Arjuna's Penance

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

"You can catch these buses from the museum," the receptionist tells me as I am settling my account. "All the time buses leaving for Puri."

Set in a boulder-rich landscape, overlooking the Bay of Bengal beyond rock-strewn shores, Mamallapuram is and has always been a centre for one of the few things it is naturally endowed for: stone sculpture. A shadow of its past self, the town had reached its heyday under the Pallavas, during the 4th to 9th centuries. Under Narasimhavarman I - also known as Mamalla, a corruption of Mahamalla, great wrestler, after whom the town derives its Tamil name - it had become a flourishing port and trade centre. It is from this period that its greatest monuments date, monuments which, although overtly religious in tone and content, weren't generally built for worship, but rather as a showcase for the talents of local artists. Chariots of stone, temples cut from free-standing blocks of rock, man-made caves and open-air bas-reliefs: there is such a profusion it is hard to know where to begin.

I let laziness decide the issue. Stepping from the cool draft of slow-turning ceiling fans into the heat and glare of high noon, I decide the bas-reliefs, a stone's throw away, are the place to start.

Popularly known as Arjuna's Penance, the largest bas-relief in Mamallapuram is also the largest in the world, measuring some 90 feet long, some 30 feet high, carved onto the face of a boulder that had once formed part of a large cliff face. It has other names too, reflecting the fact that no one is quite sure what it depicts: Bhagiratha's Penance and Decent of the Ganges are other favourites. One of the Pandava brothers, the heroes of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, Arjuna ("godlike son of Pritha, matchless in his arms and lore") coveted Shiva's favourite weapon, his magic arrow, and in the hope that the god would grant it to him he retreated deep into a forest on the banks of the River Ganges and did penance there. Impressed by this, Shiva appeared in the guise of a forest dweller, and after an argument over a wild boar that both he and Arjuna claimed to have felled, the magic arrow was finally given to Arjuna.

The light is cruel at that time of day, smudging some of the detail with brightness and thick clots of shadow. A nearby group of picnickers, sitting in the dusty shade of tamarind trees and teetering rocks, seem to have the right idea of how to spend their time during the hottest part of the day. They are eating scoops of rice and yellow dhal from banana-leaf plates. The children have to be scolded into stillness and made to eat. They make gestures for me to join them but I decline.

A small scruffy girl, carrying a wretched toddler in her arms that grabs playfully at her thick knots of reddish-brown hair, approaches me and pleads for alms. She is soon diverted to other quarry, as an air-con bus pulls up and day-trippers from Chennai file out. For a different reason (their time is limited) they have the same wrong idea of how to spend their time in the stifling heat as I do.

I trail them for a time, discreetly distant but not quite out of earshot of their tour guide. He is describing another of the bas-reliefs, one which depicts Krishna beneficently holding aloft Govardhana Mountain. It is an obvious place to start: it is inside one of the many mandapams on site, shallow rock-cut halls. His group of portly, middle-class Tamils huddle in the cool of the shady interior. I can't see the details until his group has moved on: Vishnu, in the incarnation of Krishna, nonchalantly holding the mountain over his head with one hand; his kinsfolk stand beneath it, sheltering from the violent storm sent by the wrathful Indra. I glean the details of the scene from my guidebook later: the tour guide, disappointingly, is limiting himself to Tamil.

Read on...

Read the next article about the temple at Thanjavur.

As the sun sinks and begins to set a succession of tentative melodies sound from the entrance to the main shrine within the tower, played on a nagaswaram, an oboe-like instrument. People begin gather, summoned by the music. It is time for evening darshan, when the curtain is drawn back from the sacred Shiva lingam inside the sanctum sanctorum.

Go back...

Read the previous article about the Lingaraj Mandir at Bhubaneswar.

The Lingaraj Temple is visible in the near distance, or at least its sikhara is, a tower with the same beehive structure as the main tower of the Mukteswara Mandir and most of Bhubaneswar's other ancient sandstone temples. It rises elegantly above the line of buildings on the south side of Bindu Sagar, its crimson pennants astir in the breeze.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from or, or the paperback from or (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via or The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via or


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