Unconnected icons – or are they?

Today, we are going to see some unconnected icons. But before that, a long pending paintings inspired by sculpture – aka temple. Not any temple but The Kailasantha Temple in Kanchipuram.

Rendered by Mr B. Sathish !

There are some icons ( and people) who have a magical allure to them and we could Photogenic but not sure if it applies to architecture, but the creations of Rajasimha – be it the Shore temple, the Panamalai Thaalagireershwarar or the Kanchi Kailasantha, they turn even amateur photographers raving mad. So imagine the plight of experts. Take a look at this work of Aadhi arts.

Really stunning are they not?

Now take a look at these.

Seemingly disconnected icons – The famous Bodhisattva mural from Ajanta, a slice of the penance panel from Mallai and the somaskanda painting from Kanchi Kailasanthar.

For regular followers, you have already seen the traces of the pallava artist’s fantastic creation in the
Recreating a lost treasure

Let me first explain the location of these amazing paintings.

You have to twist a bit to enter between the pillars and peep into to your left. If you are lucky you will get to see the four places where the Somaskanda paintings are still visible. Sadly, the rest of the spaces are used as storage for…

But this one is special. Peep inside the tavern while turning your head to the right.

What looks like a portion of black and maroon, is actually a portion of the original Pallava painting that would have adorned the whole side wall.

We step in closer to view the fantastic Kinnara couple. Notice the lovely lady playing a reed flute, the clawed feet and the style of the wings.

Now lets take a look at the Mallai Penance Panel

do you notice the similarity between the two couples – the clawed feet and the wings?

Now, both the locations we saw are from the Pallava school. But if i were to tell you that a similar creature is there in Ajanta as well, and that you have seen it so many times without registering it, would you believe me?

Yes, here we go

( photo & line drawing credits – An Album of Eighty-five Reproductions in Colour, Editor: A.Ghosh; Published by Archaeological Survey of India)

Found them ?

Truly art knew and knows no borders nor boundaries.

Kirata Arjunam – Art meets art spanning 1300 years

How do we reach out to the next generation and imbibe in them the values of our land, of its art, of art appreciation. These are questions which keep coming up during our discussions. Visual art is definitely something that is attracting the next generation and though we may scoff at the comics and gaming culture, its there to stay. So today we are going to marry a Kanchi Kailasanatha sculpture ( one of my personal favorites) with the latest in digital illustrative art.

The story itself is an interesting anecdote from the Vana Parva of the Mahabaratha, wherein Arjuna splits from his brothers to do penance and procure the Pasupatha Astra from Shiva. Being the benevolent but mischievous God that he is, Shiva decides to test his devotee’s prowess himself before bestowing the boon. So he takes the form of Kirata ( a hunter) with his accompaniment of a Bow and quiver full of arrows, accompanied by Uma as the Kirata woman, enters the same forest in which Arjuna is doing his penance. Just at that moment, Arjuna is attacked by a fearsome Demon Mukasura, who has taken the form of a Wild boar. Seeing the wild boar rushing at him, the accomplished marksmen that he is, Partha ( Arjuna) lets fly a deadly arrow from his Bow Gaandiva, going for the Boar’s head. At the same instant Kirata also lets fly an arrow, which find its target in the rear of the Boar. Both the arrows hit the target at the same instant !! Now, this led to a quarrel among the two, with Arjuna claiming the hunt as his and accusing the hunter for shooting from the rear. The hunter explains that this was not a duel to have the rules of engagement drawn and to attack an animal from behind thus is no wrong ! ( Rama felling Vaali ?)

The argument continues and soon escalates into a tussle. Being warriors both settle on a duel to find out the better among them. A Shell shocked Arjuna soon sees his prowess with the Bow is matched if not bettered by the lowly hunter. His Bow string is deftly cut by the hunter’s arrow and he jumps into to engage in a wrestling match, in which too he is matched. To his surprise, the hunter doesn’t even seem to break a sweat, while he is almost dead with exhaustion. The popular version, says that he stops to create a small Linga and offers prayers with flowers to it, to invoke his blessing and taken on his opponent once again, when he is surprised to find the flowers which he offered the Linga are now adorning the hunter. Realising the true identity of his opponent, he falls at his feet and surrenders to his grace. Rest is history. There is another version that during the wrestling brawl, Arjuna accidentally caught Kirata’s feet and since he bestows grace on whoever touched his feet, Shiva immediately stopped fighting etc. But this is the crux of the Kirata Arjunam story.

Now, thanks to Mr. Abhilash Narayanan, Creative designer & Animation director, who is sharing some of his works with us, we see the story brought to life in the technology of today.

you can see more of his works at his site below

Abhiram’s site

Now, we transport ourselves back in time to the Kanchi Kailasantha temple. This panel must have been featured long ago, as its one of my favorite panels. The dynamism and sheer energy captured in this typical Hollywood style ` Face Off ‘ posture is an arresting sight. Maybe it was waiting to be pitted head to head against the best of digital art.

Photos : courtesy Mr Arvind and Mr Swaminathan.

We have the two warriors, standing their ground, locking gazes, as they are caught in the act of drawing their bows. Its interesting to notice how they seem to have slung two quivers on their backs, interesting only one has a waist sword. That this panel depicts the Kirata Arjunam is seen distinctly by the Boar in the background exquisitely sculpted behind the two figures despite the maze of their legs.

Now, comes the difficult question. Who among the two is the Lord Shiva as Kirata the Hunter and who is Arjuna. Lets take a closer look at the two figures.

and focus on the ornamentation and head dress in particular.

Lets list down the major differences between the two fighters.

Clearly, the figure to the left of the panel ( right as you view it) – wears a tall crown and a Yagnopavitham, while the other has his hair tied in a kind of bun, wears the Channavira ( cross belts) and carries a waist sword whose hilt is clearly seen.

The oral tradition is that Arjuna must have gone as an ascetic, must be emaciated from the severe penance ( he is said to have subsisted on air alone in the final months of his penance ) and there is also a ref to him wearing a sword with a golden hilt

Ref in Mahabratha

“At Yudhishthira’s command, Dhananjaya of immeasurable prowess set out (from Kamyaka) to obtain a sight of Sakra, the chief of the celestials and of Sankara, the god of gods. And the strong-armed Arjuna of great might set out armed with his celestial bow and a sword with golden hilt, for the success of the object he had in view, northwards, towards the summit of the Himavat.

But then, when we come to Kirata, he is clearly is portrayed as a hunter and not as a resplendent King, and Shiva is hardly ever shown with a Krita makuda. Further there is this reference in Sri R. Nagasamy’s article.

Kirata or Tripurantaka

However in many Chola sculptures and also Bronzes (Melapperumpallam image) Kirata will be shown like a hunter with round bellied body , beard and cannavira. His hair would be tied as a bun-like knot and not the jata-makuta one sees in the Tripurari form.

But again the Book reference is a bit unclear. When Arjuna exhausts the twin inexhaustible quivers gifted to him by Agni ( burning of the Kandava forest episode
Fire in the Khadava forest ) he tried to use his Bow as a spear , but is thwarted by Shiva.

Ref in Mahabaratha

And beholding his bow snatched from him, Arjuna took up his sword, and wishing to end the conflict, rushed at his foe. And then the Kuru prince, with the whole might of his arms, struck that sharp weapon upon the head of the Kirata, a weapon that was incapable of being resisted even by solid rocks. But that first of swords, at touch of the Kirata’s crown, broke into pieces

So, we are left with an Iconographic puzzle. Whats your take on this?

I would go with Arjuna with the crown and Kirata with the Bun head dress.

The minute aspects to note in a sculpture – finding a needle in perur

There are many wonderful and awe inspiring sculptures in Perur. But as we saw in the previous post, there was this seemingly innocuous looking pillar sculpture, which we would have totally missed, if not for the genius in Sri Padmavasan.

Many people would have passed this sculpture without even batting an eyelid, and to be honest despite our heightened mortar skills, we too missed to even spend the few seconds to capture it on camera. The subsequent trouble we went through to secure the images, is a lesson for us, not to take any sculpture or artist lightly.

Padmavasan sir, showed me his sketch of this pillar and started explaining its uniqueness.

Lets see if we can make out some basic features from the sculpture first.

Obviously, its an ascetic in deep meditation. Perched on one leg, but there are few signs which help us to identify him

A bow on his shoulder and the boar, show us that its Arjuna, the penance to get the Pasupathaastra from Shiva.

The craftsmen’s mastery in handling the relief in the bow is simply astounding. Take a look at this angle.

But, the uniqueness of this relief sculpture is in the way the sculptor has portrayed the intensity of Arjuna’s penance. How?

Do you notice anything different. Let me give you a clue. Normally the sculptor would strictly adhere to framing guidelines – but in this frame the foot seems to extend slightly out of the lower frame. Why?

Try to spot something under the big toe !! Maybe sir’s sketch can help us take notice.

Yes, he is doing penance on a needle point. Thanks to Praveen for capturing the different angles to truly appreciate the greatness of the sculpture. No better way to explain than this angle.

Vizhinjam Cave – compare with Pallava mallai

As soon as Cheenu saw this post, he remarked the close resemblance to the Tripurantaka Shiva of Vizinjam to the Mallai penance panel Shiva. The ear rings and the facial features are remarkably similar. Let see both of them side by side and try to spot the similarities.

I did this screen grab from the video of vizinjam – the scratch marks were too familiar. This must have been the way rock was scraped away to cut the caves. Yes, had seen the same in the Govardhana panel in mallai – just by the panel – behind the amazing seated bull ( to the extreme right – at an elevated height)
The styling is the same, the methods seem to be the same. So the Verdict?

Pallava inspiration for Rajini Balle Rakha song costumes !!

Its been a while since the celebrations of Rajini starrer Shivaji – the boss have died down. But i noticed one very interesting feature in the opening song of the movie.


Sorry again but i am not digressing from sculpture…been quite some while since we went to my favorite – mallai. So today we are going back to see a very unique sculpture, not many notice, few even realise that it is so. We cant fault them for so great is this panel – that is the largest open air bas relief sculpture in the world , hey hang on, I know regular readers are already saying that we carried a full length intro on the mallai penance panel – we also did some interesting comparisons of the test panel nearby as well and drew some conclusions on what is being depicted. However, today we are going to zoom in on a very very unique depiction and end of it you will see the links between the song and this sculpture.

When i meant zooming in, i did mean it literally. So, fasten your seat belts as we zoom in on the central figure ( ok the figure next to the central figure or inbetween the two central figures). Cant figure out who i am talking about ?

Yes, today we are going to see this diminutive dwarf or goblin ( as many books call them) – faithful assistant of shiva, a very funny guy, right by the side of the boon giving Shiva. But did you notice something wierd in his belly!! Yes, its a tiger or lion face carved splendidly into his belly. Now do you get the reason for pulling in the song !
Back to hardcore sculpture – What does this signify, is it just the Pallava sculptor showing off his prowess carelessly – are there similar depictions of such belly faces. Thanks to kathie, I have another, which we will see in part 2 of this post plus part 3 holds a new belly face as well.

Btw, this belly face is called a Urdhva Muha ( terror face !)
How many times some of us have been past this panel and not noticed this. Next time i am sure when you visit such places, you would stare at the belly of every statue!!

A delightful Miniature from Sundara Varadha perumal Temple – Utiramerur

I have been wanting to feature this delightful miniature from Utiramerur Sundara Varadha temple for almost 6 months now, but have been postponing in the hope that i could decipher the story behind the panel. With no luck till now, i guess its best to put it to you all to infer and comment.

First off Utiramerur as a temple town is a treasure trove – its abunds in many pallava beauties and this particular temple is called the ` sun among shrines ‘ – srivastuno bhaskaraah – the aptly named Sundara ( enchanting- beautiful) Varadha temple.

As you circum ambulate the main shrine – the three sculpture panels that adrone the sides of the shrine are masterpieces of stone work. I will try and feature each one by one, but we jump to the last sculptural panel – my favorite, for it is a puzzle that i have not been able to crack. The main sculpture is that of Brihu – a saint ( i had earlier mistaken it for Dhakshinamurthy)

You can see the sculpture from long shot

The main Sculpture now…

But what interested me was the minature panel just above the main sculpture. Lets zoom in a bit and see if you can decipher the amazing panel.

Ok, to make it easier for you – let me break up the key players in the panel.

Am lost to explain how the sculptor could go into such minute details – look at the seated asetic, the classic yoga pose – one feet resting over the other. and look at the detailing of the legs of the pedestal he is seated on – one one side is a lion and another side an elephant Yaazhi motiff.

I just fell in love with this cute lion motiff carved to such detail.

The other two – doing penance on one leg. with snakes for company.

Simply superb, pity the story behind this is not clear !!!

Pra(e)ying Cat

We say the main actors in the mallai penance panel. Now for a couple of light hearted posts.
Towards the bottom of the panel, just in front of the majestic tusker, we see a very curious scene being enacted.
You saw earlier the boon seeker ( arjuna / bagiratha) engaged in severe penance – standing up on one leg. Now you see a cat mimicking this and to add to the humor there are a couple of mice who seem to be in the act of worshiping the praying cat. What would be act 2 of this scene once the cat breaks his fast …breakfast.
Maybe we could still draw some lessons from this story

The Majestic Elephants of Mallai

A full grown tusker marching majestically is a sight that will always inspire you. No doubt it inspired the Pallava artist as well. But then the greatness in him that he breathed life into the hardest of stone and left us this superlative herd of elephants. They have been exposed to the elements for a 1000 years ( ok 1300 years), yet they still retain their essence inside this maze of characters in the great penance panel.

Inorder to truly appreciate this, we need a series of pictures. How much the pallava artist observed the elephant, to not just depict it in stone – meaning like a fixed sculpture, but to show it with grace, elegance, the majestic walk, the slight twist of the trunk, the fullness of the tusk, the delicate flap of the ear….the bump of the forehead.
Well, a friend did me a favor by framing these goats, to give new viewers an idea of space and dimension of the panel.
Compare this with a live elephant picture may assist in appreciating his craft more
Throw in the cute babies of the family happily sporting under the protective masses of their parents…not a full body, just a profile, a head here, a small cute trunk there. enough to bring you cheer. Its fills your heart with joy, love. truly a moving composition, a timeless beauty.

A testing Penance – opps a test penance Panel

The Mahabalipuram penance panel which we saw in the last post is the largest open air bas relief sculpture. Just prior to embarking on such a massive sculpt, the sculptors seem to have tested the concept nearby…the little known test panel – but does it give any clues to the mystery of whether the Penace panel depicts – Arjuna’s penance ( to get the pasupatha astra from shiva) or Bagiratha’s penance to bring the ganges down to resurrect his ancestors!!

Lets analyse the test panel – the depiction of the lighthouse will give you a rough idea on its location. Similar to the Main penance panel, the artist chose a cleft in a boulder to depict his theme – but here the two boulders are split into two.

Why we call it  a test panel is the story is carved in low relief.

The majestic elephants have not yet been obviously brought into the theme, though a few heads do appear.

The flying celestials are all these, but seem to be moving away form the boon giving area towards the descending ganges – to witness this great spectacle. So its a definite give away as to the main story of the test panel – thankfully the boon giver and seeker are much farther away from the cleft ( infact their positions are transposed – left to right)

The most important clue is the absence of the weapon in Shiva’s hands!

So if this were to be seen in isolation, its a pure story of the descending ganges and thus bagiratha’s penance. This story has been delightfully mixed with Arjuna’s penance in the main panel to come up with a puzzling combo…or is it just two in one or is there another twist to the plot….is it three in one..!!777806

The World’s largest open air bas relief sculpture – intro post

The opening picture we put in the introduction pages, raised a few comments. We could have easily put a better picture of the same relief, or a beautiful sculpture but what we wanted to highlight was the lack of awareness about these great works. So inorder make amends, thought we will make not one but a series of posts as a tribute to this greatest marvel of pallava art – the world’s largest open air bas relief sculpture.

There are no parallels to this work before and since, what inspired the pallava artists to let their imagination and skill run riot on a canvas of this size, 200 feet wide by 40 feet tall, that continues to entrall audiences 1300 years after the last chisel blunted its edge on this hard rock face.

The grace of the flying celestials, the majestic elephants, a host of animals and birds, the emaciated book seeker, the benevolent boon giver, the host of attendants, the naga royal couple, well it does call for this series on mallai penance panel.

The giant composition is a giant puzzle, a living testament to the fertile pallava mind, to start with – the name itself is a puzzle. Is it Bagiratha’s penance (the descent of the ganges) or Arjuna’s penance to get the Pasupatha Weapon of Shiva – Descent of Ganges couldn’t be more apt – for the choice of the natural cleft in the rock face, and the deft use of this to frame the relief. But lets look at both the legends and also the subsequent post on the test penance panel.

Bagiratha’s ancestors are cursed to ashes and inorder to resurrect them, he needs to do severe penance ( not he but his whole clan) and it is he in the long list who manages in his persistent best ( even today he, sadly along with Md Gazni, are examples for being persistent to succeed). Ok,he finally manages to please the gods and the Ganges is forced to come down ( we saw her ego being abated in the earlier Shiva Gangadhara post). So the penance panel has been artistically conceived in such a way that during heavy rains the water would be engineered to flow through the crevice ( there are remanents of a catchment tank above the penance panel…maybe used to entertain the kings in the non rainy seasons)

Ok, the second plot in the puzzle is set in the Mahabartha just before the Kurukshetra War. Arjuna is building his arsenal of deadly opps divine weapons. He does severe penance to obtain the Pasupatha Astra from Shiva ( see the emaciated condition of the boon seeker in the panel …cant but compare with the current nuclear deal that India is being so wanting to sign…are we so emaciated !!) compare this with the divine beauty and grace of Shiva ( check out his ornaments – the different ear rings on each ear) ..the astra looks a kind of oversized spear – not like the regular arrow or the trident so associated with Shiva.

There are few more puzzles to be answered, the praying cat, the headless scribe, the forest scene, the belly face in the shiva bootha gana etc etc which we will see in the coming posts