Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 13, 2003
Michael D. Rabe The Great Penance at Mamallapuram: Deciphering a Visual Text Chennai, India: Institute of Asian Studies, 2001. 298 pp.; 91 b/w ills. Cloth $30.00

The South Indian beach town of Mahabalipuram, once known as Mamallapuram, was the primary seaport of the Pallava kings who claimed authority over the surrounding Tamil-speaking region from the sixth to ninth centuries C.E. While the Pallavas reigned, artisans carved the site’s natural granite outcroppings into elegant sculptures and many architectural forms. The most dramatic of these, an entire cliff sculpted with dozens of colossal yet graceful figures of humans, animals, and deities, is the focus of this book. The subject of this composition has been a matter of extensive scholarly debate for over a century. Does it describe celebrations at the descent of the Ganga Rriver from heaven, the penance Arjuna undertakes to gain victory in the great war of the Mahabharata epic, the ideals of Pallava kingship, or all of these at once and perhaps others as well?

Michael Rabe argues here that the ultimate meaning of the large Mamallapuram relief is as a visual counterpart of the celebratory lineage recitations (prasasti) that begin various inscriptions left by the Pallavas at other sites. He discerns that lineage in the now decaptitated figures around the representation of a Vishnu temple near the cliff’s center. He reads the foremost of these as Narasimha I and ascribes to him the patronage of this monumental relief. In other figures in the relief Rabe finds the mythic heroes to whom the Pallavas traced their ancestry. The author admits Arjuna’s Penance and the Descent of Ganga as secondary and tertiary subjects of this relief, decidedly subordinate rungs in a fixed hierarchy of meanings he posits for the Pallava creators and now for us.

This book makes a strong contribution to the analysis of visual material. The copious, high-quality plates document the Great Penance relief in unprecedented and glorious detail, providing an excellent resource for future research. Making good use of them himself, Rabe demonstrates that markings in the relief’s lower left quadrant are the beginnings of a pillared hall, abandoned because the horizontal fault across the cliff’s center would have made the hall unsound. He sees this failure as what motivated sculptors to excavate instead the so-called Panca Pandava hall just south of the relief, an intriguing possibility that urges us to rethink the significance of that hall for any narratives portrayed in the great relief.

A second contribution of this book is to introduce into the debate another Mamallapuram relief of elephants and a monkey rendered in a style and composition that strongly resemble figures at the center of the Great Penance relief. This new evidence is significant indeed. Rabe explores a possible textual source for this imagery. Further analysis of the differences as well as the similarities between these sculptures could provide considerable insight into the intellectual and visual processes that produced the better-known cliff carving.

Rabe also clarifies the relevance of two Sri Lankan visual documents to Mamallapuram sculpture. He confirms that an earlier version of the Great Penance relief in Mamallapuram repeats the unusual celestial figures painted at Sigiriya as well as the shallow sculptural treatment and the motifs of lotuses and gamboling elephants carved in Anuradhapura. In other words, Sri Lankan connections are evident in a Mamallapuram relief that closely inspired the Great Penance relief in that town.

Rabe marshals convincing visual evidence that the Great Penance relief was carved in the mid-seventh century. His attempt to identify the monument’s sculptor as the inventor Mandhatar, however, hinges on documents other scholars now assign to long after the Pallava period, as the author admits.

Rabe evinces a deep faith in verbal texts as keys to sculptural meaning and uses texts more aggressively than most scholars have to analyze this relief. The impressive quantity of literary references he gathers yields intriguing references to dwarfs with faces carved on their bellies (86–90), juxtapositions of Arjuna and Bhagiratha in the poems of early Tamil saints (82–83) and in Pallava inscriptions (111), and the juxtaposition of Arjuna and the penitent cat story in the Mahabharata (95–96). Rabe has a good verbal imagination that permits him to see a palindrome (Nara va vanara?) in a sage (Nara) and a monkey (vanara) (118), and to perceive a standing penitent and a Vishnu shrine beneath him as rebuses of the same word: bhagiratha, or “glorious chariot” (103).

I find this word play clever and more productive than Rabe’s logocentric insistence that this relief’s meaning as a lineage recitation (prasasti) trumps all other meanings the sculptures may carry. This interpretive hierarchy seems to assume an inherent superiority of verbal over visual texts, an approach at odds with a monument whose astonishing visual force has for centuries compelled the attentions of tourists and scholars innocent of Rabe’s impressive array of textual sources. Also problematic is the fixity with which he seems to regard his verbal sources, parsing the meaning of images through a single language (Sanskrit) and taking for granted a single, undisputed version of the Mahabharata.

There are indeed sculptural precedents (at the Adivaraha cave on the other side of the hill and at Mat near Delhi) for the sort of lineage Rabe discerns at the center of the Great Penance. The three decapitated figures may well represent the reigning Pallava and his two immediate predecessors. To see those figures also as Drona and Agastya and to read the standing penitent as Asvatthaman, however, relies on granting unprecedented meaning to hand gestures, on representing ancestors selectively rather than in uninterrupted sequence as verbal prasasti do, and on granting that some but not all of the diagonal lines one might draw among the relief’s figures reveal significant associations. There might be more space for interpretive stretches like these if Rabe did not identify his as “an argument by which I presume to resolve this controversy—once and for all, it is hoped(!)” (xxii).

The manuscript has been edited with a light hand, leaving in place some writing errors and an organization that requires frequent telescoping of the argument. An index would have helped readers retrace the intricacies of Rabe’s web of sources and ideas. These criticisms notwithstanding, this book makes an important contribution to the visual documentation and potential textual correspondences of the Great Penance and other sculptures in Mamallapuram. I encourage scholars to study it closely as they continue to explore this remarkable monument.

Padma Kaimal
Department of Art and Art History, Colgate University

See Michael Rabe’s response to this review.