The most enigmatic character in Tamil history is the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the tenth century. I knew little about her until, at the suggestion of the great musician Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer whom we used to address and refer to as Semmangudi Mama, we visited the famous temple of Konerirajapuram.
It is a small village, a beautiful Agraharam inhabited by the Brahmin community known as "Vathima". Mama belonged to this sect and was quite proud of his lineage. He told me to visit one of the largest Nataraja bronzes in this temple dedicated to Shiva as Uma Maheswara. To my utter delight and amazement the temple offered more than the big Nataraja to feast our eyes on. A gated corridor has the finest bronzes of Shiva as Kalyanasundara, Tripuranthaka, Bikshatana and so on. One can just stand there mesmerized by the sheer beauty of these images.
This temple is one of many built by the queen Sembiyan Mahadevi (925-1006). She was the wife of the Chola king Gandaraditya, was widowed in her teens and spent a life of piety, building temples, commissioning bronzes, donating enormously to various temples and putting the stamp of her "style" on all the artistic and architectural features. What a woman! She lived to the age of eighty-one and was the mother of Uttama Chola.
Inscriptions confirm the temples she built and renovated. They are many, with Konerirajapuram being the foremost, as also Aduturai, Kuttalam, Mayavaram, Tirukkodikaval, Vriddachalam, Tiruvarur Achaleswarar, and others. The temples are remarkable in architectural style for their simplicity. It is the bronzes which are said to have come from the Sthapathis and their Pattarais or ateliers which she patronised that bear the mark of extraordinary skill in execution. Beyond the skill of the Sthapathi, one can see and feel beauty of a divine nature in these sacred images.
To commemorate her life, a later Chola king named a village Sembiyan Mahadevi after her, built a temple there and also created an image of her to be honoured and worshipped in the temple. An image exists today in this temple. But, it is not the original. The original Sembiyan Mahadevi statue is now in the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Many experts believe that what was labelled in the gallery as Devi or Parvathi from Sembiyan Mahadevi is actually the portrait statue of the queen.
I took time from my busy visit to Washington in mid September 2014 for the UTSAV dance event, and went to see the queen in the Freer Gallery. Spent a while just looking at the image and imagining her life more than a thousand years ago. Here are images captured in my iPhone. Do visit this queen. My friend Michael Wood thinks she may in fact have been responsible for popularising the Nataraja bronze image which became a cult thereafter. What an idea!