Siva, one of the Hindu triad, is a popular god worshipped everywhere in avyakta ‘aniconic’ linga form. He is distinguished by his two main aspects viz. saumya or santa ‘mild disposition’ and ugra “fierce disposition”. In his ugra manifestation, he tries to destroy the evil for bringing cosmic amity and maintain the balance of power and in his santa aspect he offers grace to devotees, guides humanity and teaches all arts and crafts. One of the ferocious forms of Siva is Bhairava (‘terrible’), a likely emanation of Rudra (or Kalagni). The essential and fundamental form glorified in the Vedas wherein Rudra is termed in similar aspects like pacific and malignant Sarva, Ugra, Asani in destructive and Bhava, Sambhu, Pasupati, Mahadeva and Isana in benign aspects.

Karanagama deals about twenty five forms of Siva such as Nataraja, Chandrasekhara, Umamaheswara, Rsabharudha, Kalyanasundara, Bhiksatana, Kalari, Tripurari, Jalandharari, Matankari, Virabadhra, Hariyardha, Ardhanari, Kirata, Kankala, Chandesanugrahamurti, Nilakantha, Cakrapradamurti, Gaiamukhanu grahamurti, Somaskanda, Ekapada. Sukhasana, Daksinamurti and Lingodbhavamurti (Rangaswamy 1958:1225).

Of these, the terrible forms are Gajasamharamurti, Kalari, Kamari, Tripurari or Tripurantakamurti, Sarabhesamurti, Brahmasiraschedakamurti or Bhairava, Virabhadra, Jalandharaharamurti and Andhakasuravadhamurti for having killed or subdued demons like Gajasura (elephant demon), Kala (the God of Death), Kama (the God of Love), Tripura ‘demons of triple cities’, Nrsimha-Visnu, Brahma, Daksa, Jalandhara, and Andhakasura respectively. In these malignant forms, Bhairava images in round are found consecrated either in a shrine or without a structure at the north eastern corridor of the Siva temples and appear as one of the Parivaradevatas (deities placed in the surrounding circuits), the form which start appearing occasionally from the time of the Pallavas (7th-9th centuries AD.) onwards, reached the stage of immense iconographic output in stone and metal under the Colas (10th-13th centuries AD) (Balasubrahmanyan 1971: passim) and Vijayanagara-Nayaka periods (14th-18th centuries AD.). In this paper, the cult .of Bhairava in Cattainathasvami ‘wearer of overcoat’ aspect, an idiom peculiar to Tamilnadu and its iconography are analysed here. It is also discussed about the normal form of Bhairava in general in order to bring out a clear iconographic distinction of Bhairava-Cattainathasvami aspect. It is highlighted here about the concept of the idiom which is found located in certain regions of Tamilnadu.

Nature and Forms of Bhairava

In popular Hinduism, he is considered as Siva’s attendant (kinkara). Kalikapurana (ch. 44) states that Bhairava was one of the five leaders of Siva’s troops, the others being Nandi, Brngi, Mahakala and Vetala (Rao 1991:214). He is called Bhutapaisachanatha, hence surrounded by Bhutas and Paisachas (fiends and imps) (Bhairava Dhyanasloka). We find practically in every centre of pilgrimage where Lingas are installed, the Bhairava goblins are also worshiped (Agrawala 1970:102). He is hence called Bhudesa and Pramatadiban (Amarkosa V.59-68). It is also evident of his predilection for smasanas “cremation ground where he is dancing” (Gaston 1982:164). He is regarded as Ksetrapala, the guardian of the sacred-regions of Siva or the whole earth (Sivaparakramarn 1895:Ch.41). ‘Bhairava Dhyanam’ (Murthi Dhyanam No. 103) specifically states about his function as vatukamksetrasyapalam. In Coorg and Malabhar area, he is called Ksetrapati or ksetrappa where the cult persists as a non-Brahminical local cult (Ghurya 1979:226). He is honoured by dogs, cocks and other creatures and encircled by Yogini and Siddha (Mayamata 36:185). He is connected with the cult of dogs (Liebert 1986:37). He is the protector of Varanasi, Prayag (Sivaramamurti 1979:107) Kachi or Kanchi (Kanchipuranam. Lv.7). Sivapurana calls him the purnarupa of Sankara (Rao 1971 IU: 176).

In Tamil tradition, he is upheld as kuladeivam ‘family-patron deity’ and figures prominently among the folk deities of the village people. He is the great protector of the tribe, Mahasastra and sarvarthapalaha (Rao 1981:90-1). In the Tantric cult, he is worshipped as Svarnakarsana-Bhairava (‘glittering like gold’) using magic formulae. Kapalikas adore this aspect of Siva with utmost devotion and it is stated in Sirutonadarpuranam (25:35) that Siva took the form of a Kapalika when he entered saint Sirutondar’s house to test his devotion.

He has different titles like Kala Bhairava “one who overcame Time which was in him”, Mahakala “transcending time” (Kramrisch 1981:31), Maha Bhairava “greatly dreadful” and Brahmasirascheda “one who destroyed the insolence of Brahma by plucking or cutting off one of his heads”. In Tamil Nadu, he is called Vatukar, Vatukanathan, Vatukadeva (Sans. Batuka “youthful”) Vayiravan and Cattainathan. Pingala Nikantu refers to him as Kancukan, Karimuktan, Nirvani, Cittan, Kapali, and Vatukan. One of the inscriptions of Cola period mentions him as Ksetrapala Pillaiyar (A.R.E., 1936:35; Harle 1963:134).

Lalitasahasranamastotra (v.150) mentions, the name as Martanda Bhairava “effulgent like Surya” or possibly indicating a syncretistic form of Bhairava and Surya. Lalitasahasranamavali (v.231) quotes that Sakti was worshipped by Mahabhairava (Mahabhairava Pujitayanamaha) and in v. 275, the goddess is referred to as Bhairavyaynamaha i.e. the consort of Bhairava or Bhairavi. Chandika (Bhandarkar 1965:183) and it quotes that whoever ill-treats the reciters or worshippers of hymns or goddess would be subjected to be blinded by Martanda Bhairava.

Brahmavaivartapurana (ch. 16) gives eight names of Bhairava such as Mahabhairava (great-Bhairava), Samhara (destructive), Asitanga (black limbed), Ruru (the angry deity with a dog), Kala (black), Krodha (anger), tamra ­(redcrested or Kapala (skull), Chandrachuda (mooncrested) or Rudra Bhairavas (Dowson 1989:45). Tantrasara gives Asitanga, Chanda, Ruru, Krodha, Unmatta, Kapali, Bhisani, and the samhara forms of each one of these is further divided into eight subordinate forms making sixty four forms in all. Rudrayamala also refers to the same forms (Sivaparakramam passim; Rao 1991:208). He is called Amarddaka because he kills bad persons and Papabhaksana, because he swallows the sin of his devotees (Rao 1971: II: I: 176-80). Some puranic account states that Bhrngi, the three-legged devotee who adored Siva-half only in Ardhanari manifestation of Siva, is classed as a Bhairava (Rao 1971: II: I: 176). The most emaciated Bhairava is called Atiriktanga aspect (Rao 1971: PI XLII, Ellore). He is also called Govinda Bhairava and Pancavaktra-Bhairava ‘five faced aspect, (Sastri 1916:151).


There are several versions in mythological lore about the incident leading to the origin of Bhairava and a glimpse of which would help us to understand the nature or disposition of this terrible form. Kumarapurana enumerates a story that there arose a quarrel between Siva and Brahma over the question of supremacy of the world over which Vedas replied in favour of Siva, but Brahma continued to claim inspite of Vedic judgement enraged Siva, ordered Bhairava to cut off the superfluous fifth head which spoke haughtily2. Vamanapurana (ch:67) quotes a story that during Siva’s fight against Andhakasura, the latter struck Siva with his mace and the blood that oozed out brought forth eight Bhairavas (for example eight icons of Bhairavas are consecrated in Varanasi) in succession such as Vidyaraja (blazing like fire), Kamaraja (black deity riding upon a corpse), Nagaraja (carrying a spear), Svacchhandaraja (lustrous like vajra), Lambitaraja (holding a fruit), Devaraja, Ugraraja and Vighnaraja (Rao 1991:208).

Sivapujapaddhati quotes attesting the same view that Siva assumed the Bhairava form to annihilate Andhakasura. It is stated in Varahapurana that Brahma created Rudra as Kapali and, because he was nicknamed and slighted as Kapali, Siva cut off the head of Brahma with his left thumbnail. Brahma created Sarasvati out of his own self and he fell in love with her and in order to avoid his lustful gaze, she moved to the right, to the left and behind him a new head sprang out in each directions, finally she rose into the sky and fifth head emerged to look upwards (Icons 1986:41). Sivamahapurana (Vol.: I: ch: 48) adds more that Sarasvathi cursed Brahma that he would be punished by Siva and thereafter all cardinal faces adored Siva except the top one which rebuked the Lord and hence he cut the top head. It is also stated that Brahma told Visnu a lie that he was himself supreme because he has five heads like what Siva has and therefore Siva had to reduce one head.

Another myth says that Sandhya, the daughter of Brahma, tried to escape her father’s sexual overture by changing herself a deer which was followed by Brahma in a stag, knowing this, Siva shot an arrow which cut off the head of the stag. Another account says that Brahma once wanted Siva to be born as his son, but kept his promise and punished him for his insolence (Ions 1986:42). Siva was born from the mind of the Creator, Brahma, and in order to humble Siva, reminded him of his place or origin. Bhairava cut off the mocking head and Siva relieved Brahma of “the evil that had been stored in his head” (Kramrisch 1981:286) and the Lord thereby incurred the guilt of parricide. The Karanagama mentions cutting off one of the heads of Brahma (Sastri 1916:97n). Saundaryalahari (v.70) ascribed to Adi Sankara (8th century AD) mentions that Siva plucked off the fifth head of Brahma and hence he, in order to protect at least the remaining four heads and four tongues, worshipped the supreme goddess out of “fear of the nails” of Siva.

In Tamil concept, it is often upheld that the place where Siva cut off the head of Brahma is Tirukkandiyur, one of the Astavirattana-ksetras places where Siva performed the samhara – feat. Tirunavukkarasar (7th – 8th centuries AD) in Tevaram (4:93:3) mentions as Pataittan talayay untankaruttatum i.e., “cut off the head of the creator”. Hence the deity at Tirukkandiyur is known as Brahamacirakandisvarar. In Tevaram (Tirucherai-patikam), he hymns about the Lord as Kala-vayiravan. Tirunanasambandar also hymns in Tevaram (1:120:3, and 1.40.6 in Tiruvaiyaru and Valkoliputtur patikams) about Siva who cut off the top head of Brahma. In Kandiyr patikam (3:38:6), he points out the dubious head of Brahma.

After having decapitated, Siva incurred the sin of brahminicide (Brahmahatya) and parricide3. The skull of Brahma stuck to his palm due to paralysis of the hand. He is destined to observe a Kapalika life for twelve years (Rao 1971: I: II: 175) in order to get expiation from the sin and treatment for the disease he is ordained to go about as a naked beggar. It is stated when he reached Varanasi, the skull fell down of its own accord (Kurmapurana ch 30 v.60: Srisivamahapuranam Vidyesvarsamhita (1931) Sata Rudrakotisamhita: 9: Sastri 1916:100).  Sivamahapuranam (ch.48) mentions that the sin attached with Siva is inviolable and inalienable, but he knew how to get rid of easily even without going to Varanasi, but the lord thought fit to enact a drama in his undertaking tiresome journey to Varanasi, worship Visvesvara, a self of his own in another variant, only to bring home the sanctity of Varanasi. Sata Rudrakotisamhita points out the place as Kapalamohachana tirtha. Kurmapurana (II. 31) mentions that as he was proceeding towards Varanasi, the Lord went dancing frantically4 and approached the house of Visnu for alms, but the doorkeeper, Visvaksenu failed to recognise the Supreme Begger and the lord thrust his trisula into the body of Visvaksena. The Lord proceeded with the corpse of Visvaksena, Kanchipuranam (I: 29) mentions that the Lord thrusted., his sula into Viduraccenan i.e., Visvaksena. Visnu offered redemption of Siva for the sin of brahminicide. (Banerjea 1974:232).

To be continued…

Dr. T. Chandrakumar
Department of Sculpture,
Tamil University, Thanjavur

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, September 1996.

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