The rise of the rakshasas

The rAkshasa brothers sumAli (left), mAlyavAn (centre) and mAli (right). Watercolor on paper. 

The uttara kAnda of the rAmAyaNa is filled with delightful stories of the origins of the rAkshasas and their rise to power. According to Sage agastya, there were several rAkshasas much more hardy than rAvaNa himself. They descended directly from brahma. One of their kings, sukesha, was given a boon by shiva – he, and all the rAkshasas after him, will be born instantly and will attain adulthood immediately.

But it was sukesha’s three mighty sons, mAli, sumAli and mAlyavAn who were destined to attain great strength. mAlyavAn, the oldest, and king of the rAkshasas, followed the path of dharma. sumAli, the second, though a worthy warrior, was an astute political strategist. And mAli, the most valiant, was the leader of the rAkshasa army. The rise of the rAkshasas begins with the exploits of the three brothers, spurred on by the boons they received from brahma himself – guaranteed victory on the battlefield and unerring dedication to each other.


The Thirupullamangai temple

Part of the Thirupullamangai temple structure, located in Pasupathikoil near Kumbakonam. Oil paint on canvas 11″ x 15″

This is a side section of the main temple structure. The temple is referred to in the 7th century tamil shaivate hymns called the thevaram. The present structure was most likely built over a period of several decades, covering the reigns of some prominent Chola kings, starting from Parantaka I, his grandson Parantaka II (Sundara Chola) and Sundara Chola’s son, the illustrious Rajaraja I. If you are ever in the Kumbakonam area, a visit to one of the many Chola temples in the vicinity is an absolute must.

I have always shied away from painting Hindu temples given their highly intricate (and often overwhelming!) details that demand the utmost concentration. I finally summoned the courage to make an attempt. The painting was actually done using only two colors (yellow ochre + black) and white. The sky is actually black + white, which appears blue (cool) in relative contrast to the (warm) yellow of the structure. The under-drawing was done directly with the brush using mineral spirits to thin the oil paint. Two initial stages of the painting are shown below.

Underdrawing in black paint over a yellow ochre wash (thinned paint with odourless mineral spirits)
More details added over the underpainting, final stage before adding white to the mixes

Indra and Vritra

Indra and Vritra. Studies (Top row) in ink and gouache, about 9″x12″ each. Painting (bottom row), oil on paper, 11″x15″.

The episode of Indra fighting the demonic vritra that appears in the rig veda has numerous parallels in other ancient cultures (Hittite, Eastern European).The serpentine vritra swallowed all the waters, causing draught to the land. Seeing this, the king of the devas Indra, brimming with confidence and the soma drink, takes him on with his divine weapon (the vajra or thunderbolt), astride the mighty airAvata (the king of elephants). The fight lasts long but vritra is utterly vanquished in the end.

This aspect of Indra and the very form of vritra have undergone significant changes over the millenia, to attain the foms they have in modern Hinduism. Nonetheless, they refer to an ancient time when songs of valour and courage occupied the minds of the common-folk and battles with mighty enemies captured their imagination.

Guardian of the temple deity



dwArapAlaka, Gouache and pencil on paper 7″x10″.

At the entrance to the inner sanctum of any Hindu (Shiva/ Vishnu) temple are the mighty dwArapAlakas (dwAra = gate, pAlaka = protector) or gate keepers. The keepers of a Vishnu temple and those of a Shiva temple are distinct and over the millennia they’ve come to feature in many a mythological story.

This particular  one is from the thyAgarajar kovil (a Shiva temple) in the little town of Thiruvarur in South India. Sculpted in brass and standing over 4 feet tall, it simply had to be recorded in a sketchbook.

Painted in gouache over a gesso primed, green tinted 300 gm watercolor paper in a sketchbook 7″x10″.

Location: thyAgaraja temple, Thiruvarur, Tamil Nadu, India