Fieldnotes: Short Articles and Field Reports

Tanjore Temple ancient paintings conservation study
June 7, 2014 | by Sreelatha Rao

The temple at Thanjavur is famously called Periya koil or Big Temple. This is a 1000 year old temple and is famous for its stone art forms and for the paintings. The temple is master mind of the preceptor of the kings Raja Raja Cholan who was called Karurar. He wished a temple of uniqueness be built in this town. This temple has exquisite artistic forms blended in granite all round the temple. The forms of sculptures and bas reliefs speak volumes of the developed culture of the ancient days when the king ruled over this great kingdom. The chola kings were very refined in all forms of arts. In addition The Lord shiva who is supposed to be the First preceptor or Guru for the gods and humans paved the way for the temple to be an education for the local citizens and those who came to visit the temple. Apart from the rock art forms there were two layers of mural paintings discovered in the inner chambers of the sanctum of the temple. The 'distacco' process - used by the Italians to transfer frescoes from one wall to another - has been successfully used in the Thanjavur temple to peel off one layer of superimposed paintings from another and still preserve the peeled off layer for the first time. The paintings in question are the murals on the sides of the circumambulatory passage around the sanctum sanctorum of the Brihadeeswarar temple. The first set paintings executed on wet lime plaster - date back to the rule of the Cholas in the 11th century. The temple, which has the highest gopuram in the world (212 ft), was built by Chola King Raja Raja I and the murals are believed to have been executed soon after its completion in 1011 A.D. The other set of paintings - temperas with glue as the binding medium was completed during the rule of Nayaka emperors in the 16th century. It was not clear why the Nayakas chose to use Chola paintings as the surface for their temperas. Whilst the Chola paintings are soft pastel and clear colours the Nayaka paintings seem to be dark and garish in comparison. In addition to these two forms there is another form of painting called the Marattha paintings in the exterior of the temple more so in the Nandi Mandapam or the place of the Vehicle of Lord Shiva. The paintings are antique and are preserved but the colour scheme and the artistry seem to be very dark garish and unrefined. The Chola paintings lay beneath the Nayaka exterior for four centuries. Well - known historian and archaeologist Professor K.V. Govinda Swami spotted the Chola murals by chance in 1935, because the Nayaka layer had peeled off in a few places. Removing Nayaka painting from the Chola painting inside the chambers of the passage around the main sanctum of the Temple. Archaeological Chemist Dr S. Paramasivam began chipping off the superimposed Nayaka paintings. In their zeal to uncover the older paintings, they lost quite a few temperas. "Then it dawned on them that the Nayaka paintings were also valuable in their own way and shouldn't be destroyed for the sake of exposing the Chola works," advised I. Mahadevan, historian, Indologist. In the earlier 'streppo' method, only the pigment of the Nayaka paintings was removed and so the stripped paintings got destroyed. The alternative was a modified 'distacco' method, removing the base of the superimposed painting as well, so that there is a possibility of keeping it intact. S. Subbaraman, the then Hyderabad - based superintending archaeological chemist of the Archaeological Survey of India for the Southern Region was first to start the stripping of paintings. This was followed by Sri Venkateswaran, Dy SA Chemist, Sri Veeraraghavan, Sri G Ramachandran Sri BR Mukherjee, Sri Chandra Pandian and host of other personnel. Till date about 80% of the layers have been separated. The detachment of one layer of painting from another is infinitely more difficult than the detachment of a single layer of painting from the wall surface." The method involves fixing two layers of cloth, a fine cloth and a cotton canvas, to the Nayaka painting with a synthetic adhesive, polyvinyl acetate, dissolved in toluene. After this facing cloth' is dry, careful incisions are made on the edges of the Nayaka painting and, using a rubber - tipped wooden mallet, the superimposed painting is removed. Then two layers of strong canvas, a layer of polyurethane foam and a fibre glass panel are applied to the back of the peeled off Nayaka painting. This process is termed as mounting. The facing cloth is removed by solvents, the panel is overturned, and a framed and mounted Nayaka painting on a new frame is kept on display in the Interpretation centre at the precincts of the temple for general public viewing. Of the 15 chambers in the passage around the sanctum sanctorum, many of the superimposed Nayaka paintings have been separated from the underlying Chola paintings which have been exposed. This process of stripping of the paintings which has colours of natural pigments of earth colours is unique and has been very much appreciated by many scientists all over the world.