There is nothing new about India being perceived as a place of great and growing wealth: for much of the pre-colonial period, the West was the eager consumer of the spices, silks, and luxuries of the subcontinent, while India was the prosperous supplier. As early as the reign of Nero, there was such a dramatic drain of Western gold to India that Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian, anxiously asks in a letter what can be done to solve the crisis. One South Indian dynasty even sent an embassy to Rome to discuss the problem of the balance of payments.
You can still get a flavor of the intoxicatingly rich and sophisticated classical India that supplied these luxuries at the once-great port of Mamallapuram on the Coromandal coast. Here massive relief sculptures faced onto the port where, according to a seventh-century poet, “ships rode at anchor, bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, with big-trunked elephants, and with mountains of gems of nine varieties.” The reliefs cover one side of a hill: at the right are two huge elephants, trunks swinging; nearby, warrior heroes and meditating sages stand below flights of gods and goddesses, godlings, nymphs, and tree spirits. There is a breezy lightness of touch at work: a flute is playing, there is dancing, and the heavenly apsara fertility spirits and goddesses are whispering fondly to their consorts.
The man who commissioned the sculptures was King Mahendra, a ruler of the Pallava dynasty who reigned from 590 to 630 AD. (The dynasty itself held power between the sixth and the eighth centuries.) Taking the titles Vicitracitta (The Curious Minded) and Mattavilasa (Drunk with Pleasure), Mahendra was an eclectic poet and playwright and an innovative aesthete and sensualist. He wrote two lost treatises on South Indian painting and music, and several plays—one of which, a cynical and sophisticated satirical farce called The Drunken Courtesan, tells the story of an alcoholic worshiper of Shiva and his courtesan-lover who get into an argument with a tipsy Buddhist monk over a drinking bowl left lying in front of a bar. The farce is still regularly performed in the south today.
The same playful mind that can be sensed in Mahendra’s plays can be seen in the dynastic sculptures commissioned a little inland from Mamallapuram, at the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram: here we see the ladies of the court riding on elephants under crimson parasols; messengers arrive breathless at halls packed with courtiers; ambassadors from China sue for peace. Wizened ascetics examine the omens; beaten monarchs flee into exile to escape the arrows of the Pallava chariot-archers; the courtiers feast and the dancing girls celebrate.
This was a world where the frontier between the divine and the human remained porous. Vishnu, Brahma, and especially Shiva turn up intermittently to give advice at the Pallava court and intervene in its battles. Images of the holy family of Lord Shiva echo those of the Pallava dynasty: only the number of arms…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.