MAMALLAPURAM ...a virtual serialized walk through
We are now standing in front of the greatest masterpiece of the Pallava art. Mamallapuram had attracted travellers and visitors for over two centuries. No one failed to wonder this great sculpture. Many enjoyed the extraordinary composition of figures. Few argued about the theme. The composition is not explicit. Therefore, there is a division among the scjolars. Many accepts these figures represents the story of Arjuna’s penance to get the great weapon Pasupatha from Siva. Few argue that Bhagiratha’s penance to get the river Ganga to the world is depicted. How to understand this great panel? There are maze of figures, some identifiable others not. Together, do they depict any sensible story? Let us see now.
Arjuna is the great hero of Mahabharata, an epic extremely popular from time immemorial to today in India. He is one among the virtuous five brothers, the Pandavas. Their cousins, the evil hundred Kauravas, snatched the kingdom of the Pandavas by a trickery dice game. A great war erupted over the lost kingdom.
In order to defeat the enemies, Arjuna, the warrior par excellence, did penance ins Penance the Indrakila moutains to obtain the all-pervading weapon – the pasupatha from Siva. Siva, in order to test Arjuna’s capability of handling the weapon, engaged in a fight with him, over a boar that was claimed to be killed by both. The grueling battle was intense. Siva ultimately defeated Arjuna. Pleased with Arjuna’s valour, Siva gave the weapon.
Bhagirathas effort to bring the River Ganges forms the other story.The sixty thousand sons of King Sakara were destroyed by a curse of sage Kapila. Dilipa, a descendent of Sakara wanted to provide salvation to the deceased souls by bringing the holy river Ganges from heaven to earth. However, he failed. His son Bhagiratha, took to severe penance and ultimately succeeded in convincing Ganga to descend to the earth. Ganges, a mighty river with enormous force, she required a cushion to reduce her force, as earth cannot take all of it. Siva agreed to take her on his head, and thus force of the water. The bottom line of both the stories is the great penance of Arjuna and Bhagiratha and Siva’s munificence to them. The debate among the scholars continues which one of the stories the bas-relief depicts.
Let us observe the sculptures. Let us begin from the centre. The sculptor had chosen a vertical rock surface to carve these sculptures. The surface has a natural fissure at centre, which is now closed. At bottom of the central fissure are two figures, the Nagaraja, the serpent king with seven hoods and a human body. Below is his consort. In Hindu mythology, Naga and nagini are rulers of the netherworld. By this, the sculptor suggests that the fissure is a river. In fact, during rainy days, water will gush through the fissure to give a real sense of a river.
Turn your attention to the right of this fissure that is your left. At a height is the gigantic figure holding a trident, trisula, over his shoulder. That is Siva, without any doubt. His right hand is in the traditional boon-giving posture. To whom? Look just next to him. It is a human, standing on one leg, with another bent at knees. His body is emaciated, the ribs are visible. The sculptor informs us that he is in the act of intense penance. The skin just covers the skeleton. The flesh of the body dried because of having not taken food for long. Who is he? Is he Arjuna? or Bhagiratha? Or someone else? It is left to you. Perhaps the sculptor wants us to enjoy the ensemble of sculptures rather than to know what they mean. Therefore, may we gaze through the figures?
Let us begin from the far left of us and go in rows. On the extreme top left corner is a yali, a mythical animal. Next to it, a lion is crouching, followed by two dwarfs, a male and a female. They are kimpurshas, mythyical persons. Further to your right, are the large figures of two pairs of gandharvas. Gandharvas are again mythical persons with powers to move around the atmosphere. They always appear in pairs. Look at the position of their legs. Gently bent at the knees, to suggest as if they are gliding through the space. Up above, is a saint playing on a musical instrument. The figures below his are a pair of kinnaras, with a human body and bird’s legs. They too are mythical figures having powers to move through the atmosphere. Just above Siva is Chnadra, the moon, He is a god in Hindu mythology. He is shown with a halo.
Let come to the far left again. A large square space has two rows of finely carved figures. The first row has two pairs of Gandharvas, again in the gentle flying through the atmosphere.In between is a pair of kinnaras, who have a human body and bird’s legs and the male kinnara is plying a musical instrument. The below this depicts the scene from a forest, perhaps adjoining the river. A roaring lion. Then a hunter leaning on his long bow. An unfinished tree. Another hunter carrying a hunt. Yet another tree, in which a great monitor lizard trying to catch the bird. A monkey with a very long tail and a rabbit are relaxing below the tree.
In the next division, is a lion relaxing in cave or is it timing its move to hunt the deer which is strolling in front? A deer strolls. A boar looks up at the hunter. There are two hunters, one carrying a pot on his shoulder and the other delicately balances the swing of heavy forest products. Below the hunter is a lioness feeding her cub. The sculptor relieves the composition with this subtle change to imply that motherhood is universal and very sensitive even in a ferocious animal. Peace engulfs the mother when they tender their progenies. In front are a tortoise and a rollicking deer. If you see up from the tortoise, are many semi divine figures. Then the gigantic figure of Siva surrounded by ganas, the dwarfish attendants of him. Look at the
stomach of one of them, who is standing to the left of Siva. There a gory face carved. This is a keerthimukha, a symbol of prosperity and fame in Hindu mythology.
This scene did not end here. Look further down of Siva. There is a temple located on the banks of the river. With in the niche is a figure of Vishnu. Please move your eyes now from the banks of the river. Few pairs of Gandharvas are landing on the banks perhaps to take a holy dip in the river. One of the male down below has a five-headed cobra hood.
A peculiar monkey too is seated. Further down are group of humans. Look at the one near the water. He is emerging from the river. What is he doing? He is wriggling out the water from his long hair. Next, is a person carrying a pot over his shoulder, to fetch the holy water from the river? Another is offering his prayer to the river. In Hindu mythology, rivers are considered holy and offering prayers to river is sacred practice. Next, is a Brahmin doing hid mid-day rites. In which one has to twist the fingers in a telescopic fashion and look at the high sun, while chanting suitable mantras.
Near the temple, a saint with his thighs tied with a cloth is in the meditative posture. Few more are meditating. Curiously, their heads are missing. The fact is that the rock was much smaller here for carving the full figure. There the sculptor decided to carve other portions from the live rock and insert the head separately. Being a loose member, they disappeared in due course of time. A solitary saint is engrossed deep into himself. Perhaps he is trying to find an answer for a vexatious philosophical question. Can you understand and now accept why India has such great philosophical works like the Vedas and Upanishads. In this serene atmosphere, a pair of deer are relaxing, by just scratching the nose! The other side of the river is even more interesting. Since we are very familiar with the celestial travellers like Gandharvas and Kinnaras, let us train our observation at the most dominating figures of the ensemble.
If watch closely, just opposite the meditating saints, on the other bank of the river, a wily cat is replicating their act. It is doing penance on its hind legs. What is surprising is that frolicking mice are happy to play around the cat. However, the cat is wily. At the end, it catches all of them and eat.
Let us now come to the signature figure of Mamallapuram - The herd of elephants. There are no words to explain. Every thing is perfect. The anatomy. The mood. The attitude of the calves and elders. We may leave a few minutes for you to enjoy them.
Now, we have a question for you. Is it Arjuna’s penance or Bhagiratha’s effort to bring river Ganges? Your guess is as good as ours is. However, a tricky question, this bas-relief leaves you with a great sense of satisfaction in having seen a great ensemble of figures carved intricately with life. Exactly this is what
the sculptor wanted. He wanted you to enjoy his sculpting skill. Rather than inserting you in dilemma of indentifying the theme. Moreover, exactly this is what every visitor did for over thousand years.