The monkey family sit together, the baby on his mother’s lap, and the daddy monkey sits behind grooming the mother monkey. They are carved in stone, and the peaceful family group has been sitting here, enjoying the afternoon sunshine, since the seventh century AD at Mahabalipuram, an ancient place of monuments carved into the rock.
Along the Indian coast of the Bay of Bengal, Mahabalipuram lies 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu.
Near the monkey family, stands one of the most amazing monuments ever carved into rock, known as Arjuna’s Penance, also known as the Descent of the Ganges. The giant whale-shaped rock, about 96 feet long and 43 feet high is carved with over a thousand figures—mostly incredibly charming animals and angels.
They have come together to witness an event. There are two different accounts of what the event is. According to one account, Arjuna, a hero of one of the two major epic books of India, the Mahabharata, is doing a penance, in order to win a boon from the god Shiva. One can see that he looks like he is making a strenuous effort.
Mr. G. Balaji, who is my guide on this adventure, points out the figure that may be Arjuna. He is very thin, his ribs are showing; clearly he is an ascetic, and he stands on one leg. Hopefully, Shiva will grant his wish.
Mr. Balaji is an anthropologist and historian with the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation; and I feel fortunate in having him along as a guide to Mahabalipuram.
In the other account of what this means, Mr. Balaji tells me, the entire bas-relief represents the descent of the River Ganges from heaven (although the Ganges River is, in geographical reality, located several hundred miles to the north). Nevermind, this is the land of myth.
A fissure maybe six feet wide runs lengthwise down the entire bas relief. This is the River Ganges falling from heaven. One can see snake beings carved inside the fissure—their coils resembling the waves of the river. The sacred Ganges starts in heaven, and to break her fall, she lands first on the head of Shiva and becomes entangled in his hair, then she falls more gently down the rest of the way to earth.
A multitude of delightful and charming animals and angels attend this event—most notably an elephant family, portrayed in stone in the most engaging way possible—very lifelike. The baby elephants play underneath the mother. Another elephant follows along behind.
In front of the elephants stands a cat, his hands raised in prayer. All around him are mice. Mr. Balaji suggests that they may be praying to the cat, to thank him for not eating them. (Though someone else tells me later that this is not entirely certain!)
On the other side of the fissure, there are geese, lions, and deer. Everywhere there are heavenly beings—flying, musical angels, angels who are part bird, and countless others.
What is more clear than anything is that these great carved beings were put here by people who loved animals—who were, in the seventh century AD, part of the long, bemusing and enchanting story of India, which has, reaching back into the mists of time, always revered nature—the animals, the plants, the stones and the trees.
Nearby, in a large rock-cut temple are six pillars with carved lions. Mahabalipuram illustrates the transition being made in the seventh century from rock-cut temples to temples built of stone as separate structures.
The natural granite rocks, which must have existed on the sea coast for perhaps millions of years were no doubt always perceived as sacred in themselves—even long before the great boulders began to be carved. The area, which covers many acres, is incredibly peaceful. It is kept very clean and beautiful. Grass and trees grow among the boulders. One huge boulder, called Krishna’s Butterball, serves as shade and shelter for a herd of goats, who might appear to be in great danger from the rock, perhaps 25 feet high, which looks like it may roll over at any moment, but it seems to have been there for centuries, and the goats lie calmly underneath it. Occasional dogs also find a peaceful spot for a nap on the grass.
Photos: Sharon St Joan
To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, please go to