Sesharayar Mandapam, three-dimensional marvel

December 24, 2012 12:00 am | Updated 04:58 am IST

Prema Nandakumar

Come Vaikunta Ekadasi, no one can miss the Sesharayar Mandapam in the Srirangam Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple complex. Vaikunta Ekadasi onwards, for ten nights, Lord Ranganatha holds court in the Tirumamani Mandapam in the Thousand Pillared Hall. Facing him at the farther end is the sannidhi of Kothanda Rama flanked by Sita Devi and Lakshmana. The sannidhi itself is situated in the Sesharayar Mandapam. It seems a strategic placement, for Rama had worshipped his ancestral deity Ranganathaswamy when in Ayodhya. The Mandapam is a treasure-trove of evocative sculptures.

Sesharayar Mandapam is to the south of the Thousand Pillared Hall. It is 41.46 metres in length and 32.16 metres in width with 96 pillars each rising to a height of six feet and standing witness to the artistic fingers of Indian sculptors of religious themes. It is also a symbol of the services to art by the rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire. Tradition associates the mandapam with the Rajagopuram some centuries ago. For, the area of this mandapam is exactly that of the first storey of the Rajagopuram. A posse of cavalrymen with their horses in readiness in the first storey as if checking the oncoming intruders would have advertised the Vijayanagar strength. Unfortunately, the Vijayanagar Empire was destroyed completely by the Muslim Sultans of Deccan in the Tallikota Battle that took place on 26{+t}{+h}January, 1565. The work on the Rajagopuram stopped. Attempts to revive building works failed and for three hundred years, the royal spire came to be known as Mottai Gopuram (the bald spire). It was only twenty-five years ago that the Jeeyar of the Ahobila Math mobilized men and money to build the upper storeys and now the Rajagopuram rises to 220 feet.

Perhaps the Vijayanagar king had wanted to build many storeys. If he had, it would have been another wondrous achievement in Indian art. For, what we have of the first storey in the Sesharayar Mandapam is literally a three-dimensional marvel. When building of the Rajagopuram had stopped, Sesharayar in the employ of a Thanjavur king took pains to set up the pillars as a hall in front of the Kothandarama temple. It is quite possible the sculpting work had been going on in the open space around the temple. Sesharayar would have seen the abandoned pillars and would have had them set up as a mandapam where people could find shade in summer.

There are twelve lines of pillars. As we look from the thousand-pillared hall, the eight horses sculpted on the pillars seem to be ready to leap towards us. The warriors on the horses are fighting with Yalis or tigers. Infantry is also helping them. A sculptor has caught the sharp edge of the sword that has pierced through the tiger’s body and is peeping out. Each and every pillar has been embroidered by the artisan.

Most of the incidents depicted are from the Ramayana. Hanuman is seen in different poses. He is receiving Rama’s signet ring. He is coming out of Simhika’s body after tearing her up. He searches all over Lanka with the signet-ring tied to his tail. He comes back to Kishkinda and reports to Rama and Lakshmana that he had found Sita. He speaks to Vibhishana. He hands over the Sanjivi herbs to Jambavan. He is carrying Narayana holding the conch and the discus. The sculptors who have brought a yogi’s matchless peace to the faces of Hanuman are truly immortal.

There are other scenes from the Ramayana too. Here is Ravana bound by the tail of Vali. Another pillar shows Vali and Sugriva at war. You stand on the side of Vali, and Rama vanishes. But standing on the side of Sugriva one can clearly see Rama hiding and aiming an arrow at Vali.

The ten avatars of Vishnu, Gopika-vastrapaharanam and the churning of the milky ocean apart, there is a series on the destruction of Hiranya. Narasimha appears and pulls up Hiranya who has kicked the pillar. In the next sculpture, Narasimha has the rakshasa on his lap and is tearing his stomach apart. In another pillar Nasrasimha is seen garlanding himself with the guts of Hiranyakasipu. As two hands hold the terrible garland, two hands raise the conch and the discus.

There is God’s plenty here. Lovely ladies who move the fans and whisks in their hands; a hunter walking with a pig, a shepherd who has covered himself to keep out the cold, girls dancing, women handling flute and lute, a brahmachari carrying flowers into the temple for worship: an amazing recordation of the daily life of Srirangam people in a bygone age.

Do not forget to step into this Hall of Wonders next time you enter the Srirangam temple.

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