The Great Penance: Is it Arjuna or Bhagiratha?
The famous Great Penance open-air bas-relief at Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, also known as Arjuna’s Tapas or Ganga’s Descent, requires no introduction. This panel, 30 metres long and 12 metres high, contains more than 150 figures comprising the Gods, superhumans, humans, animals, serpents and birds. Mamallapuram has gathered the attention of explorers, archeologists, historians and general visitors for the past two millenniums, so much so that two annotated bibliographies have been published so far, one in 1966 and another in 1980. I may not be wrong that the time is apt for another bibliography as numerous articles and books have appeared since 1980.
The first detailed account of the site and its monuments was published in 1788 by William Chambers. He mentions that the figures on the Great Penance panel represent the actions of the Pandavas as celebrated in the Mahabharata. The first Indian scholar account was from Lakshmayya Kavali, an assistant of Col Mackenzie in 1803. Kavali said the panel represents the tapasya (penance) of Arjuna to obtain Pashupatastra from Shiva. In 1911, J Ph Vogel proposed a different reading, saying the central cleft on the rock was the focal point of the sculpture. Taking this cue, Dubreuil and Goloubew in 1914 proposed a new identification for the panel. They explained that it represents the tapasya of Bhagiratha to get Ganga from the heavens down to the Earth. Since then, the scholar community is divided between these two themes. Michael Rabe mentions coming across 43 publications favouring Bhagiratha, 39 favouring Arjuna, and 25 either maintaining neutrality or offering another alternative.
These two legends, Arjuna’s quest for Pashupatastra and Bhagiratha’s feat for bringing Ganga to the Earth, are found in the Mahabharata. The local traditions were vocal about the influence of the Mahabharata over the sculpture since the earliest accounts of the site and there might be valid reasons for the same. However, is there a piece of clinching evidence that can tilt the balance towards one theme? Probably yes, and I want to discuss one such piece of evidence that may have a significant bearing on the identification of the panel.
To the left of the tallest elephant is a sculpture depicting a cat standing on her feet with her hands raised above in austerity. Around her are gathered several mice paying homage. According to the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata, Duryodhana sent Uluka as his messenger to ask Yudhishthira how he could be called righteous when he, with his brothers, was wishing for the destruction of this world through the war instead of being a dispeller of fear for all creatures. A person whose standard of righteousness is always up but whose sins are always concealed behaves similar to the hypocrite cat who once took her abode on the banks of Ganga with her hands upraised, pretending to practice virtue only to deceive her mice followers.
What is the purpose of this sculpture in the overall scheme of this panel? The placement of this sculpture plays an important role. To its diagonal opposite is the sculpture showing a man doing tapasya to Shiva. This man represents Arjuna in his quest for the Pashupatastra. To the left, opposite to the cat, is the sculpture showing four men practicing austerities in an ashrama. These four men represent the rest of the Pandava brothers doing austerities during their 12-year sojourn when they visited various tirthas and stayed at different ashramas. The Pallava artists masterfully placed these opposite themes, one of violence through obtaining weapons and another of peace through austerities, in a vertical alignment and connected both to the hypocrite cat sculpture. Duryodhana believed that the Pandavas were responsible for the great war and cannot claim to be righteous. Their behaviour is the same as that of the hypocrite cat. It connects well with the memories and traditions of the locals where they remembered the theme of the panel as Arjuna’s tapasya.
But why did the Pallava artists conceive the panel in such a manner? This sculpture is a pun on the common understanding of the Mahabharata where the Pandavas were righteous and the Kauravas were the wrongdoers. This common understanding is perfectly justified; however, the sculpture presents the perspective from Duryodhana’s side, where the latter believed he was righteous and the Pandavas wrong. Puns, riddles and conundrums were very much in vogue in that time period, especially during the reign of the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (580–630 CE). The king himself authored two Sanskrit farce plays, Mattavilasa Prahasana and Bhagavadajjuka. The sculpture of Shiva-Gangadhara in the Tiruchirappalli cave temple of Mahendravarman I is one of the best examples of multivalence and its associated inscription includes various puns on the overall theme. Does it suggest that this Great Penance panel at Mamallapuram is influenced or designed, at least in part if not fully, by Mahendravarman I? It is quite possible and future research may bring in fresh perspectives in this direction.