Vijayanagara rulers built a pillared mantapa in front of it killing forever the cascade effect

On December 6 and 7, 2010, Mamallapuram, 50 km from Chennai, famed for its Pallava period rock-cut sculptures, recorded 20 cm of rain. It was the kind of rainfall that could have brought to life one of the famous bas-relief panels there, adjacent to the popular Arjuna's Penance bas-relief: Krishna lifting Govardhana hill to protect the cowherds, their wives, children, cows and bulls from a deluge caused by the wrath of Indra.

The pounding rain would have created a dramatic cascade down the rock and all around the bas-relief of Krishna and the community of cowherds just as the Pallava sculptors of the 7th century C.E. intended, says S. Balusami, Associate Professor of Tamil at the Madras Christian College, Tambaram.

The Pallava sculptors had conjured up the Mamallapuram rock as Govardhana hill and created a splendid row of sculptures depicting the life of cowherds and a majestic Krishna nonchalantly lifting the hill with his left hand.

Art historian C. Sivaramamurti, in his short book, Mahabalipuram, first published by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1952, asserts that: “This representation of the Govardhana scene is probably the best in India, even the one at Ellora coming nowhere near this.”

But, Dr. Balusami says, the Vijayanagara rulers of the 14th/15th century C.E. built a pillared mantapa in front of this bas-relief, killing forever the cascade effect. In fact, with the pillared mantapa in front, the sculptures are no longer an open-air bas-relief, which is now merely called the Krishna Mantapa. In a sense it amounts to vandalism. Says Sivaramamurti: “Vandalism has not caused much damage, except for the later Vaishnavite mark incised on the forehead of the couchant bull and the erection of the modern pillared hall which destroys the view of the original façade.”

Dr. Balusami, a scholar on Mamallapuram sculptures, has found tell-tale evidence of 26 furrows cut on the rock above the line of bas-relief sculptures to channel the rain water and create a picture of verisimilitude.

Pallava artisans had also excavated terraced steps and narrow channels on the sloping rock above for water to gush down the “Govardhanagiri.” But the Vijayanagara chieftains cut a trench high up on rock and raised a one-foot high wall to drain the water on either side of the bas-relief.

In defence of his argument, Dr. Balusamy points out that the central cleft in the adjacent sculptures of Arjuna's Penance represents the Ganga coursing down the Himalayas. He quotes from A.H. Longhurst's Pallava Architecture, part II, Intermediate or Mamalla Period, published by the ASI, to support his argument. Mr. Longhurst says: “If the visitor will take the trouble of climbing to the top of the rock…he will find a number of rock-cut channels or footings immediately above the cleft [in Arjuna's Penance], showing that a brick or masonry cistern was once built on this spot… It would appear that on certain festival occasions, this cistern was filled and the water allowed to flow down the cleft in the form of a cascade into the tank below, simulating the descent of a mountain torrent… There can be little doubt that the whole scene is a symbolical representation of the Ganges flowing down the Himalayas.”

“Dynamic, life-like”

Dr. Balusami has proposed that the central theme of the “dynamic, life-like” sculptures in the bas-relief of Krishna lifting Govardhanagiri is “safety” or “protection.” Everybody is feeling safe because Krishna has protected them from the deluge. A cowherd has a child on his shoulders and his wife holds the hand of another child while she carries on her head pots of milk and curd; a royal lady is looking up in amazement at Krishna holding aloft the hill; tall Balarama has his hand around an elderly cowherd, in a gesture of protection; a cowherd plays the flute and cows sway their heads to the tune; his wife is feeding their infant; another cowherd is milking a cow, which is licking her calf; nearby a bull and a cow are walking close to each other; a woman is carrying pots in a rope-sling; and a young couple, hands held together, is dancing with gay abandon. Everywhere there is relief that the danger has passed.

All these events, Dr. Balusami proposes, have a remarkable similarity to the descriptions in the poems of Mullai Thinai in Tamil Sangam literature, datable between third century B.C.E. and third century C.E.