwhile Thanjavur ruling family, Sri Babaji Rajah Bhonsle who made a request to the ASI officer on our behalf that the padlocked doors were opened.

The stark white light of the LED light fixtures brought alive the art of the Chola era painters who worked here a millennia ago.

Before that, early in the morning we visited the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam which is an ancient Shaivite monastery in Thiruvaduthurai village in Kuthalam taluk of Nagapattinam district. This huge 16th Century Shaivite monastery nestles in large swathe of greenery and undulating agricultural land owned by the monastery.

As we entered the main door, we were welcomed by the life-size murals of the Maratha rulers of the old Thanjavur kingdom. Pairs of kings and their queens flanked two door ways, each which led to ante chambers.
Portraits of a king and queen of Thanjavur Maratha royal family flanking a doorway
The  Maratha rulers were not only patrons of the arts but were also patrons of temples and monasteries. We slowly ambled into the main hall. A huge door onto our left led us further into a dark hall with a small shrine at the farther end.

All along the outer walls of this shrine are murals of portrait images of the Peethadhipathis (the spiritual heads) within painted niches. Immediately behind the shrine what catches one’s eye is the flooring itself. There does not seem to have been any plan in the laying of flooring. The flooring tiles were brightly coloured while the surrounding borders of Italian mosaic were further adorned with 18th century European ceramic tiles. In this seemingly paradoxical layout embedded into the floor were two large marble table tops. One was octagonal while the other was square.
A square marble table top with an inlaid pattern of chess embedded in the floor
These marble slabs were inlaid with semi-precious stones in the pattern of chess. They were probably from the workshops of master-craftsmen of Agra. The pietra dura technique used to insert floral patterns of semiprecious stones into slabs of marble thus creating stunningly beautiful decorative art are typical of the Agra craftsmen. These two specimens were inlaid with jasper, onyx, lapis lazuli, jade and mother of pearl.
R.G. Singh in front of the octagonal marble table top (inlaid with chess pattern) which is embedded in the floor

Overall one get's the idea that these were once tabletops. Somewhere along with the passage of time, they must have fallen into disuse and discarded. Some ingenious mason must have had the idea of embedding them into the floor. The bare feet of several hundred visitors who circumambulate around the sanctum sanctorum have, over the years, given these embedded tiles and of course the chess boards, a permanent polish.

Coming out in the bright sunlight we moved next door to the temple of Maasilamaniswara who is the guardian deity of the Monastery.
Main entrance gopura of the Maasilamaniswara temple amidst greenery at Thiruvaduthurai village
Walking past the ornate dhwaja sthamba (flag post) we moved into the cool dark large pillared hall. Opposite was the main door leading to the sanctum. Now comes the ‘eureka‘ moment... On the stone floor, neatly inscribed, was a game of Goats and Tigers on the left side of the door while on the right side was the game of Nine Men's Morris.
The inscribed pattern of Goats and Tigers near the doorway of the temple
The dim light, the cool and quiet ambience was the perfect setting for settling down for an impromptu game of Goats and Tigers... which is exactly what I and Raghu had in mind but could not for the want of time.
A game of Navakankari (Nine Mens Morris) inscribed on the stone floor near Raghu's left hand
All photographs are by Raghu Dharmendra except the last one which is by me.

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