Reaching the limits of Sri Vaikundam

Today we are seeing another lovely sculpture panel from mallai – the spectacular thirvikrama panel. Though his name has come to be associated somehow with this art site, we do get to see the great man – Mahabali.

Have sought the help of some learned friends to help bring this post to you. You can split this post into three, the pure sculptural beauty, the expert understanding of the concept beautifully blending with the storyline and lastly the underlying spiritual explosion.

Photos : courtesy Sri Venkatesh ( during the ponniyin selvan group tour to mallai) and myself during a rushed run through this march for some closeups. Content assistnace : Sri Venkatesh again.

As usual we start with the panel in the whole.

As in the post of the Varaha panel, instead of sounding repetitive, instead of focusing just on the hand poses. we are going to look at the characters depicted and finally the beauty of the sculptor depicting Thiruvikrama.

The story first; the powerful King Mahabali is planning to do a great Yaaga ( sacrifice) under the advise of his Guru ( teacher) Sukraacharariar. This could catapult him above the realms of Indra and the King of the immortals seeks Sri Vishnu’s help to stop this.

The lord, does this without shedding a drop of blood, by cleverly utilising the King’s generosity and honor. It was common practise those days to seek the blessings of learned men by giving them alms. Vishnu descends as a young ascetic – a dwarf and seeks alms from the great King. Initially the great King is misled by what is apparent and is almost agreeing to the request – the request is for three feet of land. Considering the diminutive size of the requester, the demands look simple. But the experienced Sukrachaariar looks through the Lord’s disguise. He warns the King against accepting the same,but the King, righteous that he is, keeps his word. The teacher in his eagerness to save his king takes the form of a bee and blocks the spout of the pitcher ( kamandala) – so that the alms granting which is traditionally confirmed by washing off all your claims on that. The dwarf seeing this picks up a blade of grass and inserts into the spout and blinds the guru. Finally the alms is completed and time comes for the Vamana to measure his three feet.

The lord now reveals his true form, he instantly transforms from a diminutive dwarf to Thiruvikrama – a cosmic giant. The first step he takes measures the earth. The second step Bali offers him the Heavens. The Lord in one sweeping move, lifts his leg staright up and spans the heavens. There is no Terra firma left for the last step, that the King offers his own head in an act of total submission to the Lord ( is it not what is the ultimate goal of devotion / bhakthi). The Lord grants him his, takes the third step on the King’s head – consigning him deep into the nether world.

The core concept in this story taken by the mallai sculptor is the massive form of Tiruvikrama spanning the Earth and the Heavens with just two steps. How the sculptor has handled this in his composition is the highlight of this panel. We will see the characters one by one.

We fist go bottom up – analysing the different characters surrounding the main pose of Vishnu.

The lower portion shows four seated persons.

Since the Lord has just taken the second step, we can safely assume that one of them is King Mahabali and the other his Guru Sukraacahariar. The subtlety of this panel, is that of the four seated people, the two seated closest to the Lord, are still looking down, the two to the right and left extreme, are just starting to look up….the sculptor is showing the sudden transformation of the Dwarf Vamana to the cosmic expanse of Thiruvikrama.

We are slightly spanning up. To the two sides of the Lord, to his left at his waist level and to his right, just above – we see two flying figures. Who are they, they seem to the beholding the splendor of the Lord. Closer inspection reveals a very important clue, both of them have circular orbs around their heads. ( the one to left is smaller and lower). Did you get it


Its the Sun and Moon. The sculptor is bringing in a concept of size – that the Sun and Moon are just at the level of the waist and the Lord towers above them.

An interesting inclusion in the panel is found to the extreme left just above the moon. An unique portrayal in a more unique pose. Who is this? Speculation by some if that this is Trisangu ( the Rishi who wanted to ascend to the heavens with his human form, who was helped by Sage Viswamitra to attempt it. As this defied the set nature, he was kicked out by Indra, as he was falling down, the sage uses his powers to stop his inbetween and create a new heaven for him.

But is it he who is sculpted. Definitely the pose of the sculpted person doesn’t befit one who is in heavens. We searched more and found one more important character in the same Vamana episode – the son of Mahabali, Nammuchi, who tries to stop Vishnu from taking the steps. The Lord just kicks/flings him and he is said to be launched into orbit. Now look at the panel – the figure seems to fit this model, of someone who has been kicked into orbit. This particular incident has been sung by Perialwar as well.

To the left, the sweeping second step – you see an interesting depiction of Brahma, holding Vishnu’s hand with his left hand and offering ablutions to Vishnu’s foot.

The same position to the right, we see Shiva seated on a lotus pedestal. witnessing the grand spectacle.

There is another interesting character coming into frame a the top left – just beside Brahma. A bear on a drum, is he jambavan, one of the immortals. He doesn’t seem to fit into the scheme of things. Anther more interesting interpretation is that he is one of the Nithya suris – Thumburu of Srivaikuntam. The sculptor’s view is that the expanding Vishnu reached Sri Vaikuntham !!
Now lets look at the main sculpture. The spectacular Tiruvikrama, the main character.

Such poise and grace, its such a feat to depict someone standing on one leg, throwing out his other leg like a Bale dancer – the thrown leg on tip toe. The expression on the face is sublime.

The beauty of his hands, holding the various ensigns – his conch, his discuss ( chakra – in deployment mode ), the sword, the short sword or mace, the long bow – each shows the mastery of the sculptor’s knowledge of anatomy.

I was simply bowled by this particular frame, his belly button, just a subtle chisel mark but something that has survived a 1300 years.

The depiction that i loved most was the left leg, flowing under the hand.

The final touch of the sculptor ofcourse was the right hand, on first look it seems as though the Lord is balancing by holding on to the frame, but is it that. Looks like he is resting on the outer limits of Sri Vaikuntham and asking the question – where next !!.

A unique depiction of Vishnu Fish incarnation

Today we are to see a very unique depiction of Vishnu in his fish incarnation. Matsya (Fish in Sanskrit) was the first Avatar of Vishnu in Hindu mythology. Matsya Avatar or the Fish Incarnation is the first of the ten Divine Incarnations or Dasavatars of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu is the Preserver of the Universe in the Holy Trinity or Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in Hinduism.

A Kalpa, meaning one cycle of existence, with a span of 4320 million years, in Hindu Mythology, is equal to one day of Brahma, the Creator of the Universe. On the verge of completion of each Kalpa, and one day of Brahma, Brahma falls asleep. When he does so all of Creation, dissolves into his sleep, signifying the end of Creation. Except, the Vedas are immutable and beyond destruction. Their habitat is inside Brahma. They contain the instructions for Creation, and are hence indispensable to resume the Divine Creational Process. Bhagvat Purana, reports, that once Brahma yawned and the precious Vedas, flowed out of his lips.

Matsya Avatar Meanwhile, Hayagriva, the Asura or demon, scheming to gain the desired immortality, a prerogative of the Devas or gods, was wandering nearby. He instantly stole the Vedas and devoured them. Such insidious intent of the Asura, precipitated a crisis. Vishnu, who feigned Nidra or Sleep, witnessed the entire offence. He was speculating on how to retrieve the treasured Vedas, when he located the pious King Satyavrata, offering prayers to Vishnu, with his waist deep down in water. Satyavrata is also called King Manu.

Vishnu immediately assumed the shape of a tiny fish and swam into Satyavrata`s hands. Vishnu, in the disguise of a fish, entreated Manu, who is virtue personified, to save him from being engulfed by the big fish. The kind Manu put the small creature inside a vessel, full of water. Overnight, the fish outgrew on a surprising scale. Manu had to shift him from the vessel into a bigger tank. But the fish continued growing abnormally. It requested Manu for larger space to live, and Manu accordingly kept it in a pond. Manu, exhorted by the enlarging fish, then dropped it in the greater expanse of a large lake. However, the growth rate did not stop escalating. Finally, the bewildered Manu, impelled by the fervent appeal of the mammoth fish for enormous space, placed him in the ocean. But the fish urged Manu, not to leave him in the ocean. Otherwise, the gigantic ocean-beings would swallow him. It was then that the devout Satyavrata, already amazed by the extraordinary growth-speed of the magical fish, pledged it to disclose its actual identity.

Lord Vishnu made his Celestial Revelation before the awed Manu. Satyavrata, instantly bowed down before him and wished to know the reason behind the Lord`s appearance in the frame of a fish. The omniscient Lord, informed him about the forthcoming Pralaya or Destructive Forces that would vanquishing the Earth, with Great Deluge- “I have manifested for the protection of this universe and for the destruction of the wicked. Just a week from now, the ocean will rise and inundate the entire Universe. At that time you will see a spacious boat approaching you. Do collect all the seeds , plants and animals required for the next spell of creation and get into the boat and wait for me. Take Vasuki, the King of Snakes. The Sapta Rishi or the Seven Sages will also be with you.”

Matsya Avatar left to accomplish its mission. He tore apart the Asura Hayagriva, and collected the lost Vedas.

As had been predicted by the Divine Fish, an all-annihilating flood occurred. Meanwhile, a boat appeared where Satyavrata was waiting with the seeds, plants and animals, and the Sapta Rishi, to take refuge in the boat amidst death`s clutches. When everybody had boarded the huge boat, the boat was fastened to the Fish`s horn, with Vasuki serving as the rope ( as i remember reading in Amar Chitra Katha). They sailed in the turbulent water, all through the night of Brahma`s single day. Vishnu thus, rescued life from ceasing. He also by giving shelter to all the creatures, maintained the flow of life that will perpetuate in the next Created Cosmos.

The Matsya Avatar of Vishnu focuses the perpetual love and concern of the benevolent Vishnu,

Ok, but generally vishnu is depicted with a human form waist up and a fish form – ( as is evident from this pillar from srirangam)

But today we see a unique depiction with the forms reversed. Fish upper body and a human lower body – this is from Belur. A very unique and cute sculpture.

chandra and others had doubts if this was depiction of Varaha ( boar avatar). appending the relevant sculptures from the same location

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.

An Intro Post on Tirukurungudi – a guest post Mr. Kannan

For all the long years that was in my motherland, i had not yet discovered by true thirst for my language, thought the love for art was there since long. It was a chance introduction of one of well wishers Sri Divakar who brought me into a forum that made me realise the beauty of my mother tongue and like a toddler learning to walk, i relearnt my mother tongue, trying to find my release through the amazing mintamil forum. I was egged on during those initial stages of just a few lines on sculpture to deeply analysing and inferring literature, bakthi and their interplay with sculpture – was catalysed by the interactions i had with Mr. Kannan. a stunning academic whose love for the language and the great devotional hymns, amazed me. As luck could have it, Mr Ashok my photographer friend came up with a set of amazing sculptures from Tirukurungudi, one look a them and i decided inorder to do justice to the mastery of these beauties, the right person to write about them would be Mr Kannan. Grateful to him for agreeing to do so and come up with such a great post in such a short duration. Read on and enjoy…..

It often amazes me! You and me look at a rock, a barren hill as stone. But an artist sees a temple inside. How else could we have those marvelous cave temples in Mamallapuram, Ajanta and Ellora?
There are plenty of stones around us. But only an artist sees God in a stone. A poetry is hidden in words. Poetry is hidden in stones as well. I shoot a butterfly on the other day. It was so beautiful that I felt that this butterfly is nothing other than a Haiku written by the flower! Can we say this? Yes! we can. Beauty and order are the
essence of creation. Whenever there is beauty there is poetry. Vijay has rightly called his blog “Poetry in Stone”.

But of course most of us don’t see a poetry in rock or a flower. We need to develop those aethetics. Tirumular a saint poet of India says that when you see a wooden elephant, at that moment you ‘see’ only an elephant and not the wood. In the same way, when you see nature, you see only the elements but not the god. This is certainly an art. To see a poetry in stone and God in everything.

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Nammalvar, the poet saint of southern India expresses it in a different way. He visited Tirukurungudi. He saw God there. He saw ONLY god and nothing else. Not even the ‘seer’. Only ONE existed. He says
then “If then, how dare I call myself an entity?” I think Nammalvar is correct. After seeing these beautiful sculptures, one forgets oneself. Only the Poetry in Stone Exists.

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The popular belief is that Sriman Narayanan decends now and then as Avatars on earth, as it is one of the playgrounds for him (Leela Vibhuti). Among the most popular Dasavatar (ten) Vamana is celebrated by saints and poets. As it reflects the sentiments of Tirumular and Nammalvar beautifully. Pali was a great ruler,in fact, he was referred as ‘Mapali’ the great one! All the worlds under the heaven was his (in fact, he owned the heaven as well). He naturally forgets God, the creator. This story repeats after his great grand father Hiranya who was a tyrrant and egoist. He was slayed by Vishnu for the same reason. However, Pali is also the grandson of Prakalatha, a well known devotee
of Vishnu. So, Vishnu didn’t kill him but he wanted to show him a lesson. He came as a dwarf and asked for three feet of land as alm. Without relizing the fact that he was God himself, Pali promised HIM his land. Next moment HE grew so big that the entire known universe is under one feet and the unknown universe under another feet. Even Brahma the creator of universes got baffled by this enormous BEING. He realized that HE must be the ‘real’ creator and so he washed HIS feet using water in his kamandala. The water flew in the heavens there after as “Akasa Ganga”. Later Siva brought that to earth for earthly uses. The God who resides in Tirukurungudi is none other than this
huge entity. This beautiful myth is captured in stone.

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HE appeared once to the call of Gajendra. Under distress Gajendra called for help. He requested the roots of all roots to appear in front of him to remove his distress. So he called “Adi Mulame” (the
one from it everything springs, the undifferentiated ONE). Before THAT appeared everything else such as all the Devas, Trimurthi, Rishis and Munis appeared. Why? They wanted to see who THAT one was? At that moment Sriman Narayanan appeared in his Eagle cart (Garuda vahanam)
majestically. This story is depicted as poetry in stone as well.
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However, the most interesting one is Krishna stealing butter. The most popular myth of India and elsewhere. Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu as well. However, with a difference. While rest of all avatars are magnificent and majestic. This one is ‘down to earth’. A playful child, mischievous to the core. Naughty and charming. Nothings escapes his charm. Not even the cattle and trees in Brindavan. Krishna is embodiment of beauty, simplicity and benevolence. He undertook major tasks for the benefit of people around him like a child play (the samhara or the destruction of evil in this avatar is unparalleled) mainly to make himself accessible to his dear ones as a child companion to play with. That’s why Krishna is accepted by everyone without cast, creed and religion. This beauty is etched on stone with the same charm in Tirukurungudi.

When poetry emerges, it charms, it enchants and it mesmerize. At that moment only poetry exists. Paranirvana, Satory, Moktsha. Don’t you feel that at this moment in this blog?

Two versions of the same story, or are they, a comparison of two special depictions of Varaha ( boar) incarnations – mallai and Udayagiri

One of the favorite depictions of the Indian sculptor was the act of saving the earth ( lady earth…booma devi) by Lord Vishnu – who takes the form of a boar. There are many different depictions of this but to see the beauty of the sculpture and the delicate interplay of sculpture with literature is seen in these two forms…

what started off as comparison between the varaha images in udayagiri n
mallai lead to this post . Was always fascinated by so many depictions of this scene n had
wrongly surmised that canons for such sculpture was not existent then.

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For eg, u hv already seen the mallai explanation when the lord is lovingly embracing mother earth

( ok he is lovingly nuzzling her)….

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but in udayagiri she is shown as dangling from his tusks……The mallai sculpture brings out the delicate emotions as the lord gently lays down the earth on his lap….( ok this image needs a seperate post by itself)

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It was only after i read Andaal’s verses that I realised both were
correct……just that they were two acts of the same story

Aandaal had ….. Fallen in love with the lord n composed some of the most divinely inspired verses on the Lord …of her love to him

She sings thus…. The lord who sleeps in srirangam n stands in
tirupathy who took the form of the shameless boar having dug up the
earth from the deep depths … Seeing her beauty just swallows her up
( like a boar would do witha tuber he found) but immdly realises his
folly spits her out….n seeing her disheveled beauty embraces her in
his broad shoulders…… N then continues that he wears the victory
garland vyjayanthi mala for the feat of restoring the earth.

Now if u look at the pictures… Udayagiri is the first act n mallai the next.

A delightful Boar

The Boar incarnation of vishnu is a spectacular depiction found in many places across India. But nothing is as spectacular as this unique form in the Lakshmana temple in Kajuraho.

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At the outset, it looks like a normal boar, but as you go near, you realise that this is no normal boar….

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Every inch of this sculpture is covered with thousands of miniatures…

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from the curved tusks to the upturned ear….every inch of space abounds with carvings….

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of the thousands of celestials who witnessed the amazing feat of the boar in rescuing the goddess earth …..from the nether world…a common ruse among indian sculptures is to depict a naga …a snake man….to depict the under world….unfortunately we have lost the torso…you can yet see his lovely winding tail between the legs of the boar….( you might recall the sculpture from udayagiri which we saw earlier — where you can see the naga)

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not only has the boar lost much of its beauties incl its tail to vandals…and nature…but its also lost its prize…for what is left of the goddess earth are her two feet….though firmly grounded….sad

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