S. Balusamy shares lesser known facts about the Tiger Caves and Krishna Mandapam in Mamallapuram with his audience

“Ten elephants, trees, hunters, lions, langurs, hog deer, the Assamese macaque, pygmy hog, the blue sheep, bar-headed geese and honey buzzard…what you see is a slice of The Himalayas,” says professor S. Balusamy pointing to a photograph of a stone sculpture panel at Mamallapuram. He was addressing a gathering at an event organised by the Aruvi Literary Society.

Though it is still called the Arjuna’s penance stone, there is a school of thought that says it could be Bhagiratha’s penance. The mountains, peaks, rivers and the valleys are sculpted on the panel. A vertical central cleft, signifies the Ganga.

“You will find every minute detail, like you would in a Michelangelo work, on this composition. A sculptor is not someone who just breaks stones, he knows everything — the spread of the Shivalik hills, the Himalayas, birds, animals and every living organism that live there, their anatomy… you can see a cat doing penance and 15 rats around it,” explains Balusamy, associate professor of Tamil at Madras Christian College. Pointing to another open air bas-relief structure that lies next to the Arjuna’s penance stone in the photograph, Balusamy says details on the smaller sculptures always help comprehend the bigger panels.

While applauding the skill and talent of the artistes, Balusamy says it is a pity that a number of unfinished monuments at Mamallapuram are in a poor state. Balusamy refers to a sculpture of Mahabali and Vamanan’s conquest of the universe as a masterpiece in animation. He makes special mention of the sculptures of Durga. “You can spot a man holding his hair up and chopping off his head to offer it to the goddess,” he points out.

Elsewhere in a battle field, every detail holds a wealth of meaning. Just the way the asura’s clothes have been depicted in the sculptures indicates they are retreating from battle. Durga with her eight arms (with weapons in each hand) holds aloft an arrow and indicates that she is victorious!”

A number of monuments such as the Pancha Pandava mandapam with an incomplete karuvarai, the Puliputhar mandapam and the Ganesha ratham (believed to be one of India’s first monolithic structures), are beautiful. The Draupadi ratham (resembling a hut) and the Arjunan ratham are incomplete. The kalasams on the top of the Bheema ratham are damaged. There is also an unfinished Valayankuttai ratham which looks beautiful from any direction. “Mamallapuram was a training ground where sculptors experimented with new ideas. It has been an integrated complex of many temples,” he says. The shore temples today are destroyed by ravages of time. The Ulakaneswarar monument is one of them. It was used as the light house by the British.

Balusamy draws attention to the historic tiger caves at Salluvan Kuppam near Mamallapuram. “ It’s an incomplete monument, a monolithic carving that has a mandapam like structure, two pillars, and on top a garland like arrangement of eleven yazhis ,” he explains. The south facing side of the rock has two big elephant heads and two empty podiums where, according to him, the idols of Muruga and Indran should have been. There is also an unfinished horse. Though some scholars believe that this cave might have been used as a festival pavilion during Indira Vizha, or as an urchava mandapam or sangeetha mandapam, Balusamy feels it is an integrated temple for Shiva and Durga.

He also took the audience through the Krishna Mandapam frescos depicting Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhana Hill and creating an umbrella of protection to save the village, its people, and the cowherds.