Arjuna’s Penance – Mahabalipuram

Approximately 60km south of the large city of Chennai (Madras) in Tamil Nadu, is the historic town of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram). This was a bustling seaport since the first century and is best known now for the wonderful carved monuments from the 7th century which have earned the area the classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of the most spectacular carvings is the huge relief known as both Arjuna’s Penance and Descent of the Ganges. Carved over two rocks and occupying an area of 30m length by 15m high, this is a wonderful depiction of the journey of Arjuna in order to obtain Shiva’s weapon (Pasupata) and so allow him to challenge the gods. The detail on the 1400 year old figures is exquisite with many animals and figures, both human and godly, large and small. There is even humor in the carving, with a cat depicted as mimicking Arjuna’s one-legged fasting penance to a crowd of watching mice (look just in front of the elephant).

160620_ArjunasPenance

Between the two rocks is a cleft filled with snake spirits (Nagas) and down which water was poured to represent the Ganges’ descent from the heavens. This is the second tale that is said to be depicted by this carving.

Whichever story you like, the rock is an amazing and enduring architectural testament to an ancient people. I wonder what will remain of our 21st century artifacts for our descendants to regard with similar awe in the 35th century?

~Richard

 

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