Stories in Stone is all about sculptures — either standalone or entire narrative panels. Each post in this series will showcase one such sculpture, look beyond its iconography and deconstruct the details in an attempt to understand the idea and/or the story it conveys.
The UNESCO world heritage site of Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is extraordinary for the sheer number and variety of monuments, as well as their scale and design. Rock-cut temples, structural temples, relief panels and more vie for attention, each one more captivating than the rest. Though a fair number of the monuments are incomplete or unfinished and weathered, their beauty is not diminished.
The monuments at Mahabalipuram have been the subject of many a study, but none more so than a large relief panel carved on a granite cliff. It is a panel that has led to debates and divisions among art historians over what it depicts or denotes or refers to — Arjuna’s Penance or the Descent of Ganga 
Before I narrate their stories and discuss why the panel could be one or both or maybe neither, let us take a close look at the various elements that make up this panel. A real close look beginning with photograph below (please click on the picture to see a full size version).
When I entered the Sri Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Kovil in Madurai on that January evening in 2016, I had no idea of what I was about to see. I don’t think other members of the group I was travelling with did either.
The only clue that there was something important in the temple came from Sriram’s (our group leader) rather enigmatic statement that there was a surprise waiting for us there. He wouldn’t say what it was though, and went off in search of the priest.
I looked around trying to guess what the ‘surprise’ could be. Was it the 12 ft tall Hanuman idol? Was it the Perumal idol in the sanctum? Or was it something else? As I looked around trying to figure out the ‘surprise’ in the temple, Sriram beckoned to our group to gather around a small shrine on one side. It was a simple shrine with two framed pictures — one of which I recognised as that of Tyagaraja (1767-1847), one of the greatest composers of Carnatic classical music — and two old tanpuras or tamburas.
Tygaraja’s framed portrait and tambura is on the left, while Venkataramana Bhagavathar’s tambura and framed portrait are on the right.
As the priest bustled around getting the shrine opened, Sriram casually announced that the tambura on the left used to belong to Tyagaraja. You could have heard a pin drop at the silence that followed. Continue reading →
I first heard about Mahabalipuram in a chapter of my Class 8 or 9 Hindi textbook. While I don’t remember who the author of that piece was, I do remember that it was about the ruminations of a sculptor who wondered about the glorious temple ruins by the sea-shore and how they came to be.
Though the chapter didn’t mention Mahabalipuram as the place the sculptor was talking about, my Hindi teacher said that is where the story was based. He also elaborated a bit on the history of Mahabalipuram and that had me hooked. My young and impressionable teenaged mind found the description of a bygone era and the desolation of temple ruins by the sea-shore very romantic.
The visual stayed with me through school, college, university… till I actually visited Mahabalipuram in 1996. This was in the summer of that year and the heat and tourist hordes dispelled any romantic notion I had about Mahabalipuram. But the monuments left an impression on me — enough to make me want to re-visit it.
It took me almost 20 years visit Mahabalipuram again.
It all began with a Twitter DM (or direct message) I received from my friend and fellow blogger, Anuradha Shankar.
It was the summer of 2014 and Anu was travelling, or doing a temple run as she preferred to call it, in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. She would send me an occasional update about the temples she was visiting — delight over seeing exquisite murals in one or despair on coming across bathroom tiles in another.
When I received a DM from her that May evening, with a “See this !”, I wondered what was it she had sent me this time and whether it would be a rave or rant ! As it happened, it didn’t matter for the photograph that Anu had messaged me simply took my breath away.
Photo: Anuradha Shankar
I messaged back. Jain Art? In Tamil Nadu? Where? What? How? When? Anu replied, Yes. Yes. This is Kazhugumalai, 8th-9th century CE. Rest when I get back. I was stunned for till then I had no idea about the existence of Jain culture — past or present —in Tamil Nadu. I had wrongly assumed that Karnataka was the furthest South that Jainism had spread to.
That one photograph sparked off an interest in Jainism in Tamil Nadu, an interest that continues to grow by the day. From researching about the fascinating history of Jainism in Tamil Nadu to visiting heritage Jain sites in Maduraiand Kanchipuram to writing an assignment on reclaiming Jain heritage in Tamil Nadu (as part of the Indian Aesthetics programme at Jnanapravaha Mumbai earlier this year)… the quest into Jain heritage has been an ongoing journey.
The Thirumalai Nayak Mahal was the last monument our group visited in Madurai as part of a 3-day exploration of the city, its history and cultural heritage earlier this year. I was looking forward to visiting the Mahal as, apart from the Meenakshi Amman Kovil, this was the only other place in Madurai I was aware of prior to the visit.
Built by Thirumalai Nayak (r.1622-1655), arguably Madurai’s best known king, this almost 400-year old restored and renovated palace is considered to be one of a kind with rather unique design and architectural features. Thanks to the photographs I had seen online as well as this song, I had an idea of what the palace looked like before the visit.
Even then, nothing prepared me for the size and scale of the palace that Thirumalai Nayak built when I walked through its doors that afternoon in January. A large courtyard lay before me, open to the skies, with soaring columns, topped by arches, lining it.
But my first sighting of the palace interiors did not leave me awestruck (that came later); instead, it left me aghast !
It is our last evening in Madurai and our group has just finished touring the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal. We have one more halt to make before dinner — a shop selling the local Sungudi sarees — and then board the overnight train to Chennai.
Since I am not interested in buying sarees, I decide to wait outside the shop. A couple of others from the group join me as well and we get chatting about that and this. When Sriram, our group leader, comes up to us and asks if we would like to see something interesting a short walk away we are only too happy to say yes.
Sriram leads us down the street and then through a narrow alley or two before turning into another narrow lane. He stops, points at something (see photograph below) and says, “See this !”