Okay, so after a short winter hiatus, I return to my blog.
Apart from various things, I happened to visit the town of Mahabalipuram in December. It has a history quite long and vast, just as most Indian towns. Here are few glimpses of the ‘good stuff’ I saw there…
First up, I saw what is popularly known as Krishna’s Butterball. No! There is no fable that links it to Krishna’s fondness for butter. Yes! It still looks like a giant dollop of butter. It actually looks like a big boulder that has been placed on a huge rock. But when I went closer, I realised it is not a boulder, really. Rather, the flat rock at the bottom (which the children have gladly turned into a slide, as you may well see) and the irregular shaped spherical boulder are two portions of the same rock. My guide explained to me that initially, many centuries ago, this may have been a single slab of rock. It was exposed to all the relentless forces of nature. Fissures might have formed, which widened, with flakes of rocks being washed away by rains, winds and time. And ultimately it must have got the shape of a boulder standing on top of a rock. Or as explained by another person, this really is a representation of a dollop of butter that Krishna was so fond of.
Coming to the Trimutri Cave, this cave temple is dedicated to the Hindu trinity. They have been housed in three seperate cells lest they get into a quibble and decide to destroy the world. Kidding. The entrance of each cell is flanked by guards, knows as Dvarpalas. In each cell one may see there are devotees kneeling and dwarf ganas, in flying positions (in detail in next picture). Outside the cells, towards the far right, one may see the image of Durga, standing on Nandi’s head. It s a majestic sculpture and I am afraid my camera hasn’t been able to do justice to it.
First cell houses the creator, Brahma. It is always rare to have a temple for Brahma. This is because Brahma is never really worshiped as he represent the ‘one who comes before knowledge’, whereas Vishnu and Shiva represent the ‘ones who come after knowledge’, after ‘knowing’, so to say. Normally, Brahma has four faces. But here, unusually, he has got only a single face and wears a cross garland of rudraksha beads. He carried a rosary and watr vessel in his uppe pair of arms, while the other two arms are in abhaya and katyavalambita mudras.
Above is the second cell, housing Shiva, (of course, one can make out from the Shiva linga). One normally doesn’t get to see the image of Shiva in a temple, rather only the Shiva-linga. But here, he stands (behind) in full form. He carries an axe and rosary in his arms.
Behind the Trimurti Cave, is a beautiful sculpture consisting of an adult elephant, a kid elephant, a monkey and a partridge. This monument narrates one of the Jataka stories. According to the story, once there arose a dispute among the three: the elephant, the partridge and the monkey, as to who is senior in age and wisdom. They tried to settle the issue by the relationship they had with a banyan tree. The elephant said he remembered it as a bush, the monkey remembered it as a sapling, whereas the partridge said that he had carried and planted the seed of tree long before it was a bush or a sapling. I suppose the partridge had a point there.
This is inside the Mahisasura mardini cave. This is a beautiful image of Seshasayi Vishnu, lying on the couch of the five headed serpent. There are two demons to the right of the plaque, and Vishnu’s attendants, who are above and below him.
This is the panel opposite to the Seshasayi Vishnu panel. Here, Durga, seen in her Mahisasura mardini avatar (my favourite) is seen in midst of her battle with Mahisa, the demon king, who had taken the form of a buffalo. The Goddess is shown right armed, riding her lion, equipped with various weapons and using a bow with its strong pulled upt ot her ear.
for more on the Mahisasura-mardini motif, please do visit this previous post:
In the centre panel in this same cave, along the back wall, one may see Lord Skanda sitting between his parents Shiva and Parvati.
Monumental in scope, breathtaking in execution, I let myself soak in the intricate beauty of this Bas Relief. It looks like a univese in stone, throbbing with the vastness of conception. Soak in. There will be time for explanations later.
The momument is 25 metres in length, 12 metres in height, and has been carved out of a single whale shaped rock.
The standing figure seen on the right of the photograph, the figure doing penance, is Arjuna. He is so emaciated that even his rib cage is visible. He is doing severe penance standing on one foot, with both hands raised above his head. The God figure standing next to him, is Shiva. Here Arjuna is seen doing penance for obtaining the Pasupati astra, the final weapon which would ensure the victory of the Pandavas in the battle of Kurukshetra.
Shiva is seen with a trident and axe in his hands and a cobra on his chest. HIs foremost left hand is in the position of granting a boon to his devotee. Above him is Chandra, the moon and below him are the Dwarves.
The fissure dividing the whole Relief in two is the Ganga. It is also believed that this monument represents the descent of the river Ganges from heaven to earth. There are a few other motifs which form quiant references to Arjuna’s penance. The figure of a monkey, and the snake princesses seen here indicate this. Arjuna’s flag has a monkey in it (maybe also a refrerence to Hanuman), while the snake princess here is Ulupi, one of the queens of Arjuna.
Down below (in the above picture), one can see a cat doing penance as well. This is a story from the Panchtantra. Here the cat is pretending to be pious and the unsuspecting mice, taking it be so, shed their fear and start playing around it, while the cat pounces on the mice at an oppertune time. There is more than wisdom in stone.
This a particularly interesting part of the Relief. There is a ascetic seen seated outside the temple. This is Arjuna, in his earlier incarnation of Nara, or the human aspect Here he is in company of his friend Narayana, or Vishnu, enshrined in the temple. There are worshippers depicted as standing in ankle deep water, one raising his arms overhead to worship the sun, while the other bowing to the sacred river. Close by are two bathers performing activites common to any river bank. One wrings out a garment after bathing, while the other fetches water in a pot. This figure points to the headless figures. One school of thought purports the view that these headless figures are Agasthya, the sage and Drona, the teacher.
The Sun God can be seen on the top in the above picture.
Now, some images of the Panch (5) rathas.
The Panch Pandava Rathas. These beautful monolithic temples have been carved out of a hillock, a huge single rock. This is very apparent as at the Southern End is the big temple and as one proceeds northwards, the temples keep becoming smaller. Suffices to say, the southern portion of the original rock must have been quite large and it must have sloped northwards and the temples must have been carved accordingly. The order of sequence, beginning from the smallest to the biggest is:-
At the northern end is the Draupadi ratha, dedicated to the Goddess Durga.
The next temple to the south is the Arjuna ratha, dedicated to Shiva.
Next up is the Bhima ratha, dedicated to Vishnu.
Obliquely adjacent to this is the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha. There are no figure carvings on this temple too.
The Yudhishthir’s ratha, which is the biggest of the lot, is at the far end. This one is adorned with life size sculptures in the panels on all four sides of the lower tier.
The Bhima Ratha (towards the left), is elongated on a rectangular base and is supported length wise by four iron pillars and two pilasters, both in the front and back.
I was amazed to know that this structure also replicated a Buddhist chaitya, or temple.
Some historical details about the Rathas.
Endnote: The recurring motif of a woman riding a lion, and a vanquished buffalo. An obvious reference to the Mahisasura-mardini motif.
All pictures were clicked with my phone. Their poor quality is regretted. Please visit the place and see these wonderful things in person. It will take your breath away.
Directions: One can take a bus from Chennai (it is the capital of TN and one of the major cities in that zone. It is approximately 2 hours away.) One must also visit the Shore Temple (I haven’t uploaded the pics. I felt there ought to be something left to surprise you if you ever planned to visit.)