The temple at Thirukurungudi in Tirunelveli district is one such magical space. It is a rich repository of hundreds of outstanding sculptures about which I will be writing in detail sometime!
The temple tower is studded with beautifully sculpted panels, each of them just two or three feet in size. As I was observing them, this particular panel attracted my attention. It was an unusual depiction of Garuda.
On this Garuda Panchami day, let us dwell a bit more on the story behind this exquisite panel.
The story goes like this…
Garuda's father was the Rishi Kashyapa. He had two wives, Vinata and Kadru, who were daughters of Dakhya Prajapati. (Incidentally, there is small, beautiful temple dedicated to him in Odisha). Kashyapa, on the pleadings of his wives, granted them their wishes; Vinata wished for two sons and Kadru wished for a thousand snakes as her sons. Both laid eggs. While the thousand eggs of Kadru hatched early, the hatching of the two eggs of Vinata did not take place for a long time. In due course, when the second egg hatched, a fully grown, mighty bird form emerged as Garuda. Unfortunately, one day, Vinata entered into and lost a foolish bet (that’s another story!), as a result of which she became enslaved to her sister.
Garuda went in search of the nectar of immortality to free his mother from enslavement and while on his way, saw his father, Sage Kashyapa, deep in meditation. He came down to earth and bowed his hands to his father in greeting. This was the first meeting between the father and the son. Garuda explained to him that he was on his way to obtain the nectar of immortality to save his mother. Kashyapa blessed his son and told him that there was a lake inhabited by an elephant and a tortoise. Though they were brothers in their previous birth, now they were each other’s deadliest enemy and were constantly at war. He advised Garuda to eat both of them to get the nectar.
With his father Kashyap’s blessings, Garuda flew to the lake. He saw the elephant and the tortoise and seized them with his giant talons and flew into the sky. He was seeking a place to rest and eat his food and saw a place surrounded by beautiful, tall trees. When the trees noticed a huge bird-like creature flying overhead, they started trembling in fear. They thought that it would definitely crush them under its weight. When Garuda saw them getting frightened, he flew off in another direction.
Just then, a huge banyan tree saw him and called out, “Garuda, come and sit on me. My branches are quite strong, they will surely support you. Come, rest and eat your food.”Garuda then flew to the tree and sat on the branch. The moment he sat, the branch broke off and began falling down. As the branch was dropping, Garuda observed to his great amazement, that some sages were hanging upside down on the branch. He realized that if the branch fell, they would surely die and immediately grabbed the branch with its beak. The sages who were in deep meditation were Valikhyas, a group of thumb sized divine sages with great ascetic powers.
The panel depicts this particular scene in great detail. One can notice Garuda in the act of flying with the branch in its beak and the sages in the act of penance. While one foot is gripping the elephant firmly, the other is holding onto the tortoise. The detailing of the ornaments and the wings is quite exquisite. The energy and dynamism in such a small panel is a tribute to the skills of the unknown sculptor.