Today we are seeing another lovely sculpture panel from mallai - the spectacular thirvikrama panel. Though his name has come to be associated somehow with this art site, we do get to see the great man - Mahabali.
Have sought the help of some learned friends to help bring this post to you. You can split this post into three, the pure sculptural beauty, the expert understanding of the concept beautifully blending with the storyline and lastly the underlying spiritual explosion.
Photos : courtesy Sri Venkatesh ( during the ponniyin selvan group tour to mallai) and myself during a rushed run through this march for some closeups. Content assistnace : Sri Venkatesh again.
As usual we start with the panel in the whole.
As in the post of the Varaha panel, instead of sounding repetitive, instead of focusing just on the hand poses. we are going to look at the characters depicted and finally the beauty of the sculptor depicting Thiruvikrama.
The story first; the powerful King Mahabali is planning to do a great Yaaga ( sacrifice) under the advise of his Guru ( teacher) Sukraacharariar. This could catapult him above the realms of Indra and the King of the immortals seeks Sri Vishnu’s help to stop this.
The lord, does this without shedding a drop of blood, by cleverly utilising the King’s generosity and honor. It was common practise those days to seek the blessings of learned men by giving them alms. Vishnu descends as a young ascetic - a dwarf and seeks alms from the great King. Initially the great King is misled by what is apparent and is almost agreeing to the request - the request is for three feet of land. Considering the diminutive size of the requester, the demands look simple. But the experienced Sukrachaariar looks through the Lord’s disguise. He warns the King against accepting the same,but the King, righteous that he is, keeps his word. The teacher in his eagerness to save his king takes the form of a bee and blocks the spout of the pitcher ( kamandala) - so that the alms granting which is traditionally confirmed by washing off all your claims on that. The dwarf seeing this picks up a blade of grass and inserts into the spout and blinds the guru. Finally the alms is completed and time comes for the Vamana to measure his three feet.
The lord now reveals his true form, he instantly transforms from a diminutive dwarf to Thiruvikrama - a cosmic giant. The first step he takes measures the earth. The second step Bali offers him the Heavens. The Lord in one sweeping move, lifts his leg staright up and spans the heavens. There is no Terra firma left for the last step, that the King offers his own head in an act of total submission to the Lord ( is it not what is the ultimate goal of devotion / bhakthi). The Lord grants him his, takes the third step on the King’s head - consigning him deep into the nether world.
The core concept in this story taken by the mallai sculptor is the massive form of Tiruvikrama spanning the Earth and the Heavens with just two steps. How the sculptor has handled this in his composition is the highlight of this panel. We will see the characters one by one.
We fist go bottom up - analysing the different characters surrounding the main pose of Vishnu.
The lower portion shows four seated persons.
Since the Lord has just taken the second step, we can safely assume that one of them is King Mahabali and the other his Guru Sukraacahariar. The subtlety of this panel, is that of the four seated people, the two seated closest to the Lord, are still looking down, the two to the right and left extreme, are just starting to look up….the sculptor is showing the sudden transformation of the Dwarf Vamana to the cosmic expanse of Thiruvikrama.
We are slightly spanning up. To the two sides of the Lord, to his left at his waist level and to his right, just above - we see two flying figures. Who are they, they seem to the beholding the splendor of the Lord. Closer inspection reveals a very important clue, both of them have circular orbs around their heads. ( the one to left is smaller and lower). Did you get it
Its the Sun and Moon. The sculptor is bringing in a concept of size - that the Sun and Moon are just at the level of the waist and the Lord towers above them.
An interesting inclusion in the panel is found to the extreme left just above the moon. An unique portrayal in a more unique pose. Who is this? Speculation by some if that this is Trisangu ( the Rishi who wanted to ascend to the heavens with his human form, who was helped by Sage Viswamitra to attempt it. As this defied the set nature, he was kicked out by Indra, as he was falling down, the sage uses his powers to stop his inbetween and create a new heaven for him.
But is it he who is sculpted. Definitely the pose of the sculpted person doesn’t befit one who is in heavens. We searched more and found one more important character in the same Vamana episode - the son of Mahabali, Nammuchi, who tries to stop Vishnu from taking the steps. The Lord just kicks/flings him and he is said to be launched into orbit. Now look at the panel - the figure seems to fit this model, of someone who has been kicked into orbit. This particular incident has been sung by Perialwar as well.
To the left, the sweeping second step - you see an interesting depiction of Brahma, holding Vishnu’s hand with his left hand and offering ablutions to Vishnu’s foot.
The same position to the right, we see Shiva seated on a lotus pedestal. witnessing the grand spectacle.
There is another interesting character coming into frame a the top left - just beside Brahma. A bear on a drum, is he jambavan, one of the immortals. He doesn’t seem to fit into the scheme of things. Anther more interesting interpretation is that he is one of the Nithya suris - Thumburu of Srivaikuntam. The sculptor’s view is that the expanding Vishnu reached Sri Vaikuntham !!
Now lets look at the main sculpture. The spectacular Tiruvikrama, the main character.
Such poise and grace, its such a feat to depict someone standing on one leg, throwing out his other leg like a Bale dancer - the thrown leg on tip toe. The expression on the face is sublime.
The beauty of his hands, holding the various ensigns - his conch, his discuss ( chakra - in deployment mode ), the sword, the short sword or mace, the long bow - each shows the mastery of the sculptor’s knowledge of anatomy.
I was simply bowled by this particular frame, his belly button, just a subtle chisel mark but something that has survived a 1300 years.
The depiction that i loved most was the left leg, flowing under the hand.
The final touch of the sculptor ofcourse was the right hand, on first look it seems as though the Lord is balancing by holding on to the frame, but is it that. Looks like he is resting on the outer limits of Sri Vaikuntham and asking the question - where next !!.