There are beautiful old paintings in Alvar Tirunagari. Located within the inner prakara of the Nammalvar Shrine, many of them have worn away to nothing, while several still retain their old brilliance and charm, showy in their vivid, arresting color palate. They are on the walls and on the ceilings.
I’ve been trying to see these paintings for as long as I can remember, and at long last, through what can only be termed divine intervention, I was granted permission yesterday. I had to arrive before the temple officially opened and photograph the entire prakara very very quickly, like my life depended on it. I was given a meager 2 hours. In the end, it took 2.5 hours, even as priests kept popping in to ask me if I was done. My project in the prakara was delaying the Alvar’s morning bath. I was given permission to see the paintings and photograph them on the condition that I make them available to the temple. I am not much of a photographer, and I was nervous at the task placed before me. I am happy to say that the photographs (close to 400) have turned out well. By that I mean, they are in focus and you can tell something of the subject matter. I leave the task of translating their glory on to the lens to those whose talents with a camera far outstrip mine.
It was thrilling to see these paintings. And thank god, for Anna Seastrand whose painstaking work on these temple murals, has allowed us to understand these complex, confounding, extraordinary works of devotional art. I am glad I don’t study mural painting as it’s a very painful task. Who knew that photographing paintings in tight, cramped, poorly lit quarters could cause one so much discomfort? And for those interested, Anna Seastrand has a great essay about these very paintings in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies; a must read.