OUT OF LIVING STONE
Gather round folks it’s time for another deity tale. This one is from one of our very first stops in the tour, Mamallapuram.
As everyone knows, all the waters in the earth flow from the milky way; and, reciprocally, humans can attain heaven by climbing the watery stair from down here to up there.
Once upon a time some demon or another drank up all the waters on earth, which left humans in pretty bad shape both physically and spiritually, as you can imagine.
Also, as everyone knows, Lord Brahma is the god who controls the milky way waters. Someone went to him for help, which he said he’d be glad to provide, except that if he turned the waters loose they’d come down with such force they’d break the earth to pieces. Quite a dilemma. But our old friend, Siva, came to the rescue. He told Brahma to go ahead and release the waters, and he’d answer for the results.
Thus, he stood underneath the great stream from up above and caught the water on the crown of his head. From there, it streamed down his hair, out his dreadlocks, and bathed the entire earth once again in life-giving liquid, and the world was saved. The main stream, of course, was the mighty Ganges, which is why it’s so sacred today.
In the 8th or 9th century, one of the kings in the Mamallapuram area decided to commission a bas-relief of this tale, carved in the face one of the great series of granite boulders that abound in the region.
He (or someone) selected a cleft in the rock as the symbolic route for the Ganges, and they set to work. The result is a magnificent sculpture, exquisite in design and execution, which not only depicted the story, but paid homage to Siva as he savior of the locals (and, of course, everyone else.) It didn’t hurt matters that it was easy to draw political as well as religious inferences by assuming that the king as well as Siva was the savior and protector of those under his reign. Since people believed (believe) that all natural substances, organic or not, are inhabited by gods, the sculptors believed the granite out which they were carving their tale was a virtual living being, that they were working with living rock. We didn’t get a photo showing the whole sweep of this saga that gave enough detail to deliver its impact in this setting. It’s marvelous to see the fluidity of the people and animals rushing toward the live-giving cleft where the Ganges flows.
However, the detail above of a mother elephant protecting her young and that here of a deer lying down with a lion should help show how wonderful was the land Siva (religious) or the king (political) created for the benefit of his subjects.
As a closer, though, we present the battle between the goddess Dorgan (left-center, riding a lion, bow drawn) and a buffalo god whose name I can’t recall.
There are lots of other demons but focus if you can on Dorgan and the Buffalo. The sculpture catches the battle at the moment when the buffalo is about to go down, which he will, Dorgan’s foot on his head, because that’s how Indian gods treat their defeated enemies. The relief is much smaller and I hope this photo of the battle gives some appreciation of the life with which these ancient artists invested this supposedly inert granite and helped render this heavenly battle in living stone.