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Archives by Month: April, 2009


On the mahendra trail. ( some disjointed conversations - mostly as it is but some are imagination)

Saturday 8.45 AM. Somewhere in a dusty road from Dindivanam to Vanthavaasi.

Chandru : Is this the right way. Let me check, pull over please. Hey, is this the route to seeyamangalam
Villager: you took the wrong turn on the bridge
Driver: Oh, we will turn back

Venkatesh: hey, there is the Bridge. Go straight
Chandru: There there, you can see the ASI board.

Anonymous: Guys, can you pull over for a minute, need to relieve myself.
Gang: Me too, pull over. There by the shade of the big tree.

Ragothaman: are you guys done, we got to hurry. ( satheesh got a flight to catch)
Vj: Satheesh, can you pass me that packet of Grant sweets savories. Roasted masala peanuts, wow, send that to the front as well.

Narayanaswamy: small village coming up, lets check if we are on the right route
Chandru: Hello, is this the way to the cave temple.
Village lady: Take this path, turn right and then head straight. YOU DON’T HAVE TO ASK ANYONE !!!
Chandru: thanks, take that turn

Venkatesh: hey, there is a hillock
Gang: where? Where?
Satheesh: But the road is leading away from the hills !
Chandru: Yes, lets check again, pull over by that man. Hey, cave temple…
Villager: Oh, you passed it
Driver: But we came that way only.
Villager: you took wrong turn, keep to your right just after the village
Driver: ok, just see the back, am reversing. ( very small mud road for an Innova car)

Chandru: Take that exit.
Vijay: yeah yeah, that look like headed in the right direction

Chandru: Atlast we are there

3291431613_d708f359e7.jpg

Vj: But sir, we came to see Mahendra Pallava cave temple, the first every relief sculpture of dancing Shiva as Nataraja ! But this one is a full fledged structural temple with towers ( Gopurams and Vimaanams)

Chandru: The cave is the nucleus of the temple - its Mahendra’s and he named it Avanibaajana Palleswaram. Later kings built the structures around the main cave shrine.
Vj: oh, ok ok. Understood. But not a soul in sight….

side view.jpg
the cave location.jpg
the entrance gopuram and indiana venkatesh.jpg

Venkatesh: come come, lets go
Vj: Hi venkatesh, fancy hat a la indiana jones, after some treasure is it.
Venkatesh: No sir, this is my favorite hat, picked it on a trip to srilanka!!! Hey someone is coming towards us..

venkat with his hat.jpg

ASI staff: Hello
Chandru: Hello, morning
Vj: Hello, we want to go inside, we have come from very far!!!
ASI: sir, you can view everywhere, but the main shrine is locked. The key is not with me, its with the priest. You can peep through this key hole for a view.

Vj: hello, we have come from very far to see the main cave shrine only. We know Mr ########### and Mr. ###########, do you want me to call them over phone to give you instructions!
ASI: Sir, I will give you the priests handphone number Sir. You can try Sir. Sir, You are dropping all VIP names sir !! ( count the number of sirs now)
Vj: give the number, we are all very eager.

Tring tring: hello, we are at the temple. We are large group, can you come.

Vj: Guys, good news, says he will be here in 5 min, lets go around meantime and see the others.

the location of the cave.jpg

Vj: Chandru sir, why did Mahendra Pallava choose such a god forsaken sorry desolate place for this excavation.
Chandru: good question vj, don’t have the right answer, but one common feature of all Mahendra cave sites are a small hillock near a water body. Maybe the serene atmosphere inspired him.
Vj: oh, where is the water body in this case
Chandru: there, you can see. Since its not rainy season, not much water. You climb that rock , you will get a better view
Vj: Hmm, whats that sir, a very lovely small shrine on top of that rock.

the hilltop muruga shrine.JPG

Chandru: It’s a later construction. Shrine of Lord Muruga. Care full while you climb!!
Vj: wow, rock cut steps ( after climbing half way only the steep nature of the climb dawned on me)

panaromic view fromtop of muruga shrine.jpg
the cave location.jpg
the nearby hillock with Jain beds and the entrance gopuram.jpg

Ashok; Hey vj, I am also coming up
Chandru: in rainy season, this would be filled with water. Can you see that pillar like stone in the centre of the lake bed. It would look like a shiv linga standing on the water surface. Did you know that the main diety of this temple is called Thoonaandavar ( pillar god) - some works suggests that it could be this stone pillar that gave it its name !!!

ah there is a water body.jpg
closer .jpg
the dry lake bed and the stone -linga.jpg
thoonaandavar.jpg
the pillar lord.jpg

Vj: Wow, what a sight. Careful guys, its slipper especially while you get down - don’t trust my knees, better to slide down - wearing jeans anyway. Don’t laugh guys, let me see your courage and style when you attempt to get down. Hmm.

best way down.jpg
doesnt look steep.jpg

Ragothaman: lets go around the main shrine. There are some culverts here,
Satheesh: Vj, come here, remember your post on the rock cutting techniques in mallai. See similar holes are found here.
Vj: wow, lets take a few photos. Wait, let me put something against it to give our readers a sense of its relative size.
Nothing handy, here let me put my inhaler !!

the backside of the cave boulder.jpg
the finished cutting.JPG
the square holes.jpg
size of the holes.jpg

Chandru: Hey, here comes the priest. Lets go in

Goat Herd: Hello sirs, where are you from. Did you see the damage to the vimaana - the yaali on one side was struck by lightning. We are asking everyone to help to repair it, but no one is coming forward !!

the broken yaali when lightning struck.jpg

Ashok: Oh, when did the lighting strike….

Priest: Here sir, let me open it

Chandru: See how the later Mandabams are plush against the rock surface.

the later madabams leading to the inner cave.jpg
the outer corridor and mandabam plush with the rock face.jpg
the outer hall.jpg

Satheesh: Its pretty dark in here
Priest: Its much better now sir, earlier it used to pitch dark and lots of snakes as well. I used to let a mongoose inside first to check. They removed the outer roof and redid it. Now we get some light and air, but along with it dampness as well !!

Vj: Chandru sir, even this hall pillars are not Mahendra style ( what is mahendra style ….we will carry a separate series on that)
Chandru: Wait vj, the main cave is still further ahead.
Vj: hey, there, I can see a Mahendra pillar

the inside pillar is the classic mahendra style pillar.jpg

ASI: sir, no photography
Vj: Hey, we wont take pictures of the main shrine. We want to take only the outer sculptures, pillars etc. please. We know Mr. ###########
ASI; hmmm

Satheesh: vj, come here. There are more sculptures here. Look on top, there is a Makara thorana. There is a Gana riding the mythical beast as well.

makara 2.jpg
makara 3
makara thoranam

Vj: One minute, did you notice the right side door guardian’s head dress. He has horns but….( we will discuss this later as well)

the horns of the door guardian.jpg
the left door guardian.jpg
the right door guardian.jpg

Chandru: do you see the designs on the pillars.

floral designs on the pillars.jpg
intricate design on the pillars.jpg
pillar designs 2 .jpg

Vj: wow, the majestic lions. They have started fluting the pillar capitals as well ( so, we there pillars without these earlier. To be discussed in subsequent posts )

master at work
the design of the fluted pillar.jpg
the fluted capitals.jpg
the lion emblem.jpg
the matching lions.jpg
the fluted capitals.jpg
the fluted pillars.jpg

Narayanswami: Guys, see these sculptures on the two sides
Vj: Satheesh, the book you borrowed from Sps sir, Dr Kalaikkovan’s Mahendra Kudavaraigal, can you check. Looks like two guys with fly wisks

amalayaar long shot.jpg
amalayar 3.jpg
amalayar.jpg

Satheesh: These are listed as Amalaiyar
Vj: What is that !! Got to check. See those waiting ladies as well with flower baskets

the lady in waiting.jpg

Ragothaman: Chandru sir, there is an inscription on this pillar, but doesn’t look like tamil.
Chandru: Its Pallava Grantam. It’s Mahendra pallava’s inscription.

mahendra inscription.jpg

Vj: great, satheesh see if the reference is there in the book
Satheesh: Oh, yes, let me read it

This temple called avani baajana was raised by lalitanguran through his good deeds like ornaments in a jewel box.

Vj: great, 1300 year old verses singing the praise of Mahendra
Ragothaman: There are more inscriptions on this side of the pillar but in a different font
Chandru: They are tamil verses of later pallava kings - Danti varama and nandhi varma
Here see this pillaster to the right. Here is the famous dance pose - the first ever dancing pose of shiva ie shiva as Nataraja in stone in south india, on the same position of the left you can see shiva, Parvathi with nandhi. Can we request the priest to show camphor here
Ashok: Hang on, here I come as well

Natarajar
Shiva , parvathi and nandhi.jpg

ALL QUIET….as we take in the spectacular sight

the lord of dance.jpg
the moment.jpg
Time stood still.jpg

We will discuss each of these sculptures in depth in coming weeks as well as the other caves on the trail.

Picture courtesy: all friends on the tour, and Chandru sir/Swaminathan sir earlier - first tour. Special thanks to Sps sir, Chandru sir and Swaminathan sir for making this trail possible

the tour group.jpg

Ragothaman, Satheesh,Venkatesh, Chandru sir, Ashok and myself
Ref: Sri K.R. Srinivasan - Cave temples of the Pallavas, Dr KKN’s Mahendra Kudavaraigal ( tamil)


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Today we are seeing another lovely sculpture panel from mallai - the spectacular thirvikrama panel. Though his name has come to be associated somehow with this art site, we do get to see the great man - Mahabali.

Have sought the help of some learned friends to help bring this post to you. You can split this post into three, the pure sculptural beauty, the expert understanding of the concept beautifully blending with the storyline and lastly the underlying spiritual explosion.

Photos : courtesy Sri Venkatesh ( during the ponniyin selvan group tour to mallai) and myself during a rushed run through this march for some closeups. Content assistnace : Sri Venkatesh again.

As usual we start with the panel in the whole.

the mallai vaamana panel.jpg

As in the post of the Varaha panel, instead of sounding repetitive, instead of focusing just on the hand poses. we are going to look at the characters depicted and finally the beauty of the sculptor depicting Thiruvikrama.

The story first; the powerful King Mahabali is planning to do a great Yaaga ( sacrifice) under the advise of his Guru ( teacher) Sukraacharariar. This could catapult him above the realms of Indra and the King of the immortals seeks Sri Vishnu’s help to stop this.

The lord, does this without shedding a drop of blood, by cleverly utilising the King’s generosity and honor. It was common practise those days to seek the blessings of learned men by giving them alms. Vishnu descends as a young ascetic - a dwarf and seeks alms from the great King. Initially the great King is misled by what is apparent and is almost agreeing to the request - the request is for three feet of land. Considering the diminutive size of the requester, the demands look simple. But the experienced Sukrachaariar looks through the Lord’s disguise. He warns the King against accepting the same,but the King, righteous that he is, keeps his word. The teacher in his eagerness to save his king takes the form of a bee and blocks the spout of the pitcher ( kamandala) - so that the alms granting which is traditionally confirmed by washing off all your claims on that. The dwarf seeing this picks up a blade of grass and inserts into the spout and blinds the guru. Finally the alms is completed and time comes for the Vamana to measure his three feet.

The lord now reveals his true form, he instantly transforms from a diminutive dwarf to Thiruvikrama - a cosmic giant. The first step he takes measures the earth. The second step Bali offers him the Heavens. The Lord in one sweeping move, lifts his leg staright up and spans the heavens. There is no Terra firma left for the last step, that the King offers his own head in an act of total submission to the Lord ( is it not what is the ultimate goal of devotion / bhakthi). The Lord grants him his, takes the third step on the King’s head - consigning him deep into the nether world.

The core concept in this story taken by the mallai sculptor is the massive form of Tiruvikrama spanning the Earth and the Heavens with just two steps. How the sculptor has handled this in his composition is the highlight of this panel. We will see the characters one by one.

We fist go bottom up - analysing the different characters surrounding the main pose of Vishnu.

The lower portion shows four seated persons.

maahabali's entrouge - look at their seating poses - so natural.JPG

Since the Lord has just taken the second step, we can safely assume that one of them is King Mahabali and the other his Guru Sukraacahariar. The subtlety of this panel, is that of the four seated people, the two seated closest to the Lord, are still looking down, the two to the right and left extreme, are just starting to look up….the sculptor is showing the sudden transformation of the Dwarf Vamana to the cosmic expanse of Thiruvikrama.

We are slightly spanning up. To the two sides of the Lord, to his left at his waist level and to his right, just above - we see two flying figures. Who are they, they seem to the beholding the splendor of the Lord. Closer inspection reveals a very important clue, both of them have circular orbs around their heads. ( the one to left is smaller and lower). Did you get it

surya pointing at vishnu.JPG
the moon.jpg

Its the Sun and Moon. The sculptor is bringing in a concept of size - that the Sun and Moon are just at the level of the waist and the Lord towers above them.

An interesting inclusion in the panel is found to the extreme left just above the moon. An unique portrayal in a more unique pose. Who is this? Speculation by some if that this is Trisangu ( the Rishi who wanted to ascend to the heavens with his human form, who was helped by Sage Viswamitra to attempt it. As this defied the set nature, he was kicked out by Indra, as he was falling down, the sage uses his powers to stop his inbetween and create a new heaven for him.

But is it he who is sculpted. Definitely the pose of the sculpted person doesn’t befit one who is in heavens. We searched more and found one more important character in the same Vamana episode - the son of Mahabali, Nammuchi, who tries to stop Vishnu from taking the steps. The Lord just kicks/flings him and he is said to be launched into orbit. Now look at the panel - the figure seems to fit this model, of someone who has been kicked into orbit. This particular incident has been sung by Perialwar as well.

namuchi - notice he has a weapon in his hand.JPG

To the left, the sweeping second step - you see an interesting depiction of Brahma, holding Vishnu’s hand with his left hand and offering ablutions to Vishnu’s foot.

another look at brahma - notice the heads, one hand holding vishnu's hand and other offerring ablution to the extended foot.JPG
brahma worshipping the extended foot.JPG

The same position to the right, we see Shiva seated on a lotus pedestal. witnessing the grand spectacle.

shiva watching the grand spectacle.JPG

There is another interesting character coming into frame a the top left - just beside Brahma. A bear on a drum, is he jambavan, one of the immortals. He doesn’t seem to fit into the scheme of things. Anther more interesting interpretation is that he is one of the Nithya suris - Thumburu of Srivaikuntam. The sculptor’s view is that the expanding Vishnu reached Sri Vaikuntham !!

thumburu on the drums proclaiming the event.JPG

Now lets look at the main sculpture. The spectacular Tiruvikrama, the main character.

Such poise and grace, its such a feat to depict someone standing on one leg, throwing out his other leg like a Bale dancer - the thrown leg on tip toe. The expression on the face is sublime.

the majestic vishnu.jpg
the radiance on his face.jpg
the erect torso.jpg

The beauty of his hands, holding the various ensigns - his conch, his discuss ( chakra - in deployment mode ), the sword, the short sword or mace, the long bow - each shows the mastery of the sculptor’s knowledge of anatomy.

such detailing - the hand holding the sword.JPG
the hand holding the broad sword or small mace.JPG
the hand holding the conch.JPG
the hand holding the shield.JPG
the hand holding up the discus.JPG

I was simply bowled by this particular frame, his belly button, just a subtle chisel mark but something that has survived a 1300 years.

down to the belly button.jpg

The depiction that i loved most was the left leg, flowing under the hand.

the famous foot crossing under the arum and watch brahma's hand.JPG

The final touch of the sculptor ofcourse was the right hand, on first look it seems as though the Lord is balancing by holding on to the frame, but is it that. Looks like he is resting on the outer limits of Sri Vaikuntham and asking the question - where next !!.

vishnu's right hand holding on to the frame ( for support) reaching limits of srivaikuntam.JPG

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