Descent of Ganga and Arjuna’s Penance, Mahabalipuram

Arjuna’s Penance, Mahabalipuram is one the most mind boggling sculpted bas relief in Tamil Nadu. It is lying out in the open for all to see. Something so precious, yet lying so uncared beside a road where traffic plies nonstop.

Arjuna’s Penance, Mahabalipuram

I found the relief carvings on a huge rock the most stunning work in Mahabalipuram. A 25.5 by 12 meter tall structure; the relief has so many sculpted images that leaves one confused what it could all mean. This is a popular monument from the Pallava times, a South Indian dynasty that existed from 275 CE to 897 CE.

Looking at the sculpted images, I tried to relate to various stories each section might be representing. My mind was recollecting the article I read on conflicting views about this relief: whether this depicted ‘Arjuna’s Penance’ or ‘Bhagiratha’s penance’.

Arjuna's Penance, Mahabalipuram

Natural world on the left side and celestial world on the right side.

Arjuna's Penance, Mahabalipuram 1Baby elephants huddled around mama elephant’s leg!

Arjuna’s penance would mean, the penance of Pandav prince Arjuna to obtain the Pasupata, the mighty weapon from Lord Shiva. However Bhagirathi’s penance would mean, the penance of sage Bhagirathi in Himalayas to bring down river Ganga to Earth for redeeming his ancestor’s souls. Whichever may be the story, it was immaterial to me then. I was devouring the images with eyes and lens, constructing my own stories and tried to relate to the images of the masterpiece in my own way.

Other Images Sculpted at Arjuna’s Penance, Mahabalipuram

In addition to  depiction of Arjuna’s Penance I found the sculpted image of a cat’s meditative posture interesting. It was surrounded by 15 mice, one of them praying to the cat. Could he be the hypocritical cat in fake meditation trying to fool the mice who came seeking justice from him?

Arjuna's Penance, Mahabalipuram 2

Cat in fake meditation?

Arjuna's Penance, Mahabalipuram 2

Oh! That itchy nose!


Arjuna's Penance, Mahabalipuram 3

Is that a pygmy hog at the top?

Arjuna's Penance, Mahabalipuram 4

Saint in pensive mood

This statue silenced my ruffled thoughts. How well the sculptor depicted his pensive mood! What must have been his thoughts while chiseling away at the rock!

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