Arjuna`s Penance is a large rock relief in Mahabalipuram, which depicts penance of Arjuna to get his favorite weapon. It is an enormous relief involving many figures made on two huge boulders. This is one of the biggest open-air rock canvases in the world. It is 31 metre long and 9 metre high with detailed carvings showing the most adorable and natural expressions of human and animals.
The sculptures are known for their vitality and naturalism. There are hundred figures of gods and flying celestial creatures, birds and animals including giant elephants, human beings and saints in this sculpted enormous scenario. It depicts the story of Arjuna`s penance to get his favourite weapon `Pashupatastra` from Lord Shiva
There is a natural cleft in the relic, which divides the rock-scenery into two halves. This actually represents the descent of ethereal river Ganges. Most of the figures of animals and celestial beings either face or approach this holy cleft with their hands folded in adoration. The cleft has sculptures of male and female `Nagas` with hands folded in idolization. A waterfall collecting water from a chamber lies overhead.
On the left side of the cleft there is a four-armed god, probably Lord Shiva with his right hand holding a weapon and left hand folded in a gesture of blessings. He is surrounded by his attendants and followers called `Gana`s. To the deity of Shiva, a little below there is Arjuna
who stands on one leg, with arms upraised in the posture of a `Yogi` to seek Shiva`s boons. Beneath this figure is a small shrine of Lord Vishnu
. In front of this are sit sage, a buck and a doe, a lion and disciples engaged in austerities. To the left of this a few animals are seen to resting in the cave. The remaining lower left portion of the boulder is uncarved. The upper left portion of the scene shows a mountain, probably Himalayas, the abode of Lord Shiva, where gods and animals are blended together.
To the right of the cleft, in the other boulder there are numerous animals and celestial beings are carved. Among the animals the large sized elephants protecting their young are most notable. Below this there are scenes from Panchatantra
fables, like a cat standing doing a penance and tricking a group of rats. This feline `Tapaswi` adds a comical relief to the whole scene. Just right to this exquisite relic there is a group of monkeys, playing and preening one another and nursing a baby monkey.