Arjun Tapas – A classic tourist attraction
25 January - National Tourism Day

S Balakrishnan *

 Arjuna's penance
Arjuna's penance

The Seven Pagodas, the 7th century monuments in Mahabalipuram (60 kms south of Chennai), had drawn more foreign tourists than Taj Mahal in 2023. It may sound unbelievable but nothing to be surprised about it; because Mahabalipuram monuments are vibrant sculptures carved out of solid rocks and full of life, while Taj Mahal is a tomb, though magnificent, with only patterns and designs.

Mahabalipuram has monolithic pagodas and caves with sculptures scooped out of rocks and a huge bass relief ‘Arjun Tapas’ that is throbbing with life. The monuments lie scattered on the silver sands of Bay of Bengal in a dreamy setting. Please note that they were “scooped out of solid granite boulders” lying there and not built brick by brick. This aspect makes them more remarkable.

The star attraction among the Mahabalipuram monuments is the Arjun Tapas; Arjuna was one of the heroes of the Mahabharata epic; he did severe penance towards Lord Shiva seeking his Pasupata astra (a weapon that would strike even the gods) for success in the Mahabharath war. The incident of Arjuna’s penance is narrated in the epic Mahabharath under Kirat Arjuniya section.

Hence it is called Arjun Tapas or Arjuna’s Penance. There is another contention that the scene depicts the descent of River Ganges after King Bhagiratha’s tough penance, which seems more appropriate. Hence a very difficult task done is praised as ‘Bhagiratha prayathan (effort).

The bass relief Arjuna’s Penance or Bhagiratha’s Penance (I leave it to your imagination) is a marvel of engineering and artistry carved on two monolithic rock boulders. By the by, a bass relief is a type of sculpting art in which the shapes stand projected from the background stone. The open-air art work measures 96 ft. high and 43 ft. long (29x13m).

The natural fissure that divides these two pink granite rocks has been so ingeniously used to represent a river (River Ganges in case you think it is Bhagiratha’s Penance). Facing east, the relief has a total of 146 sculptures - both life-size as well as miniscule ones.

Arjun’s Penance is considered one of India's best rock-cut sculptures. The Mahabalipuram monuments, including the bass relief, were executed under the orders of Narasimhavarman I (ruled 630-668 AD), the Pallava dynasty king of this part of Tamil Nadu in the 7th century.

The name Mamallapuram/Mahabalipuram probably gained popularity during his reign as he was a great mallar (wrestler). The thriving port city was closer to the Pallava capital city of Kanchipuram / Kanchi, a Temple City like Bubaneshwar.

The main character of this bass relief - whether it is Arjuna’s or Bhagiratha’s penance scene – is Lord Shiva granting their boon – pasupata astra or River Ganges, as the case maybe. So He is prominently shown holding the pasupata astra on the right bank of the river that flows down. An ascetic figure – the boon seeker – is shown near him standing on one leg with hands raised above his head in reverence.

The scene is watched by scores of gods and goddesses, mythical figurines of Kinnaras, Gandharvas, Apsaras, Ganas, and Nagas rushing to the spot, as well as wild and domestic animals. The Sun and Moon are depicted on either side of the river, above Lord Shiva.

Gandharvas are celestial musicians and husbands of Apsaras, the celestial dancers. Kinnaras are related to Gandharvas who are anthropomorphic (human body with horse/bird legs). Bhoodha / Deva Ganas are dwarfs, dedicated attendants of Lord Shiva. Nagas and Naginis represent virility and life in the river.

  Close up of elephants
Close up of elephants

Among the wild elephants, the elephant herd shown marching towards the river is said to be one of the finest specimens of elephant sculptures in India. The baby elephants move along in between the massive legs of the elders. A deer is seen scratching its nose with its fore paw. This scene was represented in the ten rupee currency note issued long back.

It is said that Ms. Indira Gandhi was attracted by this deer scene and desired its representation in our currency note. There are many lions, some resting and some readying for hunting the deers. A few rams shown at the top level could indicate such animal found in the Himalayas from where River Ganges originates. An elderly monkey couple is depicted above the first elephant.

A monitor lizard is trying to catch birds on a tree branch. A hare also finds a place in the huge relief. A funny sculpture is a cat pretending to do penance which makes gullible rats to play around him merrily. This is etched just under the tusk of the first elephant. Swans and geese indicate life in the river.

Any guess what time of the day the relief indicates? Here is the clue – First locate a small temple that is finely sculpted with an idol of Lord Vishnu. You can see a Guru and his shishyas engaged in a discourse / sermon near the temple.

Below them are two worshippers, one of whom gives an indication of the time of the scene. The way he holds his palms together and views the sun, he is said to be performing the noon puja. So it is presumed that the scene represents noon time. What a subtle way to indicate the time!

The Arjuna’s Penance / Bhagiratha’s Penance bass relief, though huge, has sublime sculptures (in all 146) that all blend together to tell a beautiful and lively story. No wonder this 7th century work continues to awe visitors from around the world and surpass Taj Mahal visitors.

The epic scene comes alive here with the skillful sculpting technique of nameless artisans. Each sculpture is so realistic, lively and individual that UNESCO declared this and the group of monuments in Mahabalipuram as a World Heritage Site in 1984.

The visitor needs to dedicate at least one whole day to leisurely appreciate the Mahabalipuram monuments which I myself have not been able to do so far. It has always been a hurried one-day visit from Chennai with much time lost on travel alone, and always during scorching summer. Well, I hope to admire this bass relief beauty on a rainy day when water will flow down the cleft as River Ganges.

That way I would fulfill the sculptor’s imagination also. Much of these minute and authentic details have been gathered from a guide book on Mahabalipuram issued by Archaeological Survey of India in 1978. I bought this at the ASI Museum in Konark in 1983 for 2 ½ rupees.

Next time I go on a leisurely trip I am sure to carry this book for an extensive and detailed study of the Group of Monuments of Mahabalipuram.

* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for
The writer is from Chennai and can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on January 25 2024.

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