Arjuna's Penance, perhaps the world's largest bas-relief, is the universe itself in stone, throbbing with a vastness of conception. Legend has it that King Bhagiratha had to bring down to earth the celestial Ganga to sanctify and redeem the cursed souls of his ancestors. But the river in its torrential spree would deluge the earth, and so he had to undergo a penance to propitiate Shiva who finally received the flood in his matted locks and let it flow down. This was a sight for the world's creatures to see and they gathered round. The cleft in the rock depicts the descent of Ganga, a theory supported by the ruins of a stone water tank on the hill. There is a forest with tribal people and all forms of fauna, just as they would appear in their habitat. Women clothed in an aura of amazing grace, a rich inner beauty transfiguring the plainest of them. The whole scene has a dimension of humor too! Juxtapositioned against the ascetic is a cat doing rigorous penance too, eyes firmly shut, even to the delectable mice scampering around within easy reach.
Critics are divided over the theme: one school believes that it shows Arjuna undertaking a penance to obtain a rare weapon against his enemies. The other believes that it depicts the legend of the River Ganges's descent to earth. According to them, cleft appeared in the rock dividing the canvas in two, when Shiva responded to Bhagirathas penance.
The Carvings On The Rock
Arjuna's Penance, the exquisitely sculpted scene, which presents mans view of the universe, has over 100 figures of gods and semi divine creatures, birds and beasts, man and saint. All these figures are carved either facing or approaching the fissure and generally with hands folded in adoration.
The cleft in the rock depicts the descent of River Ganga (also known as Ganges), brought to earth by King Bhagiratha to redeem the cursed souls of his ancestors. On the left side of the fissure can be seen a simple temple which contains a four-armed deity, probably Shiva. The fissure is sculptured with Nagas. Above the fissure and on either side of it are flying figures of Gods and below are some sculptures of animals of which giant elephants are the most impressive and are considered to be the noblest creations of the human mind.
Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers and a consummate archer, is shown standing on one leg, doing penance to obtain a boon from Lord Shiva. There is a forest with tribal people and all forms of animal life, just as they would appear in their habitat. Women are clothed in an aura of indescribable grace, a rich inner beauty transfiguring the plainest of them. The comic scene in the relief will amuse visitors where a cat is standing doing penance, while big and small rats are freely playing around the feline 'Tapaswi'.
A monkey family has also been depicted in a very exquisite and appealing manner. In the liveliness of each figure, one can notice the intense and naive love of life that characterizes the Buddhist art at Sanchi.
Legend Connected With Arjuna's Penance
What is depicted here in the great open-air sculpture has a story behind it and has been the subject of difference of opinion among historians. The older theory is that it represents the penance of Arjuna during his exile in the Himalayas, in the hope that Shiva would part with his favourite weapon, the "Pashupatashatra", a magic staff or arrow. All generally accepts this popular interpretation.
Some historians like Ferguson, Burgess, Vogel, Touvean, Dubreine and Langhurst have not accepted the above theory but put forward different ones, which are given below:
The view held by Ferguson and Burgess is that this sculpture represents "Serpent Worship" in ancient India and that "in the center on a projecting ledge between the two great masses of rock once stood the statue of the great Nagaraja who was the principal personage for whose honour this great bas-relief was designed".
A later theory supported by Langhurst and Dr. Coomaraswamy (also splet as Coomaraswami) is that it depicts the "Descent of the Ganges" from the height of Kailasha (also spelt as Kailash). If this view is accepted, then the personage who has been identified, as Arjuna should be called "Bhagiratha" and this great sculpture as Bhagiratha's penance and not Arjuna's. But no local tradition exists which can serve as a real clue to its origin.
HOW TO GET THERE
The nearest airport from Mahabalipuram is Chennai, located around 60-km away. One can get flights for almost all major destinations in India and abroad.
Rail : The nearest railway station is Chengalpattu, around 29-km away from Mahabalipuram. Trains for Chennai and several other major cities in South India are available from here.
Road : Mahabalipuram is connected by road to Chennai, Tirukkalikundram (Pakshithirtham), Kanchipuram (65-km), and Pondicherry.