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!!
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.
Why we call it a test panel is the story is carved in low relief.
The majestic elephants have not yet been obviously brought into the theme, though a few heads do appear.
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!
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..!!