Controversial Sculpture Series – Part 3 – Kankalamurthy

We continue this controversial series with another highly controversial sculpture – Kankalamurthy. Lets look at the Iconography first before heading into the murky plots – he is quite often confused with his Bhikshadanar form not without reason, for they appear quite similar but for some key differences.Take these two from Gangai Konda Cholapuram.

The first and most obvious one is the presence and absence of clothing. Bhikshadanar is naked with a few snakes on him, while Kankala is shown fully dressed. The texts do mention however that his upper garment must be the skin of a horse or an ass, which he should wear with the hairy side appearing outside and lower garment made of threads of the hemp and when worn
it should not descend below the knee. ( notice the when worn ! ). Both wear thick wooden clogs /slippers.

The second obvious difference is in the headdress. Kankala has a Jatamakuta ( hair that is worked to form a crown) while Bhikshadana has a Jata Bara ( more like a wandering mendicant’s unwashed thick locks brushed back!) or even a Jata Mandala ( the same like jata bara but the hair kind of radiates to form a circle!).

Hair style differences …thanks for art

However, this hair dress part seems to be not followed 100% with some combination sculptures, meaning there are a few Bhikshadanar with Jatamakuta – maybe the sculptor tried a two in one upsize combo.

But there are some very important differences that enable us to clearly distinguish the two.

Watch what Shiva is holding in his lower left hand. If it is a skull cap begging bowl ( we will come to the story shortly) – it is Bikshadanar and if he is holding a particular variety of drum called a Dhakka, it is Kankala.

Further, the lower right hand of Bikshadanar is feeding his antelope, while that of Kankala must be beating the drum with a stick ( called bana). The second right hand of Bikshanda holds a damaru above shoulder height, while that of Kankala is feeding the antelope. Now we have a peculiar problem in the Gangaikonda Cholapuram sculpture – the Kankala has 6 hands and the front ones are broken but then you can see that only the second right hand is feeding while the third is bent up holding a coiled snake.

The upper left hand of both hold a staff but herein comes the most clinching evidence. The staff is no ordinary staff for the Kankala murthy. Kankala – is termed as a skeleton or corpse. The skull cap in the hand of Bikshadana is the plucked head of Brahma – the popular Lingothbava connection. However the Kankala connection gets more sinister with many a variant being sung about. Its 100% controversial with the most common version – stating that Shiva as Bairava being barred entry by Viswaksena – the head of Vishnu’s staff and an enraged Bairava spearing him with his trident and carrying his lifeless body impaled on it. Sounds gruesome – but believe me this is the most mildest version that i could post. The others versions talk of the spinal cord etc. But the ending kind of brings some parity between the two Gods – by saying Vishnu infact helps Shiva redeem himself from the curse etc ( other versions say it was Lakshmi !)

To get back to Iconography of the supporting cast of the Kankalamurthy form , below passage from Sri Gopinath Rao’s Elements of Hindu Iconography will be of interest

“The Kankalamurti should be surrounded by a number of women and the bhutaganas (goblins) represented variously as dancing, singing and in other attitudes ; one of the bhutas should carry on his head a large vessel for storing in the food received in alms and be situated on the left of Siva. Of the women who surround Siva some should appear to be completely possessed of irrepressible love for him, some eager to embrace him, some others blessing him, while still others serving in his vessel food ladled out from another with a spoon. Out of lust for Siva the clothes of the women should appear slipping down their loins.. There should also be hosts of rishis, devas, gandharvas, siddhas and vidyadharas everywhere around Siva, with arms crossed on the chest in the anjali pose. The god Vayu should sweep the streets before Siva, Varuna should sprinkle them with water, the other devas should shower flowers on him, the rishis should praise him by repeating the Vedas, Surya and Chandra should carry umbrellas over his head and the celestial musicians Narada and Tumburu should sing songs to the accompaniment of musical instruments.”

When we were in Thirukkurungudi last December, we were fortunate that the Gopura was undergoing extensive upkeep and hence we could climb both the outside ( a little scary and spiderman like ) and also on the inside. It was the last place we expected to find a relief sculpture of Kankalamurthy confirming to iconographic cannons as above !

Must have been a very brave sculptor to attempt this.

You can apply the specifications from above perfectly to this sculpture.

What is a puzzle however is what is shown on the other end of staff. Looks like a reptile

Maybe it is a contingency against him not being so successful in his efforts to secure his breakfast, which is not surprising considering the fact that he has a corpse dangling behind him.

It is important to read these in context to life and culture of those days. What may appear in today’s context to be stupid or ridiculous might have been the norm them. While reading a paper on Self sacrifice came across this interesting reference where ” Viran and Narayana – twin brothers who served under Parantaka Chola I, simply cut off their own heads to demonstrate how they cut off the head of Vikkalan, the King of Nellore’

However, as usual all ends well – with Viswaksenar resurrected and going back to his duties and Shiva regaining his benevolent form .