Sunday, 28 May 2017

Atyantakaama Pallava’s Poem – a musical experiment

On the southern portion of the west facing wall in the Ganesha Ratha and on the northern wall of  the Dharamaraja Mandapam, one can find the same eleven stanza Sanskrit inscription, written in Pallava Grantha script. Word for word, they are the same text, identifying both as temples built by a Pallava King who called himself Atyantakaama (He of Endless Desires), and in both the temple is called Atyantakaama Pallava Ishvara Graham , that is, the house of Ishvara of Atyantakaama Pallava. Both are temples for Siva, as the text of the poems describe.

The poem is in anushtubh chandas, where each stanza has four parts, each of which has eight syllables. Some of the stanzas use a poetic style called virodha aabhaasa, which is a known style in Sanskrit of describing the same object using phrases that mean opposite things. Here the object is Siva, the God for whom Atyantakaama built these temples. The identity of this king Atyantakaama Pallava is the subject of scholarly debate, with opinion varying that it is Mahendra Pallava, his son Narasimha Pallava (alias Mahamalla), the latter’s grandson Parameshvara Pallava, or his son RajaSimha Pallava. The correct identity is irrelevant to the primary purpose of this essay, and the musical video accompanying it, which is to showcase the beauty of the poetry and its musical value.

Here is the video, with Sudarsanam’s rendering of the song. 

Here is the verse in Sanskrit, in the modern Devanagari script, for those can read it and need no translation:

संभवस्तिथिसंहारकारणं वीतकारणः
भूयात् अत्यन्तकामाय जगदां काममर्द्धनः
अमायः चित्रमायः असौ अगुनः गुणभाजनः
स्वस्थः निरुत्तरः जीयात् अनीशः परमेश्वरः
यस्य अङ्गुष्ट भराक्रान्त कैलास स दशानन
पातालं अगमन् मूर्धना श्रीनिधिस्तं विभर्ति अजं

Let us examine the first stanza. It reads:
sambhava stithi samhaara kaaraNam veeta kaaranaH
bhUyaat  atyantakaamaya jagatAm kAma mardanaH

My translation:
            Let He who is the cause of Creation, Preservation and Destruction, but himself without Cause,
            And is also the destroyer of Kaama (the God of Love)
            Grant to He of Endless Desires, the World.

You can see the mischievous play on words by the poet here, quite typical of the poetic inscriptions of Mahendra Varma Pallava, in his various cave temples at Mandagapattu, Dalavanur, Siyamangalam, Mahendravadi and Tiruchi. Atyantakaama (whether Mahendra himself, or one of his descendants), uses various epithets of Siva as birudas (titles) for himself, so the phrases may mean either Siva or the king, based on the context. Asking the Destroyer of Kaama to grant the whole world to one who calls himself the Pallava of Endless Desires, is the height of impudence. But it is also quite common in Hindu devotional Bhakti literature, especially in the Tamil country, where the devotee expects God to fulfill his or her desire.

Word meanings
sambhava - Creation
stithi - Preservation
samhaara - Destruction
kaaraNam, kaaranaH - Cause
veeta - without
bhUyaat  - grant
atyantakaamaya – to Atyantakaama
jagatAm – the world
kAma – Desire (also the name of the God of Love)
mardanaH - Killer

Let us examine the second stanza. It reads:
amAyaH  citramAyaH asau aguNaH guNabhAjanaH
svastaH niruttaraH jeeyaat anIshaH paramEshvaraH

My translation:
            Let Him win,
who is Non-Illusion but also himself the Great Illusionist,
            who is without qualities but Endowment of all qualities,
who is Self-Existent but without superior,
who has no Lord, but is the Supreme Lord

Virodha abhaasa in full flow. Lockwood believes the reference to Parameshvara here implies that the inscription was authored by the Pallava of the same name. Otherwise it is one of two stanzas (along with the sixth) where the king uses phrases only to describe Siva.

Word meanings
amAyaH  - Non-illusion (i.e, the Absolute Truth)
citramAyaH – the Great Illusionist
asau - him
aguNaH – He without quality (i.e One imossible to qualify)
            guNabhAjanaH – The Endowment of all qualities
svasthaH – Self Existent
niruttara - without Superior
jeeyaat – Let win
anIsha  - the Unmastered
paramEshvara – Ultimate Master

Let us examine the third stanza. It reads:
yasya angushta bharA krAnta kailAsa sa dashAnana
pAtAlam agaman mUrdhnA srinidhiH tam bibharti ajam

My translation:
He whose toe’s weight pressed Kailasa so hard that Ravana was pushed into the Netherworld,
Srinidhi (another title of Atyantakaama Pallava) bears Him, the Unborn (Siva).

Perhaps the Pallava bore a small lingam in his hair (or his crown). Here he gently mocks Ravana, who tried to lift Kailasa, but was pushed to the netherworld by an annoyed Siva for that audacity. So the Pallava comes across as more favored than the legendary Ravana. In the video, I’ve used a sculpture from the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple for this phrase, that I fancy might be of Siva resting his foot on Rajasimha.
Is this Siva's foot on Rajasimha Pallava?
Word meanings
yasya – whose
angushta – toe
bharA krAnta – weight
kailAsa – the Mountain Kailasa
sa - him
dashAnana –TenFaced (i.e. RavanaH)
pAtAlam - Netherworld
agaman - sent
mUrdhnA - head
srinidhi – the bearer of Prosperity (a title of the Pallava King)
tam - him
bibharti - bears
ajam – the Unborn (i.e Siva)

The beauty of these poems captivated me, and I wondered why they could not be rendered as song. My friend Sudharsanam immediately stepped up, set some of these stanzas to music (Sahana raga) and recorded them. I had the pleasure of  playing this at a seminar in Coimbatore, organized by the Rotary Club, where I was invited to speak on the Rock-Cut temples of the Pallavas. And what better visuals than the Atyantakaama’s sculptures at Mamallapuram to visually enhance the delight of the song?

I am surprised that such beautiful poems, in inscriptions, are not more popular among the literati. Not a single inscription is ever discussed in a class text book, which is a shame, considering the wonderful history and literature they represent. What a pity that only the literature of poets is taught in Indian schools and colleges, and not the poetry of kings, scientists, mathematicians, sculptors, etc.

These labeled collages shows all the sculptures used in the video.

Collage 1: Pictures from Dharamaraja Ratha

The pashupati image is from Arjuna’s Penance, the panel Rshbhaantika from Arjuna Ratha. The other sculptures are all from the middle floor of the Dharamaraja Ratha, except that of AtyantaKaama Pallava, which is on the ground floor western corner of the southern wall. While there are two Samhara Murthy sculptures, oddly there is none of KamaMardhana in Mamallapuram, even though the poem refers to this aspect of Siva in the first stanza.
Collage 2: Pictures from Shore temple and Olakkanesvara temple

In this other collage, the sculptures in the upper row are from the Shore temple, except the Gangadhara which is from the AdiVaraha Mandapam, a temple in worship. The sculptures in the lower row are from the Olakkaneshvara temple, on top of the main hill.

If you liked this song, you might enjoy this previous video which I made with a Tamil song, featuring sculptures of Siva from various temples.
For the controversy over authorship of these monuments, read Saurabh Saxena’s blog or Prof Swaminathan’s Powerpoints (I learn about Mallai from him).

My other blogs on Mamallapuram sculpture
மாமல்லபுரத்து உழைப்பாளர் சிலை 

A mathematician's poem - Mahavira in Ganita Sara Sangraha

ஆயிரம்திருதிராஷ்டிரர்கள் – சஞ்சய் சுப்பிரமணி கச்சேரி 2016


  1. A fabulous post with a truly inspirational experiment, fusing the ancient and modern art forms. Thanks for all the information also. I love the poem, the musical setting, and the video.

  2. Dear sir,
    I have no words !Iam stunned by your scholarship in this ancient art,sculpture,inscriptions and epigraphy and history.We are fortunate to have person like you among us.The song was beautiful.

    1. I am delighted that you enjoyed it Dr Chidambaram. And flattered - but I merely read the works of scholars like Babington, Hultzsch, Dubreuil, Ramachnandra, Nagaswamy, KR Srinivasan, Lockwood, Baluswamy etc

  3. Dear sir,
    It is a beautiful insite of the Pallava sculptures enriched by your description. It is a third diamention to the sclulptures through your analytics approach. The script conceived as a song by you is amazing.let your journey keep enlighten us.
    Ramya Kishore

  4. Marvellous sir. The idea of setting it to music is simply brilliant. The song is so nice to hear. Feeling closer to the atyantakama Rajasimha.

  5. A beautiful post on a beautiful poem! The virodha-aabhaasa style of poetry does the magic!

    "Asking the Destroyer of Kaama to grant the whole world to one who calls himself the Pallava of Endless Desires, is the height of impudence."

    I thought of it to be the other way though. It's like the king, in full awareness of what he's asking of Shiva is contrary to what Shiva stands for, is earnestly requesting for it to be granted nevertheless.

    I must say, your narrative style here is as captivating as the poem itself is. One cannot recreate the magic unless one experiences it oneself in totality. Thank you for making us part of your experience through this post.