Tracking the evolution of the Pallava Somaskanda – Part 3

We are proceeding with our analysis of the Somaskanda froms in Pallava period today. We had earlier seen the one in the Dharamaraja Ratha ( to be correct we should be called it Atyantakama pallavesvara griham ) and compared it stylistically with the one in the Shore temple – Rajasimeshwara Shrine. We also looked at the outlines of the chiseled out Somaskanda panel in the Ramanuja Mandabam.

Recapping the questions that were posed based on the 2 parts of the series seen so far:

1. Between the two styles seen so far, which could be classified as the prototype / earliest and which is stylistically more evolved.

2. What are the stylistic and inconographic differences that can be spotted among the two.

3. Basing on the above, the panel in the Ramanuja Mandaba belongs to which style.

While we are waiting for viewer responses, lets proceed to another splendid example of the Pallava somaskanda, in the tiger cave complex. We have already seen these ( not one but three somaskandas) and the reason for them being there, when we studied evidence of the presence of three shiva lingas in the Atiranchanda Mandabam.

Lets look at the central shrine of this cave first. Multiple views to give you an idea of its beauty.

Do you see the Somaskanda Panel etched behind the shiva linga. Dont worry, we will take you closer.

A trace to further assist you.

Now, we step back to view the other two somaskanda panels.

The two Panels now

and their traces

Questions for readers:

1. What style are these Somaskanda Panels?
2. Are all three somaskandas attributable to the same period?

We continue our journey in subsequent posts

Tracking the evolution of the Pallava Somaskanda – Part 2

In the previous post, we saw stylistically the earliest and latest somaskanda images.

Today, we are going to see why the Somaskanda Panel in the Dharmaraja Ratha is the earliest available panel of this form.

Lets take a look again at the Somaskanda panel from the Dharamaraja Ratham and the sketch.

To compare it with say a typical Rajasimha style Somaskanda – we have a beautiful almost perfect specimen from the Rajasimeshwara Temple in the shore temple complex ( the shore temple is a complex shrine comprising of an earlier Vishnu shrine buttressed by two shiva shrines – the Rajasimeshwara and Kshatriyasimeshwara shrines – the Kshatriyasimeshwara too has a Somaskanda but we will see that in a subsequent post)

A sketch to assist you in finding the differences. Lets see if you can point out the characteristic differences between the two Somaskandas.

A further twist to the various puzzles that abound in Mallai, the Ramanuja Mandaba is the most complete of the structures but due acts of vandalism – its like a slate that’s been wiped clean. Someone has chiseled out the door guardians, the three relief panels inside as well.

But as they say no crime is perfect, the chiseled out panel does leave an outline. The central shrine clearly shows the outline of a Somaskanda

Lets try and trace that and see what style is it – the Dharamaraja Ratha style or the Rajasimeshavara style.

To assist you, i am giving some additional outlines of the Shiva and Umai sides of the Dharamaraja Ratha Somaskandar

Hope you dont need any further clues. Lets test your observations skills.

Images courtesy: and Mr Ashok

Tracking the evolution of the Pallava Somaskanda – Part 1

Friends, thanks for following the posts and offering your encouraging words. Please note these are not thoroughly researched or expert opinions, but merely our path of learning which we are sharing with you. We do not want to say that this is correct, but this sharing is more to inspire many more to walk this path. We try and take care to make sure that we do not publish something that is grossly wrong, but if and when mistakes or another reading is there, we encourage readers to enlighten us as well. Why this long disclaimer for this post, you may ask, well the post is like that.

Today, we are to see part one of a series on the evolution of the Pallava Somaskanda icon. At the outset, we offer our thanks to Dr Gift, whose online resource is heavily relied on in this series.

This series is aimed at asking questions and find simple yet logical solutions, but the puzzle is indeed big. So without scaring you away, lets jump into the introduction of this series. The Pallava Somaskanda.

The basic argument which will be used in this series is evolution and see how the sculpture evolved into its current form. What is its current form? Borrowing these beautiful bronzes to show the form in its final evolved iconography

To study their features and compare we will also show you tracings ( copies) as line drawings

This is current day bronze. But do we have the first first / earliest or atleast earliest surviving prototype. Yes, we do have. Its in the upper tier of the Dharamaraja Ratha of the five ratha complex in Mamallapuram.

Since this is an intro post, we just let it sink in. In the following posts of this series we will travel around the region, and try to find a logical sequence to the evolution of this image.

Photo credits:
Special thanks to and for the images

Srivatsam – the mole that adorns the chest of Vishnu

Thanks to a chance visit to the local museum along with Sakthis, we are seeing an amazing Chola stone sculpture – Vishnu. Working with granite is a true test for a sculptor, to bring out the soft benevolent grace of Vishnu into the hard stone – working with a iron chisel shaping his supple cheeks, hammering away at his immaculate ornaments, it must have been so fulfilling to him to come out successful in this test of his skill with zero place for error.

Sadly, this museum exhibit has been subjected to some deliberate acts of vandalism – a nose cut would be inappropriate to use here, but such stone sculptures would have had to be scrapped and not suitable for worship !! Its a painful realisation of human need and greed , a human hand created such a thing of beauty while another destroyed it, Gold, God and Glory are indeed engines of great motivation and destruction.

Letting aside the disfigurement, the beauty of this sculpture doesn’t shed its secrets easily to a casual viewer. Leonardo da Vinci apparently said that ” There are three classes of people: those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see”

What is there to see in this sculpture. Not wanting to go into too much depth, will take a perfect ( to be read as non disfigured one) later to discuss the different aspects.

One is his brilliant lion motif belt buckle.

The other is more interesting and one which we studied in the bronze cast figures. The Mole – srivatsam being represented here as a triangular projection.

The sculptor took great care to depict this, for you have to watch a stone worker work to chip away with his chisel removing layer upon layer to create this effect or projection in stone.

Can we study this in comparison to the bronze and maybe check in other collections and see how this mark evolved!!

Breathing life into stone

Why is the genius of the Pallava sculptor not recognised despite numerous examples which stare right at us. Take for example, these two sets of sculptures from the Arjuna Ratha of the famous Five ratha complex ( whoever came up with these fancy names for these rathas!!), we have already seen a masterpiece in the other wall. We take two more such from the other two walls. Each a gem on its own.

While we were discussing the evolution of the Ardhanari image, we postulated on how the sculptor had brought in the Bull mount to balance the composite form. But was it just a freak moment of sheer brilliance or was it an evolution. Today we are going to see that it was not just a convenient introduction but a masterful confluence of two forms of Shiva.

Lets look at the this form of shiva – rishabandhika – Shiva with his mount. This is from the Arjuna Ratha in Mamallapuram.

These sculptures are classic Pallava styling with minimalistic ornamentation, pleasing body lines but spectacular styling.

I know some of you are already asking, whats so great about this sculpture.It looks pretty normal if not falling short. There seems to be something wrong with his torso and especially his chest. Did the sculptor make a mistake or ….?

Ok, Let me explain.

First of all, its a monolith, carved out of living rock, second its a relief sculpture and lastly, it carries the hall mark of Pallava craftsmanship.

Take a look at this angle, you will understand what i mean.

For Shiva is sculpted not facing you but half turned in profile. See how the master sculptor has made use of the available canvas – since he didnt have enough space to sculpt Shiva facing fully out, he has made masterly use of the depth available to sculpt him in profile

Though this is not a good angle ( thanks Ashok for the picture, you always come with different angles! ), but i am showing this to demonstrate his amazing use of depth and perspective. You can also see the angle of shoulders indicating how the torso has been angled to show a sideward pose. How he managed to visualise it in stone and managed to deliver is mind boggling.

Now, you will be able to better understand the Ardhanari evolution as a confluence of this image mingling with the Ardhanari.

As another example of the Pallava sculptor’s superlative stonecraft, we visit another spectacular pose from the other wall of the Arjuna ratha.

For a second, you forget that this is stone.

Not that angle, view it from this angle.

Look at how he has sculpted the Royal couple, the lady is calling her beloved who turns his head to answer her. Just close your eyes for a second, visualise her voice. ” My dear lover, “.. He turns around ” What is it sweetheart ….”

Breathing life into stone, that’s what the Pallava sculptor did!! It just needs some patient viewing and tuning to his frequency and wavelength.

How much would you give in for your better half

How much would you give in for your better half ? Sorry to disappoint you, but we are still talking sculpture here.

We had seen in the previous post how the Ardhanari image evolved including and highlighting stylistic elements of the male and female portions and the necessity of the sculptor to bring in the bull ( Nandhi) to balance the image. We stopped with stone sculptures with a promise to bring similar study into metal/bronze images.

Chola bronzes are really stunning creations of sublime beauty. The lure of such pieces are so great that once you are caught in their timeless charm, its difficult not to fall in love with them. So how better to start this discussion on the evolution of Ardhanari form from stone to metal, but to showcase a stunning bronze – not any bronze but a very very special bronze. ( collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio)

Once again a few line drawings ( tracings) to take you through the stylistic aspects

A closeup first.

Some interesting questions. Note Shiva’s side has two hands while Umai has only one. Read somewhere that its to show the male dominance – how ridiculous. This entire concept is based on showcasing the equality of the two sexes! Why then are the two hands for Shiva? Well lets step a bit back and see the larger picture

The exaggerated curve of the waist for Umai , the tribanga ( triple flexion) all follow the styling in stone to the T. ( lets compare the two)

Notice the splendid work on Umai’s hands. Picture her delicate fingers gently holding a lotus by its stalk! Compare it with Shiva’s hand holding the Ax. They balance out each other in terms of composition. So now to our pet theory.

Lets for a second take out the Bull and the additional hand and see the image for arguments sake.

You can see the torso leaning awkardly to the right, for want of a better example – in a crowded bus, imagine you reaching out to the conductor to buy a ticket – thats the pose. Jokes, apart, is shiva giving into Parvathi’s might or is Parvathi being swayed / pulled by shiva? Anyway, the second hand of Shiva resting on the bull is purely to balance the tilt.

Arvind raised an interesting question. The flexing of shiva’s leg.

Quote: “does the bent knees and the posture of the lower limbs on the male side indicate a longer limb (as much as it does muscular limb, which is pronounced in certain sculptures and visually identifiable).
Given the bend of the limb and also the lean of the hip, though I get a feel of longer limb on the male side”

Welcome viewers views on this. We will study this in similar bronze sculptures of simple ( not composite ) forms in an other post.

Hey, but this was introduced as no ordinary bronze. Whats so special about this bronze?

Its an unique style – a composite icon formed with half a male, half a female, a bull all framed into a Trident. Wow!! If this is not poetry, what is!!!

Tracing the refinement of the Ardhanari Image

An interesting conversation ensued from the previous post on the Ardhanari iconography, not as a direct question from Sri Dev, but as an offshoot. I thought of developing the same and presenting it here. The sculptures have endured considerable damage and hence have tried to present them as line drawings using simple traces.

At the outset, the objective of this post is not to show the differentiation between the male and the female portions of the sculpture, but to reflect the evolution from the shoes of the sculptor ( well he wouldn’t be wearing shoes then anyway !) and how he had ingeniously solved a complicated problem.

The anatomy shows certain basic differentiations between the male and the female forms of the human species. Without getting into the details, the sculptor was posed with a problem when it came to the Ardhanari form. He had to fuse the male and female forms into a single composite image, maintaining the differences between the two sides, while at the same time, making sure the sculpture doesn’t look grotesque but rather as an appealing image. To illustrate this I have chosen a few random samples and focused just on this question or rather just the solution ( for otherwise each of these images need a full post for themselves)

Lets see an early version of the Ardhanari form from the Pallava period ( not stating that this is the earliest form but more for ease of study). This sculpture is from the Dharma Raja Ratha of the Five Ratha complex in Mamallapuram.

To make it easier have traced it, so that we may study it in detail.

You can see the characteristic Pallava touches, in minimal jewelry and simple formation (predominantly linear structure), but what it lacks, is the life, which we usually feel in a Pallava sculpture – This shows this is a early Pallava sculpture, as we see in later Pallava styling, in most cases the subjects are shown in profile and highly fluid forms, they almost seem to be able to give the viewer a sense of movement though cut into stone. This form however, is very rigid and resembles ( for want of better examples) a fly that’s been swat or a toad thats run over on a road. I am a great fan of Pallava stone sculpture and have argued with many about their superiority over even later cholas, but this particular one,I have to put my hands up. Why? was it because the sculptor was trying this composite form for the first time. It does look so. The differentiations between the two halves except for the breast is not much. Below the waist, its so flat that it leaves you quite disappointed.

So, what could the sculptor do? It was obviously not the same sculptor, but lets imagine a school of sculptors who start refining the form.

Lets look at the next sample – please bear in mind that we have not spent time in dating these sculptures to be sure that this is the evolutionary road but just presenting a series for discussion sake .

once again a trace to highlight or focus just on the key aspects of the sculpture.

You see that the sculptor has realised the need to highlight the gender differences and is focusing on aesthetics. He has given the waist on the female portion a good bend and tried to move that side into a tribanga pose. But this causes problems on the male side, so he had had to flex the right knee a bit. He has tried to bring in subtle changes in the hands, the left hand is more graceful while the right hand is more manly – resting on his hips. He has also brought in changes in the apparel, the saree wound around the legs in the lady side compared to kind of tight boxers for the man portion.

Lets progress a bit more into Chola land and see the perfected form.

A trace again to savor the beauty more

You can see the female portion in full triple flexion ( tribanga) and to compensate for it, the right leg of Shiva is bent fully. This causes the male torso to lean at the awkward angle and though the sculpture would look pleasing it would not be aesthetically appealing. So he comes up with an ingenious solution. Make Shiva rest or lean on to something and the readily available option is his mount or vehicle – Nandhi. Presto, problem solved. Add lots of beautiful ornamentation, develop the differences in the dressing style and this perfected model becomes a standard for all Ardhanari images henceforth.

Lets check out our theory, rushing to Elephanta Caves

What a wonderful sculpture, such grace and you can hardly see the two forms merge – the combination is seamless. And our bull is there to give balance as well. Check out the trace. Ofcourse, there are some differences in the ornamentation and styling but the basics stand.

so how sure are we of this, meaning how do we test this theory. Ok, the male and female portions occupy the right and left sides by default, but then there is one particular sculpture which is an exemption, where they switch sides ( why ? need to find out)

What does happen when this inversion happens and how does it support our theory. Watch the bull behind…

He too has been turned around to face left, to support the male half. What do you say about this ?

We must follow this study with a study on bronze figurines and test the concept. Ofcourse the structural engineering side of the image, the volume of stone which would need support, could differ from the raw strength of metal. But thats another post…..

Photographs are from the American Institute of Asian studies archives