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The land of the thousand temples is no tall claim by Kanchipuram. At any spot in the city, you will be able to spot atleast 2 -3 temples and this treasure trove holds in its midst on the earliest and grandest structural temples - the spectacular Kailasantha built by King Rajasimha Pallava. This jewel of a temple holds in its midst some of the most fantastic expression of sculptural excellence - be it the composition, complexity, elegance and sheer volume per square inch of workmanship - this temple is second to none. Today, we are going to see a very unique panel that showcases the intellect and liveliness of the Pallava sculptor as well - the Samudra manthan.

Kailasantha+sculpture

Its very unusual to find the churning of Milk ocean to depicted in stone in India. Though a very important act, we find mostly Vishnu shown as his Kurma ( turtle) avatar depicting this significant event. The only freeze that does justice to this event is the one in Angkor and a few smaller panels in the surrounding sites. The Cambodian version have Vishnu shown twice - both as himself and as his kurma avatar ( including the nice one in the Swarnaboom Airport in Bangkok). The legend is ofcourse a simple one. The good Devas loose their powers due to an act of their chief Indra. They need Amrit to restore their immortality and powers. Amrit can be obtained if the Milk ocean is churned - but the task is so huge. They need the Manthara Mountain to churn and look for a rope - the king of serpents Vasuki volunteers his help. Just as they begin, the mountain sinks into the ocean due to its weight. Vishnu takes the form of turtle ( kurma) and bears it weight. The Devas and Asuras take the two side of the snake and churn the ocean. Finally the nectar or amrit is obtained.

The sculpture in Kanchi however is very different, for it does not have the Turtle depicted anywhere ! Lets take another look.

churning+kanchi

The central eight armed figure is Vishnu for sure, you can clearly see the Conch and the Discus.

discus+conch
discus+conch+offset

He is slightly off center and hence our attention goes to the object on which he is leaning or rather holding up. ( kind of reminds you of the blokes in Baywatch leaning on their surf boards!!)

main+act
vishnu

The posture is also important to notice, there seems to be nonchalant ease or rather an accomplished pride in his stance.

notice+4+hands
notice+posture

Now, to the bottom we do see the Vasuki, the king of serpents ( the rope that was used to churn) looking very much relaxed.

vasuki

So, the pillar which Vishnu is propping up could be taken the Mandra mountain which was used to churn the milk ocean.

mount+madhara

In side the frame of the Mandara mountain, we see a flying figure carrying something.

dhanvantari+nectar+pot

Lets take a closer look at this flying figure.

closeup+dhanvatari+nectar+pot

Ofcourse, its Dhanvatari carrying the pot of amrit. That means its mission accomplished ! Apart from the pot of Amrit with Dhanvantari many more auspicious beings/objects emerged during the churning chief among which are ofcourse the Kaustubham - the jewel worn by Vishnu, Kamadenu , Kalpavriksha, Airavatam - the white elephant given to Indra, by some version the Conch and Discus of Vishnu, and a seven headed white horse - Ucchaishravas. This is where it gets interesting. In its hay days, the entire sculpture would have had a full coat of lime plaster and beautifully painted - however, time has taken its toll, leaving us very little of the minute details, yet we can spot a horse ( its not a seven headed one) but a horse there is. This horse has an interesting legend associated with its tail and color, but we will see that later on.

notice+horse+in+corner
ucchaishravas

Looking at all these, it would be a considered guess that this depicts the final act of the Samudra churning, where the triumphant Vishnu stylistically leans on the Mandara, taking in the applause.

picture courtesy: Sri Ashok Krishnaswamy

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 at 13:41 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

26 Comments so far

  1  

Good post VJ

May 10th, 2011 at 14:49
injamaven
  2  

thanks, VJ, I couldn’t figure out what that panel was about.

May 10th, 2011 at 16:04
Annapoorna
  3  

Who is the person staying close to Vishnu? any specific identification to find out?

May 10th, 2011 at 18:03
  4  

You are welcome kathie.

rgds
vj

May 11th, 2011 at 5:38
  5  

@Annapoorna, the one closest should be Indra from his countenance and the second largest benefactor of this event next to Vishnu

rgds
vj

May 11th, 2011 at 5:40
  6  

im now waiting for the story on horse and also to visit Kanchipuram, Thailand and Cambodia to see the panels

May 11th, 2011 at 9:19
Prasad
  7  

The plaster work on it is so bad!
And yet the sculpture conveys the message.

Awesome post vj.

May 11th, 2011 at 12:00
venkata rao
  8  

great like the “relaxed vasuki” wearing a smile akin to tom ineom&jerry tales

May 11th, 2011 at 18:23
  9  

good one mr Rao, must have been quite a relief being man handled by so many devas n asuras…

vj

May 11th, 2011 at 18:27
தேவ்
  10  

அருமையான அபூர்வமான சிற்பம்;
‘உச்சைச்ரவஸ்’ சரியான உச்சரிப்பு

தேவ்

May 17th, 2011 at 15:42
  11  

Kanchipuram temples can rival any historic monuments except Babhubali in karnataka.Thanks for sharing.

May 25th, 2011 at 13:04
arvind venkatraman
  12  

Vijay, Vishnu takes the form of both Kurma and Ajitha during the episode. Ajitha form holds the mountain from the side, so it does not sway while Kurma provides the base. Lakshmi who emerges from the churning of the milk ocean, garlands Ajitha. A panel in Vaikunda Perumal is very similar to this.

June 2nd, 2011 at 18:51
  13  

Interesting Arvind. Have heard the name of Ajita associated with the churning but did not find a reference to him holding the mountain up. eg: http://www.bvml.org/SBBTM/kurma.html. Can you give us the references.

rgds
vj

June 2nd, 2011 at 19:59
Arvind
  14  

Vijay,
This reference comes from Bagavatham.
I had understood it by reading Body of God, by Dennis Hudson. He describes the panel in great detail, quoting Baghavatham.

Thanks and Regards
Arvind

June 4th, 2011 at 4:01
pradeep
  15  

Remarkable one. why dont you do a series on the bootha ganas?

June 6th, 2011 at 9:41
  16  

I WILL INTERSTED TO KANCHI KAILASANATHER TEMPLES DRAWING

June 8th, 2011 at 16:51
  17  

The renumeration of an old art to a new path.you are taking the old ancient temples towards the world wide level and making it precious. These jobs are have to done by their state government. But i am happy to see that you people are doing it in a well manner. I am eagerly waiting to join hands with your project

June 10th, 2011 at 12:33
  18  

BOOMIYIL PODHANTHA KALAI YAI MENNDUM UIER KODUTHATHARKKU NANRI

June 11th, 2011 at 13:32
  19  

I have started taking interest in temples after reading your posts.Thanks.

June 11th, 2011 at 21:05
  20  

Hi pradeep, will surely try. But there is so little written about them for referencing. Nice area for someone to do deep research :-)

June 14th, 2011 at 9:14
  21  

Hi anantha Krishnan

Can you be more specific. do you want to do sketches or want to see some sketches?

vj

June 14th, 2011 at 9:17
  22  

Thanks Bharathwaj. Keep visiting

rgds
vj

June 14th, 2011 at 9:18
  23  

Dear Archana, Its feedback such as yours that make us rededicate ourselves to the cause. Keep visiting.

June 14th, 2011 at 9:19
kamalakkannan
  24  

its a great work u r doing,
a small suggestion,everyone knows about bigger temples,so whenever u r writing on smaller temples please state the route to go there.We have a hard time in locating lesser temples

August 5th, 2011 at 12:43
Upendra Arya
  25  

Fantastic work. Thank you very much for this marvel.

July 9th, 2013 at 10:59
  26  

Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your website?
My blog is in the exact same niche as yours and
my visitors would certainly benefit from a lot of the information you present here.
Please let me know if this alright with you.
Thank you!

July 21st, 2014 at 8:26

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