Lord Skanda-Murugan

Karttikeya in Early Indian Coinage
Yaudheya coinage of Punjab (300-340 AD): Karttikeya standing facing, holding sceptre; peacock on right. In Brahmi: 'Yaudheya Ganasya Jaya' (Victory to the Yaudheya people). Reverse: Goddess standing with hand on hip, wearing transparent garment.
Karttikeya in Early Indian Coinage
Gupta Age coins bearing peacock image

Murukan Worship in Sri Lanka:
New Archaeological Evidence

P. Pushparatnam

Recent archaeological findings underscore the fact that the traditional history of the Sri Lankan Tamils should be reviewed. I consider that these archaeological findings and the pertaining new perspective on them are of significance in two respects.

Firstly, though the tradition of employing archaeological evidences in historical studies is in effect for a long time in Sri Lanka, there has been a tendency to associate the archaeological emblems pertaining to Tamils with the Tamils from Tamil Nadu who used visit Sri Lanka then and on rather than relating them with the Tamils living in Sri Lanka. This tendency could be ascribed to the strong belief regarding the ancient history of Sri Lankan Tamils narrated in the mythical stories found in Pali texts. It is a bitter fact that the account of the traditional history of Sri Lankan Tamils based on this belief failed to recognize the distinct traditional history of Śrī Lankan Tamils to the extent that it helped to glorify Tamil Nadu. But this belief and the earlier historical perspective have become weakened and there has been a growing awareness to treat the archaeological findings traced in Sri Lanka as evidences from ancient times.

Secondly, while these archaeological findings serve to endorse that the traditional history of Śrī Lankan Tamils was subjected to the influence of Tamil Nadu and evolved, they help to prove that a distinctive culture of theirs originated and flourished in Sri Lanka. Thus it can be concluded that a genuine traditional history of Sri Lankan Tamils can be written only on the basis of the study of the said archaeological evidences. The historical facts supposed to be derived through this study will not deviate from the ancient worshipping norms of the Śrī Lankan Tamils. This study is intended to establish these facts based on the recently discovered archaeological artifacts, particularly the numismatic ones.

Among the historical sources which have received less attention from historians numismatics is one. For a study of the Kushana, Satavahana and Cankam age, numismatics has received adequate attention. It is the case with the different parts of South Asia, particularly Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. In this paper an attempt is made to evaluate the significance of numismatics in the context of religious cults in Sri Lanka. Among the religions of Sri Lanka, e.g Saivism, Vaisnavism, Buddhism, etc., the various sects of Hinduism found a place in the island affairs from about the 3rd century B.C Earlier evidences of cult orientation in the from of graffiti marks, terracotta figurines, linga artifacts and metallic images have been discovered since the megalithic period (ca. 800 B.C.) or even earlier in Sri Lanka. With the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C. the religious history of the island took a new course. By the lapse of time the heterodox sects commanded wider range of followers among the masses but at the same time, Hinduism and its sectarian groups did not disappear but received the patronage of people especially the Tamils of the island. Even though the Pali literary sources (e.g. Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, Culavamsa) exalt the place of Buddhism, the due place for the Hindu religious sects is not given (Mahavamsa X: 102, XIX: 37, XXI: 1-21, XXII: 3-4). In this respect the numismatic sources play a vital role. This paper takes into account the facets of Kaumāra (i.e. Skanda) or the Tamil Murukan cult as reflected in the coinage of the island. It is doubly significant because a new light is thrown, based on the data from the much-neglected numismatic sources.

The Europeans first employed the utilization of numismatics as a source for historical research in the 18th century A.D. The European officers who were in change of the Archaeological Survey of India and the civil service and other employed it in India in the 19th century took interest in the collection and study of coins.

In Sri Lanka, numismatics received wider attention in the mid-20th century. As important as epigraphical data is, numismatics is restricted in its content as few names or words and certain symbols in figurative form or forms appear in them. They are much valuable to reconstruct the history of a particular dynasty and its chronology.

Evidence of the coins issued by the Sri Lankan Tamils is also now available. Their period ranges from the 3rd century B.C. to the 17th century A.D. These throw a flood of light on various aspects such as the ancient language, script, geneses of kingdoms, settlements of peoples, commerce, foreign relations and so on. The graffiti marks, letters (Brahmi or Tamil), symbols or emblems, figure of gods or goddesses, name of deities, etc, are very helpful in the reconstruction of historical currents of events. Besides the other factors of history such as political and socio-cultural, the coins are very important to trace the religious history. The available data has much to say on the history of the cult of Murukan in the island. Murukan's vahana (vehicle), ayudhas (weapons), symbols and his epithets are carved on the coins. These help to trace the history of Murukan worship in Sri Lanka.

Besides Skanda-Kārttikeya cult of Aryan group, the Tamils cherished the worship of Murukan from time immemorial. During the Cankam age Murukan was the presiding god of the tinai (tract land), called kurinci (hills and its surrounding (Kalidas 1976:58). Ample literary sources are available to spell out the epithets by which the Lords were known. He was called Murukan (Akananuru 22:11, Purananūru56:11, Narrnai 47:10), Cevvel (Maturaikkanci 1.611, Narrnai 24, Kuruntokai 53:3), Mannaiyan (Tirumurukārruppatai 1.201), Viramayilmel Nayiru 'the sun mounted on peacock' (Paripātal 18:25) and so on (Kalidas 1999:73-90). The Tamil Murukan cult had an interaction with the Sanskritic Skanda-Kārttikeya (e.g. Kalidasa's Kumārasambhava) as depicted in Tamil literary works (e.g.Tirumurukārruppatai) where the fusion of Northern Skanda and Tamil Kantan is traced and highlighted by scholars like Kamil Zvelebil, Fred Clothey and Raju Kalidos.

The Murukan cult in Sri Lanka is as old as the tradition from the Tamil Nadu and is sure to have derived inspiration from Tamil mainland and in the subcontinent. Prehistoric artifacts of the cult in Tamil Nadu have been unearthed from Aticcanallūr. This type of material remains are found in Sri Lanka at various places; e.g Pomparippu, Anuradhapura, Pinveva, Kantarotai and Punakari. The artifacts pertain to symbolic attributes of Murukan such as Vēl (Shakti Ayudha) and Ceval (cock). Sitrampalam 1995:182, Pushparatnam 1991:38).
Figure 1
Figure 1: A coin from Akkurugoda in southern Sri Lanka registers the figure of a mayil (Skt. mayura) 'peacock' on obverse and the name mahācattan in Brahmi character on reverse.
Figure 2
Figure 2: A coin dated in the 2nd century B.C. from Kantarotai in Northern Sri Lanka registers the Shrivatsa on obverse and the name Uti(ha)pan in Tamil Brahmi on the reverse.
Figure 3
Figure 3: Coin issued by the Tamil rulers of Nallūr in Jaffna who ruled during 13th-17th century A.D. The obverse shows the figure or head of a king and the reverse illustrates a Nandi (bull vehicle of Siva) with a peacock facing the Nandi and the word setu, appearing below the bull.
Figure 4
Figure 4: In some coins the figure of Murukan replaces the peacock.
Figure 5
Figure 5: Coin on the observe illustrates a moon above with a peacock facing to the right below. The reverse shows in addition to the letters 'kan' the emblem of javelin and the feet of a man.
Figure 6
Figure 6: Coin showing a snake along with the peacock, both emblems of Murukan. The human figure may indicate the donor-king or Murukan himself.

Pali literature of the post 5th century A.D. provides evidence of the names of dignitaries as they as well appear in Brahmi inscriptions in the island. Professor Y. Subbarayalu (1989: 92-103) finds a close link between the names of persons and those of gods since naming an individual in the Indian tradition is after some established conventions of which religion is one. Professor S. Paranavitana isolates the personal names found in Sri Lankan Brahmi inscriptions related to Murukan, the best example being Vel (Paranavitana 1970:). Even today in India and Sri Lanka it is not uncommon to come across a person name, e.g. Vēlappan which is rooted in the ancient name Velan appearing in Cankam literature (of Kalidas supra). Definitely it is a pointer of Velan cult.

Due to the impact of Sanskritic tradition of Skanda cult, new names such as Kumāra, Mahāsena and Vishakha (all epithets of Skanda, noted in the Amarakosha, cited in Kalidos 1999) had come into vogue. The Tamil form (of Sanskrit Vishakha) Vicaka appears as the name of a merchant, in an inscription of the 2nd century B.C. from Periyapuliyankulam in northern Sri Lanka (Paranavitana 1970: nos. 356-357). A synonymous name has been reported from the graffiti marked on a mud pot, which was discovered during the Kodumanal excavation, conducted by the Tamil University (cf. Rajan 1994:82). According to Paranavitana (1970: CXXII) these are evidences of Murukan-Skanda cult.

A coin from Akkurugoda in southern Sri Lanka registers the figure of a mayil (Skt. mayura) 'peacock' on obverse and the name mahācattan in Brahmi character on reverse (Bopearachchi 1999:54, Pushparatnam 2001: 43) (see figure 1 at right).

Another coin dated in the 2nd century B.C. from Kantarotai in Northern Sri Lanka registers the Shrivatsa on obverse and the name Uti(ha)pan in Tamil Brahmi on the reverse (Seyone 1998, Pusparatnam 2001) (figure 2).

The Shrivatsa and mayil emblems are reflections of Tamils' religious belief. It is a well known fact that the mayil is the vehicle of Murukan for which ample evidences are found in Cankam literature (Puranaru 65, Tirumurukārruppatai 1.201). So the popularity of Murukan as a god is proved by numismatic sources.

During the 2nd-5th century A.D. a rare type of rectangular coin was in circulation in Sri Lanka. These contain the pranava (sacred ōm syllable), Shrivatsa, Laksmi, elephant, lotus, trishula, bull, Sivalinga, and so on (Parker 1981: 461-482, Peries 1919: 40-67, Bopearachchi 1999, Sitrampalam 1992: 151-158, Sivasamy 1970:1-10, Pusparatnam2001: 90-100). These are reflections of the religious tenor of Śrī Lankan Tamils. The coins with mayil, vel, and ceval are the surest clues of the Murukan cult.

Contemporaneously few of the epithets of Skanda-Murukan also appear in coins of the Indian subcontinent (Gupta 1966:187). Tamil literary sources note the epithets of Murukan such as Vativelan (Cilappatikāram 1:2, 49-50) and Velvelan (Kalittokai 28: 26). Even though the ceval is considered to be the outcome of Aryan interaction, it appears in Tamil tradition of early times yore (Gandhidasan 1988:120).

In medieval Tamil coins in addition to the symbols of Murukan, the Lord's name and his epithets also are noticeable. Good examples are the coins issued by the Tamil rulers of Nallūr in Jaffna who ruled during 13th-17th century A.D. In their early coins the obverse shows the figure or head of a king and the reverse illustrates a Nandi (bull vehicle of Siva) with a peacock facing the Nandi and the word setu, appearing below the bull (figure-3).

The peacock is definitely an emblem of Murukan, who is associated with his father Siva by the Nandi figure. These further confirm the close links between the worship of Siva and Murukan and their relationships as father and son. In some coins the figure of Murukan replaces the peacock (Figure-4).

The present author has discovered coins which bear the letters 'kan' and 'a' on setu-type coins issued by the Tamil kings (Pushparatnam 2001:147-159). On the paleographical grounds these could be assigned to the post-14th century A.D. One type of coins on the observe illustrates a moon above with a peacock facing to the right below. The reverse shows in addition to the letters 'kan' the emblem of javelin and the feet of a man (Figure 5).

Another type of coin shows a snake along with the peacock, both are emblems of Murukan, and the human being may indicate the donor-king or Murukan himself (Figure-6). Such types of coins were issued in the Tamil country also at about the same period (Seetharraman 1996: 89-97).

The letter 'kan' and 'a' and the peacock with snake are clear pointers of the fact that the evidences are sufficient enough to establish the popularization of Murukan cult based on numismatic sources. Jnānacampantar around the 7th century A.D. noted Murukan with the name Kantan (Tēvāram 1.19). At about the same time there was a Tamil king of Jaffna who took the royal title Kantarmalaimalaiyariyarkon (Pathmanathan 1980:409-417). It is quite likely that it is he who appears as 'kan' and 'a' in the coins discussed here. He treated himself as an aryacakravarti king of the Jaffna kingdom. This may be denoted by the letter 'a'. Again the names Kantan and Murukan were very popular in Tamil tradition since time immemorial , at least the Cankam age (Kalidos 1999). Further supports are the emblems, peacock, snake and vel.

The foregoing study based on numismatics provides substantial evidences for the popularity of Murukan worship in Sri Lanka from the ancient period to the 14th century A.D. Later developments of the cult in the island are proved by some great centers of Murukan cult in Sri Lanka as at Kataragama where not only Hindus but Buddhists also visit. The different religious groups of Hindus and Buddhists worshipping at Kataragama is a symbol of religious harmony and unity in diversity. The Kantacastikavacam refers to the Lord at Kataragama with the invocation 'Katirkāmatturai katirvel Murukan' (thanks to Prof. Raju Kalidos who added this note).

The hymns of Arunagirināthar (15th century A.D.) note three centers of Murukan cult in Sri Lanka. They are Kataragama in the South Trincomalee in the East and Jaffna in North. The temples of Murukan in Sri Lanka are generally called Kantan-ālayam (ālayam = kovil 'temple'). Coins bearing the name of kan (tan) seem to be much older in Sri Lanka than in Tamil Nadu. Though Sri Lanka owed much of its culture to the Indian heritage, the island in course of time developed its own religious and cultural characteristics and contributed to its own growth of south Asian civilization. The cult of Murukan is a good example in this context.


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See also these related articles:
"Karttikeya in Early Indian Coinage"
"Skanda-Murukan cult in Batticaloa, Eastern Sri Lanka"
Related research articles about Skanda-Murukan