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Arjuna’s Penance

Arjuna’s Penance is a huge open air bas-relief statue that attracts tourists from far and wide. Bas Relief can be defined as a kind of carving or sculpture where the figures are raised a few inches from a flat surface, to give the statue a three dimensional effect. The crowning masterpiece of Mamallapuram’s stonework, this giant relief carving is one of India's greatest ancient artworks.

The town of Mahabalipuram is known for its ancient architecture, and Arjuna’s Penance was erected here in the 7th century. Towering to the height of 43 feet, the bas-relief is popularly known as 'The Descent of Ganga'. The bas relief is perched on a rock with a cleft, and there are two beliefs surrounding the Arjuna’s Penance.

Reason behind the name
The name of the statue is derived from the Mahabharata hero, Arjun. He was one of the five pandavas. This carefully carved statue exhibits the fine craftsmanship of the Indian sculptors. Arjuna's Penance is home to around hundred figures of Hindu deities, birds, beasts, saints and man. According to one belief, the statue shows him in strict position to obtain a weapon from Lord Shiva, to fight against his foes in the war of Mahabharata. The weapon that he received was called Pasupata, and is considered to be the most powerful weapon of the Lord. The other belief is that the statue depicts the King Bhagiratha performing Tapas to bring the River Ganga down to the earth so that it can wash away all the sins of his relatives.

According to some scholars, the carving on Arjuna’s Penance actually shows the sage Bagiratha, who served penance to obtain Shiva’s help in bringing the Ganges to Earth. Below Arjuna/Bagiratha is a temple to Vishnu (mythical ancestor of the Pallava kings), with sages, deer and a lion. The many wonderfully carved animals include a herd of elephants and – humour amid the holy – a cat mimicking Arjuna's penance to a crowd of mice.

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