The Great Penance – An Alternative Interpretation

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

The Great Penance – An Alternative Interpretation

This bas-relief at Mamallapuram is traditionally known as Arjuna’s Penance as told by its natives from their preserved memories. Why this interpretation was preserved in their memories, was it handed over to them from their ancestors, or was this interpretation attempted when the site became famous among explorers? Going by the earliest accounts of Mamallapuram, it appears that the theme of the bas-relief was passed onto the natives from their ancestors. How much back into the time this preserved memory may go, could it be from the time of the construction of this bas-relief? These are few questions which may never get definitive answers, however, important is to take this traditionally passed-on knowledge and interpret it within the framework of the latest researches gone into the identification of this this bas-relief.

We have already discussed the two generally associated themes with this bas-relief, Arjuna’s penance to obtain pashupatastra and Bhagiratha’s penance to bring Ganga to the Earth. Some scholars have also suggested that the bas-relief depicts both these themes simultaneously and in addition propagates few abstract ideas to a viewer. Proponents of these different themes have explained the imagery of this bas-relief suiting to their narrative. However, not much emphasis was given to the fact that the natives of the town knew this relief as the penance of Arjuna. For our study, we divide this bas-relief into four sections, refer image 1, as the central cleft divides this relief into two vertical halves and a horizontal divider attempted by the sculptors divides it into two horizontal halves. As the designers of the relief used different devices to demarcate separate regions, there must have been some reasoning behind it and this reasoning is what we would like to explore, in the sequence of A to D as depicted in the below image.

1. Updated sections of Bas-Relief

As the story of Arjuna’s penance and Bhagiratha’s exploits are described in detail in the Vana-Parva of Mahabharata, the designers probably drew their inspirations from this epic. Let’s visit the Vana-Parva of Mahabharata to check the events in the life of the Pandava brothers once they started their twelve years of exile. When the master artisans would have planned this bas-relief, he would have divided this canvas the way we have done it in the above image. While these individual sections depict a particular main theme, these also contain other minor stories, sometimes associated with the main theme and sometimes dissociated.

It all started in Dwaitavana (द्वैतवन),  the forest region recommended by Arjuna to Yudhishthira when the latter asked for a suitable place to spend their exile. Section XXIV of Vana-Parva mentions the forest and its environs as, “Here is this lake, full of sacred water, called Dwaitavana, abounding with flowers, and delightful to look at, and inhabited by many species of birds. If, O king, it pleaseth thee, here should we like to dwell these twelve years! Thinkest thou otherwise?’ Yudhishthira replied, ‘O Partha, what thou hast said recommendeth itself to me! Let us go that sacred and celebrated and large lake called Dwaitavana!” And those bulls of the Bharata race, the sons of Pandu setting out with those numerous Brahmanas, entered the sacred and delightful woods of Dwaita. And the king saw that mighty forest covered on the close of summer with Salas, and palms, and mangoes, and Madhukas, and Nipas and Kadamvas and Sarjjas and Arjunas, and Karnikars, many of them covered with flowers. And flocks of peacocks and Datyuhas and Chakoras and Varhins and Kokilas, seated on the tops of the tallest trees of that forest were pouring forth their mellifluous notes. And the king also saw in that forest mighty herds of gigantic elephants huge as the hills, with temporal juice trickling down in the season of rut, accompanied by herds of she-elephants. And approaching the beautiful Bhogavati (Saraswati), the king saw many ascetics crowned with success in the habitations in that forest, and virtuous men of sanctified souls clad in barks of trees and bearing matted locks on their heads. And descending from their cars, the king that foremost of virtuous men with his brothers and followers entered that forest like Indra of immeasurable energy entering heaven. And crowds of Charanas and Siddhas, desirous of beholding the monarch devoted to truth, came towards him. And the dwellers of that forest stood surrounding that lion among king possessed of great intelligence. And saluting all the Siddhas, and saluted by them in return as a king or a god should be, that foremost of virtuous men entered the forest with joined hands accompanied by all those foremost of regenerate ones (sic).”

2. Elephant Herd |

From the above description of Dwaitavana, we find that the forest was located at the banks of river Saraswati, infested with various animals, birds etc. and a special mention of a herd of she-elephants consisting of gigantic elephants. The forest was also a famous tirtha being visited by siddhas, charanas and other super-humans. This very much correlates to the elephant herd we see on the bas-relief section A. In this section is shown a group of nine elephants, led by two she-elephants, moving towards the central cleft, the latter representing a river, in this case Saraswati. There was a provision made for a water-pool in front of this bas-relief, when the water was channeled through the central cleft, that water was collected in the front to make a water-pool. This setting and design was to simulate the environs in and around the Dwaitavana lake.

3. Pandava’s abode in Kamyaka forest on the banks of the Saraswati river |

The next episode is when Vyasa transfers the knowledge of pratismriti to Yudhishthira in order to transfer it to Arjuna, allowing the latter to accomplish his goal of obtaining astras from the Gods.  Section XXXVI of Vana-Parva tells that after acquiring this knowledge from Vyasa, the Pandava brothers retired to the Kamyaka forest. The narration goes, “The virtuous and intelligent Yudhishthira, however, having obtained that knowledge carefully retained it in his mind and always recited it on proper occasions. Glad of the advice given him by Vyasa, the son of Kunti then, leaving the wood Dwaitavana went to the forest of Kamyaka on the banks of the Saraswati. And, O king, numerous Brahmanas of ascetic merit and versed in the science of orthoepy and orthography, followed him like the Rishis following the chief of the celestials. Arrived at Kamyaka, those illustrious bulls amongst the Bharata took up their residence there along with their friends and attendants. And possessed of energy, those heroes, O king, lived there for some time, devoted to the exercise of the bow and hearing all the while the chanting of the Vedas. And they went about those woods every day in search of deer, armed with pure arrows. And they duly performed all the rites in honour of the Pitris, the celestials and the Brahmanas (sic).”

From the above narration we find that the Pandava brothers set up their abode at the Kamyaka forest at the banks of river Saraswati. Kamyaka forest was adjacent to Dwaitavana as both were located at the banks of the river Saraswati. The ashram scene on the bas-relief section B probably represents this abode of the Pandava borthers in the Kamyaka forest. Four ascetics shown sitting near a temple may represent the four Pandava brothers. Absence of the fifth Pandava brother, Arjuna, is justified as he soon left the Kamyaka forest on his journey to the Himalayas for obtaining pashupatastra. The ascetic shown in a contemplative posture is probably Yudhishthira, being worried about the quest of Arjuna. The four bathers at the river bank may also represent the four Pandava brothers engaged in their daily rituals of ablutions and Surya-upasana. Their worship of Surya is justified as before entering the Dwaitavana forest, Yudhishthira obtained akshaya-patra, for providing inexhaustible food for his family during the exile, from Surya after doing proper propitiation of the God. Section III of Vana-Parva mentions that Yudhishthira stood in the stream and turned his face towards the god of day to offer his worship after touching waters of river Ganga. The temple housing an image of Vishnu or Krishna is suggestive of the role of Krishna and his short visit to the Pandava brothers while they were at Dwaitavana during their exile. However, absence of Draupadi is puzzling as she was with the Pandava brothers during their exile.

Also of interest is the incomplete left portion of this section. From what is left, it appears that there was an attempt to excavate a mandapa with three entrances. Why it was left incomplete would be tough to say as many monuments at Mamallapuram are left in some or other form of incompleteness. However, it would be of interest to understand why such an attempt was tried. Was this mandapa an attempt to depict a roofed abode of the Pandavas? If accepted, then it strengthen our theory that this section represents the temporary stay of the Pandavas in the Kamyaka forest.

4. Arjuna and Shiva | www.kevinstandagephotography,com

The next episode in sequence, depicted in the Section C of our image, is the departure of Arjuna from Kamyaka forest and his penance to obtain pashupatastra from Shiva. Section XXXVIII of Vana-Parva narrates the sojourn of Arjuna, “At Yudhishthira’s command, Dhananjaya of immeasurable prowess set out (from Kamyaka) to obtain a sight of Sakra, the chief of the celestials and of Sankara, the god of gods. And the strong-armed Arjuna of great might set out armed with his celestial bow and a sword with golden hilt, for the success of the object he had in view, northwards, towards the summit of the Himavat. And, O king, that first of all warriors in the three worlds, the son of Indra, with a calm mind, and firmly adhering to his purpose, then devoted himself, without the loss of any time, to ascetic austerities. And he entered, all alone, that terrible forest abounding with thorny plants and trees and flowers and fruits of various kinds, and inhabited by winged creatures of various species, and swarming with animals of diverse kinds, and resorted to by Siddhas and Charanas. And when the son of Kunti entered that forest destitute of human beings, sounds of conchs and drums began to be heard in the heavens. And a thick shower of flowers fell upon the earth, and the clouds spreading over the firmament caused a thick shade. Passing over those difficult and woody regions at the foot of the great mountains, Arjuna soon reached the breast of the Himavat; and staying there for sometime began to shine in his brilliancy. And he beheld there numerous trees with expanding verdure, resounding with the melodious notes of winged warblers. And he saw there rivers with currents of the lapis lazuli, broken by the fierce eddies here and there, and echoing with the notes of swans and ducks and cranes. And the banks of those rivers resounded with the mellifluous strains of the male Kokilas and the notes of peacocks and cranes. And the mighty warrior, beholding those rivers of sacred and pure and delicious water and their charming banks, became highly delighted. And the delighted Arjuna of fierce energy and high soul then devoted himself to rigid austerities in that delightful and woody region. Clad in rags made of grass and furnished with a black deerskin and a stick, he commenced to eat withered leaves fallen upon the ground. And he passed the first month, by eating fruits at the interval of three nights; and the second by eating at the interval of the six nights; and the third by eating at the interval of a fortnight. When the fourth month came, that best of the Bharatas–the strong-armed son of Pandu–began to subsist on air alone. With arms upraised and leaning upon nothing and standing on the tips of his toes, he continued his austerities. And the illustrious hero’s locks, in consequence of frequent bathing took the hue of lightning or the lotus (sic).”

The above gives a glimpse of the region and environs where Arjuna did his penance. It was a mountain on the Himalayas, named Himavat, frequented by various winged creatures and animals, decked with sacred rivers and waters. Arjuna stood on his toes with upraised hands and continued his austerities. Not much is said in Mahabharata about the environs where Arjuna’s selected his spot. However, Section CVIII of Vana-Parva provides much details on the environs of  Bhagiratha’s selected spot. The narration goes, “….he visited that foremost of mountains–Himalaya. And he beheld it adorned with peaks of diverse forms full of mineral earth; besprinkled on all sides with drops from clouds which were resting themselves upon the breeze; beautiful with rivers and groves and rocky spurs, looking like (so many) palaces (in a city); attended upon by lions and tigers that had concealed themselves in its caves and pits; and also inhabited by birds of checkered forms, which were uttering diverse sounds, such as the Bhringarajas, and ganders, and Datyuhas, and water-cocks, and peacocks and birds with a hundred feathers, and Jivanjivakas, and black birds, and Chakoras of eyes furnished with black corners, and the birds that love their young. And he saw the mountain abounding in lotus plants growing in delightful reservoirs of water. And the cranes rendered it charming with their sounds; and the Kinnaras and the celestial nymphs were seated on its stony slabs. And the elephants occupying the cardinal points had everywhere robbed its trees with the end of their tusks; and the demi-gods of the Vidyadhara class frequented the hill (sic).”

The idea of how the Himalayas and its environs should be represented over the rock was influenced from both the above narratives, Arjuna’s penance and Bhagiratha’s penance. The designer of this bas-relief made his selections from available texts, adapted those to suit his theme and thus composed the narrative. In this situation, how do we differentiate if the ascetic shown on the bas-relief is Arjuna or Bhagiratha? This can be easily resolved provided that we have pashupatastra present in its anthropomorphic form in this bas-relief. The gana with tiger-belly standing between Arjuna and Shiva is the personified form of pashupatastra. How do we prove it? We follow two approaches, first how the event is described in epics and other texts and second if there are any precedents in sculpture. We are fortunate to have both supporting evidences in this case.

Section XL of Vana-Parva mentions that pashupatastra appeared in its anthropomorphic state by the side of Arjuna. The reference goes, “Hearing these words, the son of Pritha purified himself. And approaching the lord of the universe with rapt attention, he said, ‘Instruct me!’ Mahadeva then imparted unto that best of Pandu’s son the knowledge of that weapon looking like the embodiment of Yama, together with all the mysteries about hurling and withdrawing it. And that weapon thence began to wait upon Arjuna as it did upon Sankara, the lord of Uma. And Arjuna also gladly accepted it. And at the moment the whole earth, with its mountains and woods and trees and seas and forests and villages and towns and mines, trembled. And the sounds of conchs and drums and trumpets by thousands began to be heard. And at that moment hurricanes and whirlwinds began to blow. And the gods and the Danavas beheld that terrible weapon in its embodied form stay by the side of Arjuna of immeasurable energy. And whatever of evil there had been in the body of Phalguna of immeasurable energy was all dispelled by the touch of the three-eyed deity.” Bhavarvi’s Kiratarjuniyam also mentions something similar that pashupatastra appeared in its physical form1. His bodily form is described as ferocious form with fames of fire all around his body.

5. Arjuna’s Penance, Rajaona Stone Pillar | AIIS


6. Shiva with Parvati, granting pashupatastra to Arjuna | AIIS

There are few sculptural precedents where we find pashupatastra being represented in its physical form. A 6th century CE stone pillar from Rajaona (Bihar), now in the Indian Museum, Kolkata, has its four faces sculpted with the various episodes of the Kiratarjuniya story. In the first sculpted episode is shown Arjuna arriving over a chariot and standing over his one feet doing penance surrounded by five fires. The posture of his penance is very similar to how the ascetic is shown standing in the Mamallapuram bas-relief. In the final sculpted episode on the pillar, Shiva is shown seated with Parvati over a mountainous region and granting pashupatastra to Arjuna, the latter is shown kneeling down in anjali-mudra. The pashupatastra is shown as a four-armed gana, standing between Shiva and Arjuna2.

Another sculptural representation in support comes from Nagari, a village in Rajasthan. Remains of a torana dated early 6th century CE are of much interest. The torana has panels depicting episodes of Kiratarjuniya story. In a panel which shows Arjuna in penance, there is also present an annother four-armed person besides Arjuna. Hans Bakker3 identifies this person as the bodily form of pashupatastra. Unfortunately the panel depicting the grant of pashupatastra is damaged partially, now left with only one person visible and that’s most probably Arjuna. Rabe4 quotes another sculpture, though of a later period, from the second gopuram of the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur where pashupatastra is depicted in its anthropomorphic form standing between Shiva and Arjuna. This suggests that there were traditions of sculpting pashupatastra in its physical form, prior to our bas-relief as well as after it.

From all the above, it is certain that this gana, shown standing between Shiva and Arjuna in the bas-relief, has a special character and therefore represented singularly with a tiger-head in its belly. In all probabilities, it represents the pashupatastra in its bodily form, as evident from literature and sculptural precedents.

Objections to the theme of Arjuna’s Penance: Lets look into few main objections raised in the earlier studies against the identification of the theme with Arjuna’s Penance.

  1. Arjuna is still shown in penance posture though Shiva has revealed himself for granting pashupatastra 
    1. This sculpture is a narrative of sequences with many sequences amalgamated into final depiction. By this design, the sculptors had beautifully combined the penance and final boon granting into a single image.
  2. Shiva is not shown with Parvati while granting the pashupatastra
    1. Mahabharata tells that Shiva was joined with Parvati when the former appeared over the mountain in disguise of a kirata (hunter). When he revealed his original form, Parvati also did the same and both were worshiped by Arjuna. In many sculptural representation of Kiratarjuniya story, Shiva is usually accompanied with Parvati.
    2. In Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniyam, Shiva is not accompanied with Parvati.
    3. Thus, we had two different versions in vogue during the period when this bas-relief was carved. It would not be incorrect in stating that the sculptors took their ideas from the universe of divergent myths and texts, and selected the one suiting their needs and adapting the same into their designs. Therefore, absence of Parvati should not be a big blocker in the identification of the theme with Arjuna’s penance.
  3. Absence of boar and subsequent duel are integral parts of the story of Kiratarjuniya and are missing in this bas-relief
    1. This indeed is puzzling as in almost every sculptural representation of this story, a boar is present and main emphasis has been given to the duel between Shiva and Arjuna.
    2. If indeed this bas-relief was depicting Kiratarjuniya story, then this point is of course defeats the purpose, but what if it does not represent the story as it is? The idea of the designers of this bas-relief was to provide sequences in Pandava’s sojourn during their exile and Arjuna’s quest in getting astras. The designers did not intend to represent different episodes of Kiratarjuniya story, and this explains missing boar and duel. Pashupatastra is considered the most destructive astra and gaining the same ensures victory over all enemies. The Pallava designers thought of this bas-relief to transmit the message that the Pallavas were worthy like the Pandavas to obtain such an astra ensuring defeat of their enemies and protection of their subjects.
  4. Arjuna and Shiva are not positioned in the center of the frame. And there are few figures shown flying with their raised hand in adoration but their back turned to Arjuna and Shiva. This suggests that they raised their hand in adoration to the river, the central cleft, which is the main theme of the panel.
    1. As said above, Arjuna and Shiva are not the central theme of the panel. The theme of the panel is the sojourn of the Pandavas and Arjuna’s quest for astras.
    2. Having said this, among the multitude of images carved on this bas-relief, it is only a pair of ducks and a vidhyadhara couple who are shown with their backs turned to Arjuna and Shiva. Swans flying towards the central cleft is explainable as they are going to a water body. If we observe closely, we will find that the vidhyadhara couple is not part of Section C but a part of Section B, refer image 1. Behind the vidhyadhara couple is carved a deer which should also be a part of Section B as another deer carved near the first but at lower level surely comes in Section B. Therefore both the deer and the vidhyadhara couple is part of Section B and therefore related to Kamyaka forest abode of the Pandavas. The vidhyadhara couple is turned towards the central cleft to show their adoration towards the river, in this case river Saraswati on whose banks Kamyaka forest was situated.
Photograph of Arjuna’s Penance, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1880s | British Library

The Section D on the Mamallapuram bas-relief is the extension of Himavat mountain where Arjuna did his penance. This section represents the various animals, super-humans etc. who came to the mountain to witness the great event. Section XXXVIII of Vana-Parva mentions the environs stating that it was abounding with thorny plants and trees and flowers and fruits of various kinds, and inhabited by winged creatures of various species, and swarming with animals of diverse kinds, and resorted to by Siddhas and Charanas. Section XLI of Vana-Parva tells that after Shiva left the scene, there came Varuna, Yama, Indra and Kubera to grant respective astras to Arjuna. They all came with their retinue. Varuna came with all kinds of aquatic creatures, all kinds of rivers, nagas, daityas, sadhyas and inferior deities. Kubera came with numerous yakshas. Yama arrived with pitris, gandharvas and guhyakas. These all different creatures and semi-deities are carved on this section of the bad-relief. They all raised their hands in adoration to the event they witnessing. The presence of animals is apt to depict the forest and woody region of Himavat mountains.

Conclusion: The trigger for our investigation is to understand the reasons behind the fact that the natives of Mamallapuram had in their memory that the ascetic on this bas-relief is Arjuna doing his penance. From our researches into the topic, we find that the Great Penance bas-relief at Mamallapuram was designed as a series of key events occurred during the exile of the Pandava brothers. It starts from the viewer’s right with the depiction of Dwaitavana lake and forest where the Pandavas stayed for a short duration at the start of their exile. Moving to the viewer’s left is depicted the abode of the Pandavas in Kamyaka forest at the banks of river Saraswati. Four Pandava brothers are shown in two different settings, in the first they are shown seated in meditative postures around a Vishnu temple and in the second setting they are shown standing near the river bank engaged in daily rituals. Arjuna is missing here as he left the Kamyaka forest for his quest. Keeping on the viewer’s left, in the upper section, is shown the forest and Himavat mountain environs where Arjuna did his penance. On his side is shown Shiva and in between them is the pashupatastra in its anthropomorphic form. Moving towards viewer’s right, on the upper section are shown various super-humans and other figures, who were either the natives of the Himavat mountain or came there to witness the great event. The river or the central cleft on the upper sections may represent river Ganga as Mahabharata mentions Arjuna did his ablutions at river Ganga before ascending to the heavens and the same is said in Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniyam. This central cleft, or the river, is the connecting link between all these different sections and themes, as it represents river Saraswati or river Ganga depending on the theme associated.


1 इति निगदितवन्तं सूनु मुच्चैर्मघोन:
प्रणतशिरसमीश: सादरं सान्त्वयित्वा |
ज्वलदनलपरीतं रौद्रमस्त्रं दधानं
धनुरुपपदमस्मे वेदमभ्यादिदेश || – Chapter 18, shloka 44 – Kiratarjuniyam of Mahakavi Bharavi. Krishnadas Sanskrit Series 170. Chowkhamba Krishnadas Academy. Varanasi. ISBN 9788121800811. p 533
2 Williams, Joanna (1982). The Art of Gupta India – Empire and Province. Princeton University Press. New Jersey. ISBN 0691039887. p 151
3 Bakker, Hans & Bisschop, Peter (2016). The Quest for the Pāśupata Weapon: The Gateway of the Mahādeva Temple at Madhyamikā (Nagarī) published in Indo-Iranian Journal Vol. 59, No. 3. pp 217-258
4 Rabe, Michael D (2001). The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. Institute of Asian Studies. Chennai. ISBN 8187892005. plates 61 & 62

© 2021 Indian History and Architecture - Theme by WPEnjoy · Powered by WordPress