A RARE SCULPTURE FROM PONNUR

Natana Kasinathan
Director of Archaeology,
Government of Tamilnadu

A rare sculpture having the characteristics of Lord Siva, Vishnu and Brahma has been found by the Tamilnadu State Department of Archaeology in the year 1989 from a remote village known as Ponnur near Vandavasi in North Arcot Ambedkar District.

Ponnur is one of the important Jain Centres in Tamilnadu. It possesses also Hindu temples being one dedicated to Vishnu and another to Siva. Near the Hindu shrines, there are a few mutilated sculptures suggesting the existence of a Vishnu Temple of Pallava period. This view is based on the basis of the style of the sculptures. Of the broken pieces, one is identifiable as Vishnu. Just adjacent to this heap of sculptures, one colossal image is found in standing posture. It is about five to six feet height having four hands, bearing akshamala and axe in the upper hands while the right lower hand is in abhaya, the left lower hand is placed on the thigh as uruhasta. The head is wearing kirita makuta. The figure is standing on a lotus in sama bhanga style having the characteristics features of all the three superior deities of Hindu mythology as the akshamala is representing Brahma, axe is for Siva while the makuta is for Vishnu.

There are two Ganas found flanked on either side of the deity, emerging from the stalk of the lotus.

Fig_02.3.20

 

This type of figure has so far not been spotted either in Tamilnadu or in any other part of India. But, a similar figure is found illustrated in T.A. Gopinatha Rao’s Elements of Hindu Iconography Volume I, Part I, (Plate LXXII Figure 2). This illustration is reported to have been found from Ajmer and identified as Dattatreya. The description of Ajmer figure is as follows: “The image is a standing one. It carries in its hands the sula, the chakra, the kamandalu and perhaps the akshamala. It may be noticed that the padma, the Garuda and the bull, the characteristic emblems of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva respectively are carved on the pedestal. On either side stand a few figures which appear to be some devotees.”

Dattatreya is said to be one of the minor avataras of Vishnu. The story of Dattatreya detailed in the Markandeya Purana is as follows:

“There was a certain Brahmans, a Kausika in the city of Pratishtana who was suffering from leprosy. His wife served him nevertheless as if he was a deity. Once it so happened that the sage Animandavya became annoyed with this leprous Kausika and uttered a curse that he should die before the next sunrise. Thereupon the chaste, faithful and devoted wife, relying upon the power of her chastity, ordered the sun not to rise; and for days, the sun did not rise. The Gods became frightened at this and approached Anasuya, the famous wife of Atri, and requested her to pacify the wife of the leprous Kausika and make the sun rise from day to day as usual. She agreed to do as desired and went to the Kausika’s house. There, she was received by his wife with all the due rites of hospitality and was asked the purpose of her visit. On being told that the object of her visit was to allow the sun to rise as before from day to day, she said that she would gladly do so, provided that thereby the threatened death does not befall her lord and master. On being assured of this, she allowed the sun to rise; and he rose. However, her husband fell down dead but was immediately revived by Anasuya and made healthy, strong and beautiful. The Gods became pleased at this and asked the worthy and honourable wife of the revived and rejuvenated Kausika to receive a boon to which she readily agreed. The boon she wanted was that Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, should be born as her sons. They were so born; and Dattatreya was the incarnation of Vishnu.”

In Dattatreya Thattuvam (Dattatreya philosophy), a different version is found about the birth and life of Dattatreya. In, this work, Dattatreya is said to be the son of sage Atri and Anasuya. The story of his birth is narrated as given below:

“At the instigation of Naradha, the three divine devis Lakshmi, Parvati, and Saraswathi had sent their spouses to test the chastity of Anasuya. They came to Anasuya in disguise and begged before her. She had immediately agreed to offer food. However, these three superior Gods requested her to distribute the offerings in nakedness. For this unusual request also, she agreed.

Due to her chastity, she made these three Gods into children and fed them in nudity. Having understood the greatness of Anasuya, the three Goddesses appeared before her and appreciated her chastity. Then, Anasuya made those three children gain their original forms.

Having enjoyed the hospitality of Anasuya, the three Gods offered a male child, which possessed the nature of three Gods, to Atri and Anasuya. This child was Dattatreya.”

The figure of Dattatreya found from Ponnur can be dated to early 7th Century A.D. Compared to all the illustrations found in the Elements of Iconography, the image under discussion appears to be the earlier one. During the 7th Century, the religious feuds were very acute between the Saivites and Vaishnavites in Tamilnadu. Hence the religious leaders of that age should have tried to pacify the followers of the different faiths by illustrating the trinity in one image and explained to them that the eternal bliss is one that could be attained through different margas or paths. Hence, the form of Dattatreya.

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