Arjuna’s Penance – one of the largest bas relief sculptures in the world – how many stories can you decipher?

Arjuna's Penance at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu
Arjuna’s Penance at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

😏My photo does no justice to this magnificent sculptured wall; dating back to the 7th century AD, built under the patronage of the Pallava kings, located in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. This massive monument has to be seen in person. It’s a collage of characters from the Hindu mythology – Mahabharatha. Our guide Mr. Ali explained the stories behind some of the intricately carved figurines and animals.

Since it is called Arjuna’s Penance we first located Arjuna – the hero of Mahabharatha👇. He is doing penance, standing on one leg, arms raised above his head – for obtaining the weapon called Pasupatha Astra from Lord Shiva for his battle with the Kauravas.

Arjuna doing penance
Arjuna doing penance

Lord Shiva seen with the four hands, one holding the trident, cobra around his neck – is pleased with Arjuna and grants him the most powerful weapon in the universe. The dwarf standing under Shiva’s hand is the Pasupatha Astra personified. Above Lord Shiva is Chandra – the Moon God.

Lord Shiva and Chandra - the Moon God
Lord Shiva and Chandra – the Moon God

Along with Arjuna, Lord Shiva and Chandra on the left; Lord Vishnu and Surya – the Sun God are seen on the right side👇.

The cleft in the rock - depicting river Ganga
The cleft in the rock – depicting river Ganga

In the middle of the sculpture, dividing it into two halves is a narrow groove – this stands for the holy river Ganga, originating from the Himalayas; some say in the past, water  used to flow down through this fissure.

Bhagiratha's Penance or The Descent of Ganges ?
Bhagiratha’s Penance or The Descent of Ganges ?

Deciphering the groove in the sculpture as the Ganga brings a new twist into the tale – some say, the person doing the penance is not Arjuna, but it is Bhagiratha – the king who sought a boon from Lord Shiva and brought river Ganga from heaven to the earth. Hence it can also be called as Bhagiratha’s Penance or The Descent of Ganges. This story makes more sense as all the figures are facing towards the river in the middle.

The five dwarfs standing behind Shiva represent the five elements – Space, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth.

The five dwarfs
The five dwarfs

In front of the huge elephants, you see a cat doing penance like Arjuna – hands raised above its head. The cat is pretending to be pious in order to catch the mice playing around; the naive mice are under the impression that the cat has turned over a new leaf and approach the cat foolishly. This is a scene from the Panchatantra – Indian animal fables.

A cat doing penance like Arjuna - hands raised above its head - a scene from the Panchatantra
A cat doing penance like Arjuna – hands raised above its head – a scene from the Panchatantra

A hermitage scene is seen below – the temple with Lord Vishnu inside; Arjuna seated outside; lion on the step below Arjuna and deers below. The headless figures are believed to be the Pallava king Narsimha Varman, his father and grandfather – these figures maybe decapitated by the rival kingdom of Chalukyas.

Hermitage scene
Hermitage scene

These a just a fraction of the stories represented by the sculpted figures – the elephant – is Airavata – the mount of God Indra.  Then there is the monkey family – depicted as one monkey checking for lice in the hair of another one. 

A magnificent canvas of art; one among the several beautiful monuments in Mahabalipuram – a UNESCO World Heritage site; make sure to learn more of these stories when you get a chance to visit the place.

Till next post, take care !!

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