Great Penance – The Sri Lankan Connection

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Great Penance – The Sri Lankan Connection

Relief depicting elephants among lotuses, from the Isurumuniya vihara, Sri Lanka, 7th century CE, photo by Gairola, C. Krishna | University of Washington Digital Collections

Parallels have been drawn for the Great Penance relief at Mamallapuram with a bas-relief depicting very similar theme of elephants frolicking in a water-pool carved at a rock-boulder in Isurumuniya (Sri Lanka). The Isurumuniya bas-relief features five elephants, four to the left and one to the right, the group on the left is shown approaching the pond while the elephant on the right is shown splashing water from its upraised trunk. A K Coomaraswamy was the first scholar to draw this parallelism, he writes, describing the Elephant Pond at Isurumuiya, “This site, no doubt in the seventh century, has been treated very much in the manner of the Gangavatarana tirtham at Mamallapuram, though less elaborately. A niche cut in the face of the rock contains a seated figure in relief, accompanied by a horse; apparently representing the sage Kapila, it is in pure Pallava style, and one of the finest sculpture in Ceylon…..”1

Elephant Pond, Isurumuniya, Sri Lanka | wikipedia

Culavamsa, a 13th century CE work, mentions the episode of the Sri Lankan king Manavamma taking refuge in the Pallava court. King Narasiha (Narasimhavarman I) helped the Sri Lankan king, providing him with an army through a naval expedition2. Dohanian3 says that both the stability and the prestige of the government of Manavamma and his successors were directly related to unbroken alliance of the kingdom of Lanka and the empire of the Pallavas. This alliance lasted from the days of Manavamma’s exile until the ultimate extinction of Pallava power in last years of the ninth century. This account in Culavamsa led scholars to suggest that Manavamma was influenced by what he saw during his exile at the Pallava court and when he was back in his native, he tried to replicate those styles and designs. Therefore, the natural flow of influence is usually traced from the Pallavas to the Sri Lankan art of that contemporary period. Longhurst4, Vogel5 and Rowland6 follow Coomaraswamy stating that the bas-reliefs of Isurumuniya were influenced from the Pallava art. Sherman Lee7 does not mention Isurumuniya specifically however opines that it was the Pallava kingdom that had contact by sea with Cambodia and with Java, and it was through this commercial and religious contact, carried on by trade and by pilgrimage, that the influence of Pallava art was carried to Indonesia.

Senarath Paranavitana8 was first to propose that the influence was in the reverse direction, from Sri Lanka to the Pallavas. Rabe9 agrees with Paranavitana stating that the Isurumuniya sculptures bear great resemblance to the Pallava sculpture of 6th century CE. He is of opinion that when Manavamma reached the Pallava court during his exile, he transferred this idea to Narasimhavarman I when the latter was looking for a suitable design for his Great Penance relief at Mamallapuram. The idea of central cleft and provision of water tank above was provided by Manavamma to the Pallava king.

Among the recent scholarship on the subject, Leeuw10 and Dohanian11, are of opinion agreeing with Coomaraswamy over the Pallava influence after Manavamma’s return to the island. Leeuw writes, “Consequently the second half of the 7th or the 8th century would seem to be a reasonable date for these rock reliefs not only on account of their striking similarities in style and technical arrangement with the art of the Pallavas and other parts of India, but also in view of the facts of history.” Dohanian writes, “The Isurumuniya carvings may be taken as Sinhalese productions nearly contemporary with or slightly later than the Mamallapuram models.”

Arguments are aplenty in supporting evidences that the influence most probably flowed from the Pallavas to Sri Lanka and the change agent was King Manavamma. He had seen the Pallava splendors at Mamallapuram and after regaining control of his native island, he exercised similar designs and concepts with slight regional and religious variations. It may also be possible of that few artists accompanied the Sri Lankan king on his journey from Mamallapuram to Sri Lanka and those artists were instrumental in carrying forward the designs they had executed back when at Mamallapuram.


1 Coomarawamy, Ananda (1927). History of Indian and Indonesian Art. Edward Goldston. London. p 162
2 Geiger, Wilhelm (1929). Culavamsa, being the more recent part of the Mahavamsa, Part I. The Pali Text Society. London. p 107
3 Dohanian, Diran Kavork (1983). Sinhalese Sculptures in the Pallava Style published in Archives of Asian Art Vol. 36. pp 6-21
4 Vogel, J PH (1936). Buddhist Art In India, Ceylon And Java. The Clarendon Press. Oxford. p 84
5 Longhurst, A H (1937). Pallava Monuments at Anuradhapura published in the Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon for 1936, Part 4. pp 16-19
6 Rowland, Benjamin (1953). The Art and Architecture of India. Penguin Books. Baltimore. p 216
7 Lee, Sharman E (1982). A History of Far Eastern Art. Harry N Abrams. New York. ISBN 0133901386. p 178
8 Paranavitana, S (11953). The Sculpture of Man and Horse near Tisāväva at Anurādhapura, Ceylon published in Artibus Asiae Vol. 16, No. 3. pp 167-190
9 Rabe, Michael D (2001). The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. Institute of Asian Studies. Chennai. ISBN 8187892005. pp 24-25
10 van Lohuizen-de Leeuw, J E (1971). The Rock-reliefs at Isurumuni published in Orientalia Neerlandica. E J Brill. Leiden. pp 113-119
11 Dohanian, Diran Kavork (1983). Sinhalese Sculptures in the Pallava Style published in Archives of Asian Art Vol. 36. pp 6-21

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