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Arjuna's Penance - Mahabalipuram

Updated on July 26, 2017

Arjuna’s Penance is a sculpture chiseled on two blocks of adjacent rocks that are located in the town of Mahabalipuram approximately 58 km from the capital of the state of Tamilnadu, Chennai. It is a rock carving that was done about the 7th century and it is a legacy left behind by the Pallava Rulers of the South. While some writers refer to the town as Mamallapuram I’m going to stick to the time-tested Mahabalipuram for the simple reason that the name does have some significance which is not only limited to the historic sphere but further extends to religious circles.

According to most sources the sculpture represents rock cut depictions of two myths both Mahabharata related in inference or in reference to the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

The first myth or the most common interpretation of Arjuna’s Penance is that it refers to the austerities that Arjuna performed to gain Shiva’s weapon Pashupatastra, a Divya (celestial) Astra (bolt, arrow, missile) that could be fired by thought i.e. a mind controlled weapon.

According to the story, Arjuna set up a hermitage and started meditating while sitting cross-legged in front of a linga (an image or a representation of God) and while he was in silent contemplation and deep meditation he was attacked by a boar (some sources have the boar as an asura). Arjuna who had his bow Gandiva at hand (the bow was created by Brahma who was also its first user) quickly loaded his bow with an arrow and fired at the beast, killing it instantly.

Arjuna then walked over to inspect the remains and was surprised to discover two arrows in the carcass and this is when he first comes across Shiva or the hunter aspect or manifestation of Shiva.

The reason I have elaborated on the story is because there are other rock cut depictions in Mahabalipuram of Varaha (Vishnu’s boar avatar).

The second myth is also related to the Mahabharata and according to some sources the depictions on the adjoining blocks of rock tell the story of the descent of Ganga (the Daughter of Brahma) who first came to light when Brahma used the water in his water-pot to wash Vamana’s foot (the dwarf avatar of Vishnu) when his foot touched Bramaloka.

Ganga was brought down to the earth to wash away the remains of Asamanjas and the other sixty thousand sons of King Sagara, with the help of Shiva, after they had been reduced to ashes by the sage Kapila.

Among other things Mahabalipuram is also famous for its rock cut temples or mandavas (pillared halls for public rituals) including the Varaha cave (in honor of the boar-headed avatar of Vishnu) and like other Pallava cave temples these caves are famous for the stone engravings that have been chiseled out of sheer rocks that line their walls.

The question that has always come to mind or to my mind anyway is what were these cave temples or halls used for? The orthodox Hindu connotations are fairly obvious but I don’t think they were created for mere decorative purposes and I pondered on it for a very long time until strangely enough the answer or what I believe to be the answer was given to me by a cab driver (you’d be surprised as to who understands Sanskrit these days). He was a Maratha lad and probably had a different view or perspective on things then I did.

He said to me to try the literal interpretation of Mahabalipuram or interpret the word Mahabalipuram as it is. Well, Mahabalipuram is made up three words but it is pronounced as a single word. Maha which means great, bali which means offerings or sacrifices and puram which means city or fortress.

Mahabalipuram interpreted in the orthodox or conventional manner simply means city of great sacrifices or great city of sacrifices and the world bali here does not mean offerings in the softer sense of the word or as I normally use it to lessen the impact. It actually means ritualistic sacrifices.

Using this alternate interpretation of the word it is possible to come to the conclusion that the rock-cut caves or mandavas were there for people to either observe ritualistic sacrifices or were sacrificial chambers where ritualistic sacrifices were performed and I can’t help but wonder what one would find if they excavated the ground beneath the rock-cut temples or mandavas.

© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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