This website is one of the outcomes of a project to document, reconstruct and extend the 17th century Rāmāyaṇa mural paintings found in the Venugopala Parthasarathy temple at Chengam, Tiruvannamalai District, Tamilnadu, into other spaces. The project, funded by the India Foundation for the Arts, and Sir Ratan Tata Trust, began in March 2011 and will last two years. Through this period, the website will report the progress of the project and share the outcome. In September 2011, the project received additional financial support through a spontaneous donation from Dr. Ramiah Krishnan, MD, Cape Coral, Florida, USA.

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The Rāmāyaṇa murals on the ceiling of the mahāmaṇṭapam of the Chengam Venugopala Parthasarathy temple. Clockwise from north, east, south to west.

Chengam

Chengam (12.3°N 78.8°E) is situated at about 40 km west of Tiruvannamalai, in Tamilnadu, on the Tiruvannamalai-Bengaluru highway. The township lies at the foothills of the western slopes of the Eastern Ghats, at an elevation of 270 metres. A town of 23,200 people (according to India Census 2001), Chengam is historically important. Malaipaṭukaṭām, one of the caṅkam anthologies, talks of a certain naṉṉaṉ cēy naṉṉaṉ,[1] a chief who ruled ceṅgaṇmā, which is quite likely Chengam. In more recent times, talavāit timmappa nāyakkar, a nāyaka chieftain built the Venugopala Parthasarathy temple in the first half of 17th century c.e. [2] and adorned the ceiling of the mahāmaṇṭapam of the temple with Rāmāyaṇa murals, the subject of our study.

Chengam Venugopala Parthasarathy temple and its mahāmaṇṭapam. The ceiling of the mahāmaṇṭapam is painted with scenes from the Rāmāyaṇa. [3]

Why Chengam temple, why Rāmāyaṇa?

On temple murals that I have seen all over Tamilnadu, stories abound - epics, myths, local legends, historical narratives... Each little incident depicted in any of these murals is worth the creative attention of the present and future generations. So, if one picks a particular slice to work with, Which slice will it be?, Why that slice, and Why not any other?, are questions that need to be answered. I attempt:

Mural paintings are not evenly preserved. In fact, they are more damaged than preserved. There is not even one continuous, damage-free stretch measuring beyond 200 sq. ft. This makes the reconstruction necessary for the retelling of the story a difficult proposition. In mural paintings, at least the extant ones, Rāmāyaṇa is the most-told story. I have been involved in documenting full-length Rāmāyaṇa murals, to the extent that they are extant, from 3 different locations in Tamilnadu - Srivilliputtur, Tirukkokarnam and Alagar Kovil, all of Nayaka vintage. Rāmāyaṇa is painted and surviving, partly or wholly, at a few other locations, at Atiyamankottai and Kumbakonam, exclusively devoted to Rāmāyaṇa, and at the Ramalinga Vilas at Ramanathapuram where the Rāmāyaṇa murals share the space with other themes. This prevalence makes Rāmāyaṇa murals easier to reconstruct. Portions that have suffered substantial loss can be cross-referenced to another location and recovered with some authority and little guess work. One of the main aims of this project is to replicate the reconstructed mural in other media, especially animation. If Rāmāyaṇa, then Chengam becomes the candidate for the reasons that of all the Rāmāyaṇa paintings available, Chengam’s native style is the most suited for animation, the characters on the murals being rounded and cartoony. In stating this, there is the trap that I am subjecting this animated interpretation to my perceptual baggage of what is cartoony, but we all have to begin somewhere. Chengam’s canvas is also a concise one (17’x 17’, approx.), and that much easier to handle, unlike Srivilliputtur for instance, which is enormous, and that much more damaged. The choice of theme and location are dictated by our ability to do justice to it.

MV Bhaskar. May 31, 2011.