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).
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.
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.
About 180 km south-west of Jaisalmer, where the Thar Desert meets some isolated outcrops of the Aravalli mountain ranges, lie the ruins of the temples of Kiradu. It is believed that there were around 108 temples on this site, but today only 5 temples remain — 4 of those are dedicated to Shiva and 1 temple is believed to have been dedicated to to Vishnu.
I first heard about the temples at Kiradu when I received an invitation from Suryagarh. The itinerary attached with the mail included a visit to these temples. I was intrigued enough to look up for more information on the internet immediately — even before I accepted the invitation. To my surprise, I found little substantive information online. This only made the temples more intriguing and mysterious for me and I couldn’t wait to see them for myself when I visited Suryagarh in July 2016.
And after lunch on my last day at Suryagarh, we set off to see the Kiradu temples. It was a beautiful, but long, drive through the Thar, through dramatic changes in the landscape from desert to hilly.
It was around 6 pm when we arrived at the Kiradu temples, which meant I had an hour or so before sunset and before the light faded. The next hour saw me racing from temple to temple, pumped with adrenaline, trying to take in as much of the details as I could and photographing whatever I thought was interesting or significant.
The sculpture gallery of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) has many treasures within, with some of them being more impressive than the others. One of the “quieter” sculptures is that of a 10th century Varaha from Karnataka.
On my visits to the sculpture gallery, I would give this sculpture — which is about 3.5 feet in height and about 2 feet in width — only a cursory glance, passing it over for other exhibits. It was not until I had to write an assignment as part of my Indian Aesthetics course at Jnanapravaha, where I had to choose one of the sculptures in the gallery that I had my first good look at the Varaha.
And regretted not having paid attention to it before, so rich were the details and the iconography. At the end of my detailed tour of the sculpture gallery, there was no doubt which sculpture I would be writing about. 🙂
Today is Vijaya Dashami or Bijoya. Today is the day when the Goddess Durga defeated Mahisasura or the buffalo demon, after a fierce battle that lasted 9 days and 9 nights. After killing him on the 10th day, Durga came to known as Mahisasuramardini or “she who killed the buffalo demon”.
The story of Mahisasuramardini (which you can read here or here) is perhaps one of the best known in Hindu mythology, and its associated imagery is one of the most recognisable.
I was introduced to the story of Mahisasuramardini by my grandmothers, and also my mother’s recitation of the Mahisasuramardini Stotram. Like most children of the 1970s, I was introduced to the popular imagery of Mahisasuramardini through Amar Chitra Katha’s “Tales of Durga” (see picture on the left).
It was this image of Mahisasuramardini that stayed with me till 1997 when I visited Mahabalipuram. I saw Indian sculptural art in a ‘natural’ setting for the first time, including this depiction of Mahisasuramardini. That was when I realised the immensity, beauty and power of the narratives I had heard and read from the time I was a kid.
That visit also marked the beginning of my interest in Hindu mythology expanding to include its representation in classical Indian art. And Mahisasuramardini fascinated me like no other, which, thanks to my travels in India, I came across in Aihole, Ellora, Patan, Vadnagar and Nalla Sopara. Artiistically and stylistically, each one of the relief sculptures were very different, and yet unmistakably that of Mahisasuramardini.