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The Depictions Of Arjuna's Penance Mahabalipuram

  There have been strong differences of opinion among eminent scholars on what this scene depicts. An old view was that it represents Bhagiratha's penance. But the opinion that currently holds the field is that it depicts Arjuna's Penance. This "Mahabharatha" incident, also represented in both mural and relief in Lepakshi and a number of other sites, relates to Arjuna's obtaining a weapon to use in the impending war against the Kauravas.

Bharavi, the Sanskrit dramatist, who, it is believed, was living in Kanchipuram in the seventh century, when this masterpiece was made, has made it his theme in his "Kiratarjuniyam". The Pallava court in that century was a nest of singing birds. It is highly probable that it is this scene, which is depicted here. The main scene of action is on the southern face. Here an ascetic is performing severe penance, standing on one leg. Near him is Lord Shiva, with His attendants. Immediately below them there is a small shrine with a relief of Lord Vishnu inside. By its side are many seated sages in meditation.

The fissure indicates a river. This is clear from a fact and a suggestion. The fact, also strengthened by the presence of water serpents, is the depiction at the edge of the southern surface of some persons performing the rite of "Sandhya vandhana" by the river. The suggestion is that, in Pallava days, actual water flowed down the cleavage from the hill behind, where there are survivals of what would be called a water tank. The notion is similar to what is found in the Isurumuniya in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka.

On the northern face are some huge elephants, among the very best of their kind in the whole range of Indian sculptures. There is, besides, the hypocritical cat which, pretending to perform penance, draws to it a number of unfortunate unsuspecting rats. This is a touch of humour not very common in Indian art. There are, besides, the Lion, the Tiger, the Boar. In the upper part off the surface there are rows of semi-divine beings effortlessly flying, all towards the fissure. Close by is placed an engaging composition of a monkey picking out lice from the head of another. It was brought here from near the Mukunda Nayanar temple.

A little distance to the south there is an unfinished attempt at the depiction of the very same scene on another boulder. Probably the maker of the first bas-relief initially tried his hand here.

There is a third bas-relief, this time depicting Sri Krishna protecting the good people of Brindavan from Indra's wrath by interposing a mountain. This is a fine pastoral scene, which visitors to Mahabalipuram in the early centuries would have readily understood. Strangely enough, there are a few small sphinxes and gryphons at the edges of the huge composition. A Mandapa was built in Vijayanagar times in front of what originally was an open-air bas-relief
 

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