As a young lad of seven I didn’t have a clue of what Moksha meant.
The scouts group from our school had gone on a camp to Kancheepuram and we were in Kailasanathar Koil. Our scout master announced nonchalantly that anyone who wanted to attain Moksha could go around the main deity. There were very few volunteers. Hardly was I aware that it meant crawling through a dark passage around the sanctum. Keen to have a foretaste of what Moksha meant, I gingerly stepped into the dim passageway. It was pitch dark inside and so small that one had to crawl at places. I gathered up all my courage and made my way through, greatly relieved to see a sliver of light at the end. With much relief I exited through the opening. I still don’t know what prompted me to make the expedition through that dark alley. Was I searching for Moksha at that tender age? Or was it just an adventurous, ill-informed foray?
Six decades later, I was again at the temple with Ahalya. It was a different quest this time. Having read a lot about the temple, we were there to savour the acme of Pallava architecture. The temple was bathed in the late evening glow of the waning sun. At first sight it was the most unusual among the many temples I had seen before. There was no majestic gopuram towering at the entrance. Instead, the entrance wall was lined with eight small shrines - two to the left of the doorway, and the rest to its right. Each of them finely sculptured.
There were more surprises inside. The inner courtyard was lined with countless small shrines all of them sculpted in detail. Unfortunately with the passage of time, the sand stone which had been used had worn off. But in spite of the ravages of time and years of human neglect, one could still discern some stunning sculptures. The most noteworthy of them was a scene from Kirataparva, depicting the epic fight between Arjuna and Kirata (Shiva). It is a small frieze but the details were amazing. The agility of the warriors and expression on their faces was hypnotic. This legendary duel between Shiva and Arjuna is enacted even now in Koodiyattam in Kerala. At one time these small shrines would have been painted over with brilliant hues as one can see their vestiges even now. There were also murals in the interior walls of these shrines. It is a pity that most of them have vanished. Still when I peered into the inside of a shrine, I could see the remnants of the beautiful face of a maiden. Captivated by that fragment of a face, I wondered as to how ethereal she would have looked at one time! Lion pillars, each of them ferocious, stand guard at these small shrines.
After having a good, detailed looked at these shrines and peering through their nooks and crannies we now cast our eyes on the walls around the main shrine which were covered with exquisite reliefs. Every panel was sheer poetry and a delight to watch. Let me describe some of them . . .
Let me start with the Shiva Bhikshadana panel. It is gorgeously framed by prancing lion yaalis and a wonderful Ganesha at the bottom. Shiva Bhikshadana exudes youth and vitality, much like Michelangelo’s David. It symbolizes the perfect epitome of male beauty. Even though I had not seen the actual statue of David, lured by its outstanding appeal I had a poster of it in my office room for some time till Ahalya cautioned me about the possible impact of his presence on my clients! But here, much before Michelangelo, an unknown sculptor had crafted an extraordinary artwork of immense beauty. The elegant nakedness of his lower body, the grace of his bent knee, the slight flex of his left foot with the sandals, the broad shoulders, the nonchalant manner in which the right hand rests on his staff, the begging bowl cradled in his palm, the mischievous grin on his face.. all sparkle with youthful exuberance. Not content with that, he points up with his index finger to the upper panel which depicts his amazing transformation in a dancing form.
There are many depictions of Dakshina Murthy. He is the embodiment of knowledge and wisdom. He is seen here with his dreadlocks neatly framing his face. He is seated under a tree and seems to be giving a sermon. So much so, even the snake that adorns his neck has crawled down to sit and listen to him! There are two antelopes below Shiva. They are a metaphor for a quick thinking human mind. They have been tamed and are now listening to Dakshina Murthy. His stance is also quite unusual. With his left foot crossed over his right knee, it feels as if he was looking elsewhere and preaching and the sculptor caught him turning towards us. The immaculate attention to the finer aspects is visible in the sole of the left foot, with the arches and instep sculpted in exquisite detail.
This was the first time we had set our eyes on Shiva holding a veena as Veenadhara Shiva. Veenadhara Shiva is supposedly one of the 64 forms of Lord Shiva. What is striking is that unlike the current veenas, the kudam or the body is on the top. As Sri Suddhananda Bharati, remarked, Shiva plays on the strings of the veena of our lives - jhankAra Sruti SeiguvAi, jIva vINaiyil sangItAmRtam peiguvAi, jagadISvaranE.(in pUrvI kalyANI) a song immortalized by Smt. MS. Subbalakshmi.
SHIVA in SWASTIKA MUDRA
The other gorgeous sculpture is of Shiva in an unusual Swastika Mudra. On the right side one can see Parvathi with an adoring expression relishing the cosmic dance. On the left side is a musician playing the drums. The animated Shiva Ganas are dancing with abandon at the bottom!
This is an arresting figure of Durga in a tribhanga posture. On the right side of the main figure is a not so often seen depiction of Jyeshtalakshmi. Jyeshtalakshmi is the elder sister of Lakshmi. Jyeshta Devi worship was prevalent in Tamil Nadu during the Buddhist and Jain period and continued widely during the Pallavas and Chola period too. For some reason in later periods Jyeshta was considered to be the symbol of all that is detestable and loathsome and her worship waned. Her image remained buried in many temples, including at the Kapaleeswarar temple at Mylapore. There are very few existing images of Jyeshtalakshmi and it is noteworthy that she finds a prominent place just next to Durga in this temple.
In this elegant sculpture one can see Shiva opening up just a strand of hair to contain the mighty Ganga. Parvathi looks on by his side. In the top panel is a fiery Shiva as Gajasamharamurthy, vanquishing the elephant demon Gajasura while Parvathi appears to run away from the scene!
A most unusual depiction of Aadiseshan in that he is portrayed along with Shivaganas who are playing music below. What is noteworthy are the three different kinds of musical instruments illustrated in the panel. There is a cymbal, a flute and most extraordinarily, a pair of bongos! Till date, I have never seen bongos represented in South Indian temple architecture.
Kalasamharamurthy is depicted in a vibrant fashion in this panel. With his left hand Shiva is warning Yama while raising his left leg to kick Yama. On the right hand he is holding the trident and the other right hand is raised above in a swinging motion as if to behead Yama.
In this panel one can see Brahma trying to restrain Jalandhara from Indira who is furious with him for stopping him on his way to Mount Kailash.
BEHEADING OF BRAHMA
I have never seen a panel like this! It is said that Brahma originally had only one head. He created a woman called Shatarupa from his own body. Over a period of time, he fell deeply in love with her and could not take his eyes off her. Feeling shy, Shatarupa tried to avoid him. In order to follow her wherever she went, Brahma created five heads so that he could look easily in all directions! Having more heads than any other God, he became too proud and showed disrespect to Shiva, who in a fit of anger cut his fifth head!
These are attendants of Lord Shiva. In this panel one can see them making merry, dancing with sheer abandon. Some have human faces and others have animal faces. What is noteworthy however is that one among them is Ganesha himself!
In addition, there are wonderful depictions of Lingothbhava,Vamana Avatar, Narasimha Avatar, each one of them superbly sculpted.
It was truly an entrancing experience to imbibe the sheer brilliance of these sculptors as they shaped this poetry in stone. Unlike in Hoysala temple architecture where the artisans chiselled their names onto their work, these sculptors remain unknown. But the passion surging through their veins as they crafted these incredible pieces of astounding art has withstood the ravages of time to inspire and enthuse us.
This jewel of a temple holds in its midst some of the most astounding expression of sculptural excellence – be it the composition, complexity, elegance and sheer volume per square inch of workmanship.
For over several hours as we went over each and every sculpture in detail, it was just us and the cool blocks of stone that have witnessed history unfolding over centuries. The silence that enveloped us was only interrupted by the occasional chirping of birds.
This time around I didn’t venture into the dark circumambulatory passage to attain Moksha. On the other hand, it was a transformative experience just to feel the presence and power of the creative energy embedded in these sculptures.
As you read these descriptions, do have a look at the corresponding and other pictures at: photos.app.goo.gl/r2n3hm37Y4s2e8j42
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