Today, we proceed to another wonderful site in Mahabalipuram ( mallai) – we have already been there twice so far – taking in the splendor of the two masterpieces of Pallava relief sculpture – the Reclining Vishnu Panel and Mahishasuramardhini panel. Most visitors would just turn back after seeing these, but there is one more relief panel in this cave that needs to be seen. Its a wonderful and unique Somaskanda panel.
This is one of the largest Pallava Somaskanda panels and occupies the entire back wall of the sanctum. Its important to note that none of caves assigned to Mahendra Pallava have somaskanda panels.
Before we get into analyzing the uniqueness of this sculpture, we need to understand that there is always this issue of dating the sculptures in mallai and also on its authorship. The mahishasuramardhini cave does us no favors, in that it doesn’t have any inscriptions in it to give us any clues. There are also some confusing addons ( later additions – take overs – as per experts). We have already seen the Somaskanda in the shoretemple earlier on in this series and being a structural temple carrying inscriptions of Rajasimha Pallava, we will start our study with that image and try to date the current one as earlier or of later date.
At first glance they seem to be very similar, stylistically. Lets look at them side by side by side, with highlights to do a comparison.
The key things to see in the Mahishasuramardhini somaskanda are marked here.
Its a fantastic composition, with some classic postures. The pose of baby skanda, almost jumping out – the grace of the seated parvathi, how she rests her weight on her left hand, the calm poise of shiva – with Brahma and Vishnu inside the panel – fantastic work by the sculptor. ( notice the parasol above parvathi as well)
The major differences between the two sculptures are are the Lion styled legs of the throne, the nandhi in front and the female devotee by his side replacing the vase. The lion comes in to replace the Bull standard of the Pallavas during the period of Narasimha Pallava. It also enters Pallava pillars ( but that’s the subject of another post – evolution of Pallava pillars – to start soon)
Now, coming back to our question, which of these Somaskanda’s are earlier. Lets study the smaller details.Look into the dress of Shiva and its detailing.
its quite obvious that both these images – gross proportions are similar, styles are similar. Then how can we propose a solution. Lets analyse the two side by side figures one more. Notice the left leg of Shiva ( he is seated in sukasana – for those who want to know the tech terms) – in the panel from the shore temple, its position corresponds to the centre line of the shiva sculpture – whereas in the panel from the Mahishasuramardhini mandabam – you notice that its moved off centre, to its left – to accommodate the Nandhi – seamlessly integrating into the frame as a foot rest for divine couple.
To understand this better, let me attempt to digitally morph these two sculptures to show how the leg moves to the left to create space in the composition for the nandhi.
Based on above, i would assign a later or at least contemporary period for these panels but one thing for sure – the shore temple somaskanda panel cannot be earlier to the mahishasuramardhini somaskanda panel. What do you say.