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The Thanjavur Art Gallery

A remarkable collection of south Indian sculptures and paintings is housed in the old palace buildings at Thanjavur (Tanjore). Thanjavur has been an art centre of great importance throughout almost the entire history of Tamil Nadu. During the Chola period, two magnificent temples were built in this region, the Brihadeswara temple and the Gangaikondacholapuram temple (10 to 11th centuries). Today, the town is a flourishing centre for bronze sculpture, stonework and paintings.

The palace was originally built by the Nayak rulers of Tamil Nadu. It was this dynasty that added to and enlarged many of the temples, with ornate and often huge sculptures. The palace building, set within a large compound, also contains the Saraswati library and the Sangeetha Sabha, or Music hall.

Within the museum there is a gallery with a representative collection of stone sculpture from the Pallava, Chola, Pandya and Nayaka periods. Another gallery contains samples of the characteristic glass paintings of Thanjavur. There are two principal traditions in this style of painting of south India, especially Thanjavur. Every Hindu home is supposed to have a prayer room, where the family deity is installed after the house is built. These household images of gods and goddesses are in bronze, silver or clay or are painted pictures. The paintings are done on wood, using a variety of colours, and to enhance the pictures, details of jewellery and clothing are added by attaching gold leaf, paper, semi-precious and precious gems.

This museum is however best known for its bronze sculpture collection, of rare artistic quality. It is, of course, impossible here to describe all the 400 or more pieces, but mention will be made of a few outstanding works which, if you are lucky, will be in this museum and not travelling in exhibitions around the world. The Kalyanasundaramurti (Tiruvengadu district, early Chola), the images of Shiva and Parvati at the time of their marriage, is truly a masterpiece, one of India's finest bronzes of all time.

Another sculpture - the Bhikshatanamurti - is of Shiva in a different mood. Bhikshu means 'mendicant', and in this sculpture Shiva is shown standing wearing little else but wooden sandals, jewellery and a snake wrapped around his waist. Beside him is the pretty form of a dancing deer, which stands on its hind legs to reach up to Shiva's outstretched arm. In the other hand Shiva carries a shallow bowl-like object which is the cause of his predicament. Brahma, the old god of creation, is said to have lusted after his own daughter. In anger, Shiva struck him, cutting off one of his five heads, and this skull of Brahma's head gets attached to Shiva's palm, like a begging bowl. Shiva becomes a mendicant, going from place to place, like Lady Macbeth trying to get rid of the stain of murder, it is only when he bathes in the Ganga River at Banaras that he is absolved of the 'sin' of murdering a Brahmin and a god. This is why that spot on the river at Banaras is sacred to the Hindus, who flock there in their thousands to take a dip absolving them of sin, and even to die and be cremated there, to end the cycle of rebirth into lives of sin and misery. In this sculpture, Shiva's face is austere and serious, and his hair is wild and filled with symbols of his power - the crescent moon, the skull, the datura flower and the snake, for he is conqueror of Time and Death.

Another brilliant sculptural piece is the Vrishabhantika with the Devi. Shiva here has one arm raised and bent, as if he were leaning on his bull, Nandi. The Devi, also part of this piece, is an individual sculpture of great beauty and elegance.

Address : Thanjavur Art Gallery, Palace Buildings, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.
Hours : 9 am-1 pm; 3-6 pm except on Government holidays.
Suggested viewing time : One hour.

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