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 .

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.

Enchanting Ascetic, Mesmerising Mohini

One of our viewers commented on the post of Sri Dhivakar, as to why despite lots of Shiva Bhikshadana forms being present, why i chose to depict only a few? A very good question and the answer is, inorder for the depth and beauty of his post to reach the audience, i kind of underplayed the sculptural content. Well it does give me a chance to run a sequel to that post.

So here you have Shiva Bhikshanda, you heard the story previously, now see how the master sculptor not only depicted the main form but also brought in the entire scene into his sculpture.

The Kailasantha temple in kanchi, is the grand creation of the great pallava kind Raja simhan, the temple was addressed as the big stone temple, but Great Raja Raja chola himself. Coming from someone who built the grandest of temples it quite a compliment and its not an exaggeration.. Every panel in the magnificent creation is sheer poetry and a delight to watch. Lets take the great shiva bhikshadana panel in long shot. Its beautifully framed by the famous prancing lion yaalis of raja simha. What grace and what artistic brilliance. Before we go into the main sculpture, we can see the left hand index finger of shiva pointing up – whats is it pointing to, the amazing dance of shiva ( see the similarity in the depiction to the one we saw in the mallai olakaneshwara temple)

Ok, lets come back to the composition. Shiva is the charming ascetic, the form of the sculpted youth exudes youth, vitality, the nakedness of his lower body, the grace of his bent knee, the slight flex of his left foot with the sandals, the broad shoulders, the nonchalant manner in which is right hand rests on his staff, the begging bowl stuck into his palm, the mischievous grin on his face – all portray youthful exuberance.

Not being content with this masterly depiction, the sculptor continuous with his story board, two rishi wives, are charmed by shiva, captivated by his grace and prostrate at his feet. Seeing this an angry rishi is rushing at shiva, raising his left hand to strike him.

Is there a reference in verse to this, yes there is.
4th Tirumurai

has the instruments such as kokkarai, cymbals and vīṇai to measure time when the youth dances.
adorns his waist with chank beads.has a cobra of five hoods.
remove the snake-bite, 5 he is in vakkari a shrine nāka īccaravaṉār has a form in which the waist is naked without cloth and caused the wives of the sages of tārukāvaṉam to be infatuaged with love.
Translation: V.M.Subramanya Aiyar–Courtesy: French Institute of Pondichery / EFEO (2006)

Ok, but what about the Mohini we saw earlier -thats from the Kanchi Devarajaswami temple pillar. Her you can again see the skill of the sculptor and more so his playfull intelligence.

The rishis are not only drunk on the bewitching charm of Vishnu as mohini, but are also getting drunk on the beverage which she is serving. They are thus shown in various stages of intoxication.

Is there a reference in verse to this, yes there is

2nd Tirumurai

you spread yourself into many living beings and worlds you absorbed them into you at the end of the world you created all the living beings which had a short respite, to be born again, in order that they may be get respite for a short while from their Karmams yourself and the noble-minded Māl who bent the wild lime tree got separated and joined together you desired the cremation ground where corpses come and felt joy in staying there
Translation: V.M.Subramanya Aiyar–Courtesy: French Institute of Pondichery / EFEO (2006)

Sculpture from an Author’s perspective

I have been very fortunate to have been under the tutelage of many great souls, who lovingly embraced me and took it on themselves to educate and encourage me. Their list is long and in that long list the forerunner is Mr .Dhivakar. A master story teller and author of three superb works of historical fiction in tamil – Vamsadhara, Thirumalai Thirudan and Vichitra Chitan, i invite him to give us a history author’s perspective to sculpture.
Over to Mr.

I am sure that vijay’s effort at showcasing the art of sculpture in such a splendid manner, will resurrect this forgotten art and place it on the high pedestal that it truly deserves, for how better can we pay tribute to the greatness of these great craftsmen who managed to craft such masterpieces in the hardest stone with just a chisel and hammer.

Tamil Nadu has a had a long foray into this art form, starting from the early 6th Century, sculpture held the sway of the land till the 15th C CE dotting the landscape with thousands of temples, with brilliant sculptures, the countryside resounding with beautiful sounds of chisels hitting stone. Though the art form is still alive albeit in a much smaller spread, lending their art to the new temples that are coming up, but there still exists a wide gap between sculpture of today and then. The ancient works of art were based on strong concepts brought forward in the many myths and moral stories, sung in our literature, these amazing works were art were like moving cinescapes bringing forth the crux of the story, thereby forever etched in our memory. The sculpture would chose a good quality stone to showcase the good moral and hence his creation would stand the test of time, have stood and would still stand if not for the wanton acts of us humans. In comparison the modern works of art are bereft of this liveliness, take this new statue in a temple in Atlanta, its a beautiful work no work with excellent proportions, but something is lacking. It doesn’t move you, evoke a sense of awe inside you, for here lies the mastery of the ancients, to breathe life into stone and make it speak – stories.
The ancient sculptors were not just exhibiting their art but had a deep understanding of our culture, our heritage, literature incl devaram, thiruvaasagam, aazwar works, epics incl Mahabarath, Ramayan – they were multifaceted individuals. They had read and re read these works so as to infer the essence of these works and translate it into works of art, leaving behind a rich repository of sculpture for future generations.

Such beautiful interplay of literature with art is finding its release in this site and based on vijay’s request, i am presenting one such interesting story supported by his pictures.

Bitchandavan ( literally meaning divine beggar)
Shiva means love, shivam means old, one who has no end nor beginning,such are the many epithets that sing the praise of shiva. Shiva means nature as well. for he graced his benevolence on this world by subduing the raging Ganges which threatened to inundate the world in her fury, by catching her in his two locks of hair and then once she was truly subdued let her out as a humble stream to enrich the earth. He who has the moon as a head ornament, is also portrayed with a deer, ax, cobra , holding the flame in his hands, wearing a tiger skin dress and stamping the demon ( muyalagan), is demonic instincts also part of nature ?. How did he get to have so many items from nature as ornaments?

Generally legends and mythological stories are grounds to be threaded with care, for quite often later additions have spiced up the original versions, however there are still some left in their pristine forms –
which educate us not only of intellectual heights of those times but also give us a brief idea on the morals and lifestyles prevalent those days. And if we have the good fortune of the shivaite foursome singing the praise of these in the thevaram – thrivasagam, its a double treat. Their words were spontaneous truths encased in the best of tamil diction. One such is the humbling of the rampant pride of the saints who occupied the forests of Tharukavanam. It was due to this that Shiva adorned himself with these amazing ornaments.
From time immemorial santhana dharma has been the unwritten code so associated with religion in india and no greater souls to preach this than the great saints, who resided in the fringes of humanity, in peaceful groves inside dense forests, where their simple living served as living testaments to the faith and heights of human intelligence mixing with the divine. They were our great ancestors, who lived by the great vedas, propounding the divine knowledge of being one with
God, teaching us the right path. Their selfless yet simple life and pure devotion to God made him reside with them.

Generally speaking, the rishis /saints/ ascetics/monks are all great souls, but at times they too fall prey to the vanity of the human mind, leading to some unwanted disturbances creeping in. One such
excess was what occurred to the saints of Taarakavan.

Their single minded devotion to the vedic culture and the fact that the pure essence of the vedas bestowed on them tremendous power – to control the elements, and with great power comes great evil. They had the ascetic energy to control anything including the devas, and hence sought anything and everything from inside the vedic altar, so much so that they started ridiculing the gods, Shiva and vishnu no longer occupied their senses, for they saw no need in praying to them, for every want of theirs could be fulfilled by their innate power.

when men step out of line, nature has his better half programmed to bring him back to the right path, but the women folk of tharukavan were also so drunk on the fulfillment of their every wish, that they
too sided with their menfolk. The mortal pleasures satiated their every wish and soon they were enjoying these pleasures coming their way without much effort.

Their chastity and the power that their chastity brought on their husbands,filled their every thought. Since the multitudes shuddered to face the wrath of their chasteness, their fertile minds led them to
believe that even if Gods as shiva and vishnu did exist, they too would be powerless against them. This added to their already inflated egos.

Shiva and vishnu decided to bring this spectacle to a halt and teach them a good lesson. So shiva descended on the forest, as a charming ascetic – his brilliant golden body radiant in its nakedness, carrying just a bowl and begging the rishi wives for alms. His charm was so overpowering and the sight of his youthful body sent the women raving, for an instant even forgetting their chasteness and followed his madly.
Vishnu, at the same instant, descended as a charming enchantress, mohini – as she walked her swan step, the Rishi lusted after her, their minds loosing control over their bodies. When they both met each
other, they realised their folly.

The lady’s dropped their heads in great shame, but the rishi’s were mad with rage. immediately they summoned all their powers, and out of their sacrificial fire, they brought forth a tiger ( this was a very sinister and darkest form of yogic practise. As a last resort this was attempted by Indrajith and advised of the dire consequences by Vibeeshana it was stopped by Rama’s arrow)

Back to the forest, the evil tiger was killed by Shiva without as much as breaking a sweat and to add insult to injury, he skinned it and donned it on over his golden sheen body. Immediately the rishi’s
brought forward a horned deer with poisoned horns and a sharp axe -Shiva nonchalantly held them in his two hands. Then they brought forth poisonous cobras – which he wound around his body as ornaments. Finally, not knowing what more to do, the rishi’s threw the sacrificial fire itself at him, which he calmly caught in his begging bowl. On seeing these, their resolve was shattered and they humbly prostrated at his feet.

These deer, ax, fire etc find repeated mention in thevaram and thiruvaasagam verses.

Thus the rishis, in spite of having committed the gravest sins, falling from grace – as they were to be the examples for future generations, yet the lord did not punish them, but only reformed them with his
benevolent grace, so that we may understand the true greatness of him.For what use is the sun without his light, the fire without heat, the flower without fragrance. True sculpture too must be seen – as the confluence of art with godliness. See Bhikshadhana in this context and you would be able to truely appreciate the divine art form of sculpture.


The devote who wore slippers

Darasuram Airavateshwara temple sculpture, an amazing work of the hunter devotee of shiva, kannapar. We will see his story in more detail later, but one curious aspect of this sculpture attracted me to it. Its a splendid depiction of kannapar, the bow slung on his shoulders, the devotion in his face are brilliantly captured. But as you complete the sweep of the eye, the feet and what he wears on them startles you – a pair of lovely sandals.
Normally one would refrain from wearing footwear inside Indian temples and so too are the sculptures inside, atleast the majority of them, the exceptions being shiva as the charming ascetic – shiva bhikshadhana and kannappar. Why is he depicted wearing these sandals? to answer that we need to go back to fourth thirumurai ( thanks to Mr. V. Subramanian again for giving me this verse reference)

In short, the ardent devotee kannapar, guarding the shrine of shiva with his bow and arrow on one hand, the cooked meat ( we will see this too later) on the other hand, wearing a large slipper made of animal hide….( and so goes the description)
Now you see how intricately the sculptor has characterised each subject he worked on down to last detail.

Images courtesy