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The Yogi Cat of Mamallapuram

Posted December 27th, 2017 at 05:23 AM by ghostexorcist
Updated December 27th, 2017 at 03:33 PM by ghostexorcist

The Yogi Cat of Mamallapuram

By Jim R. McClanahan

I love cats and so does most of the internet. They are the perfect mix of cuteness and ferocity, chubbiness and athleticism, laziness and boundless, fiery energy. Archaeological evidence suggests our feline overlords first self-domesticated themselves as far back as 10,000 years ago in Turkey. They are believed to have entered into a symbiotic relationship with farmers by hunting mice that endangered crops. DNA evidence suggests these felines penetrated Europe, Africa, and Asia around 6,500 years ago.[1] A comical example of the association between felines and mice in Asia comes to us from India in the form of a rock-cut relief sculpture of a cat ascetic surrounded by his rodent worshippers. He stands on a single leg with both paws held aloft, while mice cluster around him, looking upwards in adoration (fig. 1).

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 - Detail of the Yogi cat and his
mouse worshippers (larger version)
Check out those adorable ears!

I first saw a picture of this strange scene years ago while taking a college course surveying the art and architecture across India. The cat and mice are just a few of many mythical, human, and animal figures that grace the face of two massive boulders measuring an astounding 88 feet wide and 30 feet high (Allen, 1991, p. 140). Titled “The Descent of the Ganges” (7th-century) (fig. 2), the carving depicts the famous Hindu myth of Shiva saving the earth from destruction by taking the full force of the Ganges River on his head as the goddess associated with the holy body of water descends from heaven. It’s interesting to note that the cleft between the boulders acts as a channel through which rainwater flows like the Ganges. The carving is part of the great Mamallapuram temple complex in Tamil Nadu built by the Pallava King Narasimhavarman I, popularly known as Mamalla ("Great Fighter", r. 630-668 CE) (Subramanian, 2003, p. 31-34). The site is famous for its numerous examples of Pallava architecture and rock-cut base reliefs, for which it was voted a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 (UNESCO (n.d.)).

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 2 - "The Descent of the Ganges" rock carving (7th-century) (larger version).

The cat and mice are situated to the bottom right of the aforementioned cleft (just under the tusks of a nearby elephant), making it appear as if the feline is standing next to the Ganges river. This is a clear reference to a story told in the 160th chapter (Ulukadutagamana Parva) of the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata (circa 4th-century BCE). The story tells of a cat who takes up yogin ascetic practices right next to the holy river. Animals normally considered its prey, such as birds and mice, come to pay homage to the feline, the latter even asking the yogi to take them under his protection. The cat promises to save them from danger (presumably through magic powers gained from his austerities), but asks only that a small group of them come every day to move his weak body to the river’s edge (and presumably back again). This, however, is a clever ruse because the cat eats the mice who come to fulfill their sworn duty. He grows fatter and fatter as the mice population gets smaller and smaller. The rodents finally realize what’s happening and flee the area, leaving the cat to return whence it came. This story is used as a moralistic tale against deceptive behavior (Dutt, 1895, pp. 219-220)


1) A second wave of cats, possibly domesticated by the Egyptians around the second millennia BCE, spread across Europe and the Mediterranean by the fifth-century CE (Grimm, 2017).


Allen, M. P. (1991). Ornament in Indian architecture. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Dutt, M. N. (1895). A prose English translation of the Mahabharata: (translated literally from the original Sanskrit text). Calcutta.

Grimm, D. (2017). Ancient Egyptians may have given cats the personality to conquer the world. Retrieved December 27, 2017, from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/...-conquer-world

Subramanian, V. K. (2003). Art shrines of ancient India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

UNESCO. (n.d.). Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram. Retrieved December 27, 2017, from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/249
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