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The Great Penance at Mamallapuram

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Item Code: NAY775
Publisher: Institute Of Asian Studies, Chennai
Author: Michael D. Rabe
Language: English
Edition: 2001
ISBN: 8187892013
Pages: 289 (91 B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 9.50 X 7.50 inch
Weight 720 gm
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Book Description

Mamallapuram, "City of the Great Wrestler," is a popular beach resort on the coast of Tamil Nadu, South India. Now famous for its monolithic carvings and cave-temples, it formerly served as a major port on sea lanes stretching from imperial China to Rome. From the third through the ninth century kings of Pallava Dynasty controlled the region from Kancipuram their capital city 60 kilometres inland (Map 1). Architectural remains at the site indicate that Mdmallapuram also served as a major ceremonial centre and residence of Pallava kings from the sixth century onwards, though coins from still earlier periods have been found in dunes along its shores.

In 1984, the site alternatively known as Mahabalipuram was rightly honoured by inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The alternate name, meaning "City of the Great Bali," dates from the medieval period when memories of the historical Pallavas were eclipsed by localised pan-Indian myths. Here, it was said, Visnu's dwarf avatar, Vamana, humbled the demon king Bali and caused his splendid beachfront palaces to collapse beneath the sea. This faux-etymology contributed, in turn, to the mystique of another name by which the site has been known to mariners at least since Marco Polo's day, the Seven Pagodas. Since only the one Shore Temple is clearly visible from sea, it was supposed that several others must lie submerged beyond the breakers (Plate 2). This oral tradition was vividly recounted in the first systematic "... account of the Sculptures and Ruins at Mavalipuram...known to Seamen by the name of the Seven Pagodas," written by William Chambers after his second visit in 1776: ...the natives of the place declared to the writer of this account, that the more aged people among them, remembered to have seen the tops of several Pagodas far out in the sea, which being covered with copper (probably gilt) were particularly visible at sunrise as their shining surface used to reflect the sun's rays, but that now the effect was no longer produced, as the copper had since become incrusted with mould and verdegrease.

No corroborating archaeological remains offshore have ever been discovered, though in 1727 attempts may have been made in a "Copper diving Engine" and soundings were taken a century later. Before turning inland one kilometre to primary topic of this book, however, it is hard to resist a passing glance at Robert Southey's Curse of Kehama, a verse romance that immortalised Chamber's account in 1810, just before the British Crown conferred laureate status upon the poet:

...the Sepulchres Of the Ancient Kings, which Baly in his power Made in primeval times; and built above them A city, like the Cities of the Gods, Being like a God himself. For many an age Hath Ocean warr'd against his Palaces, Till overwhelm'd, they lie beneath the waves, Not overthrown, so well the aweful Chief Had laid their deep foundations... When now the Ancient Towers appear'd at last, Their golden summits in the noon-day light, Shone o'er the dark green deep that roll'd between For domes, and pinnacles, and spires were seen Peering above the sea...a mornful sight!

By any measure, the grandest imperial relic still visible at Mamallapuram is an immense cliff side tableau which happens also to be the world's largest narrative sculpture. Teeming with exquisitely modelled divine, human and animal figures, the Great Relief extends 83 by 38 feet (25 x 12 m) along the east face of the town's central acropolis (Map 2, Plates 3, 4). All deeply carved into the same buff-coloured gneiss, a metamorphic rock (like granite) that glints in morning light with flecks of mica and feldspar, the 150 larger than life-sized figures that populate the composition make an overwhelming first impression. In fact, even after repeated passes back and forth before the retaining wall that keeps visitors back about 10 metres, it is simply too complex a composition to grasp entire from any single vantage point. Indeed, despite the intrinsic beauty of each part, its overall excellent state of preservation, and the best efforts of many would-be interpreters, the vast panorama remains a total enigma with respect to everything from its subject matter and purpose to its date and authorship.

At least since the 18th century, curiosity primarily about its intended subject matter has prompted a steady stream of commentary and speculation. Is it rightly called Arjuna's Penance as local tradition has consistently maintained, or does it actually represent the Descent of the Ganges, as a slight plurality of twentieth-century expositors have argued?' In any case, the tableau's chief protagonist must be the wizened ascetic shown balancing upon one leg just above the solitary temple, performing suryopasthana tapas, or the penance of staring resolutely at the sun through clenched fingers (Plates 5, 6). But, again, is he to be identified as Arjuna, the Mahabharata's greatest wanior, who by extreme austerities acquired supernatural weapons from Siva and other deities? Or is he Bhagiratha, a lesser known stalwart in the lineage of Rama, who by force of wilful tapas lasting a thousand years, coerced the celestial Ganges (the Milky Way) to fall from heaven as a river?

Before commencing to set forth evidence and an argument by which I presume to resolve this controversy--once and for an, it is hoped (!)--the cautious reader is invited to consider first a prefatory explanation for why, in my view, the problem has proven so intractable till now. After numerous visits to the site and twenty plus years of mulling over photographs and any literature that seemed relevant, I am now certain that the unrivalled sculptural masterpiece constitutes a deliberate conundrum. The visually encrypted text, moreover. can only be deciphered after recognition that while elements germane to both myths are in fact incorporated into the monument's iconography, neither one is the core narrative, which turns out to be, instead, a patron-specific panegyric.

As to the question of which Pallava monarch was the beneficiary of this spectacular visual eulogy, given the protracted conboversy over meaning, it may come as no surprise to learn that the monument's dating has also been disputed. Therefore, a first order of business for Chapter One must necessarily be attribution of the Great Penance on both stylistic and textual grounds to a specific royal patron. My bona fides for this task, such as they am must rest upon the merits of previous work on the periodisation of Pallava rock-cut architecture.


Mamallapuram is a supreme cultural monument of Tamil Nadu and the world. It presents the finest flower of the indigenous sculptural accomplishment of the Tamil mind. A perennial treasure-trove of archaelogical interest and academic research, it has, over the past hundred years, attracted the best of scholars in the field to marvel at its multifaceted artistic splendour and to examine its structural excellence.

The Great Penance carving there in particular, with its numerous alignments and juxtapositionings between one hundred and fifty larger than life sized human and animal figures of exquisite sensuality, is one of the greatest masterpieces of world art. It is, as Jouveau-Dubreiul describes, "a work of such inspiration that it cannot be compared in its power to anything less than The Last Judgement of Michelangelo". The perfection and sophistication that this artefact marks proclaims as loudly as the unending roar of the Bay of Bengal nearby, the existence of an artistic tradition and civilization that had reached its zenith during the first millennium itself.

Notwithstanding an exceptionally large number of informed studies made on this Great Relief by experts both native and foreign, the 'grammar' of this "worlds" largest narrative sculpture" has remained an intricate mystery, a deliberate conundrum with respect to its subject matter and purpose, date and authorship Its varied designations and characterizations such as 'Arjuna's Penance', 'Descent of the Ganges', and the plurality of interpretation of the tableau's chief protagonist all indicate our inability to arrive at a holistic comprehension of this visual text.


Let others admire the sculptures on the rock, for my part I consider them as hideous caricatures. The cats resemble hyenas; the angels or devatas look like rickety children with big heads and swollen bellies; the heroes have thighs like spindles, while the nymphs...have waists as thin as their arms.

Whatever one eventually thinks about the Great Penance relief it certainly makes an overwhelming first impression (Plate 3). Even seen from a distance, from behind the low 10 by 30 metre parapet that currently blocks closer access, the mountainous panorama defies the mind's eye to grasp it coherently. Yet when one's gaze adjusts to focus on individual figures the rewards are immediate. For notwithstanding the diatribe by Dr Heyne-a rare exception to the acclaim the sculpture habitually receives-one is inevitably struck by the acute naturalism and refinement of the carving. Moreover, an almost palpable elan quickens each figure, many with legs cocked to simulate flight, as they gravitate inexorably towards the centre (Plates 4, 5).

Indeed, the cliffside panorama at Mamallapuram exemplifies the very apogee of an artistic tradition, one that coincided with a glorious, if brief, Golden Age under Pallava rule. No less an authority than Ananda Coomaraswamy concurred, in effect, by equating Pallava sculpture with that often characterised as Classical for North India, the chiefly Buddhist statuary from Mathura and Sarnath, dating from the age of the imperial Guptas (320-c.500):

...Pallava sculpture...is of a very high order; it differs chiefly from that of the Gupta period and area in the greater slenderness and freer movement of the forms, the more oval face and higher cheekbones. The divine and human figures are infinitely gracious and in the representation of animals this school excels all others.

Nowhere is that excellence shown to better advantage than by the elephants that command every visitor's initial attention. Led by a majestic fifteen-footer, the herd consisting of two adults with eight little calves underfoot is possibly the finest portrayal of the species ever made (Plate 8).

How then to explain the dissenting voice of Dr Heyne? According to the famous Pallava court poet, Dandin, ostensibly disparaging remarks are sometimes veiled flattery. Heyne's castigation of "hideous hyenas" may also exemplify psychomachy, a conflicted subconscious wherein stigmatising connotations in one's own name are "simultaneously acknowledged...and mastered". In any case, Heyne was neither first nor last to comment upon the stylistically discordant character of Pallava lions. Most have concurred with Goldingham, whose late 18th-century description of the relief is the earliest on record:

...Here are the representations of several animals, and of one which the Brahmans name simha, or lion; but by no means a likeness of that animal, wanting the peculiar characteristic, the mane. Something intended to represent this is, indeed, visible, which has more the effect of spots. It appears evident the sculptor was by no means so well acquainted with the figure of the lion as with that of the elephant and monkey, both being well represented in this group.

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