Decoding Arjuna's Penance

Talking about glorious past of India, Mahabalipuram is the place for you. Ancient temples, spell-binding sculptures, rocks reading epic poetry.  Mahabalipuram is one of the World Heritage sites and true testimony to rich Dravidian art and temple architecture.

There are many monuments and I will try to cover and explain those in some other blogs. So here is my attempt to decode the brilliant and largest bas-relief in the world.

The Arjuna's Penance

Its giant open-air rock relief carved on two monolithic rock boulders measuring 29 m × 13 m. The panoramic view of the life in the forest is skillfully sculptured and relief is an ensemble of over a hundred figures of gods, people, half-humans and animals. The cleft between two boulders is brilliantly utilized to show the flow of river Ganga which is evinced by the presence of Nagas and Naginis.

While there is still so many debates and two school of thoughts. Is it Arjuna's Penance or Descent of Ganges? Its official name as per archeological record and information board is Arjuna's Penance but does it really represent Arjuna's penance?

Arjun or Bhagiratha?
The main character of this magnificent bas-relief is a figure who is standing on one leg is said to be Arjuna performing an austerity Tapas to receive a boon from Shiva as an aid in fighting the Mahabharata war.  The great event of obtaining the powerful weapon Pasupatha from Lord Shiva by Arjuna is portrayed here and to witness this miracle visitors rushed from heaven, earth and water.

Another interpretation is that it is a depiction of Bhagiratha doing severe penance to bring down Ganges to earth.  This event is witnessed by three worlds reveals an overall view to visitors. You can also see Lord Shiva there holding the weapon and above that Chandra the moon God.

The other most impressive and eye-catching figures at the center of Naga and Nagin. As per many scholars, it represents the third world. A world after sky and earth.

I was watching some youtube videos and one blogger interpreted this as shape-shifting event. From the bottom, you can see a full body snake, and then it transforms to half-human, half snake body (second) and then bigger half-human, half-snake body (Third) during the process of coming out of ground. His interpretation was these Gods transformed into humanoids as they approached the earth's surface.

I am not convinced of that interpretation. If you see carefully here sculpture represent three form, from the bottom full-body snake (may be baby), second and third is in form of half human and half snake. But they were represented as female and male. half-human is a way to represent then gender. So here sculptural trying to represent a life underneath the earth or water with baby, male, female snake.

This is also proved looking in to other sculptures on this bas-relief, below you can see male and female representation of half-human and half-bird.

Element of Humor
This is something very unique I have seen so far. At the right bottom you can see a sculpture of cat standing on one leg apparently as an austerity. Is this cat trying to mock Arjuna/Bhagirtha? Another interpretation is relation to the Panchatantra story of an ascetic cat (Remember the story?). It denotes the cat luring a bird to come close so that she could catch and devour it.

I am not sure why this is called Arjuna's penance, for me (not the expert but with my limited knowledge) it has many indications that it represent the descent of Ganges or the life around the river.

1) The center panel represent the flow of river from top to bottom representing descent of Ganges. The snakes in water is another indication.

2) The sages and temple at the bank of river Gange.

3) If see all figures and sculptures, it all pointing and seeing toward center of the panel, thus indicating watching the descent of river Ganges.

Anyways I am not the expert and I would leave this to the scholars and experts to interpret and come up with more clarity.

For a moment , lets the debate put aside and admire the finest art of Indian history and architecture.By the way Mahabalipuram has not just this wonder but many. Will write more about those in next blog.

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