Skanda-Murukan: Time and Nature associations
The connection of Skanda-Murukan with time and space was noted long ago. Its basic pattern was outlined, for instance, by F. W. Clothey in his book especially devoted to the god [Clothey, 1977]. The main places of Murukan's worship in Tamilnadu and a picture of a, so to say, cultic timetable in these places were presented quite sufficiently. In my paper I am going to dwell on some important fragments of Skanda-Murukan myth and to interpret them in terms of the paper's title. To be more exact, I'll touch on some seasonal and calendar associations that can be drawn out from Murukan's mythology.
To repeat Prof. Fred Clothey's general remark, Skanda-Murukan has traditionally had associations with time and season, and with agriculture cycle [Clothey, 1977, p. 132]. There is some ground to suppose that they are of a very ancient origin. Leaving aside existing opinions about reading out Skanda's name from Proto-Indian texts, I shall draw the reader's attention to a Soviet scholar Bertha Volchok's suggestion, concerning two Proto-Indian tablets depicting six-rayed figures. B. Volchok interpreted them as a symbol of a year, consisting of six seasons. "It is possible," she remarks, "that these six-rayed figures are a prototype of the image of Skanda, which in written texts is described as a being with six heads." [Volchok, 1972, p. 309].
The association of Skanda with a year is supported by the fact that, according to the Mahābhārata, he was born on the sixth day after the vernal equinox (the month of Cittirai, that is April-May). Thus he can be considered, according to B. Volchok, as the deity-protector of a year, consisting of six seasons and twelve months [Volchok, 1972, p. 311].
It seems that the role of Skanda within a year cycle can be defined more specifically, if we pay attention to a very significant motif of his mythology, namely the motif of cleaving objects in two: Skanda cleaves the mountain Krauncha, Murukan cleaves in two halves the demon Surapadma, etc. This motif is reflected in the chronology of Murukan's cultic cycle in the shrines of Tamilnadu. The most important festivals, connected with important events of Skanda-Murukan's life, occur in the climatic points or in the middle of some chronological unit. Speaking otherwise they represent the moments of a transition from one unit to the other, or the beginning of a new unit. Thus, the new moon day, says Dr. Fred Clothey, "becomes not only the day of Murukan's consecration, but...a virtual midnight of the ritual year in cults of Murukan" [Clothey, 1977, p. 134]. "The new moon that starts the Skanda-Sasti festival represents a cosmic midnight, while the full moon of Vaikasi Visakam is said to represent the cosmic noon" [ibid., p. 140]. The new moon of the first full months after the winter and summer solstices respectively constitute the lunar beginnings of the bright and dark halves of the solar year" [ibid. , p. 134]. As it was noted, Skanda's birthday coincides with the vernal equinox; the climatic day of Pankuni Uttiram is said to mark winter's becoming summer and cold's turning hot" [ibid. , p. 142].
So, we come to a conclusion that the importance of Skanda-Murukan lies in the fact, that he is not simply the muster of time, or a year, but is the deity who ensures the process of time, the process of passing from one chronological unit (be it half a year, half a month, half a day) to the other. Bearing this in mind, let us turn now to the famous mythological story of Murukan's with the demon Cūr, or Surapadma.
It is well known, that the slaying of this demon by Murukan is mentioned in some works belonging to the so-called Cankam period (PN 23, 4; AH 59, 10; Pati 2. 5-6; Pari V. 4; Pari IX. 70, Ppan 457-8, TMA 40, 60, 275). The full version of the story belongs to a much later time (XIV c.), when Kacciyappa Civacariyar composed Kantapuranam (Purana of Skanda). The story was analyzed by several scholars, who offered their understanding of its meanings. I'll mention here only two of them: Kamil Zvelebil and David Shulman.
Kamil Zvelebil, starting from the lexical meaning of the word cūr (DED 2250: cūr v. to frighten, to be cruel; n. fear, suffering, cruelty etc.), suggested that Cūr is a personified Fear, Terror, - "a metaphysical, transcendental, almost divine Terror, and, finally, a terrorizing Force in the shape of a monstrous being" [Zvelebil, 1981, p. 28]. So, Murukan, a brave, youthful warrior, fights fear and becomes the remover of it, which constitutes, according to K. Zvelebil, the basic and fundamental and historically probably the prime message of the original Murukan myth" [ibid., p. 35]. Moreover, the struggle between Cūr and Murukan represents the struggle between "untamed, wild, threatening nature and culture" [ibid., p. 36].
David Shulman pays particular attention to the last stage of the struggle, when Cūr transforms himself into a mango tree situated in the center of the ocean, its branches stretching to the limit of the heavens and to the ends of the four quarters, its roots reaching the tortoise which bears the earth on its back. This great tree, with golden flowers and fruit radiant as jewels, casts its shadow over the entire ocean, the sky and the face of the earth. As the three sways, the stars fall from their places, mountains are turned upside down, the seas flow together, and many creatures perish. Again the spear leaves the hand of Murukan and, spitting flames that dry up the oceans, cuts the root of the mango tree. But Cūr is not yet destroyed; he resumes his original form, only to have his body cut with the spear. The severed halves of the demon become a cock and a peacock; Murukan takes the cock for his banner and the peacock for his vehicle, and the war is over (after [Shulman, 1979, p. 31]).
Considering the role of the mango-tree, whose shape had been adopted by Cūr, David Shulman first of all pointed to an obvious link with the ancient Tamil tradition of the katimaram, the tutelary tree which symbolized the safety and prosperity of the kingdom; the cutting down of this tree by an enemy was a symbolic act of conquest and destruction [ibid., p. 32]. He, then, also sees this myth as a fight with "a force opposed to order, filling and blocking the space necessary for creation, a source of darkness and chaos" [ibid.], but his main point is that the mango represents the axis mundi, the cosmic tree, being here a Tree of Death, a dangerous embodiment of uncontrolled power which has upset the proper working of the universe" [ibid.].
The fight between Murukan and Cūr is seen by D. Shulman as homologous to the fight between Indra and Vrtra, and the myth itself as a remnant of an old Tamil cosmogonic myth, now lost [ibid., p. 35].
That picture of the fight of a god with a demon is associated with (or modeled on) the Vedic cosmogonic myth is quite natural for the Hindu mythological tradition (even Buddhist for that matter: let us recollect that the fight between Buddha and Mara is sometimes described in Pali poetry as a reminiscence of Indra's fight with Vrtra), but I am not sure that a separate cosmogonic myth can be reconstructed on this ground. Neither can I agree with the point of view mentioned earlier, that the struggle of Murukan against the personified Fear represents the basic, fundamental and prime message of the original Murukan myth. Moreover, I very much doubt that Cūr is a personification of Fear at all. Of course, he is connected with fear and suffering, but to consider him an embodiment of a certain purely psychological state seems to be rather far-fetched. If we judge by the early Tamil texts we'll see that the word cūr often occurs in the contexts describing natural phenomena, mostly mountains and water. For instance: there are "mountain's slopes that possess Cūr" (AN 158, 8; NT 359, 7; KT 105, 5; 376, 2); or "mountain springs and rivulets with Cūr" (AN 91, 4; NT 286, 1). It is difficult to agree that a fear or a terror is meant here (cf. [Zvelebil, 1981, p. 28]). But the presence of water, to my mind, is of outmost importance. Moreover, Cūr is clearly associated with the coming of rains: kautta cūr pukal nanantalai "the wide space, where Cūr enters, has pleasantly taken the season of rains" (AN 303, 5). In TMA 13-41 the dance of the so-called maidens of Cūr (cūr makalir) is described and what is remarkable, this dance takes place in the beginning of the rainy season. These maidens, by the way, are mythical figures who live in the mountain lakes AN 198, 16-17) and constitute Cūr's retinue. Their character is not entirely clear, but they can be dangerous and frightening ("You are torturing me like Cūr's maiden" (AN 32, 8)).
It appears, that Cūr and Murukan, being enemies, have, however, much in common: they are connected with mountains and with water (rains in particular), they influence people (frighten or possess them) and oaths are sworn before them (KT 53, 7 mentions the oath which is sworn before Cūr's maidens; AN 266, 22 the oath, taken in the presence of Murukan). Cūr also, like Murukan was given offerings (cūrutai pali NT 367, 4).
That brings us to a paradoxical conclusion, that Murukan and Cūr do not represent absolute, metaphysically separated opposites, but, rather, constitute different stages of one process. We know that Murukan is the master of ananku, a power, which usually reveals itself in the form of fire. According to my hypothesis Cūr can be viewed upon as an embodiment of the same power which, however, acts in the reverse fashion, being so to say, "negatively charged".
As ananku, it is related to heat and fire, as cūr to cooling and water. Generally speaking, this force is highly unstable and has various manifestations according to the concrete circumstances in which it reveals itself. Schematically this process can be represented as a scale with two poles: the hot pole and the cold pole, with the power moving from the one towards the other. The poles are termed ananku and cūr and can be viewed as interchangeable, as they represent complementary rather than opposing values, which flow from one into the other. In other words, we are concerned here with the two extreme points of polarity in the process of change in the life energy moving along the scale. Taken in isolation, the poles represent, correspondingly, the two poles of inauspiciousness.
The seasonal cycle with its culmination points in the natural processes of heating and cooling represented, correspondingly, by the season of summer heat and the rainy season, is the brightest manifestation of this process. Of course, the sets of qualities pertinent to either season are contrasting, yet not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, each is conditioned by the other, being complementary and interdependent. They project into each other and co-exist. The hot season is a realm of fire and dryness: nature is heated to the extreme, is filled with energy, ready to receive the fertilizing rain. The moisture, for the time being, is in its latent state, dormant in the depths of the earth and in the roots of plants. With the arrival of the rainy season, water and coolness take over, the heat energy is well under control and manifests itself as benign, emanating warmth and the fragrance of budding flowers, an anticipation of love and the time of the coupling of all living beings. Thus, in the perpetual conjunction of opposites, in the movement of the extremes towards each other, and in their merging Nature achieves completeness and harmony.
Although the coming of the rainy season, when the two seasons "meet" is highly benign and productive, it contains a negatively charged element as well: the danger of excess cold, moisture and darkness. Therefore, in the descriptions of the arrival of the monsoon contained in the poetry texts there is clearly a sinister note:
The rain has covered the horizon so that the sky cannot be seen,
There is a bent bow that inspires awe, over the mountaintops,
In such descriptions and, particularly in the motif of universal darkness, one can easily trace an analogy with the fragment from the myth of the Murukan-Cūr combat, in which Cūr assumes the shape of a mango tree that casts its shadow over the entire earth and the sky (cf. the line in Ak. 237, 15: nanil perumaram nilavarai ellam nilarri, "a shameless big tree of Cūr cast its shadow over the entire earth"). The echoing images (supported by the characteristics of the notion of cūr given above - that is, its associations with water, darkness and the rainy season - enable us to suggest that Cūr personifies the dangerous, negative side of the rainy season: the cold which causes rain to fall, the darkness of rain clouds, the atmosphere of instability, trembling, or, in more general terms, the state of the energy at the cold pole. It can therefore be asserted that the myth of the combat between Cūr and Murukan reflects significant events in the seasonal cycle, but to elucidate the specific character of the analogy more fully we should consider yet another mythological figure in the Tamil mythical lore, that of Tirumal, or Mayon, "the divine, handsome Mal", "The Dark God". It is most probably he who is referred to, along with Murukan, in the passage from AN 360, 6-9: "Evening is coming, having taken the beauty of the sea and the sky at dawn, in the image which has mixed the colours (red and black) of the two great gods, inspiring fear and awe". In Tol. 5 Mal is called lord of the pastureland mullai. This region of green hills and meadows is invariably represented in the Tamil tradition during the rainy season. The links between Mal and the tribes of pastoralists point to the stage in the cult of the god at which his image merges with that of Krishna. This blending and the inclusion of Mal into the sphere of the Krsna-Visnu cult, into the framework of a different mythological system, must have occurred at an early time, before the main corpus of the anthologies and poems had been compiled.
There is a point of view -- that of Zvelebil -- that one can speak of two Tamil gods (Murukan and Mal-Krsna), each as a reflection and development of the cult of the hero-god, connected with hunting, the taming of animals, fertility and "the mystery of the continuation of life". Thus Zvelebil remarks: "I am definitely inclined to see, both in the «Red desire» (cevvel), god of mountains and huntsmen, and in the young Dark God of dark-green pastures and herdsmen one main cult of early Dravidians; the cult of the young hero, eternally youthful god" (Zvelebil 1977, p. 255-256). Being inclined to accept the latter view, I think it requires some elucidation. Indeed, the fact that the images and cults of Murukan and Krsna, surprisingly, share a lot of common features can hardly be doubted (Beck, s. a. , p. 1-5; Shulman, 1980, p. 283). Both are young and strong (demon-fighters), both manifest the power of fertility and sexual prowess; in the cult of either of them, singing and ring-dancing of women (kuravai) play important roles; Murukan rides a peacock, while Krsna is peacock-coloured and bears a crown made of peacock feathers; both gods are associated with mountains.
It should be born in mind, though, that they are not equal in age and family status: Murukan is a son of the goddess Korravai, while Mal, following the stable South-Indian tradition, is her brother (Cil. XII, 68 calls Korravai "a youthful sister of Mal"). Besides, the gods have different colour characteristics used to distinguish between their spheres of influence and to link them with certain processes in nature. Hence, Murukan personifies creative sun energy, while Mal personifies the fertility energy contained in rain clouds, during the dark rainy season. There is also a distinction in the mountain connotations of the two gods: Murukan is associated with the notions of height, strength and proximity to the sun; while the realm of darkness, thick shadow-casting growth and humidity belongs to Mal (mountains, as described in the Tamil poetry, are not infrequently referred to as ma, mal, "dark": mayon anna mal varai kavaan, dark mountain slopes, resembling Mayon" - NT 32, 1). One can easily see that Mal's characteristic is actually that of Cūr's, who, on his part, is close to Murukan. Therefore, summing up the characteristics of the two gods, we can suggest that there was in South India (most probably, among hunter tribes) a mountain deity who depending on the season would figure in contrasting hypostases and could reveal either benign or evil, demoniac properties. Thus during the monsoon his demoniac properties were at work, being manifest in the cold, the mist of thick rain clouds and in the murkiness and instability of the world covered with a film of darkness and water.
Based upon the evidence provided above it can be suggested that the earliest Tamil mythological figures were brother and sister, the goddess Korravai and her brother Mal, who personified sharply contrasting qualities: pertaining to certain seasons (the season of the summer heat and the rainy season) and, more generally, to the light and the dark halves of the year. Considering Mal's demoniac associations (the duality Mal-Cūr) it would be justifiable to treat him within the mythological context of the myth of the slaying of the buffalo (Mahisa) by the goddess, his consort. The identification of the ancient Mal with Mahisa would represent a hypothetical basic Dravidian myth of the incest of the ancient goddess with her demon brother whom she eventually slays retaining her virginity.
In the main characters of the myth, some features of sexual syncretism typical of Indian mythology are discernible: the active, violent goddess, no doubt, represents the male concept (in the later Saivite variants of the myth the androgeneity of the goddess is all the more evident as her sword is identified with a phallus [Shulman, 1979, p. 184]). In Mal-Cūr, on the contrary, there are external "feminine" attributes: infirmity, murkiness, sweetness and humidity ( it needs only be reminded of the commonly known episode in the Visnu mythology where he is personified in the image of the seductress Mohini). Later, in the course of the myth's existence and development, the masculine aspect of the goddess and her military functions tend to become estranged from her to be manifest in her son, a young warrior who enters a fight with his demoniac uncle (cf. the Krsna - Kamsa conflict). At a later time, probably as a result of complex interaction between the Saivite and the Krsnaite mythological layers, which had been formed under the influence of the northern mythological lore, the image of the young warrior is split into two images: that of Murukan and that of Krsna-Mal, the "Red one" and the "Black one", each striving to the opposite pole, yet at the same time, sharing common features. Thus, either remains, in equal measure, responsible for the corresponding seasonal phenomena. At the same time the image of a demon was taking shape to embody the inauspicious side of the rainy season as well as a more generalised idea, that of universal evil.
It may be assumed that the source myth (Korravai - Mal) was further developed in the story of the marriage of Murukan to Valli who symbolises vegetation and corresponds in function to Mal (it is not incidental that in the myth she is his daughter), while Murukan, naturally, personifies Korravai. Initial sexual conflict can be discerned in their relationships (taking into account the reversal of sexes which is not impossible in a myth), although in a weakened and modified form, while the idea of the union of the male and female principles along with the idea of asserting control over the sacred female energy are fairly explicit (I should remind point out here that the excess energy in the goddess is "cooled off" by murder or blood sacrifice; or, also, by sexual intercourse).
Returning now to the myth of Murukan - Cūr conflict, I would suggest that it represents a variant of the basic Tamil myth: the slaying of the demon by his consort, with a functional replacement of the goddess by her son. At any rate, it clearly demonstrates the overtones of fierce sexual confrontation, resulting in the submission of the weak feminine principle (see the characteristics of Cūr) to the firm, male principle. Hence the significance of the motif of dividing in two, which represents sexual intercourse (cf. the Tamil myth in which "the goddess, identified as the phallic sword, . . . cleaves the mountain that is the body of the god" [Shulman, 1980, p. 184]). Murukan, too, destroys mountain Kraunca, splitting (pilantu) the chest of the demon who was hiding in it (Cil. XXIV, 8, 3-4) and, also, splits the mango tree whose shape Cūr has taken, cutting it off).
Most remarkable in the myth under study is the mango tree, as it is definitely associated in the Tamil tradition with the female principle (a possession of the type of beauty associated with the colour of young mango sprouts is considered among the assets of the heroine in ancient Tamil poetry, symbolising the benign aspect of the power inherent in her. A Sinhalese version of the story of the goddess Pattini-Kannaki from "The Story of the Anklet" relates the episode of her birth from the stem of a mango tree.
But the mango tree has other connotations: it can be viewed as a perfect mythological symbol of the rainy season. A tall, bushy tree, with dark fleshy leaves can indeed be identified with a rain cloud, creeping across the sky (the word mango, ma, may also mean "dark", cf. the etymology of Mal). Besides, a mango tree is capable of retaining moisture even in the season of summer heat: many "palai" poems describe the following episode: an elephant, tired with heat, in search of water, attacks trees ya and omai, which are possibly, varieties of mango (cf. AN 297, 11: cūr mutal irunta omai), breaking them and tearing off the bark. This image, I believe, might well have been used to construct the imagery of the myth.
One more poetical motif in this connection should be mentioned: in kurinci poetry the hero, who is an obvious replica of Murukan, often come to the tryst in the middle of the night (natunal), in the atmosphere of dreadful darkness.
He has come with a spear,
This fragment contains main attributes of Murukan and Cūr (spear, lightening versus darkness, fear, streaming waters) and can be considered as a peculiar representation of the myth in question in a transformed and condensed poetical form (this thesis can be supported, for instance, by the line of Paranar (AN 198, 17), where the heroine is taken by the hero for a Cūr's maiden (Cūr makal mato ennum en nence).
This proves that the myth, the Murukan-Valli romance and the poetical situation of kurinci can be viewed upon as multiforms of one mythological concept, outlined above, which pertains to an important natural, but not cosmogonic, process.
I repeat once more that I am not inclined to see in the episode of the fight between Murukan and Cūr vestiges of the long-lost Tamil cosmogonic myth. It is not for the establishment of the axis mundi that the fight is being waged, but for dominance over a certain stage of the seasonal cycle, and, to employ traditional Tamil concepts, for the acquisition of the dangerous force which strives to get out of control.
The Tamil myths considered above have distinct seasonal and erotic connotations and represent in a specific mytho-poetical form situations somehow connected with particular states of this force. The worldview of ancient Tamils and especially their mythology and religious cults were largely determined by the energy concept cultivated in the South of India. Of course, these traits were not confined to the South India alone and may be discerned in a broader area where the autochthonous culture can be traced out, but in a number of key concepts they are definitely opposed to the cosmically oriented Vedic concepts.
Concluding my paper I again return to Cūr and take a risk of proposing my etymology of the word. I am inclined to consider it as a derivation from the verbal stem cūra, "stream, pour" (analogously ura "be firm, strong" ur, "fortification, village, town"). Thus, if this interpretation is correct, the word cūr denotes "streaming, pouring, murkiness" which emphasize Cūr's link with water and season of rains.
Dr. Alexander Dubianski, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Department of Indian Philology at the Institute of Asian & African Studies at Moscow State University. He has published about 70 titles in Russian and English on Indian culture, religion and literature. He may be contacted at:
Department of Indian Philology
See also "Some Observations on Kurinci Poetry" by A. Dubianski
Research articles from the First International Conference on Skanda-Murukan