The Iconography of Skanda-Murukan: Flashes of Insight
by Raju Kalidos
Text of Prof. Raju Kalidos' paper presented at the First International Conference Seminar on Skanda-Murukan in Chennai, Dec. 28-30, 1998. This article first appeared in the March 1999 issue of The Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies.
The southern rayagopura of the Minaksi-Sundaresvara temple at Maturai houses an interesting stucco image of Skanda-Murukan1 who is twelve-faced and endowed with thirty two hands. The Lord is sthānaka in samapada mode, the vaktras set in horizontal order and hands being vertical. The surest clue to identify the image with Skanda-Murukan is the vehicle, mayil (Skt. mayura), standing behind the Lord. The unusual iconographic features (i.e. dvadasavaktra and dvatrimsatbhuja) may lead one to think in terms of Sadasiva (with five faces) and Mahāsadasiva (with twenty five faces), and name the form Mahāsanmukha (Rajarajan 1998:194, Pl. XXIX.2) but the interpretation is open for debate in the absence of any canonical mandate to give shape to such a form. It is fitting to recall here the conference held at Heidelberg on 'shastraic traditions' in the making of iconographic images in India.2 The image, noted above, is a good example for demonstration because to our knowledge no iconographic formula of such a new form of Skanda-Murukan is reported. The present paper takes stock of the data in Tamil and Sanskrit to trace the sources.
The Sritattvanidi (19th century compilation), citing the Sekhara (meaning garland) of Saivagamas (maybe 14th century A.D. or later), enlists seventeen forms of Subrahmanya3 and enumerates their features.4 The iconographical details are summed up in the following account:
It is evident from the above summary that centuries of iconographical concepts are embedded in the Saivagama-Sekhara. It fails to include few other forms (e.g. Sarvalokapradaksinamurti, Arunarudhamurti, BrahmĀsasta and so on), listed in other works like the Kumaratantra (cf. Kalidos 1989:124-31, Rajarajan 1994-95:129-34). In spite of its limitations, the Saivagama-Sekhara, is a piece of work which unites the Tamil-Murukan and Samskrt-Skanda. In a search to locate the Mahāsanmukha of Maturai, it offers some clues and yet is not thorough enough. So there is a need to further examine the sources in Tamil and Sanskrit. The ensuing parts of the article strive to identify few of these elements, characteristic of Indian religious tradition wherein the Dravidian (Tamil) and Aryan (Sanskrit) had found a confluence in weaving a composite culture like the warp and woof of BrahmĀcari-Subrahmanya's kaupina.
At least four stages of development of Kanta-Murukan iconography maybe discerned in Tamil literature down to the 10th century A.D. From a broader framework, these constitute the early phase. The stages maybe specified as follows:
(for dates cf. Zvelebil 1974, Subrahmanian 1981, 1990)
A peep into the vast corpus of literature may serve to isolate the Tamil idioms vis-a-vis the Sanskritic lore in progress almost simultaneously during the chronological framework specified above.
The earliest name of Murukan is possibly Ceyon,10 appearing in the antique Tamil grammar, the Tolkappiyam, dated during the period from 100 B.C. to A.D. 250 (Zvelebil 1974:9) while others assign it to 1000 B.C. (C. Ilakkuvanar). Then Velan-veri (Akananuru 98), Anankutai-Murukan (Purananuru 299), Murukan-ar ananku (Akananuru 98) and Katampamarnetuvel (Porunararruppatai 1. 75) come to the picture. Velan11 and Murukan (cf. Ceyon) are typical Tamil epithets. The Akananuru account is interesting as it tells the story of a girl possessed by Velan. The maid was love-sick but her mother mistakes it as a possession of divine-evil and employs an exorcist, also called Velan, to drive away the spirit by dancing the velanveri (orgiastic dance of Velan). He performs the dance by whirling a spear, vel. The vel is an archaic emblem associated with the cult of Murukan and is later transformed into sakti said to have been offered by Devi to her beloved son and so he came to be known as Śaktidhara (cf. Attachment II).
Women thought that their love-sickness, natalai (cf. Kalidoss 1997: 131) was due to the tormenting beauty, Murukan, who wears the flowers of katampu (Bavingtonia acutangula). So the Lord took the name, Katampan. He is supposed to reside in katampu, katampamar netuvel. Being a warrior-God, he is ferocious and is red in colour. It maybe noted that even though the agamic sources talk of different colours, the red is applicable to twelve out of seventeen forms.
Murukan was the "spirit of a popular cult" (Vanamamalai 1979: 11). A much-feared deity, he lived in forests and was called ananku (= ananga? without an anthropomorphic form).12 The folk were frightened by the spirit of ananku descending on them (cf. Kalidos 1993:74-88). So lovers first sought the blessings of Murukan as a prelude to their excesses in love. Women separated from their husbands prayed to Murukan, soliciting his help for a happy reunion.
The other facets of Murukan are: (1) Extirpation of the demon, Cur, and (2) Love-making with Valli. Cur is supposed to signify 'fear' and 'terror'.13 The Lord being the fear-generating and terror-evoking God, he himself is destined to overpower the primordial fear. Later the myth was elaborated by personifying Cur as Surapadma. Zvelebil (1981: 32) adds: "soon it began to be viewed as a persona as embodiment of Evil and of Angst". In the Tirumurukarruppatai (TMP) Parankunram is associated with the rendition of both Surapadma and Tarakasura. An iconographic form of Cur is visualized in the TMP (1. 57). He had a single body but was a combination of two: iruper uruvin oruper yakkai. Tarakan stood upside down in the form of a mango tree. Otherwise, Tarakan is linked with Śiva and Korravai.14
It is in the TMP and Paripatal that the mythology and iconographical themes are elaborated. The Lord is the son of the six mothers, the Krttikas: Aruvar payatta aramar celvan, besides being the son of Malai-makal (Malaimakal makan), Korravai (Verrivel pork Korravai ciruvan) and the Primeval Mother (Palaiyol kulavi) (TMP 11. 255-59). The Paripatal (no. 5) elaborates the mythology as it is told in the Sanskritic sources, the Kumarasambhava of Kalidasa. Uma conceived due to an intercourse with Śiva. She destroyed the garbha when requested by Indra. He carried the foetus and left it with the Sapta-rsis who gave it to their wives, the Krttikas. They delivered six babies in a lotus pond on the Himalayas. Indra cut to pieces the babies by his vajrayudha, and were united into a single baby.
The TMP (11. 90-103) presents a glorious vision of the Lord's visvarupa, endowed with six faces and twelve arms. Each of the six faces, it is added:
The hands hold different emblems:
The Paripatal (no. 5) adds that Agni offered the Lord a rooster, Indra a peacock and Yama a ram (cf. Devimahatmya, Madhyamacaritam).15. The poem attributes the following emblems to the Lord: mari (goat) mannai (peacock) varanacceval (rooster), bow, tomaram, val (sword), ilaicceri-itti (spear), kutari (axe), malu (tanka), malai (garland) and mani (ghanta). The Lord's ornaments include a beautiful crown, set with gems, and golden pendants on ears (TMP under Ciralaivay). The Lord at Kunrutoratal wears red garments, kalal (anklets) and a garland. He also holds the rooster banner and is decorated with katampu flowers. The Lord's vehicle is the elephant, called Pinimukam (TMP under Ciralaivay, Paripatal 5). At Parankunram the Lord is attended by Pulkotiyon (Garudadvaja-Visnu), Punkavamurvon (Vrsabhavahana-Śiva), Malarticaimutalvan (Padmaja-BrahmĀ), twelve Adityas, two Asvins, eight Vasus, Ekadasa Rudras, Dikpalakas, gods, demons and sages (Paripatal no. 8)16. The TMP and Paripatal view Murukan in his cosmic visvarupa or Virat Purusa form.17 The Paripatal compares the (Paran) Kunram to the Meru, the axis mundi, thereby justifying the Virat or Visva form of the Lord (cf. SA, Attachment II).
The BrahmĀcari aspect is hinted in TMP when it talks with reference to the learned men, brahmacaris, who inhabit Erakam. For them the sataksara, six-syllabled mantra (Sa Ra Va N·a Bha Va) was the most sacred.
From the Narrinai to Paripatal a connected account of Valli and the incoming Devasena is presented. Valli was the kuramakal, one of the hunter's tribe. First wedded to Murukan, she finds it difficult to accept Devasena. The Paripatal (no. 9) pictures the quarrel between the two wives and the sad plight of Murukan (cf. Radha and Satyabhama of the Krsna mythology). Murukan had to prostrate before Devasena to pacify her.
The six centres of Murukan cult extolled in early literature (e.g. TMP) are Parankunram (TMP 11. 1-77), Ciralaivay (11. 78-125), Avinankuti (11. 126-76), Erakam (11. 177-89), Kunrutoratal (11. 190-217) and Palamurticolai (11. 218-317). Today, these places are supposed to be associated with mythological events as noted below:
But the TMP fails to record any such tradition. In fact Parankunram is associated with the rendition of the demons, Taraka and Surapadma. By the lapse of time, the original temples of Murukan in the arupataivitus were lost (for a case study of Parankunram, see Kalidos 1991 & 1995, Rajarajan 1991) and the existing temples are of the Vijayanagara-Nayaka periods.
The Cilappatikaram presents new data. The names of the Lord are: Cilampan, Katampan, Velan and Alamarcelvan-putalvan (24 Kunrakkuravai). He was Malaimakalmakan who consumed the breast-milk of six mothers. Valli was not only a kuramakal but also the kulamakal (kuladevata ?) of the hill-folk. It is interesting to find that Pattinitevi and Valli are equated (Kalidos 1992:36). Murukan destroyed the demon by casting his vel and took the epithet, kunram-konran. Cenkotu (m. Tiruccenkotu) appears as a base of Murukan cult in the Cilampu (Kalidos 1992:37).
The Tevaram lists the following names: Centan (4.43.8), Velavan (4.105.5), Katampan (5.133.9), Kumaran (6.219.10) and Arumukan (6.288.7). Campantar gives a clue to the alinganamurti form; Valli mulaitoy Kumaran (2.199.6). Appar notes the mayuravahana and the twelve-handed child. Cur is called Curapanma (5.178.10). Cuntarar counts Tirumurukan-punti as a centre of Murukan cult. Cenkotu and Punti are the earliest accounted cult centres in the Konkunatu region.
The kallatam (9th-10th century A.D.) enlists more data bearing on the theme. The poem on Murukan is an invocatory verse. It maybe paraphrased as follows:
By about the 10th century A.D. the various channels of Skanda-Murukan get crystallised in literary works so that Kacciyappa Civacariyar could compile the Kanta Puranam in the 14th century A.D. Very few forms of Murukan are reported in the realm of sculpture down to the 10th century. These are Murukan with Devasena (Anaimalai and Tirupparankunram north), Murukan with Valli and Devasena (Tirupparankunram south), Murukan with Virabhahu (Tirumalai, cf. Rajarajan 1992), Sikhivahana (Ellora XXI) and Somaskanda (mostly Pallava in and around Mamallapuram and Kancipuram).
Sanskrit is rich in its bearing on the Skanda motifs and a number of scholars have gone deep into the subject (e.g. K.K. Kurukar 1961, V.S. Agrawala 1965, P.K. Agrawala 1967, B.S. Upadhyaya 1968, Upendra Thakur 1974, B.N. Mukherjee 1987, S.S. Rana 1995 and others). The origins have been traced back to the later Vedic time while Dravidian experts (e.g. Asko Parpola, I. Mahadevan) would find Murukan in the Indus culture around 2500 B.C. The Vedic lore as maybe found in the Maitrayani Samhita, Tattiriya Aranyaka and Mahānarayana Upanisad place their stress on the Mahāsena-Kārttikeya and the teacher aspects of the Lord (Thakur 1974: 299-300). The epithets most popular in the northern tradition are Skanda, Kumara, Karttikeya, Visakha, Guha, BrahmĀnya and Subrahmanya. Earlier, it is added, Skanda was only a laukika devata (folk deity?), and it was after the Kusana period the cult got a stronghold, especially during the Gupta period. Myths relating to the birth and belligerent activities of Kumara reach a maturation level in the Ramayana, the Mahābhārata and the classical plays of Kalidasa (e.g. Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava), The lexicon, Amarakosa (1. 77-80) lists the various epithets as follows:
Karttikeyo mahasenah sarajanma satananah
Parvatinandanah skandah senanih agnibhurgrhah
Sanmatrrah saktidharah kumarah krauncadaranah
These pertain to the birth status (i.e., Sarajanma, Parvatinandana, Agnibhurgrha and Sanmatrrah), war-like (Mahāsena, Senani and Krauncadarana) and iconographical (Satanana, Sikhivahana and Śaktidhara) aspects besides counting the common epithets, Karttikeya, Skanda, Visakha and Kumara. Taraka also appears here.
The Bhagavat Gita exalts the Lord's status to a unique level saying: Senaninamaham Skandah (Gita IV. 24) 'I (Krsna) am Skanda among War Generals'. The war-like activities and the birth of Skanda form the keynote for the Kumarasambhava of Kalidasa while occasional flashes are presented in the Raghuvamsa. Skanda was Saravanodbhava and Sarajanma (Raghuvamsa). He is sikhivahana (Mayuraprsthasrayina Guhena, Raghuvamsa, cited in Thaku 1974).
Post-Gupta works such as the Brhatsamhita of Varahamihira and the Visnudharmottara Purana talk of pratimalaksana. According to the Visnu-dharmottara (Adhyaya 71) there are four forms; viz., Kumara, Skanda, Visakha and Guha. The text adds that Vasudeva incarnated as Kumara to lead the army of the gods against demons. Kumara is fitted with six faces and rides the mayura. The hands bear the kukkuta, ghanta, a banner and sakti. Others are akin to Kumara iconographically but do not have six faces and do not ride the peacock.
The agamic sources listed by experts are Vaikhanasa, Amsumadbheda, Uttarakamika, Purvakarana and Suprabheda. The Devatamurtiprakarana (Ch. VIII, slokas 36-42) and Pratisthalaksanasarasamuccaya give details of six-headed, twleve-armed, six-armed and two-armed forms of the Lord. These refer to emblems such as sakti, pasa, khadga, bana, vajra and dhanus. The mudras include abhaya, varada and tarjani. The Lord also carries the plumage of peacocks.
Early north Indian silpa manuals talk with reference to the Satanana aspect and sikhivahana. In myths, the birth of Kumara and his war-like activities dominate the scene. Very interestingly, the silpa texts do not mention Devasena. This in marked contrast with the Tamil tradition where Valli is very much with Murukan and the women folk.
To get back to the problem raised at the beginning, it is to be categorically added that centuries of myth-making and writing silpa manuals had no time to think of a form of Skanda-Murukan who could be dvadasavaktra and dvatrimsatbhuja as one may find on the rayagopura of the Maturai temple. The emblems attributed to the several iconographical forms of Skanda-Murukan, both in the north and south, are of the same typologies and do not exceed twenty seven. Indeed an enigmatic iconographical specimen, it seems the sculptor himself is the creator, Visvakarma, who by giving shape to a new form of Skanda-Murukan has offered food for art historians to speculate on the origins of the core ideological input. The iconographical summary of the seveteen Subrahmanyas clearly point out that the Lord at the peak of his cult development appropriates the functional qualities of all the major Hindu gods and goddesses such as Śiva, Visnu, BrahmĀ, Devi, Agni, Yama and others. It is quite possible that the Vaisnava notion of dvadasamurti had an impact on the Kaumara tradition who by creating a Visvarupa-Skanda-Murukan directed iconographical developments in a new direction. It was possible at a time when under the Nayaka rulers of South India several new forms with thirty two hands appear and one may find samples of Virabhadra with dvatrimsatbhuja in the same rayagopura of the Maturai temple. In case of the image under note the silpi himself was the philosopher unless we find any literary evidence to the effect.
Mayon meya katurai ulakamum
Ceyon meya maivarai ulakamum
Ventan meya timpunal ulakamum
Varunan meya perumanal ulakamum
According to this version Mayon (Visnu), Ceyon (Murukan, one red in colour, cey also means child), Ventan ('King', Indra) and Varunan (Varuna) were presiding deities of marutam (fertile fields), kurinci (hilly tract), mullai (forests) and neytal (littorals). Korravai was goddess of the deserted palai which was made when kurinci and mullai lost their natural status due to climatic calamities. That means Korravai shared the latter two tinais.
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Cilappatikaram, ed. U.V. Saminathaier, Madras 1968.
Clothey, Fred N. (1978) The Many Faces of Murukan: the History and Meaning of a South Indian God. The Hague.
Dallapiccola, Anna L. ed. (1989) Shastric Traditions in Indian Arts. Wiesbaden. 2 vols.
Devimahatmyam, with Tamil tr., Ramakrishna Mutt Pub., Madras n.d.
Gita, Bhagavat ed. & Tamil tr. Chitbavananda, Tirupparaitturai 1977.
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__________ (1989) Temples Cars of Medieval Tamilaham. Madurai.
__________ (1991) ... The Tirupparankunram Cave. Annali dell' Istituto Orientale, Napoli, 51:3, pp. 263-79.
__________ (1993) The twain-face of Ardhanari. Acta Orientalia, Copenhagen, 54, pp. 68-106.
__________ (1995) Cintaikkiniya Cirpakkalai in Tamil. Thanjavur.
__________ (1996) Nataraja as portrayed in the Tevaram Hymns. Acta Orientalia, 57, pp. 13-56.
__________ (1997) The Hymns of Kotai: An Essay in Eroticism. In R. Kalidos ed., Sectarian Rivalry in Art and Literature, Delhi, pp. 117-38.
__________ (1997a) Dance of Visnu: the Spectacle of Tamil Alvars. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London (forthcoming).
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Many of the bibliographical references were possible due to the assistance of the DAAD, Bonn, and the Institut für Indische Philologie und Kunstgeschichte of the Freie Universitat Berlin. I am thankful to them.
Summary of the Subrahmanyastotra
The Subrahmanyastotra is a ritual epitome of the 108 epithets of Skanda-Murukan, meant for regular recital by the sadhaka. An anonymous piece of work, its origin maybe traced in the Mahābhārata (vide. fn. 9). The original is likely to have been interpolated and exterpolated (for a case study of Visnusahasranama see Kalidos 1986) through the ages. The Mahābhārata version maybe dated in the 5th century A.D. and the existing list in the 14th-15th century. The epithets for the sake of interpretation are listed under various heads.
Common Names: Skanda 1,1 Guha 2, Sanmukha 3, Kumara 26, Visakha 30, Anantamurti 85.
Epithet after number of Eyes: Dvisannetra 10.
Epithets after number of Hands/Emblems: Dvisatbhuja 9, Śaktidhara 12 & 25, Kaladhara 67 (Bearer of the Moon), Sikhandikrtaketana 87 (one who holds the peacock banner) and so on.
Epithets after Colour: Pingala 6 (golden yellow), Ekavarna 47, Dvivarna 48, Trivarna 49, Sumanohara 50 (captivating the mind, maybe due to the colour like the morning rising sun), Caturvarna 51, Pancavarna 52, Haridvarna 59 (green), Vasava 61 (green), Gabhasta or Gahana 64-65 (like the clouds), naktasyamagala 100 (neck dark green in colour, cf. nilakantha).2
Epithets after Vahana/Asana: Sikhivahana 8 (peacock vehicle), Kamalasana-samstuta 46 (seated on lotus pedestal).
Birth Status: Karanopattadeha 92 (born with a purpose), Phalanetrasuta 4 (born through the third eye on Śiva's forehead), Umasuta 24 (son of Uma), Gangasuta 39, Krttikasuna 7 (pearl of Krttika mothers), Sankaratmaja 31 & 71 (Sankara's son), Parvatipriyanandana 38 (the beloved son of Parvati); Agnijanma 29, Agnigarbha 55, Samigarbha 56, Pavakatmaja 42 (agni, sami and pavaka, meaning the Lord's birth through fire); Visvaretas 57 (the all encompassing semen virile), Visvayoni 72 (born in the magnified vagina), Vedagarbha 78 (born in the womb of scriptures), Viratsuta 79 (son of the Virat, or the Virat Baby) and Vrusakapa 91 (son of Gauri and Svaha).
Epithets after Myths: Vatuvesabhrt 62 (one in guise of a young man),3 Pulindakanyabharta 80 (husband of the girl of hunter's tribe, i.e. Valli) and Coraghna 83 (destroyer of thieves).4
Epithets after Gunamsa/Functional Skills: Śivasvami 32 (Teacher of Śiva), Ganasvami 33 (Master of ganas), Sarvasvami 34 (Master of All), Prajapati 53 (the Creator = BrahmĀ), Ahaspati 54 (is an epithet of Śiva, appropriated by Skanda) (Bhide 1990:197); Subhakaraya 60 (confers all auspiciousness), Roganasana 84 (destroyer of aliments, cf. Akananuru 98), ASritakhiladatr 82 (Lord of all desired), Kaivalya 70 (the atomic, the invisible and Anamaya 75 (one without a name).
Epithets after Heroic Qualities: Devasenapati 20, Senani 28, Surasainyasuraksakaya 19 (protector of the armies of gods), Tarakasurasamhara 13 (destruction of Taraka), Krauncadarana 27 (who split open the Kraunca hill), Surarighna 58 (destroyer of gods' enemies), Viraddhahantr 98 (destroyer of enemies), Jrmbha or Prajrmbha or Ujjrmbha 43-45 (denoting the splitting of the tree).
Dr. Raju Kalidos is Dean of the Arts Faculty and Head of the Department of Sculpture and Art History at the Tamil University, Tanjavur. He has published more than sixty articles on Indian iconography in distinguished academic journals of Europe and India. He has published and lectured extensively on topics of Indian sculpture, architecture and iconography and was voted 'Man of the Year 1997' by the American Biographical Institute.
See these related articles by Raju Kalidos:
Galleries of Kaumara Iconography