MAMALLAPURAM ...a virtual serialized walk through
This open hall is called Krishna mandapam because it enshrines a great basrelief of Krishna lifting the hill Govardhana. The bas-relief at the back was sculpted during 7th century AD by the Pallava sculptors. But the pillared hall was added by Vijayanagara rulers in 15th-16th century.
Mahabalipuram is a venerated Vaishnava place since beginning. The bas-relief depicting the famous and much revered scene is of Vaishnava affinity. Nayaka rulers were staunch Vaishnavites. Therefore, they deemed it fit to provide a shelter to this bas-relief.
Let us focus on the bas-relief. Here the rock was sloping. In order to get a flat surface to depict this bas-relief, the sculptor had to remove an appreciable amount of rock, a difficult task indeed. Because these are the hardest rocks.
Unlike Arjuna’s Penance, here the rock is not flat. Just see below and the sides. You will be able to visualize the depth of excavation to obtain a flat surface. Why should the sculptor have to take so much effort? For the simple reason, they wanted to depict Krishna as if he is lifting the live-hill behind.
The mythological story behind this depiction is narrated in the great Bhagavatham, a collection of great feats by Krishna, who is the eighth of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. Krishna was born in a pastoral family located at Gokula, which was ruled by his brother Balarama.
It so happened that the brothers decided to stop the annual festival in praise of Indra, the king of gods. Angered at this act, Indra sent incessant rains causing deluge over Gokula. The effect was emphatic; the life of pastoral community of Gokula came to a grinding halt. They turned to Krishna for protection. Krishna lifted the Govardhana hill so effortlessly with his left hand, providing shelter to the inhabitants of Gokula.
The protection was so soothing and sure, to the men, women, children, the cattle herd of Gokula and even some wild animals that they went on to carry out their activities, just like another normal day. The sculptor chooses and depicts the figures so carefully that the images come alive with action.
At the extreme right is a seated bull, naturally depicted. Just observe its anatomical details. You will not fail to appreciate the skill of the Pallava sculptors in bringing life to stone. To distinguish its Vaishnavite affinity, Vaishnavite caste mark on its forehead was done in 15th-16th centuries, as otherwise bull is the vehicle of Siva.
The group of human figures enjoying the divine protection begins with a very old man, so easily leaning on his stick. He carries an infant on his shoulder. It too rests on his grandfathers head. Try this stance! You will feel relaxed!
Is the child, enjoying the catastrophic rains? No child in the world hates to be in rainwater! This is a common scene even today in the rural India, where the elderly carry their infants affectionately on their shoulder to show them around the fairs and festivals.
Ah! What continuity!
Next to him, is a lady, delicately balancing a series of pots, but with great ease, the pots is full of milk and yogurt? In addition, she had to lead her child too. Watch the grip! It is firm; it reflects her care for the child. The sculptor succinctly brings out the essence of Indian motherhood. This too, is a common scene in India’s rural landscape, where womenfolk while fetching water from far-flung wells, carry a similar set of delicately balanced water-pots on their heads.
Further left, is a pair of women, so gorgeously dressed! Look, at their elaborate hairdo with hair tied in several strands. Their ornamentation too is very rich with series of necklaces, large earlobes, and diadem affixed to the hairdo. Rightly, they belong to higher strata of the society. The one on the left seems to be a princess and she is leaning on her maid-in-waiting. They are so close to the central figure of Krishna, hence has an access to appreciate the Herculean effort by him. A close observation of their face and attitude speaks volumes about the effort of Krishna on one hand and the great skill of the sculptor in carving the images with lively expression.
The princess is amazed at this effortless act. Unable to believe the easy effort, she bends back in amazement. The expression of amazement is so clearly visible in her face. Perhaps she may be wondering at the manliness of Krishna himself.
Krishna, even though a divine incarnation, has indulged in many earthly love acts with the maids of Gokula sugared with divine feeling. These acts, known as rasa-lila, were the subject matter of arts of all forms in ancient India. These divine love-plays were esoterically sung by many in all languages of India. Often, eroticism is mixed with these acts while depicting them in paintings.
The central gigantic figure is Krishna. He lifts a great mountain. However, to his divine powers, it is a simple and easy act. At the same time, he shows his right palm in the traditional boon-giving pose. Even in calamity, he has not forgotten his prime responsibility of giving joy and peace to his devotees.
The sculptor uses the background to show, so many faces of cattle. Observe their posture. They are so clam and are happy that God is protecting them too. Rearing cattle intertwined with the life of any pastoralist. To him, without cattle, life is meaningless. The essence of pastoral life was celebrated in ancient Indian literature. Even today, cattle are strongly rooted in Indian life; they are looked after with great compassion.
Next to Krishna, looking at him with amazement is another princess. She is slim and slender, so much so her waist is bent. Why? The sculptor wants to suggest that her waist is so acute; it was unable bear the weight of her torso.
Ah! Again! The sculptor enlivens an image with his accurate observation. This is one of the standards, with which all the great Indian poets qualify a beautiful women. Further left, is the king of Gokula, Balarama. He is the elder brother of Krishna and an incarnation of Vishnu, like Krishna himself. Balarama, though described as king, is at best, a pastoral chief. He is humble. See him. He leans casually on the shoulder of a commoner. Imagine how a commoner will react when touched by a venerated figure. To know the answer, observe the flexure in the body of this commoner. Taken aback by this simple act of his chief, he shrinks his body with folded hands in great obedience!
Sir, I am your most obedient servant!
This is an inherent behaviour of all Indians. Even today, this can be observed. Obedience and respect to elders and venerated persons are the first etiquette thought to every child in India. The Pallava sculptor is no different. Perhaps he puts himself in the place of the commoner while carving this image!
Herding cows and buffaloes were the prime economic activity of pastoralists of ancient India. Milking a cow is a sophisticated act. Milking must be very gentle. The tender cow should not feel it. Here, she is so engrossed in licking her newborn calf. The cowboy was aware of it. Therefore, he gently milks the cow lest she feels the pain of gentle milking. This every day scene, so sensitive, must have touched the heart of the Pallava sculptor. Therefore, he must have taken utmost care while chiselling the tender figures of a cowboy milking a tender cow with a newborn calf. The result is so stunning.
Just forget for a moment that they are stone images. Just observe with a bit more focus. The images come to life. Can you not see the tongue of the cow moving? The gentle movement the fingers of the cowboy too can be experienced. In fact, the cowboy, while milking, could not but appreciate the fondness showered by the cow on its just born calf. In fact, he watches the calf more than concentrating on the milking. Perhaps, this expert can do milking in reflex.
Motherhood is common to all. Any expression of motherhood moves everyone. No more words needed here! Just close your eyes and imagine the scene. Further, up, is yet another exhibition of motherhood? A mother tries to breast-feed her infant. However, her infant refuses the feed. Why? The child was so engrossed in the melodious tunes that flow from the flute of another cowboy. Flute and cowboys are inseparable entities. The tunes turn sour to the mother, who is anxious to complete the feed, So, She turns back and gently chides the cowboy to stop for a moment!
Observe the expression of all these figures. The anxious mother. Cowboy engrossed with playing flute. The playful child, fondling her mother. The sculptor was able to bring them all out on stone. This lifeline is extended to the cattle's too. They are not still. They all lost themselves in the melody of the flute. Still, one cow shakes its head in a reflex action.
Do we need any more testimony to the skill of the Pallava sculptors?
As you scan further left, are the figures of a woman carrying a bundle of firewood. What is important is the series of pots tied with ropes that she is carrying in her right hand while she balances the heavy bundle of firewood. The flexed left leg indicate the weight of the load. The pots too are important as they contain the precious produce like butter, yogurt for which she toiled hard.
Axe is the tool a cowboy always carried in India. A cowboy must be very adept in cutting foliage. So much so, they should not fall on the ground, lest the cattle not eat them. Therefore, he must cut the high branches so that the cattle could reach them. A simple act requiring considerable skill!
Further left is another mother carrying a child on her waist. Perhaps she is rushing into the hamlet in fear of heavy rains The bull is so natural and anatomically accurate. If you observe carefully, the sculptor had depicted many breeds of cattle in the panel exhibiting his knowledge about the breeds.
Again another tender calf. Where does it look at? Is it following the women who was so fond of it and had taken care since its birth? Another cowboy leads the woman towards the rim of the hamlet. Is he eloping with her in spite of the calamity?
The sculptor used the slope of the hill to depict some wild animals. There are lions in various moods. There is a composite figure with a lion body and human face. Does it reflect the fact that India was heavily infested once with wild animals? Yes. Sadly today the thick forest cover had gone.
Like the Arujana’s Penance bas-relief, here too the sculptor had depicted a famous story on stone. Just visualize the image without the pillared hall. Imagine the heavy downpour during monsoon. The rainwater gushing down the slopes of the hill. Will it not enliven the images? Will it not add charm to the story? Won’t it bring the story alive?
This is great imagination. However, the execution is even greater that the sculptor was able to capture the subtle moods of figures of the story on hard stone!