Mahabalipuram : Arjuna’s Penance / Descent of Ganga

    Who doesn’t love a great story? Now imagine, the story takes form of sculptures and caves – and 19 of them in the same vicinity. No wonder, Mahabalipuram is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an open museum and you’d need at least a full day to go along the Mahabalipuram Heritage Tour.

    We hope that you have as much fun reading about these stories as we did, discovering them.

    The Heritage Map

    We began at the bas-relief of “Descent of Ganga” or “Arjuna’s Penance”. Apparently there are two versions to the interpretation of the relief.

    Arjuna’s Penance :

    Notice the depiction of an ascetic on one leg ? It is believed to be the depiction of Arjuna, performing penance to receive the Pasupatha Astra (the god-slayer) to defeat the Kauravas. Shiva, pleased with his penance is seen granting him this wish.

    Descent of Ganga:

    The same ascetic, is believed by some historians to be Sage Bhagirath (ancestor of Ram) performing penance to seek Shiva’s help in bringing the River Ganga from the heavens to earth. Legend has it, that Bhagirath’s ancestors of the Ikshavu Dynasty were turned into ashes following the curse of sage Kapila (they had disturbed his meditation). The sage also gives an antidote to his curse – if the ashes of ancestors were immersed in the Ganga, their souls would attain Moksha. Bhagiratha’s penance has Shiva agreeing to bring Ganga down to earth through his hair-locks so as to tone down her vigour and size.

    A third undertone of the narrative suggests how life or civilization began on the banks of a riverside.

    Watercolour of the rock sculpture of Arjuna’s Penance, by John Gantz, c. 1825. Inscribed: ‘A view of the Sculptures representing the tapass or intense penance of Arjoona Mahabalipoorum from a Sketch by Mr J. Braddock. J. Gantz’. / Source : British Library / Public Domain

    Here is a video, highlighting the different scenes and their stories. Please switch on Subtitles before viewing.

    Scene 1: Penance

    As mentioned above, this could be either Arjuna or Sage Bhagirath. On their right you can notice a geese couple, moving towards the river.  Above Shiva, you’d notice Chandra – the moon god.

    Scene 2: The 5 Dwarves

    Around Shiva, you’d notice 5 dwarves that signify the five elements – air, earth, space, fire and water. These also correlate to the five senses.

    Scene 3: Pashupatha

    This little dwarf is believed to be the personification of the Pasupatha weapon. The weapon that would even slay gods, and therefore was sought by Arjuna so that he could defeat the Kauravas.

    Scene 4: The Sun God and Celestials

    Surya the Sun God, is accompanied by celestial beings – flying Gandharvas, Kinnaras (the musicians) and the dwarves (Bhuta Ganas). Gandharvas are celestial musicians and husbands of Apsaras. Kinnaras are related to the Gandharvas and have heads of men and bodies of birds / horses. Bhuta Ganas are dwarf attendants and followers of Lord Shiva, also associated with his son Lord Ganesha.

    Scene 5: Elephants

    Regarded as the finest elephant sculptures in India, these elephants signify Lord Indra. Airavata, the mount of Lord Indra also has bifurcated tusks as depicted in this relief.

    Scene 6: The Cat

    If you’ve read the Panchatantra stories, you’d remember the fraud cat,”Dirghakarna”. It’s the cat who pretends to be so pious that the birds ask it to guard their nest, believing the cat to be “vegetarian”. The cat, true to its nature, feasts on the young nestlings, and the birds are left remorseful, swearing never to trust a cat again.

    Scene 7: The Hermitage of Badari

    Depicted through the co-existence of the deer and lion, the scene of the hermitage is meant to inspire harmonious living. The ascetic is once again presumed to be Arjuna worshipping Narayana (Vishnu enshrined in the temple). Common river-bank scenes such as people bathing, worshipping, etc can be spotted.

    Scene 8: Headless Hermits

    Again, this has two interpretations.

    Some historians are of the view that the headless hermits are Sage Agasthya and Dronacharya while some believe that they are the Pallava kings who’s descendants commissioned this relief. It is assumed that the Chalukya forces, had their sculptural heads destroyed.

    The representation of Sage Agasthya depicts the destruction of Vatapi. Just as the Sage destroyed the Demon King Vatapi, Mamallan destroyed the city of Vatapi. Drona happens to be an ancestor of the Pallavas. Drona’s son Ashwatthama married a Snake Princess and together they had a son named Pallava. The snake princess can be seen in the space that divides the two reliefs.

    The entrance of an excavated Hindoo Temple, at Mavalipuram, on the coast of Coromandel | Thomas and William Daniell 1789 – 1790

    #DidYouKnow :

    On a visit to Mahabalipuram, and on seeing the beauty of Mahabalipuram, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided that the deer featuring under the Badari Hermitage would be used in the then 10-rupee note!
    Here’s a picture :

    Spot the deer on the top left!
    Spot the deer on the top left!

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