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Timings : 6:00 AM - 6:00 PM

Time Required : 1-2 hrs

Entry Fee : Indians: INR 10,
Foreign Nationals: INR 250,
Children (Up to 15 years): Free,
Photography: Free,
Videography: INR 25

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Arjuna's Penance, Mahabalipuram Overview

The Arjuna's Penance is an enormous rock-cut relief, one of the largest in the whole world, situated in Mahabalipuram of Kanchipuram district, Tamil Nadu. It is also known by the name 'Descent of the Ganges' because the structure depicts either or both of these two significant and symbolic events of Hindu mythology; thus making this attraction spot a favourite among historians, scholars, academics as well as tourists who are enthusiastic about the cultural past of India.

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More about Arjuna's Penance

Not just historically, the structure is a fine specimen of this unique form of art of carving and sculpting on rock forms, that has roots way back in the 7th century South India. Most of these rock forms, including Arjuna's Penance, owe its existence to the Pallava dynasty that ruled over the region south of Vindhyas from 4th to 9th century. Till date these sites bear the legacy of the Pallava art, now being protected by ASI and UNESCO.

People gather here throughout the year, not only to experience the unimaginable efficiency of the craftsman of that era that made such a creation possible only with basic tools like hammer and chisel; but also to learn about the interesting stories that hide behind its interpretation. It is a crowd favourite in Mahabalipuram and represent one of those attraction sites in South India where culture meets history to create a great opportunity for explorers.

History of Arjuna's Penance

The Arjuna's Penance or Descent of the Ganges rock sculptures are one of the earliest to be created that marked the shift of dominating religion from Buddhism to Hinduism when the Pallavas took over Deccan from the Satavahanas. Most of the rock structures of Mahabalipuram, including this one, were created around 7th century AD during the rule of Narasimhavarman 1 of the Pallava Dynasty - from whose epithet Mamallan, the town got its colloquial name Mamallapuram.

Arjuna's Penance is one of the most prominent rock reliefs of that era, and a significant reminder of the artistic legacy of the Pallava dynasty - sculpting of great events and other significant memorabilia on in situ rock faces. It is now one of the UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites of India, as a part of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Architecture and Layout of Arjuna's Penance

The Arjuna's Penance bas-relief is carved on a massive rock structure that runs for around 30 metres or 98 feet and stands at the height of 15 metres or 50 feet. The intricately detailed and in many cases, life-sized sculptures are done on a pinkish grey rock face, that is divided by a vast cleft in the middle - this cleft has been used to imply the flow of the holy river Ganges and the two division of the boulder as its two banks.

The historical structure is etched with figures and patterns that are quintessential to Hindu mythology and symbolism. The central characters on the left side are of a sage practising penance in a state of meditation standing on one leg; as he is visited by Lord Shiva, accompanied by a group of mythological celestial beings like Kinnaras and Kinnaris (the half bird and half humans), Gandharvas and Apsaras (the musicians and dancers of heaven), and Ganas (the devout followers of Shiva).

On the right side, there are life-size figures of wild animals which are repeatedly seen in Hindu texts like Vedas and Panchatantras like elephants, cats, lions and deer, along with other gods and a mountain range in the top, most probably insinuating the Himalayas in the background from where the Ganges flows down.

In the central cleft, the stream of the holy river is decked with the popular and recurring Hindu figures of nagas. These snake demigods are inseparably connected to Lord Shiva as well as another main god of Hinduism - Lord Vishnu.

Interpretation of Arjuna's Penance

The carvings on the stone relief have been depicted over the years into two different possible interpretations. To begin with, the interconnected presence of humans, celestial beings and wild animals in the same frame with harmony directs to the 'sublime continuity in all living things' - a cosmic truth the faith of Hinduism is based on.

Some historians and scholars say that the sage shown standing on one leg is Arjuna - the middle brother of the Pandavas and one of the leading protagonists of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. In the Kiratarjuniya chapter of the saga, the great archer-warrior is seen to be practising severe penance for the blessings of Lord Shiva, standing on one leg at the top of Mount Indrakila in the Himalayas. At the end of his severe Tapasya, Lord Shiva was content with his devotion and rewarded Arjuna with Pashupatastra which was the most potent weapon in the narrative of Mahabharata.

Another interpretation is that the meditating sage is King Bhagiratha, who was praying to Goddess Ganga to come down to earth and bring salvation to the corpses of his ancestors as well as prosperity to his kingdom. It is a known Hindu mythological story that Lord Shiva helped the river goddess to come down to earth and bore her impending force on his jata or dreadlocks, and King Bhagiratha led her out of it to the land where she flows.

The depiction of the rocks can be either of this or can be both.

Tips For Visiting Arjuna's Penance

1. Start your trip early on, especially if you are coming from another city so that you need not hurry and take in the full panoramic view as well as the significance of the structure. If you have hired a car from the hotel for Mahabalipuram site seeing or going with a tour agency, they usually put in all the other historic structures together in the tour. So, make sure to have ample time in hand.
2. Hire an official guide to the Arjuna's Penance if you wish to know and understand the underlying stories and significance of each of the stone carvings.

How To Reach Arjuna's Penance

Mahabalipuram is a pretty well-connected city, and many buses and taxis will take you to this popular tourist site. You can also reach it from other nearby cities like Chennai, Pondicherry or Chengalpattu via hired cars, cab or buses.

The nearest airport and railway is Chennai which is around 60 kilometres from the town of Mahabalipuram.

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