Arjuna’s Penance/ Descent of the Ganga (Mahabalipuram)

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Arjuna's Penance/ Descent of the Ganga (Mahabalipuram)

Mahabalipuram is an important coastal town from the period of the Pallavas. It is dotted with several important rock-cut and free-standing structural temples mostly made in the seventh and eighth centuries. This large sculptural panel, one of the largest and oldest known in the world, is nearly thirty meters long and fifteen meters high. There is a natural cleft in the rock which has been cleverly used by its sculptors as a channel for water to flow down. This water collects in a massive tank in front of the sculpted wall.

Scholars have interpreted the story depicted on the panel differently. While some believe that it is the story of the descent of the Ganga from heaven to earth, others believe that the main story is of Kiratarjuniya or Arjuna’s penance, a poetic work by Bharvi which is known to have been popular in the Pallava court. Other scholars have interpreted the symbolism behind the sculptures to show that the whole tableau was created to be a Prashasti or something to praise the Pallava king, who, they say, would have sat enthroned in the tank in front of this extraordinary backdrop.

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A temple has been given prominence in the relief. Ascetics and worshippers sit before it. Above it is an emaciated bearded figure standing in penance on one leg, his arms raised above his head. He has been identified by some as Bhagirath and by others as Arjuna. Arjuna’s penance was to obtain the Pashupati weapon from Shiva, whereas Bhagirath prayed to have Ganga brought to earth. Next to this figure stands Shiva who has one hand in the boon bestowing gesture or varada mudra. The small gana or dwarf who stands below this hand may be a personification of the powerful Pashupati weapon.

All the figures are shown with a slender and linear quality in an animated state of movement. Apart from humans and flying celestials there are several naturalistically carved birds and animals as well. Particularly noteworthy are the extraordinarily well-modeled, and life-like elephants, and the pair of deer who are under the shrine. The most humorous, however, is a cat who has been shown standing on his hind legs, with his hands raised, imitating Bhagirath or Arjuna.

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Close examination, however, reveals that this cat is, in fact, a symbolic device. He is surrounded by rats, which are unable to disturb him from his penance. Perhaps this is a metaphor used by the artist to show how strong Arjuna’s or Bhagirath’s penance was, who is also standing still, undisturbed by his surroundings.

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