When it comes to the age old art and architecture, especially the stone carvings, Mahabalipuram draws the maximum number of tourists from all over the world. The unique and majestic monolithic rock sculptures and carvings make Mahabalipuram an unbeatable tourist destination. Most of these splendid structures belong to the 7th and 8th century. The Arjuna's Penance is, undoubtedly, the most famous stone carving at Mahabalipuram. This enormous relief is made on two massive boulders.
There are several stories associated to the theme of Arjuna's Penance. Some people believe that the sculpture and the carvings depict Arjuna undertaking a penance to obtain a rare weapon from Lord Shiva to counter his enemies. Contrary to this, another sect of people advocates another story, which says that the structure portrays the image of King Bhagiratha's penance to bring down River Ganga to earth for purifying the souls of his ancestors.
However, the structure is counted as one of the most beautifully carved structures at Mahabalipuram and even in the entire world. It has a naturally created cleave between the two boulders, which separates the entire relief into two halves. This cleave represents the descent of the celestial river carved here.
The structure is a skillfully carved edifice, and is named after Arjuna, the hero of the epic Mahabharata. There are a number of figures sculptured on the rock, which are admired and appreciated for their vitality and spontaneity.
Measuring 31m (96 ft) in length and 9m (43 ft) in height, this rock carving is one of the biggest open-air rock canvases in the world. It has over 100 figures of gods and semi divine creatures, birds and beasts, man and saint. The detailed carvings of Arjuna's Penance depict the most endearing and natural renditions of animals especially the elephants and monkeys.