Archives by Month: May, 2010

Deep inside Pudukkotai, a meandering dusty red track that faintly remembers being called a road once upon a time ends abruptly. Vegetation is sparse.. A few houses lines its periphery giving it the respect of being called a road. A few village boys are playing cricket ( yeah IPL reaches there as well!!) under the tamarind trees and an old man sits on rock outcrop, his eyes and mind lost deep in thought. On seeing us approach, his face brightens up, as he tries to get up, balancing his withering body on his third leg - for one of the ones he was born with has lost itself to disease. The background offers us a familiar feeling of expectation - a low cliff or rather a large boulder, and a serene surrounding, a water body nestled within the rocks…perfect environs for a cave. And this site holds not one but two caves. One for Shiva and one for Vishnu. The old man was the watchman and opened both the caves for us. We wanted to pay him so that he go and have a well deserved and long awaited meal - for it didn’t look like the site attracted more than a handful of visitors in a month. He did ask us for something - an old shirt !! ( so please remember if anyone is planning a trip after reading this post - please take an shirt for the old man).


We will see the older Shiva - Nandhi ?Danti varma Pallava period by Mutharaiyar cave first ( it could be that way since they were the chieftains ruling under the Pallavas then), before we proceed to the later Vishnu cave in the coming posts.

Am reversing the order of the visit, inorder to let you relish the beauty of the master sculptor. Take time and drink in the splendor of this fantastic Nandhi - Shiva’s bull mount.


What’s so special about this Nandhi, its is a nice sculpture , but we do find pieces like him all over - he is special not because he has stayed in this place for 1200 years, but because of the fact that the sculptor sculpted him so that he may remain in this place for ever. Not clear??? Read on…

We go back to the outside, will try and give you an idea of the cave face, by digitally removing the later day constructions infront of it.


Now, that you have an idea of the how the cave is sculpted into the rock face, by carving out the mother rock to create this cave - let’s go in a bit more close. We are greeted by a not too impressive construction.


But as we enter and turn right, as our eyes adjust to the dim light, we squeal in delight, at what lies in front of us.


There are many things to see in this cave dedicated to Shiva, to our left from the previous picture, is the central shrine for Shiva, flanked by two superlative door guardians ( we will study them in more detail in the coming posts). There are more interesting sculptures like the saptha maatrika panel with Ganesha at one end and Veera badra on the other - ie to the left of the nandhi and larger relief panels to his back. We shall see all in the coming posts.


Can you see something just to the right of the image - yes its our Nandhi again. But what is so special about him.

Let me try to do some erasing digitally to show you.


The entire Nandhi, with its pedestal is carved out of the mother rock - its a monolith as well - makes you wonder at the margin of error the sculptor had, his masterly use of available technology then to reduce the rock while sculpting the cave - leaving enough mass to sculpt the nandhi - with zero margin for error.

Now you know why i said that this Nandhi was so so special.


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Gods vs God - Our God against your God - is always controversial and generally you would prefer to step clear of these, inorder not to hurt the sentiments of both sides. But at times we need to dwell on these to understand that whatever physical manifestations we see are but mere rungs of a ladder that are meant to take us to a higher plane and not to defend imaginary territories by laying anchor on these. So, as part of the site’s initiative to bring out purely the story behind sculpture, there are a few such which we cannot ignore - be it the more common Lingothbhavar, to the exotic Sarabeshwarar, to the Ganga’s origins on the other side. Having said that, these have been around for a 1000 years and form part of the religious framework and hence its our duty to look at them objectively. With that as a forward and a warning to increase your patience ( you may please leave now if you may wish !!) am going ahead with the first of this controversial sculpture series. Vishnu Anugraha Murthy and Chakra Dharanar. One is from the Madurai temple - could have been rebuilt post Malik Kafur’s assault - by the Nayak’s but the other is from 8th C CE - Rajasimha Pallava - kailasanathar temple Kanchipuram.

To make sure that this legend is not a figment of my imagination nor am i forced to concoct such a conspiracy theory am taking refuge in the Thevaram hymns of Appar at the outset.

Sixth Thirumurai

O Holy One whose crest is flower-laden,praise be!
O Ens hailed by the gods,praise be!
O Lord of gods,Praise be!
O Giver of the Disc to Tirumaal,praise be!
O One that saved me from Death and rules me,praise be!
O the Adept who is bedaubed with the ash that is white Like conch,praise be!
O the One whose victorious flag Displays the Bull,praise be,praise be!
O Tirumoolattaana,praise be,praise be!

Translation: T. N. Ramachandran,Thanjaavoor ,1995

Now that the ground work has been done and have ensured i have built all my defenses, proceeding with the story - well, there are many versions of it ( as usual).

Part 1:

To be brief - A wicked demon Jalandran gets a boon - who else but from Brahma. Shiva needs to slay him but since his wife is a devotee of his wants to use a proxy. Vishnu meantime needs a powerful weapon and does penance on Shiva ( hang on - dont crucify me just now - there is more to come) with 1000 lotus flowers. As luck could have it, he finds he is short by one - he being the lotus eyed one ( kamalakkannan) himself, he wastes no time in plucking his eye and offering to complete the 1000. ( now - don’t reach out for your daggers yet ! let me put across the exhibits as well)

The sculpture from Rajasimha Pallavas Kanchipuram Kailasanthar Temple:


Well, well - what do we have here now. The classic free wheeling style of the Pallava sculptor comes to the fore here. You can see the relaxed seated style of Siva, Stylistically folding one leg up, while he seems to leaning on his right hand for extra comfort. The Back two hands seem to be in the process of tying up his headdress or something of that sort. Vishnu on his part, kneeling on one knee - both his lower left and right hands seem to be in the act of offering something to Siva ( lotus flowers??) - the most interesting thing to note is the upper left hand - seems to be in act of plucking his left eye - a la Kannappar !!


I for one expected a more balanced portrayal of the chief characters, but then that is maybe the core devotion that is the basis of this panel. You must be prepared to forgo your ego and submit totally to him to realise God.

But the next part, have to renew my life insurance at a hefty premium after seeing this in Madurai.

Part 2:

Pleased with Vishnu’s devotion, Shiva conjures up ( some versions say he drew a circle on the ground and cut out a discus form and proceeded to cut the demon into two himself and later presented it to Vishnu, some others say there were some more deceit involving the wife of the demon - am stepping away from these - not wanting to create more controversies- am sure you would google these up) - crux is Shiva gifts the Discus to Vishnu.

We swing across to the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple to view this sculpture.


That it is Vishnu and Shiva - with Brahma watching reverently by the side is clear from the relative attributes held. You can see that the cannons have become more rigid and the sculptor has merely sculpted to definition following set rules - leading to a duller or rather less artistic output.


It is a pillar sculpture but I do wish the sculptor be bit more balanced in depicting his subjects - especially the relative sizes and the problem is compounded by the size of Vishnu and he having to match the size of the discus to that of Vishnu. It would have been more pleasing both aesthetically and politically to have sculpted …. hmm, let me stop with that.


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