This rich bass-relief of birds, animals, gods, kings and ascetics sculpted on the granite surface, is among the most wonderful art in the world. It is composed of two rock surfaces with a narrow gully in the centre, which is cleverly used to depict the descent of the river Ganges on the earth. During the rainy season, I could imagine the rain water cascading down in that funnel, making the myth come alive in a 3-D spectacle. This amazing work of art faces West Raja street.
The sculptures are spread-out like a wide-screen cinema screen with gods, ascetic sages, kings and queens along with birds and animals, depicted in rows, mostly looking towards Ganga’s descent with wonder and reverence. Many of them show their right palms, a sign of benediction, towards the visitors.
Near the top, to the left of Ganga’s descent is the figure of a man with his hands raised up and ribs sticking out, standing on one foot. Some people believe that this figure is of Bhagirath, who had done a Tapasya (penance) to bring Ganges to earth.
However, many believe that this figure is that of Arjun, (one of the 5 Pandav-brothers from Mahabharat), doing tapasya to get a boon from Shiva, who is shown standing next to him on his right. I am not sure if “penance” is the right word to translate “Tapasya”, which means doing worship while standing or sitting in a difficult pose for a long time without eating or drinking. This was how people in the Indic myths forced the gods to grant them boons such as special powers or weapons. The word “Penance” is linked to Catholicism, it means expiation for some sin.
I really loved this group of sculptures, it is both majestic and joyful. It has been made in loving details such as the two elephants with many baby elephants on the right side and the two ducks near the penancing Arjun.
Next to the Arjun’s Penance if you walk towards the south, you come across another rock-temple. It is dedicated to Krishna and it also has lovely bass-reliefs related to the pastoral life in Mathura-Vrindavan in north of India.
On one side, it has Krishna holding the Govardhan mountain with his hand while saving the people of Vrindavan from the wrath of the rain god Indra.
It also has a man milking a cow who is licking her calf and other joyful scenes showing dancing couples.
Arjun’s Penance Model
As you walk further to the south, you come across another granite surface covered in rough bass-relief sculptures. These are somewhat similar to the sculptures of Arjun’s Penance, though are more roughly carved. This is supposed to be the model where the design of Arjun’s Penance was first tested before their actual execution.
Mahishasur Mardini Temple
Going further along this road, you pass the light house and then, another entrance to southern end of the monumental park, with rock-cut stairs leading up to the Mahishasur Mardini rock-temple.
The rocky platform in front of the temple has some beautiful boulders, some of them cut and then left unfinished.
Inside, this temple has two finely made bass-relief sculptures - on the left, there is Vishnu lying on the serpent Sheshnaag.
On the right, there is goddess Durga killing the bull-headed demon king Mahishasur, giving name to this temple.
Just across from the temple, you have a nice view of the light house and its entrance.
On the rocks above the older Mahishasur Mardini temple, there is another temple – Onkeleshwar temple. It is built with rock blocks, and seems to be a later construction, probably from the time when the Shore temple was built.
This description of temples and monuments in the Arjun’s Penance Monument Park is incomplete. There are many more structures from the Pallava period in this area (including water tanks and monolithic temples) that I have ignored in my descriptions.
Though it is a world Heritage site of UNESCO, I didn’t find a lot of information about the monuments in the area. I tried to check if there were thesis or specialist papers about Mahabalipuram but didn’t find much. I think that every temple and building of this area merits a thesis. I would have liked to know more about the epigraphs and strange signs chiselled on some rocks, such as the one shown below.
Apart from the Arjun's Penance area, there are many other important sacred monuments in Mahabalipuram, like the wonderful shore temple and the monolithic temples of Pancha Ratha. It is an amazing place to visit.
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