March 18, 2012

Mamallapuram Arjuna's Penance

Site Name: Arjuna's Penance
Site Type: Monument, Heritage, Temple, Monolithic rock cut temple
Location:  1.2 kms from bus stand, Mamallapuram, near Chennai (55 kms from Chennai), Tamil Nadu state, India
Highlights: 8th century Pallava architectural masterpiece
Nearest Railway Station: Chennai
Nearest Airport: Chennai
How to reach: Well connected by road from Chennai
Hotel: A lot of options are available within Mamallapuram and East Coast Road outside the town
Restaurants: Many options and varieties across the town

Mamallapuram aka Mahabalipuram is a small town located near Chennai in South India. It is full of monumental marvels of Pallava kings. Pallava kings Mahendravarman, Narasimhavarman and some of his successors have constructed various types of monuments such as cave temples, monoliths or rathas, bas reliefs and structural temples across the entire town. Out of all the monuments, tourists regularly visit only few monuments. Arjuna's Penance is one of those few popular monuments in Mamallapuram.

Arjuna's Penance, the 90 feet by 30 feet bas relief panel, can be considered as a master piece of Pallava art. Such a magnificent bas relief cannot be seen anywhere else. There are more than 100 bas relief images carved in the rock. The upper right side of the monument has the images of Lord Shiva and Arjuna, one of the Mahabharata heroes, standing in one foot doing penance. There are several arguments and counter arguments on whether this image represents Arjuna or the king Bhagirath. As it is beyond my ability to decide if it represents Arjuna or Bhagirath, let me call it as Arjuna for the purpose of writing this article, as this is how majority of people call this monument. This particular section of the bas relief is considered as the main theme of the entire monument and it is called as 'Arjuna's Penance'.

Lord Shiva is seen with four hands holding a weapon which looks like a distorted Trishul on his upper right arm. He is surrounded by Shiv Ganas. One particular Gana's image is interesting. His belly resembles lion's face. Arjuna is seen as bony and thin with a long beard, obviously to depict that he was into penance for a long time. He is also found to be standing on one leg and raising both his hands.

The left side of Shiva has two hunters behind a tree and a lion behind them. There are also many animals such as monkey, deer and lions. Two more hunters are found holding probably a dead animal. On top, various images of Devas couples and Kinnara couples (human body and bird legs and wings) are found. Surya (the Sun God) is also found above Shiva.

The lower left side of the monument is almost empty and no image is found. Exactly below the image of Arjuna, a small shrine with Lord Vishnu is found. An ascetic, who appears to be Guru, along with three other ascetics who appear to his disciples are found near this shrine. There are few ascetics, naga couples, divine couples and birds who face towards the middle slit.

Although the main theme of the monument is believed to be Lord Shiva and Arjuna, it is true that most of the images in this monument face towards the middle slit. The middle slit has nagaraja (serpent with male human face) on top, naga kanya (serpent with female human face) in the middle and a snake in the bottom. Probably the middle slit represents a river.

The lower right side of the monument has two magnificent life size relief images of elephants with their three babies nearby. A cat standing with its upper arms raised above its head as if doing a penance is an attractive image found near the elephants.

The right side of the monument has a lot of small images representing Kinnara couples and divine couples. Various animals such as lions, deer and other birds are also found across the right section of the monument. One particular image of lion is very attractive. Its tail looks like the number '8'. The image of Chandra (the Moon God) is found on the upper right side.

It is very difficult to write about the features and specialities of all the images in this bas relief monument. Rather than just reading this article, one has to visit this extraordinary site and get the real experience.

A place that should not be missed by anyone travelling to India.

Happy travelling.

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