7th Century Bas Relief Architecture

The bas relief monument in Mahabalipuram is one of the largest architectural structures in India, constructed by the Pallava King Mamalla. This monument has been a World Heritage Site since 1984.   Though there is no agreed upon theme or motif in the carvings, it is considered to be a depiction Arjuna’s Penance, one of the episodes in the Hindu epic Mahabaratha.

The two boulders crowded with detailed figures of divinities, men and animals explain a theme. On one boulder depicts Arjuna’s Penance (unlike penance in Christianity, in Hinduism penance is performed to gain power, not to apologize sin). This is one of the stories of Mahabharata, in which Arjuna performed several austerities to obtain Shiva’s weapon. He is portrayed as a figure standing on one leg, his arms raised above his head, at the left of a four-armed Shiva surrounded by Ganas (in Hinduism, the Ganas are servants of Shiva). The idea behind this figure is as per Hindu philosophy, one can obtain enough power to overcome god by self-mortification. You can see the bones carved on the man’s body to show that he has been in that position for several years without food and with great determination. Another story the carving could depict is the Ganges story in which Bhagiratha (king in Hindu mythology) performs austerities to bring Ganges down to earth from heaven. Lord Shiva has to make her fall in his hair; if not its force would destroy the Earth. Both of these two depictions make sense, for the Pallavas worshiped Arjuna as their symbolic ruler and Ganges as their symbol of purifying power.

In the right side boulder you can see two life sized elephants, various other animals, and  flying Celestials(heavenly beings) all of them carved in great detail and naturalism. In this side of the carving there are no humans,as this boulder depicts the heavenly world.

I cannot do justice to this great monument by taking photos of it and describing it in few paragraphs. You have to come to Mahabalipuram feel the stone, smoothed over by centuries of wear and tear, and view the monuments in their full grandeur to really get a sense about how powerfully executed this tiny depiction of Mahabaratha is.

Author: Balaji Parandaman

I am a Travel enthusiast and I always find exotic locations within South India and take my family and friends. If you’re interested in knowing new and unexplored getaways that are not yet known to outside world please contact me. I also arrange economic tour packages to families.


  1. Amazing facts and photos, I am a history buff, I enjoy reading Indian history. They carved these monuments in 7th century; it is mind boggling to see the photos, thanks for sharing it.

  2. Good photos says:

    Good post and photos. I just stumbled upon your topic and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading it.

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