MURAL, MURAL ON THE WALL
WORDS: SHRADDHA UCHIL
PHOTOGRAPHS: VINOBHA NATHAN
You enter the ancient hall, with its ochre pillars extending upwards in the dark, cavernous depths of the structure. How plain, you think. That’s when your guide taps your shoulder and points upwards. There, on the ceiling, lit by weak shafts of sunlight, are long rows painted in vivid reds and greens, featuring a motley crew of very small people. And that’s when your jaw drops, and the dance begins.
And what a dance it is. Observing the murals at Muchukunda, panel after panel, row after row, requires you to pirouette as you walk along the length of the corridor so you can take in every single detail illustrated on the ceiling. The motion makes you wonder if the arrangement of the panels was, in fact, intended to make you circumambulate the panels from below – making the little people above your head seem like gods.
You are in the Devasiriya Mandapam of the Sri Thyagaraja Swamy Temple, which predates Thanjavur’s ancient Brihadeeswarar Temple. The painted panels tell the story of the mythical monkey-faced Chola king Muchukunda. It is believed that Lord Shiva took up residence in this temple in the form of Thyagaraja Swamy only after Muchukunda correctly identified the former’s real image from a set of seven nearly-identical ones.
These murals were painted only in the 17th century, during the Nayaka period, a more recent addition to the temple’s landscape. However, they suffered damage over the centuries, and have been recently restored by the Prakriti Foundation and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
The Mangala Rural Retreat, in the vibrant town of Thirvarur, is the perfect place at which to base yourself to see this beautiful piece of history. Built to resemble a traditional Tamil house, it has five rooms, each different from the other, and overlooks the historic Agneeswarar Temple and its expansive tank. Set in Thirupugalur Village, about 22km from the site of the murals, the hotel is run by the Prakriti Foundation, giving you direct access to the murals, which are otherwise not always open to the public. So it’s worth staying here, despite the distance. Besides, there’s enough to do in and around the village to keep you occupied for the rest of your trip. Take a leisurely walk or borrow a bicycle and pedal past lush fields and quaint houses, and meet friendly locals. If you’re lucky, you might also be able to feed the temple elephant.
That’s not all, though. You could also visit a potter’s home in nearby Thirukanapuram and learn the craft from him, or head to Nanilam, 10km away, to perfect the art of bamboo-weaving.
For meals, you don’t need to look any further than the property itself. With only vegetarian fare available, the thalis here are generous, featuring a dozen items, from sambhar and rasam to poriyal and kozhakottai (appams stuffed with grated coconut and jaggery). Breakfast, too, is a truly traditional affair, starring fluffy idlis and chutney or pongal, among an array of other dishes.
The town and its murals might not enjoy the same popularity as the relics in nearby Thanjavur. And perhaps that is a good thing. Because, when you visit, you will understand why this hidden gem requires quiet and solitude for your dance to be magical.