The Ajanta of Tamil Nadu

Sittannavasal, 58 km from Trichy, means ‘the abode of great saints’ in Tamil. At Ajanta, paintings depict mostly Buddhist themes, whereas Jaina themes have been portrayed in its southern counterpart, reports Dhananjaya Bhat

ALL of us are aware of the greatness of the Ajanta murals, a UNESCO world heritage marvel, and as to how they were rediscovered in 1819 by a group of British soldiers following a tiger into its lair. But very few have heard of the equally brilliant murals in the cave temples of Sittanavasal, known as the Ajanta of Tamil Nadu. It is second only in importance after Ajanta paintings, in the art history of India.

Sittanavasal is a corruption of Sit-tan-na-va-yil in Tamil, which means ‘the abode of great saints’. Located at a distance of 58 km from Trichy, it was a celebrated Jain centre, having a cave inhabited by monks in the 2nd century BC and a rock-cut temple of the 7th century AD. The cave temple with the murals is said to have been completed in 7th century AD by the Pallava king Mahendravarman. The Sittannavasal paintings are in natural colours, similar to Ajanta.

Rules on painting are given in texts called the Silpa Sastras, and according to these there is a difference in the art heritage of Ajanta and its southern counterpart. The Ajanta murals are painted in the tempora style, using the dry technique. A base is prepared on the rough walls and then covered with a coating of lime plaster. Paint is applied on a dry background.

In the cave temple at Sittannavasa, the murals have been painted with vegetable and mineral dyes (the colours used are black, green, yellow, orange, blue, and white) that are applied to a thin wet surface of lime plaster. Once the paint dries new paint cannot be applied on it, as in the Ajanta technique. At Ajanta, paintings depict mostly Buddhist themes, whereas the Sittanavasal depict Jaina themes.

Archaeologists comparing this southern heritage with the Ajanta say: "The Sittannavasal paintings carry on the tradition of the well-known Ajanta frescoes (2nd century BC-6th century AD), the Ceylon Sigiriya (Srigiri) frescoes of the fifth century AD and the Bagh frescoes in Madhya Pradesh of the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Sittannavasal is, therefore, an early example of the Ajanta or post-Ajanta period. We may safely say that it is one among the earliest frescoes so far known in South India, and that they are the only example of early Jaina frescoes.

The walls, ceiling, cornice, beams and pillars of the Sittannavasal cave were originally decorated with paintings. Those on the walls have perished, and those on the ceilings, beams and the upper parts of the pillars alone survive, albeit partly. Of these, the remnants of the (mostly disfigured) paintings on the pillars and the lotus pool scene on the ceiling of the main hall or ardha-mandapam and the carpet canopy on the ceiling of the inner shrine are the most important.

The most important mural is the exquisite composition, Samava-saran, a lotus tank with a disciple collecting flowers and animals and fish frolicking. The pose and expression of the bhavyas shown in the picture have a charm and beauty, which compel attention. Like in Ajanta there are murals of courtesans also. On the front face of the southern pillar of the cave is a beautiful picture of a dancer, her left arm stretched out gracefully. Even more graceful is another dancer on the front face of the northern pillar. These beautiful animated figures, with their broad hips, slender waists, and elaborate ornaments, recall the beauty of the Apsara of mythology; their pose and expression suggest rhythm and dynamic movement. The portraiture of dancers in this Jain cave must rank as one among the best in the whole
of India.

All these treasures, which rank among the great heritage of India, are unfortunately greatly disfigured, mainly due to vandalism within the last 50-60 years. In 1937-39, Maharaja of Pudukkottai, in whose territory the cave temple is situated, had the murals cleaned. After cleaning, the specialists applied a preservative coating, and strengthened the painted plaster, wherever it was loose, by injecting suitable cementing material without retouching any part of the frescoes. But in independent India, heritage paintings are not at all taken care of properly.

This national heritage monument reminds the visitor more of poor maintenance than the wonderful history it should evoke. A 15-minute walk separates the two temples at Sittannavasal. In between is a park, grandiosely named the "Tamil Divine Park" but containing not much more than dry fountains, uncut grass. Sad to say, the condition of the park also reflects the present condition of the famous mural Cave. — MF