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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 69

Plan of the Temple at Srirangam Company School (Tamil Nadu), c.1800

Inks and watercolour over graphite pencil on watermarked European paper | 48.7 × 36.3 cm | RCIN 930165

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This is one of three related architectural drawings of southern Indian temples which entered the Royal Collection during the reign of George III (along with cat. 70 and RCIN 930167, Carvings from the Ruined Temple at Masulipatnam) and which depict a style of architecture virtually unknown in Europe at the time.[226] Drawn in pen-and-ink and wash by local draughtsmen in the service of the East India Company at Madras (present day Chennai), they were commissioned by Colin Mackenzie, first Surveyor General of India, as part of the Company’s project to survey the ever-expanding area of Southern India under British rule. A note in English at the lower left corner describes this as a ‘Plan of the famous Pagoda of Seringham near Trichonopoly drawn by a Gentoo’. The term ‘pagoda’ is misused here to describe the vast Sri Raganathaswami (‘Lord of the Holy Island’) temple complex on the island of Srirangam in present-day Tamil Nadu, then in the province of the Carnatic. The word ‘Gentoo’, a corruption of the Portuguese gentio or ‘gentile’, was used by Europeans to refer to the Hindu population of the subcontinent as distinct from its Muslim inhabitants.

Devoted to Vishnu, the Sri Raganathaswami temple is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Southern India. One of the reasons Mackenzie used locals to produce these plans and drawings is that non-Hindus are unlikely to have been allowed to enter the inner enclosures of such a busy temple. The temple area, spread over 63 hectares, comprises seven concentric rectangular enclosures (prakaras). Each space is increasingly sacred the closer one gets to the central shrine, where devotees can view the deity, an idol of Vishnu reclining on a great multi-headed serpent Sesha.[227] Entrances to the temple mark the four cardinal points, the large gopurams (‘gateways’) of which can be seen for miles around (see cat. no. 70). Most pilgrims enter on the southern, most important axis, and pass houses, shops and flower stalls, through progressively shorter gopurams as they move in a straight line towards the inner sanctum.

For most of the eighteenth century, the province of Tamil Nadu was ruled by the Persian-speaking Muslim Nawabs of the Carnatic. Contrary to British notions at the time, Southern India’s political and religious landscape was one of great fluidity. All shrines and religious institutions, whether Hindu or Muslim, were perceived as equally sacred repositories of divine and secular power.[228] It was not unusual, therefore, for Muslim rulers to integrate Hindu holy sites into their networks of benefaction. Tipu Sultan’s father Hyder Ali waited in person on the Brahmins of Srirangam when his army invaded the nearby Fort of Tiruchirappalli (Trichinopoly) in 1781, and Tipu himself donated a large group of silverware to the temple.[229] The Nawabs of the Carnatic were great patrons of both the Srirangam temple and the nearby shrine of the Sufi saint Nathar Wali. The two often co-ordinated the timings of their festivals and shared elephants and other regalia.[230]

  • [226] These works appear to have been separate from George III’s topographical collection, now part of the British Library, which includes further pen-and-ink drawings of southern Indian architecture: see BL Maps K. Top.115.80.2 and K. Top.115.82.a.1-3.

    [227] Vishnu is said to have laid on the serpent Sesha, the king of the Nagas (snakes) floating on the Cosmic Ocean during his sleep between the previous and current ages of the universe. For the Srirangam temple see Branfoot 2007 and Rao 1976.

    [228] Bayly 1989a, pp. 50, 168 and Bayly 1989b, pp. 163–8.

    [229] Fullarton 1788, p. 7 and Moienuddin 2000, pp. 22–3.

    [230] Bayly 1989b, p. 163. The charity of Muhammad Ali Khan even stretched to Christian churches: see Archer 1979, p. 106. 

  • Acquired by George III