The crowning masterpiece of Mamallapuram’s stonework, this giant relief carving is one of India's greatest ancient art works. Inscribed on two huge, adjacent boulders, the Penance bursts with scenes of Hindu myth and everyday vignettes of South Indian life. In the centre nagas (snake-beings), descend a once water-filled cleft, representing the Ganges. To the left Arjuna (hero of the Mahabharata) performs self-mortification (fasting on one leg), so that the four-armed Shiva will grant him his most powerful weapon, the god-slaying Pasupata.
Some scholars believe the carving shows not Arjuna but the sage Bagiratha, who did severe penance to obtain Shiva's help in bringing the Ganges to earth. Shiva is attended by dwarves, and celestial beings fly across the upper parts of the carving. Below Arjuna/Bagiratha is a temple to Vishnu, mythical ancestor of the Pallava kings. The many wonderfully carved animals include a herd of elephants and – humour amid the holy – a cat mimicking Arjuna's penance to a crowd of mice.
South along the road from Arjuna's Penance are the unfinished Panch Pandava Mandapa cave temple; the Krishna Mandapa, which famously depicts Krishna lifting Govardhana Hill to protect cows and villagers from a storm sent by Indra; an unfinished relief carving of similar size to Arjuna's Penance; and the Dharmaraja Cave Temple.