Mahabalipuram : Arjuna’s Penance or the Descent of Ganga

Mahabalipuram is a lot more than the famous Shore temple. It has many monolithic temples, Chariot-shaped structures sculpted out of huge stones and some astonishing open-air bas-reliefs.

Arjuna’s Penance The intricately detailed and massive carving created on two large granite boulders

Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram was the second capital of Pallava kings Mahendravarman I (600–630 AD) and his son Narasimhavarman I (630–668 AD). They were not only great warriors, but patron of arts too. Many Dravidian art forms, including architecture, flourished under them. The architectural creators of Mahabalipuram used the hilly surroundings in a unique way to fabricate some awesome masterpieces between the 5th and 8th centuries. Some of these were monolithic stone structures, carved out of large natural boulders, like the famous ‘Rathas’ and temples and some were astonishing open air reliefs. Arjuna’s Penance or the Descent of the Ganga is the most celebrated one of such open air reliefs. The architectural legacy of the Pallava dynasty is continued by the descendants of sculptors of that period, many of whom are now integrated part of present Mahabalipuram town.

Sage Bhagiratha requesting Lord Shiva to help him bring the Ganges down to earth
Arjuna’s Penance A view from the right side

This incredible open-air carving—one of its kind in world—is a wonderful specimen of Pallava art. The intricate relief is carved on two huge rocks with a natural rock crevice between and shows a composite of figures, depicting stories of epic Mahabharata. It is a significant reminder of the artistic legacy of the Pallava dynasty and certainly one of the most stupendous creative examples of ancient Indian art. Nowhere else one can find such an impressive display of Indian rock cut sculpture of so beautifully carved figures in one huge canvas. Some historians believe that the relief was created to celebrate the victory of Hinduism over Buddhism.

The cleft between the boulders show the descent of the sacred river Ganges to earth from the heavens

No photograph can fully represent its complexity, huge size and scale of this wonderful eighth century carving. This massive, east facing relief, measures approximately 29m (95ft) long and 13.5m (45ft) high. It really is stunning, a universe itself in stone. Some art historians believe that Arjuna’s Penance is the largest bas-relief of its kind in world.
The intricately detailed and in many cases, life-sized sculptures are done on a pinkish grey rock face. The whole relief features more than one hundred (some claim 146) skillfully carved and sculptured figures. These include figures of Gods, saints, animals and birds, huge elephants and human beings. The upper side of the rock is carved to represent a mountain that is believed to be Kailasam, the abode of Shiva in Himalayas.

The right side boulder with its intricate carvings

The spectacular relief was created with great skill and imagination on two large granite boulders in the open air giving the whole a natural effect. Artists also used the cleft between two boulders very creatively to make it an integral part of the whole. The cleft was used to depict the descent of River Ganga, brought to earth by King Bhagiratha to redeem the cursed souls of his ancestors.
Sun, on the left and Moon on the right side is also depicted on top part of the large panel. A dwarf with elongated ears and wearing a cap on his head and beating a drum (kim-purusha) is also seen. The elephants shown in this enormous rock-cut relief include baby elephants behind the life size elephants. The depiction of a deer scratching its nose is also interesting and shows artist’s creative imagination.
Arjuna’s Penance is a story from the Mahabharata of how Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, performed severe austerities in order to obtain Pashupatastra from Lord Shiva. The story of Ganga is a bit different, but of the same kind. Sage Bhagiratha performed many austerities in order to bring the Ganges down to earth and to please Lord Shiva to make him agree to receive Ganga from heaven, because otherwise Ganga’s immense force would be too great for the earth to contain. The many scenes and the symbolism of the relief support both these stories. Both stories were interpreted in a manner flattering to the Pallavas; the heroic Arjuna as a symbol of the rulers, and the Ganges as a symbol of their purifying power.
Prof. S. Balusami, Associate Professor of Tamil in the Madras Christian College, says that his research suggests that the 7th century A.D. Pallava sculptures on the rock surface portray what the five Pandava brothers saw or encountered in the Himalayas during their ‘vanavas’ or sojourn to the forests. Prof. Balusami believes that the events carved in this open air bas-relief are based on the Vanaparvam in Vyasa’s Mahabharatha. He says that here Lord Siva is shown holding a big arrow and not a trishul. The arrow is Pashupatastra, which Arjuna received from Shiva during vanavas.
Prof. Balusami, in his book, ‘Arjuna’s Tapas, Mamallapuram Sculptures of the Himalayas’ claims that a cistern had been built on the rock terrace, where water collected during the rainy season. This water ‘jumped’ and flowed down the central cleft and other courses, creating a dramatic three-dimensional effect.

An unfinished carving on a large granite boulder near Arjuna’s Penance

Mr Benoy K. Behl, art historian, photographer and film-maker opines that the relief in one unity (of two adjoining granite blocks) is the early Indic artist’s concept of ‘‘sublime continuity in all living things’’ as it shows an interconnected presence of humans, celestial beings and wild animals in the same frame with harmony—a cosmic truth the faith of Hinduism is based on.

Watercolour of the rock sculpture of Arjuna’s Penance, by John Gantz, c. 1825.
John Gantz and his son Justinian ran a lithographic press, but are remembered best for their watercolours of flat-top houses and public buildings in and around Chennai (Madras), dating to the first half of the 19th century. Though not British-born, they both lived and died in India, in the service of the East India Company. (Source : British Library)

Surprisingly we can see many of the unfinished temples and sculptures at Mahabalipuram. This points to the sudden withdrawal of patronage. After Narasimhavarman I’s demise King Rajasimhavarman inherited the Pallava kingdom and he was more interested in structured buildings than rock-cut temples.

Further readings:

Mamallapuram – Introduction
Mahabalipuram Arjuna Penance

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