Sculptor father and sculptor son seems to be a bad formula. The curious urban legends of sculptors killing or maiming themselves for ‘ defects’ ( usually toads found inside the stone!) finds itself repeated in so many sites that we were actually happy that there was at least an attempt to concoct something new this time around !
It was late evening when we reached the twin caves of Thirumalapuram (Thirunelveli district about 5 kms from Kallidaikurichi – older name Tirumalaipuram) in pursuit of our tryst to cover the caves of the Pandyas. Despite the sites being ASI protected monuments it took a lot of direction seeking, blind turns and pure serendipitous luck to arrive there.
The long shot gives you an idea of the plain rock face which would have dauntingly stood before the nameless sculptor or his more generous master/ king as they envisioned their masterpiece. Would they have envisioned their creation standing for a thousand years and beyond?
Its a relatively small excavation comprising of two pillars and two pillasters (The cave on the north face of the hillock is finished with reliefs on its inside as well, while the one on the south has been left unfinished – which incidentally lends itself perfectly to this urban legend which we will see shortly!)
Lets take a closer look at the north face cave. The pillars have some really nice carvings and are fluted.
The piece de resistance of the finished cave must have been its monolithic nandhi but sadly only its base and one of its hooves remains. To fully appreciate the task envisioned by the sculptor, you must understand how he must have felt as he shaped the bull, knowing fully well that even one wrong move would endanger the entire work. We will see this in more detail when we tour the unfinished second cave helps us in this task, as we can see how the stone at the center has been reduced leaving the enough rock to carve the Nandhi.
The date for this cave is assigned to the second half of the 7th C CE and of Pandya style. This is ascertained by the monolithic Shiva linga – carved out of the base rock, a feature which is not present in the Pallava caves of the same period and the presence of Ganesha relief.
One of the door guardians sports a very majestic mustache which has been curled upwards in the style that is in vogue in rustic Tamil Nadu to this day.
Further there are high relief carvings trinity Brahma and Vishnu, plus a very unique dancing form of Shiva.
The posture of his is not the classic Natraja thanadava but more of his chatura pose and he is dancing in gay abandon to the merriment of his Ganas. The throw of the upper left hand accentuates the feel while his lower left hand holds the book of dance – a feature unique and met in Pandya sculptures of this period.
There are two Ganas ( were !) on his two sides – the one to his right has been defaced while the one on the left is of profound interest to students of Music. We will see these in more detail in the next part of this post.
There are few vestigial remnants of paintings which supports that view that most if not all of the early caves were embellished with mural paintings. It is also interesting to note that the reliefs are actually separated by carvings of actual pillars in relief.
However, it must be mentioned that the overall proportions seems a bit dwarfish especially the lower torso which is quite baffling considering the expertise that has gone into the facial expressions and overall stonecraft – the shortening of the lower torso and legs is singular sore feature on the sculptor.
A short walk in the dropping light led us the locked gate of the second unfinished gate. We had now built up our own crowd of delirious camp followers who maybe thought we were movie directors. They tried their best to first dissuade us from wasting our time in seeing this cave which had ‘no’ art.
To be fair to them the art work was pedestrian as evidenced by what must have been a amateurish attempt at sculpting maybe a Ganesha on the outer wall. After watching us trying to peer inside the rusty mesh for a couple of minutes they must have realised that we were indeed hard nuts and gave us the number of the ASI person responsible for the site and we made the call with a healthy sprinkling of ” I know so and so in ASI !” and he promised to come over.
As we waited for the ASI person to arrive, the ever present goat herders kept our company with an absorbing tale on the two caves. The master sculptor who was excavating the north cave had a talented son who would bring his ‘coffee’ from home every day. He would then observe his father work the stone and would go around the hill and replicate the same moves on the stone there. He took care to match the strokes with those of his father’s hammer, so that his father’s hammer strikes would mask his own. He continued in this fashion when one day, the father suddenly stopped mid stroke and heard the sound of the hammer on chisel. He immediately set off to find the source and came across a boy stooped over a stone. But since he was turned away from him, he couldn’t recognize him but seeing the work he realized that someone was copying his design. Enraged he stuck the lad on his head with his hammer and slew him on the spot. Only then he realized that it was his own son but it was too late!
We have seen many variations of this tale now, like urban legends, we need to coin a term for these sculpture legends, how they first came to be and how they manage to reach even the real off beat locations is a mystery by itself.
The key finally arrived and as we had been adequately warned – there was nothing inside but for a delightful insight into a cave excavation that had been abandoned – the work in progress giving us vital clues as to how they attempted the insitu Nandi etc.
You can see how a pillar of the mother rock has been left in the center of the cave excavation and slowly reduced from the middle. You can also see the patterns cut into the rock wall to excavate more depth. It must be pointed out that the stroke marks left on the stone differ from those we find in the Pallava caves of mallai.
Photos: Arvind Venkatraman