A herd of stone elephants

Spot a happy-go-lucky pachyderm, a zen cat and an acrobatic peacock in Mamallapuram created by animal-loving sculptors

June 22, 2017 04:39 pm | Updated 04:39 pm IST

Arjuna’s Penance, a bas-relief of Mamallapuram, is one of the most celebrated sculptures in town. I often find visitors staring at it, often not really understanding its story.

Various scholars over the years have come up with many interpretations. The best known though, is that it depicts Arjuna doing penance to win the pasupatastra (the most powerful weapon) from Lord Shiva.

The next most popular story here is ‘The descent of the Ganges’. If you look at the relief, one will find a cleft that divides it into two halves. It represents the river Ganges, brought down to earth by Lord Bhagiratha. According to legend, in order to break the force of the mighty Ganges, Lord Shiva lets the river flow on his head, and therefore his presence is marked at the bottom of the relief. When you move your focus to the left side of the plateau, you will find various gods and deities heading towards the river, showing how water is their greatest source of celebration.

But what is most striking of the bas-relief, on your first glance of it, is that one cannot but notice the happy-go-lucky elephant family that dominates the piece.

In my opinion these sculptures of elephants in Mamallapuram are a magnificent tribute to the pachyderm. Elephants often move towards river banks to drink water, and this is a site we see all over the elephant world. Similarly, in this relief, they are attracted to the Ganges.

What makes this a UNESCO heritage site has got a lot to do with the mastery of the craftsmen and how their imagination worked. The sculptors behind the bas-relief were no doubt animal lovers, and therefore, elephants, cats, rats, hares, lions, bears, deer, antelopes, monkeys, turtles, geese and roosters play a very prominent role in their art.

The father and the mother elephant look majestic, while their offspring are caught in a playful mood; one fellow even tries to do a somersault.

Below the tusk of the larger elephant, if one looks closely, you will find a cat performing penance, and cunningly tricking some mice to play around his feet.

His yogic pose convinces the crows that he will be a protector of their nest, and not once do they doubt that their offspring could also be his meal. At the far end of the park, on the right side of the well-known Butter Ball, you can also find a smaller relief, which represents Nature in harmony.

The relief features two elephants, a monkey and a peacock. This is definitely my favourite piece in town.

As I was taking a walk in the park, photographing these wonders, I was also fortunate to find a mongrel resting at the base; all the creatures were co-existing happily.

The mastery of the craftsmen of the Pallava dynasty is par excellence and it is reflected in the gentle eyes of the elephants, the crease around their necks, or the cat’s sly smile.

Next time you visit Arjuna’s Penance, get your kids to count the number of animals sculpted. The winner is the one who spots the somersaulting baby elephant or the peacock happily perched on top of an elephant head.

The author is a surfer who runs a restaurant in Mamallapuram

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