Today, once again thanks to some delightful camera work by Satheesh, we are going to see one of my favorite sculptures. But this time not as much for the sculptural beauty but more for its story content. The story of Markandeya, was a popular bedtime song for us and my dad used to put us to sleep often with the rendition – have heard it so many times and today my son goes to sleep hearing the same, that i was overjoyed at seeing this sculpture.
Ok, story first.
Mrikandu was a devote saint ( rishi). He lived offering daily prayers to Lord Shiva with his wife Marudvati. Though they lived a peaceful existence, the couple had one unfullfilled wish – they did not have any children and they longed for a son. The rishi prayed to Shiva and pleased with his devotion, Shiva appeared and granted him the boon, but as usual he put a twist in it. He offerred them a choice, either they have a hundred sons who will be dumb and foolish but live a long life or have one very intelligent son, but will live for only sixteen years.
The rishi contemplated and decided to have the one intelligent son. Shiva blessed the couple and in due course they had a baby boy – they named him Markandeya. The boy grew to be very intelligent and handsome. Markandeya was a born genius and learnt the Vedas and Sastras easily. He was the darling of everyone, but as he got older, he noticed that his father seemed to nurse some bad news – for he was getting more and more sadder. Markandeya was smart enough to notice this and he asked his dad to tell him the truth. His dad wept and told him that as per the deal of the boon, by the end of that year, he would be sixteen and hence they had to give him up. He could not bear to even think of giving up such a splendid son.
Hearing this, Markandeya immediately took stock – his parents gave birth to him, his teachers his knowledge but only shiva coud give him prolonged life – so he set his heart into utmost devotion to Shiva and promised his Dad that he would do enough to please shiva that he will not let him die. Thus he made a shiva linga and was eternally offering prayers to it.
On the appointed day, Yama, the Lord of death, came on his black buffalo vehicle, swinging his lasso ( he uses it to pull the souls whose time on the earth is over, out of the physical body) – seeing him Markandeya ran to the shiva lingam, with yama close on heels chasing him, swirling his rope. Markandeya ran and hugged the shiva linga so close, that the only way Yama could fasten the rope around him was with the shiva linga. Yama in his haste did exactly that, he threw his noose round the boy’s neck, and pulled him along with the Shiva- Linga.
At that instant, The shiva Linga burst open and Shiva came out of it, Shiva was in great rage, he kicked Yama so violently that the Lord of death almost died!! Shiva thus saved his devotee and since the boon/curse was that Markandeya would have only 16years to live on this earth, he blessed Markandeya to be forever 16 ( endrum Pathinaaru ) – how many of us would love to have such a boon today !!
Now, have a look at the delightful panel from Tanjore Big temple – split into three frames, top to bottom. the top frame, we have a fiery Yama chasing Markandeya and the hapless boy clinging on to the Siva lingam for dear life.
The second frame, you have an angry Shiva kicking Yama who is sprawled on the floor ( one of the images is from another friend Srivatsan taken a year back – you can see the damage that these 1000 year old miniatures are undergoing – the Trident in the hands of shiva has been worn off this year !!!)
The last frame – the detailing is lost on the left, but you get to see a visibly relieved Markandeya offering thanks to Shiva with folded hands.
This legend has been sung by Appar in many verses and you can look them up here.
to save Mārkkāṇṭēyaṉ, the bachelor, who worshipped him with flowers to be free from the sufferings of birth born of ignorance.
kicking the cruel god of death who had a twisted tongue, hairs as red as fire, curved white teeth and a dark body, [causing him] to tremble with fear.
the superior god who dwells in Kaṭavūr has the lotus red feet with which he caused the god of death to roll on the ground in this manner.
The central idea of the first nine verses is Civaṉ killing the god of death to protect Mārkkaṇṭēyaṉ who worshipped Civaṉ in this shrine.
Translation: V.M.Subramanya Aiyar–Courtesy: French Institute of Pondichery / EFEO (2006)