Two Demons plot against a sleeping Vishnu – Mallai

Today we are going to see a very interesting legend in sculpture – most visitors would have seen this sculpture in mahabalipuram, but dont stop to notice the legend nor the sculptural beauty of this masterpiece. One of the earliest acts of valor of Vishnu. The Anantasayana Panel in the Mahishasuramardhini Mandabam. I am grateful for Mr. Swaminathan’s guidance to understand this panel.

Before we see the legend, for a change we see the main sculpture once and a superb piece of stone work that often goes unnoticed.

The depth of this panel carved into hard rock and the masterful depiction of these two key players in the legend is unique – it full of life, as though its a scene being enacted before our very eyes.

Now, lets see the legend. Vishnu has absorbed the Universe in Himself after the destruction of the Creation ( which he does once every cycle is complete), he is supposed to be sleeping (because he has no work to do!). He has delegated the work of creation ( for the next cycle) to Brahma and is into deep slumber in the Ocean of Milk. His bed was the coils of Ananta, the god of serpents. This Sleep is the state of deepest meditation of a person, when there is complete cut off from the external and also internal perceptions.

At this moment – The demons Madhu and Kaitabha are said to be generated from the ear-wax of Vishnu.The two demons slip out of the ears of the Lord and attempt to destroy Brahma, the clear perception about the Creation, and try to enforce a world view in terms of categorization by names and forms,disturbing thus the very act of creation. . These two demons are difficult to conquer.

(Madhu in Sanskrit means honey. It is the extra sweet feeling that things are more than right. Kai in Sanskrit means
‘noise’. Kaitabh represents the inner noise resulting from the feeling of inadequacy. The evils represented by Madhu and Kaitabha erode the inner essence compromising effective engagement.Madhu denotes form of anything. Kaitabha denotes name of everything – )

The threatened Brahma requests the Supreme Goddess to help. Vishnu, aroused by the Goddess, destroys the demons. ( its a long story and inorder to justice to the panel i have shrunk it)

Now lets return to the sculpture:

Vishnu reclining in a trance -watch how the sculptor has brought the serene /dream like peaceful emotion into his face.

He is sculpted with two arms – His right arm is out-stretched and seems to be cluthing something? his left arm is bent at the elbow ( sadly broken) He has his head and chest slightly raised. His left knee is slightly bent though other parts are stretched flat. Is he about to get up? He is adorned with a beautiful crown ,necklaces and ear rings.

His bed or couch – Anantha – what a majestic portrayal of his five headed hoods forming a protective canopy over the sleeping Vishnu. Such depth into the carving and such fluid lines.

Below the feet of Vishnu is the goddess, a depiction of great beauty. ( some version say its Bhu Devi, but is she the Goddess requesting Vishnu to wake up?)

Above the reclining God are two flying figures and below him are two more. These are the weapons of Vishnu shown in human form, ayudh-purusha-s. Of the two flying figures, the dwarfish figure, Panch-janya, on the left is conch and the other charming Kaumodaki represents the mace (gada). The two below are two handsome youthful figures represent discus (chakra) and sword (nandaka). Some identify these two as Markandeya and Bhrigu.

The threatening asura-s, Madhu and Kaitabha, are having a stealthy, but animated, discussion. The one on the right is ready to strike at the Lord. The way they talk over the demons shoulder and how it has been sculpted into stone is magnificent.

13 thoughts on “Two Demons plot against a sleeping Vishnu – Mallai

  1. சாதாரண மனிதனுக்கும் புரியும் வண்ணம் எளிய முறையில் தாங்கள் ஒவ்வொரு சிற்பத்தையும் எங்கள் முன் வைக்கும் போது மனதில் ஆச்சரியமான ஒரு ரசனை உருவாகிறது. இத்தனை நாள் கண் இருந்தும் குருடாகவே இருந்திருப்பதும் புரிகிறது. இனி சிற்பங்களை காண நேரும் போது அதை கல்லிலே கலைவண்ணமாகவே காண்போம். அரிய பணிக்கு பாராட்டுக்கள்…

  2. பாராட்டுக்கு மிக்க நன்றி திரு சிவந்திராஜ். அவை அணைத்தும் அந்த சிர்பிகளுக்கே சாரும்.

    இனி சிற்பங்களை காண நேரும் போது அதை கல்லிலே கலைவண்ணமாகவே காண்பதோடு மட்டும் அல்லாமல் படம் எடுத்து எங்களுடன் பகிருங்கள். நாம் பெற்ற இன்பம் ……


  3. Oh my dear VJ once again you and your knowledgeable colleagues have virtually given me a birthday gift (it was on 30th Nov – of course the English one) with this article which is on such a favourite sculpture of mine the Anantasyayi posture of Vishnu (the other favourite is of course both the great Lingams of GKCP and Tanjore, plus of course the various poses of Karthikeya (Murugan). Thanks for the plethora of photos… though I haven’t seen them very carefully, I am commenting for the moment on your article in which you have speculated about the Goddess who is on the feat of the sleeping (it is not strictly sleeping but he is half-awake – focus closely on the eyes — the god is in the sleeping posture but his eyes are not fully closed – this posture is called Vishnu’s dreaming the world into creation – in the Frontline magazine, there is a pose from North India which is quite older… I will inform about it with the text (it was a 25 part series on Indic (Indian) Art and Architecture done by Benoy Chowdhuri).

    First of all this pose and if you could call it a mini temple, being as it is in a maze of temple building activity at Mallai… this particular (probably the earlier one) theme proves the fact that because of exactly the same theme being carved at Thirumayam, the latter temple is also a grand, great Pallava creation. In the meanwhile savour the larger pose of the Mahishasura mardini cave Anantasyayi through this link and many other great snaps …

    I am again sticking to the fact (firm belief you could say, as explained by the temple priest at Thirumayam is that the lady on the feet of the semi-sleeping Vishnu is none other but Bhu or Bhooma Devi. This is because here too two demons are fleeing who had actually come to capture or abduct (if that’s the right word) Bhooma Devi.

    Whats at Thirumayam… there too you have a great, grand Vishnu, one of the largest Ananthasyayi, there the theme being the same… demons Madhu and Kaitabha arrive to abduct Bhu Devi… Vishnu is semi-asleep… the presence of the demons is enough to provoke Anantha (Adi Sesha the couch of Lord Vishnu on whom he rests merrily). Bhooma Devi on the presence of the demons frightens her and she is seen at the feet of Lord Vishnu seeking his protection… But before Vishnu reacts, Adi Sesha or Anantha hisses and is in the pose of releasing poisonous air from his mouth which is sure to kill and burn the demons… So beautifully have the Pallavas captured the entire event at Thirumayam (whenever I see the Mallai pose, my mind goes back to Thirumayam for I have seen that twice and not Mallai). Brahma sprouts out of the nabhi of Vishnu, celestial figures like Yama, Chitraguptan who maintains a book on the fortune and fate of mortals, Bhooma on the feet of Vishnu drawing our pity, the pose is full of Karunai Rasam, Anantha looking fiery with open, gaping mouth and is decidedly looking very aggressive… then on the wall which is nothing but (the entire structure you could say) immaculate carving of living mountain… the poisonous air spit by Adi Sesha having been beautifully carved in the mountain wall moving towards Madhu and Kaitabhan, the two demons are also near the feet of the Lord, in standing posture very close to Bhu devi, but are shown very dramatically to be half turning back so as to avoid the poisonous air (which is in the form of a fire probably) and avoid death, with the theme being that ultimately the fire hits them and the demons die.. though that is not captured, but meant. But an even more startling underlying theme behind the stupendous carving at Thirumayam is that immediately having spit out the fire/air, but having done so without being commanded by his master, Lord Vishnu, Anantha feels guilty, so what has been beautifully captured is Lord Vishnu’s turning of his right hand and placing it gently on the body or person of Adi Sesha, symbolizing the Lord’s approval of his protective/aggressive action.

    The only difference at Kanchi is that Yama, Chitra gupta do not seem to be present,, and Madhu and Kaitabha seem to be in an aggreesive and eager ‘arrived’ pose with probably their weapon (is it the gadai or gada?)

    One more having seen your observation or explanation (quite unmatched really!!) about the figures above the recline being the weapons of Lord Vishnu, without doubting that.. I have read elsewhere that these are the yog mayas (2 figures of which on the closeup on the site mentioned by me above.. the one on the right looks feminine, though I ain’t sure).. Their job was to alert the semi-asleep Vishnu (supposedly in the process of creation of the Universe) about the presence of the demons and their vicious intentions.. but they in the end (because they are powerless to do anything against Madhu and Kaitabha – who probably have the boon of Brahma) they raise an alarm and it is Adi Sesha who (is about to get into action) takes, in the end the aggressive action. One version of the Kanchi theme is that the persons above the recline are Yog Maya, but your explanation appears more convincing… only that four weapons of the Lord instead of five have appeared at Kanchi.

  4. I used the term temple building activity… I think the more appropriate word for it is sculpting frenzy of the Pallavas at Mallai.

    Any comments..?

  5. Dear VJ,

    one more point… you say that Madhu and Kaitabha are preparing to assault or attack the sleeping Lord. I think (in case you feel there is any consistency of Kanchi Ananta with Thirumayam Azhagiya Meyyar) these two demons have arrived and are discussing about abducting Bhooma Devi (more than attacking Lord Vishnu – you know why? mainly because Asuras in every age get boons to gain victory over the Devas led by Indra.. but they cannot hope to take on Shiva, Vishnu and Mahesh – the only three GODS in the hindu religion)

  6. I had said earlier that demons or asuras cannot hope to take on Shiva Vishnu and Mahesh… sorry, it should be Brahma Vishnu and Mahesh with mainly Brahma and Mahesh (Siva) being the boon granters to most Asuras.

  7. wow, Cheenu lovely explanation – that explains the unusual position of Vishnu’s hand. Thanks for sharing all those wonderful comments.

    Cant wait to see you sharing your next south trip pictures with us.


  8. Dear Vijay, since you gave us such a nice visual spectacle and took us through an unforgettable journey of the Mahishasuramardini Mandapam (to the opposite of which is located the spectacular Anantasyayi at Mallai) to which we also had a subsequent lovely discussion on the poses and meanings of the various figures/ sculptures of the Anantasyayi and its close relationship with Thirumayam as I sought to express from my point of view, I think the topic would remain incomplete without seeing the visuals of Thirumayam too (especially with regard to the unusual position of Lord Vishnu’s hand at Mallai, which is absolutely similar to his hand pose at Thirumayam). This is because the Thirumayam photo link which I am giving is a first. Why? usually in most important Sivalayams or Vaishnava Divyadesams, taking pictures or snaps of the Moolavar is not at all permitted. However, (I would say very fortunately for devotees and art lovers like us) through the links given ad … one snap (with the hand of Lord Vishnu visible prominently, that too in the same unusual position mentioned by you, which is resting on the person of Adisesha is available that hopefully will rest and clear any doubt about the relationship between Thirumayam and Mallai group of temples (mainly proving that the Pallava influence as well as temple building / sculpting activities extended almost up to Rameswaram on the east coast in their peak up to the 9th century)… see this link and savour it… not just you but all visitors to this great site….



  9. Is Lord Vishnu petting Shesha or holding the Shankha? can’t tell, I’ve seen the one at Tirumayam also, didn’t notice the same gesture here until you pointed it out.
    What struck me most in this cave in ’86 was how life-like the demons M & K look in the dim light. Brilliant carving!
    I thought the lower figs. were Garuda & Siva but what do I know?

  10. Dear Kathie,

    are you mentioning about Garuda and Siva at Thirumayam? Certainly Yama, Chitragupta, Garuda (in human form) are all present there… plus of course Bhoomadevi, Madhu, Kaitabha plus the Brahma so painstakingly sprouting out of the nabhi (navel) of Lord Vishnu (Azhagia Meyyar) at Thirumayam. But having seen the temple twice (last year and this one), I can very much confirm to you that there is no Siva at the Vishnu Temple at Thirumayam, but he is there with his consort, sons, great dwarapalas, his ride the Nandi etc. in all their splendour in his own temple at Thirumayam itself and that too adjacent to the Thirumayam Vishnu temple and Siva is called Satyagiriswarar there as opposed to Satyagirinathar (the name for Vishnu Moolavar at Thirumayam Ananta temple) – At least the Vishnu temple is one of a kind with two Moolavars (main deity) and two Utsavars.

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