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Posts Tagged ‘Airavatham’

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!!)

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vishnu

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

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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.

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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.

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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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The proverbial white elephant is an actual reality in Indian literature. This noble creature is the vehicle of the King of the Devas ( celestials)…Indra …. a la Zeus with his Thunderbolt. Not only is he white but has 33 heads.

Here is a depiction from a mural painting …

mural sravanabelagola.jpg

Though there are other white elephants.. the Airawatam ( Erawan in thai/cambodian culture )is said to be the most powerful of all. Described as a huge elephant with silvery white body of 33 heads, each head has 7long ivory tusks. Each of his tusk is 16 million meters long, so huge that it can house 7 large lotus ponds, within each tusk also live thousands of angels and their servants.

This massive modern sculpture greets visitors at the entrance of the Erwan Museum in Thailand.

erawan museum thailand.jpg

Without doubt its almost impossible depict this creature in stone…and hence quite rare to see the full version of Erawan elephant with 33 heads, instead, many artists prefer to draw Erawan as a 3 headed elephant instead.

The Irrawaddy River in thailand is also named after Erawan …

We find the workship of indra and airavatam among the temples of ankor,
prasat preau, siam reap …

beng malea - siam reap cambodia.jpg
indra onairavartasiam reap cambodia.jpg
indra siam reap cambodia.jpg
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prasat preau vihear cambodia.jpg
siam reap cambodia.jpg
what phu khmer.jpg

In india some wonderful depictions exist…. in a cave at Bhaja not far from Mumbai that was the site of a Buddhist monastery - there is a stone relief carving showing Indra, king of the gods.

bhaja caves long shot.jpg
cave19 bhaja buddist vihara near mumbai.jpg
indra baja caves.jpg

He is seated upon Airavata with his thunderbolt in hand …in somnathpur.

kesava temple somnathpur.jpg

In The famous chola murals of tanjore big temple…there is airavatham…oh thats the subject of an entire new post….

Whats amazing is that the indian sculptor restricted to just one head while his cambodian couterpart depicts him with three heads.

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