Mahabalipuram Arjuna Penance

Analysis and Conclusions: The sculpture of ‘Arjuna penance’ at Mahabalipuram

V. Krishnakumar

  1. The multiple forms of Horus
  2. Classification of Shiva
  3. Bahubali and origin of Jainism
  4. The incarnations of Lord Vishnu
  5. Arjuna’s penance of Mahabalipuram
  6. Varadaraja Perumal

Arjuna’s penance of Mahabalipuram 

The very name of the city is related to Mahabali whom we have mapped to Osiris. The great out-door panel in Mahabalipurm called Arjuna’s penance is also interpreted as Bhagiratha’s penance according to [93]. As the story of Bhagiratha goes, he did penance to get river Ganga from the heavens for the release of his ancestors. We analyze the sculpture, provide alternative explanations and finally try to unify the two theories, namely Arjuna’s penance and Bhagiratha’s penance.

Our interpretation of the sculpture:

We interpret the sculpture assuming that it is Bhagiratha’s story. The sculpture can be partitioned into upper and lower halves. The upper half can be a scene from Egypt, while the lower half from India. The upper half has Bhagiratha doing penance. The god before him is possibly the living king because he is not inside a shrine, that is, he is a living god, possibly interacting with Bhagiratha. It may be noted that the living king is viewed as a manifestation of god Horus in Egypt. We have mapped the Egyptian Horus to Lord Murugan of India in an earlier article. We claim that this Egyptian god is possibly Horus in view of the spear in his hand and four arms. The apparent contradiction of living god with four arms can be explained by the fact that the sculpture is the Indianized view of a god in Egypt, therefore it need not be either compatible with the Egyptian depiction of gods and kings or realistic. The king is blessing Bhagiratha by releasing his ancestors. The other gods in the upper half, are in the typical Min-Hor like posture with right hand in the blessing pose while the left is close to the waist as discussed in the context of Lord Venkateshwara earlier.

The lower half has a temple with the image of a god who can be Lord Murugan as he is blessing with his right hand while the left hand is in the standard position of Min-Hor.  There are some, who are worshipping this god, with scholars around; this resembles the description of Thoth. Recall that we have mapped Thoth and Min-Hor to Lord Murugan. Therefore we can view this shrine in the Indian scene to represent the living god in Egypt whom Bhagiratha is praying. Some are praying Nagas, while Nagas are also praying some one, may be Lord Murugan. There are monkeys and elephants in the lower half but neither of them can be seen in the upper half consistent with the mapping of the lower half to be a scene from India.

Following are some interpretations for the Bhagiratha story that are the consequences of our interpretation of this sculpture in Mahabalipuram. There are two possibilities namely Bhagiratha was a king in India who went to Egypt for some purpose versus he was an Egyptian king:

Case 1:  Bhagiratha was a king in India and visited Egypt for two related purposes namely some thing to do with his ancestors and bringing water to Egypt. We have three possibilities:

  • It is possible that, Bhagiratha’s ancestors were in Egypt for some reason and he got them released. He might have helped Egyptians in getting water in some way in return for getting those ancestors back. It may be noted that the Egyptians always carefully managed their water resource; never did they have the luxury of plenty of water round the year [1]. Bhagiratha might have helped them in water management with some ingenuity in return for the release of his ancestors.
  • The ‘ancestors of Bhagiratha’ may actually mean the Egyptians who were still there in Egypt while some had migrated to India. They were possibly in trouble with scarcity of water and Bhagiratha might have helped them.
  • Egyptian kings had the practice of performing the death ceremony of all their ancestors once in ten years by visiting their tombs [111]. Bhagiratha’s visit can be one such visit to perform ceremonies (assuming he was a migrant to India) that also involves helping them to get water in some way.

Case 2: Bhagiratha was an Egyptian king therefore the upper part of the sculpture captures an event of Egypt and the lower half just depicts an Indian contemporary scene. We have two possibilities here:

  • Sacrificing kings and priests for getting good crops and water in the river was a regular practice in Egypt [1]. We have already mapped penance in Indian context to death in the Egyptian context. Thus Bhagiratha’s penance may actually be an act of sacrificing him for the sake of Nile’s inundation. This theory is supported by the depiction of gods in the upper half who are welcoming Bhagiratha.
  • This can be simply the Osiris story itself. Bhagiratha doing penance refers not only to the dead Osiris of Egypt but also to the Arjuna penance of the Draupadi cult; the god before him is to be interpreted as Thoth whose representation is of course Indian, that is of lord Murugan and the river brought by Bhagiratha can be symbolic of Nile inundation, for which Osiris is the god.  Note that we have already compared the death of Osiris to Arjuna’s penance in an earlier article. Thus we are unifying two independent and hitherto believed to be unconnected theories regarding the Mahabalipuram sculpture: one claiming it to be Bhagiratha penance and the other claiming it as Arjuna’s penance. We have unified them by mapping them both to the death of Osiris, by explaining the two penance events as two versions of Osiris death. Further this case is substantiated by the name of the town Mahabalipuram meaning ‘the town of the great Bali’, whom we have already mapped to Osiris.


  • We have tried to explain the meaning of the grand sculpture of Mahabalipuram.
  • We have unified the theories of Arjuna’s penance and Bhagiratha’s penance with an alternative explanation.
  • We have provided one more evidence for the mapping of death in Egypt to penance in India.


[1] J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, A study in Magic and Religion, 3rd Edition, Macmillan and Co. London, 1914

[5] Richard H Wilkinson, The Complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003



[111] Toby Wilkinson, The rise and fall of Ancient Egypt, Bloomsbury, London, 2011


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One Response to Mahabalipuram Arjuna Penance

  1. Narasimha says:

    I like this

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