An Unique Panel – Fire in the Kandhava forest…Cambodia

Today we are going to see a very rare and unique sculpture panel from Banteay srei in Cambodia. This is quite a revelation to me, since i had never heard of this story and thanks to this amazing sculpture, i had to dwell deep into the recesses of the mahabaratha to pick up this interesting legend – and present to you this…. The legend of Kandava Dahanam or Burning of the Kandava forest.

As usual we see the legend ( quite lengthy but interesting and very essential to truly appreciate the great sculpture that follows)

The legend starts thus. Vaisampayana is narrating the epic – Once Krishna and Arjuna are met by a Brahman who asks them for Alms – or food to be more particular. The two master marksmen, ask him what kind of food that he
wants, but are shocked when he asks for the entire Kandhava Forest. They soon realise that its no common old man but Agni who has been reduced to such a state.

Despite who it is, they want to know why Agni can’t eat /destroy the forest on his own and more so why he needs to destroy the forest. Agni then goes on tell them the story of the great King Swetaki.

Wanting to crown his achievements the great King wants to conduct a string of sacrifices spreading over a number of years. The priests are given generous gifts and they begin the great sacrifice – but pretty soon they realise that the sheer effort involved is too great and sitting in front of the fire and smoke for so many years is not possible …they leave the sacrifce half done. Enraged Swetaki tries all he can to get others to come and complete the sacrifice but with no luck. Finally he tries once again to reason with the priests and they in jest told him to seek Rudra ( Shiva) to assist him to complete the sacrifices.

Enraged, Swetaki decides to do that as well – he undergoes severe penances, giving up food for months and standing upright with arms raised for ages. Pleased Shiva appears and asks him his wish – when Swetaki asks him to assist in helping him finish the sacrifices, Shiva tests his resolve some more – and instructs him to do a special sacrifice by himself – for 12 uninterrupted years, he had to pour Ghee into fire and lead a life of extreme austerity.

Swetaki completes that as well and returns to Shiva – who is much pleased and instructs Sage Duruvasa to assist in completing his sacrifices. Duruvasa helped him to complete the task and at the apt time, Swetaki ascended to the heavens.

But this left one problem – having been fed a diet of Ghee for 12 years by such a great King, Agni the God of fire became over weight but he could also eat of anyone else – so slowly he began to loose his shine and energy. He appealed to Lord Shiva for help and the lord showed him the the bad demons of who resided in the Khadava forest –
directing him to satiate his hunger on the enemies of the Gods and that will help his regain his vigor.

But when Agni tried to consume the forest there came a small problem. Takshaka, the chief of the Nagas ( snakes) who dwell in the forest was a friend of Indra and hence had his protection. Everytime Agni tried to consume the forest Indra would bring in Varuna ( the god of water/rains) and quench Agni and protect his friend.

Thus Agni sought the help of Krishna and Arjuna to help keep out Indra and Varuna. Jointly they attacked the Kandava forest.

Arjuna – invoking his excellent weapons, prevented that shower of rain by Indra, by means of a shower of his own weapons – he soon covered the forest of Khandava with innumerable arrows like the moon covering the atmosphere with a thick fog. When the sky above that forest was thus covered with the arrows of Arjuna no living creature could then escape from below. And it so happened that while that forest was burning, Takshaka, the chief of the Nagas, was not there, having gone at that time to the field of Kurukshetra. But Aswasena, the mighty son of Takshaka, was there. He made great efforts to escape from that fire; but confined by Arjuna’s shafts he succeeded not in finding a way. It was then that his mother, the daughter of a snake, determined to save him by swallowing him first. She first swallowed his head and then was swallowing his tail. And desirous of saving her son, the sea-snake rose (up from the earth) while still employed in swallowing her son’s tail.

But Arjuna as soon as he beheld her escaping, severed her head from her body by means of a sharp and keen-edged arrow. Indra saw all this, and desiring to save his friend’s son, the wielder of the thunderbolt, by raising a violent wind, deprived Arjuna of consciousness. During those few moments, Aswasena succeeded in effecting his escape. Beholding that manifestation of the power of illusion, and deceived by that snake, Arjuna was much enraged. He forthwith cut every animal seeking to escape by the skies, into two, three, or more pieces.

The chief of the celestials also, seeing Arjuna in anger, sought to fight with him, and hurled his own fierce weapons, covering the wide expanse of the firmament. Then the winds, making a loud roar and agitating all the oceans, brought together masses of clouds in the sky, charged with torrents of rain. Those masses of clouds began to
vomit thunder and terrible flashes of lightning charged with the thunderclap. Then Arjuna possessing a knowledge of all means, hurled the excellent weapon called Vayavya with proper mantras to dispel those clouds. With that weapon the energy and force of Indra’s thunderbolt and of those clouds were destroyed. And the torrents of rain with
which those clouds were charged were all dried up, and the lightning that played amongst them was also destroyed. Within a moment the sky was cleared of dust and darkness, and a delicious, cool breeze began to blow and the disc of the sun resumed its normal state.

Then the eater of clarified butter (Agni), glad because none could baffle him, assumed various forms, and sprinkled over with the fat exuded by the bodies of creatures, blazed forth with all his flames, filling the universe with his roar. Then numerous birds of the Garuda tribe bearing excellent feathers, beholding that the forest was protected by Krishna and Arjuna, descended filled with pride, from the upper skies, desirous of striking those heroes with their thunderlike
wings, beaks and claws. Innumerable Nagas also, with faces emitting fire descending from high, approached Arjuna, vomiting the most virulent poison all the while. Beholding them approach, Arjuna cut them into pieces by means of arrows steeped in the fire of his own wrath. Then those birds and snakes, deprived of life, fell into the burning element below. And there came also, desirous of battle, innumerable Asuras with Gandharvas and Yakshas and Rakshasas and Nagas sending forth terrific yells. Armed with machines vomiting from their throats (mouths?) iron balls and bullets, and catapults for propelling huge stones, and rockets, they approached to strike Krishna and Partha, their energy and strength increased by wrath.

But though they rained a perfect shower of weapons, Arjuna addressing them reproachfully, struck off their heads with his own sharp arrows. That slayer of foes, Krishna, also, endued with great energy, made a great slaughter with his discus. Many Asuras of immeasurable might, pierced with Arjuna’s arrows and smitten with the force of Vishnu’s
discus, became motionless like waifs and strays stranded on the bank by the violence of the waves. Then Indra , the lord of the celestials, riding on his white elephant, rushed at those heroes, and taking up his thunderbolt which could never go in vain, hurled it with great force. And the slayer of Asuras said unto the gods, ‘These two are slain.’ Beholding the fierce thunderbolt about to be hurled by their chief, the celestials all took up their respective weapons.

But he was to be proved wrong ….

Now – a long story, but have not seen this depicted in any sculptures in India till date – but finding this in Banteay Srei stumped me.

What a beautiful, intricate and faithful reproduction of the legend. right from indra on his airavatam – discharging his thunder bolt – to his faithful varuna – depicted by the swelling water under him – to the roof of arrows – holding up the deluge – the escape of awsena, krishna on one side with his discus, arjuna on other with his bow – the forest beings, deers, antelope, rabbits, the flocks of different kinds of birds trying to fly and escape.

an amazing panel.

14 thoughts on “An Unique Panel – Fire in the Kandhava forest…Cambodia

  1. Hi friends,

    Am posting this interesting comment from a knowledgeable friend :

    VJ, the sculptures are amazing!! In Cambodia of all places.

    The story has couple of small details to be added – Agni grants Arjuna an inexhaustibl quiver of fire arrows and the famous golden chariot in return, and Maya – Takshaka’s accomplice grants Krishna a promise that he would build a great palace for the pandavas in Indraprastha. Indra or Maya don’t remember also grant the great Gandiva bow. The snake that escapes Khandava Vana seeks revenge on Arjuna and becomes part of Karna’s Nagasthra in the war. Krishna saves Arjuna by lowering the chariot and of course Karna’s curse played a huge role.

    Perhaps some of these details are there if we look closely.


  2. Comments with great insight from Malathi… In any case, dear VJ, having had a look again and again very closely at the sculptures photographed with such great care by you and your associates (is it Satheesh again? whoever it is, deserves all the praise he can get – I am indeed thankful for such gems), no doubt that the sculptures are been carved with enormous passion. Showering of arrows, fire in forest, trees, birds, animals, the calm and serene look on the faces of godly figures like Arjuna, Indra, Krishna. The sculptures and the affiliate them are so real and it is just so good that the figures have a distinctly SE Asian look just like the locals in the region. Sculpture non-pareil is the only word to be used for it. If possible, as an addition to the article kindly also mention the period of the sculpture and the king/dynasty behind such a stupendous effort.. Because that information would help people like me place the Cambodiyan dynasty or period in contemporaneous terms with the kings from India mainly south India by whom the cultures of the SE Asian countries like Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia etc. did not remain untouched in terms of religious and artistic influence.

  3. hi cheenu

    Banteay Srei loosely translated into Citadel of Women is the modern name of a 10th century Khmer temple originally called “Tribhuvanamahesvara”

    Consecrated in 967 A.D., Banteay Srei was the only major temple at Angkor not built by a monarch; its construction is credited to a courtier named Yajnavaraha , who served as a counsellor to king Rajendravarman.

    The only diff is the sculptures are carved out of red sandstone…


  4. Really amazing!. I only wonder as to how our mythology got translated into sculptures with such meticulous details in a far away land. I know that they were under our influence but still its commendable.

  5. Simply fantastic!Your rendition of the story from the Aadhi Parva-last section is superb-also the tamil version.Sir are you all professional photo archeologists?

  6. Dear Dr. Krishna

    We are just a bunch of amateur / novices, trying our best to showcase our heritage. Kind words like yours motivate us to do more


  7. அன்பு விஐய்,
    தங்களது கம்போடிய வர்ணணை ஓரு கவிதையாகும்.
    Ayyampet J.Balachandran

  8. This is so thrilling for me to know. The pictures take my breath away. Thank you.

    Our theatre group JustUs Repertory has just performed SARPA SUTRA (9 Jan 2013), which begins with KHANDAVA DAHANAM, at Bharatrang Mahotsav, the International Theatre Fest in Delhi. This play is based on the Mahabharata, and Marathi poet Arun Kolatkar’s brilliant poem Sarpa Satra (Snake Sacrifice) which has snake woman Jaratkaru narrating the story of how a revenge cycle spanning four generations began with Khandava Dahanam.
    Now I want to go to Cambodia and perform our play there on this amazing site!
    You never know… dreams sometimes come true!
    Gowri Ramnarayan, theatre director, Chennai

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