Great Penance: Descent of the Ganga

Photos of the Great penance descent of the Ganga Mamallapuram by Arun Shanbhag
Mamallapuram, about an hour south of Chennai along the East coast, hosts India’s largest and most dramatic relief-sculpture. It represents the celebrated myth of the descent of the river Ganga from heaven to earth. The Great Penance, is carved on a giant granite rock wall 27 meters wide and 9 meters tall, and was believed to be initiated during the reign of the Pallava King Mahendra Varman, ca 7th century ce.

While a traditional sculpture (or other work of art) would memorialize a climactic scene, this Great Penance is depicted as a “continuous narrative,” wherein multiple scenes from a series of events are portrayed on the same canvas, permitting the observer to focus on different parts of the work and recollect different scenes in the narrative. The more details one observes and associates, the more richer the experience.

The legend depicted here is of Raja Bhagiratha who performs penance to Brahmā for a 1000 years, hoping to bring the purifying waters of the heavenly Ganga to earth, to cleanse the souls of his ancestors. In the lower left panel, notice the sage meditating in front of a shrine while attendants sit nearby (their heads destroyed); the ashram setting is completed with a docile lion and a deer sitting nearby. In the depiction, Brahmā has just appeared and offers to send Ganga to earth but warns that the force of her entry would shatter earth. Brahmā thus asks Bhagiratha to appease Shivā for this latter task.
Photos of the Great penance descent of the Ganga Mamallapuram by Arun Shanbhag

Bhagiratha continues his austerities. In the climactic scene depicted on top, an emaciated Bhagiratha is standing on one leg in vrikshasana, hands raised in urdhva namaskar. His ascetic fervour is conveyed by the shaggy beard and ribs sticking out. Shiva accompanied by several ganas has appeared before the penitent Bhagiratha. In his right hand Shiva holds possibly a trishul and with his left in varada mudra, agrees to break the force of Ganga’s entry in his matted hair.

High in the Himalayas, the thundering Ganga crashes on the head of Mahadev (great God) and after exhausting its energy coursing through his matted hair, flows to earth bestowing upon the faithful its life-enriching boon.

Notice the naturally occurring chasm in the center of the relief. A cistern at the top was believed to release water rippling through the cleft, depicting the waters of the Ganga cascading through the land, purifying, nourishing and blessing all creatures. In this shimmering stream, the undulating bodies of the snake God and his queen, hands folded in bhakti, welcome the life-infusing waters.

Notice Surya and Chandra (the Sun and Moon Gods) with their large halos, on either side of the cleft. Hordes of Devas, Devis and other celestial beings follow.

Photos of the Great penance descent of the Ganga Mamallapuram by Arun Shanbhag

Photos of the Great penance descent of the Ganga Mamallapuram by Arun Shanbhag
Gandharvas, apsaras and ganas race to catch a glimpse of this miracle; the bent knees create the impression of everyone flying. Even sages, a hunter and a laborer are drawn in. In the center of the tableau above, you see Kinnaras, heavenly musicians with the upper body of humans and the legs of birds, holding a stringed instrument and cymbals. Various ducks, birds and deer too, rush to partake of this miracle. On the lower right of the cleft, we see monkeys curious about this cascading river. And elephants too march to the river!

Eminently cute elephant babes clustered around their parent’s legs; one of them is bowed in namaskar to the divine river.
Photos of the Great penance descent of the Ganga Mamallapuram by Arun Shanbhag
Arjuna’s Penance.
This relief is also referred to as Arjuna’s Penance, depicting the legend where the hero of the Mahabharata, performs penance and receives the pashupata astra from Shiva. Other than this climatic scene, the rest of the tableau does not fit into the legend. Importantly missing is Shiva and Arjuna’s fight over a killed boar. I concur with several scholars and believe this relief to represent Bhagiratha’s penance to bring Ganga to earth.

Posts from Tamil Nādu Tirth Yātra:

Other tirth yatras I was fortunate to go on:


  • Mahabalipuram, Archaeological Survey of India, Government of India (2004).
  • H Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Princeton University Press (1946, 1992).
  • R Nagaswamy, Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram), Oxford University Press (2008).
  • Speaking Stones: World Cultural Heritage Sites in India, Eicher Goodearth (2001).
  • M Hirsh, “Mahendravarman I Pallava: Artist and Patron of Maamallapuram,” Artibus Asiae (1987).
  • Temple India, Vivekananda Kendra Patrika (1981)

26 thoughts on “Great Penance: Descent of the Ganga

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  1. Wow! i really liked the photo-narration… and yes it makes us proud to have come from an artistically rich nation….. BTW Arun, i have always wondered about the cat that resembles to be at penance – lower right of the relief opposite to Raja Bhagiratha..

    1. Hi Krish,
      Thank you for your kind comment and am glad you found this narration interesting.

      Ha ha! The cat in penance! I was so surprised when I first noticed it. Not sure what the artists were trying to convey. Either the cat was emulating the humans in the similar posture, or indeed a cat in penance.
      I suspect the artists were just having fun and threw in the cat for comic relief. Must have been cat lovers 🙂

    1. Tanya:
      Thank you for visiting and also in providing me a link to the Eichler Goodyear blog!

      Beautiful site and you are lucky you get to travel!

      and Yes, I love the Eichler Guide and looking forward expectantly to more of these guides.

      Will be arriving in Mumbai next week and hope to tour Goa and environs.

      Happy Traveling!

  2. Hi Arun

    Thanks for visiting my site and leaving your comments. Your work is well laid out and detailed. Keep them coming.

    The pallava craftsmen were indeed unique and so was their king. I will shortly do a post on Mahendra’s cave in trichy, where he brings out more of the pallava puzzle.

    Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man

  3. Hi Lakshmi:
    the myth of Arjuna’s Penance is widely held, as at that time the related poem (kiratiyaArjuna ?) famous.

    It is even likely that the reigning King asked for the depiction of Arjuna’s Penance. But as true artists (comparable to the staunch academicians of this day), he did his own thing, and at the same time showed the new king that he did abide by the order – in a way! :-))

    btw, there is good evidence that though artists were beholden to royal patronage, they tried to figuratively ‘have the cake and eat it too.’

  4. I’ve always thought this was Arjuna’s Penance – but now after reading your description it does seem like this is Bhagirath’s penance to Shiva. I remember learning a folk song in Kannada about Sharavathi Nadi – it goes to say how Ganga descended down as Sharavathi Nadi after Bhagirath’s penance

  5. Ahh the baby elephant is so cute! I remember reading about Ganga’s origins in Amar Chitra Katha, otherwise known as my main source of Hindu stories when I was a kid. This is a beautifully detailed architectural depiction of that story!

    arunaH uvacha:
    heh heh! ACK was our source of the ancient indian history. it appears now I am essentially reliving this childhood, relearning the stories of the ACK with more ‘show and tell’ accompanied by detailed readings.

    Glad this was enjoyable to you!

  6. Arun, Thanks for visiting my blog! I am glad you did because I came here and discovered a beautiful blog that I will regularly visit. This post is especially nice! I love the stories that go around architecture, and what made it nice is the reference you have given. Keep up the good work!

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