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Archives by Month: May, 2009

Since the site is dedicated to sculpture and its easy to fall in love with Pallava sculpture, it was very difficult for me to do this post. Quite often we get so obsessed with our favorites to the point of becoming fanatics. I am one such proclaimed Pallava fanatic. Quite often Kathie would drag me back to ground zero with interesting questions and photos from the middle kingdom. One such fanatical quest was that of Mahendra Pallava and his sculptural quest. A King hitherto unparalleled in his pursuit for artistic excellence in my eyes. But a chance glance at a collection of photos of Dr. Mohammed Tajuddin KHAN of an impressive cave in Andra Pradesh - the Undavalli Caves (Guntur District about 6km south west of Vijayawada, 22km north west of Guntur City and about 280 km from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh - thanks wiki) propped up some interesting questions.

mahendra mandagapattu cave
undavalli caves

I tried to check with Sri Dhivakar, who had done much research on the early life for Mahendra Pallava for his book - vichitracithan. Two interesting informations came out of the interaction - one - these caves were excavated between the 4th and 6th C.E (The caves are associated with the Vishnukundina kings of 420 to 620 A.D), definitely predating Mahendra Pallava’s famous excavation in Mandagapattu and two - Mahendra spent a good part of his early life in and around these parts. ( Simha Vishnu had a Vishnukundin Wife !!)

Before we start inferring anything from above, lets compare the sculpture styles under question. without burdening you with two many, am just throwing in one door guardian from both sites and a pillar each.

madagapattu door guardian
undavalli door guardian
seeyamangalam lion on pillar (1)
undavalli lion sculpture

The pillar design, fluting, styling - the stance of the door guardian, the flexing of his hips down to his mace, the way he places his hands on his hips - the the lion banner on the pillar.

On the other extreme side, we can argue as to if Mahendra was responsible for carving the Undavalli caves - but then the time frame sets us back by atleast 50 to 100 years.

One more clue - is again the main argument proposed for Mahendra as the originator of cave or rock cut architecture is the famous Mandagapattu inscription. Let us see it once more now.

I quote Dr Nagaswamy’s words below

http://www.tamilartsacademy.com/books/mamallai/new-light.xml


Let us study the inscription itself. What does the inscription say? It says that this temple, dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Siva was caused to be made by Vicitracitta, without the use of brick, mortar, wood or metal. It does not mention that this was being excavated for the first time in South India. Nor in any of his subsequent inscriptions Mahendra assumed a title, commemorating this great achievement of his life. He was certainly fond of titles and could have assumed a title like “the first excavator of cave” Adyaguhayatanakari or some such thing. We do not come across any such titles in his inscription.
None of the epigraphical records, both lithic and copper plates, which were issued after him, refer to Mahendra’s achievement in excavating caves for the first time.”

But whatever we infer from the above, one thing is for sure - this was the first excavation of Pallavas.

The theory is not without speculation - as door guardians could have been carved later ( especially the ones in Mandagapattu door guardians seem to be slightly advanced in styling when compared to its own pillar designs !!)

Keeping these aside, what we infer is a logical progression. Both the styles are dramatically similar and one definitely predates the other. So, was Undavallai the inspiration behind Mahendra Pallava’s sculptural quest, heralding a golden age in south Indian cave / temple / sculpture / architecture.

For those who are still not convinced about the remarkable similarity in styles, presenting to you more parallels from other Mahendra caves and Undavalli. Believe me, this is not any trick photography - just placing them side by side for you to make your judgements.

floral designs on the pillars.jpg
undavalli pillar design
mahendra pillar floral design dhalavanur
mandagapattu pillar alignment
undavalli pillar alignments
undavalli pillar - notice the fluting on top
the design of the fluted pillar.jpg

Now, do you agree?

Another cave which offers some clues is Bhairavakonda, which we will see shortly.

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I had loaned a book on Funan last week and found a very interesting sculpture. It reminded me of something we saw earlier in Dhalavanur. As i scrambled for the closeups and compared the two, i was stumped. Such a remarkable likeness is hard to achieve by pure chance. Oh, sorry forgot to put the pictures, so that you can all see the same - these are Makhara Thoranas ( The Crocodile Arches). Initially they just looked like some decorative motif, but then slowly a pattern emerged.

makara thorana sambor prey kuk.jpg
the makarathorana and koodu combo

Many thanks to Mr. Andy Brouwer for readily giving me the permission to use his amazing snaps .

www.andybrouwer.co.uk/blog/

Do you see the amazing similarity between these two sculptures. lets see them a bit closer

mahendra dhalavnur makara thorana.jpg
makara thorana sambor prey kuk detail.jpg

So, it got me thinking of why and how - an imaginary creature adorning an early Pallava cave in late 630 AD could find such a twin parallel in far off Cambodia - Sambor Prei Kuk. Was this just a decorative motiff or is there more into this. When i searched the scriptures, a few references popped up here and there. But mostly were passing references to decorative stuff.

For eg, this 12th Tirumurai

http://www.thevaaram.org/thirumurai_1/songview.php?thiru=12&Song_idField=1228&padhi=72&startLimit=1071&limitPerPage=1&sortBy=&sortOrder=DESC

He had makara-toranas, beautiful bunches of areca-nuts
And severed banana-trees, peerless streamers
And garlands arranged in beauteous rows
And thus had the whole city with its long streets
Beautified with auspicious decorations;
It looked as though, the flawless, ethereal city itself
Had come down to the earth.
Translation: T.N. Ramachandran

Similar references come in the Ramayana as well. But what in essence is this creature, its sure an auspicious sign - denoting the higher heavens - so whenever a mighty city or godly dwelling was implied, the sculptor threw in the makara - the design elements have evolved into similar structures in most later Chola temples.

We miss these beauties in many later temples as well - Take a look at this decorative hand rail in Darasuram.

darasuram handrail

And this amazing Gyana Saraswathi from Rajendra’s Gangaikondacholapuram ( thanks to Mohandass for the photos) - the last dnap indicates the two wonderful makaras where the arch starts.

gkc gyana saraswathi
gkc gyaana saraswathi
gkc saraswathi
gkc - look at the arches
gkc makara closeup
gkc makara

This pursuit led me to seek the guidance of hereditary architect and master sculptor Mr. K.P. Umapathy Stapathi. He was kind enough to explain the nuances of the makara thorana, its design elements combining 6 different species into one and integrating all of them into one confluence of fluid art, the variety of creepers at the base complementing the delightful curves of the front piece. He was kind enough to send us this illustrated photo to identify them.

darasuram makara

It will be interesting to compile and study similar thoranas from various places.

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