Ever since i read Dr. Kudavoil Balasubramanian’s wonderful article i had wanted to translate it into English for a wider audience to fully enjoy it. Thanks to friends Mr. Sps and Satheesh, i am doing that today. Enjoy this masterful post. picture credits to various sources on the net ( the stitched image thanks to Lakshni prabhala/flickr..The artist rendition/sketches thanks to the British Library archives.
The great Pallava dynasty has left behind numerous sites of artistic excellence, prominent amoung them and a pinnacle of their artistic expression is found among the architectural marvels of Kadal ( sea) Mallai, more popularly known as Mamalla ( great wrestler) puram ( town), a UNESCO world heritage site on the onskirts of chennai ( Madras). The artistic brilliance of the Pallavas, transformed small hillocks into the Pancha (Five) Rathas (chariots).
They envisioned a naturally found rock as a reclining Vishnu, and carved it in the form of Thirumal (Vishnu – part of the Hindu Trinity – The Protector) and with flowing designs erected a temple for him. They added to the beauty of this structure by sandwiching it between two Shiva (Hindu trinity – The destroyer) temples, forming the ageless aesthetic poetry of the shore temple.
A hillock in the centre of the town was transformed by their chisels into numerous cave temples. Thus the honor of converting the town into a virtual treasure trove of artistic expression and a living museum of south Indian temple architecture solely rests with King Rajasimha ( Raja – King – Simha – Lion) who called himself in numerous inscriptions ( stone edicts) as Atyantakama – king of unlimited fancies.
Mamallai has the ability of attracting art connoisseurs from world over and leaving them spell bound by its charm. The style of temple architecture popularly known as Thoonganai Madam ( also referred to as Gajaprishtam – temple resembling an elephant) is intelligently exhibited by carving a temple of this style out of natural rock and alongside sculpting a beautifully proportioned Elephant.
They left their unique signature in the tiger cave by carving a stage inside a tiger’s mouth and let divine damsels to dance on it.
The artists did not stop with just the cave temples on the hillock, but virtually filled every possible nook and corner with their sculptural masterpieces, thereby converting the entire town into a scintillating gallery of sculptural masterpieces. On one side, you see the celestial Ganges descending to the Earth, flowing as a river from the top of the hillock into the underground ( underworld). This panel is popularly referred to as Bagiratha ( proper name) prayatana ( Penance or effort). The rainwater that percolates from the top of the hill flows down through a natural fissure formed in-between two rock faces. That this spot was chosen to depict the penance of Bagirtha and the descent of the Ganges, shows the unmatched imaginative genius of the artist.
The subsequent efforts at conserving this panel by people who did not understand the true significance of the sculpture nor the imagination of the artist, has led to damming of the rivulet via a brick wall, thereby redirecting the rainwater away from the panel. If we were to witness the unobstructed flow, we would be able to visualize the rampaging current of the mighty celestial Ganges descending from the heavens, forests and temples are carved along its shores, while animals and birds dot the landscape. We also see realistic portrayal of not only celestial beings, humans, but also Nagas from the netherworld swimming up towards the surface to witness this divine spectacle. Its truly an awe inspiring site to the art enthusiast.
Just as the damming of this amazing spectacle has deprived the viewer of an opportunity to witness the artists inspired creation, another later construction has hid a masterpiece of artistic expression. This has occurred under the Vijayanager rulers. The beauty of this embodiment of bakthi has been marred by this act. However inorder to truly appreciate this intricate panel, one has to dwell deep into Krishna’s ( an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu) history and master the descriptive hymns of the divine Alvars (Vaishnavite saints)
Krishna grew up amidst cow herds in a village called Ayarpadi. Once the villagers got together to celebrate a festival honoring the Indra ( A God, King of the Devas), they failed to follow the norms laid down for a sacrificial ceremony. This angered Indra and he ordered the destruction of Ayarpadi by a hail of stones. In the ensuing pandemonium cattle, cow herds and herdswomen ran helter shelter trying to flee the wrath of Indra. It was at this time that Krishna came there and lifted a mountain called Govardanam with his hand and held is above his head as an umbrella. This mountain acted as a shield against the hail and protected Ayarpadi. With the Lord holding up the mountain as a shield, normalcy returned to the terrified residents. Even though the hail was unrelenting they went about their tasks under the shelter without fear. The cows gave milk, lovingly caressing their calves, while the herdswomen started suckling their infants. Some of the elderly women churned the curd to make butter, hawked the butter milk, while the herdsmen milked their cows. Everyone went about doing their normal chores. If not for Krishna holding up the hillock as an umbrella that day, the hail would have annihilated the entire village.
This spectacular scene is praised in the immortal Gita and finds mention in tirumangaialvars beautiful tamil hymn below:
Indiranukku enru ( for indra) aayargal eduttha ( by cow herds)
Ezhil vizhavil ( beautiful function) pazha nadai sei ( traditional guidelines)
Manthira vithiyil ( code of mantra recital) poosai ( pooja) peraathu ( did not follow)
Mazhai pozhinthida ( it rained) thalarthu ayar ( cow herd got greatly distressed)
Entham odinar ( ran helter shelter) aanirai thalaramal ( thus not tiring)
Emperumal ( vishnu) arul ( grace) ennna ( what)
Antham il varaiyal mazhai thaduthanai ( he stopped the rain)
Tiruvalkenik kandene ( i see him in triplicane)
The same is described by Perialvar as
Aayanar koodi amaitha vizhavai amarartham konaark kozhiyak
Govarthanathuch seithan malai.
Further the Tirumangai king sings the praise as :
Kadungal (heavy) maari ( rain) kalle ( stone) peiyya ( fell), alla emakku enru
Kadungal neeye saran enru ( we have no other refuge)aayar anja (the cowherds fear)
Anjamugan ( he who has no fear )nedungal kundram ( stone hillock) kudai ( umbrella) onru ( one) yendthi ( lift/hold)
Niraiyai ( fully) siramathal ( inconvenience) nadunga ( shiver) vannam kaatthan ( saved)
namam namo narayaname ( the lord)
where he beautifully describes the furiousness of the hail and the grace of lord saving the villagers.
The Pallava sculptors chose a small hillock in the centre of mallai town to depict this scene, as a long bas relief panel. However, later construction of the outer mandabam by Vijaya Nagar rulers ( though the intention was to protect the sculptures from nature’s fury) – the pillars erected in front of the panel do obstruct the views and overall composition of this bas relief.
If one were to stand couple of paces away from the rock and take away the outer mandabam and the pillars in the mind’s eye, we can fully appreciate the powerful portrayal of Krishna, who majestically holds aloft the mallai hillock in his outstretched arms.
The amazing panel even inspired a British artist to sketch it in the early 19th C.
Next to him is a delightful depiction of Balarama, whose nonchalant arm lovingly placed on the shoulders of an elderly cowherd, who is in all humility with folded arms.
Around them the entire village is depicted, with cows in the background and a majestic bull along with its calves etc.
There is a lovely cow sculpted with splendid horns, portrayed along with its calf – the motherly instinct has been brought into stone, by the cow lovingly licking its calf. The man squatting down to milk the cow and the his action reflecting in the cows slightly upheld tail ! simply superb.
There is herds women feeding her child on an other side, while a cowherd is playing the flute. The slant of the head as he his lost in his own composition !
Next is a lady who is sculpted balancing a rolled up mattress on her head and carrying on her other hand pot loads of curd and butter. The slant of her body and gait show that she is walking – an action pose.
To the extreme right, we see a older man carrying a baby lovingly perched on his shoulders supporting himself on a short staff, while his wife is holding a toddler in her left hand, while balancing a pot of buttermilk on her head.
Surrounding Krishna ofcourse is a gang of wonder stuck girls. Despite the terrible hailstorm around these scenes show that the village carried on normal life thanks to Krishna’s benevolent act.
Even the animals seem to be in merry mood. The other side, a young man seems to be intent on moving out of the protective umbrella and is held back by his lady ( or is it – the sculpture looks more like he is pulling the lady with him)
The master pallava sculptor has converted the mallai hillock into Govardhanagiri. Drinking on each detail of this sculpture, lets see the depiction from Alwars once more – stretching up, he used the five fingers of his hand to hold up the hill as an umbrella – the photographic rendition can be seen in Periyalwars verse. He says the beautiful long sholders of the lord became the umbrella rod, his fingers became the spokes and the whole whole was inverted on top to from an umbrella.
sepparudaiya thirumaalavan ( krishna) than ( his)
senthaamaraik ( red lotus) viral ( fingers) ainthinaiyum ( all five)
kambaaga ( rod -) maduthu mani nedunthol ( beautiful broad /long shoulders)
kaambaakak( usage like the stalk of a flower) koduthu ( give) kavitha ( invert) malai ( hill)
Seeing this Perialwar goes on further, seeing the Lord in this pose, he is reminded of Aadishesha having spread his five heads as a hood lifting the earth.
padangal ( hoods) palavumudaiya (have many) paambaraiyan ( snake)
padar boomiyai ( the earth) thaangi ( hold up) kidappavanpol ( he who is)
thadangai ( hand) viralainthum ( all fingers) malaravaithu ( like a blooming flower)
damodharan ( another name of krishna) thaangu ( hold up) thadavaraithaan ( the hill)
Seeing the sights of this panel, with the children frolicking with the cowherds we are also reminded of the song of periyalwar
thaaimaar mor virkka povaar thagappanmaar
karranirap pinpu povar
ne aayarpaadi yilang kanni maargalai
nerpadave kondu pothi
kaaivaark kondrum ugap panave seithu
kandaar kazurith thirium
aiya unnai yarinthu konden unak
kanjuven ammam rtharave
(To one side is a magnificent seated bull – a depiction that is truly masterclass.
and on the other we have a interesting composition of morphing lions – man – vulture)
the beauty of ayarpaadi, the magnificence of Krishna holding aloft the govardhana hillock to protect against the hailstorm – all have been sculpted into stone by the pallava sculptor, not only that he has gone to great lengths to sculpt even the cows – their body forms, commissioning them to eternal life, singing the praise of the lifestock along with the Lord.