Mamallapuram – The Great Penance

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

The Great Penance

This open-air bas-relief would immediately catch an eye of a visitor when one 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 30 m in length and 12 m in height (83 feet x 38 feet).

Photograph by Nicholas and Co. taken in 1880, showing the sculptural frieze known as Arjuna’s Penance | British Library

A central cleft in the rock divides this relief into two almost equal parts. Together, on both sides, it contains more than one hundred and fifty images depicting animals, birds, humans and super-humans. The overall theme appears to be of a mountain with a forest replete with animals and humans depicted as engaged 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 was broken and found during the excavation in 1870s by Hunter and Lord Napier. It was later restored back to the original image. Longhurst1 suggests that the naga images were not carved in the original rock but fixed later on however this does not seem be the case2. The monkey group places on one side of the panel was originally found lying near a Shiva temple, and was paced at its present location by Lord Napier in 1871.

The Great Penance (image courtesy -kevinstandagephotography.com)

Before we proceed with discussion on the theme behind this panel, it would be apt to have a look on the various images and imagery present on this bas-relief. There are more than one hundred and fifty figures on this relief and these are grouped under gods, super-humans, humans and animals with their respective details as provided below. A very detailed description on these figures can be found in a meticulous article from Krishnakumar TK:

Gods – Four different deities are present on this bas-relief.

  • Shiva takes the big stage on the panel suggesting his key role in the theme depicted. He stands 3 m tall and shown with four arms. In his upper left arm he holds parashu (axe) and the object held in his upper right arm is not very clear. It appears to be the tail of a snake, the hood of which is shown near his right thigh. Support for the same comes from Trichy-Gangadhara image where Shiva is shown holding snake’s tail. As the snake’s hood is very low on his thighs, it appears that the snake was not coiled around his waist. In his lower right hand he carries trishula (trident) and the lower left arm is in varada-mudra. Longhurst3 identifies this  form of Shiva as Bhikshatana however the iconography does not match. A unique feature of this sculpture is a small disc placed over the jata-bhara (headdress) of Shiva. This disc is generally taken as representation of Chandra, who otherwise is usually present as crescent moon in Shiva’s jata-bhara.
  • Surya and Chandra are present on either side of Shiva and they are identified by their halo or nimbus behind their head.
  • An image of Vishnu is installed inside a temple set amidst an ashrama surroundings. He is shown standing in samabhanga (equipoised) with four hands carrying shankha (conch) and chakra (wheel). His one lower arm is in abhaya-mudra and another lower arm is resting over his thighs.

Super-humans – Various figures representing super-humans are carved all around the panel. Many of these figures are shown in flying attitude suggesting their super-human powers.

  • Dwarves – There are total of five dwarf pairs. They are shown wearing a peculiar cap similar to a hood covering their ears, probably as a protection from the extreme cold surrounding they are set in. First pair is found on the top-left of the panel. Second pair is next of Shiva’s retinue, sometimes they are counted among the ganas of Shiva however they being carved on a different level suggests their disassociation from Shiva’s ganas. Third pair is just below Surya. Fourth and fifth pair is found above the elephants.
  • Ganas – Four ganas are carved accompanying Shiva, three to his right and one to his left. One gana on his right is shown with monkey-face. Is there is a specific reason for such a depiction cannot be said with certainty. A gana, standing between Shiva and the ascetic, is shown with a tiger/lion head carved on his belly. Is there a specific reason for such a depiction, we will have a detailed look later. Such tiger-belly ganas are generally found in bhuta-mala decoration of various temples especially belonging to the Chola period. Ramachandran4 tells that as this gana is provided a special attention therefore it might represent the Pashupata-astra conferred upon Arjuna from Shiva.
  • KinnarasKinnaras are described as half-human and half-bird in Hindu mythology. They are known as heavenly musicians, males playing lute and females playing drums. In this panel we have total of six kinnara couples, two on left part and four on the right part. They are carrying musical instruments, male carrying vina and females carrying cymbals.
  • 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 – Four siddhas of divine nature are shown on the right part of the panel. They are shown flying in the air, moving towards the central cleft. The last siddha, right-most in the group, does not have beard however as he is part of the group therefore may be considered as a siddha.
  • Nagas – Nagas are known to dwell in the underwater worlds and their presence in the central cleft, suggests the cleft represents a water body. Three naga figures are found in central cleft, and two naga couples, one on either side of the cleft. The male naga with seven-hooded canopy might represent the naga-king. Below him would be his queen, shown with three-hooded canopy.

Animal-Kingdom – More than 50 animals are carved in this panel. Among these are found lions, lioness, tigers, deer, antelope, mountain goats, monkeys, boar, elephants, cat and mice. Among birds are found geese, jungle hens and cocks. Among the reptiles are found tortoise and lizard. The most majestic depiction is of the elephant herd, comprising of 9 elephants including two large elephants and 7 accompanying calves. They are also shown moving towards the central cleft, probably to enjoy their water-sports.

Humans – Various human figures are found on the panel, and the most majestic is the figure of the tapasvi engaged in penance. Measuring over 2 m tall, the tapasvi (ascetic) is shown with his arms raised above his head and standing on his one leg. His emaciated body is the result of his hard and tough penance. Near the temple are shown four figures, all seated, and probably representing meditating sages. 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. Near the river, at the bottom, is a group of bathers, four in number, few engaged in Surya-worship and few taking care of bath and after-bath activities. A group of foresters, four in number, are shown engaged in their routine activities of cutting, collecting and carrying woods from a jungle and shown carrying staves and bows. An individual forester, carrying a hatchet, is carved above a kinnara couple on the left part of the panel.

Photograph of Arjuna’s Penance, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1880s | British Library

The Naga Connection – It was James Fergusson5 who proposed the theory of Naga-centric theme of this panel suggesting that this represents the popular and prevalent serpent worship practice of India. He writes, “In the centre on a projecting ledge, between these two great masses of rock, once stood the statue of the great Naga Raja, who was the principal personage for whose honour this great bas-relief was designed. (sic)” As the head of the male naga was missing at that time, Fergusson requested Dr. Alexander Hunter to search for the same. Hunter had founded in 1850 the Madras School of Arts, now known as Government College of Fine Arts, and was much involved in photographing monuments in Mamallapuram. He was able to find the missing naga head in the accumulated sand in front of the panel. Hunter identifies the male Naga king as Vasuki and the naga female below him as his daughter Ulupi. As Ulupi was Arjuna’s wife, therefore this identification connects her with the overall Arjuna centric theme of the panel. Hunter’s narrative of Ulupi was probably influenced from the accounts of Lakshmayya Kavali6, who wrote in 1803 gathering information from the locals. Kavali tells that nagas are carved in the fissure appear issuing from Patalaloka and a Naga-maid with five virgins come for Arjuna.

J Ph Vogel7 informs that the theory proposed by Fergusson of serpent worship theme was not correct as naga-figures are themselves shown with folded hands in adoration. John Marshall suggests that as the nagas are folding hands in adoration therefore there used to be an icon placed in front of the nagas. However no such icon was recovered from the excavations which revealed broken naga head and broken elephant tusks. After these initial thoughts, very few scholars gave special attention to the nagas lately. Jagadisa Aiyar8 while explaining the bas-relief as Arjuna’s penance mentions about the naga-king as Vasuki and the below female naga as his daughter Ulupi. He also mentions that the relief depicts Bali’s darbar (court) held in Patala-loka (netherworld) and attended by warriors, rajas and several wild beasts. Rabe9 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. In conclusion, we may say that these nagas do not represent any specific naga but nagas in general. As nagas are aquatic in nature, therefore their presence in this central cleft is but natural and suggestive of water body within the cleft.

Various figures on the Great Penance relief | www.kevinstandagephotography.com

Theme of the bas-relief – Earliest accounts of Mamallapuram, mostly taken from its natives, mention the theme of thsi bas-relief as the penance of Arjuna to obtain pashupata-astra from Shiva. Lakshmayya Kavali10, the first Indian who wrote about the town in 1803, identifies the ascetic with Arjuna and the god with Shiva. He mentions the gana with tiger-head in its belly, standing between Arjuna and Shiva, is Vishwakarma holding his adze on his right shoulder. Till about 1911, Arjuna’s penance continued to be the main theme of the bas-relief until J Ph Vogel11 points that the central cleft plays the main role in the overall theme. He writes, “It is an undoubted fact which has drawn the attention of previous explorers that the supposed group of Arjuna and Siva does not really form the centre of the whole sculptured picture. From both sides the numerous figures of demi-gods, men and beasts – mostly in couples and most of them folding hands in the attitude of adoration – are turned towards the large vertical cleft or fissure which separates the two halves of the rock. The so-called Arjuna and Siva are placed a little to the proper right of this cleft, and it will be noticed that some of the adoring figures are turned away from them and, like others are flying towards the cleft. This cleft, therefore, is the real centre of the whole sculpture(sic).” He further says, “Can it be that once there existed here a sacred spring and that the water gushing forth from the cleft was the real aim and object of all the adoring figures? The presence of Nagas would then be mostly accounted for, as they are the water-spirits dwelling n lakes and springs.”

This led Dubreuil to propose that this central cleft represents river Ganga cascading from the Himalayas as Ganga only can be the cause of such veneration by Gods, men and animals. He shared his thoughts with Victor Goloubew12 and the latter publishes an article on this new identification in 1914. With the identification of river Ganga, the theory proposed from both scholars was that the this bas-relief represents descent of Ganga and the ascetic doing penance is king Bhagiratha. The story of Ganga’s descent is narrated in Mahabharata and Ramayana. However, this new theory was not replace the older theory of Arjuna’s Penance, as it was found that Arjuna did the penance on the Indrakila mountain where also flows Ganga. The task to find how the water was channelized to this cleft was left to Longhurst13 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.

Few scholars, mainly Rabe and Padma Kaimal, have taken a middle path, stating that this bas-relief represents both the episodes, penance of Arjuna as well as of Bhagiratha. There are others who have taken a very different view, such as the case with R Srinivasa Raghava Ayyangar14 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.

Since then, we have a divided opinion among scholars, few supporting Arjuna’s Penance theme and few Descent of Ganga. Rabe15 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 bas-relief’s main theme.

Shiva and Bhagiratha | www.kevinstandagephotography,com

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 here, Arjuna’s Penance and Ganga’s Descent. Another important reference is of Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi, a poem composed during 6th century CE or earlier, on the story of Arjuna’s penance to obtain pashupatastra from Shiva. This poem would be fresh in memory of the common public during the Pallava period of seventh century CE.

Arjuna’s Penance – From the early accounts of Mamallapuram, we find that this bas-relief has been identified as representing Arjuna’s penance for obtaining Pasupatastra from Shiva. As many excavations of Mamallapuram are named after the Pandava brothers, therefore it may not be a surprise that the theme on this bas-relief was also subjected to the same treatment. However, interesting would be to note why the natives identify the theme as such as the story of Arjuna doing penance is not the central theme of the Mahabharata and also not a very important episode which may leave a lasting impact on general minds. Therefore, the remembering of this specific theme by the natives of the town must have something specific behind it, either it was remembered as the ancestors told such or it was deciphered by someone leaving a lasting impression. In the repertoire of the recent scholarship supporting this identification are T N Ramachandran16, Sivaramamurti17, Stella Kramrisch18, R Nagaswamy19 and Marilyn Hirsh20.

Below interesting observations can be made after going through the narration of this episode in Mahabharata, more or less similar description is found in Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniya:

  1. Arjuna did his 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 Pashupatastra to Arjuna, the astra stayed by the side of Arjuna in its embodied form
  6. Varuna, Yama, Kuvera and Indra visited Arjuna and granted astras. Indra arrived on Airavata.

Arguments in favor of the identification:

  1. The posture of the ascetic doing penance in this bas-relief fits exactly with the posture described in Mahabharata as well as Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniya21.
  2. The gana with a tiger-head in its belly, standing between Shiva and Arjuna, may be identified with the Pashupatastra, being transferred from Shiva to Arjuna as in Mahabharata and Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniya22, it is told that Pashupatastra appeared in its anthropomorphic form.
  3. The ashram scene below the image of Arjuna can be identified with the Badri 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. Mention of Badri Ashram is found both in Mahabharata and Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniya23. Ramachandran24 tells that the representation of Arjuna and Krishna (as image of Vishnu in below temple) in a vertical line is not accidental but intentional. He suggests that the artists of Mamallapuram have put Arjuna and Narayana in the same vertical line as both are the one and the same person.
  4. The central cleft which supposedly represents a river may be river Ganga, as Ganga flows over the Indrakila mountain where Arjuna did penance. Also, the Badri ashram was situated at the bank of the river Ganga. Therefore this central cleft, river Ganga, joins both the scenes, Arjuna’s Penance and Nara in Badari ashram25.
  5. 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 mountain, making noise in the forest, the animals which were thus roused, forgot their natural enmity, and moved side by side26.

Points against the identification – The following points go against the identification with Arjuna’s Penance:

  1. Arjuna and Shiva are not the center of the bas-relief. The various figures are shown moving towards the central cleft suggesting the latter to be the main object or theme. Few figures have their back turned to Arjuna and Shiva which seems unusual if the theme is of Arjuna’s penance.
  2. The key episode of the whole story of Arjuna’s penance, as described in the Mahabharata and Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniya, is the duel between Shiva and Arjuna. Demon Muka takes shape of a boar which becomes the bone of contention between Arjuna and Shiva, the latter was in disguise of a kirata (hunter). It was not the case that the Pallava artisans were not aware of the kiratarjuniya theme as the same is depicted in its full grandeur in the Kailasanatha Temple at Kanchi,. Of course, the temple was constructed some 50 years later than this bas-relief however that does not mean that  the artisans were not acquainted with the theme.
    1. In an attempt to fit the kirata episode in the panel, Ramachandran27 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.
    2. Krishnaswami Aiyangar28 was the first to propose that the solitary boar present in the milieu of animal kingdom present in this imagery represent the Muka boar of the Kiratarjuniya story. He tells that the boar galloping away ahead while other animals are quiescent in the relief exhibits the key episode of the chase of the Kiratarjuniya story.  However, not many scholars29 agree with this identification and the simple reason is that the boar is not given any special treatment to suggest its key role. Also, why the artists would go for such indirect inferences of 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.
  3. Identification of Arjuna with Nara is a complex and not easy to comprehend by common public. Though we do a Gupta example of pre-Pallava period depicting Nara and Narayana, however the iconography is very different. What would be the objectives of the sculptors and their sponsors for such a theme which cannot be easily understood by common folks?
  4. If accepted that the sage seated opposite the temple is Nara, any specifics on his posture as he seems to be in deep contemplation does not matching with a meditative posture.
  5. Few scholars object that Shiva is not shown with Parvati, as Mahabharata mentions that Shiva appeared with Parvati when he granted Pashupatastra to Arjuna.
    1. However, Bharavi’ Kiratarjuniya does not mention Parvati accompanying Shiva during Pashupatastra grant. If the sculptors followed Kiratarjuniya, then absence of Parvati is explainable.
Central Cleft | www.kevinstandagephotography.com

Ganga’s Descent – Early proponents of this theme are Goloubew30, Dubreuil31, Longhurst32, Coomaraswamy33, Lockwood34, Lutzker35, Markel36, Leoshko37 and others. The story is narrated in Mahabharata and Ramayana.

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 and is situated not very far from it.

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 sage Janhu on her path is also mentioned.

Arguments in favor of the identification:

  1. The posture of the ascetic in the bas-relief fits with the description of Bhagiratha’s posture as in the Ramayana
  2. The central cleft, representing river Ganga, is the object of adoration of all figures on the panel as all are shown moving towards the river, some even their backs turned to Shiva and the ascetic.
  3. A support for Descent of Ganga comes from another relief at Mamallapuram, the so-called unfinished penance bas-relief, located not very far from the Great Penance panel. 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 ascetic 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 ascetic and Shiva.
  4. There are various references of river Ganga and its purifying qualities in Pallava epigraphs suggesting that the Pallavas took the descent of Ganga as an important event and included in their prasastis (epigraphs). The bas-relief panel at Mamallapuram therefore depicts this important event.
    1. Panamalai inscription of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II 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”.38
    2. An inscription of Narasimhavarman II 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…..”39
    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”.40

Points against the identification – The following points were raised in different articles against this identification.

  1. The posture of Bhagiratha is not clearly stated in Mahabharata however posture of Arjuna matches with its description.
    1. The posture is mentioned in the Ramayana and matches to what we see on this bas-relief.
  2. How to identify the seated sage and temple of Vishnu with their associated ascetics.
    1. Kavali Lakshmayya41 identifies the sage seated opposite the temple as Acharya Drona and the other three headless figures as his disciples.
    2. Goldingham42 suggests that the sage seated opposite to the temple is the father of the Arjun.
    3. Coomaraswamy43 suggests that the sage is Bhagiratha doing penance to Shiva while Zimmer44 tells it is Bhagiratha doing penance to Brahma. However, it is not Shiva inside the temple but Vishnu.
    4. Janice Leoshko45 identifies the sage with Kapila, a devotee of Vishnu. Markel46 and Lutzker47 shares the same view as of Leoshko.
    5. Another identification for four sages 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.48
    6. As Kapila’s ashram was located underground, as Sagara’s son had to dig to reach there, an alternative identification may be that the ashram is that of sage Janhu. As per Ramayana, Ganga flooded the ashram of sage Janhu while it was en route towards the ocean. The contemplative posture of the sage may be because of the destruction caused by the floods.
  3. Who is the gana with tiger’s mouth carved in its belly, if it is Pashupata then the theme is Arjuna’s penance.
    1. Such tiger-belly gana is a regular find among the other ganas on gana-mala (or bhuta-mala) frieze usually found as a decoration device under cornice of a temple. Therefore, the tiger-belly gana might not be playing a key-role in this bas-relief.
  4. The icon of Gangadhara is well established during the Pallava period and we have some Gangadhara icons predating this work. The iconography clearly shows Shiva extending his tresses to hold Ganga, however that important feature is missing in this panel.
    1. Markel49 argues that it is not the Gangadhara being depicted in the panel, but it is Gangavatarna (descent of Ganga). Therefore, we should not confuse it with the settled iconography of the Gangadhara icon.
Figures around the central cleft |www.kevinstandagephotography.com
The Hypocrite Cat | www.kevinstandagephotography.com

The Hypocrite Cat – A cat is shown doing penance with various mice at her feet who are shown adoring the former with their hands joined in anjali-mudra. Kavali50 tells that the cat is shown tied to this bas-relief as it ate a part of Krishna’s butterball rock giving the latter a chipped appearance. Ramachandran51 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. The story of such a hypocrite cat is found in the Udyoga-Parva of Mahabharata. The story goes that a wicked cat took adobe on the banks of the river 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 only realized it. With this story being part of Mahabharata, it further strengthens the thought that Mahabharata was the inspiration behind this panel.

‘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 | British Library

Multiple Meanings and Themes – Padma Kaimal52 suggests that both the themes, Arjuna’s Penance and Descent of Ganga, reflects the savior attitude of the kingship during the Pallava period. Therefore, both of these stories are represented in this panel in order that the viewers see their Pallava rulers as their saviors from the natural or man-made calamities. The theme of the nearby Krishna Mandapa showing Krishna lifting Goverdhana mountain also suggests the same savior theme of the Pallava 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 tells 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.

Rabe53 suggests that while this bas-relief depicts multiple meanings, including the themes of the penance by Arjuna and Bhagiratha, it can also be interpreted as a royal Pallava panegyric in stone. Rabe states that this panel depicts the prashashti (praise) of the Pallava king, Narasimhavarman I, the designer of this panel. And thus he identifies the three seated headless sages with the Pallava king Simhavishnu, Mahendravarman I and Narasimhavarman I. He explains why only the heads of these three are missing, answering that this was the work of the Chalukyan army which under Vikramaditya after raiding Kanchi was advancing towards Ugrapura, and after finding that this bas-relief represents the Pallava panegyric, they broke off heads of these images. About the Pallava genealogy, Rabe suggests that person holding a water pot on his shoulder is pointing to two sages seated above and this has a very significant reason as two sages, who were said to be born from a pot, 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. He tells that we find all the ancestral figures mentioned in the prashashti in this panel. These figures are of Brahma, Bharadvaja, Drona, Ashvatthama, all of whom Rabe considers amshas (part) of Vishnu.

‘Ancient Sculptures on the Rocks at Mavelliporum’ from Mackenzie Collection | British Library

Conclusion – The major issue with these alternate readings of this bas-relief is how the same was interpreted by the common viewer of that period. The theme which has baffled the scholar community for more than two centuries, how it was possible that the same was understood by common public of that period and in the same meaning as the sponsors of this work would have intended it to be. Kaimal provides some clues on this suggesting two methods, one is discussion among each other and another is introspection of different understandings in one’s mind. The problem with these methods is that the interpretation is left to a viewer and thus it defeats the purpose of the sponsors of transmitting a commonly understood message.

There is no single theme or story which can be applied to this panel in order to explain all the various figures and imagery. Therefore searching for one such theme would be futile in my opinion and 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 with an idea that they should understand the meaning and the message. 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.

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1 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 41
2 Rabe, Michael D (2001). The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. Institute of Asian Studies. Chennai. ISBN 8187892005. p 27
3 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 43
4 Ramachandran, T N. Kiratarjuniyam in Indian Art published in Journal of the Indian society of Oriental Art vol. XVIII. pp 81-83
5 Fergusson, James (1880). The Cave Temples of India. Trubner & Co. London. pp 156-157
6 Carr, M W (ed.) (1869). The Seven Pagodas on the Coromandel Coast. The Government of Madras. pp 203-204
7 Vogel, J Ph (1914). Iconographical Notes on “The Seven Pagodas” published in Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1910-11. Government Printing. Calcutta. p 59
8 Jagadisa Aiyar, P V(1920). South Indian Shrines. The Madras Times Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd. Madras (now Chennai). p 34
9 Rabe, Michael D (2001). The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. Institute of Asian Studies. Chennai. ISBN 8187892005. p 145
10 Carr, M W (ed.) (1869). The Seven Pagodas on the Coromandel Coast. The Government of Madras. p 203
11 Vogel, J Ph (1914). Iconographical Notes on “The Seven Pagodas” published in Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1910-11. Government Printing. Calcutta. p 59
12 Goloubew, Victor (1914). La falaise d’Arjuna de Mavalipuram et la Descente de la Gangā sur la Terre, selon le Rāmāyana et le Mahābhārata published in Journal asiatique. 11ème série, tome IV. pp 210-212
13 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 40-41
14 Raghava Ayyangar, R Srinivasa (1931). Vishnu’s Paradevata Paramarthya Sculptured at Mahabalipur published in Indian Antiquary vol. LX. pp 101-104
15 Rabe, Michael D (2001). The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. Institute of Asian Studies. Chennai. ISBN 8187892005. preface xxi, note 7
16 Ramachandran, T N (1951). Kiratarjuniyam in Indian Art published in Journal of the Indian society of Oriental Art vol. XVIII. pp 1-110
17 Sivaramamurti, C (1976). Ganga. Orient BlackSwan. New Delhi. p 79
18 Kramrisch, Stells (1954). The Art of India. The Phaidon Press. London. p 205
19 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p
20 Hirsh, Merilyn (1987). Mahendravarman I Pallava: Artist and Patron of Mamallapuram in Artibus Asiae vol. 48, no ½. p 127
21 अभिरश्मिमालि विमलस्य धृतजयधृतेरनाशुष: |
तस्य भुवि बहुतिथास्तिथय: प्रतिजग्मुरेकचरणं निषीदत : || – Chapter 12, shloka 2
22 इति निगदितवन्तं सूनु मुच्चैर्मघोन:
प्रणतशिरसमीश: सादरं सान्त्वयित्वा |
ज्वलदनलपरीतं रौद्रमस्त्रं दधानं
धनुरुपपदमस्मे वेदमभ्यादिदेश || – Chapter 18, shloka 44
23 बदरीतपोवननिवासनिरतमवगात मान्यथा |
धातुरुदयनिधने जगतां नरमंशमादिपुरुषस्य गां गतम || – chapter 12, sholka 33
24 Ramachandran, T N (1951). Kiratarjuniyam in Indian Art published in Journal of the Indian society of Oriental Art vol. XVIII. p 71
25 Ramachandran, T N (1951). Kiratarjuniyam in Indian Art published in Journal of the Indian society of Oriental Art vol. XVIII. p 77
26 Ramachandran, T N (1951). Kiratarjuniyam in Indian Art published in Journal of the Indian society of Oriental Art vol. XVIII. p 80
27 Ramachandran, T N (1951). Kiratarjuniyam in Indian Art published in Journal of the Indian society of Oriental Art vol. XVIII. p 84
28 Aiyangar, Krishnaswami S (1917). The Antiquities of Mahabalipur published in the Indian Antiquary vol. xlvi. p 55
29 Markel, Stephen (1980). An Iconographical Assessment of the Great Relief at Mamallapuram. Master’s Essay, The University of Michigan.
30 Goloubew, Victor (1914). La falaise d’Arjuna de Mavalipuram et la Descente de la Gangā sur la Terre, selon le Rāmāyana et le Mahābhārata published in Journal asiatique. 11ème série, tome IV. pp 210-212
31 Dubreuil, G Jouveau (1916). Pallava Antiquities vol. I. Probsthain and Co. London. p 64
32 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 40-44
33 Coomaraswamy, Ananda (1927). History of Indian and Indonesian Art. Edward Goldston. London. p 103
34 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Madras (now Chennai). pp 28-29
35 Kaimal, Padma (1994). Playful Ambiguity and Political Authority in the Large Relief at Mamallapuram published in Ars Orientalis vol. 24. pp 1-27
36 Markel, Stephen (1980). An Iconographical Assessment of the Great Relief at Mamallapuram. Master’s Essay, The University of Michigan
37 Leoshko
38 Epigraphia Indica vol. XIX. p 114
39 South Indian Inscriptions vol. I. p 13
40 South Indian Inscriptions vol II. no 73
41 Carr, M W (ed.) (1869). The Seven Pagodas on the Coromandel Coast. The Government of Madras. p 203
42 Goldingham, J (1807). Some Account of the Sculptures at Mahabalipoorum; usually called the Seven Pagodas published in Asiatick Researches vol. v. Calcutta. p 69
43 Coomaraswamy, Ananda (1927). History of Indian and Indonesian Art. Edward Goldston. London. p 103
44 Zimmer, Heinrich (1955). The Art of Indian Asia vol. i. Bollingen Foundation. New York. p 89
45 Rabe, Michael D (2001). The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. Institute of Asian Studies. Chennai. ISBN 8187892005. p 76
46 Markel, Stephen (1980). An Iconographical Assessment of the Great Relief at Mamallapuram. Master’s Essay, The University of Michigan. pp 9-10
47 Rabe, Michael D (2001). The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. Institute of Asian Studies. Chennai. ISBN 8187892005. p 76
48 Ramachandran, T N (1951). Kiratarjuniyam in Indian Art published in Journal of the Indian society of Oriental Art vol. XVIII. p 75
49 Markel, Stephen (1980). An Iconographical Assessment of the Great Relief at Mamallapuram. Master’s Essay, The University of Michigan. p 7
50 Carr, M W (ed.) (1869). The Seven Pagodas on the Coromandel Coast. The Government of Madras. p 200
51 Ramachandran, T N (1951). Kiratarjuniyam in Indian Art published in Journal of the Indian society of Oriental Art vol. XVIII. p 77
52 Kaimal, Padma (1994). Playful Ambiguity and Political Authority in the Large Relief at Mamallapuram published in Ars Orientalis vol. 24. pp 1-27
53 Rabe, Michael D (2001). The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. Institute of Asian Studies. Chennai. ISBN 8187892005. pp 105-158

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