Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas
Behind the shadows of a late-Vijayanagara-period pillared-mandapa (hall) lies another marvelous Pallava bas-relief referred to as Krishna-Mandapa. This 29 feet long and 12 feet high1 bas-relief faces east and depicts Krishna lifting the Govardhana mountain in his left hand in order to provide shelter to the pastoral community from heavy rains. The legend is told in chapters 15-19 of Vishnu Parva in Harivamsa Purana. The story goes that once Krishna and Balarama were intrigued by the villagers of Vraja preparing for Indra-yajna and worship of Indra-flag. Krishna said that they were all of the milkmen community therefore they must worship the kine, the mountains, and the forests. He told the villagers that they will celebrate a yajna in honor of the mountain as Indra is worshipped by the celestials. Indra being angry sent Samvartaka cloud to shower heavy rains and bring deluge in order to kill all the kine and the inhabitants of the village. Krishna uprooted the Govardhana mountain and converted it into an asylum for the kine.
Krishna is shown surrounded by gopis, gwalas, and their children. Gopis are shown in various postures, standing taking support of others, holding hands of their children, or carrying milk-pots. Gwalas are standing taking support of their axes or carrying children over their shoulders. In the background are shown a number of cows. The figure of Krishna is larger in size in comparison of the gopis and gwalas. There are a few intriguing figures in this part of the panel. The first figure is of a female, standing immediately left of Krishna. She is shown wearing a kirita-makuta and a breast-band, suggesting her royal background. In the legend of Govardhana, there is no mention of such a royal figure therefore who she could be? We will deal with this topic later in the article. Another curious figure is of a male, standing on the right of Krishna, carved in the same size as that of Krishna. He is standing in alidha-mudra, with one leg rested over a stone pedestal. His one arm is on his waist and another resting around the shoulder of a gwala. Being carved with very similar attributes and decoration as that of Krishna, he may represent Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna, however, he lacks the regular iconographic features of Balarama such as plow, wine-cup or a serpent-hood. He holds a hand of a maiden, standing on his left and showing royal attributes however she is not shown bearing a breast-band. In case the male is Balarama, she may represent his wife, Revati, however, the legend does not mention the presence of Revati on the scene. Nagaswamy2 takes this male figure as Balarama.
If we consider this panel to depict the legend in motion, then this male figure may represent Krishna in a posture prior to lifting the mountain as this particular posture reflects his confidence and resolve while getting ready for a super-natural feat. If he is Krishna, then the maiden whose hand he is holding might be equated with the lady on the left of Krishna lifting the mountain. However, the difference in these two female figures is that one bears a breast-band and another does not thus make it difficult to equate both. The Pallava royal portrait reliefs in the Adi-Varaha Cave-Temple, the queens in both the panels are shown without breast-bands. This suggests that this bas-relief post-dated to that cave temple. Kaimal3 is of opinion that this male figure represents Krishna, and the person around whose shoulder his hands are is his adoptive father, Nanda.
The left part of the panel, starting from the right of Balarama, depicts a pastoral scene of village society. The central attraction of this part is the scene where a cow is shown affectionately fondling her calf while a gwala is milking the cow. The depiction is of the protection and love of a mother towards her child. Around the cow are shown various male and female figures in different postures and attitudes. A female gopi is shown carrying a milk can in her right hand and a folded mat over her head. A couple is shown above the cow, the male is playing the flute and the female with her child is enjoying the scene.
On the leftmost part of the panel is shown a bull with a calf. They are following a couple, both shown dancing towards the left. The bull is carved very exquisitely with the folds of its dewlap clearly illustrated. While various animals such as cows and lions are put on the corners and ends of this panel, there is an intriguing figure among them. On the left lateral wall are a figure with a human head and lion’s body, reflecting Puruṣasiṃha (पुरुषसिंह) or Nṛsiṃha (नृसिंह). Is it a portrayal of some mythological animal or it represents a Pallava king, as two Pallava kings bore the name Narasimha, Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE) and Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-728 CE)?
Now, let’s go back to the topic of the lady next to Krishna. The lady may be identified with one of his wives, Rukmini, however, the legend of Govardhana occurred in his childhood therefore the presence of Rukmini is contested. As the lady depicts royalty, can it be a Pallava queen? Padma Kaimal4 sees a political statement and message of protection in this panel. Protection of his subjects from all manner of threats was the paramount duty of the kings of early South India. The king’s protective responsibilities extended beyond the human sphere, linking his kingdom to the rest of the cosmos. In this panel, there are many themes reflecting protection, mother cow fondling her calf, Balarama with his hand around the head of an elder, gwalas carrying their children over the shoulder, lions on the corners, etc. In this case, the figure of Krishna may also be taken as the image of the Pallava king, the sponsor of this project. And in this case, the lady next to him should be taken as his queen, suiting the attire and attributes she is wearing. If this is accepted, then this panel becomes another instance where an image of God is amalgamated with the image of a Pallava king, as in the earlier example of the Gangadhara panel in the Trichy cave-temple of the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (580-630 CE). Marilyn Hirsh5 is of opinion that it is possible to perceive Krishna’s image in this sculpture as the portrait of the king.
1 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture vol. ii. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 39
2 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 67
3 Kaimal, Padma (1994). Playful Ambiguity and Political Authority in the Large Relief at Mamallapuram published in Ars Orientalis vol. 24. p 17
4 Kaimal, Padma (1994). Playful Ambiguity and Political Authority in the Large Relief at Mamallapuram published in Ars Orientalis vol. 24. p 15
5 Hirsh, Marilyn (1987). Mahendravarman I Pallava: Artist and Patron of Māmallapuram published in Artibus Asiae Vol. 48, No. ½. p 127