About an hour into her lecture on Cambodia’s temples at the Tattvaloka Auditorium on Eldams Road, Dr. Chithra Madhavan says she has something exciting to show on her next slide. The audience waits with bated breath. At first one sees a photo of one of the many entranceways into the Banteay Srei Temple in the Angkor region of the south-eastern nation. Dr. Madhavan moves to the next slide - a slightly zoomed-in version of the same picture. “Do you see it?” she asks. Slowly, the audience starts to recognise the slightly worn-out central figure carved into the pink sandstone: Lord Siva frozen in the midst of his Anandatandava, the celestial dance.
But that’s not the interesting bit. “Who do you see at the bottom left?” she continues to quiz her listeners. The focus shifts to the next zoom-in, to the bottom-left: a frail old lady watching with eyes wide open. Her hairstyle is distinctly Cambodian, as is her attire — atleast from what can be seen.
“That’s undoubtedly Karaikal Ammaiyar,” Dr. Madhavan says, as the audience responds in surprise. She shows two more photos from closer home of Lord Siva in his Nataraja avatar, in the Thiruvalangadu Temple (about 65 kms west of Chennai) and also one from the Chola temple in Gangaikondacholapuram and sure enough, there’s the same old woman carved on the bottom-left with hands folded.
This tradition of depicting Karaikal Ammaiyar along with Nataraja is ingrained in Chola-period architecture, Dr. Madhavan says. Ammaiyar belonged to the list of 63 saints (the Nayanmars)—and was also one of the only three lady saints — who influenced the worship of Siva in the Tamil country during the Bhakti Movement. And this tradition has been duly transported across the sea to Cambodia.