History of Mahabalipuram- PART 2

Arjuna’s Penance or Descent of the Ganga–Its Interpretation:

● This 7th century AD masterpiece of sculpture carved by Maandhaatar is 25 metres in length and 12 metres in height and is regarded as the world’s largest Bas Relief.

● Here Arjuna is seen as doing penance for obtaining the powerful Pasupatha Astra (this powerful weapon in the possession of Siva is supposed to generate a continuous stream of arrows once fired) from Lord Siva for the ensuing war with his cousins, the Kauravas.

● Siva is shown with his trident, axe and the cobra twirled around his neck. His foremost left hand is in the position of granting a boon to his devotee. Above him is Chandra, the moon god and below him and on his sides are the dwarves.

● There are more than 150 beautiful, life-like figures in this monument and can be termed as a virtual exhibition of sculptures.

● Apart from the gods and goddesses {Siva, Vishnu, Surya, Chandra, celestial musicians like Kinnaras and Gandharvas, Bhuta ganas (dwarves)},there are sages doing penance, hunters, ordinary human beings, serpents, wild animals like lion, elephant and deer and domestic animals like cat and mouse.

● Right in the middle of the monument, dividing it vertically into 2 halves can be seen a narrow fissure which is believed to stand for the holy river Ganga.

Some scholars believe that this monument may also represent the ‘Descent of the river Ganges’ from heaven to the earth. Archaeologists claim that once upon a time, water really flowed in the cleft of the rock.

● Most of the living beings in the monument are seen facing the river and many appear to be rushing towards it. This monument symbolizes the fact that there cannot be any life in this planet without water.

● The 5 dwarves behind Siva stand for the 5 material elements- air, earth, space, fire and water which are also the correlates of the five senses.

● The belly masked dwarf under the extended hand of Siva is Pasupatha weapon personified, thus representing the boon itself that Siva grants to Arjuna.

● The carving of huge elephants on the relief is regarded as the finest elephant sculptures in India. The largest elephant clearly exhibits bifurcated tusks, an attribute characteristic of Airavata, the mount of God Indra.

● A cat is shown doing penance just like Arjuna, with hands raised surrounded by the mice. This is a representation of the Panchatantra story.

● The relief also depicts the Badari hermitage scene organised around a Vishnu temple. ● The lion and deer are shown co-existing.

● Arjuna is shown seated as an ascetic in his earlier incarnation as Nara, representing the human aspect.

● He is in the company of his friend Narayana or Vishnu, enshrined in the temple, being the divine representation.

● There are worshippers depicted as standing in ankle-deep water, one raising his arms overhead to worship the sun, while the other bowing towards the sacred river.

Close by are 2 bathers performing activities common to any river bank. One wrings out a garment after bathing while the other fetches water in a pot. The one with the pot points his 2 fingers at one of the headless figures.

● According to some scholars, the 2 headless figures maybe that of Agasthya, the sage and Drona, the teacher, both born out of pots as per mythology.

● The headless figure with a yoga-patta, a band across his waist and legs is believed to be King Narasimhavarman himself, who was the patron of the relief.

● The 2 other headless figures facing him are believed to represent his father Mahendravarman and grandfather Simha Vishnu.

● These figures are believed to be decapitated by the Chalukya forces, the sworn enemies of the Pallavas [In 674 AD, thirty two years after the sack of Vatapi (642 AD) by Narasimhavarman I, the Chalukyan king Vikramaditya I, son of Pulakesin II, exacted revenge by invading and conquering the Pallavas]

● Some scholars believe that this Great Bas Relief is a simultaneous double narrative, depicting the stories of both Ajuna and Bhagiratha. As regards its primary objective, its subject is none other than king Narasimhavarman himself and the Arjuna or Bhagiratha like ascetic stands only as a paragon of the victorious king Mamalla.

Thus, it is actually a triple narrative, whose purpose is to glorify the succession of kings of the Pallava dynasty.

● Here the descent to earth of the holy river Ganges is compared to the descent of the Pallavas, from their mythical ancestor Lord Vishnu himself.

● Also, in another dimension the Bas Relief is believed to be an inspiration of the Sanskrit literary masterpiece Kiratarjuniya by the great poet Bharavi. The Great Penance Relief is regarded as a visual Kiratarjuniya which narrates the story of Arjuna and Lord Shiva, who came in the guise of a Kirata, the hunter.

The intense penance that Arjuna did and how Lord Shiva blessed him and granted him the mighty Pasupatha weapon form the story. The hero of the work is Arjuna, who is believed to be the ascetic doing penance in the Great Relief.

That he is Arjuna is also indicated by the presence of the monkey below the ascetic and the snake princess in the fissure. Arjuna’s flag has a monkey in it and the naga (snake) princess is Ulupi, one of the queens of Arjuna. The names of the Pallava kings generally end with the word ‘Varman’. Varman literally means ‘he that is protected by’.

The headless figure of king Narasimhavarman is placed under the temple of Lord Vishnu, right beneath Vishnu’s protective upraised palm, implying that the entire succession of the Pallava kings was under the protection of none other than Lord Vishnu, their mythical ancestor.

● According to some scholars, the 2 headless figures facing king Narasimhavarman are ‘doubles’, representing both the Pallava kings Mahendravarman and Simha Vishnu and also sage Agasthya and Drona.

● Agasthya is represented here to show that Mamalla destroyed the city of Vatapi, just as Agasthya destroyed the demon by the same name Vatapi.

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