Beautiful Rock Sculptures – Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges, Mahabalipuram, India



The above two photos represent the left and right sides of the same monument – Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges. Since this rock sculpture is very large, I was not able to photograph it in its entirety. Perhaps if I had learned how to take panoramic shots in my camera, I would have been able to show you both the photos in a single frame! Can anyone tell me how to take a panoramic photograph, in the comments?

Anyway, this post is about the beautiful rock sculptures of the ancient South Indian dynasty – Pallavas. The Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges is a giant open air bas-relief filled with (rock) carvings, along with so many other rock carvings/sculptures @ Mahabalipuram/Mamallapuram, Chennai, India. Like the other monuments here, these were also made during the 7th/8th century CE and they are notable for their large size and intricate details. They have been preserved quite well, even after so many centuries.

This site (along with other monuments) was designated as one of the world heritage sites in 1984. It measures 29m x 13m (length x height). As you can see in the sculptures, numerous Gods, people and animals are depicted in the carvings. You can see one more close up shot below, and you can also see a photo of the statue of two monkeys, one picking lice from the other. Somehow, this statue has also gained prominence, here!

Specialists and historians are finding it difficult to interpret the message/event carved on this rock. Some feel that the man standing on one leg (in the center) is Arjuna doing penance (meditation) to request a powerful weapon from God Shiva, during the Mahabharata war.

Others feel that the man standing on one leg is Bhagiratha and he is doing penance to request God Shiva to send the heavenly Ganges river to the earth so that the sins of his relatives can be washed off in it. Since the earth may not stand such a magnificent river, God Shiva makes it to run through his hair, splits it into various tributaries and allows it to reach the earth. You can find more info on these interpretations from here.

I leave you with some pictures I took at this site, including the rock sculptures inside the pillared cave nearby.





Destination Infinity

Photos: Destination8Infinity. All photos published under this creative commons license.


    • Rajesh K

      Actually I didn’t take the picture of those statues initially. But when I enquired inside, they told me that the statue of lice picking monkey is a popular tourist attraction! So, I clicked it on my way back 🙂

      Destination Infinity

  • Sudhagee

    I visited Mahabalipuram /Mamallapuram in 1997 in what I called a vacation of madness. A friend and I holidayed in Chennai and Pondicherry in May 🙂 Your post and pictures brought back all the memories of that visit of delighting in the rock sculptures. Thanks for sharing.

    I do remember seeing all the things that your pics show, except for the monkey picking lice ! That is a nice and quirky sculpture and I wonder how I missed it !

    • Rajesh K

      That should have been a unique experience. I mean, even we locals don’t venture out of our homes/offices much during may 🙂 But then, the day-time in summer is better than nights due to the high humidity (If there is no A/c).

      Destination Infinity

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