Kirata Arjunam – Art meets art spanning 1300 years

How do we reach out to the next generation and imbibe in them the values of our land, of its art, of art appreciation. These are questions which keep coming up during our discussions. Visual art is definitely something that is attracting the next generation and though we may scoff at the comics and gaming culture, its there to stay. So today we are going to marry a Kanchi Kailasanatha sculpture ( one of my personal favorites) with the latest in digital illustrative art.

The story itself is an interesting anecdote from the Vana Parva of the Mahabaratha, wherein Arjuna splits from his brothers to do penance and procure the Pasupatha Astra from Shiva. Being the benevolent but mischievous God that he is, Shiva decides to test his devotee’s prowess himself before bestowing the boon. So he takes the form of Kirata ( a hunter) with his accompaniment of a Bow and quiver full of arrows, accompanied by Uma as the Kirata woman, enters the same forest in which Arjuna is doing his penance. Just at that moment, Arjuna is attacked by a fearsome Demon Mukasura, who has taken the form of a Wild boar. Seeing the wild boar rushing at him, the accomplished marksmen that he is, Partha ( Arjuna) lets fly a deadly arrow from his Bow Gaandiva, going for the Boar’s head. At the same instant Kirata also lets fly an arrow, which find its target in the rear of the Boar. Both the arrows hit the target at the same instant !! Now, this led to a quarrel among the two, with Arjuna claiming the hunt as his and accusing the hunter for shooting from the rear. The hunter explains that this was not a duel to have the rules of engagement drawn and to attack an animal from behind thus is no wrong ! ( Rama felling Vaali ?)

The argument continues and soon escalates into a tussle. Being warriors both settle on a duel to find out the better among them. A Shell shocked Arjuna soon sees his prowess with the Bow is matched if not bettered by the lowly hunter. His Bow string is deftly cut by the hunter’s arrow and he jumps into to engage in a wrestling match, in which too he is matched. To his surprise, the hunter doesn’t even seem to break a sweat, while he is almost dead with exhaustion. The popular version, says that he stops to create a small Linga and offers prayers with flowers to it, to invoke his blessing and taken on his opponent once again, when he is surprised to find the flowers which he offered the Linga are now adorning the hunter. Realising the true identity of his opponent, he falls at his feet and surrenders to his grace. Rest is history. There is another version that during the wrestling brawl, Arjuna accidentally caught Kirata’s feet and since he bestows grace on whoever touched his feet, Shiva immediately stopped fighting etc. But this is the crux of the Kirata Arjunam story.

Now, thanks to Mr. Abhilash Narayanan, Creative designer & Animation director, who is sharing some of his works with us, we see the story brought to life in the technology of today.

you can see more of his works at his site below

Abhiram’s site

Now, we transport ourselves back in time to the Kanchi Kailasantha temple. This panel must have been featured long ago, as its one of my favorite panels. The dynamism and sheer energy captured in this typical Hollywood style ` Face Off ‘ posture is an arresting sight. Maybe it was waiting to be pitted head to head against the best of digital art.

Photos : courtesy Mr Arvind and Mr Swaminathan.

We have the two warriors, standing their ground, locking gazes, as they are caught in the act of drawing their bows. Its interesting to notice how they seem to have slung two quivers on their backs, interesting only one has a waist sword. That this panel depicts the Kirata Arjunam is seen distinctly by the Boar in the background exquisitely sculpted behind the two figures despite the maze of their legs.

Now, comes the difficult question. Who among the two is the Lord Shiva as Kirata the Hunter and who is Arjuna. Lets take a closer look at the two figures.

and focus on the ornamentation and head dress in particular.

Lets list down the major differences between the two fighters.

Clearly, the figure to the left of the panel ( right as you view it) – wears a tall crown and a Yagnopavitham, while the other has his hair tied in a kind of bun, wears the Channavira ( cross belts) and carries a waist sword whose hilt is clearly seen.

The oral tradition is that Arjuna must have gone as an ascetic, must be emaciated from the severe penance ( he is said to have subsisted on air alone in the final months of his penance ) and there is also a ref to him wearing a sword with a golden hilt

Ref in Mahabratha

“At Yudhishthira’s command, Dhananjaya of immeasurable prowess set out (from Kamyaka) to obtain a sight of Sakra, the chief of the celestials and of Sankara, the god of gods. And the strong-armed Arjuna of great might set out armed with his celestial bow and a sword with golden hilt, for the success of the object he had in view, northwards, towards the summit of the Himavat.

But then, when we come to Kirata, he is clearly is portrayed as a hunter and not as a resplendent King, and Shiva is hardly ever shown with a Krita makuda. Further there is this reference in Sri R. Nagasamy’s article.

Kirata or Tripurantaka

However in many Chola sculptures and also Bronzes (Melapperumpallam image) Kirata will be shown like a hunter with round bellied body , beard and cannavira. His hair would be tied as a bun-like knot and not the jata-makuta one sees in the Tripurari form.

But again the Book reference is a bit unclear. When Arjuna exhausts the twin inexhaustible quivers gifted to him by Agni ( burning of the Kandava forest episode
Fire in the Khadava forest ) he tried to use his Bow as a spear , but is thwarted by Shiva.

Ref in Mahabaratha

And beholding his bow snatched from him, Arjuna took up his sword, and wishing to end the conflict, rushed at his foe. And then the Kuru prince, with the whole might of his arms, struck that sharp weapon upon the head of the Kirata, a weapon that was incapable of being resisted even by solid rocks. But that first of swords, at touch of the Kirata’s crown, broke into pieces

So, we are left with an Iconographic puzzle. Whats your take on this?

I would go with Arjuna with the crown and Kirata with the Bun head dress.

18 thoughts on “Kirata Arjunam – Art meets art spanning 1300 years

  1. இந்த ஓவியமும் சிற்பமும் ஒன்றோடு ஒன்று போட்டியிட்டு கண்களுக்கு விருந்தளித்தன. மிக அருமை. நன்றி

  2. yes arjuna is one wearing kirtamaguda as a man belonging to warrior class he wears yagnobavitha since can wield bough with either hands is called sava sachi hence quivers on 2 shoulders gods r also shown or with 2 quivers ex .srirangam renganatha during horse vaganam but being the lord he makes the horse to bear on its 2 sides

  3. தற்கால ஓவியம், பல்லவர் சிற்பம், மகாபாரதம், நாகசாமி என எங்கெங்கு எம்மை அழைத்துச் சென்று காட்டி, விளக்கி, கலையூட்டம் தந்தீர்கள் நன்றி.

  4. Beautifu. I too interpret Siva with jada mudi and Arjuna being a prince with greedam.

    This representation is in Koyambedu lavakusa temple, but not this clear. May be Vijay could make it clear for us

  5. Looking at the postures adopted by the sculptures – the one with the crown is in natya abhinaya. This could indicate Shiva. The majestic gait / bearing of a dancer (Shiva) is absent in the other one. In case of the other sculpture, one can see the rigid bearing of the kshatriya (or military bearing) who is drawing arrow from his quiver to indicate that it is Arjuna.

    • hi pravin,

      Arjuna was a famed dancer ( remember uvashi’s curse ) – the one he used during the 13th year – to teach dance as brihannala!! similarly Shiva is in disguise in this episode and has donned the role of hunter !.


  6. காரைக்காலிற்கு அருகே இருக்கும் திருவேட்டக்குடியில் அர்ஜூனன் பசுபதா அஸ்திரம் பெற்றதாக கோவில் வரலாறு சொல்கிறது. அங்கே என்னுடைய கல்லூரி அமைந்திருந்ததால் தரிசனம் கிடைத்தது.

  7. அருமை விஜய். The halo on the left figure (right as we view it) and the crown and the mystic smile indicate me that it is Shiva.

  8. thanks Ramesh – but shiva is never seen with a crown ( only jata makuda) even in normal poses. so currently when he is the guise of a hunter ( albiet a hunter king) – is what creates the confusion

  9. hi vj,

    thanks for getting them online.. as a true fan of stone art, who loves to travel to such places to gaze at them.. has found something really interesting to note things in detail.. am overjoyed that this site is getting out the interest which was buried in me long back and happy and really enjoying in understanding the sculptures and the meaning of beauty behind it. thanks again.

  10. கிராத அர்ஜுநர்கள் – என்று தலைப்பிடலாம்; இவ்வரலாற்றைக் கூறும் நூலின் பெயர் ’கிராதார்ஜுநீயம்’.
    கிராதன் – வேடன்


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