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.
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.
The central eight armed figure is Vishnu for sure, you can clearly see the Conch and the Discus.
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!!)
The posture is also important to notice, there seems to be nonchalant ease or rather an accomplished pride in his stance.
Now, to the bottom we do see the Vasuki, the king of serpents ( the rope that was used to churn) looking very much relaxed.
So, the pillar which Vishnu is propping up could be taken the Mandra mountain which was used to churn the milk ocean.
In side the frame of the Mandara mountain, we see a flying figure carrying something.
Lets take a closer look at this flying figure.
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.
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