The Unfinished Penance Relief Panel of Mamallapuram

All of us know about the famous Great Penance Relief Panel in Mamallapuram. It is popularly known as the Arjuna's Penance or Bhagiratha's Penance. (Those who would like to know every sculpture about that giant monument, read my detailed coverage by clicking on this link.) However, not many of us might know or bothered to visit another open-air relief panel that follows the same theme. It is located at a distance of around 350 meters south of the main panel.

While the Great Penance Relief Panel remains an unfinished monument, the other relief panel remains more incomplete. 

Both the relief panels depict the same theme. There are differences of opinion among scholars and historians on identifying the theme. According to many, the central theme is Arjuna's penance; a few others claim that it is Bhagiratha's penance, and others think the descent of Ganges is the central theme. Whatever be the theme, there is at least consensus that both the panels follow the same theme. 

Photo courtesy: Mr. V.K. Srinivasan



Although both the relief panels are sculpted to depict the same theme, both are not identical. The unfinished relief panel is full of low relief images, whereas the main relief panel mostly has relief images. The main panel stands as a testimony to the sculptural excellence of Pallava sculptors. But, frankly speaking, the unfinished panel is not a great work.

What would be the objective of having two panels in the same village? Were they sculpted at the same time? Was there a competition between the two groups of sculptors? We do not have a clear answer as none of these panels have any inscriptional evidence. However, I believe both were done during the same period (Rajasimha Pallava's period in the 8th century CE). Was there a competition between two groups, they would have selected two similar boulders. However, we find the boulders of the Great Penance panel are bigger and better. I think, the sculptors used the rock boulders in front of the lighthouse to practice sculpting the figures before executing their masterpiece. That must be the reason for unfinished and low-relief images here.

This article aims to study all the sculptures in the Unfinished Relief Panel and compare them with the other panel to some extent.

The Great Penance Panel has many more enormous boulders, almost twice the size of what we see in the Unfinished Panel.

In the Great Penance Panel, a central cleft divides it into almost equal halves. The Unfinished Panel too has a cleft but not in the center. 

There are sculptures even at the center cleft in the Great Penance Panel, whereas the Unfinished Panel does not have any such sculpture in the middle.

In both the relief panels, most of the figures are moving towards the cleft. Thus, the cleft probably depicts the descent of Ganga in both panels.

Most of the images of the celestials are sculpted only till their waists in the Unfinished Panel. The Great Penance Panel depicts them as complete sculptures.

It is easier to divide the Great Penance Panel into five parts and study every sculpture, as I did in my earlier article. However, the Unfinished Panel does not provide us that opportunity. It can be divided only into two parts, left and right sides of the cleft.

Now, let me list down all the sculptures and provide a short description wherever it is needed.

Left Part of Panel

It is easier to divide the Great Penance Panel into five parts and study every sculpture, as I did in my earlier article. However, the Unfinished Panel does not provide us that opportunity. It can be divided only into two parts, left and right sides of the cleft.

On the top side of the left panel, we have the images of Shiva and a devotee. The devotee is identified as Arjuna or Bhagiratha. I believe he is Bhagiratha. (Read this article to know more about Bhagiratha's Penance and Arjuna's Penance).




Shiva is in the standing posture and looking towards the devotee. He has his matted hair ornamentally coiled to form a tall crown, called jata makuta. He wears an oversized cylindrical earring called Patra Kundala in his left ear and wears Makara Kundala in his right ear. He has yagnopavita (sacred thread) on his body. He wears minimal ornaments on his neck, arms and wrists. He has four arms. His upper left arm holds the axe (called Parasu). It is not clear what he holds in his upper right arm.  His lower left arm rests on his waist. The lower right arm is not in boon bestowing posture (Varada mudra). It appears as if he is waking the devotee up from the latter's penance with his lower right arm. The head of a three hooded serpent is found below his lower left arm, whose body is coiled around his body.

There are variations in the depiction of Shiva between both panels. In the Great Penance Panel, the sculpture of Shiva is a masterpiece. He holds a trident, which is missing here. There, he appears to the true right side of the devotee, whereas here, he is on the true left side of the devotee. Here his lower left arm rests on his waist, whereas his left arm is in Varada Mudra in the Great Penance Panel. 

To the true right side of Shiva, Bhagiratha is found.  The devotee balances his whole body by standing erect merely with his left leg. His emaciated body, sunken ribs, withered muscles, long beard, and long hair on his head clearly indicate that he has been performing severe penance for several years. Although Shiva appears in front of him, he seems to have not disturbed and has his head thrown upwards. His both arms are raised upwards, and all his fingers are interlocked. 

Now, comparing this with the other Bhagiratha's sculpture, we can find a few differences. Bhagiratha's head is thrown backward in the Great Penance Panel, but here it is raised upwards. There, he merely wears a loincloth, which is not the case here.

Careful observation of both the sculptures would reveal the glitches. For example, Bhagiratha's legs are not even in thickness. Similarly, Shiva's left thigh is thicker than his right thigh. 

On the left side of Shiva, we find a pot-bellied dwarf Gana. The Great Penance Panel has four Ganas surrounding Shiva.

A Deva, Vidhyadhara or a Gandharva is seen in a gesture of amazement (Vismaya mudra) facing towards Shiva.

Sculpture #1 - Bhagiratha

Sculpture #2 - Shiva

Sculpture #3 - Shiva Gana

Sculpture #4 - Deva, Vidhyadhara or Gandharva

Let me list down the images that are found on the right side of Shiva and Bhagiratha. They are found in the upper portion of the left panel.

Sculpture #5 - Chandra

Sculpture #6 and #7 - Gandharva or Vidhyadhara couple; the female holds a flower in her arm, which is different from the Great Penance Panel

Sculptures #8 to #17 - Birds (a total of ten)

Below the icons of birds, the below-mentioned images are found.

Sculpture #18 - A Deva/Gandharva/Vidhyadhara in Vismaya mudra

Sculpture #19 and #20 - Gandharva or Vidhyadhara couple; both hold flowers in their respective left arms, which is different from the Great Penance Panel

Sculpture #21 and #22 - Kinnara couple

Now, let me take you to the bottom part's left corner and list the sculpture from left to right.

Sculpture #23 - Pig

Sculpture #24 - Seated lioness

Sculpture #25 - An unidentified animal turning its back

Sculpture #26 - Lioness

The images that are in front of the lioness depict scenes in the forest.

Sculpture #27 - A woodman carrying things in a sling

Sculpture #28 - A woodman holding a stick

Sculpture #29 - A woman

Sculpture #30 - A woodman carrying things in a sling on his shoulders

Sculpture #31 - A woodman holding an axe

Sculpture #32, #33 - Two men

Photo courtesy Mr. V.K. Srinivasan



A herd of elephants is depicted in the Great Penance panel. Here, just an elephant family is sculpted.

Sculpture #34 - A bull elephant

Sculpture #35 - An elephant calf

Sculpture #36 - A cow elephant

Sculpture #37 - A deer

Sculpture #38 - A woodman carrying things in a sling on his shoulders

Sculpture #39, #40 - Two deer




Above the woodmen and elephants, a few celestials are found.

Sculpture #41, #42 - Gandharva/Vidhyadhara couple; the male has his left arm in Vismaya mudra

Sculpture #43 - A Deva/Gandharva/Vidhyadhara in Vismaya mudra

Sculpture #44 and #45 - Gandharva or Vidhyadhara couple; both hold flowers in their respective left arms 

Sculpture #46, #47 and #48 - Three men are found flying towards the central cleft. The first two people have their left arms raised up in amazement. The third person holds some unidentifiable object in his left arm. The second person is bearded. He is probably a Siddha and the other two might be Caranas.

Sculpture #49 - A dwarf Gana


Right Part of Panel

The right part of the panel is small in size and hence has fewer images. Let me list them down from top to bottom and left to right.

Sculpture #50 - Surya

Sculpture #51, #52 - Gandharva/Vidhyadhara couple; the male has his right arm in Vismaya mudra; the woman holds a flower in her right arm

Sculpture #53 - A Deva/Gandharva/Vidhyadhara in Vismaya mudra

Sculpture #54, #55 - Gandharva/Vidhyadhara couple; the male has his right arm in Vismaya mudra; the woman holds a flower in her right arm

Sculpture #56 to #61 - A total of six birds

Sculpture #62, #63 - Kinnara couple

Sculpture #64, #65 - Gandharva/Vidhyadhara couple

Sculpture #66, #67 - Gandharva/Vidhyadhara couple

Sculpture #68, #69 to #70 - A total of three birds

Sculpture #71 - A dwarf Gana corresponding to the dwarf on the other side of the panel

Sculpture #72, #73 and #74 - Three men are found flying towards the central cleft. The first and third men have their right arms raised up in amazement. The second person is bearded and holds some unidentifiable object in his right arm. He is probably a Siddha and the other two might be Caranas.




Sculpture #75, #76 - Gandharva/Vidhyadhara couple

Sculpture #77 - A Deva/Gandharva/Vidhyadhara

Sculpture #78 to #81 - A total of four birds

Sculpture #82 - Lion looking backside

Sculpture #83 - Deer looking backside

Sculpture #84 - Seated Lion

Sculpture #85 - Lioness

Sculpture #86 - Deer

Sculpture #87 - Lion

Sculpture #88 - Bird

Happy travelling.



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