Stucco Sculptures Pre-historic Memories and Conflict
“The commanders and the vanguard of the army
Came marching like the waves of the sea;
The mountain bent its back; level forest
And the countryside became well-trodden;
These and the chariots with the king in their midst
Camped in the Nilgris mountain.
For the chariots, horses, mighty elephants and men,
There came up tents, to which vigilant guardsmen
Were post;” – Ilango Adigal, Silappathikaram
This particular image of the horse was taken by Abul Kalam Azad in modern day Pukar1. There is no record of the identity of the sculptor – it is neither inscribed on the sculpture nor anywhere in the temple premises. Maybe some of the locals know the name of the Sthapathi (chief sculptor); however, as time passes, this knowledge too will fade away. The names of most of the artists and sculptors who had contributed towards the building of the famed South Indian temples/palaces are not known. Their works are held as a credit to the patron dynasty, the ‘history’ (meaning his-story, the king’s) of whom is well written – with volumes of literature and countless performances in their praise. But, the efforts of the common people, artists, artisans, and sculptors are ‘elevated’ and attributed to the collective consciousness of this ancient land. The divine, mythical and mythological connotations attached to vasthu silpa (art and architecture), has made the creators of these ancient exquisite art works ‘irrelevant’.
As the tradition dictates, this stucco sculpture is not ‘signed’ by anybody either, even though it is not that old. Stucco techniques have been known to sculptors for millennia. Some historians opine that the pyramids (approx. 4000 years ago) were plastered originally white. The Greek and Romans are known to have used stucco in constructions and sculptures. It must be during this period that Sangam era Tamils (the predecessors of modern south Indians) learnt this technique, through maritime traders. Numerous imperial Chola period temples have their facades decorated using this technique. With the invention of Portland cement in 1843, the traditional method of making lime-based stucco was replaced by cement -based ones. One drawback of cement stucco is that its life-span is low, compared to that of plastered stucco. The first cement factory in India was established in Madras (Chennai) in 1904, and within a decade it became the standard use due to their low cost. Since then, this sort of painted cement sculptures have been decorating the façades and premises of the new temples; standing in stark contrast to the granite and bronze sculptures that were built to withstand for a longer period.
In all probability, this sculpture will fall apart within two or three decades. The ancient artisan guilds that had carved the Chola sculptures that dates back to 8th century CE, has today limited its artistic endeavors to the creation of something that has lesser life-span than that of an average human being. It is painful to note that the old temples of South India continue to be renovated and new ones built using this technique, while in many countries stucco has become unpopular with the modern architects, to the extent that there were widespread movements to remove it from existing tenements.
Now, in this image what we can see is only the back of the horse statue. The uncommon square format is problematic – the space being lesser, compared to that of the usual rectangular format, the possibilities are restricted. Only an adept photographer can play around this self imposed limitation. It also has an immediate impact on the viewer. Our eyes are trained to seeing performances, theatre, dance etc., on a rectangular stage. Even television screens, cinema projections follow the same geometrical format. In the square format, our optical vision becomes narrowed, or rather more focused. However, it is not the first time Abul has presented a fragment of an animal. ‘Torso of a bull’ is one popular work, done in the 80s in which all one could see is the torso of a bull, as the name suggests, and scratches and doodles on the print’s surface – a violation of sorts. ‘Prostrating elephant’ is another example. Horses have also featured in much of his earlier works. Hailing from a Tamil family generally known as ‘Rowuthar’ (the native name given to equestrian Arabic warriors, who were also involved in horse trade), it is possible that he is subconsciously drawn to animals. To Abul, these are ‘taboos’ and ‘totemic’ animals having symbolic mythological and mythical connections. They become a holy to one and taboo to another. His ‘animals’ are shown in parts, laden with meanings or simply because that’s how he chose to show them.
In this case, the back of the horse is enough to reveal its breed – Arabian. There is little information on how and when horses reached South India. Motifs that resemble horses could be found in the megalithic cave paintings in Marayur, Tamil Nadu. Historians claim that the traveling artists guilds could have gotten the knowledge from Harappa and Mohenjadaro, as horses were not introduced in this part of South India at least until the Iron age (1000BCE). This opinion is also countered by several other historians, as there are no clear evidences of the presence of horses in Indus valley civilization and the topic becomes all the more interesting and controversial as it is related to Indo-Aryan migration. Sangam literature mentions that horses were imported by the Arabs during the Sangam period when maritime trade was at its peak. The Port of Pukar was one important gateway through which horses were imported to ancient Tamilakam. The strategic location of Pukar at the mouth of the River Cauvery made it one of the prominent ports of Sangam-era, and largely served as the hip-hop point, where the traveling ships anchored. The Cauvery’s perennial fresh waters and inter-connected network of waterways enabled the emergence of a flourishing civilization around it.
The culturally rich ancient Tamil land, was united by their cultural and literary tradition, yet divided in their power – conquests and endless fighting over wealth and territory was common. Hence, it was natural for the ever-warring rulers, chieftains, and local warriors of the Sangam period Tamilakam to take particular interest in horses, which played a major role in the wars. Dacoits were aplenty during the period as well. The Arabian horse breeds were much preferred by these rulers and dacoits – prized for their speed and endurance.
Silappathikaram narrates the Chera King Cenguttuvan’s mighty cavalry. In one scene, the hero Kovalan whilst parading with his lady love Matavi, was described to be riding on a mule, the genetic hybrid first bred by the ancient Turks (around 6000 BCE). Horses have been part of many native rituals as well.* Offering terracotta horses to agamic (pre-vedic) deity Aiyanar-Catan is a common practice in South India. The origin of this ritual is unknown; however, the earliest reference to Aiyanar is a hero stone (menhir) found in Arcot, Tamil Nadu. Pottery inscription in Tamil-Brahmi dating to 1st century CE, in the name Catan has been found at Port Quseir-al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. Silapathikaram also describes about Catan cult that is intrinsically related to Aiyanar or Sasta worship practices and details the animal and human sacrificial offerings performed there. We can assume that Aiyanar probably was a mighty local warrior, ruler, or a village guard who was fond of horses. The superstitious belief that even now the mythical Aiyanar rides on his horse at night and protect the villagers is prevalent amongst the locals.
Abul Kalam Azad has taken this image of the horse statue in an Aiyanar temple in present-day Pukar, possibly constructed twenty years ago. He has chosen a frame that includes an array of objects and details – the fragment of the horse, the wide coastal landscape, piles of tetra pods, a water can, the bunch of electric wires becomes the signifier of contemporary life…. The distracting tetra pods piled together to dissipate the powerful waves indeed looks like an installation of interlocked phallic objects – and along with the erect penis of the warrior horse, they become symbolic representation of men and power. The epic Silappathikaram describes the sweet and ever flowing River Cauvery that merges into the ocean in Pukar and until two years ago, the fresh Cauvery water still reached here, irrigating the several acres of agricultural land and households. Since Indian independence, the south Indian land and its people have been divided into different states based on their language preferences. Its topography and culture has gone through to enormous changes, in tune with changing global phenomenon. Two thousand years ago, when this text is believed to have been composed, this area was united by its language and culture. The cities and towns along the river bed were fertile and agriculture was a major occupation. Here, the presence of a mineral water can, although a very recent phenomenon, suggests an altogether different scenario – the scarcity of fresh water.