Talk of abstract art, the sculptors of Mahabalipuram have for long captured my imagination. But despite breathing through all their works, i am still not able to comprehend their motives. For their class and perfection, why did they choose such subjects. Sculpting into the hardest stone and sculpting images of Gods is one thing - but take this little known Bas relief in Mahabalipuram - its right behind the Trimurthi cave, is purely a work of master art. The beauty of
this creation mimics the grace of nature.

Elephant panel long shot.jpg
mallai elephants closer.jpg
some more closer.jpg
another view.jpg
the mail elephant.jpg
the baby elephant.jpg
the monkey.jpg
the peacock.jpg

From the bull elephant’s majestic grace, to its baby playing digging into the sand and its swirling trunk, the mother elephant’s head alone is shown above the Bull elephants body - Oh, such life. Sadly the bigger baby’s head is broken, but from the other three Elephants - look at the skill of the sculptor - the male elephant is shown with manly charm, majestic, the female with a loving almost motherly smile,while the baby is all mischief.

There is no parallel to Pallava sculptor when it comes to this - look at the graceful lines of the peacock. And to top it, the monkey - Oh, i am lost for words here. He seems to be alive and looking up at the viewer. Maybe the Pallava sculptors were alchemists or magicians who could turn living beings into stone by casting a spell or waving a wand. I cannot see these as hammered with chisel on stone, for they are breathed upon. A surreal experience.

The puzzle is as to why they toiled so hard on this panel - for it represents no God, no legend, no mythological scene. Almost like an elaborate florish of an artist on seeing a sunrise, an extempore speech by an orator on a hot debate, an outburst of poetry by a poet on seeing his lady love, the cheruby smile of an infant on seeing his mother - as if the sculpture wanted to capture a scene, just that this was not a mere brush stroke - but years of work! Why did he do it?

Images courtesy : Ponniyin Selvan egroup mallai trip - Mr. Shriram and Mr. Vinjamoor Venkatesh.

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13 Comments so far


VJ, wonderful pictures and comments. The true artist needs nothing but the muse, and muses last years, not always momentory. It is to our great fortune that artists like this were born in our land and were blessed with such long muses that they used to create so much joy that has outlasted so many years after them!!

December 24th, 2008 at 3:26

Could it be that It was some kind of a finishing school assignment, a final exam before you could become a “pallava sculpture” Maybe not one but several students worked on it together?

December 24th, 2008 at 10:40

sculpture shows “unity in diversity” where animals live together in harmony and we fight among ourselves. maybe the sculptor wants the future generation to remember and practise this among humankind.

December 24th, 2008 at 11:40
Srinivasan N.

Dear VJ,

I have two takes on this topic. You pointed out very pertinently as to why the Pallava artisans chose animals like the elephant, peacock, monkey, baby elephant as the themes for this particular creation probably because these are non-religious themes. Of course no canon or religious text supports these creations… even though the elephants, monkey, peacock etc. are all euologized as the vehicles or affiliates of some devas and or gods like Indira, Kartikeya, Rama among others.

I tell you something, like I spoke about the carvings (very varied and vast number of characters at that, a good mix of animals and human forms) at Thirumayam, which I associated with Mallai Ananta, and later also spoke about Pallava creations at Thirumayam Siva temples where there are the nandi and mushika (vehicles of Lord Ganesa and Siva plus the peacock) and also the temples at Karur and Namakkal in fact, at the Namakkal temple, there is another Ananta this time it is called Ranganatha itself with a similar theme - carving of the underside of the mountain, same Madhu Kaitabha, Markandeya, Bhooma characters… but this time unlike at Mallai or Thirumayam, at Namakkal Madhu and Kaitabha have come to steal the Vedas, but as they are turning back (they hold the Vedas in their hand - this theme is one of benevolence), their knees touch the feet of Lord Ranganatha and apparently as per legend their sins get washed away… I hope I am not deviating much. Another among this eclectic and illustrious series is the Thiruvellarai temple.. about which there is mention of a grant for maintenance and other donations from kings like Simha Vishnu in 375 AD or so. …. I mean these are among the oldest temple structures (surviving, living and flourishing ones at that) in India where the Pallava artisans either carved mountain stone or other granite like stones which (probably - this is purely my theory) were more pliable. Perhaps by digging the undersides of mountains which is more harder, perhaps the Pallavas wanted to experiment about their ability to create life out of stone. Also a second theory is that the Pallavas (also the Pandiyas) and later the Hoysalas are supposed to be dynasties which had sculpting guilds headed by a head sculptor.. the famous ones from Hoysala country are Jakkannachary (of the Somnathpur Keshava temple) and another whose name I am forgetting. Pallavachary and Cholavachary sculptors are supposed to have contributed to the Chenna Keshava temples both at Belur and Somnathpur. This I mentioned to Kathie also. So when you observe either the groups of the Pallava royal temples at Kanchi or indeed their varied spectacular creations at Mallai… these serve as a pointer to the holding of some sort of a competition (especially in and around Mallai right up to the Mangadapattu caves) among numerous sculpting guilds under the Pallava country. Yet another reason which I too only can speculate is that the non-religious animatic themes point to the fact that after exhausting themselves (in a manner of speaking) with many languid, relaxed yet power postures (Goddes Mahishasura Mardini as well as the Varaha are very good examples of these) the Pallava artisans wanted to prove their prowess with their creations of animals which are equally languid, never straight but with flowing moves or postures, which is very much evident in their beautifully simple, but simply beautiful elephants at Mallai especially the ones at Mallai Arjuna Penance panel look as serene as the Gods. Here too, one feels like taking home the baby elephant.

As I told Kathie, considering that these were created without many of the tools that were available to the Cholas and Later Pandiyans and Vijayanagara artisans (not to speak of the very very softer and utterly pliable chloritic schist stones (also called soft soapstones) that were available in Hoysala country, the mind boggles even more about the unparalleled creativity of the Pallava artisans.

Sad that Koppperunchingans I and II could not fully revive the Pallava Dynasty during the later Chozha period.

What do you say?

December 24th, 2008 at 13:05

dear VJ

Ur blog is a fascinating introduction to south indian art for all the world to see

keep up the great work

December 27th, 2008 at 19:59

Dear Mr. Swaminathan,

Thanks for kind words. seeking help from volunteers to share pictures from North India as well.


December 27th, 2008 at 21:51
g.nanda kumar

dear sir,

It may be trial work before doing the main one, because pallava sculptor carved the underside of mountains in alot of places around Mallai, like wise they also did these i need ur id to send photos regarding to above one.
thank you

December 29th, 2008 at 23:53

dear nanda

Thanks for the pictures. The comparison of teh baby elephant ( the first picture) you sent from the great penance panel and the second one - of the panel in discussion above - is defn there.

While the theory of them testing out the various themes prior to commencing the major work is a defn possibility - here the relief is carved fully - meaning if you see the post on the test panel - the testing was done on low relief.


pl have a look and comment


December 30th, 2008 at 5:56
Kathie Brobeck

How good to make me look more closely!
You want No. India photos, VJ ?
just say the word.

January 24th, 2009 at 10:39

hi kathie

you are treasure trove - looking forward to more gems from you


January 27th, 2009 at 13:14

It looks a live elephants family stands there

July 8th, 2009 at 20:39

எங்கே இருக்கின்றன இச்சிற்பங்கள்
Where exactly are these sculptures…?

November 30th, 2010 at 18:02

hi ramjee,

This is the thani yaani panel in mahabalipuram.


November 30th, 2010 at 19:22

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