For a temple as famous as the Tanjore Brihadeshwara, it does have more than its fair share of legends associated with it. We have seen of these before, including the most popular one of the Shadow of the Vimana.. Today, we are to see another popular riddle - Why are there depictions of Buddha in the temple. Yes, its depictions in plural ! There are three places where we get to see the form of Buddha - two carved into stone and one a part of the famed Fresco.
( Images Courtesy: Mr Satheesh, Mr Arvind and Mr Thyagarajan from the fantastic book )
A careful study of the Tripurantaka episode reveals the clues and explains the panels.
The three sons of the demon Taraka - Vidyunmali, Tarakaksha, and Viryavana , were devout followers of Shiva and by the power of their austerities they sought from Brahma the boon of immortality. This was not within the creators powers as all things had to perish, so they sought a seemingly impossible end - They sought three forts, one of pure gold, another of silver, last of iron and each could fly !! Once in a thousand years, the three would align in a single line for a brief second and it was at this moment that they could be felled by a single arrow of Shiva. Having received this boon they sought the services of the divine architect Maya to cast their flying fortresses.
The years passed as centuries and their power thus complimented they grew in prosperity and challenged the Devas. Powerless against them, the devas sought the help of Shiva, who being the benevolent self, said that ` as long as they are my followers, i cannot do anything’. The time when destiny brought the three flying citadels in the same line drew near and in desperation the devas sought the help of Vishnu. Seeing the need to correct the balance of power, Vishnu took upon himself to lead the Tripura demons out of Shiva worship. He took the form of a Buddha ( the operative word here is “a”) and led them out of the Shivaite faith.
Now, Shiva took on the task of ending their rule. The Devas with the help of Visvakarma constructed the chariot of the earth, the Sun and the Moon became its wheels, the bow was the Mount Meru itself and Vasuki the Bow string. Vishnu himself became the arrow. Brahma became his charioteer and he led the Deva army along with Ganesha, Skanda and Mahishasuramardhini.
Quoting Dr R. Nagasamy from his article
“Lord Brahma addressed Siva and said “Lord you are Omniscient and Omnipotent and you do not require all these chariot, weapons, and the retinue to destroy the Asuras? The Asuras will disappear the moment you “will”, but if you are still resorting to these acts it is purely out of your sport”. Siva laughed and at the same moment the Asuras were burnt to ashes. In order to please the Devas Siva discharged the arrow. That is the story of Tripurantaka. “
Now, lets analyse the panels. Stones first - Panel 1
The first part, you can see the three clearly - Mahishasuramardhini on her lion mount, Ganesha on his mouse mount and Skanda on his peacock mount.
The middle row seems to depict the battle - though Shiva is not shown. The bottom is left unfinished.
The adjacent row has the depiction of Buddha on top with the Tripura demons worshiping him with their consorts
The next row, seems to show the fall of the demons. The posture of the hands marked below, seemed to implore the fallen demons to seek Shiva’s grace.
The last row shows them returning to worship of the Linga with one holding it reverently above his head.
Lets now move on to another varied depiction of the same in stone.
Tirpura demons listening to Buddha
Shiva riding on his chariot to battle with Brahma as his charioteer
Finally the famed Fresco - which we discussed before.
Here again you see the Depiction of Buddha and also Mahishasuramardhini, Brahma, Skanda and Ganesha.
Its interesting to note that there was a conscious effort even during the Pallava period to show Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. However, is this Buddha the same as the Sakyamuni is a difficult question to comprehend. But the point to dwell on is the portrayal in both stone and paint - the size and the dignified manner in which he is portrayed. The reverence is very visible.