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Updated: December 24, 2009 01:36 IST

The stone depicts Arjuna’s penance, asserts scholar

T. S. Subramanian
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The shrine with the carving of Vishnu with four ascetics sitting around, as depicted in the bas-relief called Arjuna's Penance at Mamallapuram. Photo: N: Thyagarajan
The Hindu The shrine with the carving of Vishnu with four ascetics sitting around, as depicted in the bas-relief called Arjuna's Penance at Mamallapuram. Photo: N: Thyagarajan

It is a great riddle in stone at Mamallapuram. Some say it is Arjuna’s penance, others contend it is Bhagiratha’s penance and some others believe the panel has scenes of Naga worship. But S. Balusami, Associate Professor of Tamil in the Madras Christian College, has proposed that the theatre of events of the open air bas-relief, popularly called Arjuna’s penance, is the Himalayas and that its literary base is the Vanaparvam in Vyasa’s Mahabharatha.

While the river Ganga is at the centre of the panel, what is portrayed all around, including various events, deva ganas, hunters, animals, birds and trees belong to the Himalayan ranges . “There is evidence in literature, history and the puranas that these sculptures are connected with the Himalayan ranges,” says Dr. Balusami.

His research suggests that the 7th century A.D. Pallava sculptures on the rock surface, which is 25.5-metre long and 12-metre tall, portray what the five Pandava brothers saw or encountered in the Himalayas during their “vanavas” or sojourn to the forests. Even the penance of Arjuna to obtain the “Pasupata” from Lord Siva, took place in the Indrakil Mountains in the Himalayas, he says.

“A masterpiece”

“A masterpiece in animation,” which shows a cat doing penance and 15 rats around it performing different actions, is also a tale from the Mahabharatha, where Duryodhana ridicules Arjuna’s penance, comparing it with the hypocritical cat’s fake meditation.

The sculpture of a shrine with the image of Lord Vishnu inside and four ascetics sitting in front is “Badri” or “Vadari” ashram in the Himalayas, he argues. The Pandavas visit to the ashram finds elaborate mention in the Mahabharatha and the Vaishnavite saint Tirumangai Azhwar’s verses.

The sculptures of Kimpurushas, Kiratas, Siddhas, Saranas, Rishis, Nagas, hunters, trees, lions, elephants, langurs, hog deer, the Assamese macaque, pygmy hog, the blue sheep, bar-headed geese and honey buzzard are all found in the description of the Himalayas in the Mahabharatha, Tirumangai Azhwar’s verses, poet Kalidas’ Raghuvamsam, Meghadootam and Kumarasambhavam and the Siva Purana, the Vishnu Purana, the Maha Purana, the Vayu Purana and the Agni Purana, he argues.

The sculpture of 10 elephants headed by a leader with four tusks, drinking water from a pond, is akin to the description of such a herd in the Mahabharatha.

It is Arjuna’s penance, he asserts, that is portrayed because Lord Siva is shown holding a big “arrow” and not trishul, and the arrow is Pasupata. But Arjuna’s penance is only one of the several sculpted events, not the leitmotif.

Dr. Balusami rejects the standpoint that it is Bhagiratha’s penance. For while Bhagiratha did penance in the Himalayas to bring the Ganga to the earth for redeeming his ancestors’ souls, it was in the Kailash mountains that he prayed to Lord Siva to receive the onrushing Ganga in his matted locks to slowly let it down to the earth.

Central theme

Hence the bas-relief’s central theme, Dr. Balusami says, is the description of the Himalayas. Sculpted in the panel are its mountains, their peaks, valleys and rivers. There is a vertical central cleft standing for the Ganga, and courses for other rivers.

There is evidence to believe that a cistern had been built on the rock terrace, where water collected during the rainy season. This water “jumped” and flowed down the central cleft and other courses, creating a dramatic three-dimensional effect.

The sculptures show deva ganas descending in stages towards the Ganga. Humans are seen worshipping the Ganga, carrying water from it in a big pot or performing rituals on its banks, including Sun worship. There is a tank at the panel’s foot where water from these “rivers” collected. People, during the Pallava days, could have performed “tirth yatra” rituals in the tank and so Dr. Balusami calls it “a dynamic sculpture brimming with life.”

Publication in January

His research is to be published in January in Tamil as a book titled, “Arjuna’s Tapas, Mamallapuram’s sculptures of the Himalayas” by Kalachuvadu Publications, Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu.

The events portrayed, he says, take place around noon during peak summer. An old man is doing “madhyahnikam;” a hunter is returning with a big jack fruit, which ripens during summer; the deer, the lions and the sheep are taking rest; and thirsty elephants are drinking water from the pond.

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