Sculpting Lives: A Reading of the Life Narration of Adi Sankara at Kalady

Abstract: This paper attempts a scrutiny of the sculptural narration of the life of Adi Sankaracharya at Sri Adi Sankara Keerthi Sthamba Mandapam, Kalady and looks at how visual representations like statues and sculptures are deployed as tools for perceptual construction of reality, and apparatuses to disseminate certain ideologies.

Keywords: visual representation, gaze, ideology, biography

Minnal Pramasivan Nair, a late police officer, in his memoir Minnal Kadhakal, narrates an intriguing incident which goes that at an ungodly hour of a night duty schedule, Paramasivan Nair who was then the Sub Inspector of Police at Thiruvananthapuram, was informed by his subordinates that a drunken man has been causing troubled by obstinately embracing and pulling the statue of Swadeshabhimani. Ramakrishna Pillai (18784916), located opposite to the Accountant General’s office. Paramasivan Nair hurries to the spot and finds a middle – aged man of moderately dark complexion, embracing the statue so tightly, and weeping out incessantly: “Let’s go home Ramakrishna.” The man in question was none other than the celebrated writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, and the narration ends with Thakazhi restoring his sobriety. This incident is a pointer to the fact that visual representations such as statues and sculptures effectively signify persons, and conjure up memories pertaining to her/ him in the beholder’s psyche.

Statues and sculptures have been produced, in many cultures from prehistory to the present, as material repositories of memory. Many are built on commission to commemorate a historical event, or the life of an influential figure. They are made for artistic as well as didactic purposes. Sometimes they serve both the ends as in ancient Roman statues which were “made use of to instruct gender roles in the society” (Davies 207). Such statues were honorific and commemorative and by definition represented people who might be considered worthy of emulation. As such, they can be seen as role models for contemporary society, and they expressed the salient characteristics of exemplary residents of the Roman Empire. Visual representations like Statues are used as apparatuses to disseminate the ideology of governments, and thus they become the paragons of a dominant discourse. In the Indian context, a probe into the dichotomous manipulation of the statues of M. K. Gandhi and Bhagat Singh respectively, can bring home the way Gandhi statues are used to circulate the state’s ideology. Gandhi statues are installed, innumerably, in the public domains of India. But, the statue of Bhagat Singh is delimited within the Indian Parliament, not because Bhagat Singh is a shadowy figure, but since his extremist policies do not suit to fulfil the government policies. Whereas Gandhi’s policies are beneficial to the government in that their dissemination enhances ‘govern mentality.’

Almost all religions in the world make use of idols and symbols to sustain the orientation of their followers. The presence of statues, sculptures and images that are declared to be sacred in formal spaces of worship can provide an orientation and focus that can be commanding. In many faiths, such representations are seen as acts of condescension of the transcendent to the threshold of human experience. They are said to mediate the viewer and the unseen, it is a mysterious act of both revealing and concealing. Sculptural and pictorial narratives are deployed by many faiths to historicise myths and traditional beliefs which are said to have their origin in an age when there was no formal historian to scribe them down to be apart of formal history. An ideal example for this is the monuments that commemorate the traditional Christian faith of St. Thomas’s visit to Kerala. This is essential to the purpose of consolidating a faith, because “optical vision can be used to embolden and intensify inner or imaginative vision.

Visual representations can serve as a kind of external scaffolding for concentrated interior experience” (Morgan 26).

Sri Adi Sankara Keerthi Sthamba Mandapam is a unique memorial built in honour of Adi Sankara, the proponent of the doctrine of advaita. According to Sri Adi Sankara Bhagavad Pada by Venkateswaran K. S:

It was built “in an effort to give the lord the niche in the world of intellectuals and was also an effort to put Kalady in the world map which otherwise was not acknowledged as such. The importance of Kalady as the birth place of the lord was mostly unknown to the world and even to the local population. All that was changed when the memorial was opened in the year 1978. (1)

The life and times of Adi Sankara as narrated in the memorial is not attempted anywhere in the world. It tells all about Adi Sankara, his avathara, early days of life, performance of miracles, places he visited during his philosophical tours, his debates with the opponents of his philosophy, and his ascension of the sarvajnapeetha. The memorial was built in nine levels, with the cement-relief sculptures narrating the life of Adi Sankara, progressively advancing till the ninth level, ending with the statue of Sankara’s ascension of the Sarvajnapeeda.

Traditional accounts hold that Sankara was born in 788 CE at Kalady in Kerala. The lore has it that his parents were childless for many years, and it was after their prayers at Vadakkunnathan Temple, Thrissur, that Lord Siva appeared to both the husband and wife in their dream, and offered them a choice: a mediocre son who would live a long life, or an extraordinary son who would not live long. Both the parents chose the latter; thus Sankara was born as their son. His father died while Sankara was young. As a child, Sankara showed remarkable scholarship by mastering the four Vedas by the age of eight. At the age of eight, Sankara was inclined towards sanyasa, but it was only after much persuasion that his mother gave her consent. According to the legend, he received her consent in a very interesting manner. While bathing in the river Poorna one day, a crocodile caught hold of his leg and appeared to be about to devour him. Sankara appealed to his mother, who arrived there, asking her permission to become a sanyasi at least in these final moments of his life. His mother finally gave her consent, only to have the crocodile let go of young Sankara. Sankara then travelled towards North India in search of a guru. He met Govinda Bagavatpada on the banks of the Narmada River. The guru instructed Sankara to write a commentary on the Brahma Sutra and propagate the advaita Philosophy. Sankara then travelled to Kashi, where a young man named Sanadana, became his first disciple. According to the legend, ‘while on his way to the Viswanath temple, an untouchable accompanied by four dogs came in his way. When asked to move aside by Sankara’s disciples, the untouchable replied: “Do you wish that I move my everlasting soul, or this body made of flesh?” Sankara prostrated before the untouchable realising that the untouchable was none other than Lord Siva’ (Wikipedia). One of the most famous debates of Adi Sankara was with the ritualist Maṇḍana Miśra, who held the view that the life of a householder was far superior to that of a monk. This view was widely shared and respected throughout India at that time. Thus it would have been important for Adi Shankara tot debate with him. Madana Mishra’s guru was the famous mimamsa philosopher, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa. Sankara sought a debate with Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and met him in Prayag where he had buried himself in a slow burning pyre to repent for sins committed against his guru. Kumārila . Bhaṭṭa thus asked Adi Shankara to proceed to Mahignati to meet Mandana Mira and debate with him instead. After debating for over fifteen days, with Maṇḍana Miśra wife Ubhaya Bharat acting as referee, Maṇḍana Miśra accepted defeat. Ubhaya Bharāti then challenged Adi Sankara to have a debate with her in order to ‘complete’ the victory. She asked him questions related to sexual congress between man and woman – a subject in which Shankaracharya had no knowledge, since he was a true celibate and sanyasi. Sri Sankaracharya asked for a ‘recess’ of 15 days. As per legend, he used the art of “para-kaya pravesa” (the spirit leaving one’s own body and entering another’s) and exited his own body, which he asked his disciples to look after, and psychically entered the dead body of a king. The story goes that from the King’s two wives, he acquired all knowledge of “art of love”. Finally, he answered all questions put to him by Ubhaya B-harati:; and she allowed Maṇḍana Miśra to accept sanyasa with the monastic name Suresvacarya, as per the agreed-upon rules of the debate. Sankara then travelled the length and breadth of India, debating with leading scholars, and establishing monasteries at various places. Finally Sankara ascended the sarvanjapitha by defeating many scholars from various scholastic disciplines. There are various traditions on the location of his last days, the dominant belief holds that towards the end of his life, Sankara travelled to the Himalayan area of Kedarnath- Badrinath and attained vedhamukthi (freedom from embodiment).

Photographs of the sculptural representation of the life of Adi Sankaracharya at Sri Adi Sankara Keerthi Sthamba Mandapam, except his philosophical tours and worships, and the establishment of differe monasteries, are as follows:

Fig 1: Sivaguru and Aryamba praying to Vrishachaleswara

Fig 2: Lord Parameswara himself incarnates as Sankara

Fig 3. On Sankara’s prayers goddess Lakshmi showers golden amlakas for the poor lady who offered an amilaka as bhiksha

Fig 4. River Puma changes its course showers golden amlakas for the poor lady Sankara’s request and comes near home for the convenience of ailing mother.

Fig 5: Sankara is released from the jaws of the crocodile when his mother consents to his taking sanyasa.

Fig 6: Sankara contains the raging river Narmada in his kamandala and reaches his waiting guru Govinda Bhagavadpadi

Fig 7: Goudapada blesses Sankara at Badrinath.

Fig 8: Sanandana’s devotion to his guru enables him to cross the Ganga at Sankara’s call lotuses emerge miraculously at foot holds hence the name Padmapada.

Fig 9: Lord Parameswara appears before Sankara as chandala to test him and ordains him to write commentary on Brahmasutra

Fig 10: Sage Vyasa approves Sankara’s bhashyam and blesses him with extension of his life for sixteen more Brahmasutra years.

Fig 11: At Prayaga, Sankara meets Kumarila Bhatta who is sacrificing himself in husk fire for his sin. He advises Sankara to meet his shishya Mandana. Misra.

Fig 12: Sankara and Mandana Misra engaged in the debate on sastras with Bharathi, Mandana Misra’s wife as judge.

Fig 13: Bharati invites Sankara and the defeated Mandana Misra for ‘bhisha’

Fig 14: Mandan Misra accepts sanyasa as Surewara Bharathi becomes Saraa Devi at Sarada Peeta

Fig 15: Sankara come to Kalady to be with his mother in her last days

Fig 16: Sankara’s mother goes to her heavenly abode Vaikundam

Fig 17: A duff and dumb boy speaks with the blessings of Sankara and becomes Hasthamalaka

Fig 18: Ananda Giri praises his guru by chanting Totakashtakam and becomes Totakacharya

Fig 19: Thiruvadaimradur Lord Siva stretches out his hand proclaiming “Advaita is Sathyam”

Fig 20: Sankara offers his head to Kapalika for sacrifice, Padmapada appears as Narasimha and kills the Kapalika

Fig 21: Sankara receives Panchalimgas and Soundarya Lahari from Kailas

Fig 22: Nandikeswara takes off part of Soundarya Lahari

Fig 23: Sankara teaches Bhashy as tohis disciplines at Badri

Fig 24: With the worshipful recognition of King, scholars and men of all faiths Acharya Sree Sanakara ascends the Sarvajna Peeta.

If one visits and goes through the depictions carefully, it creates a lasting impression about the life and times of the Acharya in the psyche of the viewer. So lucid is the depiction and presentation that it is free from philosophical complexities. Here, worthy of note is that advaita philosophy, for which the name of Adi Sankaracharya has become a byword, is not attempted to be elucidated in the narration. This simplicity and avoidance of profound and metaphysical matters, find explanation in the words of David Morgan in The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory: ‘sculptures, statues and images are used by proponents and teachers of many faiths to instruct people in a faith, to move them towards conversion, and on many occasions to help instil cultural and textual literacy. Accordingly, the images selected typically avoid iconographic or theological intricacies. Simplicity and directness are cited as the ideals for such representations’ (144). This simplicity and directness of the narration equips, even those who cannot read texts, literate with the life and times of Sankaracharya, as narrated by the statues.

The narration is an alloy of mythical accounts and earthly accounts; it is a ‘hyphenated narration’ which conjoins Adi Sankara, the propounder of Advaita philosophy, born of Sivaguru and Aryamba, with Adi Sankara, the superhuman avatar of lord Siva. Two aspects of the statuary narration stand out for critical review. Firstly, the representation in fig. 9 has oral and textual narratives that counter the traditional belief that lord Siva disguised as Chandala, put Sankara to test. These counter narratives hold that ‘Sankara, in truth, encountered a Chandala, and later the upper-caste people twisted this myth so as to safeguard caste system from being tarnished’ (http://www.Sabhlokcity. com). The representation in fig. 9 is thus the material reassertion of the dominant version of the account. The statuary narration thus aims at disseminating the dominant version of the lore. Secondly, a few vital junctures in the biography of AdiS ankara are omitted from the sculptural representation. According to Shankara Digvijaya Satika, the traditional biography of Sri Adi Shankaracharya, Sankaracharya asks for a recess of 15 days, to answer the question of Ubhaya Bharti pertaining to the physical union of man and woman. Sankara, as per the biography made use of the art of parakayaprevesha, and psychically entered the body of a king to know the pleasures of nuptial life (Wikipedia). These significant accounts are omitted from representation (the representation leaps from the debate between Sankara and Mandan Misra to the admittance of failure by Bharti), probably, because they do not suit with the brahminical ideal of brahmacharya. The politics of representation, akin to most hagiographies, is one that deifies Adi Sankaracharya (refer to Fig 26, the coins offered to the statue), by highlighting the superhuman aspects, and mythical accounts for mass appeal.

Seeing is a sacred practice in many different religions. In Hinduism, for example, darshan is the ritual act of seeing and being seen by the deity, an encounter that occurs within the gaze of a statue or image in the temple or at a shrine. “More than a merely passive means of receiving sensory impressions of the physical world, seeing is a selective and constructive activity, a way of making order, and of remembering” (David 183). Exhibiting sculptures and images in public places, therefore, results in the dissemination and consolidation of the discourses they produce. In the case of Sri Adi Sankara Keerthi Sthamba Mandapam, the sculpted biography of the Acharya is meant to be a spectacle to the public gaze, a beacon meant to instruct and inspire. The semantic interaction of the spectacle with the viewer is political to the core in the sense that it influences the shaping of public memory regarding the life and times of Adi Sankara according to its vested doctrine, and eclipses the counter-narratives from being a part of the public memory. Moreover, the monument’s location in the public domain creates space for infinite reaffirmation of the discourse engendered by the sculptural narration.


Venkateswaran, K. S. Sri Adi. SankaraBliagavad Pada. Kalady: G. T.. Printers, 2012. Print.

Morgan, David. The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory. London: U of California P, 2005. Print.

Davies, Glenys. Portrait Statues as Models for Gender Roles in Roman Society. Rome: U of Michigan P, 2008. Print.




PHILIP JOSE. Is M.Phil student at the Sanskrit University, Kalady.

RAJESH V. NAIR. Is Assistant Professor of English, Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam.

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PHILIP JOSE. Is M.Phil student at the Sanskrit University, Kalady.RAJESH V. NAIR. Is Assistant Professor of English, Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam.

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