A Wild Goose Chase in Search of Early Rāmāyaṇa Imagery

The course of fieldwork does not always run smooth. One learns to expect a certain amount of the unexpected. This might include, for example:

  1. Searching for artefacts (often literally in fields) which, since having being reported decades ago, have been moved to an unspecified location.
  2. Visiting a temple only to find that it has been encroached by modern buildings, rendering the germane images inaccessible.
  3. Travelling to the wrong village with the right name.
  4. Following misleading information in search of something that probably never existed to begin with.
  5. Not being able to gain access to an essential reserve collection.
  6. Images being unreadable due to erosion.
  7. Difficult lighting conditions for photography.

On my recent three month field trip, I experienced all of the above, alongside much fruitful research, but here will focus on point number 4.

My current project maps visual manifestations of the Rāmāyaṇa between the fifth and tenth centuries CE. During this five-hundred year period, all extant examples comprise sculptural reliefs in stone, terracotta and stucco. I was very excited, then, when I read that there are ninth or tenth century murals depicting scenes from the Rāmāyaṇa in the Pandya period rock-cut Thirunadhikkara Cave Temple (also known as Thirunanthikarai) near Thiruvattar in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, excavated by Vikramaditya Varaguna. Not only was this apparently the most southerly locale for pre-eleventh century Rāmāyaṇa art, but also the only surviving painted scenes belonging to my period of study.

My journey to the cave was long, although not particularly arduous, it being an exceptionally beautiful part of India. I arrived in Thiruvananthapuram at the start of a two-day general strike. In the meantime it was necessary for me to obtain permission from the Thrissur Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in order to be allowed to take photographs in the cave. On the third day I took a taxi across the border from Kerala to Tamil Nadu (prior to 1956, the region which is home to the Thirunadhikkara Cave Temple was part of Kerala and to this day, the cave is looked after by the Keralan branch of the ASI).



Under the incongruous modern staircase sit ten rock-cut steps. Inscriptions dating between the 8th and 11th centuries CE are engraved on the pillars and walls flanking the exterior of the entrance to the cave. Upon entering the cave, which houses a Śiva liṅga in the sanctum, my disappointment was palpable. I could not find any Rāmāyaṇa images. Indeed, almost all the of the painted plaster which had once coated the walls and ceiling of the cave had chipped away, leaving a gloomy dappled grey interior lit by low light filtering through the entrance and from an oil lamp burning inside the sanctum.

The surviving traces of the mural, painted with confident but delicate brushstrokes, are an indication of how dazzling and colourful this cave must once have been. One image to the left of the sanctum depicts the outline of the elephant-headed god, Gaṇeśa, wearing an ornate crown, while an image on the back wall depicts a seated figure.



©Laxshmi Greaves
©Laxshmi Greaves
©Laxshmi Greaves

Vijay (vj@poetryinstone) kindly sent me two printed copies of the murals (of unknown provenance) he discovered discarded in an old paper shop. They show the same two images with more details and an additional male figure below the Gaṇeśa.

Courtesy of vj@poetryinstone
Courtesy of vj@poetryinstone

When Stella Kramrisch wrote about this cave temple in her 1948 publication on The Arts and Crafts of Travancore, more of the mural was surviving. She mentions, for example, a moustachioed ‘devata’. Ajit Kumar* notes a very damaged figure of Narasiṃha, the man-lion avatar of Viṣṇu.

How the rumour of the presence of Rāmāyaṇa murals in the Thirunadhikkara Cave Temple came into being I do not know. As much as anything, though, fieldwork is a process of elimination and an opportunity to dispel false information which has sometimes become well-established ‘truth’.

Despite not finding Rāmāyaṇa depictions here, it is likely that the Rāmāyaṇa was depicted in mural art in early India. An episode in Bhavabhūti’s eighth-century play, Uttararāmacarita, for example, follows Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa as they witness painted murals of their own tumultuous exile. In this play-within-a-play, Sītā is overcome with emotion when faced with painted scenes representing the final moments before her abduction, and Rāma is compelled to remind her that this is only a painting.

After leaving the cave I visited the wonderful Travancore era Padmanabhapuram Palace constructed by the ruler Iravi Varma Kulasekhara Perumal in circa 1601 CE. The interior of the palace is now quite sparse (I’m imagining it being strewn with thick, luxurious rugs) with the exception of exquisite, intricately carved wood work throughout.

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Being a lover of nature I take any opportunity I can to visit local beauty spots while out on fieldwork. On this occasion I looked at Google Maps and asked my patient driver to take me to Muttom Bay. With its caramel-coloured sand, azure sea and smooth rocky protrusions it was a real treat for the eyes and a moment to contemplate and detach from the morning’s disappointment.

Muttom Bay
Muttom Bay

At the insistence of my driver I then took a very relaxing, much needed, river boat ride on the backwaters at Pophnar, Kerala, before enjoying ice cream at Kovalam Beach. So, all in all a very enriching wild goose chase.

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*For more information on the Thirunadhikkara Cave Temple see Ajit Kumar’s excellent paper: ‘A Review of Thirunanthikarai Rock-cut Shiva Temple with Special Reference to its Paintings’, Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology, 4 (2016): 160-172.

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