How to distinguish between Sri Devi and Bhu Devi

There are always trick questions and this is one such. When you murthis with multiple consorts how would you distinguish between them. Are there standard right left positioning – like Vishnu with Sridevi and Bhudevi, how would you distinguish between them. You might ask, why to seek, but then each are expected to bless you with a different gift hamper.

This is especially true when only one is found as part of a buried horde. The answer is pretty simple of course, Iconographic guidelines stipulate that Sridevi always comes with a Kuchabandha or breast band, whereas Bhudevi is without.

Let us test this out in. The Vishnu cave ( Olipathi vishnu griham) in Malaiyadipatti has a depiction of Vishnu with his consorts.

Lets step in closer to view the costumes of the two ladies.

You can clearly make out the distinctions between the two of them.

Let us know see this wonderful 10 C CE bronze currently on exhibit at the London Museum.

We will study the evolution of the Vishnu bronze images including a few early period bronzes shortly, but for the purpose of today’s study, lets just analyse the distinction in wearing the Kuchabandha.

Lets go closer to Sridevi

You can see that she clearly wears the Kuchabhanda.

Now for Bhudevi, who doesn’t wear it.

Now, comes the small niggle. The display board under Bhudevi reads as ” Here she wears the characteristic Kuchabandha or breast band‘ which is wrong. She is not wearing in this bronze nor does she ever portrayed as wearing under iconographic canons.

Hope the authorities in the London Museum can make this small correction.

When Siva rested

We had earlier seen how Shiva contemplates to consume the poison . This post is a continuation of that act, with a brilliant sculpture from Surutuppalli about 60 km from chennai near Uthukkottai. The narrative for this post is courtesy Mr. Shankar Kumar, a medical doctor currently in USA[North Carolina] and a blogger since 2006 (, and and photos are thanks to our expert Mr Ashok Krishnaswamy.

‘ No, means no ! How much ever you plead its going to be the same answer from me’ Nandhi was animated in his refusal as he swung his huge head from side to side.

The dejected crowds let out a collective moan of desperation.

A tense air prevailed as it was no ordinary crowd, for it had Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, Vayu the god of wind, Agni the god of fire, Varuna the god of rain, Narada, Mahalakshmi, Saraswathi and along with them countless devas, rishies.

‘ Its all because of him’ murmured a irritated Vayu.

Indra knew it was directed at him. ‘ Did i do this for me ? I did it for all of us, is it not ?’ so saying he glanced around at the hundred eyes looking at him.

‘ Ok, ok. No point in crying over split milk now’ Brahma tired to pacify everyone.

‘ Well, how to just leave it. What Vayu is saying is right. He asked for Amrit and it is what led to all these events!’ Narada as usual was upto his tricks to flame the fire.

‘ Come on, we were getting bashed right left and centre by the Asuras. Unable to bear this and with no other option in sight, we all agreed to churn the milk ocean to obtain the Amirt. Even then, our limited strength was not enough and we had to enlist the support of the Asuras as well. At that time it sounded like a good idea. Who would have known it would end up like this?’ Indra found his voice once more.

‘ Yes, ofcourse. We are not disputing that. But did we use Vasuki like a normal rope. Scared to hold the head of the snake, we gave it to the demons and held the tail. The savages, they must have used all their strength to squeeze the poor creatures head, that out of extreme pain it spit out its deadly poison. Seeing the frothing deadly poison, all of you ran away for your lives’ Brahma was really angry now.

‘ Didn’t I tell you guys……my dad needs just a little encouragement and then no one can stop his ranting’ would be right words that go with Narada’s sly smile, But he didn’t utter a word, lest his father might blow his top.

Brahma ignored that and continued

‘ The Venom leapt across threatening to devour the three worlds and beyond. I didn’t know what to do, who to seek shelter. Who else to seek refuge under but Shiva’

‘Then too, this same Nandhi blocked our paths, as we sought an audience with Shiva. We half pleaded half begged him to let us through and somehow managed to gatecrash. Finally as we stood in front of the three eyed one, he gave us his all knowing smile and turned his glance at Sundarar who was next to him. In an instant he vanished and returned again with the condensed Poison in his hand. Oh my, such strength in those hands, they didn’t shake even a little on the prospect of carrying the most potent venom ever as he offered it to Shiva. ‘

‘ You guys were not around when it happened, that is why i am giving a detailed account now. Shiva took the entire contents off Sundaramurthy Nayanar’s hand and before we could even contemplate what he was about to do, he swallowed it in one stroke.’

‘ What love he has on this world, knowing that the continued presence of the venom would destroy entire creation, he had a difficult choice. Where to discard the poison, every second he delayed could be catastrophic, he took the decision to consume it himself. We were all taken aback at his selfless act, when…..’ he paused for the effect to sink into the crowd.

Everyone looked at him, open mouthed, gaping at the enormity of the sacrifice that had played out in front of them.

Brahma for once was happy that he was the center of attraction. Narada once again smirked at his dad.

‘ Tell us, what happened next?’ Varuna could not stand the suspense.

‘The poison that he drank had not yet passed his throat, when Uma who was seated next to him, caught his throat in her hands, not allowing the poison to pass through. It finally condensed at his throat’

‘ The enormity of her act dawned on us, as we realised the implications of the aftereffects of the deadly poison if inhaled by shiva, whose very dance fuels the cosmos and dictates its every move. If the poison were to reach him then there is no point of taking it from the outside.’

‘And the only person who knew the implications and had the presence of mind to act instantly was the mother herself. The divine mother, with her overflowing affection over all beings, used all her power to stop the poison from descending and hence by the divine miracles of the couple, we live to tell this tale’. You could see the gratefulness in his eyes and it reflected in those of the assembled crowd.

‘That miracle has no precedent or comparison, nor will there ever be. But we are waiting her for something that happened after this.’ Brahma brought them all to the present from his tale.

‘Yes, ask this Narada. He is the one who told us’ said Brahmma.

‘It is as i told you all. The poison unable to come out or go in, has stuck in the Lord’s throat. He is feeling a bit tired and has rested on Umai’s lap. He has now closed his eyes and in deep sleep’ said Narada

‘ What, He is sleeping. That is my patented posture ! If he were to close his eyes and ly down, what will happen to this world. No wonder the whole universe is darkening and slowing down. I have to see him and my sister Meenakshi and congratulate them on their bravery and selfless act, but this Nandhi is not allowing me in.’ Vishnu was getting agitated.

‘ Sir, It is not a big thing. He just felt a bit dizzy and rested his head on mother’s lap. When he is resting, how can I let everyone in. Please understand, even I cannot go in now. So saying, he turned his head to listen to the sounds inside. ‘ Hang on, I can hear them inside. Let me go in and check’

Hearing the commotion, Surya, the Sun god decided to peep in as his shift was almost getting over.

‘ I too have some time to rise, before that let me get a seek the blessing of Shiva’ felt Chandra the moon god.

They were both just in time to get the darshan of the divine parents in all their splendor as they came out of their chambers, rested and in all their brilliance.

Thiruvattathurai: sculptures and stories and the life of a temple

Today, we are going to see another splendid guest post from Ms. Liesbeth Pankaja Bennink. In the last post she had expertly described the Palanquin and parasol for Gyanasambandar. Today she dwells deeper into this remarkable temple and takes us on a guided tour of how the joy of a temple visit is to be savored.

Just like the temple itself, each murti or sculpture of a deity tells several stories. Each murti represents a purana, a myth. And it also tells the story of the time it was sculpted. How the sculptor depicted the myth in his time. Although a depiction of a murti is directed by the doctrine, by the shastra, there was always the genius of the sculptor who gave shape to this doctrine through his own genius, vision and inspiration.

This post will be about the murtis in relationship to the structure of the temple: what is sometimes called the sculptural program. The stories of the individual murtis I prefer to present separately, in order to give them all due attention.

Entering a temple compound for the first time is always an exciting experience. Every temple has its own energy, and also its own treasures. Some temples are very well known and many photos or books about these can be found. When we enter such a temple we have an expectation. Or even a pre-concept. But the actual experience is always different and unexpected. Entering an unknown temple is like entering a treasure trove full of mysteries waiting to be discovered.

Entering the Shiva temple in Thiruvattathurai was truly such an experience. We walked through the first Gopuram into the outer prakara or courtyard. To our left was the entrance to the courtyard of the Devi shrine. To our right a Nandi and flagpole belonging to the Devi temple and ahead the flagmast and Nandi belonging to the Shiva temple. It was an open space, still cool under the December sun. Crossing the second Gopuram we entered the central courtyard where our view was immediately blocked by the walls of a half-closed mandapa.

We turned left to follow the pradakshina, the circumambulation holding the shrine on our right hand side.

The mandapa was pleasant and quite old. The pillars looked like belonging to the Later Chola to early Nayaka period, somewhere in the 14th century. This mandapa opened towards the South. It was attached to the mukha mandapa which was looking considerable older. It too had a porch opening to the South. After rounding this porch only the courtyard opened wide and we could see the shrine.

What we saw was a temple obviously belonging to the Early Chola period. With niches which housed depictions in stone of murtis or deities. I am not sure, but I think I was kind of stopped right there. Because before me I saw one of the most beautiful Bhikshatana or Shiva as mendicant I have ever seen.

Almost life-sized, shining deep black, caught in movement, a mysterious smile on his lips. Shiva as Bhikshatana or mendicant refers to the myth of Shiva’s dance in the Daruvana.

In the Shivakamasundari temple in Chidambaram we find a beautiful painting depicting this purana.

He holds his trident in his upper left hand and slung over his shoulders. From the trident hangs a bundle of peacock feathers . His left hand holds the skull which is his begging bowl. His lower right hand reaches towards the deer that follows him. In the painting we can see he is holding a little bit of grass with which he feeds the deer which accompanies him. On his left side he is accompanied by a dwarf who holds up a large bowl. In Thiruvattathurai one of the rishipatnis is depicted in a side-panel .

At the conclusion of his confrontation with the rishis is the Daruvana forest Shiva performed his Cosmic Dance. The eight corners of the universe shook, and the river Ganga (streaming through Shiva’s hair) trembled with fright. Parvati joined her husband. There, right next to Bhikshatana in another niche is the Ananda Tandava Murti, Shiva dancing his Dance of Bliss together with Shivakamasundari .

This Nataraja is also remarkable. And it is strange it has so far not been illustrated anywhere, as far as I know. Because of its quality, but also because of the place it may hold in the history of the depiction of Lord Nataraja.

In between Nataraja and Bhikshatana the Remover of Obstacles, Lord Vinayaka, is offering us his blessings. Thus Bhikshatana, Vinayaka and Nataraja are the three murtis presented on the South facing ardhamandapa wall.

As we proceed clockwise around the prakara we next come before Shiva as Dakshinamurti. Once again the sculpture is of exceptional quality and beauty .

Surrounded by four rishis and offering us his blessing with the chin-mudra here Shiva is the Supreme Teacher. The niche in the southern wall of the grabhagriha is the traditional place of Dakshinamurti.

As we continue our round we turn the corner to find Lingodbhavamurti in the western wall. This murti represents the myth which is said to have taken place in Tiruvannamalai. Shiva as Lingodbhava in the Western niche is worshiped by Brahma and Vishnu in slightly smaller form.

It is thought the Western niche is the traditional place where we find this murti of Shiva. But was this always so? Just look up at the roof of the vimana. There on the second tala and on the shikara it is Vishnu who occupies the honorable Western direction.

On the second tala Vishnu is seated on Adisesha, the cosmic snake, together with his two consorts, Shri and Bhu. On the shikara Vishnu is also seated accompanied by his two consorts, but without his throne. We may ask, when and why this change in the sculptural program took place? Today we find few Vishnu murtis in the Western niche of Shiva temples. But sometimes Vishnu continues to occupy this position on the temple elevations proving that this was the position of Vishnu in an earlier time. For instance in the Nageshvara shrine in Kumbakonam. Although Ardhanarishvara graces the western niche Vishnu is found depicted on the second tala and on the shikara

Rounding the corner into the norther part of the prakara it is four-faced Brahma who is occupying the northern niche as his traditional position.

Again the northern wall of the ardhamandapa is graced by three murtis. Two forms of Shiva, Gangavatarana and Ardhanarishvara on respectively the western and eastern side of Durga, occupying the central niche . All the murtis are beautifully carved, telling their story through the spiritual vision and with elegance.

The structure of a sculptural program of 3-1-1-1-3 niches on the walls of the ardhamandapa and the vimana is not uncommon for Early Chola temples. But the walls of this temple have an extra niche situated in the north-facing wall of the mukha mandapam, which is very unusual.

The murti in the tenth niche is Kalabhairava. He occupies a single niche in between panjaras.

The single niche in each of the vimana walls is actually standard in most Early Chola temples. We find Dakshinamurti in the niche of the South wall, Vishnu (earliest), Ardhanarishvara (a little later, and only applied for a short while) or Lingodbhava (standard in a later phase, till today). Brahma is always found depicted in the North facing wall. Sometimes other murtis also find a place on the vimana wall, for instance in Kamalasavalli or the Nageshvara in Kumbakonam.

Three niches in an ardhamandapa wall is also not uncommon. But this temple tells a different story. Because four of the six niches are not proper niches. They are niches cut in the temple wall, without the normal structure of a niche: a lintel with a makara-torana on top, and a discontinuation of the vari.

This shows only the central niches in the ardhamandapa walls housing Vinayaka and Durga respectively are genuine niches. What story does this tell? Did the architect decide half-way the construction he wanted to give a place to more murtis? Or the donor? Where does this temple fit in the evolution of Early Chola temples? The Vinayaka and Durga murti can now be understood as having a different style and structure from the other four murtis. Especially the Durga seems to have been sculpted almost in the round. The Mother standing on th head of Mahishasura creates a narrow and tall composition fitting perfectly in the rather high and narrow niche.

The cut niches are shallow, broad and high. They rest on the vari whereas the proper niches are cut through the vari, as is usual in Chola temples. Were the secundary niches cut at a later date, perhaps to give refuge to murtis brought from somewhere else, possibly another temple? Can we discern any differences or similarities between them which can help us understand better. In a following post we will study these murtis further to see if we can find an answer to these questions.