An Unique panel – Samudra Manthan from Kanchi kailasantha

The land of the thousand temples is no tall claim by Kanchipuram. At any spot in the city, you will be able to spot atleast 2 -3 temples and this treasure trove holds in its midst on the earliest and grandest structural temples – the spectacular Kailasantha built by King Rajasimha Pallava. This jewel of a temple holds in its midst some of the most fantastic expression of sculptural excellence – be it the composition, complexity, elegance and sheer volume per square inch of workmanship – this temple is second to none. Today, we are going to see a very unique panel that showcases the intellect and liveliness of the Pallava sculptor as well – the Samudra manthan.

Its very unusual to find the churning of Milk ocean to depicted in stone in India. Though a very important act, we find mostly Vishnu shown as his Kurma ( turtle) avatar depicting this significant event. The only freeze that does justice to this event is the one in Angkor and a few smaller panels in the surrounding sites. The Cambodian version have Vishnu shown twice – both as himself and as his kurma avatar ( including the nice one in the Swarnaboom Airport in Bangkok). The legend is ofcourse a simple one. The good Devas loose their powers due to an act of their chief Indra. They need Amrit to restore their immortality and powers. Amrit can be obtained if the Milk ocean is churned – but the task is so huge. They need the Manthara Mountain to churn and look for a rope – the king of serpents Vasuki volunteers his help. Just as they begin, the mountain sinks into the ocean due to its weight. Vishnu takes the form of turtle ( kurma) and bears it weight. The Devas and Asuras take the two side of the snake and churn the ocean. Finally the nectar or amrit is obtained.

The sculpture in Kanchi however is very different, for it does not have the Turtle depicted anywhere ! Lets take another look.

The central eight armed figure is Vishnu for sure, you can clearly see the Conch and the Discus.

He is slightly off center and hence our attention goes to the object on which he is leaning or rather holding up. ( kind of reminds you of the blokes in Baywatch leaning on their surf boards!!)

The posture is also important to notice, there seems to be nonchalant ease or rather an accomplished pride in his stance.

Now, to the bottom we do see the Vasuki, the king of serpents ( the rope that was used to churn) looking very much relaxed.

So, the pillar which Vishnu is propping up could be taken the Mandra mountain which was used to churn the milk ocean.

In side the frame of the Mandara mountain, we see a flying figure carrying something.

Lets take a closer look at this flying figure.

Ofcourse, its Dhanvatari carrying the pot of amrit. That means its mission accomplished ! Apart from the pot of Amrit with Dhanvantari many more auspicious beings/objects emerged during the churning chief among which are ofcourse the Kaustubham – the jewel worn by Vishnu, Kamadenu , Kalpavriksha, Airavatam – the white elephant given to Indra, by some version the Conch and Discus of Vishnu, and a seven headed white horse – Ucchaishravas. This is where it gets interesting. In its hay days, the entire sculpture would have had a full coat of lime plaster and beautifully painted – however, time has taken its toll, leaving us very little of the minute details, yet we can spot a horse ( its not a seven headed one) but a horse there is. This horse has an interesting legend associated with its tail and color, but we will see that later on.

Looking at all these, it would be a considered guess that this depicts the final act of the Samudra churning, where the triumphant Vishnu stylistically leans on the Mandara, taking in the applause.

picture courtesy: Sri Ashok Krishnaswamy

Part 2 of – An interesting Sculpture chat on some confusing sculptures

What an interesting exchange on the previous post ! forced me to put this part 2 of that debate.

Lets take a look at the sculpture under question again


Is the sculpture indeed that of Hanuman holding the Bana l

Arguments for:

The Bana lingam legend, the facial features.

Arguments against

No tail, presence of two ladies on both sides, presence of Vishnu’s attributes ( but this is not a clear case as Cheenu’s rightly pointed out there are instances !)

What other sculptures could it represent

Macha Avatar

But there is a matcha ( fish) avatar sculpture right next to this sculpture.


We had arguments for this image as well, but the depiction of the eyes and the typical mouth kind of settled the issue.

Lets see them in closeup again ( thanks Arvind once again)

Compare this macha avatar with the earlier sculpture, both can’t be the same for sure.

Varaha Avatar – Vishnu

A Definite possibility. Lets take a front depiction of Varaha from Ahobilam to compare.

The depiction of a spherical ( ok egg shaped) earth is not found in sculptures even upto 200 years after this representation. Take a look again, its too defined a sculpture for an artist to err in the shape ( for the finesse in carving the conch and the discus).

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While, its definitely a case in point to the two ladies. We see all the avatars and even Brahma sporting such attendants or consorts.

Now, we come to this interesting sculpture. its Kurma ( Turtle) Avatar

Lets study its features more closely

There are some legends related with Vishnu seeking Shiva’s help ( Kachbeshwarar form). But is this and the original sculpture similar. Lets study the face features once more side by side.

Well definitely not the same – clear from the eyes especially. I tend to side the argument for Hanuman more based on these.

An interesting sculpture and how a little bit of vandalism can lead to confusions, yet some tell tale signs help assist in proper identification.

Hey,who is this. Except for the face, everything is Ganesha. But the face …Hmm, lets take a closer look

Stumped you. Well dont rake your brains yet, is this a composite Ganesha combined with Varaha / Hayagreevar ….

No my friends, take a closer look at the top left ( of the sculpture)

Its the broken trunk, with the tip holding his favorite modhakam. Just a case of part of the trunk being broken !! Its our darling Ganesha only.

Dasavatharam cycle stand !!

We had earlier seen the amazing pillars of Srirangam Sesharaya mandabam in many posts. Such is the wealth of sculptural mastery in this pillared hall. it caught the eye of the master artist Silpi, to so masterly capture the stone in his work. Since there were many lovely sculptures in the hall, had requested my good friend Mr. Ashok to go there in person and do a full fledged shoot in the pillared hall. But what he came back with wrenched my heart.



The majestic horse pillar, lay is such a damaged condition. The unbelievable method in which such a lovely lance was sculpted into stone, lay broken. If only the master sculptor who sculpted these beauties saw this ! below the awesomely endowed lady stood majestically holding her head up in typical tamil pride, despite all the wanton destruction around. The rest of the sculptures have all been lost in the pillar.

When did this destruction happen, since no records are available for this, i searched on the net and came up with this 1868 albumen print

(Photograph from an album of 41 albumen prints by Edmund David Lyon. Close-up of carved horses and other figures in the Sheshagirirayar Mandapa at the Ranganatha temple of Srirangam. Lyon’s ‘Notes to Accompany a Series of Photographs Prepared to Illustrate the Ancient Architecture of Southern India’, edited by James Fergusson)

Seeing the pillar damaged during that period itself gave me some respite – atleast they were not damaged during recent times. But then what i saw next made my blood boil. The Kings of our land, gave grants and etched them into stone for these magnificent edifices – of art, to be a virtual repository of art, but how are we using them – a heritage cycle stand!



These beautiful Dasavathara pillars are being scratched by the handles and pedals of the cycles. Similar is the plight of numerous rare sculptures in this hall. Srirangam is the foremost – The Temple for Vaishnavites and if this is the plight there, i don’t have words for the lesser known temples.

One look at these pillars, would delight even the least artistically inclined soul, the sculptor has poured out his heart, fed the creation from his own blood and created masterpieces, it baffles me as to why its doesnt appeal to these heartless souls. They show as much respect to these treasures as a dog would give a lamppost. Decency limits me from writing more.

Can these sculptures be restored. Do we have the intent first and secondly is there the artistic know how. Even during the pallava period, the beautiful shore temple in mallai had its main deity – the vishnu idol’s hand being broken – and the court poet Acharya Dandin writes of the pallava sculptors mastercraft that he seemlessly restored the broken arm in his immortal work – Avanisundarikatha

Maybe, some good soul who sees this post, will take it up with the ` you know who’ and give these sculptures a new lease of life, or atleast the bare respect they deserve.