Posts Tagged ‘Penance’

The Mahabalipuram penance panel which we saw in the last post is the largest open air bas relief sculpture. Just prior to embarking on such a massive sculpt, the sculptors seem to have tested the concept nearby…the little known test panel - but does it give any clues to the mystery of whether the Penace panel depicts - Arjuna’s penance ( to get the pasupatha astra from shiva) or Bagiratha’s penance to bring the ganges down to resurrect his ancestors!!

mallai test panel
testpanel a long shot

Lets analyse the test panel - the depiction of the lighthouse will give you a rough idea on its location. Similar to the Main penance panel, the artist chose a cleft in a boulder to depict his theme - but here the two boulders are split into two.

test panel boulders
testpanel location

Why we call it  a test panel is the story is carved in low relief.

testpanel location lighthouse
testpanel low relief
testpanel other characters

The majestic elephants have not yet been obviously brought into the theme, though a few heads do appear.

elephants testpanel

The flying celestials are all these, but seem to be moving away form the boon giving area towards the descending ganges - to witness this great spectacle. So its a definite give away as to the main story of the test panel - thankfully the boon giver and seeker are much farther away from the cleft ( infact their positions are transposed - left to right)

The most important clue is the absence of the weapon in Shiva’s hands!

shiva test panel

So if this were to be seen in isolation, its a pure story of the descending ganges and thus bagiratha’s penance. This story has been delightfully mixed with Arjuna’s penance in the main panel to come up with a puzzling combo…or is it just two in one or is there another twist to the plot….is it three in one..!!

mallai test panel boon giving
Mallai penance Panel- boon Giving

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The opening picture we put in the introduction pages, raised a few comments. We could have easily put a better picture of the same relief, or a beautiful sculpture but what we wanted to highlight was the lack of awareness about these great works. So inorder make amends, thought we will make not one but a series of posts as a tribute to this greatest marvel of pallava art - the world’s largest open air bas relief sculpture.

Penance panel long shot
Penance Panel shot 2
Penance Panel shot 3
Penance Panel shot 4
Mallai penance Panel- boon Giving
Penance Panel shot 5
Shiva with the Astra

There are no parallels to this work before and since, what inspired the pallava artists to let their imagination and skill run riot on a canvas of this size, 200 feet wide by 40 feet tall, that continues to entrall audiences 1300 years after the last chisel blunted its edge on this hard rock face.

The grace of the flying celestials, the majestic elephants, a host of animals and birds, the emaciated book seeker, the benevolent boon giver, the host of attendants, the naga royal couple, well it does call for this series on mallai penance panel.

The giant composition is a giant puzzle, a living testament to the fertile pallava mind, to start with - the name itself is a puzzle. Is it Bagiratha’s penance (the descent of the ganges) or Arjuna’s penance to get the Pasupatha Weapon of Shiva - Descent of Ganges couldn’t be more apt - for the choice of the natural cleft in the rock face, and the deft use of this to frame the relief. But lets look at both the legends and also the subsequent post on the test penance panel.

Bagiratha’s ancestors are cursed to ashes and inorder to resurrect them, he needs to do severe penance ( not he but his whole clan) and it is he in the long list who manages in his persistent best ( even today he, sadly along with Md Gazni, are examples for being persistent to succeed). Ok,he finally manages to please the gods and the Ganges is forced to come down ( we saw her ego being abated in the earlier Shiva Gangadhara post). So the penance panel has been artistically conceived in such a way that during heavy rains the water would be engineered to flow through the crevice ( there are remanents of a catchment tank above the penance panel…maybe used to entertain the kings in the non rainy seasons)

Ok, the second plot in the puzzle is set in the Mahabartha just before the Kurukshetra War. Arjuna is building his arsenal of deadly opps divine weapons. He does severe penance to obtain the Pasupatha Astra from Shiva ( see the emaciated condition of the boon seeker in the panel …cant but compare with the current nuclear deal that India is being so wanting to sign…are we so emaciated !!) compare this with the divine beauty and grace of Shiva ( check out his ornaments - the different ear rings on each ear) ..the astra looks a kind of oversized spear - not like the regular arrow or the trident so associated with Shiva.

There are few more puzzles to be answered, the praying cat, the headless scribe, the forest scene, the belly face in the shiva bootha gana etc etc which we will see in the coming posts

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