Why are there depictions of Buddha in the Tanjore Big Temple?

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

Little closer.

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.

22 thoughts on “Why are there depictions of Buddha in the Tanjore Big Temple?

  1. Very good Post Vijay.
    RRC likes Tirupuranthaka Shiva very much. There are plenty of Thevaram Songs the moovar mentioned this Tiripura vatham and praises this act of Shiva, which saved all the living beings wherever they are.

    Expecting many more..

  2. வாழ்த்துகள் விஜய், புத்தரும் மஹா விஷ்ணுவின் அவதாரமே எனச் சில புராணங்கள் கூறுவதாய்ப் படித்திருக்கிறேன். மேன்மேலும் உங்கள் தேடலின் மூலம் பல புதிய சிற்ப அற்புதங்களைக் காணும் ஆவலுடன் இருக்கிறேன்.

  3. Thanks Dhivakar sir…The Big temple abounds in the form of Shiva as Tripurantaka – as many as 30 of this single icon are found in the Vimana..was defn the Emperor’s favorite.

    நன்றி கீதா அம்மா … மல்லையில் ஆதி வராஹ குடவரையில் உள்ள பல்லவ கல்வெட்டில் இவ்வாறு உள்ளது

    South Indian Inscriptions, XII, No 116 – on top of the Harihara panel, which describes the ten incarnations of Vishnu in order as Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narasimha (man-lion), Vamana (dwarf), Rama (Parasurama), Rama (Rama of Ayodhya), Rama (Balrama), Buddha and Kalki.

  4. i was in madras recently to attend a course of legacy of jainism in TN and we touched briefly upon various cults incl Buddhism,Vaishnavism and Buddha as an avtaar of Vishnu

  5. Hi, very nice post! I have always wondered about the connection between Vishnu and Buddha. You have explained everything clearly.Is Buddha mentioned as ‘Thiripuranthaka’ anywhere?

  6. புத்த​ரை மஹாவிஷ்ணுவின் அவதாரம் என சில புத்தகங்களில் படித்துள்​ளேன். பல ​தெலுங்கு பக்தி படங்களிலும் பார்த்திருக்கி​றேன். ஆனால் அது பல்லவர் காலம் முத​​லே வழக்கில் உள்ளது என அறிந்ததில்​லை.

    மிக அரு​மையான பதிவு. திரிபுராந்தகர் க​தை​யை மிக அரு​மையாக ​​சொல்லியிருக்கிறீர்கள்.

    மிக்க நன்றி.

  7. Can we tell pallava tried to unite all the religions in his country to form a single religion.. just like Constantine the great?!

  8. Hi prasanna

    The period of the Pallavas 7th – 8th C CE – saw a tremendous churning of the religious climate in South India. Jainism which had taken a strong root including reaching up to the Monarchy was being shaken by the powerful bhakti movement. But Buddhism did not experience the same animosity…the interpretation of this verse is really tough in the context of those days. We can only assume..


  9. That’s fascinating. I’d heard that to Hindus, Buddha functioned as the Avatar needed to lead folks astray, but never’ understand it until now. that explains it, thank you.

  10. Acceptance of Buddhism was to eliminate evils of the indus society that went over board at that time. Going by the concept of ‘Yada yada hi dharmasya’, buddha having changed the social structure may have been adopted as a part of Vishnu avatars.

  11. namaste,

    Thanks for the great photos and the nice description.

    When I saw the chariot of shiva, I was reminded of the beautiful shloka from shiva mahimna stotra: rathaH xoNi yanta …, where the poet says that all the arrangements of shiva as just an ADaMbara (show).

    namaste again

  12. This is a subtly negative portrayal of people believing in Buddha… Am not sure how the Buddhists would take this 🙂
    Also, are there references for these legends or like many others only through word of mouth?

  13. இதில் உள்ள புத்தன் கரிகால்சோழனையே குறிக்கும். அசுரரும் கரிகால்சோழனுமே தமிழர்களான அசுரராவர். சிவன் அசுரனு மல்ல தேவனுமல்ல; சுரன் மட்டுமே. முருகனான செங்குட்டுவனின் தந்தையே சிவனாகக் காட்டப்பட்டுள்ளான். ஆயினும் தஞ்சைப்பெரியகோயிலில் வரலாற்றை மறைத்து மாற்றும் முயற்சி நடந்துள்ளது. இக்கோயிலின் பெயரிலும் பல புரட்டு வேலைகள் நடந்துள்ளன. பிரகத் சுரன் யார்? அலெக்சாண்டனின் அடிமை ஆரிய செல்யூக்கஸ்நிக்கந்தனே பிரகத்; தமிழில் பிரகத்தன்; சிவௌக்கும் அத்தன் என்ற பெயரும் நக்கனென்ற பெயரும் உண்டு. இவனே பழந்தமிழ்ப்பாடல்களில் கபிலரிடம் தமிழ்பயின்றவன் எனக் காண்கிறோம். கபிலரின் குறிஞ்சிப்பாட்டின் அடிக்குறிப்பு “ஆரியவரச பிரகத்தனுக்குத் தமிழறிவித்தற்குப் பாடியது” என உள்ளது. இந்தப் பிரகத்தன் அலெக்சாந்தனின் = யமதக்கினியின் வளர்ப்புமகனான முசுகுந்த பரசுராம சிவனின் நண்பன் பிரகத்த சம்பர செல்யுக்கஸ்நிக்கந்தன். இந்தப் பிரகத்தனுக்கு ஏன் கோயில் கட்டவேண்டும் என்பது குறித்து இன்றுவரை எவருமே ஆய்வுசெய்ததில்லை. அது ஒரு நீண்ட நெடிய வரலாறு. அவ்வரலாற்றை எனது வலைத்தளத்தில் விரிவாகக் காணும்படி கோருகிறேன்.

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