Among the treasures of Mamallapuram, the bas relief of Krishna lifting the Govardhana mountain, located within what is called the Krishna Mandapam, is truly a gem. The detailing is of the highest order, and you can imagine the crowds that must have sheltered from the rain and marvelled at the miracle. Truly, the Krishna Mandapam, Mamallapuram is a marvel.

The Krishna Mandapam, Mamallapuram as photographed by Alexander Rea in the 19th century

The Vijayanagar Era Entrance to the Krishna Mandapam, Mamallapuram

Dating to the 7th century, it is unique in that it has a pavilion fronting it, which is likely from the 16th century. The Vijayanagar rulers probably felt that the bas relief required protection from the elements. And given its proximity to the relocated Sthala Sayana Perumal shrine, which came up at the same time, this makes sense.

The Krishna Mandapam, Mamallapuram, as it is now

But they evidently did not feel that this work of art needed protection from humans. For centuries it was possible to touch the sculptures and that increasingly became a problem. Our ‘heritage lovers’ did not treat this freedom with respect and did what they could to leave behind their impress on age-old carvings.

The ASI’s barricade

The Archaeological Survey has in recent times added a very aesthetic palisade that allows visitors to see the bas relief but not touch it. This is a good solution, and we hope people honour it by not trying to jump over.  My OLD pic shows the mandapam as it was in the 19th century, when photographed by Alexander Rea. The NEW is of the place at present, complete with the barricade erected by the ASI. This is one heritage precinct that has certainly improved with time.  

The Govardhana Bas Relief, Krishna Mandapam, Mamallapuram

The Govardhana Episode as seen in the Krishna Mandapam, Mamallapuram

The story of Krishna lifting Govardhana is well known. What is different here is that he is seen doing it on the flat of his hand and not on the little finger. The entire village is clustered around him, well almost. Taking advantage of the chaos, a couple seems to be eloping as well, as can be seen in pic below.

The Eloping Couple, Krishna Mandapam, Mamallapuram

Elsewhere, life seems to be going on. Cows are being milked, bulls are seated or standing and in the background there are numerous cows. A woman is carrying multiple pots of milk in a carrier made of what looks like rope. In the background are numerous cows, which are depicted beautifully. Someone, probably Balarama, has his hand protectively around an old man. The women are clustered around Krishna. There are lions, monkeys and birds and besides, a baby seated on its father’s shoulder.

Krishna lifts the Govardhana, Krishna Mandapam, Mamallapuram

On the floor in front of Krishna there is an inscription. I wonder what it says. I also wonder what connection this bas relief has to the Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of Ganga panel. Both are on the same rock face, with an unfinished temple in between. In Pallava times, the Krishna panel too would have been open to the sky like the Arjuna/Ganga panel.

During the rains, even now, the natural cleft in the latter has water gushing down it just like a river. Did the former then show how God also provided shelter when it poured? Or as some scholars interpret it, is the Krishna here really depicting a Pallava king who is protecting his people from floods and equating himself with God?

This article will appear in Madras Musings in its August 1, 2023 issue.

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