Mamallapuram – The Great Penance

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

The Great Penance

This open-air bas-relief, probably, would be the first to catch an eye of a traveler when he/she reaches Mamallapuram. The reason behind this is two fold, first this relief is located very near to the local bus stand and market where visitors alight from buses and taxis, and second, this is the most famous, talked about, featured and photographed relief in all travel guides and books.

This magnificent sculpture has no parallel in India and therefore is a landmark monument of Mamallapuram. It is carved on the eastern face of the main hill facing the ocean. It measures more than 30m in length and 12m in height (83 feet x 38 feet).

Photograph by Nicholas and Co. taken in 1880, showing the sculptural frieze known as Arjuna’s Penance (image courtesy – British Library)

A central cleft in the rock divided this relief into two parts. Together, on both parts, it features more than one hundred and fifty images depicting animals, birds, humans and super-humans. The scene appears to be of a mountain and a forest where various animals and humans are either indulged in their daily work and routine or approaching the middle cleft in adoration.

The central cleft gives an impression of a water body, a water fall or a river, which when supplied with water would have provided an enchanting view. Three nagas (snakes) are shown in this cleft, suggesting the presence of water as nagas are usually depicted as aquatic species. The head of the male Naga and one tusk of the elephant was found broken. The broken parts were found during the excavation in 1870s by Hunter and Lord Napier and were later restored back to the original images.

Longhurst1 suggests that the naga images were not carved in the original rock, but fixed later on but Rabe2 does not agree. The monkey group places on one side of the panel was not at this place originally. It was lying near a Shiva temple, and Lord Napier replaced it here at its current location in 1871.

Elephant Pond, Isurumuniya, Sri Lanks (image courtesy – wikipedia)

Though there is no parallel of this relief in India, however Rabe3 suggests that this relief was influenced from the Elephant Pond carving at Isurumuniya Vihara in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The Isurumuniya features four elephants, which are said to be very similar to what we find in the Great Penence relief at Mamallapuram.

A K Coomaraswamy, describing the Elephant Pond at Isurumuiya, writes, ‘This site, no doubt in the seventh century , has been treated very much in the manner of the Gangavatarana tirtham at Mamallapuram, though less elaborately. A niche cut in the face of the rock contains a seated figure in relief, accompanied by a horse; apparently representing the sage Kapila, it is in pure Pallava style, and one of the finest sculpture in Ceylon…..’4

Coomaraswamy accepts the Pallava style at Isurumuniya but did not explain if it predates or not the Great Penance of Mamallapuram. Rabe states that Isurumuniya predates Mamallapuram and as the Ceylon prince, Manavamma, was at the Pallava court in Kanchi, he remembered this relief hence this influence.

The Great Penance (image courtesy

Before we come to the main theme of the panel, lets have a look at the various figures carved on this panel. There are more than one hundred and fifty figures on this relief and the list is provided as below:

Gods – Shiva takes a big space on this panel suggesting his key role in the episode depicted here. He is shown holding a trishula (trident), parashu (axe) and a snake in his three hands. His fourth hand is in varada mudra, suggesting granting a boon to the ascetic nearby.

Longhurst5 identified this  form of Shiva as Bhikshatana however the iconography of this image does not match with that of Bhikshatana icon.

On either side of Shiva, on the left and the right of the cleft, are shown Chandra and Surya respectively. Halo behind them prove their identity without doubts.

Gana/dwarfs – Five pairs of ganas are found, three of the left and two on the right. They are shown seated wearing a peculiar cap. A standing gana, with a tiger/lion carved on its belly, is the part of Shiva’s retinue.

Ramachandran6 tells that ganas with lion’s head carved in their belly are known as Kumbandhas in the Ramayana. He further suggests that as this gana is provided a special attention therefore it might represent Pashupata, the weapon conferred upon Arjuna from Shiva.

Kinnara – They are half human and half bird creatures, known as heavenly musicians. Two kinnara couples are on the left and four are on the right. They are carrying musical instruments, male carrying vina and females carrying cymbal.

Gandharva/Vidyadhara – These heavenly bodies posses super-human powers and can move in air at their wish. There are total of fourteen couples, five on the left and nine on the right.

Saints/Siddhas – Two pair of divine saints are shown on the right side of the panel. They are also shown flying in the air, suggesting their super-human powers

Nagas – Nagas are known to dwell in the underwater worlds and their presence in the central cleft, suggests that the cleft represents a water body. Three naga figures are found in central cleft, and one naga couple on either side of this cleft. The male naga with seven-hooded canopy above him seems to be a king, while below him would be his queen, shown with three-hooded canopy.

Jagadisa Aiyar7 identified the male naga as the serpent king Vasuki and the female nagini as Ulupi. Ulupi is also known as wife of Arjuna in Mahabharata. Rabe8 identifies the male naga as Kouravya and female as Ulupi, his daughter. He further suggests that as Ulupi was a descendant of Airvata, her depiction near the big elephant, appearing to be Airavata, is most appropriate.

Photograph of Arjuna’s Penance, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1880s (image courtesy – British Library)

Humans – On the left are shown four woodmen carrying staves and bows. A fifth figure is little high on the panel and he is shown carrying a hatchet.

Four humans are shown near the cleft, at the bottom, indulged in their daily activities near a river bank. One is doing Surya worship, seeing Surya through a slit made by his fingers, another is doing water ablution to Surya, one is carrying water in a pot and the fourth is wringing a cloth.

Longhurst9 was of the opinion that the person shown wringing his cloth is instead holding a cornucopia however Ramachandran10 explains that this is indeed a scene where he is shown wringing his upper garments after taking bath.

Near the temple, are shown four more figures. One sage is shown seated opposite to the temple, bent over in thoughts. Near him are three figures, heads of all broken, they seems to be practicing meditation. Inside the temple is an standing image of Vishnu.

Various identifications have been provided to decipher the temple and its associated ascetics. Taking the whole theme into the account, Jagadisa Aiyar11 tells that it represent the darbar of King Bali attended by warriors, kings and several wild animals. He took the zig-zag line below the figure of Arjuna to demarcate the patala-loka (netherworld), where Bali resides, from the earth.

Kavali Lakshmayya12 and Jagadisa Aiyar13 identify the sage seated opposite the temple is Acharya Drona and the other three headless figures as his disciples. Goldingham14 suggested that he is the father of the pandavas.

The sage is said to be Bhagiratha doing penance to Shiva by Coomaraswamy15 and doing penance to Brahma by Zimmer16. Janice Leoshko17 identifies the sage with Kapila, a devotee of Vishnu. Merkel18 and Lutzker19 shares the same view as of Leoshko.

Another identification is that, they represent the four manasaputra of Brahma, viz. Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatana and Sanatakumara. The four figures near the river are also these four brother, doing their daily routine. It is told that they all went to see Vishnu in Vaikuntha-loka where they were denied entry by Jaya and Vijaya, the guardians of Vaikuntha. The Vishnu temple might represent the Vaikuntha-loka.20

Ramachandran21 identifies the ashram as Badari ashram at the bank of river Ganga. The sage seated opposite is Nara, a previous birth of Arjuna. The three other ascetics are the normal sages in the ashram. The story of Nara is narrated by Shiva during the episode of Arjuna’s penance in Mahabharata therefore this identification has a significant bearing with theme.

Rabe22 suggests that person holding a water pot on his shoulder is pointing to two sages seated above. He suggests that this is very significant as we know two sages, who were said to be born from a pot, and they are Agastya and Drona. Therefore, the two seated, now headless, sages should be identified with Agastya and Drona. In this manner, the two bathers, one holding the pot and one wringing the cloth would be the parents of Agastya, Mitra and Varuna.

On the peculiar hand posture of the water pot person, Ramachandran23 tells that this mudra is vismaya mudra and might be suggesting to the party by the fingers pointing back that it is already late and they must hurry up.

Rabe24, as he is in favor of double entendre theme of this panel, suggests that the three seated sages are the Pallava king Simhavishnu, Mahendravarman I and Narasimhavarman I. He raises a question on why only the heads of these three figures are missing. And he answers that this was the work of the Chalukya army, under Vikramaditya, when they took revenge raiding Kanchi and advancing towards Ugrapura.

Animals – We find a variety of animals on this panel. A group of elephants takes a major portion of the panel. The group contains two adults and six child elephants. There are fifteen animals from the cat family including two little cubs. These includes lions and other big cats.

Ten deer and antelopes, mountain goats, four monkeys, a hare, an iguana, one boar, a tortoise are among the other animals on this panel.

A hypocrite cat is shown doing penance with mice at her feet. Jagadisa Aiyar25 mentions that the cat is doing penance after eating part of Krishna’s butterball in order that the sea in front of it may dry up and it may be possible for the cat to have an endless supply of food.  The story of such a hypocrite cat is found in Mahabharata as well as in Jataka and Hitopadesha.

Ramachandran26 tells that this hypocritical cat reminds story of Dadhikarna and Tiksnadamstra that feigned penitence on the banks of river Ganga to delude innocent mice into their reach.

Birds – Two jungle cocks, two hens and geese are among the various birds found on the panel.

Various figures on the Great Penance relief (image courtesy –

Identification of the theme of the panel – It is very evident that the scene of tapas or penance, if not the main theme, is the most important scene on the relief. A human figure is shown standing on his one leg, with raised arms, doing penance in front of a godly figure. He is doing the penance on a mountain and around him are shown various animals, humans and super-humans, all moving towards the central fissure which may represent a water body or a river.

Though there is no consensus on the episode depicted in this relief, but there are only two major theories. One theory suggests that this panel shows Arjuna’s penance to obtain Pashupata weapon from Shiva, and another theory suggests that this represents Bhagiratha’s penance to get Shiva’s agreement to withhold Ganga while she descends on the Earth.

Rabe27 mentions that he has come across 43 publications favoring for Bhagiratha, 39 favoring for Arjuna and 25 either maintained neutrality or other alternative. This suggests how divided is the scholar community on the identification of this relief work.

As the early legends at Mamallapuram have been associated with Mahabharata therefore the natives of this town propounded the suggestion that the ascetic shown here is Arjuna, to the early visitors. Since then, it is stated that this panel depicts the episode of Arjuna’s penance to get Pashupata weapon from Shiva, as described in the Vana Parva of Mahabharata.

Shiva and Bhagiratha (image courtesy – kevinstandagephotography,com)

As per the tradition collected from the natives, this relief was assumed to depict Arjuna’s penance till, in 1910, J Ph Vogel28 suggested an alternate theme. Vogel writes that the central cleft plays an important role as all the figures are shown moving towards it. It appears that these figures are moving not to witness the Pashupata grant from Shiva to Arjuna, but what is happening in the cleft or fissure. Vogel suggests that when water was pushed down this cleft, it would have represented the river Ganga. Vogel did not arrive at the conclusion on what this water body be meant for.

Taking Vogel’s view forward, in 1914, Goloubew29 and Dubreuil30 proposed that the panel depicts the descent of river Ganga and the ascetic doing penance is Bhagiratha but not Arjuna. Goloubew tells that the central fissure plays the main role and it represents a river, in this case Ganga. All the figures are shown moving towards this central fissure, therefore the appropriate theme would be the descent of Ganga, which is being witnessed by various earthly and divine bodies.

The task to find how the water was channelized to this cleft was left to Longhurst31 who found how the water was cascaded through this central fissure. He discovered rock-cut channels and footing immediately above this rock, which suggests that there was a masonry water cistern to store water. These rock-cut channels were used to direct water to the vertical cascade.

Figures around the central cleft (image courtesy –

Few scholars have taken a middle path, stating that this represents both the episodes, penance of Arjuna as well as that of Bhagiratha, as the case with Rabe and Kaimal. There are others who have taken a very different view, such as the case with R Srinivasa Raghava Ayyangar32 who suggests that the ascetic doing the penance is practicing hatha-yoga and is a representation of the deceitful tantras, like Kalamukha, Kapalika, Pashupata etc. Shiva, standing in front of the ascetic, is proclaiming that among him and Vishnu, the latter is the supreme deity. And for this reason, an image of Vishnu is enshrined in a temple below. All the creatures, from all the different worlds, are gathered to hear this assertion from Shiva.

Presence of nagas on the panel made Fergusson33 believe that this panel depicts naga worship as its main theme. Marshall34 suggests possibility of a detached image, kept in front of the panel as the main object of worship.

Central Cleft (image courtesy –

To understand the theme of this panel, we need to understand the stories as described in our epics and Puranas. Both the episodes are found in Mahabharata’s Vana Parva. For the benefit of the readers, both the episodes are described in a different chapters, link is provided here, Arjuna’s Penance and Ganga’s Descent.

‘A view of the Sculptures representing the tapass or intense penance of Arjoona Mahabalipoorum from a Sketch by Mr J. Braddock by J. Gantz’, 1825 (image courtesy – British Library)

Identification of the theme as that of Arjuna’s Penance – Many of the temples at Mamallapuram were associated with the Pandava brothers, therefore it was not a surprise that the theme on this bas-relief was also subjected to the same treatment. The natives of the town during the eighteenth-nineteenth century, used to identify the theme as Arjuna’s Penance for obtaining Pasupata weapon.

Leaving the early travelers and explorers, who identified the panel based upon local traditions, there are many scholars who have agreed with the same identification. Among these are T N Ramachandran35, C Sivaramamurti36, Stella Kramrisch37, R Nagaswamy and Marilyn Hirsh38.

If you have gone through the story as narrated in Mahabharata, you will find following points of interest which can be used to identify the theme of this relief. These points are:

  1. Arjuna did the penance on the Himalayas where are found a variety of animals, winged creatures, siddhas and charanas
  2. Arjuna did the penance near a river frequented by ducks, cranes and swans
  3. The posture of Arjuna during penance is said to be “With arms upraised and leaning upon nothing and standing on the tips of his toes, he continued his austerities
  4. Shiva tells Arjuna about his previous birth when he was Nara, a friend of Narayana, and did severe austerities in Badari (Vadari) ashram
  5. When Shiva granted Pashupata to Arjuna, the weapon stayed by the side of Arjuna in its embodied form
  6. Varuna, Yama, Kuvera and Indra visited Arjuna and granted weapons. Indra came on Airavata.

From above, the posture of the person doing penance in this relief fits exactly with the posture described in Mahabharata. Also, the gana with a tiger body, standing between Shiva and Arjuna in this relief, can be identified with the Pashupata weapon, being transferred from Shiva to Arjuna.

The ashram scene below the image of Arjuna can be identified with the Badari ashram and the sage seated opposite to the temple can be identified with Nara, Arjuna in his previous birth. The image of Vishnu inside the temple would be appropriate for Narayana, the friend of Nara.

Ramachandran39 says that the representation of Arjuna and Krishna in a vertical line is not accidental but intentional. He suggests that the artists of Mamallapuram have put Arjuna and Narayana in same vertical line as both are the one and the same person.

Ramachandran further adds that the role of the central cleft cannot be ruled out this case. He tells that the at the foot of the Indrakila hill, where Arjuna did penance, flowed river Ganga. And the Badari ashram was also situated at the bank of river Ganga. Therefore this central cleft, river Ganga, joins both the scenes, Arjuna’s Penance and Nara in Badari ashram.40

On the variety of animals and their peaceful behavior, Ramachandran draws a reference from Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi, where the author mentions that when Shiva’s ganas transformed themselves into hunters, and accompanied Shiva to Indrakila, making noise in the forest, the animals which were thus roused, forgot their natural enmity, and moved side by side.41

Elephant Herd (image courtesy

Points against the identification as Arjuna’s Penance – The following points remain unexplained if the theme is identified with Arjuna’s Penance

  1. Arjuna and Shiva are not the central attraction of the panel. The various figures are shown moving towards the central cleft which probably is the main object of the panel. Few figures have their back turned to Arjuna and Shiva which seems unusal.
  2. There is no depiction of the kirata episode, which is very integral part of the story, as described in Mahabharata and Kiratarjuniya. Pasupata was granted only after the kirata episode. It was not that Pallava artisans were not aware of the kiratarjuniya theme as there is a magnificent kiratarjuniya image in Kailasanatha Temple at Kanchi therefore it is a mystery on why this scene is absent from the panel.
  3. The possibility and depiction of equating Arjuna with Nara is very complex and hard to be understood by common public. What would have been the objectives of the sculptor or sponsors if the theme cannot be easily understood by the common folks?
  4. If the sculptors and the artists can think of the complex linking between Nara, Narayana and Arjuna, would they forget to depict the boar-fighting scene which is mentioned both, in Mahabharata and Kiratarjuniya, and would be fresh in the minds of the common public. If they have done it intentionally then it is very strange indeed.
  5. If accepted that the sage seated opposite the temple is Nara, any specifics on his posture as he seems to be in some deep contemplation and this is surely not a meditative posture.

In an attempt to fit the kirata episode in the panel, Ramachandran42 draws attention to a solitary kirata above Shiva, who he says may represent Shiva in the kirata form and the scene was when Shiva as kirata approaches towards Arjuna leaving his kirata army near the river. However this does not sound very convincing.

Few other scholars have pointed to the figures of boars which are shown among other animals on this panel. Of course we have boars in this panel, however that does not mean that those boars are related to the kirata episode. Why the artists would go for such indirect inferences to the boar and kirata episode, they had enough space to carve the scene and they were also not hard pressed on time to execute or finish.

‘Ancient Sculptures on the Rocks at Mavelliporum’ from Mackenzie Collection (image courtesy – British Library)

Identification of the theme as of Ganga’s descent – The early proponents of this theme are Vogel, Goloubew, Dubreuil, Longhurst43, Coomaraswamy, Lockwood, Lutzker44, Merkel45, Leoshko and others. The story is narrated in Mahabharata and Ramayana. A link above describes the story as narrated in Mahabharata.

The following point from the story of Mahabharata may have influence on this panel.

  1. The view of the mountain is described in minute details. Lions and tigers concealing themselves in caves and pits, kinnaras seated on stone slabs, elephants occupying cardinal points, Vidhyadharas frequenting the hills, infested by snakes etc.
  2. Shiva arrived before Bhagiratha surrounded by his attendants, of awful mien, and with uplifted weapons of diverse forms.
  3. When Ganga started from the heavens, the gods, together with the mighty saints, the Gandharvas, the snakes, and the Yakshas, assembled there as spectators.
  4. Bhagiratha directed Ganga towards ocean. This panel faces the ocean which is not very far.

Following points from the story of Ramayana may have influence on this panel.

  1. The posture of Bhagiratha is described in details stating that he on the tip of his big-toe with his hands upraised.
  2. The assemblage gathered to witness the Ganga flowing following Bhagiratha is included of gods, gandharvas, yakshas, siddhas.
  3. Who all followed Ganga on her path to ocean is also described in details, it says ,’all of the gods along with the assemblages of sages, ogres, monsters, demons, and even great reptiles with kinnaras, and gandharvas with best yakshas, and even serpents and apsaras, have delightfully moved after Ganga who is following the chariot of Bhagiratha’.
  4. Ganga deluding the vedic ritual ashram of Janhu on her path is also mentioned.

From the above points, the various figures on the panel fits accordingly to the story described in Mahabharata as well as in Ramayana. Apart from the story in epic, we also have few points which can have significant bearing on the theme.

  1. Panamalai inscription of the Pallava king Rajasimha speaks, ‘….and from him (Pallava) who trod the path of purity, came, like the floods of the Mandakini from the moon, this great family of the Pallavas’.46
  2. An inscription of Rajasimha in Kailasanatha temple speaks, ‘May (Ganga) purify you ! she who springs from the jewel (on the head) of Sthanu(Shiva), appearing ….. black by splendor of (his) neck and red by the rays of the gems on the hoods (of his snakes), who fills the lake of the three worlds…..’47
  3. A later epigraph, Kasakudi Plates of the Pallava king Nandivarman II speaks ‘…From him (Ashokavarman) descended the powerful, spotless race of the Pallavas, which resembled a partial incarnation of Vishnu, as it displayed unbroken courage in conquering the circle of the world with all its parts, (and) it is enforced the special rules of all castes and orders, and which resembled the descent of the Ganga (on earth), as it purified the whole world‘.48

From the above, it can be safely said that the Pallavas took the descent of Ganga as an important event and included in their prasastis (epigraphs). The relief panel at Mamallapuram therefore depicts this important event.

The ascetic should be Bhagiratha, doing penance for god Shiva. The sage, seated opposite the Vishnu temple, should be Jahnu whose ashram was deluged by Ganga. The three other sages, now headless, and four bathers are the ascetics of this ashram.

The story of hypocrite cat is found in Mahabharata (Uluka Dutagamana Parva) and its depiction is indeed humorous. Mahabharata narrates that a wicked cat took adobe on the banks of Ganga, abandoning all work and with his hands upraised, pretending to have purified his heart. After a long time, all oviparous creatures reposed trust in him, and coming unto him all together, they all applauded that cat. It was of course a trap and the mice later realized it.

The Great Penance (image courtesy –

Points against the identification as Descent of Ganga – The following points were raised in different articles against this identification.

  1. Some stated that the posture of Bhagiratha is not clearly stated in Mahabharata however posture of Arjuna matches with its description.
  2. How to identify the seated sage and temple of Vishnu with their associated ascetics.
  3. Who is the gana with tiger’s mouth carved in its belly, if it is Pashupata then the theme is Arjuna’s penance.
  4. The icon of Gangadhara is well established during the Pallava period and we have some Gangadhara icons predating this work. The icon clearly shows that Shiva extended his tresses to hold Ganga into that, however that important iconography is missing in this panel.

We have already taken point 1 and 2 in the section of identification of the theme as the Descent of Ganga. It is seen that the posture of Bhagiratha is correctly described in Ramayana though not in Mahabharata. The seated sage may be taken as Jahnu whose ashram lied in the path of Ganga from the mountains to the ocean.

Point 3 is of course little tricky. The gana may be identified as Pashupata as he is having a tiger carved in his belly, suggesting his fierce nature. However, T A Gopinatha Rao49 mentions the iconography of Pashupata, that he should be shown with four faces each with three eyes, it should have four arms and terrific faces with awful tusks, stiff hair and fierce moustache, all lending strongly the impression that it is a terrific aspect of Shiva.

Though the above description of Pashupata might be from some later agamas which was not in existence during the Pallava period however this does suggests how the fierce nature of the weapon should be depicted in plastic.

Unfinished Penance Relief (image courtesy –

A support for Descent of Ganga comes from another relief at Mamallapuram. This unfinished penance relief is located not very far from the Great Penance relief. This may be taken as an earlier attempt of carving out the penance theme however it was left incomplete due to some unknown reasons.

In this relief, the penitent and Shiva are carved at an offset and quite a distance from the central fissure. looking plainly at the relief, it is evident that the designers wanted to emphasize on the main attraction of the panel, the central cleft. All the figures are shown moving towards this fissure and many have their backs turned to the penitent and Shiva.

Padma Kaimal suggests that Shiva on this incomplete relief is shown holding tress of his hair, however this does not appear to be the case. However, this depiction in the relief strongly suggests that the designers had the theme of Ganga’s descent in their minds, and they executed it on another rock as the final version.

Side View (image courtesy –

Before reaching to a conclusion, it would be appropriate to throw some light on few other alternate identifications as suggested by scholar community. One of the major thought in these alternate identifications is that the relief shows both the stories, or the relief show multiple narratives.

Padma Kaimal44 suggests that both the stories, of Arjuna and of Bhagiratha, suggests the savior attitude of the kingship during that period. Therefore, both of these stories are represented in this panel in a manner that a viewer understands that the Pallava rulers would save their subjects from the natural or man-made calamities. The theme of Krishna Mandapa, Krishna shown lifting Goverdhana monutain, also suggests the same savior theme of the kings.

In her concluding remarks, Kaimal writes that her purpose was not close the debate over the identification of the theme of this panel. She also writes that the she does not believe that the creator of this relief were uncertain about what the relief could mean, nor do she suspects that these designers sought to bewilder the viewers.

Michael D Rabe suggests that this relief is a royal panegyric in stone and it has multiple interpretations, including the themes of the penance by Arjuna and Bhagiratha. He tries to explain almost all the important figures depicted on the panel, however some of his inferences are based upon very loose threads.

Rabe50 states that this panel depicts the prasasti (praise) of the Pallava king, Narasimhavarman I, whom he took as the designer of this panel. He tells that we find all the imaginary figures mentioned in his prasasti in this panel. These figures are those of Brahma, Bharadvaja, Drona, Ashvatthama, all of whom he considers amsas (part) of Vishnu.

The major issue with these alternate readings is how the common viewer of that period would have understood it? The theme which has baffled the community of erudite scholars for almost two centuries, how that would have been understood by common public of that period?

And if the common mass fails to understand the real objective, then why the royal patrons would consume their resources to design and implement it? Padma Kaimal provides some clues on how the common public would have understood such a complex theme. She suggests two methods, one is discussion among each other and another is introspection of different understandings in one’s mind.

Can these two methods be applied at common mass, and the meaning and understanding is left to them at the mercy of their interpretations? This would not serve the purpose of the royal patrons who have exhausted their resources to carve their masterpieces. Do we have any such parallel double entendre relief from that period of history?

Conclusion – There is no single theme or story which can be applied on this panel in order to explain all the various figures and their attitudes. Therefore searching for one such theme would be futile in my opinion, as probably that thing does not exists. If we try to find that forcefully, it would be held on very weak threads as we have seen in few alternate readings.

One needs to understand the need and ambition of the sponsor of this relief. The relief was meant to be seen by the common mass and the mass should understand the meaning and theme displayed in front of them. Of course the designer may try to put some mysterious meanings to certain objects but not to the whole theme. An example of this small mysterious innovation is the cat doing penance. Though she might not be playing an important part in the overall theme, but it introduces humor into the overall reading.

I may conclude that this panel represents the story of Ganga’s descent, and the figure doing penance should be identified with Bhagiratha. It would not be possible to fit all the elements of this panel into the framework of this story therefore it can be assumed that the artisan community held the license for innovation and deviations and therefore inclusion of extra elements are expected. However, this should not result in change of the original theme to a great extent.

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2 Rabe, Michael D. The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. p 27
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15 Coomaraswamy, A K. History of Indian and Indonesian Art. p 103
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17 Rabe, Michael D. The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. p 76
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