Lord Skanda-Murugan

Iconography of Murukan: Kinetic Art Forms

Murugan giving upadesam to Agastya Muni
Bharata Natyam artist Dr. Malati Agniswaran depicting Murukan standing in Brahma sthanam (erect) with left hand in katyavalmpita mudra and right hand showing prayoga mudra for a sword (khadga)
Kushan period (ca. 1-2nd cent AD) statue of Karttikeya (14197 bytes)
Murukan with şakti-vel in the right hand with left hand showing varada mudra. The şakti-vel is shown as prayoga mudra with space between the fingers for the insertion of the vel. The hasta is kartarimukha. The deity is seated as indicated by the bent left leg as on an asana.

Synopsis by Prof. (Smt.) Malati Agniswaran

To understand human activity which combines religion and art expressions of a community, one must take cognizance of both written or textual tradition as well as unwritten or oral traditions, for society is constantly evolving. The present paper is an attempt to understand the iconography of Murukan through an interdisciplinary approach combining both streams of religious tradition.

1. Relation between iconography and dance
Iconography is a visual representation of a divine concept. As the human body is the vehicle of expression for şilpa, the artist draws his model from living human forms. This has been amply illustrated. The hasta-s of dancers are reflected in the hand postures of sculptures and paintings, and so also the sthanaka-s, pādabheda-s etc. that are analyzed in natya sastra and abhinaya darpana. The saustava posture of the deities is the same as that seen in dance. This view is further strengthened by the large number of sculptures of the temples in dance poses, and also by the direct representation of the dance poses such as the kara-s in the figures of the temples. Thus, silpa sastra and natya sastra can be said to be twin disciplines, the principles of each influencing the other. Silpa is the plastic representation of what would be visual kinetic representation in nrtta, nrtya and natya.

2. Importance of religion in the arts
All art forms in the traditional Indian context stem out of the different religious strands of the country. In temple sculptures and paintings the main import is to depict the deities worshipped in the temple. In dance too religious sentiment is intense, vibrant and pervasive. The ksipta position (Tamil: arai manti) seen in Bharata Natyam (Tamil: pārata nattiyam) has a definite correlation to the two triangles formed in the Nataraja representation of Siva as the Divine Dancer. Almost all classical dance forms are temple arts. In several instances in the traditional period, devadāsi-s were attached to temples as part of the temple retinue that served the deity in the main sanctum.

3. Development of legends in religion
In India, the religion (that had no name in the ancient tradition) comprised the religious beliefs of a community in a specific region. This implied further that the deities in the different regions could be different, or that even the same deity could have different legends woven around his concept, in different communities in different regions. The idea of belief in varying legends of any deity is acceptable to the Indian psyche.

4. Significance of the regional legends in the arts
It is in this context that the concrete expression of the sculptor or the dancer has to be understood. As the art forms of India are derived from religion, the fount of inspiration for an artist is his religious background. Skanda-Kārttikeya, Khandoba and Murukan are derived from different legends. Therefore, in temples in different parts of the country, the iconographic representations of the deity are different. This is not only true for the plastic art expressions but also for kinetic art expressions. In the dance form of puruliya chau in the North, Kārttika Bhagavan is only a warrior. In Maharashtra, in the drama form of Vaghya Murali Jagarana, the tale of the marriage of Khandoba with Banai and other related episodes are enacted. In Tamil Nadu, in pārata nattiyam, the legends of arupatai vitu and a few other regional legends are presented in the dance themes pertaining to Murukan. For instance, in the case of Centil Murukan, the deity referred to is the one in Tiruchendur. Here the Lord is the warrior god who is yet to marry Teyvayānai and Valli. The temple is by the seashore and not on a hill as Murukan temples generally are. Therefore the dancer cannot represent Centil Murukan through the imageries that would be appropriate to Tiruttani Murukan. The same legends that inspire iconography lead to the narrative element of the dance.

5. Interdisciplinary approach in the study of culture
Hence there is systematic and widespread evidence of interdependence between two systems of art, static and kinetic. The stapati-s created iconographic representations in accordance with the principles laid down in the S'ilpa S'āstra. The traditional dance gurus choreographed dances through their knowledge perpetuated by oral traditions. Narratives in dance and drama forms often derive their legends not only from written sources but also from regional oral traditions. Only through such interdisciplinary studies can a complex divine concept such as that of Murukan, who is worshipped in different regions of India in different ways over a period of several millennia, be understood in a comprehensive manner.

Murugan giving upadesam to Agastya Muni
Bharata Natyam artist Dr. Malati Agniswaran depicting Murukan. The right hand shows abhaya mudra through the pataka hasta whereas the left hand show vel through the shikhara hasta.

Qualifications: B.A. (Hons.) German, B.F.A., M.F.A. PH.D. (Dance); diplomas in Saiva Siddhanta, Comparative Mythology and Theatre Arts.
Designation: Reader & Head of Dept. of Bharatanatyam, Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, Mumbai University.

Official address:
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Ville Parle (West), Mumbai - 400 049 India

Residential address:
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Telephone: +91 364 9807/611 0003.
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E-Mail: agnimala@hotmail.com

See also:
"Legends of Karttikeya in Puruliya Chau" by Malati Agniswaran
"Representations of Bala Murukan in Kunrutoradal Temples"

Other articles about Kaumara Iconography and Art History:

  • Iconography of Skanda-Murukan
  • 'Iconography of Murugan' by Raju Kalidos
  • "Trimurti in Medieval South India"
  • "Iconography of Somaskanda"
  • "Palani Andavar Idol: A Scientific Study"
  • "Rare Image of Brahmasasta"
  • "Kinetic Iconography of Murukan"
  • The Iconography of Goddess Kaumārī
  • "Painting of Murugan, Subrahmanya or Karthikeyan"
  • "Significance of Kaumara Icons"
  • "Mailam Murukan temple"
  • "7th cent. Murukan image discovered"
  • "Vallakkottai Murukan Temple"
  • "Karttikeya Images of Ancient Java"
  • "Skanda Images in Ancient Cambodia"
  • "17 Iconographical Aspects of Subrahmanya"
  • 19th Century Bengali Watercolor of Karttikeya
  • Skanda upon Peacock, 11th-12th Cent Chola Granite
  • Galleries of Kaumara Iconography

  • Gallery One: Tiruvavaduthurai Adheenam
  • Gallery Two: 1920's - 40's collection
  • Gallery Three: early to late 20th century
  • Gallery Four: 1930-50 lithographs
  • Aru Padai Veedu paintings
  • Paintings of famous temple moolavars