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Mahabalipuram Manuments - Part 5 (Open-air bas-reliefs)


The Great Penance is an achievement in relief sculpturing. This along with the Govardhana composition would rank among the best in the world. Not only the Pallavas were the pioneer in this genre of art, it is only in Mamallapuram one can see open-are bas-rieifs, and there are five them. – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Mahabalipuram Manuments - Part 5 (Open-air bas-reliefs)

Pallava Mallai Unfinished poetry in stone - 5
Open-air Bas-reliefs
S. Swaminathan (
Open-air Bas-reliefs
It must be the bas-reliefs for which Mamallapuram
will be etched in the honour role of art history
of the world. Relief sculptures have been done
even earlier, in Ajanta, in Amaravathi etc. But
the atyantakama Pallava clan is unique, for
rocks, which rise perpendicularly of one side of
wall, have been used as the canvas. This unusual
and breath-taking enterprise has not been
attempted anywhere ever since.
Also the tradition of depicting scenes from
mythology is broken. The Great Penance panel and
the Govardhana Panel nearby are just not simple
story-telling, but portrayal of microcosm of
life and belief. It is controlled artistry borne
out of observation, and its effect is dramatic.
Here we have a classic blend of literature and
sculpture. It looks that aesthetic sensibility
of the sculptors took precedence over texts. As
usual the Pallava-s add their gravy puzzles and
There are two major panels, the unexcelled Great
Penance and the Govardhana.
There is also an unfinished Great Penance, though
not very important as an art piece, it helps us
appreciating certain aspects of sculpting reliefs.
In the Mahishasuramardini in the Saluvakkuppam, a
worthy sequel to the more famous scene in the
Mahishasuramardini Mandapam.
The Minor Elephant panel, without a religious
significance, is another masterly composition
The Great Penance
This is the most unusual and impressive sight at
Mamallapuram. The face of a rock is used for this
grand composition, a huge open-air
relief-carving with multitude of figures,
animals, human and divine.
Just at a glance, we are struck by the acute
naturalism and refinement of the carving. This
exemplifies the highest point of artistic
tradition of the Tamil country.
Though the chief characters are from our lore it
is not a narrative, but is wider in its concept
and design. The sculptors of this scene seem to
have had sufficient freedom to give free run for
their creativity.
The Penance panel, a great carving in relief, is
the largest of its kind in India, and perhaps in
the world. It is more than 30 meters long and 12
meters high. It covers the rock surface of a
cliff on the eastern flank of the main hill at
Mamallapuram. A vertical cleft in the centre of
the carving divides the panel into two huge
The main characters, namely, a tapasvin standing
on one leg and a god granting him boon are
portrayed on the left part.
On both sides, rows of gods and demigods are
depicted flying, toward the cleft. In the scene
are also depicted common people and animals of a
wide variety.
Who is the tapasvin?
This issue is alive and undecided, with
advocates of Arjuna and of Bhagiratha being
equally certain. Very recently there is one more
argument thrown in that the scene depicts both!
Arjuna or Bhagiratha? This is subject of
discussion among scholar. Some of the main
arguments of the two sides are given.
It is Bhagiratha The scene celebrate the coming
down of Ganga, as all the characters are rushing
towards the centre. Many have their backs to the
god, which would have been unthinkable, if the
God giving boon was the main scene. Also, that
the Pallava-s had been claiming descent from the
Ganga, would lead to the Bhagiratha story.
It is Arjuna The Pallava-s were great patrons of
art and literature. Bharavis Kiratarjuniyam was
very popular during this period, and inspired by
it, the Pallava-s had immortalised it. This is a
major argument in favour of Arjunas penance
The Bhagiratha episode
Bhagiratha wished to bring the Ganga to the earth
to sanctify his dead ancestors. After severe
penance he could extract the boon from Lord
Brahma, but came to realise that the earth
cannot stand the power of the Ganga. He then
continued his penance seeking the help of Lord
Siva for receiving the torrential Ganga. This
penance and the subsequent appearance of Siva is
the scene depicted here.
The Arjuna episode
During the exile Arjuna went to the Himalayas and
did severe penance to seek Pasupata-astra from
Lord Siva. In order to test Arjunas resolve and
valour, Siva appeared in the form of a hunter
chasing a wild boar, which charged at Arjuna, who
in self-defense sent an arrow and at the same
time the hunters arrow also struck the boar. A
combat followed between the contestants as who
owned the dead boar, in which Siva came
victorious. It is then to the surprised Arjuna,
Siva showed his divine form and presented him
with Pasupata-astra. The scene portrays Arjuna
doing penance and the moment of darshan by the
Common to both are the two main characters, the
tapasvin, Bhagiratha or Arjuna, the Lord, and,
finally, the flowing Ganga.
The making of the Great Penance Two boulders
and a natural cleft accommodated the
composition. Water falling through the cleft
creates an illusion of Ganga falling from the
heavens. Water is indicated by having three naga
sculptures. Some believe that the Pallava-s built
a cistern at the top of hill above the panel to
collect water and release when required.
The lower part on the left has markings that may
lead us to suspect that a three-celled shrine
was begun and given up, perhaps, because of a
natural crack. Then, followed sculpting the
Great Penance composition, it may be taken.
While imagining how the Great Penance would have
looked to the people during the heydays of
Mamallapuram, we should bear in mind that, like
all other sculptures of India, this one was also
plastered and painted in bright colours.
Almost ten feet high, Siva, personification of
beatitude and benediction, seems satisfied at
the resolute bhakti of the ascetic, and is
granting boon
Pinaka, the trident characteristic to Siva, hand
in varada mudra, hand holding tail of
cobra, that loops down behind and reappears,
moon on his head,
makara and patra-kundalas on the ears
and minimally dressed, Siva is a majestic figure.
The ascetic stands resolutely on one leg, head
thrown back slightly, with well-set mouth,
sharp nose and flared nostrils . The emaciated
body, bearded face, sunken ribs, withered
muscles adhering to protruding elbows and
knees are results of years of self-denying
austerities. Loin-cloth wet and limp,
interlocking his fingers he is seen doing
Carefully sculpted, dramatically individualised
masterpieces. And what a contrast between the
boon-seeker and the boon-giver!
Now we shall meet a few others in the memorable
Gana-s Siva is always shown surrounded by gana-s,
and there are four of them, all in great
animation. The gana standing between Siva and
ascetic has a stomach formed into the fierce
face of a lion-like creature. We see similar
figures elsewhere too.
Kinnara-s The kinnara-s, the divine musicians,
with bird legs and wings, float effortlessly.
In the great panorama, a number of couples are
carved in the panel on the left and on the right,
males holding vina-s (lutes) and females playing
Gandharva-s Many of the divine figures are flying
with ease towards the centre, some gesticulating
with upraised palms, perhaps at the success of
Bhagithas effort, or at the outcome of the
fight between kirata and Arjuna. These heavenly
couples are excellent specimens of the Pallava
ideals of masculine and feminine beauty, subtle
and divine.
Siddha-s Also hurrying to witness the miracle of
the descend of Ganga are two pairs of Siddha-s,
another instance of excellent modelling.
Dwarfs There are a number of dwarf-couples. They
are shown sitting, watching, with peculiar hoods,
with flaps over the ears, covering their heads.
Shrine and devotees Below the ascetic is a
temple with an idol of Vishnu inside. Meditating
near this shrine are an ascetic and three yogis,
now without head their concentration and deep
devotion are palpable. The shrine is single
storied, considered to be a model of contemporary
temple. We can see replicas, like this temple, in
bas-relief in the Mamallapuram monuments.
Chandra and Surya Among the flying celestials are
Chandra and Surya, symmetrically located on the
other boulder, both identified by disc-like
halos behind their heads.
The cleft The Descending Ganga A naga-king and
his queen, in solutation with a naga-subject,
swim upwards by the powerful whipping action of
their coils. Below them another serpent raises
its hood majestically, from its lair. On either
side of the naga-queen is a couple in human form,
identified as naga-s by their hoods
Bathers Close to the edge of the river are two,
one, with a suggestive smile, wringing out a wet
cloth, and another with calm countenance with a
pot of water on his shoulder. Two more have
completed the ritual bath, with wet dress
clinging to the body, one doing the
surya-namaskaram, like the tapasvin and the other
is at the salutation to the river itself. The
depiction of all these characters is
naturalistic in physiognomy.
Forest Scene Forest dwellers are shown in their
normal chore and hunters are out on their work.
The scene with all these men individualised in
pose, demeanour, moustached and hair on the head
tied on the top, dressed, perhaps, in leather,
carrying weapons due to their profession bow,
hatchet etc and one carrying some items on a
sling, another jackfruit on his shoulder etc, is
an excellent coposition.
It is a lively forest, with trees, like
jackfruit, and with birds and animals, like, a
monitor lizard, a black monkey with hairy neck,
lions, tigers, their cubs, deer, antelopes,
mountain goats, monkeys, a hare, an iguana
stalking an unsuspecting bird, a boar, a
tortoise, jungle cocks and hens and geese a fair
representation of the animal world.
The animal kingdom includes a money in pecsive
mood, A monkey couple ad a striding deer and a
stylised lions.
A dynamic portraiture is a tiger suckling her two
cubs, and similar liveliness can be seen in the
boar looking furtively behind for enemies.
Perhaps the best is the relaxed deer pair one of
which scratching its mouth with the paw, a
classic piece. The entire scene is the result
of careful observation and skilful modelling.
Hypocritical cat Here is a humorous story of a
cat imitating the ascetic-hero, pretending to
practise austerities. Mice surround the vile
cat, and dont suspect its treachery one mouse
is even worshipping him with paws pressed
together in salutation.
The elephant galore With a majestic 15-footer,
another large one with eight little calves
underfoot this composition would rank among the
worlds best elephant compositions. These
elephants are placed prominently, and, in fact,
dwarfing even the tapasvin and the god.
An appreciation The entire composition is one of
harmony, unity and balance. Divinities mingle
harmoniously with denizens of earth. The divines
are serene and magnanimous, semi-divines
effortlessly and unobtrusively moving about in
the air. The men going about the daily chores
and the animals on the river bank and in the
forest in their leisurely pace, monkeys doing
what monkeys do, elephants in their majestic
gambolling and deer caught scratching. Truly,
the composition is a sculptural symphony! And
there is humour too the cunning cat with
credible mice! The Indian artist has shown that
he has a sense of humour. The panel could be a
scene of social history.
We shall now see how the panel looked like in the
18th-19th centuries
Bas relief of the 'Descent of the Ganges',
Mamallapuram. Squared drawing for the aquatint
published 15 October 1799
Bas relief of the 'Descent of the Ganges',
Mamallapuram. Aquatint published 15 October 1799
'A view of the Sculptures representing the tapass
or intense penance of Arjoona Mahabalipoorum
from a Sketch by Mr J. Braddock. J. Gantz'.
"Mahabalipuram, bas-relief, India, 1820.
Mahabalipuram, Arjuna's Penance bas relief, 7th
century , aquatint by G. Zancon, published in a
work by Guilio Ferrario, about 1820."
Great Penance Wood engraving1890
Arjuna's Penance, Seven Pagodas Mamallapuram
Photo by Nicholas (ca. 1880)
Great Penance by Anon (Pen ink
1780-1820 'Ancient Sculptures on the Rocks at
Mavelliporum' on back in ink 'No.' '7.
Detail from Arjunas Penance/ Descent of the
Ganges sculpture showing seated ascetic next to
a shrine. Sculptured figure of Dron Achari at
Mahabalipooram Anon 1780-1820
The Govardhana panel is another masterpiece. The
effortless lifting of the mountain to save his
people, the consequent relaxed mood of the
people have been brought alive, the Pallava way.
On his side is Nappinnai and Balarama, assuaging
a friend.
The theme has been effortlessly used to depict
some secular scenes, found only in this panel.
The pastoral life is effectively portrayed. Are
the dancers doing Aychiyar koothu, mentioned in
The pranks of the divine child, Krishna, is
celebrated. The puranic stories also valourise
the heroism of Krishna, one of which is how he
handled the wrath of Indra. He lifted the
Govardhana Mountain itself to provide shelter to
his people.
The master Pallava craftsman has narrated this
delightful story for immortality. In doing so he
has also provided us a snap-shot of the
contemporary pastoral life, in its primordial
simplicity. In these thirteen centuries, we are
surprised to find, that the life depicted on the
stony wall can be witnessed in our villages even
There is one more aspect of great importance.
The theme is a well-known story of Krishna. In
the whole of Mamallapuram cornucopia, this is
the only scene where the Pallava sculptor has
not been teasing us.
The relief, like the more celebrated neighbour,
the Great Penance, occupies the entire wall of
the hill. It is now no more an open-air
bas-relief, for in the later Vijayanagara period
a front mandapam has been constructed.
The story Once Indra became frightened by the
growing popularity of Krishna and let loose
lightning, thunder and cyclone on Gokula, the
abode of Krishna. Krishna faced this calmly by
lifting Govardhana mountain effortlessly with
the little finger of his left hand and thus,
offering protection to the fleeting community.
This fitting reply subdued Indra.
The composition The relief depicts Krishna
lifting up, with his left arm, the hill,
Govardhana, as an umbrella to protect his
village friends and their herds of cattle from
the stormy wrath of the god, Indra.
The main scene of the young God-incarnate lifting
a mountain and the resultant the normal life of
the people unaffected by the wrath of Indra is
depicted with great effect parents carrying
their children pick-a-back, cows being milked,
and village women in usual chores etc.
The main character Krishna, an imposing figure at
the centre is seen lifting the Govardhana
mountain. On his left hand he holds the immense
mountain, Govardhana, effortlessly. Huddling
near him is a distinguished lady, identifiable
from the others by her dress, stance and
attendant lady.
To his left is his brother, Balarma. He is seen
with his left arm on the shoulder of an elderly
person. The importance of Krishna and his
brother is brought out by making them larger
than the other characters in the scene.
Rest of the scene is only enacting the pastoral
life, a life of peace and tranquillity.
Unaffected by the threat of storm, reposing full
faith in Krishna, the life in Gokulam continues.
The theme has been effortlessly used to depict
some secular scenes, found only in this panel.
A man is seen milking a cow while the cow is
licks her calf. The sitting posture of the man
milking, with pot held between his knees while
crouching, is a scene that can be seen even to
day in our villages.
A very graceful woman carrying a rolled mat on
her head and a sling containing curd and other
dairy merchandise. Behind him is another
villager walking with an axe on his shoulders.
We also have an ox on his majestic stride with
calf trotting under the protective care of its
There is a flute player, mesmerized by his own
music, and mesmerizing all the people and cattle
around. Just below we see that even the child is
distracted from its feeding, for the mother,
holding her baby on her thighs.
On the left, a couple dances hand in hand,
reminiscent of Aychiyar Koothu of
We have these described in our ancient
literature like Silappadikaram, and was a
familiar scene of our villages till a few
decades ago. One feels sorry of this break in
our mode life that has a history of almost two
thousand years and has been portrayed here one
thousand three hundred years ago!
The Pallava artist would not rest without
tickling us. There is a strange mixture animals
on the southern end. He has used skillfully the
side of the sloping rock to create an impression
of lair. Are they huddling together protecting
themselves from the thunderstorm?
On the northern side, we have a fine sculpture of
a bull, almost in the round, resting on a
platform on the right watching the happening with
nonchalant curiosity.
Appreciation The scene is rendered with the
unique charm of the Pallava-s. In its dynamics
this panel gives a totally different feeling, a
puranic story narrated in a simple, natural way.
This has prompted some experts to feel that
this might have been created by an entirely
different set of sculptors, may be even at a
slightly later period. There is one more
dimension to this composition only here in
Mamallapuram we witness secular scenes.
We shall now see how the panel looked like in the
18th-19th centuries
Govardhana (Krishna) by Gould (Pen ink
MacKenzie Collection 1816)
Goverdhana by Anon (Pen Ink MacKenzie
Collection 1816)
Govardhana by Gantz (Water colour 1825)
The unfinished Great Penance
Close to the masterpiece is an apology perhaps
the sculptors took training, or work of ones who
did not make the grade!
The theme looks the same, of the Great Penance,
but the work, in shallow relief, is not inspired,
does not inspire.
The unfinished Great Penance
There is another open-air bas-relief that
depicts the Great Penance spectacle in
Mamallapuram, not far from the celebrated one.
The entire scene breathes of great movement and
There are similarities and variations between the
two. Here too, two large boulders separated by a
cleft are used for depicting the scene namely,
the Great Penance. A number of characters are
same in both. Most of the characters in this
also look rushing towards the cleft.
But here it is low relief, and looks more
unfinished than the other.
The main scene of the boon-granting is somewhat
different here. The tapasvins posture is the
same the emaciated ascetic stands on one leg
and looks intently at the sun through his
knitted hands.
The four-armed God, without trisula, is on his
left side. His lower right hand is in the act of
benediction, lower left hand on his hip, a
rosary in his upper right hand and an axe, in
his upper left. A snake undulates out from under
the wrist of this hand.
There is a lone gana, who carries some
indefinable thing on his head and only one
gandharva in salutation.
The other characters in the scene are the other
composition, gandharva-s, kinanra-s, siddha-s a
forest-dwellers. The celestials are shrouded in
clouds below hip. Among the animals, deer and
elephants but the elephants are not oversized
and distracting as in the other panel. Circling
above are hamsa-s.
The entire scene, in spite of its
incompleteness, breathes of great movement and
Minor Elephant Panel
The Pallava sculptor seems to be obsessed with
elephants, and has created a panel totally
dedicated to the pachyderm. The bull-elephant
stands majestically, with the cow shown above and
the child frolicking under watchful eyes. The
peacock on its perch while the monkey is watching
you furtively.
Elephant bas-relief a drawing by J Dumbleton
In front of the Atiranachanda Cave, on a small
out crop is sculpted a relief of one the final
scenes of the Devi vanquishing Mahisha. The
defeat can be surmised from the loss of demons
umbrella and his running away from the scene.
Durga is getting down, perhaps to give the
final, fatal blow. An extraordinary, dainty
composition, may be taken as the sequel to the
more famous one in the main hill.
Mamallai is a never ending exhilaration. These
monuments stood the test of time, but most of
the time left neglected mostly under sand and
debris, by the descendents of those who created
these marvels , perhaps, ashamed of the
insensitivity of the human folk to art and piety.
Thank you