Gangavatarana, the principal theme of the scroll, was the result of practically three myths, which all related to Ganga. Ganga was one of Mahavishnu's three wives, the two other being Saraswati and Lakshmi. One day discovering Ganga flirting with Mahavishnu Saraswati and Ganga resorted to a quarrel and cursed mutually to degrade as rivers and go to earth. Around the same time Ganga and other goddesses went to Brahmadeva. The Ikshvaku king Mahabhishaja also accompanied them. All of a sudden in a gust of wind the lower garment of Ganga slipped down her waist. All turned their eyes away from Ganga but Mahabhishaja kept on looking at her nude person. For this impertinence Brahmadeva cursed him to be born on earth and wed Ganga when she descended earth. Mahabhishaka opted to be born as Pratipa's son.
On earth Sagara, a king of Ikshvaku dynasty, was blessed with 60 thousand sons. They were mighty and hence had grown arrogant and impertinent. On their strength Sagar held Ashvamedha yajna. His sons were deployed to follow and protect the horse of the yajna. Near the spiritual seat of sage Kapil the horse disappeared. Sagara's arrogant sons charged the sage of stealing their horse. The annoyed sage burnt them all save five by curse born of his great spiritual powers. When entreated, the sage modified his curse to provide only that their redemption could be worked by sprinkling upon their ashes the holy waters of river Ganga after she descended to earth from heaven. Sagara's successors, Raja Dilip and others did severe penance but with no result.
When Bhagiratha ascended dynasty's throne, he too resorted to rigorous penance. He succeeded in pleasing and persuading Ganga to descend on earth, but she feared the earth would not be able to bear its mighty current. Ganga had a secret passion for Shiva but Parvati, proud of being Shiva's consort and aware of Ganga's intantions, always looked at her with suspicion and avoided her. They often quarrelled on this issue. Ganga thought of exploiting this occasion. She suggested Bhagirath to persuade Shiva to hold her upon his head when she descended the earth. Bhagirath again undertook rigorous penance and persuaded Shiva for it. When Ganga descended from heaven Shiva upheld her mid-way on his head. Ganga, however, had different designa in her mind. She thought of abducting and carrying him with her to earth. Annoyed Shiva arrested her in his hair obstructing even her passage to earth. After fresh penance of Bhagirath Shiva let loose one of his locks, the 'alaka', and allowed Ganga to ooze along it. Falling along his 'alaka' Ganga descended the earth with Alakananda as her name. Shiva, as he upheld Ganga upon his head, came to be known also as Gangadhara. This often occasioned several quarrels between her and Parvati.
Bhagirath's problem was not over. While guiding Ganga's course towards the ashrama of sage Kapila for redeeming Sagara's sixty thousand sons Ganga happened to pass along the seat of sage Jahnu and the naughty river flooded and swept the abode and the seat of the holy saint. The enraged sage Jahnu drank Ganga and only after a lot of persuasion by Bhagirath released her. Bhagirath then led her to the place where Sagara's sons were burnt. The holy waters of Ganga redeemed them. This myth of Ganga's descent has been symbolised first by Shiva who on the top of the scroll is seen holding Ganga on his hair and at the end by the white elephant figure symbolising the redemption of Sagara's sixty thousand sons. In the middle of the current the figure of the sage represents Jahnu who drank Ganga and released her later. Being thus born of Jahnu Ganga got her Jahnavi name.
In another myth Ashtavasus were cursed by sage Vashishtha for stealing his cow Nandini. While on a picnic near the ashrama of the sage the wife of one of the Ashtavasus saw Nandini and was infatuated to obtain the cow. She persuaded her husband to steal it. When the sage came to know about it through his spiritual, he cursed them to be born as men on earth. Later the sage was appeased to modify his curse to provide that seven of them would die soon after their birth and return to Brahmaloka but the eighth who had actually stolen the cow would live his full tenure. The eighth Vasu was Dyau who was born later as Devavrata, or Bhishma, the known hero of Mahabharata.
Ashtavasus were wandering around the earth looking for someone appropriate to bear them. They came across Ganga. They prayed her to wed some king and bear them by him as her sons. They also laid before their condition that soon after their birth she would cast them into river to let them die. She agreed with a counter condition. After some days Ganga, flirtatious as she was, saw Pratipa engaged in penance. She went to him and set on his right thigh and prayed the sage to marry her. Pratipa pointed out that the right thigh was not for wife but rather for children. He would hence marry her to his son as his daughter-in-law. His son was none else but Mahabhishaja of Brahmadeva's curse. He was born to him as Shantanu. Ganga was married to Shantanu on condition which she allowed to Ashtavasus. She bore within a year seven sons one by one and threw them into river. When the eighth child was born and Ganga set forth for casting it into river, Shantanu broke his pledge and insisted to give him the child. As ordained, on his breaking the pledge Ganga deserted him and disappeared with the child. After thirtysix years Shantanu was one day hunting around Ganga. He was amazed to see a boy stopping the entire current of the river by his arrows. He felt he was his own son by Ganga. He invoked Ganga who appeared in response.She gave to Shantanu his son and all divine weapons that her son had mastered and disappeared soon after. By depicting seven infant heads floating on river's surface and the eighth one is in the hands of a lady, obviously Ganga, the scroll symbolises the myth of Ashtavasus.
Ganga had developed great affection for her son Devavrata or Bhishma who had taken a pledge not to marry for the sake of his father's happiness. His father, Shantanu had fallen in love with a Dhivara maid Satyavati but she declined to marry unless he promised that a son born by her alone would inherit his throne. Bhishma, being the eldest, was state's real heir. To ease his father's dilemma Bhishma pledged neither to inherit his father's state nor to ever marry lest anyone in his line ever laid his claim for it. Meanwhile a woman by the name of Amba saw Bhishma and fell in love with him but Bhishma, bound by his pledge, declined her proposal of marriage. Amba was deeply hurt and took a vow that she would work for Bhishma's end. Once she met Ganga around her banks. Ganga, the annoyed mother, had a quarrel with Amba for designing against her son. The two women figures, recurring thoughout the scroll, symbolise through Ganga's quarrels with Saraswati, Parvati and Amba the disquiet which makes the essence of feminine mind.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.