Heritage · Photography · Temple · Travel Writing

Understanding The cat of Mahabalipuram

Near Chennai, on the south-eastern shores of India, by the Bay of Bengal stands the ancient capital of the Pallava Kings – Mahabalipuram. This little town, a UNESCO world heritage site, comprises many spectacular granite hewn, 7th century monuments. Principally, there are a group fo five rock cut temples – called the five chariots of the pandavas (mythical heroes of the Indian epic mahabharata), a stand alone temple called Shore temple that was submerged at one point and a gigantic bas-relief sculpture called Descent of the Ganges. This same sculpture was earlier called Arjuna‘s Penance but is now called Bhagiratha‘s Penance. It is said that the sage king Bhagiratha worshipped the principal Hindu deity Shiva so that the sacred river Ganges could be brought to earth. This event of celestial significance was witnessed by many divine and earthly beings. It is not possible for me to explain in a short post the entire sculpture and the meaning hidden therein. It is quite enormous – approx 50×100 feet in size and profusely carved. This photo below sourced from wikipedia should give you some idea  and impress that the elephants seen are indeed life-size.

Further-on,the top of the rock is said to represent the himalayas, while the many flying beings are the kinnars (celestial nymphs).


My focus for this post is not on the humans, but on the animals that appear in this spectacular rock carving. I photographed this in 2013 (and earlier in 2005 as well, but this is from the later trip).

The elephant carving is said to be the best anywhere in India  – the adult and baby elephants are said to be witness to Bhagiratha (not seen in my photo) performing a penance in order to propitiate Shiva. A few monkeys in yoga postures are seen, as well.


However, the most curious animal is a cat near the trunk of the elephant. This cat has one eye open, is standing on one leg and while does not appear to be menacing, appears to be somewhat cautious. It is this cat sculpture that had piqued my curiosity on both occasions and my understanding is formed by what I have heard from guides and read elsewhere online.

If you notice carefully, the cat is approached in an obsequious manner by a hare who folds his hands in namaste . The cat’s open eye is looking at him. This scene is an interpretation and a retelling of a Buddhist Jataka tale – the story of Dadikarna.

In that story, it is said that once there was a hare and a bird who debated ad nauseum over an issue but failed to resolve it. The hare proposed, let’s visit dadikarna – an ascetic cat with a reputation for piety. They both went to the cat with their problems. The cat responded, “I’m old and feeble and unable to hear you both, could you come a little closer?”

As soon as they did, the cat grabbed and ate them both, for that is the nature of a cat. Like all Jataka tales, this one has a moral – Be wary of false prophets.

Here in the relief, we see a few hares and a few mice – not exactly a sparrow but the artists have done a marvelous job of showing the penultimate moment of the tale – whence the faith of the devotee on a false guru is unbroken still. I find it worth pondering that such a small portion of Arjuna’s Penance bears such deep meaning, a complete Understanding of this entire sculpture can consume many, many posts.

I end this one here though. Talk soon, dear reader.


6 thoughts on “Understanding The cat of Mahabalipuram

  1. Well written post. I am travelling next week to this place. Please include the name in main menu. Would make it easy to locate post. Thanks.


  2. I remember being intrigued by the Mahabalipuram cat years ago in a college art history class powerpoint lecture. The cat recently came to mind (for whatever reason) and I happened upon your article. Thank you for the wonderful explanation. I will share it with all of my cat-loving friends.


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