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 We try and take care to make sure that we do not publish something that is grossly wrong, but if and when mistakes or another reading is there, we encourage readers to enlighten us as well.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.

http://www.cmi.ac.in/gift/Archeaology/arch_somaskanda.htm

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 www.Varalaaru.com and www.exoticindiaart.com for the images

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.

My first discovery !cracking the puzzle of 3 Somaskanda panels

Friends, it gives me immense pleasure in presenting one of very first discoveries which sees the light of day today. Though this occurred more by chance and had found this about two years ago, at that time i had nurtured hopes of publishing it as a research paper in some academic journal. Its only later that i realised how complicated such pursuits are and also the fact that but for the emotional high such a recognition would garner, its reach would be very much limited to a select few. However,today thanks to you all, my dearest extended family and the internet, poetryinstone shall deliver this baby after a gestation of over two years.

I had wanted to write about the Pallava’s contribution to evolution of iconography as a series – and started with the Mahendra trail. We did see some interesting developments in cave architecture, like the nataraja icon. But as we study later Pallava structures, we cant but miss some of their signature contributions, namely the Somaskanda, Gangadhara and Mahishasura Mardhini. The Pallava Somaskanda is such a signature piece occupying almost every rear wall of their main shrines, that its hard to miss them.

But this article is not about the normal Somaskanda panel in the rear of the Garba Graham ( sanctum sanctorum ) but a very unique puzzle of not one but three panels in the Atiranachanda Mandabam cave of the Saluvankuppam complex. The cave itself is a puzzle of gigantic proportions and many scholars have discussed it.

Just to run through it would mean to point out to viewers that the basic cave and pillar designs are very early Pallava period, while inscriptionally ( on both the sides there are running verses which you can touch and feel the passing of time in front of you) Rajasimha Pallava claims to have constructed this temple for Siva. He calls it Atiranacanda Pallavesvaragram, after one of his many fancy titles Atiranacanda ( Ati – great, rana – battlefield, chanda – expert – thanks to swaminathan sir))


Would suggest below article of Dr. Nagaswamy for readers who want to see the sheer labour of such geniuses.

http://tamilartsacademy.com/books/mamallai/new-light.xml

It would be worthwhile for readers to compare the facade of the Atiranachanda with earlier structures we saw on the Mahendra trail. But that is the subject for another post and study.

We come back to what is to me a very great discovery, the subject of this post. To bring you upto date with the basics, what exactly is this Somaskanda. Literally it means ` with Uma and Skanda’ meaning ( Sou – with, Uma – Parvathi and skanda – Muruga) Shiva with his consort and son. ( why only one son!!, well that is another controversy which we briefly touched upon in the post ` There are no Ganesha images in mallai’.

Since Pallava’s ` claim’ to have been the first to start building temples of stone ( or atleast without using lime, mortar, metal , brick or wood – mandagapttu [post! )…the early structures had predominantly an empty central shrine with the diety crafted in wood in a panel at the back. But slowly they realised that the wooden deities perished in no time, they tried crafting them in lime and mortar. But then as their confidence in working in stone grew, they graduated slowly to reliefs and then to sculpture. They replicated the wooden panels in stone sculpting them directly onto the rear wall. Thus was born one of the cutest forms of the divine family, with shiva seated ( sometimes on Nandhi) on the right and Parvathi on the left with baby skanda initially on her lap (There are many variants to this form and Dr Gift Siromomony paper below postulates a new theory !!)

http://www.cmi.ac.in/gift/Archeaology/arch_somaskanda.htm

The cholas later went on with the theme to craft some beautiful bronze somaskandas.

Back to Atiranacanda Pallavesvaragram, not many realise that the structures we see today in Mallai, were submerged if not totally in sand before they were escavated in the late 18th C. ( by this I mean even the popular five rathas complex), but to understand this better take a look at this print ( thanks to the British Library Archives)

Compare to how it looks today.


Now, look closer, am highlighting the main areas for us to view.

We take quick peek into its corridor – on closer inspection you see two beautiful somaskanda panels on the walls. This is a great anomally since the somaskanda panel is almost always found inside the main scanctum sanctorum.

To understand this better, lets peep into the central shrine of the same cave. Do you notice the Shiva Linga and then the rear wall adorned with the Somaskanda panel.

Why then would the sculptors sculpt two additional panels in the outer corridor?

A chance photograph of the freshly escavated mandabam in the late 18th C, thanks again to the British Library Archives, provides us the vital clues.


There were two additional Shiva Lingas on the corridor and hence the sculptors had sculpted the panels on the walls behind them. This my friends is my first discovery!! call me an armchair or desktop archaeologist for that.

What happened to these lingas now?, even their bases don’t exist now. There are two free standing statues in the foreground, one a headless trunk of a seated deity and another a beautiful sculpture. They are not to be found now, just this small rubble on the outside!!

So now you know the answer to the puzzle of the 3 somaskandas, but throws lot more questions. If the structure was intact in the late 18th C, when and why the susequent vandalism.

Gift from Yama – the God of Death

Hi friends, today we are returning to a favorite location of mine. Mahabalipuram..Mallai, for a truly amazing panel. we have seen this panel in the past but from a different perspective. ( six pack Abs!!)

Yes, I am referring to the spectacular Mahishasuramardhini panel. To truly appreciate this panel we got to spend atleast 3 or 4 posts. So take this as the first of the series, focusing on main character – Durga.

The Panel is truly mind blowing, but lets first give the story a reading for the uninitiated.

Once upon a time there lived a demon named Mahisha. As usual he wanted to make himself invincible and pleased the easiest of Gods to please – Brahma. Mahisha performed severe penances,fasting for months, standing on one foot. In due course Brahma appeared and asked him what he wanted. The request as usual was for a boon of immortality, which could not be given as every creature that is born had to die as well. So he had to modify his, so in his vain ego, seeing that no man was capable of hurting him, he grew over confident and asked that he may be sent to the netherworld only at the hands of a women. He bet his life on the fact that no women would have the power and courage to defeat him!!

Armed with the boon, he conqueres the whole of the earth and then heads off to the heavens ( hmm, how predictable!!). The Gods are caught in a fix and organise for a urgent meeting. They decide to pass the motion that calls for creation of a lady from the concentration of all their powers. Thus was born Durga. She is said to have a thousand or in other versions eight arms. ( we stick to eight for now as it matches with the sculpture). Thanks to Geetha madam, we have this brilliant verse from Devi Mahamathyam ( sanskrit work) which describes what all she was given by the Gods.

The wielder of the pinaka bow ( shiva) drew out a trident from inside his trident and gave her
The dark complexioned Vishnu drew out a Discus from his discuss and presented to her
Varuna ( Lord of Rain) gave her a Conch, Agni ( Lord of Fire) gave a weapon called shakthi
Vaayu ( Lord of Wind) presented a bow and quiver filled with arrows.
Indira ( Lord of the Lords) drew out the Vajra from his thunder ( Kulisam ?) and also a bell from his Airvatha ( white elephant)
Yama ( Lord of Death) drew out a baton from his baton and presented to her
Brahma presented a garland of rosary beads and his Kamandalu ( vessel for carrying sacred water)
Kaalan ( yama again ) presented a sword and shield.

Now, we come to the sculpture. Such a beautiful scupture, Durga is depicted with Eight hands, striking a very beautiful pose on her majestic lion.

Lets see if we can spot the above weapons in the arsenal.

The most striking ofcourse is her bow and arrow. so two hands of hers are busy with that. See the perfection in the way, her hands are sculpted – the one holding the bow, with the thumb running perpendicular to the floor along the bamboo. the other hand drawing the string back with force, the open shoulders.

Next obvious weapon is the Danda – the baton – presented by Lord of Death – Yama. Some doubts if it were a sword.

Lets see the sculpture in closeup. Its no ordinary stick, for it definitely has some sort of a handle, but its a rounded weapon. You can clearly see the baseball bat style construction and the rounded edge. if it were a broken off sword, it would have defn chipped or atleast the lion’s mane would have be obstructed by it. Since we can clearly see the designer curls of the lion’s mane and the rounded edge, we can safely confirm that this indeed is the gift of Yama.

Displaying the other hands and what they hold below. Try and see if you can match it to the list above

One obvious missing item is the Trident or trishul of Shiva. Maybe since the Goddess used up two of her hands on the bow and bow string, that was left out !!

But a truly amazing composition – just watch this beauty. The right leg of hers, since this is a relief panel, and to give that dimensional imaging, the master sculpture has sculpted the leg almost completely projecting from the panel.

Please do remember that this is not just panel, but is infact a rock cut cave, carved into live rock, a mountain side – and this panel froms one side of the internal wall ( the other side is the famous Anantha Sayana Panel).

Now you can truly enjoy the Pallava carftsmen’s divine art.

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 !!.

The masterly art of the Pallava Sculptor

The core of this post is based on a interview that Satheesh conducted with Sri K.P.Umapathy Acharya – hereditary achitect and sculptor. I have supported it with pictures from Shriram,Gokul, graphic work by Ashok and closeups of the individual frames during my recent trip to mallai.

We would have passed this sculpture panel many times ( The earlier post)and each time a new awareness dawns on you. So too is this post

Lets first see the panel as a whole.


We have already seen a detailed post of this core theme,so will skip that part. Now, to add some highlights ( thanks to Ashok)


Can you now understand the crux of this post. – we are going to see how the Pallava sculpture has excelled in his portrayal of a multitude of hand and leg postures, am also trying to compare these with Angkorian ( cambodia – thanks to photos from Sri Gokul / sin – ardent cricket fan and best scorer in Singapore league) panel – to highlight why the Pallava sculptor is par excellence.

Inorder to better understand these, have taken individual exposures of the poses – so please take your time to see the indexed version and then proceed to see the individual items.

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Notice how each of the individual carvings are unique, ie not of the same size, yet every aspect of proportion is maintained for the individual sculpture. No two hands are the same, not only posture wise but also in dimensions.

At first glance we tend to miss out the significance of the last two photos.Well you might ask, why bring in the legs suddenly into the discussion. Let me throw in a few snaps of the Angkorian Apsara / dancers and see if you get a hint.

No, ok, now do you get it

See how the Pallava craftsmen has depicted the feet, especially of the person who is sculpted as facing into the wall. Simply mind blowing.

The depiction of the feet both facing to one side – would be akin to a beginner’s attempt at sketching someone in straight profile. You have difficulty in showing the depth in a one dimensional sketch. But a bas relief is almost a 3 dimensional medium ( well 2 1/2 – 3D would be a full sculpture like an idol or statue). But the Angorian style is more representative of a craftsmen moving from a uni dimensional sketch into sculpture, while the Pallava craftsmen centuries before had already mastered this.

Some more pictures to illustrate the intricacies of the panel for your viewing pleasure.

Govardhana, The Hillock Umbrella – Sri Kudavoil Balasubramaniam

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.

What is the inspiration for a sculptor – Pallava Mallai – my interpretation

I had asked this question in the original post – What is the inspiration for a sculptor ? True Mallai abounds with animals – the great penance panel with its whole forest / zoo of animals, the Govardhana panel with its cows etc, but this is a very unique sculpture, as it depicts no divine legend, no god figures – no puranic myth.

It would have taken the sculptor months of hard work – to sculpt such a realistic natural scene. But why did he do it. Doubt if the King would have commissioned him to do such a work. It is also not a causal fling, like a half hour sketch by a caricature artist.

This line of thought made me try to come up with some other reason, to explain the sculpture.

Here it goes: consider this – the sculptors of mallai were experts, clearly the work in mallai is not that of novices. So it couldn’t be like some finishing school, the degree of perfection in form is much too advanced. Their stone craft could not be mastered by common people and would have called for years of study under expert teachers – most probably, right from childhood, these sculptors would have been exclusively tutored in stone craft, with single minded devotion. Whether there was the system of father teaching son or established gurukulam like – we don’t know. But one thing is clear, to achive this kind of mastery over any art, the heart soul and everything else had to be devoted into the work.

Keeping the above in mind, my interpretation of the panel is :

The sculptor is the monkey

In sculpting the visibly joyous, frolicking , happy elephant family, he depicts what he has missed – loving family life, for he would have had to be in sculpture school at a very young age, missing the years of fun and frolic which a normal
kid would have got, which he is lost when he decided to pursue his passion.
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The peacock could be his lady love – again am sure these guys would never had time to lead a normal family live, most probably would have been geeky nerds with single minded approach to sculpture. Even if they married, they wouldn’t have spent much time in the pleasures of it.

Now look at the monkey again in the sculpture, he is visibly sad, has a sense of great loss but is also having a kind of searching / questioning face. He is looking at the viewer,as if asking, if all his sacrifices were worth it. what do you say, was it worth it

What is the inspiration for a sculptor – Pallava Mallai

Talk of abstract art, the sculptors of Mahabalipuram have for long captured my imagination. But despite breathing through all their works, i am still not able to comprehend their motives. For their class and perfection, why did they choose such subjects. Sculpting into the hardest stone and sculpting images of Gods is one thing – but take this little known Bas relief in Mahabalipuram – its right behind the Trimurthi cave, is purely a work of master art. The beauty of
this creation mimics the grace of nature.





From the bull elephant’s majestic grace, to its baby playing digging into the sand and its swirling trunk, the mother elephant’s head alone is shown above the Bull elephants body – Oh, such life. Sadly the bigger baby’s head is broken, but from the other three Elephants – look at the skill of the sculptor – the male elephant is shown with manly charm, majestic, the female with a loving almost motherly smile,while the baby is all mischief.

There is no parallel to Pallava sculptor when it comes to this – look at the graceful lines of the peacock. And to top it, the monkey – Oh, i am lost for words here. He seems to be alive and looking up at the viewer. Maybe the Pallava sculptors were alchemists or magicians who could turn living beings into stone by casting a spell or waving a wand. I cannot see these as hammered with chisel on stone, for they are breathed upon. A surreal experience.

The puzzle is as to why they toiled so hard on this panel – for it represents no God, no legend, no mythological scene. Almost like an elaborate florish of an artist on seeing a sunrise, an extempore speech by an orator on a hot debate, an outburst of poetry by a poet on seeing his lady love, the cheruby smile of an infant on seeing his mother – as if the sculpture wanted to capture a scene, just that this was not a mere brush stroke – but years of work! Why did he do it?

Images courtesy : Ponniyin Selvan egroup mallai trip – Mr. Shriram and Mr. Vinjamoor Venkatesh.

Our friend tiger belly again – Srinivasanallur Koranganatha Temple

We had seen earlier the interesting belly face of Shiva’s assistant in the Mahabalipuram great penance panel. While i was discussing this with Kathie sometime back, she immediately recognised a similar face ( brilliantly) this time from an early Chola temple – situated 50 kms from Trichy – compared to the later temples this pocket sized temple is packed with so much of sculptural beauty – The magnificent Koranganathar temple in Srinivasanallur,

The temple is situated on the banks of the river Cauvery at Srinivasanallur. It is not a ‘living’ temple. “..Early Chola temples were small with no walls around them. Koranganatha temple 50 km from Trichy is the garbhagriha-and-mandapa type with beautiful sculptures on every surface. The base of the wall has a row of sculpted mythical animals called yazhi that is a special feature of Chola architecture. The first floor is made of bricks which have been plastered. This temple is a prototype of south-style architecture…” Takeo Kamiya in Architecture of the Indian SubContinent

Well, beautiful sculptures is putting it mildly, we will see the beauty of its sculptures in subsequent posts. But today we are to see just a panel – a decorative lintel panel, called Thorana or more correctly a Magara Thorana. This sculpture kind of symbolises the entire temple, for the amount of detailing that’s gone into this piece of stone is mind blowing. Lets take a look at the panel now.

Set high above the wall above two spectacular damsels ( we will see them later – just that dont want to divulge from the subject) the myriad of creatures – from mythical riders riding spectacular lion yaazhis, who themselves emerge from the mouths of larger Yaazhis, they seem to be at war with each other or just sporting ( This seems to be a popular motif among Cholas – with more definition for such sculptures in Pullamangai, Big temple and Darasuram – we will see them also soon)

The main character in the panel seems to be Vishnu as the Boar saving Mother Earth – he is shown with four hands – with the top two hands holding up his standard weapons, he is full of victorious/ triumphant energy – see him sporting her on his left lap – Mother Earth is all devotion, relieved at being rescued shown praying with folded hands. That the sculptor has gone to such lengths to portray even the Naga King and queen in such a miniature but with intricate details ( see them just coming into frame under Varaha murthy)

Noticeably one of the Ganas has the head of a bull – the one to the extreme left bottom. – just abvoe him is our little friend. We saw him in the Mallai penance panel – her he is again, this time upto more mischief, making faces by pulling his mouth with his index finger. The tiger yazhi in the belly seems more gruesome here. Have one more instance of such a belly faced Gana in Pullamangai ( if readers find any more please send us), not all Ganas are depicted thus. So do they have a name, a specific role – like the bull head one, the tiger belly etc??

Words cant be found, no praise too much to drink in this splendid creation. Just makes you sit back and let it fill your senses.

Thanks to Shriram for the temple pictures ( more to come) and Kathie for the panel and for identifying this for me.